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Ackroyd, Peter

Entry updated 12 February 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1949-    ) UK author first active as a poet before turning to cultural studies like Dressing Up: Transvestism, Drugs and Literary Culture (1979), and only then to fiction, which as a whole can 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 intended, though a certain edgy dry demureness (see Mainstream Writers of SF) tends to deflect his tales from the healing story-releasers of Fantastika taken, as he seems to wish, literally: London, effectively, for instance, is addressed as a living storyable entity, prefiguring the fantasticated London-story unpacked by Christopher Fowler in his Bryant and May sequence. This use of the great City, already visible in his 1970s poetry, is clearly articulated in Ackroyd's first novel, The Great Fire of London (1982), which unusually for this author is set in the Near Future, and not named after a real person, though its protagonist, the failed poet Spenser Spender, is clearly (and mercilessly) modelled on Stephen Spender (1909-1995); the claimed haunting, by Charles Dickens's character Little Dorrit of a woman involved in making a film of his Little Dorrit (1857), leads complicatedly to the setting of a second Great Fire in Spender's set for the film, which spreads to destroy much of the city.

More convincingly perhaps, Ackroyd's third novel, Hawksmoor (1985), conflates the chthonic 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 engine to propel it (see SF Megatext) 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. The eponymous Mysterious Stranger in Mr Cadmus (2020), who descends in 1981 on a small mildly Satirized North Devon village in order to murder several of its inhabitants, may be not only a serial killer but a disposable blood-soaked tool of vengeance, some Supernatural Creature born out of ancient Greek Mythology.

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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nonfiction (highly selected)

about the author


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