Monday, 31 October 2016

Horror Stories - E Nesbit

How this figures in the Penguin Worlds series of "Classic Science Fiction" is beyond me. Surely no one is more embedded in her time than Nesbit? And why we need the 500 word introduction by Naomi Alderman (co-curator) defeats me utterly. The cover couldn't be less appropriate if it tried.

That said, I was only vaguely aware that Nesbit had written ghost fiction (and it is very much ghost fiction we are talking about here). I think I may have come across "Man-Size in Marble" many moons ago, but that's about the extent of my knowledge.

Anyway, Nesbit is known today for her books for under-sixteens, The Railway Children (1906) of course, but also The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904). Her ghost stories were written for magazines and periodicals before she became famous and collected in three volumes between 1893 and 1897. Though they often go back to events in the mid-Victorian period when Nesbit herself was a young woman, the starting point is always the last twenty years or so of the 19th century. Surprisingly they are rarely written from the female viewpoint - she adopted the sexless 'E' of her authorial persona for a reason - and the female characters tend to be weak, doting and simplistic. Her heroes are young men about town, often priggish, very much devoted to their social status, hot-blooded and rash in their decisions. Nesbit has an habitual tone in which all her characters are depicted critically. She has a marvellously brisk way with back-story, which should be an object lesson to us all. Take this from "The Three Drugs":
The nature of his trouble is not germane to this story. There was a woman in it, of course, and money, and a friend, and regrets and embarrassments - and all of these reached out tendrils that wove and interwove till they made a puzzle-problem of which heart and brain were now weary.
 The usual framework is a love affair, either ill-judged or doomed. She is preoccupied with the idea of the loved one's return from the dead. There are a couple of exceptions: "The Three Drugs" and "The Five Senses", which I suppose just about qualify as early science fiction. In both cases medical men experiment with medically enhanced consciousness; in both cases the experimenters are themselves overwhelmed. They were highlights of this collection for me, but there was only one item I disliked - a something-and-nothing fragment called "The Judgement: A Broadmoor Biography", which sounds much more enticing than it actually is. It only lasts four pages and is an ill-advised venture into first-person dialect. It smacks of bottom-drawer material which should have been binned or otherwise forgotten. My advice is to skip it and enjoy everything else here. It's a collection which every student of the genre should read at least once.

Monday, 24 October 2016

The World in Winter - John Christopher

John Christopher has often been likened to John Wyndham. Indeed, some people seem to think the two are one and the same, especially given the number of pseudonyms they both used. In fact John Christopher was Sam Youd (1922-2012) aka Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford. Peter Graaf etc. Christopher was undoubtedly influenced by Wyndham (for Tripods see Triffids) but specialised in man-made catastrophe whereas Wyndham favoured space invaders.

Christopher is best known for his climate change novels, of which this is one. The title says it all: the northern hemisphere is plunged into a new ice age due to a decline in solar radiation. The major powers decide to pack up and head south. Those left behind turn feral through necessity. The emigrants likewise face disaster. The former colonies in Africa are perfectly willing to accept their former oppressors, but only as menials and slaves. The banking system collapses so all the money the Brits brought with them evaporates.

It is a great idea and even now, more than half a century after it was written, the resonances are still there, Christopher's problem is that he can't bring his ideas to life through his characters. His main characters here are preoccupied with their suburban menage a trois and unable to engage with their climatic enemy as much as one would like. Perhaps the scale of the disaster is just too big and humanity simply cannot win.

This is where Christopher falls short of Wyndham. I remember reading one of the Tripod series for young adults, probably the late prequel When the Tripods Came (1988) and the problem was the same. That said, there are some fabulous moments - I absolutely adored the idea of colonising the south coast of England by hovercraft, which of course can skim over the ice sheets blocking the Channel. It works even better fifty years later when hovercraft have become as redundant as traction engines. Perhaps that's something we should reconsider in this era of global warming.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Let It Bleed (Rebus 7) - Ian Rankin

The beauty of ebooks is that you can download one for under £1 in a click. You don't have time or need to speculate. If it's not up to scratch, no biggie. I bought the first Rebus when it came out in paperback, probably in the early Nineties. I still remember how disappointed I was. The plot was nothing much to write home about and the detective's name was just plain silly. I have to say I didn't think much of the early TV adaptations either - the ones starring John Hannah - though they did improve when Ken Stott took over, and Stott remains the model for the Rebus in my head.

Anyway, last week Let it Bleed was on offer and I thought what-the-hey? It's halfway through the series and sure enough Rebus has amassed sufficient character to make time spent in his company enjoyable. The new edition has exclusive extra material from Rankin which for me was best avoided. I really don't need insights into the authorial psyche unless they are incorporated into the main text.

The story itself is very much of its era, the mid-Nineties, when the UK was finally waking up to the legacy of the Thatcher free-marketeers. Entrepreneurship has corrupted every aspect of public life. The legerdemain that Rankin pulls off here is very impressive; he sends us off in pursuit of the usual suspect who turns out to be the wrong suspect. Rankin at this period was not great at the intricacies of the police system (though he is now with his Malcolm Fox series) and Let It Bleed succeeds principally because Rebus is working off the books, which gives him something to lose - his career, the only things he has to keep him from out-and-out alcoholism - if it all goes pear-shaped.

There's something else here which, for me at least, the early books lacked, and that's compassion. The alkies and the junkies and the petty criminals are all real people, the real bad guys - the upwardly mobile - perhaps slightly less so. This enables flashes of wit that really humanise Rebus's world without distracting from the seriousness of the plot.

In short, then, I enjoyed it. The name Rebus is still silly, but after all this time what can Rankin do? I can't help wondering if the Rebus/Fox mash-up Even Dogs in the Wild (2015), presumably a sort of Edinburgh version of Superman meets Batman, might offer me the perfect Rankin experience.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Late Victorian Gothic Tales

It's a great idea to anthologise the late Victorian Gothic. This, after all, is the Gothic everyone knows today, the Gothic of Dracula and the Mummy as opposed to the original Gothic of Otranto and Vathek. Inevitably, though, you are going to end up with a mixed bag.

The first story, for example, is 'Dionea' by Vernon Lee (Violet Paget). 'Dionea' is very much in the neo-baroque mode of Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe. It is nevertheless very effective. 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime' on the other hand is a spoof, clever enough but not especially funny and I'm afraid I long since tired of Wilde's juvenile precocity.  'Sir Edward Orme' by Henry James is beautifully written but not in any way disturbing. We then come to Kipling's 'The Mark of the Beast' which is both exquisitely written and profoundly disturbing. 'The Dak Bungalow at Dakor', by Kipling's fellow Raj writer Mrs Croker, is sludge not worth anthologising.

Then we have two stories by Conan Doyle at the height of his Sherlock Holmes success - 'Lot No 249', a mummy story, perhaps even the first mummy story, in which the characterisation of the mummy's owner is far more creepy than the mummy itself, and 'The Case of Lady Sannox', which so affected me that I am currently writing a direct follow-up for my own amusement. The thing with 'Lady Sannox' is Doyle's extreme contempt for the titular woman. Is this misogyny or puritanism? The mutilation inflicted on her reminded me strongly of Freud and Fliess's treatment of Emma Eckstein's nose, which has always seemed to me to be more about their sexual fetishes than hers.

Grant Allen's 'Pallinghurst Barrow' has a powerful theme but is poorly written. Two brief contes cruelles by Jean Lorrain have the opposite problem, strong and effective writing about nothing very much. 'The Great God Pan' by Arthur Machen is really a novella, an important distinction in that the fractured narrative he uses would not be practicable in a short story. It is one of Machen's better known works and the first I have read. I like it very much. I especially enjoy the way the horror is suggested and then cut away from, leaving it to the reader's worst imaginings. This of course is the technique later used to great effect by Val Lewton in his 1942 movie Cat People.

The final offering, M P Shiel's 'Viala', is another novella first published, like 'Pan', in The Bodley Head's notorious Keynotes series. Shiel is another pioneer of the macabre who I have heard about but never previously read. He is another I will have to pursue further, albeit he is totally different to Machen. Where Machen goes for subtlety and suggestion, Shiel is anything but. He is so wild and extravagant that often his language cannot keep up. His Viala is the Castle of Otranto remodelled by Vathek and transplanted to the Far North. Significantly for me, as a researcher into William Hope Hodgson, I'm pretty sure I now know where the idea of The House on the Borderland came from. As Roger Luckhurst notes in his introduction, 'Viala' is 'genuinely unhinged' - and that, it turns out, is by no means a bad thing.

To end with the Introduction... It will not be news to regular visitors to this blog, that I tend not to be a fan of the form in general. I have just bought a collection of ghost stories with an introduction of no more than 500 feeble words by some non-entity that made me want to get my money back. In this case, however, the Introduction and Notes are essential and add hugely to the experience of reading the book. Luckhurst knows whereof he speaks and can be trusted as a source for others. Well done to him and to Oxford World's Classics for producing this gem.

Friday, 7 October 2016

When William Came - Saki

Saki (H H Munro) is best known for mordant short stories like 'Gabriel-Ernest' and 'Sredni Vashtar'. Indeed, I hadn't realised he had written any novels. In fact there are three novels of which this is the third, published in 1913.

The date says it all - the eve of World War I, the last glorious summer of imperial peace and prosperity. But in Saki's world the titular William is Kaiser Bill and Great Britain has been annexed to the Hohenzollern Empire almost by accident. The German navy and air-ships were just too advanced. Rather than resist, the king abdicated and went into exile in his personal empire of India. It was not so much an invasion as a fait accompli.

Obviously everyone in 1913 was aware that war with Germany was a possibility. Invasion literature was incredibly popular. H G Wells published The War in the Air in 1908 and William le Queux had been knocking them out since 1894. But Saki's twist is to make the invasion bloodless, thus leaving him free to be witty and, in the scenes relating to Gorla Mustelford's debut as a 'suggestive dancer'. downright hilarious.

The story is set in the first full London season since the fait accompli. Society has moved on - or perhaps remained unmoved. The upper classes have accepted the odd grafin and welcomed Prussian officers with their cheerfully coloured uniforms and resorted to the usual trivial pastimes. Cicely Yeovil is a social fulcrum, with her shiny-haired young men and Gorla's debut to oversee. So it's all a bit of nuisance when her husband Murrey shows up.

Murrey is a man who travels to stave off the boredom. When William came, Murrey was battling fever in a Finnish hospital. When he heard about the fait accompli he assumed it was a product of his fevered imagination. Now back in London, he cannot accept it. He toys with the notion of heading off to the court in exile in Delhi - either that or taking up the mastership of the hunt down in Wessex.

Saki, at heart the short story master, does not hammer out a plot. The story is more that of the various participants. Gorla's debut is counted a success and the next social highlight is a march-past of the massed ranks of Boy Scouts in the Mall - which is where Saki springs his surprise.

It's a superlative twist, the last thing I expected, both amusing and moving.

Of the author's own attitude to the German threat we need be in no doubt. When war came Hector Hugh Monro was 44 years old. He nevertheless enlisted and served on the front until he was killed by a sniper in November 1916. So he is a hero and a writer of consummate skill. He deserves be better remembered.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Complete John Silence Stories - Algernon Blackwood

Blackwood was nudging forty when he made his name with the 1908 short story collection John Silence - Physician Extraordinary. He lived for another forty-three years, became a voice on radio and a skeletal face on early TV, but the first decade of the Twentieth Century was his most productive.

The 'extraordinary' thing about John Silence is that he is a psychic doctor. The tendency has been to class him as a psychic detective like Hodgson's Carnacki (interestingly commissioned by their mutual publisher when it became obvious no more Silence material would be forthcoming) but that is not the case. In some of these stories Silence is little more than a bit-part player, brought on at the end to cure the occult affliction. He is really a therapist, showing victims how to cure themselves, or a consultant brought in to take drastic action. To solve a mystery as a detective is to discover the truth; John Silence, adept in the occult arts and practices, already knows the answer.

The original five stories from Physician Extraordinary are all here in the original order, plus "A Victim of Higher Space" which may have been written alongside the others but which wasn't published until Day and Night Stories in 1917. One thing should be stressed, these are not short stories. They are all around 40 pages save for 'The Camp of the Dog' which is nearly 60. This is important because the long form allows Blackwood to build his horror in layers. Nothing in itself is especially shocking but the cumulative mass really gets into the reader's psyche.

Two of the stories particularly enthralled me, 'Ancient Sorceries' and 'Secret Worship'. Silence is the protagonist in neither; he is just someone who the protagonist confides in. This is good because Silence is a bit of a superhero - hugely wealthy and impossibly learned. He can never be in much jeopardy, so to hook the reader someone else has to be. In 'Ancient Sorceries' it is 'little Vezin ... a timid, gentle, sensitive soul' who finds himself marooned in a rural French town where the locals celebrate the titular sorceries and transform themselves into cats. In 'Secret Worship' it is Harris, a silk merchant,  who decides to visit the school he hated as a boy. The school is in southern Germany, run by monks. Harris is made welcome, which turns out to be a very bad thing for poor Harris.

To us, the idea of Victorian tradesmen being educated in Germany seems odd, but it is Blackwood's personal story. He was a perpetual traveller from childhood and is perhaps best known today for tales like 'The Wendigo' which brought Gothic horror to the vast open spaces of Canada, where Blackwood spent much of his twenties. Here, Canada is the setting for 'The Camp of the Dog'. Blackwood was also a member of the Golden Dawn, with Yeats and Mathers, Crowley and Arthur Machen, hence his taste for ancient ritual and, indeed, devil worship. Given the extraordinary nature of the author's life - the first half of it, anyway - S T Joshi's introduction to the collection is essential.

The book is a curiosity, but it is essential for anyone interested in that singular period between roughly 1890 and 1914 when occultism and ritual magic were actually fashionable.

Monday, 3 October 2016

You Were Never Really Here - Jonathan Ames

Pushkin Vertigo is a new imprint focusing mainly on classic crime fiction (including Vertigo itself) but also including some contemporary work such as this, from 2013 (Pushkin Vertigo Originals).

Ames is an American journalist, author and screenwriter, creator of the TV series Bored to Death. "You Were Never Really Here" is actually halfway between a short story and a novella. It took me just over an hour to read. I like that - tell your story without padding, leave it at precisely the length it needs to be. Within the eighty-odd pages of this big-print/small-format paperback he has polished his prose to a stiletto edge. For example:
He had come to believe that he was the recurring element - the deciding element - in all the tragedies experienced by the people he encountered. So if he could minimize his impact and his responsibility, then there was the chance, the slight chance, that there would be no more suffering for others. It was a negative grandiose delusion - narcissism inverted into self-hatred, a kind of autoimmune disorder of his psyche...
Joe, the hero, is off the books - off every imaginable book - ex-FBI, ex-Marine, ex-human being save for his role as carer for his octogenarian mother. He earns his crust by fighting a very specialized niche crime, rescuing young girls kidnapped for sexual purposes. He operates through a whole series of cut-outs. His handler contacts a bodega owner who puts a misspelled notice in his window to notify Joe that he needs to call in.

This case is a big case. The daughter of a state senator has been abducted. The senator has received a text telling him where she is. All Joe has to do is get into the brothel and rescue her. Which he does, with considerable malice aforethought. The brothel, however, is run by powerful people. There are consequences for Joe. His cut-offs are cut out - with extreme animus. Joe uncovers the secret. And resolves to seek revenge.

We don't see the revenge. That is another story. Maybe Ames will tell it, maybe he won't. But we have been given all the pointers we need to imagine what Joe's revenge will be, and that is better than reading about it. That freedom to imagine the very worst is the genius of this little book, why the short format is perfect for the author's purpose. It's the best of its kind that I have read since Point Blank.