James Stoddard’s The High House and The False House

imageWelcome to the House that God built. Evenmere, the High House, that unending ever-changing building which crosses and contains worlds. It is, and represents, all Creation, an enigma, a parable, a mystery. Within its halls and rooms, passages and basements, attics and terraces, are the undreamt worlds, the lands of dream, places like Ooz and Innman Tor and Arkalen. The House bridges upon our own world, but is far more than a house. It just Is.

The High House demands a master. Carter Anderson, returned after a long exile, may be that Master. Or perhaps his half-brother Duskin, born to the conniving Lady Murmur, will take up the Tawny Mantle, Lightning Sword, and Master Keys, and reign over the Inner Chambers, the White Circle, and all the other realms of the High House. The House chooses its own, you see. It chooses the Master to watch over it, to maintain peace, to uphold ancient treaties, to combat the enemies which lurk at the outside gates and threaten to taint and warp all Creation for their own needs.

There is Brittle, the ancient butler, who has seen generations of Masters in his time. Chant, the Lamp-Lighter, who sees to it that all the myriad lights and lamps and flames of the universe are not snuffed. Enoch, the immortal Windkeep, responsible for the many clocks of Evenmere. These three are as much a part of the House as it is of them. They must guide and aide Carter as he seeks to become worthy of the mantle of Master. As he seeks the mystery of his lost father, quests for the lost Sword and Mantle and Keys and the Seven Words of Power. As he defies the last dinosaur, Jormangand, who rules the attic of Evenmere and devours those foolish enough to trespass. As he journeys beyond the Green Door, and into parts unknown…

imageThe High House is full of vast concepts, maddening paradoxes and intriguing images. A House so vast, so contemptuous of the laws of time and space, that it stretches across all Creation, containing entire countries within its halls? A society of anarchists who oppose the House with every breath, seeking to master its power for themselves? Man-eating furniture, eternally preyed upon by intelligent tigers? A library which leads to other realms? The possibilities are endless, and the core idea audacious in its immensity. This is one of those ideas I wish I’d thought of first.

There’s something almost old-school about The High House, hearkening back to MacDonald and Dunsany and Carroll and Baum. The language, while stilted and odd at times, reads with an old flavor to it, evoking the language of the past. The names of the countries, places like Shyntagwin, Ephiny, High Gable, and Anwerr, are strongly reminiscent of Baum’s own place names. The concept of a physical House representing the abstract notion of all Creation, that’s the sort of thing C.S. Lewis might have thought up in an off moment.

The mystery only grows with the sequel, The False House. Carter Anderson, now the Master of Evenmere in his own right, has finally defeated the anarchists, for a time, and begun to return order to the House after the chaos they created. Entire countries lie devastated and desolate, in need of assistance. Outright rebellion still grips at least one province. And one of his most trusted allies has died for the cause. However, the future looks bright when he meets someone he could very easily fall in love with. But the High House doesn’t believe in happily ever after… and the anarchists steal away a young girl as part of a long-reaching plan to replace Evenmere.

Skip forward some years, to when it all comes to a head. Somewhere out in Oblivion, in the Outer Darkness where the House no longer reaches, someone has raised a False House, and begun the process of transforming vast numbers of people into clockwork perfection. They’ve stolen away the House’s source of power, and now Carter, his brother Duskin, and a small team must travel beyond the House, to prevent the destruction of all they know. But among them lurk traitors, anarchists who will betray them all at the worst time…

The Evenmere series is mind-boggling in its own way, the literary equivalent of M.C. Escher. The inside and outside of the House, interior and exterior, rooms and caverns, terraces and plains, walls and forests, are intertwined, so that it’s impossible to differentiate the two. Though it starts off slowly, slowly enough to make me despair at first, the mystery and the sheer scope of the story soon captivated me. The language is rich and whimsical, poetic and lyrical in a style one doesn’t seen often these days. It’s no light read, true, but a challenge to be enjoyed. It’s a mixture of epic fantasy, high adventure, and conceptual capriciousness. Evenmere is what you would get if you dropped the Winchester Mystery House into a giant mirror maze, and left it alone for a few decades.

In the end, The High House and The False House comprise one epic, fascinating story stretching across all that could be, and all that is. It’s new fantasy with a classic influence and a mythical resonance. While they won’t be to everyone’s tastes, I have to admit that James Stoddard has indeed produced something special. Evenmere stands a good chance of achieving a lasting status in the worlds of fantasy, and I really look forward to seeing more set in the same world. The possibilities for prequels, sequels, and other stories set in Evenmere are as endless as its corridors.

(Warner Aspect 1998 and 2000)

Editors note: the artwork here is from the new editions, trade paper and digital, as there’s now three volumes with the third being, well, appropriately Evenmere.