On writers: Nicholas Stuart Gray and The Stone Cage

The Stone Cage 001This is the second in a series of republished articles of mine on writers. This one is about the wonderful, influential yet shamefully neglected British children’s author, Nicholas Stuart Gray, whose lively, magical fantasy novels and short stories kept me spellbound as a child, and whose work I still love. This article is particularly focussed on my favourite novel of his, The Stone Cage, which is an absolutely wonderful riff on the fairytale of Rapunzel through the eyes of the witch’s familiars, a cat named Tomlyn and a raven named Marshall.

The article was first published under the title ‘A Cat’s Life’ in the lovely British books magazine Slightly Foxed in their summer 2008 edition.


Nicholas Stuart Gray

by Sophie Masson

If you were a bookworm as a child, your memories are measured not only in family or school or public events, but in stories you read. You remember vividly the smell, the touch, the sight of certain books. You clearly remember picking them up from the shelf—an ordinary act—and then the extraordinary happening, as you open the book and fall straight into another world. The pure pleasure of it, the immediate liberation. For me, who loved fairytales and fantasy, who longed to go through the looking-glass, the wardrobe, stepping through the borders into another world, where anything might happen, it was also a blessed escape from the confusing, disturbing and tumultuous family dramas that dominated my childhood. In those stories of other worlds, I found pleasure and consolation, transformation and possibility. And I found my own calling as a writer.
It can be dangerous revisiting those important, beloved stories, as an adult, for it’s not just a book that might be found wanting, but memory itself. And yet, when it works, when the barriers of time dissolve before the sheer magic of a real storyteller, it is probably the most thrilling experience a reader can have.

The Stone Cage, by Nicholas Stuart Gray, was one of those books that I remember clearly not only because they were so good to read, but because they were also so influential on me as a developing writer. Picking it up again after a gap of more than three decades was one of those magical moments that made me rediscover not only my childhood self, but also the reason why the book stands out in my memory. For from the very first sentence, you are plunged into a briskly unsentimental fairytale world, tartly guided by Tomlyn the witch’s cat:

Ever heard of a ‘dog’s life’? I’ll bet you have. Everyone has. Means a low, miserable kind of life. Full of kicks and curses, and nothing much to eat. I don’t know, I’m sure—what about a cat’s life, then? There’s not much said about that, is there? Nine lives, yes—but what sort of lives are these supposed to be? I’ll tell you the sort I had—a dog’s life.
I have to admit it isn’t every cat who lives with a witch, though.
And what a witch! Bad-tempered old —! No, it’s not fair to a cat or she-dog, to liken her to one of them. Let’s say she was a bad-tempered old beldam, and leave it at that. She hated people. She hated Marshall, her raven. She hated her bats and her toads. She hated me. Sometimes I think she even hated herself. A great old hater, was madam.   Tomlyn 001

A naïve young stranger intrudes on this loveless, isolated mini-dictatorship, and is forced to pay a terrible price for his presumption, as he must give up his only child to the witch. And so the poor child is taken from her parents and put into a world where no-one trusts anyone else, love isn’t allowed to exist, and bitterness and cruelty reign. But all is not lost, for this is a very special child indeed, who will achieve an extraordinary miracle, greater than the greatest of spells, greater even than the most malevolent hatred.

As I read, I was swept along, just as in childhood, on the irresistible tide of a gripping story that for all its wit, humour, accessibility and clarity is also a compassionate, tender and complex evocation of the transforming power of love. But it’s certainly not all sweetness and light. Going way beyond a mere retelling of the fairytale of Rapunzel, on which it’s based, The Stone Cage reaches deep into the darkest, most painful aspects of life, as well as its most beautiful and joyous. In the way of the best children’s literature, it attains a profundity that’s all the more remarkable because of its sheer lucidity and unpretentiousness.

I finished The Stone Cage exactly as I’d done all those years ago: with tears in my eyes, and a thrilling heart, for the book also ends in one of the most perfectly judged, moving yet unsentimental scenes of its kind. Allied to my renewed love was a keenly increased admiration for the artistry of the author, which had easily stood the test of time. The characterisation is superb, the dialogue crisp, the pace good, the combination of light and dark subtly achieved. And the beauty of the style! Fluid, graceful, it is humble—in that it doesn’t draw attention to itself—and yet it’s fresh, distinctive, individual. The Stone Cage had been so important to me because everything in it worked. It was all so natural, so flowing, so multi-layered, its world richly imagined, yet delicately evoked. It was a real masterpiece, a novel just about perfect both in concept and execution, and timeless in its appeal, a novel that should have just as many young readers now as it did back then.

nicholas stuart grayAye, there’s the rub. For The Stone Cage is out of print, and has been for a long time. In fact, and rather astonishingly, in a culture like Britain’s that generally does value its children’s literature, all of Nicholas Stuart Gray’s books are presently out of print. Beautiful, original and accessible though The Stone Cage, Mainly in Moonlight, Grimbold’s Other World, Down in the Cellar, The Seventh Swan, and his other works are, they are unobtainable except through second-hand shops and the Internet, although some are still in libraries. It’s not as if modern children don’t like them, or don’t understand them, either; I know of lots of young readers who, introduced to Gray’s books by their parents, have loved them just as much, and have found them just as easy to read. It’s not as if there’s anything dated or offensive in them, no obvious or hidden misogyny or racism or class stuff or anything like that. There is nothing really to properly explain this puzzling situation, other than that they’ve simply been overlooked.

And yet, Gray’s work has deeply influenced many of today’s writers working in the fields of children’s literature and of fantasy—Garth Nix and Neil Gaiman and Cecila Dart-Thornton, for instance. I’m certainly not the only reader-turned-writer to remember Gray’s books with great love and respect. Australian children’s novelist Cassandra Golds, author of the acclaimed Clair de Lune, wrote to me about the huge impact on her of one of Gray’s books, Down in the Cellar :’I will never forget the Sunday afternoon on which I finished reading it. I remember feeling a kind of mysterious desolation, partly because I’d finished reading it and would never be able to read it for the first time again, but partly also because I KNEW I had now read the best book I was ever going to read. And I felt, then and still, that the only possible response to that experience was to become a children’s author myself.’ As an eighteen year old, Cassandra had written the author a fan letter, and she still treasures his modest, graceful reply, in which he said, amongst other things: ‘As all my books and plays are only written for myself and not for any imagined audiences, readers, age-groups, publishers, etc, it is always a delightful surprise to get proof that anyone BUT myself ever reads or sees them..’ nicholas stuart gray 2

Perhaps that answer gives a clue as to why Gray’s work is not recognised as it should be. This was not a man who blew his own trumpet, not a writer who sought publicity, but one who loved his work and felt privileged to be doing it, and who was too humble to thrust himself forward. Who was perhaps also at heart a rather private, reserved, even secretive person, despite his long association with theatre, which many people would consider the home of trumpet-blowing, egotistical extroverts. Certainly, when I went to research his life, I found precious little information.

Nicholas Stuart Gray was a Highland Scot, born in 1922, the eldest of four children. As a child, he wrote stories and plays for his siblings. Not one to bend easily to the routines of school, he left at the age of fifteen, to become an actor. He kept writing as well, and his first play was produced two years later. His first children’s play to be published was Beauty and the Beast(1951), and from then, he wrote and produced a good many plays for children, before turning his hand to novels and short stories(where I think his true gifts flowered). Some of his novels, like The Stone Cage (1963), he also adapted for the stage: he told Cassandra Golds that he himself played Tomlyn in the play’s premiere at the Edinburgh Festival and its subsequent successful seasons in London and on tour. (That would have been something to see! ) He never married or had children. His plays fell out of fashion, but his novels and short stories continued to be published until his untimely death from cancer in 1980, and right into the late 80’s, we were still seeing frequent reprintings of his books.

nicholas stuart gray 3But in the last fifteen years or so, there have been no more new editions. In this new Golden Age of children’s literature, it’s more than time to bring his books back so that a whole new generation can fall under their spell. Any publishers out there listening?nicholas stuart gray 4

Thrilled to reveal the beautiful cover of Hunter’s Moon!

Hunter's Moon coverI’m thrilled to reveal the gorgeous cover of my upcoming novel, Hunter’s Moon, which is being released by Random House Australia on June 1.

Hunter’s Moon is a gripping YA fairytale thriller set in the same magical world as my earlier novels, The Crystal Heart(2014); Scarlet in the Snow(2013) and Moonlight and Ashes(2012), which are all set in a world inspired by the late 19th century in central and Eastern Europe, only with magic! Each book is set in a different country, and inspired by a different fairytale, and with Hunter’s Moon, that fairytale is Snow White. Here’s the blurb:

Bianca Dalmatin wants for nothing. As the heir to a department store empire and stepdaughter of the beautiful Lady Belladonna, the only thing Bianca longs for is a friend. It seems that her wish is granted at the duke’s Presentation Ball when she meets the handsome, mysterious Lucian Montresor.
But after The Mirror newspaper names Bianca as Lepmest’s new Fairest Lady, the true nature of her stepmother is revealed. Belladonna tells Bianca the shocking news that Bianca’s father is dying – and, when Bianca races to be by his side, Belladonna sends her faithful servant to kill her. Who is friend and who is enemy? Plunged into a terrifying world that will turn her from a daughter of privilege to a hunted creature in fear of her life, Bianca must find allies if she is to survive – and to expose Belladonna for who she really is.

Guest post: Duncan Lay on the reality of fantasy

duncan lay Last-Quarrel-Episode-1_cover1An interview with legendary US fantasy author Raymond E Feist inspired Duncan Lay to begin writing fantasy. He is the author of two best-selling Australian fantasy series, the Dragon Sword Histories and the Empire Of Bones. He writes on the train, to and from his job as production editor of The Sunday Telegraph, Australia’s biggest-selling newspaper. He lives on the Central Coast of NSW with his wife and two children.

In this fabulous guest post, Duncan explores how he created the world of his new series, by inspiring himself from the real world.

When you begin to read a fantasy story, the author is asking you to put aside your disbelief when you crack open the front cover. What lies inside could include fantastical creatures, magic, non-human characters – really, it could be anything.
Personally I think fantasy is best when it comes with a layer of reality, as it gives the reader something to hold on to, something familiar to ground all the fantastic, amazing other things they are reading.
Part of that comes from the characters, making them as real as possible but I also think part of it needs to come from the world they are from.
I know that some authors lovingly construct a world from scratch and good on them, I say. Personally, I think that a touch of the real world in a fantasy story gives the reader something recognisable and allows them to more easily believe what else is happening.
In my new series, The Last Quarrel, there are two lands. Gaelland, which is based on Ireland and the Kotterman Empire, which is loosely based on the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. In real life, these two countries had nothing to do with each other but this is fantasy, so anything can happen!
The beauty of basing your fantasy country on a real country is you instantly have no problem with character names. Those baby name websites not only offer you endless options but also helpfully say what the name means, which allows you to pick names that offer a hidden side to the character. Place names are also a breeze, although you can also mix those up a little so as not to represent actual places. Thus I have Lagway (Galway), Lunster (Munster), Meinster (Leinster), Londegal (Donegal) and so on.
Best of all, it allows you to learn from history. After all, people survived and thrived in those conditions, in that weather, through war, disease and famine. How they did it gives you an insight into how your characters might live, what they might wear and eat. It can influence their speech, their mannerisms and their history. Of course, being fantasy, you can pick and choose which aspects you keep and which you discard and replace with your own!
I loved the idea of Ireland for many reasons. The thought of a small, proud country that, through no fault of its own, is next to a larger more powerful one is obvious. How it deals with that larger country’s ambition is a matter of history. Ireland has a proud warrior tradition, its own songs and legends and a powerful national character. One of the main characters, Fallon, even uses the shillelagh, the traditional Irish fighting stick. Plus I was fascinated with the story of the sack of Baltimore, an Irish village that was stripped bare by Arab slavers. Putting the two together gave me a strong base for my story.
The Ottoman Empire also interested me. The way it was seen as the “sick man of Europe” during World War I, which led to the battle of Gallipoli and the forging of the Anzac legend, makes it instantly fascinating to anyone in Australia. The idea of a mishmash of an Empire, cobbled together from a variety of countries and held together by willpower and a steel fist, made it an obvious choice for me. Naturally there are heroes and villains on both sides!
History books are a great help with research but I also find books such as the Horrible Histories series are even more helpful, offering a really gritty view of life in different times.
And the best thing is, you can always mix and match things, as well as make them up if it comes to it. After all, it is fantasy and it only needs a little reality!

Duncan’s website: http://www.duncanlay.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/duncan.lay

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DuncanLay

About The Last Quarrel:

The Last Quarrel is a series in 5 episodes, the first of which came out on January 22, and further episodes will be released at fortnightly inteervals in February and March, with Episode 2 coming out this week! Keep an eye on Duncan’s Momentum page for more information as episodes are released.

Episode 1:(out now)

Gaelland is a nation gripped by fear.

In the country, fishing boats return with their crews mysteriously vanished, while farms are left empty, their owners gone into the night, meals still on the table. In the cities, children disappear from the streets or even out of their own beds. The King tells his people that it is the work of selkies, mythical creatures who can turn from seals into men and back again and witches. But no matter how many women he burns at the stake, the children are still being taken.

Fallon is a man who has always dreamed of being a hero. His wife Bridgit just wants to live in peace and quiet, and to escape the tragedies that have filled her life. His greatest wish and her worst nightmare are about to collide.

When an empty ship sails into their village, he begins to follow the trail towards the truth behind the evil stalking their land. But it is a journey that will take them both into a dark, dark place and nobody can tell them where it might end…


Prince Cavan is sure his younger brother, Swane, is behind the children going missing in the city. But his father refuses to listen and sends him away to investigate reports of selkies stealing people from the countryside. A furious Cavan fears this is part of a conspiracy. But then he meets Fallon, a simple country sergeant who has his own theories about the attacks on Gaelland. And what they cannot achieve apart, they must just do together …

Picture That, illustrators on food: 1: Trish Donald

Cross-posted from my food blog.

Cement_LIfe  A  couple of years ago, I ran a series featuring the favourite recipes of authors. This time, I’m inaugurating a new series, Picture That, which features illustrators talking about food and giving us a favourite recipe, but also showcasing favourite new illustrations. Picture That will be running from time to time over the next couple of months, but today is the first of the series, and it features the fabulous illustrator Trish Donald. Reptilicus


Trish usually paints landscapes using acrylics but in recent years she has been shifting focus toward character design where she likes to blend natural with digital medium. Her latest exhibition, in November 2014, contained works created through  a combination of pen drawings, collages, and digital drawings. Trish spent many years working as a graphic designer after which she spent 14 years teaching graphic design at TAFE. She currently works in Industry at the University of New England. Trish runs creative workshops at NERAM, in Armidale and the New England Writers’ Centre teaching others how to develop characters, use colour, or use mixed media.  Most recently, she had a short story and illustration published in Once Upon A Christmas (edited by Beattie Alvarez, published by Christmas Press, 2014) and she looks forward to future creative endeavours.


Trish presents here a favourite recipe: Portuguese Marinated Carrots.

When I make these for friends they are always impressed and absolutely love them so I am going to share it with you too.

Cenouras De Conserva – Marinated Carrots

(a Portuguese aperitif)


4-5 carrots

1 Cup water (from cooking the carrots)

Pinch of salt

1-2 cloves garlic

Parsley – Continental

2 Tbsp Olive Oil (virgin)

2-3 tsp white vinegar

1tsp red paprika (not hot)

Toothpicks – for serving


Peeled and slice carrots into thick circles.

Put carrots in pot, cover with water and add some salt.

Boil for 3-5 minutes depending on tenderness – you want them to be soft but firm so they don’t fall apart.

Strain and put aside some of the carrot water (if you do not have enough carrot water you can just add water from the tap)

Put carrots in the fridge

Chop the garlic finely

Chop the parsley finely

In a cup combine the olive oil, vinegar, paprika and carrot water.   Cenouras_De_Conserva_Marinated_Carrots

Pour this mixture over the carrots and stir through, put back in fridge.

Taste mixture and add vinegar or oil according to taste.

Traditionally the carrots are a little bit on the vinegar side.

If you have added too much vinegar add more water and stir through.

Put on a shallow dish and supply toothpicks when serving.

Your guests will not be disappointed!