BOOK REVIEW / Travels in the supernature reserve: 'The Witching Stone' - Hugo McEwen: Hamish Hamilton, 15.99

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The Independent Culture
WHEN venturing into fantasy, the best way to tackle suspension of disbelief is to swallow a whopping great implausibility at the point of departure. The rest go down easily after that. If you're facing a tale of standing stones and earth magic, a star TV journalist who walks out on his career for spiritual reasons is just the sort of central character you need to usher you in. Sure enough, in due course, you'll believe an ex-hack can fly.

The fun begins when the journalist, David Armstrong, retreats to a cottage in a Scottish valley dominated by a standing stone. He stands up to the resident poltergeist the way he used to stand up to gunfire, but eventually cracks. In extremis, he is

found and rescued by Christina MacRuarie, the beautiful daughter of a retired Cabinet minister who lives in the area. Both David and Christina, it turns out, have been chosen by the stone. Soon they acquire their own access to poltergeist power, beginning with useful tricks like fetching packets of cigarettes off the mantelpiece without getting out of the chair, and moving on to changing the weather.

So far, so good: Hugo McEwen has set up an appetising modern witch thriller with sturdy Celtic roots. But he then has to address the dilemma inherent in all contemporary supernatural fantasy - whether fictional, or as lived out by New Age travellersand their sedentary sympathisers - of how to position ancient irrationalisms in the world of mass technology.

Modern urban existence is constantly emphasising the smallness of the planet, but awe of the supernatural derives from conditions in which the observer is dwarfed by the surroundings. The natural habitat of spirits and occult powers is in small communities where Mother Earth seems huge - or in single buildings, where ghostly terrors may recreate the monstrous dimensions of a child's perspective.

One way to resolve the problem is the Brigadoon option, whereby the spirits survive in a sort of supernature reserve, confined to specific times and locations. Alone in their valley, a man, a woman and a poltergeist might have made for an interesting claustrophobic exploration of dark forces. Unfortunately, McEwen allows the couple's adventures to impinge upon the entire country; superficially a more ambitious narrative, but less fruitful. Its initial promise is frustrated.

One reason is that McEwen's instincts are those of a good host. He likes to keep introducing you to new characters, and does not care to brood intensely in corners. Supernatural storytelling may be one of the few occupations in which this can a disadvantage. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm and pacey, unpretentious style make the tale a pleasure to read, even when its sense of direction begins to waver.

The impending millennium casts a long shadow; upon writers, at any rate. It is therefore no surprise to find David and Christina at the head of a new pagan cult that sweeps the nation. A rainbow coalition of Romanies, hippies and rural Scottish defectors from Presbyterianism, its inner circle of disciples are a shambolic bunch who never quite left their student days behind. The milieu is well judged, given the remarkable degree of tacit acceptance currently accorded to drugs. Just a tiny quibble: if David can light joints with a flame issuing from his hand, it hardly seems worth rolling them in the first place.