Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Moorcock also cranked out reader-friendly paperbacks at a pace possible only for one schooled in the pulps. His sword-and-sorcery tales of the enfeebled albino emperor Elric of Melniboné, who is addicted to the energies provided by his sentient, soul-eating, black sword, Stormbringer, reached far beyond the conventional fantasy market. The books were steeped in the transgressive: shifting sexualities, incest, amorality and affectlessness. Beneath it all were repeating motifs: the multiverse of alternate realities and its “Eternal Champion” (personified by Elric, Cornelius, Corum, Colonel Pyat, Oswald Bastable and countless others) who fights, often unwittingly, to restore a balance of “Law” and “Chaos”. This combination of the literary and the accessible made Moorcock a rarity – an architect of fantasy who declines to write comfortable genre crowd-pleasers and an author of literary fiction who insists on writing rattling good yarns.
Both strains have come together again this month with the publication of what is billed as Moorcock’s first major work of straight fiction in a decade, although it’s something more complicated. Beginning in postwar London, The Whispering Swarm depicts a hidden region of the old City called Alsacia, which seems to exist at all times at once and acts as a sanctuary for a mixture of real historical figures, characters from literature and inscrutable mystics. The name of the (possibly) fictional young writer who discovers Alsacia and is caught between its fabulous world and the reality of his disintegrating marriage is “Michael Moorcock”. With its Narnia-style magic door, Tardis-like dimensions and addictive pull, Alsacia is a metaphor for the comforts and dangers of fantasy and of reading and writing. Autobiographical fiction has a rich tradition; now Moorcock has invented the autobiographical fantasy.
“I felt it would upset people I cared about if I wrote a conventional autobiography,” he explains, “and I was interested in writing about fantasy – how I used it for the avoidance of action and moral commitment and how other people used it.” He opted for a form that was “as realistic as I could make it”, but the process was painful. A book that should have taken a year to write took five. “Writing it made me very depressed,” Moorcock admits. “I became confused and actually broke down emotionally. I’d had to face actions I hadn’t really looked at. Alsacia represents escape from reality because that’s what I had done in real life.”
In The Whispering Swarm, Alsacia’s siren call is partly to blame for the failure of Moorcock’s first marriage to “Helena Denham”. His real-life estrangement from Hilary Bailey – a fellow author, who went on to write the Jane Eyre sequel Mrs Rochester, among other successful books – had less supernatural causes. Unreconstructed and living the high life of the rising writer, Moorcock simply took his wife (with whom he had three children) for granted as a domestic helpmeet.
“Back then, I was unaware of gender politics,” he confesses. “We simply didn’t have the vocabulary to deal with those inequalities. When I think about it now, I was able to live and write because of someone who later turned out to be a prolific writer, who wrote a couple of bestsellers. But she didn’t write anything apart from the odd short story until after I left. You have to address that and you think, ‘Christ, I was a bastard.’”
The Whispering Swarm’s most compelling aspect is the infectious excitement of the young Moorcock’s first days in publishing, with old Fleet Street only just past its zenith and the world at your feet as long as you were young and smart and could stand the noxious smell of the Cow Gum used to paste up pages. A proud hack who went on to write a guide on how to come up with a novel in three days, Moorcock elbowed his way into the pulps and never looked back.
“I still think of myself as a journalist,” he says. “It’s the reason I can do what I do.” J G Ballard once told Moorcock that he resembled a young Defoe, “which was incredibly flattering. Jimmy said I’d take on any job and make it mine. I thought, ‘Yes!’ You might as well imitate the guy who started it all.”
Inner visions: psychedelic book covers for Moorcock’s novels