Darkness Visible: Inside the World of Philip Pullman, authored by Nicholas Tucker, begins with some very clear ambitions. Tucker organizes his book to tell a bit of Pullman's life, his books, and how everything ties neatly into the creation and execution of the story of His Dark Materials. The book reads very nicely like a novel rather than some awkward sparknotes on Pullman or a bland history and a bit of preaching.
The short biography on Pullman is very nice, including many photographs of young Pullman not found elsewhere. A good portion of the same content can be found throughout a number of interviews with Pullman, however, I don't recall reading any interview which continually tied his life into his writing so nicely. From a young child creating bedtime stories for his younger brother, to a school teacher writing plays for his students to perform, Pullman is presented as every ounce the inevitable storyteller.
The table of contents names the next two sections as "The Sally Lockheart Novels" and "Other Stories." In discussing The Sally Lockheart series (The Ruby in the Smoke, The Shadow in the North, The Tiger in the Well and also The Tin Princess) Tucker brings up Pullman's style and love of storytelling. From his youth's love of detective novels, says Tucker, springs his continuing passion for mystery, as well as the possibility of having an "ultimate villain," that moral scum so singularly sufficient to rot the speed off the bullet before it meets his chest then rust his blood into clotting. Meet Ah Ling, a Chinese drug lord and reoccurring villain of the Sally Lockheart novels. The Sally Lockheart novels, we begin to see are more than just a Victorian thriller, which could be enough of its own, but the storyteller must tell his story clearly, and strongly. From the Lockheart series we can also gather a number of social and personal values Pullman dictates through both his character's voices and actions.
"Other Stories" addresses Pullman's shorter stories Galetea, Count Karlstein, Puss in Boots, Spring-Heeled Jack, Thunderbolt's Waxwork, The Gas Fitters' Ball, The Firework-Maker's Daughter, Clockwork, and I Was a Rat! The longer novels section looks at How To Be Cool, The Broken Bridge, and The Butterfly Tattoo. The first thing I realize when looking across the titles like that is just how many of Pullman's books seem to have double titles! I Was a Rat! is also The Scarlet Slippers, The Butterfly Tattoo is the new name of The White Mercedes, Clockwork is also All Wound Up, Count Karlstein goes by The Ride of the Demon Huntsman just as well and of course, Northern Lights becomes The Golden Compass when crossing some oceans. Darkness Visible nicely summarizes the each of these books in its own few pages and adds in references from interviews and outside resources to support conclusions on some of Pullman's values found throughout the stories.
The largest portion of the book is dedicated to His Dark Materials and Pullman's writing of the story as social commentary, value infusion, and reinterpretation of dated dogma. This section begins with a rather longer summary of each book in turn. Being so familiar with His Dark Materials, I can't tell if the summaries are entirely successful, however this book is definitely for someone either previously acquainted with Pullman or even beginning an essay on His Dark Materials. I can say it was a little awkward to not mention Iorek was an armored polar bear rather than just a plain bear who speaks, enters mortal combat, and repairs knives. Factually, Darkness Visible only fails at one point to properly organize events with time, but really the book is more concerned to get across what exactly Pullman was meaning when he was writing; or as the short ending blurb on Lyra's Oxford reminds, everything has a meaning.
Overall I really enjoyed reading this and enjoyed seeing many familiar conclusions about the events of HDM - the reinterpretation of The Fall as one example. Tucker also does a nice job of adding in some new possibilities to think over like that "our feelings about things always become part of the meaning we attach to them," (Tucker 211) creating a personal multi-faceted meaning composed of feelings, thoughts, and knowledge combining to create just one outlook on a single event, story, person, or experience. My favorite parts were a section dedicated to Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter, and the history of Pullman as an opening to where meaning can come from. The book became a bit weak in dealing with the more potentially spiritual aspects of HDM: dæmons and Dust, and the section entitled "Will and Lyra as heroes" seemed like it ought to have been called "Lyra, Will, and Harry (Potter), as heroes" as Tucker distinctly left the HDM and Pullman path to create a leap overarching popular "magical" children's stories. However, his constant tying the story to Pullman's other stories as well as the references he used - even including a translation of Heinrich von Kleist's "On the Marionette Theatre" in the Appendix - allows reader imagination to begin creating connections and self-sustaining thoughts on Dust and dæmons.
A good read for any serious His Dark Materials fan if only to inspire more thought and create a wider field of reference. As Tucker implies, you can't know too much when trying to gain meaning.