Memoir as Fantasy: Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm

Michael Moorcock has offered bits of autobiography here and there over the years, as in the brilliant “A Child’s Christmas in the Blitz,” and certain elements of his own life have contributed to his fiction, as with the family of David Mummery in Mother London. He’s also appeared “as himself” in his own fiction many a time. The Nomad of the Time Streams novels are presented as manuscripts that form the legacy of his grandfather, also named Michael Moorcock. He introduces The Adventures of Una Persson and Catherine Cornelius in the Twentieth Century stating that the book is drawn from “the unpublished memoirs of Miss Una Persson, the temporal adventuress,” memoirs that “exist partly in the form of notes in her own hand, partly in the form of tape-recorded interviews between myself and Miss Persson”; later, in The White Wolf’s Son, there is an interlude in which the lady pays him and his wife Linda a visit at his home in Lost Pines, Texas to fill him in on the further adventures of Elric of Melniboné. He even drags collaborator Walt Simonson into the metafictional stew in the Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse comic, making both of them players in the Game of Time.

The Whispering Swarm, the first book of his new Sanctuary of the White Friars series and Moorcock’s first new novel since the Doctor Who tie-in The Coming of the Terraphiles, is a heady blend of memoir, fantasy, history, and self-referential fiction. In a move reminiscent of his late friend J.G. Ballard’s The Kindness of Women, Moorcock presents—to borrow Ballard’s description of his own novel—a story of his life “seen through the mirror of the fiction prompted by that life.”

The Whispering Swarm is the first installment in the story of a bright young writer named Michael Moorcock (henceforth referred to as Michael, to distinguish him from Moorcock the author): pulp writer, prodigiously young magazine editor, occasional musician, born-and-bred Londoner from left-wing working-class stock. He is also afflicted with a touch of the supernatural. A certain amount of second sight runs in his family; from childhood he catches glimpses of ghosts and “trails not much wider than a high wire, stretching off into shivering emerald and silver,” and he is susceptible to the noises of what he calls “the whispering swarm.”

It’s this paranormal bent and a chance printing-shop encounter with a peculiar monk called Friar Isidore that draws him to the London enclave of Alsacia, through a gate that very few can see or open. There really was an historical Alsacia in London (also spelled Alsatia); it occupied the district north of the Thames now called Whitefriars, which was named after the white-robed Carmelite monks who once had a monastery there. For a few centuries, Alsacia was a sanctuary, where lawbreakers could take refuge without fear of arrest. Michael’s Alsacia is a zone out of time, overseen by gentle, tolerant monks who are far older than they appear. What he takes at first for some kind of actors’ backlot (populated, he assumes, by various performers who enjoy staying in character when off-camera) turns out to be something altogether more strange, where Dick Turpin hoists a pint with Buffalo Bill Cody.

While Michael pursues his writing career, marries, and fathers two daughters in the “real world”, he lives a double life. The other part of his life is in Alsacia, where he loves the ravishing adventuress Moll Midnight and becomes a friend of Prince Rupert, nephew of King Charles I. Even as Michael’s life spins more out of balance—his marriage collapsing, his writing career growing ever busier—he joins Rupert and the musketeers Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan in a daring plan to save the King from headsman’s block.

But wait, you say, Charles was executed in 1648. Quite right. In Alsacia—the only place where he is free from the torments of the Whispering Swarm—time and reality become increasingly porous for Michael, and the demands of his imploding marriage and beloved daughters compete with his loyalty to Royalists from centuries ago—a political cause, he notes ruefully, with which he actually has little sympathy, but to which he is drawn by the men who are far more dashing, charismatic, and appealing than their Puritan enemies.

As the worlds run together for Michael, so too do fact and fiction combine for Moorcock the author. His real-world friends and contemporaries pass through the novel, some—like Mervyn Peake—under their real names, and others under decodable aliases: American writer “Rex Fisch,” New Wave SF author “Jack Allard,” and Michael’s wife “Helena Denham,” author of the novella “The Haul of Frankie Steinway.” Fantasy aside, The Whispering Swarm is also a vivid evocation of post-war Britain and the artistic bohemia of 1960s London. It’s full of outrageous stories about the writers in Michael’s circle (“Fisch” in particular has some major misadventures) and Michael’s own occasionally fraught relations with the women in his life. Moorcock is perhaps a little romantic about the progressive vitality of the times and the rough energy of his childhood, but the nostalgia is intensely appealing; to those of us who never experienced that era, it is as distant and dashing as Civil War-era England is for Michael.

The fictional side of the story is full of further Moorcockian references as well. Moll is first introduced as a tram-robbing highwaywoman, a sister to those who appear in The War Amongst the Angels. The fish chalice guarded by the White Friars evokes the Grail, which recurs throughout Moorcock’s work, as well as the piscine entity Spammer Gain from the Second Ether stories. Before it’s all over, Michael must learn to negotiate the “moonbeam roads,” the silver paths between the worlds, which are walked by so many of his characters.

It shouldn’t really work, perhaps, but somehow it does, and it seems only fitting that Moorcock, an author who has never been entirely content to come at genre fiction straight on, should approach his own memoirs through a fictional lens. Or is he reinventing the Moorcock Multiverse through the mechanics of memoir? Perhaps it works both ways. Michael’s absorption in the world of Alsacia also acts as a metaphor for the ways in which some creative types can vanish into their own heads, expending more time and emotional energy on their fictional creations than on the people around them. His yearning for Alsacia is the yearning of many restless minds for something beyond the mundane—the urge that drives so many of us to fantasy and science fiction in the first place.

By the end, events have force Michael to seriously reconsider his investment in Alsacia, and the extent to which it has cost his peace in his ordinary life. He walks away, swearing that he “didn’t mind a bit” that he will never see Alsacia again, but one might well suspect that Michael can no more quit that magical zone any more than his creation Elric could give up Stormbringer. His story is, quite plainly, unfinished, and hopefully it will not be too long before we see it continued.

The Whispering Swarm is available now from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt here at Tor.com


Karin Kross has previously written about Moorcock’s London Peculiar and re-read all of the Elric saga for Tor. and lives and writes in Austin, TX and can be found elsewhere on Twitter and at hangingfire.net.

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