Originally pitched as a collaboration between Gaiman, FourPlay String Quartet and the artist Eddie Campbell (possibly best known for his work with Alan Moore on From Hell) which was first performed in the Sydney Opera House in 2010, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains has now been published as a book and – for those who wish to recreate the original experience – as a Kindlebook with audio selections (Gaiman reads with FourPlay doing their thing in the background). It’s a brief foray into a dark world, inspired by the works of Otta F Swire – in particular a line from one of her books – and, in part, a tribute to the good people of Skye, where Gaiman has spent a lot of time.
The legend goes that there is a cave on Winged (or Misty) Isle near Skye, and the cave is (possibly) filled with gold that is free to take, even as it is also cursed. Gaiman’s tale concerns a dwarf who goes in search of a man called Calum McInnes. He asks Calum to be his guide, to take him to the cave on the Misty Isle – and in return Calum will get two bags of silver. Agreement struck, the two men set off and Gaiman quickly gets into his stride, his language apposite, musical and rich:
‘We were walking up the mountain, not climbing, up goat paths and craggy sharp ways. The rocks were black and slippery: we walked, and climbed, and clambered and clung, we slipped and slid and stumbled and staggered, and even in the mist Claum knew where he was going, and I followed.’
We are absorbed by the world they journey through, a world in which ‘The water was the colour of slate, although the sky was blue, and whitecaps chased one another across the water’s surface’, whilst ‘Above us, low clouds were scudding, grey and white and black, hiding each other and revealing and hiding again.’ The two men talk, one to the other, sizing each other up, never quite friendly, separated by a lack of trust, separated by secrets. They talk about truth and the dwarf says:
“Sometimes I think that truth is a place. In my mind, it is like a city: there can be a hundred roads, a thousand paths, that will all take you, eventually, to the same place. If you walk toward the truth, you will reach it, whatever path you take.”
“You are wrong. The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one way only, and that way is treacherous and hard. And if you choose the wrong path you will die alone, on the mountainside.”
Eventually, the two men arrive at the cave and we get to see first hand which of the men has chosen the right path. As with The Ocean at the End of the World, Gaiman conjures a kind of beast that is at once personal and horrible (the very stuff of nightmares), a creature that gives itself a shape but won’t necessarily play the game it is being invited to play:
‘From out of the shadows it came, and it stared down at me with empty sockets, smiled at me with wind-weathered ivory teeth. It was all bone, save its hair, and its hair was red and gold, and wrapped about the branch of a thorn-bush.’
Gaiman is good both in the moment (conjuring a moment) and also in framing the story (the teller of the tale tells from years hence) – but perhaps the best thing about The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is the commingling of music (which is eerie and affecting), art (Campbell’s pictures are scratchy, sometimes obscure but always defiantly on the money) and, of course, Gaiman’s words.
Any Cop?: A must for fans of Gaiman and Campbell and a possible introduction for some to the work of the FourPlay String Quartet.