Houghton's New Novel Places Pieces of Culver in England
By Jeff Kenney
It's been a decade since the Rev. Dr. John Houghton's first novel, which was set in a fictionalized version of Culver, and -- perhaps somewhat to his own surprise -- several characters from that book are back in "Like a Noise in Dreams," which was just released this fall.
A bit ironically, "Dreams" -- a novel featuring Culver characters set in England -- arrives the same year as a novel featuring English characters but set in Culver ("No Place to Hide," by British best-selling novelist Susan Lewis) was released to much fanfare.
Houghton, who was featured in a Culver Citizen article last year focusing on his editing work on a tribute book to the most preeminent scholar of the writings of "Lord of the Rings" novelist JRR Tolkien (and who has written many columns for this newspaper starting in the 1970s and picking up in the past eight years), grew up in Culver, attended Culver Military Academy, and earned degrees from Harvard, Yale, Indiana, and Notre Dame Universities, specializing among other areas, in Medieval history and Tolkien. When "Rough Magicke" was released, he was still fairly new to his role as an Episcopal priest (a role in which he serves at the Hill School in Pennsylvania, where he also teaches, a role he's been familiar with for decades).
"Magicke" was deeply steeped in Culver lore, past and present, from the fictional name of the town itself, Annandale, which was borrowed from a blockbuster novel set in Culver from 1905, "The House of a Thousand Candles," to a litany of familiar references to Culverites in location, people, and traditions (in fact, Houghton has, for the new novel, updated the fictional website for Annandale Military Academy he created during the "Magicke" days, at www.annandalemilitary.com).
"Rough Magicke," as was noted by some who reviewed it, was something of an "occult thriller" undergirded by an unusual blend of magic and Christianity and with a partial boarding school background (another part of it was set in Michigan City, then the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana).
From 'Magicke' to 'Dreams'
The new novel, "Like a Noise in Dreams," like its predecessor, draws heavily from Houghton's own experience, in this case most pointedly from his experiences teaching at American summer camps in Oxford, England.
Says Houghton: "What I've done is imagined Culver had a summer camp in England," which is not, on the surface, such an unusual idea since Culver Academies does indeed have summer camps, even if the England part is purely imaginary.
The author also weaves parts of Southern England, where his Houghton ancestors hail from, into the story as well. Michigan City turns up in a third part of a book he describes more as "three novellas than a single novel" proper.
"It was fun sort of trying to take the general experience of this camp I've worked at and reimagining it being an American military school in Oxford...and then sort of playing with the same kinds of concerns of schools and magic that we're playing with in earlier volumes. It's sort of contemporary world fantasy."
The core cast includes narrator Jonathan D. Mears (with enough real-life parallels not to see him as something akin to a fictionalized version of Houghton himself) and his niece and nephew by marriage (the nephew having been a principle character in "Rough Magicke," carried over) and another Culver (or, officially, "Annandale Military Academy") cadet from the same generation. There's also a new cast of cadets and English characters as well ("There are not quite as many background characters as a Dickens novel, but..." Houghton chuckles).
In the years since his first novel, the narrator has become the Episcopal bishop of Michigan City, attending what is actually a real-life every-decade meeting of bishops in England during the summer of 2000.
"The lead character has some of the magic things attached to him," adds Houghton. "There's a kid at the summer camp who has connections both to Annandale and this Oxford colony."
A key locale in the novel seems to be haunted by a great aunt, a connection made more intriguing by her connection with founding the college itself.
"In the 1920s to early `30s there were several new institutions founded at oxford that actually became colleges in the 1960s, so this is pictured there," Houghton explains. "There's a lot in it about the interest in spiritualism going on -- there was a time between 1900 and 1930 when otherwise orthodox Christians were involved in these ideas about spiritualism; even ideas like 'spiritual radio.'"
The novel gives considerable time to debates within Christianity about the role of magic, with undertones of the work of one of the best-known of Christian fiction writers, C.S. Lewis, whose characters engage in forms of magic, or something referred to as such within the context of some of his books.
"There's a certain influence of (Medieval-themed fantasy novelist) Katherine Kurtz novels," says Houghton, who adds there was some influence as well from Charles Williams, a novelist who formed part of the Oxford "club" of Christian novelists known as The Inklings, which included Lewis and Tolkien as well.
"Tolkien was notoriously reluctant to have magic used much in his stories," adds Houghton. "There's that whole discussion that happens at one point, or which things do we call magic that aren't, necessarily."
All of these matters might beg questions as to the moral framework of "Like a Noise in Dreams," something Houghton says is evident, "though I don't want to be too pretentious. Somebody has to respond to (an evil magician character in the novel) at some point, so that's another angle on it."
A hint of Culver across the pond
The Culver and Lake Maxinkuckee area, of course, have arguably inspired more than their fair share of novels, from the higher profile entries mentioned above, to lesser-known regional works, and while this book perhaps does not properly fall into the same category as Culver-set fiction such as recent novels by Richard Davies, Marcia Adams, and David Girard, to name a few, it "has a flavor of Culver," says Houghton.
"There's a lot of (Culver) Academy stuff -- an officer in charge, teenagers in uniform running around Oxford."
That, and those important Houghton ancestors from Southern England who formed part of the cadre of settlers who first arrived here in 1836, something Houghton managed to allude to in the novel as well.
That said, Houghton actually hadn't conceived "Rough Magicke" as having a sequel when he first penned it, though there is the possibility now hanging in the air of a third entry in the ongoing adventures of both novels' characters ("It may turn out there's some human instinct towards doing things in threes," he smiles).
"Like a Noise in Dreams" is instead the result of "fiddling around with the idea of whether I could set anything in England (and) under what pretext could I get these people to Oxford."
And that idea in fact came about during Houghton's faculty days at Culver Academies when, in the winter of 1975-76 he was sitting around a dining hall table at the school with the faculty's then-resident Brit, John Chadwick, and other faculty "with a high-end British real estate magazine...and the idea was kicked around that Culver could have an overseas camp and Oxford was the logical place to put it. So in a sense that nearly half-century old idea, as well as my experiences in England (were an inspiration)."
"Like a Noise in Dreams," published by Unlimited Publishing, is available online at amazon.com.