"Her stories are . . . rich with a fresh kind of peril." New York Times
Iceby Anna Kavan, Christopher J. Priest
In this haunting and surreal novel, the narrator and a man known as the warden search for an elusive girl in a frozen, seemingly post-nuclear, apocalyptic landscape. The country has been invaded and is being governed by a secret organization. There is destruction everywhere; great walls of ice overrun the world. Together with the narrator, the reader is swept into
In this haunting and surreal novel, the narrator and a man known as the warden search for an elusive girl in a frozen, seemingly post-nuclear, apocalyptic landscape. The country has been invaded and is being governed by a secret organization. There is destruction everywhere; great walls of ice overrun the world. Together with the narrator, the reader is swept into a hallucinatory quest for this strange and fragile creature with albino hair. Acclaimed upon its 1967 publication as the best science fiction book of the year, this extraordinary and innovative novel has subsequently been recognized as a major work of literature in its own right.
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By Anna Kavan
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 1967 Anna Kavan
All rights reserved.
I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage. When I opened a window to speak to the attendant, the air outside was so cold that I turned up my collar. While he was filling the tank he commented on the weather. 'Never known such cold in this month. Forecast says we're in for a real bad freeze-up.' Most of my life was spent abroad, soldiering, or exploring remote areas: but although I had just come from the tropics and freeze-ups meant little to me, I was struck by the ominous sound of his words. Anxious to get on, I asked the way to the village I was making for. 'You'll never find it in the dark, it's right off the beaten track. And those hill roads are dangerous when they're iced up.' He seemed to imply that only a fool would drive on under present conditions, which rather annoyed me. So, cutting short his involved directions, I paid him and drove away, ignoring his last warning shout: 'Look out for that ice!'
It had got quite dark by now, and I was soon more hopelessly lost than ever. I knew I should have listened to the fellow, but at the same time wished I had not spoken to him at all. For some unknown reason, his remarks had made me uneasy; they seemed a bad omen for the whole expedition, and I began to regret having embarked on it.
I had been doubtful about the trip all along. I had arrived only the previous day, and should have been attending to things in town instead of visiting friends in the country. I myself did not understand my compulsion to see this girl, who had been in my thoughts all the time I was away, although she was not the reason for my return. I had come back to investigate rumours of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world. But as soon as I got here she became an obsession, I could think only of her, felt I must see her immediately, nothing else mattered. Of course I knew it was utterly irrational. And so was my present uneasiness: no harm was likely to come to me in my own country; and yet I was becoming more and more anxious as I drove on.
Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing. Now, for instance, I had visited the girl and her husband before, and kept a vivid recollection of the peaceful, prosperous-looking countryside round their home. But this memory was rapidly fading, losing its reality, becoming increasingly unconvincing and indistinct, as I passed no one on the road, never came to a village, saw no lights anywhere. The sky was black, blacker untended hedges towering against it; and when the headlights occasionally showed roadside buildings, these too were always black, apparently uninhabited and more or less in ruins. It was just as if the entire district had been laid waste during my absence.
I began to wonder if I would ever find her in the general disorder. It did not look as if any organized life could have been going on here since whatever disaster had obliterated the villages and wrecked the farms. As far as I could see, no attempt had been made to restore normality. No rebuilding or work on the land had been done, no animals were in the fields. The road badly needed repairs, the ditches were choked with weeds under the neglected hedges, the whole region appeared to have been left derelict and deserted.
A handful of small white stones hit the windscreen, making me jump. It was so long since I had experienced winter in the north that I failed to recognize the phenomenon. The hail soon turned to snow, diminishing visibility and making driving more difficult. It was bitterly cold, and I became aware of a connection between this fact and my increasing uneasiness. The garage man had said he had never known it so cold at this time, and my own impression was that it was far too early in the season for ice and snow. Suddenly my anxiety was so acute that I wanted to turn and drive back to town; but the road was too narrow, I was forced to follow its interminable windings up and down hill in the lifeless dark. The surface got worse, it got steeper and more slippery all the time. The unaccustomed cold made my head ache as I stared out, straining my eyes in the effort of trying to avoid icy patches, where the car skidded out of control. When the headlights fled over roadside ruins from time to time, the brief glimpse always surprised me, and vanished before I was sure I had really seen it.
An unearthly whiteness began to bloom on the hedges. I passed a gap and glanced through. For a moment, my lights picked out like searchlights the girl's naked body, slight as a child's, ivory white against the dead white of the snow, her hair bright as spun glass. She did not look in my direction. Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre. Dazzling flashes came from the ice-cliffs far over her head; below, the outermost fringes of ice had already reached her, immobilized her, set hard as concrete over her feet and ankles. I watched the ice climb higher, covering knees and thighs, saw her mouth open, a black hole in the white face, heard her thin, agonized scream. I felt no pity for her. On the contrary, I derived an indescribable pleasure from seeing her suffer. I disapproved of my own callousness, but there it was. Various factors had combined to produce it, although they were not extenuating circumstances.
I had been infatuated with her at one time, had intended to marry her. Ironically, my aim then had been to shield her from the callousness of the world, which her timidity and fragility seemed to invite. She was over-sensitive, highly strung, afraid of people and life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection. The first thing I had to do was to win her trust, so I was always gentle with her, careful to restrain my feelings. She was so thin that, when we danced, I was afraid of hurting her if I held her tightly. Her prominent bones seemed brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino's, sparkling like moonlight, like moonlit venetian glass. I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real. By degrees she lost her fear of me, showed a childish affection, but remained shy and elusive. I thought I had proved to her that I could be trusted, and was content to wait. She seemed on the point of accepting me, although immaturity made it hard to assess the sincerity of her feelings. Her affection perhaps was not altogether pretence, although she deserted me suddenly for the man to whom she was now married.
This was past history. But the consequences of the traumatic experience were still evident in the insomnia and headaches from which I suffered. The drugs prescribed for me produced horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised. These dreams were not confined to sleep only, and a deplorable side effect was the way I had come to enjoy them.
Visibility had improved, the night was no less dark, but the snow had stopped. I could see the remains of a fort on the top of a steep hill. Nothing much was left of it but the tower, it had been gutted, empty window-holes showed like black open mouths. The place seemed vaguely familiar, a distortion of something I half remembered. I seemed to recognize it, thought I had seen it before, but could not be certain, as I had only been here in the summer, when everything looked quite different.
At that time, when I accepted the man's invitation, I suspected him of an ulterior motive in asking me. He was a painter, not serious, a dilettante; one of those people who always have plenty of money without appearing to do any work. Possibly he had a private income: but I suspected him of being something other than what he seemed. The warmth of my reception surprised me, he could not have been more friendly. All the same, I was on my guard.
The girl hardly spoke, stood beside him, glancing sideways at me with big eyes through her long lashes. Her presence affected me strongly, although I scarcely knew in what way. I found it difficult to talk to the two of them. The house was in the middle of a beech wood, so closely surrounded by many tall trees that we seemed to be actually in the tree tops, waves of dense green foliage breaking outside every window. I thought of an almost extinct race of large singing lemurs known as the Indris, living in the forest trees of a remote tropical island. The gentle affectionate ways and strange melodious voices of these near-legendary creatures had made a great impression on me, and I began speaking about them, forgetting myself in the fascination of the subject. He appeared interested. She said nothing, and presently left us to see about lunch. The conversation at once became easier when she had gone.
It was midsummer, the weather was very hot, the rustling leaves just outside made a pleasant cool sound. The man's friendliness continued. I seemed to have misjudged him, and began to be embarrassed by my suspicions. He told me he was glad I had come, and went on to speak of the girl. 'She's terribly shy and nervous, it does her good to see someone from the outside world. She's too much alone here.' I couldn't help wondering how much he knew about me, what she had told him. To remain on the defensive seemed rather absurd; still, there was some reservation in my response to his amiable talk.
I stayed with them for a few days. She kept out of my way. I never saw her unless he was there too. The fine hot weather went on. She wore short, thin, very simple dresses that left her shoulders and arms bare, no stockings, a child's sandals. In the sunshine her hair dazzled. I knew I would not be able to forget how she looked. I noted a marked change in her, a much increased confidence. She smiled more often, and once in the garden I heard her singing. When the man called her name she came running. It was the first time I had seen her happy. Only when she spoke to me she still showed some constraint. Towards the end of my visit he asked whether I had talked to her alone. I told him I had not. He said: 'Do have a word with her before you go. She worries about the past; she's afraid she made you unhappy.' So he knew. She must have told him all there was to tell. It was not much, certainly. But I would not discuss what had happened with him and said something evasive. Tactfully, he changed the subject: but returned to it later on. 'I wish you would set her mind at rest. I shall make an opportunity for you to speak to her privately.' I did not see how he was going to do this, as the next day was the last I would spend with them. I was leaving in the late afternoon.
That morning was the hottest there had been. Thunder was in the air. Even at breakfast time the heat was oppressive. To my surprise, they proposed an outing. I was not to leave without having seen one of the local beauty spots. A hill was mentioned, from which there was a celebrated view: I had heard the name. When I referred to my departure I was told it was only a short drive, and that we should be back in plenty of time for me to pack my bag. I saw that they were determined on the arrangement, and agreed.
We took a picnic lunch to eat near the ruins of an old fort, dating from a remote period when there had been fear of invasion. The road ended deep in the woods. We left the car and continued on foot. In the steadily increasing heat, I refused to hurry, dropped behind, and when I saw the end of the trees, sat down in the shade. He came back, pulled me to my feet. 'Come along! You'll see that it's worth the climb.' His enthusiasm urged me up a steep sunny slope to the summit, where I duly admired the view. Still unsatisfied, he insisted that I must see it from the top of the ruin. He seemed in a queer state, excitable, almost feverish. In the dusty dark, I followed him up steps cut inside the tower wall, his massive figure blocking out the light so that I could see nothing and might have broken my neck where a step was missing. There was no parapet at the top, we stood among heaps of rubble, nothing between us and the drop to the ground, while he swung his arm, pointing out different items in the extensive view. 'This tower has been a landmark for centuries. You can see the whole range of hills from here. The sea's over there. That's the cathedral spire. The blue line beyond is the estuary.'
I was more interested in closer details: piles of stones, coils of wire, concrete blocks and other materials for dealing with the coming emergency. Hoping to see something that would provide a clue to the nature of the expected crisis, I went nearer the edge, looked down at the unprotected drop at my feet.
'Take care!' he warned, laughing. You could easily slip here, or lose your balance. The perfect spot for a murder, I always think.' His laugh sounded so peculiar that I turned to look at him. He came up to me, saying: 'Suppose I give you a little push ... like this -' I stepped back just in time, but missed my footing and stumbled, staggering on to a crumbling, precarious ledge lower down. His laughing face hung over me, black against the hot sky. 'The fall would have been an accident, wouldn't it? No witnesses. Only my word for what happened. Look how unsteady you are on your feet. Heights seem to affect you.' When we got down to the bottom again I was sweating, my clothes were covered in dust.
The girl had set out the food on the grass in the shade of an old walnut tree growing there. As usual, she spoke little. I was not sorry my visit was ending; there was too much tension in the atmosphere, her proximity was too disturbing. While we were eating I kept glancing at her, at the silvery blaze of hair, the pale, almost transparent skin, the prominent, brittle wrist-bones. Her husband had lost his earlier exhilaration and become somewhat morose. He took a sketchbook and wandered off. I did not understand his moods. Heavy clouds appeared in the distance; I felt the humidity in the air and knew there would be a storm before long. My jacket lay on the grass beside me; now I folded it into a cushion, propped it against the tree trunk and rested my head on it. The girl was stretched out full length on the grassy bank just below me, her hands clasped over her forehead, shielding her face from the glare. She kept quite still, without speaking, her raised arms displaying the slight roughness and darkness of the shaved armpits, where tiny drops of sweat sparkled like frost. The thin dress she was wearing showed the slight curves of her childish body: I could see that she wore nothing underneath it.
She was crouching in front of me, a little lower down the slope, her flesh less white than the snow. Great ice-cliffs were closing in on all sides. The light was fluorescent, a cold flat shadowless icelight. No sun, no shadows, no life, a dead cold. We were in the centre of the advancing circle. I had to try to save her. I called: 'Come up here – quick!' She turned her head, but without moving, her hair glinting like tarnished silver in the flat light. I went down to her, said: 'Don't be so frightened. I promise I'll save you. We must get to the top of the tower.' She seemed not to understand, perhaps did not hear because of the rumbling roar of the approaching ice. I got hold of her, pulled her up the slope: it was easy, she was almost weightless. Outside the ruin I stopped, holding her with one arm, looked round and saw at once that it was useless to go any higher. The tower was bound to fall; it would collapse, and be pulverized instantly under millions of tons of ice. The cold scorched my lungs, the ice was so near. She was shivering violently, her shoulders were ice already; I held her closer to me, wrapped both arms round her tight.
Excerpted from Ice by Anna Kavan. Copyright © 1967 Anna Kavan. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Anna Kavan was one of the greatest unsung enigmas in 20th-century British literature. Born Helen Ferguson, a fraught childhood and two failed marriages led her to change her name to that of one of her characters. Despite struggling with mental illness and heroin addiction for most of her life, she was still able to write fiction that was as powerful and memorable as any English female writer of the last 150 years.
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