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September 2003
 
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Thunder on the Left by Christopher Morley (1925)

TO CONCOCT a unique fantasy novel, mix a dash of Virginia Woolf's interior monologues, a jigger of Robert Nathan's whimsy, a soupçon of Noel Coward's witty sophistication, a handful of Kuttneresque children, and a pinch of Robert Aickman's eerie atmospherics. Stir all ingredients in the blender of Christopher Morley's talents, and the result is the airy yet grave comedy-cum-ghost-story Thunder on the Left, whose mysterious title derives from an apocryphal quote concerning oracles.

Morley's book is that very oracle, Delphically ambiguous. The first chapter focuses on a children's birthday party in honor of a boy named Martin, introducing us to his metaphysically troubled peers and their blithely cynical parents. Jump twenty-one years into the future, when several of those children-turned-adults are now regathered at the original summer-house scene for their own stale antics of adultery and ennui. ("It didn't seem quite square to be in love with a man and his wife simultaneously.") But also present are a child ghost named Bunny and the time-slipped child-in-a man's-body, Martin. Together, the two specters toss a spanner into the calcified adult patterns of behavior.

Morley never chooses a moral victor in his war between youth and experience. Childhood is simultaneously "slavery" and a golden age. Adults know cares and boredom, but also possess a sense of beauty foreign to kids. And over all the angst and laughter, a perfume of pagan romance is diffused.

"Life is a foreign language: all men mispronounce it." But artists like Morley utter its secrets more clearly than most.

—Paul Di Filippo

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