I was fourteen when we were assigned Lord Of The Flies as a set work at school. I’d been reading books for adults for some years already, and although I was a greedy reader I wasn’t an especially eclectic one: I’d demolished most of Agatha Christie’s oeuvre and had moved on to adventure writers like Alistair Maclean, Desmond Bagley and Jack Higgins, and of course Ian Fleming. I was aware there existed a body of ‘serious’ adult literature which I’d have to confront to get through school, but I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it. The notion that anyone might read that kind of stuff for enjoyment seemed ludicrous.
All that changed when I picked up William Golding’s first novel. Bruce Springsteen once said hearing the opening drumbeat of Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone for the first time was like having a door kicked open in his head, and I had a similar experience opening this book. First, there was the story itself. What looked like a mildly promising but humdrum idea – British schoolboys stranded on a tropical island and having to fend for themselves – immediately became something dark and terrible. These weren’t just lost kids; they were refugees from a nuclear war, which provided a horrible, hinted-at backdrop and also suggested the likelihood of rescue was remote. (This was 1984, a year in which I was obsessed with the prospect of the Cold War turning hot.) Thus hooked, I was dragged pitilessly along by the narrative, as the boys’ early unity and resourcefulness began to fracture and the miniature society they’d created started to disintegrate.
I finished the novel the week we were given it, read it over and over during the term, and sat impatiently in class as we went through it at the prescribed pace, desperate to get to bits I found particularly powerful, evocative or puzzling so that we could discuss them. I marvelled at the way Golding had managed to saturate his story with allusive references (though I didn’t call them that back then) while still keeping it, well, a story, and an addictively gripping one at that. I worked out some of the themes on my own: the fragility of civilisation, the way the boys’ behaviour mirrored that of the crazy, self-destructive adults in the world outside. I gave myself a pat on the back, too, for appreciating that the apparently anticlimactic ending wasn’t a damp squib at all, but a shocking reminder that these were children, who despite their apparent rescue faced a psychologically and materially bleak future. On the other hand, I struggled to grasp the meaning of the mystical Simon (is he a Christ-like figure? A Platonic ideal made flesh? We debated this endlessly), and I’m still not entirely sure what the conch represents, if anything more than a concrete symbol of authority.
As much as the thrilling narrative and the fascinating challenge of the allusiveness, it was the power of Golding’s descriptions that left me awestruck. The ‘beast’ lurking on the mountain, its primal horror enhanced because it’s glimpsed rather than seen outright, at least to begin with; the nightmarish grinning boar’s head on a stick with its swarm of flies; the shamanic chant of the boys as they hunt first the wild pigs and then their peers; Piggy’s impossible glasses (which famously couldn’t be used to light a fire in real life); the flat, chilling account of the most disturbing death in the book. I studied these passages and images minutely, compelled to understand how the author used words to such visceral effect. Rereading the book a few months ago, I was surprised how complex its language was, especially in the scenes with Simon, the boy with epilepsy. I hadn’t noticed this at the time, and I think the story had its claws in me so deeply that I was able to follow it without a second thought.
None of Golding’s subsequent novels came close to Lord Of The Flies, in my opinion, though The Inheritors was excellent. But by that time it didn’t matter. The book led me on to Orwell (appropriately enough, given the year), Graham Greene, and Anthony Burgess. It opened up a world I’ll never have time to explore more than a small fraction of. It taught me that literature could have meaning beyond entertainment, but more importantly the converse: that meaningful literature could, and should, be entertaining.
Tim Stevens is the author of seventeen thrillers including Ratcatcher, Severance Kill and Omega Dog, as well as a practising psychiatrist. Follow him on Twitter at @TimGStevens