His often highly sexualised fiction would become hot property among impressionable minds starved of erotic stimulation in the arid 1970s. “I’d get angry letters from school principals saying I was disguising my filth as science fiction for youngsters,” Moorcock recalls proudly. The melancholy, horribly charismatic witch emperor Elric became a cult figure among heavy metal fans, occultists and sundry deniers of tedious reality. Though the Elric stories always delivered in terms of drama and horror, Moorcock built them on solid psychological foundations.
“I was very much into Freud and Jung when I was writing those books,” he says. “The whole point of Elric’s soul-eating sword, Stormbringer, was addiction: to sex, to violence, to big, black, phallic swords, to drugs, to escape. That’s why it went down so well in the rock’n’roll world.”
Among Elric’s more unexpected fans are the film directors Chris and Paul Weitz, who made the deeply un-Moorcockian gross-out comedy American Pie. The Weitz brothers were briefly engaged to direct an Elric movie, possibly with Michael Sheen in the title role, but it came to nothing. Moorcock evinces little enthusiasm for big-screen adaptations of his work. “I’ve done a lot of work on movies but the bullshit of that world wears you down.”
So, it is an irony that Moorcock remains largely unfilmed – or unfilmable – while the writer most responsible for turning fantasy into global entertainment, if posthumously, is his old antithesis J R R Tolkien. Moorcock liked Tolkien in person; he visited the old professor in Oxford and found him polite and personable. But it’s not hard to see Tolkien as a complacent, hierarchical force of Law in opposition to Moorcock’s free-ranging, morally complex Chaos. In 1978, Moorcock made the conflict explicit in a jeremiad against the old inkling entitled “Epic Pooh” (as in Winnie-the-Pooh), which accused Tolkien of propagating a sentimental Luddism while blithely promoting war.
“I think he’s a crypto-fascist,” says Moorcock, laughing. “In Tolkien, everyone’s in their place and happy to be there. We go there and back, to where we started. There’s no escape, nothing will ever change and nobody will ever break out of this well-ordered world.” How does he feel about the triumph of Tolkienism and, subsequently, the political sword-and-sorcery epic Game of Thrones, in making fantasy arguably bigger than it has ever been?
“To me, it’s simple,” he says. “Fantasy became as bland as everything else in entertainment. To be a bestseller, you’ve got to rub the corners off. The more you can predict the emotional arc of a book, the more successful it will become.
“I do understand that Game of Thrones is different. It has its political dimensions; I’m very fond of the dwarf and I’m very pleased that George [R R Martin], who’s a good friend, has had such a huge success. But ultimately it’s a soap opera. In order to have success on that scale, you have to obey certain rules. I’ve had conversations with fantasy writers who are ambitious for bestseller status and I’ve had to ask them, ‘Yes, but do you want to have to write those sorts of books in order to get there?’”
As a child, Michael Moorcock used to see ghosts. They would float in through the window into the family parlour. Among them was Jesus, an unexpected guest, considering that although Moorcock is half Jewish there had never been any significant religious element in his upbringing.
“I never saw this stuff as real,” he says. “I somehow knew that it was all coming out of my head. And they never frightened me. I got used to them. Years later, in the 1960s, when everyone was freaking out on drugs and deciding that they’d seen God, it didn’t seem that unusual to me.” He still experiences these visions from time to time. Linda says he’ll point to a magnificent display of shining samurai armour in a shop window, when all she sees are mops and buckets.
This is the magical everyday perspective that informs The Whispering Swarm – the transcendent experience in the ordinary street. And it is harder to sustain as the world becomes more glumly materialist.