Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Masters of Terror Volume 1 - William Hope Hodgson

It's interesting that Corgi chose Hodgson for the first in its Masters of Terror series back in 1977. He was out of copyright by then, of course, and one cannot be a paperback master when they still have to pay royalties. Interest in Hodgson had revived earlier in the decade when one of his Carnacki stories was dramatised in Hugh Greene's TV series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, but I suspect it was the reappraisal of H P Lovecraft that was going on at the same period which led to this publication, because it was Lovecraft who first described Hodgson as a master.

The introduction is by Peter Tremayne, who can always be counted on to do his homework. OK, he is slightly wrong about the dates of Hodgson's apprenticeship at sea - but I only discovered the real dates thanks to being able to view the actual documents online. Tremayne has seen publications which I haven't but will do now.
He discusses the seven stories and the reasons for their inclusion in short but effective order. 'A Tropical Horror' from 1904 was Hodgson's second published story and his first in the genre he was to make exclusively his own - sea-horror. 'The Voice in the Night' is another such, as is 'The Mystery of the Derelict', which Tremayne considers a classic. The fourth story - 'The Terror of the Water-Tank' - is here because it is one of Hodgson's rare attempts at land-based horror. I'm afraid I found it trivial.
The narrator of 'The Finding of the Graiken', one of Hodgson's Sargasso Mythos stories, was too like the narrator of 'The Terror of the Water-Tank' to hold my attention - a middleclass lightweight who does not personally confront the horror. In that respect Hodgson's most effective form was one he hit upon almost from the start: get the hero to spot the horror in the first few paragraphs, then have him confront it face to face (always supposing the horror has a face) and survive to tell us the tale. That is why, in my opinion, 'The Stone Ship' is my favourite in this collection. I had not come across it before - hadn't even heard of it - but it is classic Hodgson: a young hand spots a mysterious wreck, a search party goes aboard and confronts a truly ghastly horror which is revealed in a spectacularly gruesome manner.
The final story, clumsily called 'The Derelict' and thus easily confused with the earlier story, is included because it combines the sea-horror of Hodgson's early period with the science-fiction otherworldly horror of his masterpiece novel The House on the Borderland and the last, still controversial epic The Night Land.

All in all, then, a great introduction to the signature work of an undervalued writer with a useful and authoritative introduction to point you in the right direction for further exploration.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

The Fall of Troy - Peter Ackroyd

This is a typical Ackroyd confection - a novel that looks and sounds like fictionalised history but actually isn't. You begin by wondering why what is obviously Heinrich Schliemann is called Obermann. Schliemann's young Greek bride was called Sophia, as is Obermann's, albeit the former was Engastromenos whilst the latter is Chrysanthis. Obermann's backstory is the same as Schliemann's - dubious mercantile activities in Russia; a Russian wife. And, obviously, Obermann has excavated the ruins of Hissarlik and is convinced beyond the slightest doubt that he has found the city as described by Homer.

Obermann is physically very different from Schliemann. The real discover of Troy was small and weasel-faced. Obermann is big and athletic, his physical presence as powerful as his belief in Homer's historical accuracy. Schliemann divorced his Russian wife, but one of the key twists of the novel is what Obermann did with his. The big difference, though, is that Schliemann was the discoverer of Troy whereas Obermann's story is specifically the Fall of Troy. The challenges to Obermann's preconceived mental map of Troy and the Trojans spurs him to extreme reactions. As the discrepancies increase they tip Obermann over the edge into primitive, primal behaviour - the sort of behaviour that the evidence suggests the real Trojans indulged in - and thus the book becomes the Fall of Obermann, brought down by Troy.

By changing the names Ackroyd gives himself licence to elaborate on the facts and shape them to suit his story. The challengers to Obermann - the American scholar William Brand and Alexander Thornton of the British Museum - are treated as physical threats, threats to his masculinity. Obermann meets them on terms, but in the end the force of reason wins out.
The Fall of Troy is therefore a book about scholarship, about the manipulation of history, about the idea of hero. What makes it special, the best of Ackroyd's recent novels, is that he uses his themes to enhance and illuminate his characters. Sophia, for example, is the most compelling of Ackroyd's female characters that I have come across. It is she, rather than Obermann, who has stayed in my mind. This is fiction of the highest quality.

I have always been interested in Troy. The Lost Treasures of Troy by Caroline Moorhead (1994) is my favourite non-fiction account of Schleimann's great project.
It is twenty years since I read it, so I won't review it here. Nevertheless I recommend it unreservedly. A quick internet search suggests it may now be called Lost and Found. Such are the perils of a title.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Psalm Killer - Chris Petit

It's surprising, when you think about it -that the thirty-year 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland haven't spawned their own genre. I mean, the premise has everything - ancient blood feuds, dark deeds in ordinary streets, corruption and double-dealing on a truly epic scale. Perhaps it is still too soon. Perhaps so little of the truth is out there in the public domain that building a fiction on what little we do know seems like a hostage to fortune.
None of this, clearly, deterred Chris Petit, film maker (e.g. the cult Radio On) and occasional crime novelist. Psalm Killer came out in 1996, a year before the Northern Ireland Agreement, and is set mainly a decade earlier with flashbacks to ten years before that. It therefore covers most of the period.

The protagonist is Inspector Cross of the RUC, an Englishman married into the Ulster squirearchy. Petit thus deals with the key obstacle in writing about the Troubles - which side is right and who is the good guy. Cross is an outsider, even to the RUC. His marriage is failing and he has always been a disappointment to the in-laws. He has no real opinions about the situation.  He checks under his car for bombs every morning before leaving for the office. He investigates murders.

Our antagonist, the titular Psalm Killer, is also English, an emotionally crippled soldier who volunteered to serve deep undercover in Northern Ireland. Known only by his codename Candlestick, he first infiltrates the loyalist paramilitaries, then switches to the Republicans. He disappears, ostensibly killed, only to surface again in the mid-Eighties. Unlike Cross, Candlestick does have opinions. He is apparently killing people to draw attention to his beliefs.

This brings us to Petit's central theme, which is the corruption, institutional, moral, political, that kept the Troubles going so long that by 1995 peace seemed to be in nobody's interest. Petit has done tons of research - he provides a long bibliography with useful pointers to what the main sources discuss - and he deploys his discoveries by showing rather than telling. The problem, though, is that to show so much corruption in all its multifaceted glory requires a book of considerable length. At 635 pages in paperback, The Psalm Killer is simply too long, the story so complex that by the time of the final twist - which is a good one - I could no longer remember who the surprise person was.

So, Psalm Killer has its flaws, but there is so much quality here, so much information that no one else has revealed so effectively, that it is well worth seeking out. Petit writes well. He takes the trouble to give his characters back stories and Achilles' heels that go beyond the norm. It is a fine example of a genre that should exist but doesn't. In that sense it not only defines the genre, you could say it is the genre.

I am keen to read more. Robinson, Petit's first novel from 1993, sounds like my cup of tea,

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Blood on Snow - Jo Nesbo

Given that Midnight Sun is billed as Blood On Snow 2, it comes as no suprise that Blood On Snow itself is the precursor of Midnight Sun - the reason Olav runs away to the deep north. The set up is ingenious, worthy of James M Cain. Olav, whose only talent is as a fixer, is ordered by his gangster boss to kill the boss's much younger wife. Olav, of course, falls for the wife, which means doing a deal with his boss's rival, the Fisherman (who ultimately pursues him to the deep north in Part 2). The twists are obvious in hindsight, but Nesbo's great gift is the ability to slide them past you, unnoticed, as you read. Olav is a much more interesting character here than in Midnight Sun - a psychopath whose heart is in the right place. It sounds bizarre but it works.

Again, a very slim volume in which irrelevant detail is pared to the bone.  I liked it better than Midnight Sun. It is not a patch on Headhunters and inferior to perhaps half the Harry Hole Oslo series.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A Ring of Roses - John Blackburn

I am a massive fan of Blackburn (the author, not the town and certainly not the football team). He seems to be largely forgotten today, though I gather Valancourt have recently begun reissuing his books. In his day Blackburn was massive, and his day really was the 1960s. His world is one of rapid technical advances, generational change and the Cold War. A Ring of Roses is one such, from 1965.

No prizes for getting the reference in the title. The plague resurfaces in Berlin and the opposing superpowers have to come together to prevent a pandemic. What makes the story quintessentially Blackburn is that this is the genuine medieval plague unearthed by chance and genetically manipulated to make it resistant to the obvious cures like penicillin.

Regulars Blackburn characters reappear - General Kirk with his torn hand and Sir Marcus Levin, concentration camp survivor turned super scientist. There is dark humour - the plague-spreaders are hidden behind the names of characters from the more macabre stories of the Brothers Grimm (Iron Hans and Clever Gretel) - and whilst we are encouraged to think that a former Nazi scientist is behind the outbreak, it turns out not to be quite so simple. We get flashes of the Cold War blame game and the revelation that in 1965 a custom-built Ferrari came in just under £7000. Less of a surprise is that the British Press was as ghastly and underhand then as it is today.

John Blackburn writes thrillers with a twist. No one in his day wrote them better and I can't offhand think of anyone today. He writes simply and with pace. This Penguin greenback is 158 pages and packs in more story than contemporary thrillers dragged out to twice the length.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell

Down and Out is the direct precursor to The Road to Wigan Pier, previously reviewed on this blog. It is nowhere near as effective, partly because half of it doesn't ring true.

Originally it was more an essay than a book and dealt only with Orwell's time as a dish-washer in Paris in the late 1920s. Before Orwell could find an English publisher he had to pad it out with the English element. British publishing, even more then than now, was London-based and London-focused, so whilst most of the tramp material takes place around rural England, Orwell clearly had to squeeze in enough London sequences to keep the interest of the Metropolitans. The fatuous framing device he used to achieve this - popping in to touch a London friend for a couple of pounds every so often - is what convinces me that Orwell was never in fact a tramp but fictionalised his research.

That research was clearly considerable and can be considered generally reliable. There is a further clue when he states that a particular workhouse casual ward was deplorable but was much improved when he visited it subsequently. No - this reads to me like Orwell was told it was rough by one of the tramps he interviewed and when he went to see it (as an investigative journalist rather than a casual) he found it was not so bad after all. Again, Chapter XXXII - notes on London slang - this is surely 'notes I made while talking to tramps on the Embankment' - isn't it?

The first half, the French half, has narrative because real life has narrative. We can be sure that Orwell lived it, more or less as described. The second half, the English material, has no such narrative. It is hard to fix on a time period or even a season when it is supposed to have happened. As reportage, it doesn't convince me. I think the clincher is that it was for Down and Out in London and Paris that Eric Blair decided to publish under a pseudonym. Why? Because he was ashamed of his artifice and knew his friends would ask questions to which there were no honest answers.

Nevertheless, the book is pretty good fun, enlivened throughout by vivid characters like Boris the aspirant head waiter in Paris and Bozo the London pavement artist. You've really got to hope they weren't made up too.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Noonday - Pat Barker

Noonday is the concluding part of Barker's second wartime trilogy (unlike the Regeneration Trilogy, it doesn't seem to have a name), which interestingly carries the characters forward from WWI to WW2, specifically 1940 and the London Blitz.

I have said before, in my review of Toby's Room, that this trilogy is not as good as Regeneration, albeit the premise is much the same - artists at war are subjected to pioneering medical treatments. The difference is that Regeneration is about poets, many of whom we have heard of, having their traumatised souls put back together in a North Country sanatorium; this second sequence is about painters and plastic surgery and is set primarily in bohemian London, which makes it all a bit precious. Another shortcoming is that the characters are not real people but heavily and obviously based on real people, which is distracting for those of us who can guess. And, unfortunately, the central character in the latter is a woman, Elinor. In Toby's Room, therefore, credibility is stretched to get her into the hospital where Kit Neville is having his face restored.The truth is, society women played virtually no meaningful role in WWI. Some indeed did a bit of nursing but mostly it was just good works and posturing. Things were different in WWII and that makes Noonday a much better book than Toby's Room. Elinor, her husband Paul, and the disfigured Kit Neville are all actively engaged on the Home Front, Paul an ARP warden, Elinor and Kit both driving ambulances. They are all now in their Forties, facing the same middleaged crises we all face, only heightened by the very real prospect of being blown to smithereens at any moment.

Barker is a fantastic writer and there are moments of great beauty here. There is a moment towards the end when Kit and Elinor wave to one another across a firestorm which is truly heartbreaking. I also really enjoyed the skewering of Kenneth Clark, long before his Civilisation fame, recruiting war artists from his personal coterie and chasing after young girls.

[Also reviewed on this blog]