A Lost Psychedelic Fantasy of the ’60s: Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes

“We’ve moved into a place, mode of being–call it what you will–where imagination is extremely powerful. That’s what I keep trying to drum into your thick heads.”  Aunt Hilda looked rather cross.

Is it a children’s book?  Is it an adult book?

That, so often, is the question when we revisit a beloved  book from childhood.

Mind you, it took me a long time to return to Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes, a great forgotten English fantasy novel of the ’60s.  (I forgot it, too:  it’s out-of-print.)   Published as a children’s book in England in 1966 and in the U.S. in 1967, it is a quintessential ’60s book, right down to the gloomily psychedelic cover:  the unhappy white face surrounded by the black coils reminded me of Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane.

During my Jefferson Airplane years, I found a copy of The Whirling Shapes during study hall, where I did very little except ask for library passes, since I had no intention of studying in public.  Studying, such as I understood it, was done in my room, listening to records. The Whirling Shapes was one in a long line of fantasies that shaped my imagination, including all of E. Nesbit (generously subsidized by my mother, since the library had few of her books), Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, C. S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, and John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy.

Grace Slick resembles the cover image of TWS!

A recent rereading of The Whirling Shapes was delightful.   In this strange, minimalist portal fantasy,  the mid-twentieth-century soul is threatened by conformity and all things mechanical.  If you don’t pay attention, you lose who you are.  It’s a psychedelic cozy catastrophe, where the mind can be a portal.

This inner-space fantasy has a multi-generational cast.  It begins traditionally, with the appearance of an outsider.   When Liz, the 14-year-old heroine, comes to live with relatives at 21 Arlington Crescent in London while her mother is in a sanatorium, she finds Aunt Paula and Uncle Charles pleasantly insignificant, but her boy-crazy cousin Miranda and the eccentric anthropologist Great-Aunt Hilda, who lives in the flat upstairs, inspire her affection.

There are mysteries:  a  brightly-lit house on the heath occasionally appears at night (only Liz can see it).   One night she goes outdoors and struggles to reach it, but just as she is about to arrive she finds herself back on the stoop of the house at Arlington Crescent with Aunt Hilda looking over her.

When Liz tells her she saw the house, Aunt Hilda says she knows.

“I’m responsible for it.  I imagined it and it came,” said Aunt Hilda, offering her the plate of cookies.

Liz took one as though hypnotized.

“I did it the night you arrived,” said Aunt Hilda.

Liz bit the cookie dazedly.  “I don’t understand.  Did you say you imagined it?”

Aunt Hilda went over to her desk, opened a drawer, and took out a small object wrapped in a white silk handkerchief.  She unraveled the handkerchief to disclose an oval piece of wood somewhat the size and shape of an egg; this she gave to Liz.

“I did it with the help of that,” she said.

“That” is a piece of wood from the sacred tree of the Dingas, known as the Tree of Dreaming True.  (The Dingas are a tribe Hilda’s great-grandfather studied:  North has her bit of humor with the name.)  And Aunt Hilda is very afraid that, since the power of thought is real, she may have opened a pathway into an unknown world.

And she has.  Sinister whirling shapes are released through the mind of her nephew, James Mortlake,  a melancholy artist who wanders into the portal house.  When James disappears,   a thick fog encircles the house on Arlington Crscent, and the whirling shapes threaten to dissolve human beings.  To conquer the whirling shapes is now the responsiblity of  the intergenerational extended family, including Miranda’s boyfriend, Tom, a poet and medical student.

The style is simple, but North waxes lyrical in a series of surreal episodes near the end.  And there are some surreal  ’60s-ish poems, written by Liz and Tom, interspersed with the text.

No vampires or Harry Potter to fit today’s Y.A. market, but I do think it could be reissued and do well as a crossover fantasy novel.

North wrote two other novels, too, The Cloud Forest and The Light Maze. They are also out-of-print, but perhaps I shall find them.

15 thoughts on “A Lost Psychedelic Fantasy of the ’60s: Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes

  1. Love the sound of this, Kat. I’ve never come across it, but there were so many books in the 60s and early 70s (and TV shows too!) that had the same kind of feel. One of my favourites was The Tree Wakers by Keith Claire which I seem to recall involved some feather-wearing people turning up in Kew Gardens and trying to get back to their own land. I still have it somewhere I think – perhaps worth digging out again.


    • I do like ’60s lit. Maybe North was more popular in the U.S. You never know! Book deals are strange. The Tree Wakers may not have made it here, but it does sound like something I’d have loved.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have (and have loved) copies of all three of Joan North’s novels and was always sorry she didn’t publish more. They inhabit a kind of midpoint between Madeleine L’Engle and Charles Williams but also have a kind of—if it’s not a negative term—coziness and describe a kind of ideal life. All three were pretty widely available in public libraries when I was young but doubt that’s the case any longer. Copies are easy to find on the usual sites though and worth acquiring. Thinking back, though, I don’t believe I ever came across anyone else who had been familiar with them. Hope you enjoy them if you track them down.


      • Agree so strongly. I haven’t been able to find out very much about JoannNorth although I believe she was a Math Professor. She had three children and I like to imagine she wrote each of her youth oriented fantasies for them.


  3. I have lived Joan North for decades and The Whirling Shapes is one if my favorite books of all time. I have read it countless times and own all three of her out of print books: The Cloud Forest, the aforementioned, and the The Lightning Maze. All share your protagonists with an abundance of mystical experiences. Agree strongly that an enterprising publisher should reissue these as a set or not-and I am confident they would find an eager & perhaps even the large audience they deserve. Of the three, The Whirling Shapes is both the most original, coherent and written with a dream like quality that fits its subject perfectly!


    • I am thrilled you love these books. Why are they so hard to find? How could some publisher not love these? I agree about The Whirling Shapes completely. I must do a reread!


      • Thanks for your note! They are difficult to find because they are out of print which is so sad. They are all wonderful. Several years ago I wrote a post that suggested an enterprising publisher could re-issue them as a set or individually & they would find their audience. Original takes on fantasy tropes are rare and Joan North’s originality is blazing and wise.


          • Hi Kay~Totally agree!
            It’s wonderful that you also enjoy & appreciate Joan North’s writing. It’s very relevant today. Evil often disguises itself in bright colors or moral superiority. Open hearts and minds are the best defense~Joan North understands this deep and eternal truth! Thank you for your posts!


  4. It’s amazing to find myself here again! I joined earlier this evening as a lifelong fan of Elizabeth Goudge (my mother introduced me to her) and I am currently reading Linnets & Valerians.
    I was delighted & surprised to see this is also the home for Joan North readers.
    Happily, Elizabeth Goudge is treasured, well known, and I hope for the sake of the world today widely read!
    The homage to bees in Linnets & Valerians is both prescient and important.


    • Thanks Kay! Yes~And we are the huge majority! I live in Lincoln, Nebraska . I first read The Whirling Shapes when I was perhaps 10 or 12. Loved it so very much. After many years I went back to find the book & it was no longer in our central library. And, I couldn’t remember the exact title although an intrepid librarian did their best! I remembered Joan North so when the Internet became available I discovered & purchased The Whirling Shapes along with The Cloud Forest and The Lightning Maze. I think the Whirling Shapes is becoming more expensive. My daughter loves the books too and I have purchased the three for her.
      All my copies are “discarded” library books. North had children-wish I could contact them & her original publisher!


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