Craig Herbertson - School: The Seventh Silence

School: The Seventh Silence by Craig Herbertson

The setting of the book is similar to Gormenghast; in this case, a great, ramblink hulk of a school, where Jean must find his sister. But first he must escape.

Jean’s first escape is reminiscent of Steerpike’s, through a window and up the castle wall. The school also has a roofscape similar to that of Gormenghast and the rooms full of mouldering bones in one chapter bring to mind the aunts who Steerpike cruelly leaves to starve to death in an isolated castle chamber. The descriptions of the rooms and corridors in Herbertson’s School are claustrophobic, nightmarish; and sometimes hooks fastened into walls, iron grilles and heavy doors, juxtaposed with plate glass walls and laboratory equipment suggest a combination of medieval torture chamber and mad scientist’s laboratory. Like many schools, there’s a suggestion that the pupils are imprisoned there.

A fable, the book seems to owe something to Saint-Exupéry, but School: the Seventh Silence, is definitely not written with children in mind. Sometimes, for instance, characters get too wrapped in discussion and argument for a child's taste; it’s obvious that the author has thought quite deeply about his own place in the universe and how he relates to it.

There is a memorable chapter when Jean escapes to a garden tended by a towering godlike being, the Gardener. Everything here seems larger than life; Jean and his fellows seem dwarfed by its immensity. Tumbled gargoyles lie among the flower pots and watering cans, and as in Cocteau’s film of Beauty and the Beast, you know that these gargoyles are watching and can speak, and possibly they’re mischievous or malevolent.

A real thrill went by me when a character looking across the roofscape, says: “I like to watch the air and space, and imagine that the accumulating raindrops are a vast applause to the universe, an explosion of clapping hands that will go on forever.”

The book is shot through with colour and unusual imagery. Fittingly, given the Gardener’s godlike nature, his greenhouse has spires, like a cathedral. He is one of the few creations in the book who is benign, though feared.

“It was mostly intact, except where trees or large bushes had pushed their way through to the sun, rupturing the timber, or where falling slates and statues from the roof and architraves had smashed panes. In all, the frame was like the ribs of an enormous whale Jean had once seen suspended in Chambers Street Museum in Edinburgh. Only now it was a beast clad in shining glass armour.”

There is some kind of monster in the school, and it kills:

“The first thing Jean saw was what had to be the English master, who was only recognisable by his clothes. His body, mummified like an ancient Egyptian, lay against the wall, its arms spread out in a parody of the gesture he had been making before Jean had blacked out. The face was terrible in death. Jean remembered seeing a picture of a buried Egyptian King, who had been wrapped in sheepskin and interred alive. This was the same face before him, pleading with him in shocked silence.

Then, like lesser terrors, but making the whole picture more awful because of their numbers, Jean saw heaps of mangled skeletons strewn across the floor. They lay beneath a layer of fine dust, clad in rotted clothes like the fallen in some ancient war. Everywhere there was evidence of dissolution and age, except in a track of footprints impressed in the dust. These footprints led from the chalk circle to the balcony. Here, just before the curtains, the dust was disturbed by a light breeze. Strewn along the track of prints were the shining hoops of the juggler. They lay like frozen whirlpools amidst the scattered courtyards...

“It was like treading on tiptoe over a forest floor littered with dry branches. Bones jutted from old red blazers, as though the victims had speared themselves with their own ribs. Mouldering eye sockets stared without sight at hands without skin that reached hopelessly across the floor...”

Jean’s journey through the School continues as he glimpses his missing sister far off.

It's a grotesque and beautifully written book, which shows the working of a fine mind, and really you owe it to yourself to collect a copy for your bookcase.

Rog Pile

Mike Glyer, multiple Hugo-winning fan writer and Worldcon chair: "Brilliant."

Mike Don of Dreamberry Wine: "A cracker."

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School: The Seventh Silence by Craig Herbertson

School: The Seventh Silence

by Craig Herbertson

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