Ackroyd, Peter

Tagged: Author

(1949-    ) UK author first active as a poet before turning to cultural studies like Dressing Up: Transvestism, Drugs and Literary Culture (1979), and then only to fiction, which as a whole can be usefully, in the frame of this encyclopedia, be understood as a series of sometimes inspired exercises in Urban Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], with a recurring focus on London. Along lines initially promulgated in Lud Heat: A Book of the Dead Hamlets (1975) by Iain Sinclair, the metropolis is treated, more often than not, as inherently (and in effect supernaturally) fecund, an unstopping fount of myth and Meme and topos which must be understood by the reader as meant literally (see Fantastika): London, effectively, is alive. This use of the great City, already visible in his 1970s poetry, is very clearly articulated in Ackroyd's first novel, The Great Fire of London (1982) – unusually for this author not named after a real person – where a supernatural intrusion of one of Charles Dickens's characters seems almost to generate in hindsight the seventeenth century holocaust. More convincingly, his third novel, Hawksmoor (1985), conflates the occult topography of London constructed by an eighteenth-century architect – who closely resembles the historical Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) – with a series of twentieth-century murders investigated by an Inspector Hawksmoor. The correspondences between the two times are not so much occult as fabulated (see Fabulation). A similar sense of time-slippage (see Timeslip) is evoked in First Light (1989), in which a night sky whose star positions are those of neolithic times suddenly appears over a twentieth-century neolithic dig appears a night sky. English Music (1992), perhaps Ackroyd's most sustained single novel, seems almost an exudation of London itself; and its central character, a child with genuine healing powers, is a figure whose powers are in a sense enabled by the intrinsicate web of the city. A sense of time-slippage also figures in The House of Doctor Dee (1993), in which John Dee appears, haunting its contemporary protagonist, who fears that he is a homunculus created by the savant.

The "golem" who features in Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994; vt The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: A Novel of the Limehouse Murders 1995) is rationalized. The first of Ackroyd's novels to use without qualifications a recognized sf device to propel it is Milton in America (1996), an Alternate History tale in which John Milton, trapped in his imperial analytic mind, travels blind to New England, where he given his sight again, but cannot stand the polymorphically perverse future he can now envision, and so regains his blindness: and by that decision foretells the nature of the conquest of America in this world. Also unmistakably sf is The Plato Papers (1999), set in a London 2000 years hence, for whose inhabitants the deep past (that is, the twentieth century) is a land of fable, not to be believed in literally (see Ruins and Futurity); the eponymous protagonist's elucidative "papers" illuminate Plato's Cave. In The Fall of Troy (2006), which hearkens back thematically to First Light, scenes out of Greek mythology are replayed in a nineteenth-century archaeological dig. The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein (2008) is Equipoisal between an sf reading of the Monster-related material and an understanding of the complex tale – which incorporates historical and fictional characters – as a Fantasy rendering of Steampunk tropes.

Ackroyd may now be best known for his literary biographies of figures such as William Blake, T S Eliot, Thomas More and Edgar Allan Poe, the most important of his several studies of Charles Dickens being Dickens (1990); and for cultural surveys like Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002). [JC]

Peter Warwick Ackroyd

born London: 5 October 1949



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