Guest Post: “The Other Origin” by Jeannette Ng

The gloriously Gothic Under the Pendulum Sun is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read this year, so I am incredibly pleased to be able to share with you a guest post by its author, Jeannette Ng.

Elsewhere, I’ve written a lot about the Victorian missionary manuals that inspired Under the Pendulum Sun, but the beginnings of the book are rather more tangled than that. The first words I wrote for the project were actually one of the secret documents that the Helstones discover in the later chapters[1]. That project was named The First and Last Book and was something of a mashup of Pygmalion and Genesis. I was very enamoured of the idea that the “perfect” creation was one incapable of loving their creator and the self-created “tragedy” of Henry Higgins projected back onto a Creator God. I mostly wrote scraps of it whilst procrastinating on essays about Paradise Lost before abandoning it as too high concept.

The first version of Pendulum Sun‘s missionary plot was titled The Wandering[2] and was from the point of view of Laon, Cathy’s brother and then named Richard E. Matheson. It was to follow a missionary’s slow descent into madness whilst tormented by the fae. I wanted it to be this grand examination and dismantling of everything he held dear, each layer of his belief in the Empire, in his education, in his faith, etc.

Ariel Davenport, the changeling, was in those early drafts. She was heavily inspired by Simon Goodfellow, the changeling character in Robert Weinberg’s The Logical Magician. She shares in his voracious changeling appetite and the idea that they are all just a little *off*.

The iconic goblin market was also an early idea and the bones of the set piece were written quite early on, though of course it is not even slightly original. Christina Rossetti’s poem is a cornerstone of fairy literature and references to it range from S. Jae-Jones’ Wintersong and Laini Taylor’s Goblin Fruit to the Hellboy movie. It founded the trope of otherworldly markets and has also become shorthand for addiction and temptation, as well as sapphic desire, the redemption of fallen women and the power of sisterhood.

All these partial novels lived in the great backburner lists for years and didn’t really all come together until I watched Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. It is a sumptuous gothic romance but somewhere between the setting it in a decaying yet cutting edge Victorian mansion[3] and the sequence of secrets, I wasn’t quite satisfied. I wanted more and it was from trying to fill that hunger that I wrote Under The Pendulum Sun.

I remember it when I was asking the rhetorical question of how one could create that contrast between the familiar and the weird in a fantastical setting. The reader needed a somewhat known baseline before one could surprise and deviate, after all, and if one was writing a secondary world fantasy, that baseline would not be as intuitively familiar to the reader. A modern protagonist would be the obvious answer, but I was discontented with that. And after further ruminating, the idea of making it an alt-history and merging it with that fairy novel made sense.

And so it all came together. Once I realised the missionary novel should be following a gothic vein, the rambling mess of it was contained. It gained a rather more rigid structure and the result largely follows the familiar beats of a gothic novel[4]. Once I realised it was fairies, not ghosts or vampires that were to be the antagonists of my gothic novel then suddenly the aesthetic snapped into place. And of course, the novel gained its emotional arc with the introduction of Catherine Helstone.

The novel went through about a thousand titles after that. My favourite is probably still Gospel of the Gardens, referring to my rather heavy handed use of biblical locations as section headings but also the idea that Arcadia itself is a carefully groomed garden, much like Eden, the place where parables happen. I was also partial to For There Is Nothing Lost, an Edmund Spenser quote. You can still see one of the later ones, Sin Like Salt, in the wall of tiny text on the inside of the cover.

I’m not sure any of this trivia necessarily helps make sense of the alleged puzzle box that is my novel, but perhaps it sheds light on why it is quite so intricate in its layers.

[1] The ancients, as we well know, in novels such as Pendulum Sun, have a habit of leaving lengthy, introspective letters to readers of the future in their castles. How the ancients find time in their eventful lives to write these detailed descriptions with accurate and lively direct speech is a mystery lost to the ages.

[2] It’s full title was technically “The Wandering: a handbook of methods for missionary work in Arcadia, including a Narrative of the Mission with remarks on the life and religious ideas of the Fae and notes on climate, health and outfit.”

[3] It is rather nitpicking of me, I know, but Victorian houses look old and decaying to a modern audience because it has now become old. And I know the Sharpe siblings have undoubtedly idiosyncratic priorities when it comes to home improvements, but it looked wrong to this historian’s eyes. Gothic novels written during the Victorian era tend to be set in the middle ages and obsessed with ancient castles and abbeys. Austen’s Northanger Abbey mocks this gently with its heroine’s disappointment in how modern and comfortably renovated the titular abbey is: “To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions, and the heaviest stone-work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.”

[4] I’m fairly sure I’m 8/10 on the Gothic Novel Checklist, which originally appeared on the Guardian.


About the Author

yFSmkft6Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology. She runs live roleplay games and used to sell costumes for a living.

Follow her on social media:

Medium: @nettlefish

Twitter: @jeannette_ng

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Awesome post! Now I really need to check out Under the Pendulum Sun, if it’s one of the best books you’ve read this year. And so cool, the author is a fellow Hong Konger 😀

    1. I’d love to see your take on it!

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