James Stoddard ought to be famous for his Evenmere trilogy—The High House (1998), The False House (2000, revised 2015), and Evenmere (2015). He isn’t, unfortunately. The High House received the Compton Crook Award for best fantasy by a new novelist, but The False House and Evenmere haven’t gotten much notice. But the three books are wonderfully written fantasy, and Stoddard is nearly as good as C. S. Lewis at recapitulating aspects of the Christian myth. He isn’t just trying to be another Lewis, either. Stoddard’s trilogy does something new and nifty: It is an argument in fiction that narrative is at the center of Christian theology—that the universe is narrative, that Christ is its sacred narrator, and that narrative is the means by which mankind can understand God. Stoddard’s sustained invention and stylish prose are enough by themselves to earn him a place in the mainstream fantasy canon. But his shift of emphasis from Christian myth to Christian narrative makes his trilogy a major work of Christian fantasy.
That’s all well and good, but what are the books about? Stoddard relates in The High House how Carter Anderson, the son of the old Master of the High House of Evenmere, casts the House into peril by an act of childish folly, is exiled for his own safety, and at last returns to Evenmere to succeed his father as the new Master. The False House tells how young Lizbeth Powell is kidnapped and made the catalyst for the creation of a rival House in the Outer Darkness. Lizbeth survives years imprisoned in solitude, is rescued by Carter, and finally works with him to save Evenmere from destruction. Evenmere ties up the trilogy with the story of how the House itself sacrifices what it holds most dear in order to bind the powers that threaten to destroy it. The books’ villains are the Society of Anarchists, who are ruthlessly dedicated to establishing a perfect world.
The plots are good, but the books’ descriptions of Evenmere are amazing. The front door of the High House is on Earth, but within its walls stretches an indefinite, enormous, impossible space. The décor is not the usual fantasy-medieval, but Victorian: William Morris wallpaper, peach carpets, and inglenooks. As Carter wanders Evenmere’s corridors, he finds farmlands miles wide, rivers, and even seas. Evenmere contains whole kingdoms within its halls.
Veth was a kingdom of small rooms and narrow corridors. It had been built by additions, for the style changed almost at every chamber, and sections of various woods: oak, mahogany, cherry, and beech trailed one another down the passageways, past wallpapers likewise divergent, so that the quarters were a crazy quilt of patterns. (High House)
There are also man-eating sofas. Gnawlings, monsters disguised as furniture, skulk in the corners of Evenmere.
The inhabitants of Evenmere are likewise integral to the House. Jormungand, the Last Dinosaur, lurks in the attic and dispenses biting wit to intruders. Jormungand has some of the best lines in the books:
I am Jomungand, the Last Dinosaur, destroyer, devourer, ravager of kingdoms and epochs, all greed and covet[ous]ness, brooding loneliness. Once I was Dragon, but in this scientific age that is no longer stylish. The flames I kept for high drama. Now I, who was once Behemoth, am only pieced-together bones, first believed to belong to biblical giants, fresh-dug by nearsighted archaeologists, given flesh by faint intellects, made poorer by lack of imagination. (High House)
The Servants of the House work to keep Evenmere in tolerable working order: Chant lights the lamps, Enoch keeps the clocks running, Edwin Phra maintains the stars in their orbits—and Master Carter Anderson struggles by heroic endeavor to preserve Evenmere against the plots of the Anarchists. Stoddard’s feat is to make us care about these characters as individuals, and not just as extensions of the House.
Stoddard’s books are good, simply as well-written fantasy. But their theological dimension lends them real depth. The High House is a representation of the universe, its architecture the Divine Architecture. Some parts of the allegory are straightforward: For example, the long, empty corridors between inhabited parts of Evenmere echo the distances of the stars. More subtle is the way meaning emerges from the fabric of Evenmere, in glimpses of the divine amid the prosaic:
The bare corridor continued only a brief time before ending at the base of a wide stair, which ascended to a gallery leading to the left, its end lost in the darkness. The steps were gray marble, and monks were carved upon the balusters, their mouths wide as if in song, their faces all turned toward the top of the stair. (High House)
The allegory is explicitly religious, indeed Christian. At the end of The High House, Stoddard incorporates into his architectural metaphor a clear reference to Jesus: “‘As for who built it, some say God is the Great Architect; some say the Grand Engineer.’ Brittle gave his wry smile. ‘And some say He was once a carpenter as well. I can explain no better’” (High House). If God built the House, the Anarchists are villains whose senseless disbelief finds its best analogue in the chaotic architecture of the False House they create: “A stair climbed halfway up the center of the room, landing by landing, only to terminate in empty space,” and “[g]eometric gargoyles squinted from the moldings, and upon the baseboards and lintels were carved random sequences of numbers and letters” (False House).
Stoddard's Gospel retelling does something remarkable—something that I think is new. His Evenmere is not just a representation of Christian myth, but an image of a divine truth whose nature is essentially narrative. Stoddard’s focus on narrative emerges partly from the self-conscious nature of Evenmere’s allegory: The heroes know that their personal actions represent the salvation of the universe. “Sometimes,” says Chant, “if I cannot light a certain lamp, or if Enoch cannot reach a clock to re-wind it, then suns perish and segments of Creation die” (High House). More, Stoddard insists on the narrative nature of Evenmere itself: “[L]ike all of Creation, the High House is a Parable” (High House). Evenmere nests parables within parables.
These parables are necessary, since the divine cannot be seen straight, but must be mediated by narrative. In Evenmere, poetic Anarchists seek out the truth behind the House's narrative—but that truth cannot be understood, or even approached. “The storm raged on, and at its center, where the poet stood, a white gash appeared, as if the flame were hot enough to scorch Existence itself, peeling it back like a wrinkling picture on canvas” (Evenmere). Stoddard alludes here to his own purpose in telling stories. His fantasy is a narrative mediation of the truth—an imitation of the Christian narrative of and by God, and a means whereby readers perceive a divinity too great to be looked at directly.
Stoddard thus makes a nifty apologia for the fantasy genre, as a necessary mediation that allows us to perceive the divine story through the protective articulation of another level of story. Half C. S. Lewis, half Stanley Hauerwas, Stoddard’s three books are fantasy adventure as narrative theology—or rather, narrative theology as fantasy adventure. Few writers could conceive of such a project; fewer still could pull it off.
That said, Stoddard’s works are uneven in quality. The High House is a solid introduction to the series, and The False House (especially in its revised version on Kindle) is excellent—largely because of its moving portrait of Lizbeth Powell, raised alone in the dark and somehow managing to preserve her humanity. Evenmere is the most ambitious book of the trilogy, but also the weakest. It loses focus by shifting among too many parallel narratives, it doesn’t set up properly its portrayal of Jormungand as a purely Satanic figure, and its Christ-like Storyteller character is two-dimensional. There are also small errors of continuity scattered through the book. For all that, it’s a worthy capstone for a remarkable series.
Gentle reader, take a look.
David Randall is the Director of Communications at the National Association of Scholars and the author of the young-adult fantasy series, In the Shadow of the Bear.