Friday, March 11, 2011


So far 2011 has been a good year for reading. Better than average. I've been reading more than average, and the quality of the books has turned out to be fairly high.

Keeping this blog updated is a little bit of a challenge. It used to be a straightforward business – I'd languish at my NHS desk, fitfully perform my job, & then sneak back to tinker on my next entry. 5 minutes here, 5 minutes there. The gaps in blog work were useful, I'd have an insight into how to express something, or an idea for some kind of HILARIOUS WITTICISM with which to astound you all.

For the past month and a half I've been working from home, trying to get a lot of things accomplished – too many things - & the way it happens is when you try to accomplish too many things, you don't accomplish too many things.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying: here's an entry for something I read 6-7 weeks ago.

Kelly Link is the sort of writer that other writers love. This is not a theory. This is a fact borne out by the spasms of praise on the cover of this, her latest book.

Alice Sebold says: “Intoxicating. These stories will come alive, put on zoot suits and wrestle you to the ground. They want you and you will be theirs.”

Michael Chabon says: “A new short story collection by Kelly Link... and once more, for a little while, the world is worth saving.”

Neil Gaiman says: “Funny, moving, tender, brave and dangerous. She is unique, and should be declared a national treasure, and possibly surrounded at all times by a cordon or armed marines.”

Oh Neil Gaiman you are so funny & charming. You really are a good writer aren't you.

It's Neil, everybody
But also sort of like a rock star, with your cool hair & leather jacket.

Not like a bad rock star – not the sort of rock star that does drugs & gets drunk & treats girls mean. You're a rock star the way they should be. The sort you can bring home to your parents, like that nice Chris Martin.

ooh except maybe lose the beard, it makes you look like a teacher
you're wondering what provoked this, aren't you. i'm sort of wondering myself. it sort of came out of nowhere, but i think maybe it's been brewing for a while. i get angry sometimes, & sometimes i don't even understand why
I love you Neil Gaiman.

I digress. What was I talking about? Oh yeah – Kelly Link. Writers love Kelly Link.

& this is not a comprehensive list of the praise on the cover. It is more like a core sample. There are journalists quoted, who clearly love Kelly just as much, but have difficulty expressing their love in witty & original ways, either because they lack the ability of special & talented writers like Neil Gaiman, or else maybe because their editors won't allow it. One thing is clear, however: a considerable portion of the publishing industry is sprawled out on cushions & writhing in a mandala pattern, a churning psychedelic orgy, around the (perhaps slightly embarrassed) form of Ms Link.

aww - & who wouldn't want to form an orgy mandala around this cutie??
I first read Kelly Link about, er... I guess it was 6 years ago. They had a copy of her debut collection Stranger Things Happen at the Wellington Public Library. I pulled the book off the shelf because of its title, stared at it for a moment because it had an interesting cover, & ended up checking it out because it had a glowing review from Peter Straub on the back.

Back then it was just Peter Straub writhing on the cushions. Just him on his own.

I was impressed with Stranger Things Happen. I thought to myself: this is the sort of collection I'd like to put out some day. The stories were weird, not just because of their plots (which were weird), but because some were fragmentary, others were linked, there was a tendency to directly address the reader, to assume they knew things which they didn't, etc. The book felt like a whole, it was satisfying in a way that short fiction collections normally aren't. Like she'd written the stories separately, but always with the idea in mind of the book that would hold them all together.

I dunno. Maybe I'm going overboard here, I'm not sure. I have trouble remembering the specifics of that book. It very quickly dropped out of my mind & for a while I'd forgotten I'd even read it – not because it was bad, or bland, but because much of it had the unfocused & meandering nature of a dream. All I remembered for sure was that there were a few stories about a character called “the Girl Detective”, which I liked, & a story called “the Specialist's Hat” which I found baffling & scary.

Maybe Stanger Things Happen is a more normal book than I remember. At any rate Pretty Monsters is a more normal book than I remember Stranger Things Happening being.

the cover's pretty cool
The plots are still weird. Well... yes, they're definitely weird, but by the time you come to the end of this book a definite formula has emerged. In keeping with my “no spoilers” policy, I will keep my description of this formula as abstract as possible.

There is an alienated child or adolescent, aged 8-16. They are an only child, or a twin. They are missing one of their parents (often the father - where they have a father, he is aloof & emotionally incompetent).

The status quo is kooky & eccentric. Boy-girl relationships are especially kooky, & complicated. The reader is quietly surprised by many things. Then weird things begin to happen, even by the child's standards. These weird things often happen just below the surface of reality. There is an implicit sense of doom. A variety of strange characters interact with the child, some friendly, some bizarrely hostile (but, we eventually learn, friendly in their way).

The sense of implicit doom is ramped up – doom, doom. Then many surprising things happen at once. 1-2 characters reveal true identities that have a surprising relationship to the child. The anticipated doom either doesn't occur, or is revealed to be basically OK. The ending is ambiguous & confusing. We are confronted by an unanswered question, which initially didn't seem important.

This template can be applied, with almost universal success, to maybe 8 of the 10 stories in this book. Which in a sense is a shame. It's a shame because I don't think Stranger Things Happen was this formulaic. Like I say, I'm not too sure, it's been a while since I read it.

It's also a shame, generally, when things are formulaic. Isn't it? I don't know. & particularly when it happens in weird fiction – which I like to think of as enjoying a lot of freedom, but which is in practise often very formulaic. I suppose one could argue the irrationality of the events in the story need to be counterbalanced by a rationalising plot structure, or all hell would break loose (or the story would just be random & unconvincing).

The plus side of Link's formula is that it gives her a lot of room for being inventive, & if you like what you've read after the first 2-3 stories you start looking forward to it, because you know you have another 300 pages of the same. & it's an emotionally satisfying formula, for all those reasons people like to read funny, cynical, dark fantasy stories about alienated kids.

The alienated kid is you, because you were alienated when you were a kid.
The kookiness reminds you that when you were young life was full of wonder & possibilities.
But the missing parent reminds you it wasn't all fun & games.
The weird encounters with strange & sometimes hostile people reflect your experiences of growing up.
You remember the sense of doom – the sense that the bubble you lived in was going to burst. I guess turning into an adult felt like a death sentence. Or else maybe you felt that the more control or responsibility you were being given, the more things seemed to be going wrong
Eventually you got through it, & it wasn't so bad after all.
The things you were worried about turned out to be not so important.
But other things you'd ignored were suddenly coming to the fore.

It's a cosy formula. You get to the end, you have a mini nostalgia-catharsis, then you turn the page and start over again. Like going down a slide, climbing back up, going down it again.

Link has a very immersive, but aloof/alienated writing style. Something surprising happens every page. The prose is wilfully surprising – it is doing it's best to be unusual (unusually perceptive about the unusual traits of its unusual characters) on a moment to moment basis. You can get tired of it, or you can get sort of hooked & fall straight into it. Most of the stories in this book are around 60 pages long, which is just the right length to sit in a laundrette, or drink 2 pints in a bar after work, & read one of them.

& it genuinely is a shame when the book is over & you don't have any more of them to read.

I don't know if I'd call this book horror. Basically Link is weird, but cosy-weird. Like Neil. Or actually, the much better comparison is with Shaun Tan, who actually provides illustrations for this collection. You feel like Kelly Link & Shaun Tan would probably get along very well, if they were having coffee together. Maybe they have done just that. MAYBE THEY ARE HAVING AN AFFAIR.

Oh my God. What is it with these people!?

here's an example of Tan's artwork. & yeah this is an actual scene from one of the stories
Now having said all that, I would like finally to discuss a couple of the stories in here.

This is not a 100% new/original collection. Some stories are reprinted from earlier books – in fact the theme here seems to be “let's collect her career in a large mass market compendium & properly introduce her to the public”. “The Specialist's Hat” has made the jump over from Stranger Things Happen.

“The Specialist's Hat” is, quite apart from everything I've said here, although the formula does sort of apply, a really magnificent piece of weird/horror fiction. It's so full of creepy details & creepy moments, & it scatters them around in a “connect the dots” way. The hat itself, & the scene with the bicycle, is one of the most weirdly frightening things I've read (or re-read) in a long time. There's no telling exactly what's going on here, but as a refreshing breath of fresh air things are NOT all OK at the end of the story. The sense of doom is still pounding away, even if it gets mitigated by a very chilling sort of optimism by the end. I really like this story.

Of the others, “Monster” fits the formula exactly, but is cool & creepy & hilarious. Also the final & most recent story, “The Cinderella Game” is very, very cool – it plays around in similar territory to the other stories, but it feels whole, it has its own atmosphere separate from the nostalgia-catharsis. It's sort of nastier. Maybe that's what the other stories needed, a dose of something less...


GOOD? Yeah. These stories are so inventive & well written & charming it would be churlish to come down hard against them. I was a little disappointed at first at how conventional the collection turned out to be, but I had a great time reading this.

FILE UNDER: The weird horror-ish collection that you can safely lend to your niece, or to your mother.

WOULD GO WELL WITH: Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan. They'd go very well together. But hey I was just joking about these guys having an affair, I have absolutely no evidence to support this. I mean they probably met when collaborating on Pretty Monsters, maybe he flew over to where she lives, or she flew over to him, & maybe there was a night in there where, after checking over the proofs or whatever they were at a loose end for what to do, & they maybe had a couple of drinks together in the hotel bar. But that's normal. People do that sort of thing all the time, it doesn't mean anything.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

February Reading / The Sick Thrill of Bad Writing

OK first things first. Billy has asked for a picture of the skull mug, & I have finally found my digital camera cable, so here goes.

I call it Still Life With February Reading Pile and Breakfast

As you can infer from the picture, I've fallen into my usual trap of reading several books at once.

That's not even all of them. I'm 50 pages into a novel called The Graphologist's Apprentice, I'm skimming a couple of scriptwriting references, &... um, that actually is all of them, if you count those.

Sean raises a really interesting point (in his comment on the Kindle post), which I'd like take up – as much as I trashed Darkness on the Edge of Town, as much as it deserved to be trashed, there is a certain pleasure to be found in reading through a bad book, & feeling “smugly superior & kind of dirty” afterwards.

Partially this is the phenomenon of the throw-away book, discussed previously.

Partially this is the feel-good factor, as a writer, of reading something inherently flawed. Skimming back over the past couple months' reading, I mean OK I haven't been churning through great, lofty works of literature, but books like The Book of Skulls, The Remains of the Day & Double Indemnity are stone-cold classics of their genres. I take a lot of inspiration from good fiction, but it's also daunting.

I know that Silverberg, Ishiguro & Cain didn't appear out of nowhere, riding a sea shell across the Mediterranean. Silverberg probably wrote a ton of hack sci fi, Ishiguro probably wrote awkward & self-important lit student stuff (maybe he even wrote some student poetry!). Cain probably worked as a journalist & wrestled alligators for decade or two – actually wait, I know what Cain did, he was a mostly-unproduced Hollywood screenwriter. Ha ha ha. Awesome.

Having said that, when you read something that's widely seen as a masterpiece, & rightly so, it can be kind of depressing. The distance between your own abilities & those of the guys you're reading seems huge. Insurmountable.

You can use all sorts of strategies to talk yourself out of this funk. You can think: Shit, these guys get paid to work on their writing full-time, year after year. Once/if I make it, I'll have the freedom to concentrate on my work like they do.
Don't kid yourself, man. Knut Hamsun is and will always be the voice of the streets.
Or: I have my own thing going on. I bet Knut fucking Hamsun would have more trouble writing my stuff, than I'd have writing his. I'm REAL. I'm the... the voice of the streets!

Or: Maybe I AM this good, & I just don't REALISE it! I should call up a well-meaning friend & bully some compliments out of them.

Or, most poisonously: Well, I'm not as good, but that's OK. Maybe I don't need to be that good to get by.

One of the simplest & most persuasive strategies is to read some bad writing, i.e. someone who's worse than you. The ideal characteristics, for me, of a feel-good bad book are:
- it's been published & has sold well
- it's a genre or field that I write in, or would like to
- it's actually bad. Which is to say it's not The Da Vinci Code bad, where it's very stupid but also slickly written, but it's proper actual “I don't know what I'm doing here” bad.

But the all time best feel-good bad book is the one that's:
- written by one of your favourite authors.

I cannot describe the joy I felt when I read Interzone, which is a collection of early (pre-Junkie) writing by William S. Burroughs. It wasn't a terrible book, but it was kind of off-kilter and trying too hard. It felt like something a friend might have brought to my writer's group back in the day – like something I might have brought along. I almost cried. 'Cos, like, I really do want to be Burroughs when I grow up (except straight & better-adjusted).

So I'll re-formulate my verdict on Darkness on the Edge of Town as follows: if you're not interested in horror, this will confirm everything you suspected about the genre. If you are interested in horror, like if you write horror, then give this a quick read. This guy actually won the Bram Stoker Award, though admittedly not for this book. Wow. It also clarifies the amount of skill that goes into those cheesy King stories like "The Mist" or Needful Things, where an entire town gets attacked or destroyed by something. It's not as easy as it looks, apparently.

If anyone else can recommend some terrible works by great authors let me know. I'm particularly interested in terrible early works by great authors.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


I've heard horror people say good things about Brian Keene, like he's one of the best of the new crop of writers, he's Stephen King with a brain, etc. I like to keep in touch with the horror genre. Plus I wanted to test drive the Kindle, & this was one of the 182 books Emma sorted me out with. So I ended up reading this turkey.

There is a town, and on the edge, itg is dark

Darkness on the Edge of Town. OK. You don't need to be a music scholar to identify the Doors quote the title is borrowed from. & this is literally a story about a town which wakes up surrounded by darkness,
& everyone who goes into it disappears
& the darkness is evil
& it infects people's thoughts
& turns them evil
& holy fucking shit can I even be bothered reviewing this book?

Let's pause for a moment to consider this last question.

It is Wednesday afternoon. A grey day, but mild. Looks like we've beaten the worst of the Scottish winter. I'm drinking Scarecrow Ale from a pint glass shaped like a human skull. My room is messy & probably could do with a clean.

Elsewhere in the world all sorts of things are happening – world leaders are in meetings deciding the fate of the economy, the fate of developing nations, the fate of the human race. Mothers are collecting their children from sports practice, or watching their children at piano recitals. Police are interviewing suspects in a burglary case, or preparing to smash in the door of a meth lab somewhere. Rob Zombie is on world tour.

This photo is substantially more frightening than anything which happens in Darkness on the Edge of Town, and not just because they're hugging Berlusconi.

Someone give the Super Beast a fucking medal.

Whereas I'm sitting here, having read Darkness on the Edge of Town, and wondering if I need to review it.

The issue here is that this book is so... it's not even poorly written, it's barely written, you can tell the author could have done better, but just couldn't quite rouse himself to the task.

The amount of references to pot there are in this book is telling. When I'm writing a big project I tend to chain smoke, & because of this I have smoking on my mind so everyone in the story I'm writing turns out to be a smoker, or an ex-smoker, or a lapsed ex-smoker, or just a random someone who wants to talk about cigarettes. I think Brian Keene was stoned when wrote this. The whole time. I think that would explain the cataclysmic lack of effort on display here.

Sorry. I don't want to diss marijuana, I know a lot of people enjoy the stuff & find it a comforting & enjoyable way to unwind at the end of the day. I'm just baffled by this book, & wondering how it could have come to pass. I'm grasping at straws.

Can I be bothered reviewing this book?

Pfft. I dunno. Probably not. I have already expended more effort in considering it than Brian Keene has done over the course of writing this Stephen King rip-off which, given the fact our culture already has King's The Mist, James Herbert's (bad, but better than this) The Dark, & Peter Straub's so-so Floating Dragon, didn't actually need to be written. It's a misbegotten book. Someone capable (but cheesy) like King would have used this as an excuse to look at small town human nature through a range of character stereotypes. Keene either doesn't understand human nature or can't be bothered climbing this hill, so instead you get these 3-4... God I don't know if you could even call them “people”, they're worse than stock movie characters... & it doesn't really have a plot. The “darkness on the edge of town” situation has already started by the time the book opens, it's still going by the time the book ends, & nothing of any importance happens in between. The protagonist has a dumb plan he acknowledges comes from The Mist – this comes across as embarrassingly lazy rather than post-modern – it doesn't work, nothing happens, people get killed, the prot can't even be bothered feeling guilty about it afterwards... & oh God damn it the epigraphs, that same old Lovecraft quote, but with no relevance to the...

...can I be...

No I cannot be bothered reviewing this book.


FILE UNDER... “could try harder”. Some of the online reviews come down heavy on this one too, in fact I found a couple of people wondering whether this was actually Brian Keene's writing, since it seems so much poorer than his other stuff. (!!!) Maybe he knocked it off in a week to pay a debt.

WOULD GO WELL WITH... Something better.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Something New

I just finished up at my office, after two years working there. The plan is to bum around Edinburgh for a couple months working on writing projects, then set off and see the world. Backpacking, doing volunteer work on farms, etc. So yay, probably more time for reading.

But! But! Check this out. Check out what they gave me for my leaving present!

This is not my actual Kindle, this is an image from the net. Can't find my digital camera cable.  Grumble grumble.

Aww. Yeah. The Kindle Mk III. This is coming at a good time, actually. Firstly because I'm travelling, so I was already stressing about how many books I could fit in my tramping pack. Secondly because, ever so gradually, I'd been coming round to the idea of e-readers.

I say “coming round to the idea” because initially I hated the thought of these things. The book is a classic, functional and friendly format. They're colourful & they feel good to hold. Don't fix something that isn't broken. & also there's a certain pleasure from having a plenitude of books around you, all the different sizes & covers & the design on their spines, sitting there on the bookshelf. I-Pods have already more or less ruined the experience of shopping for music, so now something has to ruin the experience of shopping for books!?

On the other hand, there is the mounting guilt I feel at being a person who collects too much stuff. There was a time when this was a cool & sexy way to be, but everyone's freaking out about the waste we're creating and the planet is going down the tubes so maybe converting things to data is a good idea, I don't know. Also I don't want to be a person who has to hire a fleet of vans every time he shifts house. I live a very transitory life at the moment, I shouldn't be loading myself down with tons of little objects.

I am still conflicted about the whole thing, & I don't think anything will ever take away my love for A5 glossy paperbacks from little indie publishers (hi Dover!), but I have to admit this device is handy. Through various means I have already loaded the Kindle with 182 books – all kinds of shit. Didn't cost me anything, & there is space for much more. Hurray.

For anyone who's interested I will now give you a quick run down of its functionality.

It has wi-fi, but only to access the “Kindle Store”, which is Amazon, where e-books are mostly a huge rip-off, although many classics are available for free since they're out of copyright. Books from Amazon come in some specialised format they've developed for the Kindle. However you can plug it into a computer's USB port, then drag & drop pretty much anything onto it. It reads RTF and PDF files for instance, although in the latter case it's hard to resize the document to fit the screen.

The screen is weird. When I first unpacked the Kindle from its box I thought it had a decal sticker on the screen telling me how to switch it on, since the thing was obviously off and uncharged, but it turned out the message was actually the factory pre-set. Duh. Because it's magnetically charged ink or something. So what you have is a black and grey display which has the same qualities as a page. It doesn't reflect glare, it isn't backlit, etc. It's quite easy on the eye while reading.

One interesting feature is that you can re-size the text. The default setting packs slightly less text on the screen than you'd get on one page of a paperback novel, but you can increase the font size to get less words on the page. This is weirdly soothing, like reading a large print book – you don't need to squint so much while you read (but you're shuttling through the “pages” like crazy). “Pages” turn one at a time, so it's annoying when you're flipping back 20 screens or more to re-check some detail or other, but most books have an interactive table of contents you can use to jump into other chapters.

Perhaps the most endearing feature of the thing is that when it goes to sleep, it comes up with a screensaver which is either a portrait of a “great author” (so far I've had Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Agatha Christie, Mark Twain, etc) or some old calligraphy illumination, or some weird, antiquated woodcut of people doing something book-related. It's kind of cool. Or gimmicky. Not sure.

I've already test driven the thing, reading a trashy novel (more on that later), & yeah it has the obvious “new toy” appeal. A strange experience. I guess I enjoyed it. Afterwards I switched back to reading a paperback, and felt mild relief at being back in my comfort zone.

I'll let you know how I get on with this thing.

Has anyone else used one of these, or a rival device?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


What is it like, inside a James M Cain?  It is a strange.

It smokes the cigarette and it writes the crime fiction or it gets the hose
I’m talking from limited experience – the only other Cain I’ve read is Serenade – so someone correct me if I err or overstep the mark.
Inside a James M Cain it is always Los Angeles.  It is always the 30s.  & you can trust no-one, & you know this, because it is always hard boiled.  HARD!  BOILED!
My detractors will say: “Of course it’s hard boiled, it’s crime fiction.” 
& OK I acknowledge this.  In such stories you have hard boiled detectives uneasily working alongside the hard boiled cops while sleeping with hard boiled society dames.  The mechanics are hard boiled, the cigarette girls are hard boiled.  The sports journalists are particularly hard boiled.  OK.  Yes. It's noiry, noiry crime.
In a James M Cain the insurance agents are hard boiled.  Their secretaries too.  The teenage girls are hard boiled, & their boyfriends who are studying to be industrial chemists are hard boiled.  Hell, in Serenade the opera singers were MEGA hard boiled, and don’t even ask about the orchestra conductors. 
In a James M Cain babies sit in their cots, look up at their mothers, and think:
I was through with her.  I needed out – out as in out, out as in now.  But any way I figured it, she had the milk.  Nothing was going to change that.  And then there was the problem of the bars, of not having learnt to walk.  Yeah I’d been fixed, and good.
The hard boiled baby is thinking in the first person past tense

Everyone knows the story – an insurance agent falls for a rich housewife, & together they plot to murder the husband, make it look like an accident, & collect on the life insurance. It's a well-worn story, except not so much when Cain wrote it. Cain is one of the guys who got the ball rolling on this kind of book. & there are a lot of beautiful things going on in Double Indemnity. The language and narration – hard boiled though it may be – is fantastic. Cain doesn't waste time describing anything he doesn't need to, or telling us anything we already know. His occasional passages of description, when they do come, are clipped to the point of awesomeness:

Under those blue pajamas was a shape to set a man nuts

That's the sexy dame. Or try this:

There's nothing so dark as a railroad track in the middle of the night.

That's the crime scene. It's just awesome. It's inspirational.

Because of this the story moves at incredible speed; the book is only 140 pages long, but has the complexity of something much longer. The famous (& good) Billy Wilder film covers, to my memory, something like 60% of the plot of the book.

One major difference from book to screen is the housewife, the be-all & end-all of femme fatales, the incredibly named Phyllis Nirdlinger.

“...But there's something in me, I don't know what. Maybe I'm crazy. But there's something in me that loves Death. I think of myself as Death, sometimes. In a scarlet shroud, floating through the night. I'm so beautiful, then. And sad. And hungry to make the whole world happy, by taking them out where I am, into the night, away from all trouble, all unhappiness...”

In the film adaptation, co-written by Raymond Chandler, you get a lot about how the husband's a drunk & he's awful to her, & he won't give her a divorce. You get a lot of dancing around the subject of murder before our “hero” Walter decides to commit. In Cain's original, Walter doesn't need much talking around. Under Phyllis' pajamas she has a shape to set a man nuts, & as for Phyllis herself, she's a one-woman Death cult. I can see why Wilder & Chandler made Walter more of a "normal guy" & cut the macabre stuff out of the script – who knows how it would have played with an audience – but to me Cain's version rings true. "Normal guys" are capable of all kinds of shit. A cold blooded femme who's probably killed before, & is prepared to kill again, isn't just heartless. She's motherfucking crazy! It makes her much more dangerous, & much more interesting.

& Jesus Christ you should see how all the Death stuff plays out by the end of the book.

I love these old pulp covers.  Check out how the dame is seething with evil-ness

After two books – Serenade was brilliant too, by the way – I'm converted to Cain. I'd never read crime fiction until about two years ago, when a friend (hi Steve) suggested that as a sometime screenwriter I might benefit from the stark, pared-down plots. I'm not much for detectives & murder mysteries, but novels like this, where you're right in with the action & watching the whole sordid mess play out, are a hell of a lot of fun. It's a shadow-version of the world, where anyone's capable of anything, a much bleaker take on human nature than you'll find in most other writing.

GOOD? Yes. Very good. It'll take you two hours to read, you'll most likely love it.

FILE UNDER: crime, the Evil that Men Do, Will They Get Away With It, macabre Death worship, insurance is really interesting when you think about it.

WOULD GO WELL WITH: The Getaway by Jim Thomson. It'd be hard to say which writer has a more pessimistic take on humanity, & both books have much weirder endings than their corresponding films.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Just a short review for this one, it’s a short book, & if I write long reviews for everything then this blog will eat my life – it will EAT MY LIFE, man.

The edition I borrowed off Ed didn't look as flash as this.

This book is terrific. Seriously, it’s a little gem.

It’s terrific because it’s less than 100 pages long, OK well the pages are densely spaced and font is small, but it’s physically quite a small object, and the Kennedy assassination is a huge, H-U-G-E subject, and Robin Ramsey somehow manages to condense everything into this short summary, such that if you aren’t one of those people who want to spend the rest of their lives reading about this, this is all you need to read. So mission accomplished.

Robin Ramsey is the guy who edits Lobster magazine, in case you were wondering.

Anyway. JFK getting shot is a fascinating subject. I mean think about it, the most politically important man in the world gets gunned down in public and the actual killer is never found. Most people believe a conspiracy exists, but the conspiracy itself has never come to light.

Kennedy was shot in Windows 95

& there are some pretty weird aspects to the case. Medical reports suggest TWO different bodies underwent autopsy as “JFK” (the 2nd one is probably the Dallas cop allegedly killed by Oswald). Eyewitness reports and biographical details suggest there were TWO people acting the role of “Lee Harvey Oswald” in the years running up to the murder. There’s no way he could have been in Japan AND New Orleans at the same time. It’s like some crazy doppelganger story.

Two “killers”, two “victims”… seven brides for “Sven’s brothers”!?? ?!

Meanwhile Jack Ruby was a mafia gangster and possibly Oswald’s ex-lover. The whole New Orleans angle – Clay Shaw, etc – is a gay thing. What about the “three vagrants” – some people reckon one of them was E Howard Hunt!

People allege that another one of these guys is Woody Harrelson's dad

& do you realise that E Howard Hunt wrote spy novels in the 40s – and received a Guggenheim Fellowship grant!?! & what’s with Mexico City!?! & what kind of name is “Loy Factor”!?


Seriously who names their kid “Loy”.

Ramsey is very up-front about his take on the assassination. He states his suspicions in the book’s opening paragraph, & makes a compelling case throughout the book, but not at the expense of other people’s theories.

But this blog isn't about spoilers, so instead of revealing the identity of the mastermind behind the assassination, here are some random photos of nothing much.

It was LBJ.

It was LBJ!!

Think about it: who had the most to gain from the assassination!?

Kennedy was going to drop Johnson as running mate in the '64 election. Even worse - Johnson was up for investigation for a major govt fraud in Texas

Johnson and his cohorts had hired a hitman - 'Mac' Wallace - to do their dirty work several times before.

Wallace's fingerprints were actually lifted from the Texas School Book Depository building following the - wait a minute what is with that gnarly patch of skin on the bridge of this guy's nose??


Wednesday, January 19, 2011


You get these things, I think of them as “trick novels”, where everything is based around a clever premise. The story is moving backwards, or the reader is the protagonist, or it’s a novel about writing the novel that is the novel, or whatever. I don’t have anything against these books, per se (I was planning to write one for a while there), I just don’t read them.

So it’s thanks to the White Queen that I ended up reading one last week – around four months after she lent it to me.

On their own, the cover & title wouldn't have grabbed me

Ella Minnow Pea takes place on an island where language is of paramount importance, it’s almost a religion. They have a statue in the town square commemorating one of their citizens, a guy named Nevin Nollop who came up with the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”. There is no telephone system on the island, so everyone communicates via letters, & everyone writes with the corny, zesty vocabulary of a cartoon professor from a kid’s TV show. Anyway the letter tiles start falling off the memorial, and each time they do the Elders decide this means Nollop is speaking from beyond the grave, telling them to stop using that particular letter. So the letter becomes illegal, its use is strictly punished by the town’s fascist police force (they have a fascist police force, despite being a nation of cartoon professor characters), & as the story is told in letters (that’s letters as in missives) the novel stops incorporating the prohibited letters (as in graphemes) in its text. So first you’re getting a novel without “Z”, then “Q” goes, then “V”, etc., etc. Life becomes very hard for people on the island, various rebellions are formed & subsequently crushed, & it eventually becomes clear that the only way to restore order is for someone to formulate a shorter pangram than “the quick brown fox etc etc”, to dispel the prevailing notion that Nollop is some kind of deity. But there’s a deadline, arbitrarily, & so it’s a race against time.

This maybe sounds a little contrived. Like the author decided to write a novel with a diminishing selection of letters, & came up with the plot just to suit the form. & it is like that. It is exactly like that. That, I would venture, is what happened here. Characters have certain names, bizarre habits & occupations which at first seem like eccentric little quirks, but inevitably turn out to have been reverse engineered so they can be discussed without certain letters. For instance the main character is named Ella Minnow Pea. Hmm.

Suspension of disbelief is an issue here. But the second half of the novel – against all odds, since as I say it reads a bit like a zany kid’s educational programme – shifts into a sort of dark, paranoid, dystopian vibe. Characters get lashed, pilloried, exiled. A kindly old professor gets shot in the head evading arrest. A woman goes mad & kills herself in quite a strange way. Etc* & it’s all being told with a diminishing alphabet – this turns out to be a very effective technique for representing totalitarian control. The letter-writers at first tiptoe around the missing letters, then later run into serious problems expressing themselves, finally degenerating into crude phonetics, angry or tragic or hopeful messages written in a sort of grunt-language. It’s kind of... moving to see these people struggling to remain themselves and to connect with each other, with the heavy burden that’s been placed on their communications.

& so, strangely, this one turned out to be quite a good book. It’s nothing earth shattering, but it is quite short, & would take most people less than 3-4 hours to read. It’s a rewarding way to spend less than 3-4 hours of your time.

Today's victim is being threatened by the letter... M

* The shift from "G" rated cutsiness into "PG-13" brutality is a little jarring. I'm not entirely clear on whether Mark Dunn is doing this deliberately - i.e. making the contrast as sharp as possible to illustrate the evils of fascism - or whether he just got carried away. In any event, it's weird & kind of icky, like watching a smurf getting its nose broken. Because of the linguistic constraints the novel places on itself, it's actually quite hard to get a sense of "Mark Dunn the Novelist". We get "Mark Dunn the Wordsmith" instead.

Side note: I often find that my mind half-adapts itself to the reality of whatever book I’m reading (I think the worst case of this syndrome I ever had was when reading The Dancers at the End of Time – I experienced something like a drug come down every time I stopped reading – it seriously bugged me that I wasn’t hooked up to enormous engines which were gratifying my every wish).

Reading Ella Minnow Pea sort of messes with your head, because you’re trying to keep track of what letters are permissible, what things can and cannot be said (characters slip up at times and are arrested for the content of their letters), & then when you put the book down and try writing an email, or ordering a drink from a bar, you find yourself unconsciously tiptoeing around certain letters, words & phrases. Or else you do the reverse & start mentally formulating pangrams. If nothing else, this book will make you temporarily very aware of the language you use.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I set myself a mission in 2010 to read, amongst other things, five books by three contemporary authors. One of them was Kazuo Ishiguro. Like my other reading resolutions in 2010, this didn’t happen. So making up for lost time here.

This is the edition I found in a basket for 50p. Screw film tie-in editions. Screw them!

I just re-read that paragraph, & talking about things I’d meant to do, & making up for lost time, while discussing The Remains of the Day… an irony bomb just detonated somewhere in my head.

OK so, speaking of bombs, & keeping with my policy of no spoilers past page whatever, here’s what you need to know about The Remains of the Day.

The year is 1956. Stevens, a war veteran with a chequered past, has used phony credentials to bluff his way into the role of manservant for Darlington, a scientist engaged in research for what will later come to be known as the Neutron Bomb. Long nights spent working in the lab, a tawdry affair with the housekeeper, & nightmares about his war crimes are causing Stevens to slip downwards from alcoholism into morphine addiction. And if that wasn’t bad enough, someone (his dead wife???) is blackmailing him into stealing plans for the Bomb – that’s assuming the photographs of mutilated girls which keep appearing aren’t hallucinations…

Time is running out for Stevens to defuse the Doomsday Probe

Just kidding.

Here’s what you actually need to know about The Remains of the Day.

The year is 1956. Stevens, former manservant to Lord Darlington, now works for Darlington Hall’s new owner, an American. His boss has suggested Stevens might use his automobile to “take some time off”. A consummate professional, this holiday is possibly the first he has ever taken, & it gives Stevens a chance to reflect on a lifetime of service.

I was unsure about reading this one. It won the Booker Prize – never a good sign. At first glance the subject matter didn’t really appeal. Etc. But after reading Never Let Me Go I was keen to read more Ishiguro, & people say this is his masterpiece. & it paid off, because this book is very, very good. It’s engrossing, it’s sad, it’s fucking scary, it’s even (occasionally) very funny.

Last year I’d read parts of another Booker winner, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, and as an aspiring novelist I’d caught myself thinking “this is a good book, maybe even a great book – but it doesn’t feel like it’s out of my grasp – hell maybe I could write a book on this level one day”. The thing is, about The Remains of the Day, is that I could never write anything like this in a thousand years. The setting and the characterisation are meticulous. The book tells a strange & entertaining story, predominantly through the scattered recollections of its narrator, but never loses sight of the bigger picture it’s painting. We see only what Stevens chooses to show us of his life story, but as readers we can see right through him to the truth beneath it all – Ishiguro makes this very, very easy without compromising Stevens as a character, & once he knows we’re reading the “real story”, Ishiguro then elaborates and expands on this inferred narrative to create a tragic allegory for the history of the English people, between and after the two World Wars.

It’s easy to lampoon the English, particularly the Edwardians, for being emotionally repressed. The brilliant (& terrifying) thing about this book is that it shows the rationale behind the repression, the ideal it represents, the purposes it seeks to achieve, the actions & decisions it precipitates, the horrible consequences & after-effects, & the eventual difficulty but pressing need for atonement, or reconciliation.

I’m always claiming that such-&-such a book or film is actually horror (The Office, Last Exit to Brooklyn, etc) – this is one of those books. It plays out with the sickening, hypnotic logic of a bad dream. There’s a major set-piece halfway through, which spins through all sorts of tonal shifts, from political intrigue to high farce a la Faulty Towers, to romance, to tragedy… the sequence runs for about forty pages, effortlessly shuttling between its various elements, then comes to a quiet and brutal halt, a point which effectively forms the centrepiece of the novel. & here the narrator turns to us, smiles proudly & says, effectively: “this is the moment I destroyed myself as a human being. It was the happiest moment of my life”.

Kazuo Ishiguro is a mammoth dickhead, for claiming in an interview that “all artists begin losing their ability at age 35” (thanks a lot arsehole, I’m 34 and unpublished), but I think he’s turning into one of my favourite authors. Has anyone else here read Never Let Me Go? It’s a similar blend of sadness, joy, philosophy and scary badness.

I’m really keen to read The Unconsoled now, which is his reality bending “bad trip novel”. Well so what else is new, I’ve read the first 200 pages of that book on three separate occasions.

You see what I mean about these fucking film tie-in editions - as if the film hadn't already colonised your imagination, having the ACTOR on the COVER makes it impossible to imagine Stevens as looking like anyone else. Grr!

GOOD? Hell yes. This is the best book I’ve read in ages. This is the bar that books will have to rise above to gain the coveted title of Best Book Chris Reads in 2011. I will keep you posted about whether anything comes close.

FILE UNDER… modern literature, historical, character study, no seriously it’s actually horror.

WOULD GO WELL WITH… Never Let Me Go, as I say they’re very similar stories. Would also go well as a “shadow-counterpart” to something like Room With A View.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Here’s the first finished book of 2011 – give it up, people! Woo yeah, Happy New Year! EVERYBODY INTO THE POOL!!

OK now calm down. Just take a minute to calm down. There’s… here there’s towels for people who need them. I was only kidding about the pool, geez guys.

Freaking book weighs like 2kg

The most incredible thing about finishing The Monster Show is that I can now finally return it to the Leith Public Library, where it’s clocking up monster-sized fines on its second withdrawal (I am terrible with library books, or borrowed books of any kind). Ha ha get it, I said "monster sized". I could read the 6 o'clock news, I seriously could. The second most incredible thing about finishing it was witnessing how much it managed to go off the rails in the last 100 pages, after a good start.

This is the 4th or 5th history of the horror genre I’ve read, more or less. I read a lot of these books actually, from analysis of the (film) genre in general, to interview books with novelists or film makers, book-length essays on people’s careers, etc. The Monster Show is a different sort of book to most of what I’ve read, in that it’s a “cultural history”, & it’s kind of insane.

I suspect this has a lot to do with the author. David J. Skal, apart from having a name like a David J. Schow tribute band, previously wrote a book called Hollywood Gothic, which apparently charted the history of Dracula from novel to play to the initial Tod Browning film adaptation. The Monster Show spends around 100 of its 400 pages covering this very subject again – in fact the book reads suspiciously like something his agent or editor talked him into writing afterwards.

“So, David, the Dracula book is a success. What’s next?”
“Well… I have an idea for a book… sort of a history of, er, Dracula.”
“Yeah, good. Promising. Hmm. Let’s expand on this idea a little. Maybe it could be a sort of history of horror in general…”
“What, you mean like… like Frankenstein too?”

Skal doesn’t write horror history, so much as he gushes at length about horror and his perception of it, and what this motif means in this context. His forte, & interest, is clearly the Universal monsters of the 1930s and 40s. Around 60% of the book covers this period, & this is a good thing, since Skal knows all of the production histories, the people, & the weird stories surrounding them. Tod Browning, for instance, is W-E-I-R-D. In fact, since he’s more interesting than me reviewing a book you’ll almost certainly never read, I’ll summarise for you now.

Tod Browning grew up in the US countryside where he sang in the choir & had “a voice like an angel”, but ran away to join the circus at 13, where he was a barker for sideshow freaks, & was himself a freak act where they’d fake his death, bury him alive outside the fairground, & then dig him up 1-2 days later. Young Tod would lie underground, breathing through a tube & unable to move for up to 48 hours. Later when the sideshow got busted for fraud (Tod had not actually been killed) he drifted into the film business, where he made strange light-hearted movies about circus people. An A-list director, he started drinking like a fish & drove his car off the road, killing a young star & starlet, after which he made no public appearances for a year. The extent of his injuries was never disclosed, but he had a fake jaw which he would sometimes detach & hand to people. Went back to making movies (although everyone hated him because of the dead star & starlet), & started making weird thrillers with a heavy body mutilation/castration theme. “Lon Chaney has no arms, but is a killer!”. “Lon Chaney has no legs, but is out for revenge!”. Etc. Sat by drunk & inattentive while someone else directed Dracula, which was a massive success despite being a crap film apparently, then pulled it together to make Freaks, which bombed on account of being WAY TOO MUCH for 1930s audiences. Never had kids, never gave interviews except when ghost writing interviews for his actors. Got blacklisted for being a drunk, crept off & died somewhere.

Keep watching.  Any minute now he is going to hand you his detachable jaw

Strange man.

The real fun of Skal’s book is where he starts psychoanalysing popular consciousness. Horror hit it big after the Great War, when the streets were crammed with mutilated veterans and the Depression was looming as a second big apocolaypse (Hmm, that figures). Horror has recurring themes of asexual reproduction – this is because men are scared of having sex with women (... really? Oh.). Horror is popular with boys & young men because the body transformations echo the ravages of puberty (the… ravages?). Etc. It’s all conjecture, and some of it is pretty damn silly, but I have a lot of time for this sort of thing, just as I have a lot of time for standing around at parties listening to drunk people talk about how aliens built the pyramids.

As I say, Skal’s on form talking about the 30s, 40s, & 50s. You can tell he’s enjoying himself & the book is flying past, & then you realise he’s only left about 100 pages to talk about the 60s, 70s & 80s (the book was published in 1993). This is sort of a problem, for a book attempting to be a cultural history of horror in the 20th century. Any fan worth anything will tell you that the 70s are the GLORY DAYS of the genre, & the 80s hold a special place in my heart. Skal’s rushed summary overlooks dozens (well, thousands) of films, film makers, & writers who are central to the genre. You get the feeling that he hasn’t even seen all of the films he’s talking about – there are a couple of strange errors in his plot summaries – & the “psychoanalysing of the popular consciousness” starts getting loopy. Carrie (& Stephen King’s career in general) are all about socioeconomic class & status consciousness. AIDS created the Goths, who are blood-drinking proto-vampires. Then holy mother of God, here he goes on cosmetic surgery in the 80s:

The relationship between the (usually) female patient and the (usually) male cosmetisurgeon is often morbidly eroticised along horror movie lines… as in prostitution, the woman’s sexual pleasure is not the point. The brides of science are there to please the scientist and lie on his table. Their bodies, in all likelihood, will never please him; he will cut them again and again, as in a slow-motion, socially sanctioned slasher movie in miniature…

It goes on for two pages like that.

Strange man.

I’m not necessarily complaining. I hate cosmetic surgery too (damn that crazy eroto-surgical ballet of death!). & the last section of the book is a cracking good read, just for different reasons that I think were intended. It’s less a genre history than a rabid prose poem by this stage. Maybe every horror fan should write a book like this, or at least an essay or two – I think these tropes mean different things to everyone.

In general, Skal loves digging around in the cultural unconscious looking for the sick bits, holding them up & saying “see – it’s here! It’s all here! People who aren’t horror fans are just as damaged as the rest of us!!” Good on him, I guess. Although increasingly I’m confused by people who take it upon themselves to make long arguments for why it’s OK to like horror. Of course it’s OK to like horror. Horror is normal. It’s been a key component of mythology, folktales & fiction since the beginning of time. The only weird thing about horror is that it got excised from storytelling a couple of centuries ago & had to creep back as its own genre. People should have to explain why they don’t like horror. Honestly.

God, what an incredibly long review. I’ll wrap it up now.

GOOD? – Ah yeah? It’s all right. Don’t make this the first genre history you read though, or if you do, don’t kind yourself you have a well-rounded education.

FILE UNDER… Genre history, “Golden Age” of horror, creative expression posing as non-fiction.

WOULD GO WELL WITH… A more dedicated study like Carlos Clarens’ Horror Movies (thanks Pearce), or Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies (thanks Pearce). For more creative interpretations of the genre & what it means, try the excellent interview collection Faces of Fear (thanks Pearce). Pearce has leant me almost all of the horror non-fiction I’ve read. He should really write one of these books one day.

Not 100% sure, but this edition looks like it has an Edward Gorey cover.  Much better.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

THE BOOK OF SKULLS by Robert Silverberg

After several months of downtime I started reading again in November/December. Not just that. Incredibly I actually started finishing books – three of them.

They were good books, too. I might get around to writing up my thoughts about The Silent Land & Maigret Mystified at a later stage, but The Book of Skulls sort of screams out (soundlessly, in the desert sun) to be mulled over & written about & recommended to just about anyone. Well. Anyone over the age of sixteen who isn’t in the middle of a psychiatric crisis, & who isn’t a potential threat to themselves or others.

First edition cover - cool.

The Book of Skulls has more or less kicked this blog into life. This is ironic, given what it’s about.

I heard about this book through… I don’t know how I heard about this book. Online somewhere, I don’t know. The edition I tracked down is recent, a reprint through Gollancz’s “S F Masterworks” series. I don’t tend to read a lot of science fiction, & while this book was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula & Locus awards in 1972-1973 its genre status is open to interpretation. For me, this is clearly a metaphysical, existential type horror story. You’ll find others online arguing that it is sci fi in the true, pure sense – i.e. a fantastical/supernatural notion is being treated rationally within a credible real world setting. Does it matter? I don’t think these distinctions matter.

In the early 70s, four college room-mates are driving from New England to Arizona. The trip is happening in the present tense, & they’re taking turns narrating in stream of consciousness. Outside the car the Vietnam war is being fought, revolution & drug consciousness are sweeping through the campuses, sexual revolution is transforming America. Inside the car, there’s one thing on everyone’s mind, namely that Eli (the Jewish one) has found an old manuscript in the university library called the Book of Skulls, whose authors claim to hold the secret of immortality.

Maybe the document is genuine. Maybe the Keepers of the Skulls existed, or still exist – maybe Eli’s right & they have a monastery in the desert outside Phoenix. None of these kids are sure they believe it, in fact at least one definitely doesn’t believe. All the same, you have to take the chance.

According to the Book, the Keepers have conditions. Candidates must present themselves as a group of four (a Receptacle). One of the group must take their own life, & one other must be sacrificed by his friends, for the remainder of the Receptacle to attain immortality. So: one suicide + one murder = two live forever. That’s if the Book is for real.

That’s the pitch. (pause for effect) I know, right? Amazing. Everything I’ve just told you is conveyed in the first chapter, & the book takes off from there.

Mwah hah hah.  Behold us flying in our hover-skull.

The covers of most editions of this book emphasise the desert setting, & maybe that’s another way of looking at this story – as a twisted sort of Western. Everything happens in sharp relief. The set-up is simple, there are a minimum number of characters, a mute sense of fate & confrontation looms overhead. The hidden passions, crimes, & inner deformities of its cast are dragged out into the open, life is weighed with death. Everything in the story happens for a reason. Or else everything that happens gradually gains significance, because at the heart of this situation there’s a terrible gravity.

Reading The Book of Skulls is a bit like watching a sports game. We meet the characters: some we like, others we don’t. To be honest, they’re each quite shitty in their own way. But they’re good characters & they're there to represent us, the readers. We watch them & bond with them, but we’ve been told what’s lurking up ahead for them, so… who’s it going to be? Who are you rooting for? That guy? You sure? OK well let’s see what happens…

By around 10 pages in I found that a weird, sick feeling was settling over me. The writing, the POV of the characters, is in no way melodramatic or ponderous – for the most part the tone is quite flippant, things play out naturally, it’s a smooth read – but all the same there’s an invisible thread stitched through it all, of anxiety, corruption… doom! I love this kind of thing. This book really got me thinking about mortality, morality, the boundaries of life. It’s a deceptively heavy (& increasingly uncomfortable) book.

There are a lot of ingredients going into this. Questions of faith, the relevance or defensibility of irrational thought in a rational, scientific world. Our need to try to extend life, the relevance or irrelevance of morality in pursuit of this goal. The inevitable traumas hidden inside us, the way these past moments create & define us. The philosophy which begins to emerge from all this, the philosophy of the Book of Skulls manuscript, is macabre (and cool): life can be attained by attuning oneself with death – the skull beneath the face, Death in Life, etc, a sort of morbid yoga. Past sins must be recalled, meditated on, confessed, but there is no call for penitence or forgiveness. The philosophy is cold, mechanical, amoral. This is not a situation where the good guy will necessarily come out on top. It’s a pragmatic & strangely credible process of self-transformation, & as readers we can only sit back & watch in horror (or fascination, or envy) as the change begins.

GOOD? Yes, definitely. It’s creepy, cool & intelligent. Unless you’re going through a depressive episode of something, you should read it.

FILE UNDER… Existential horror, western, dark side of the 60s revolution, morality play, New Age philosophy, yoga & self-improvement.

WOULD GO WELL WITH… Journal of the Dead, by Jason Kersten. Actually the film of JotD, “Gerry”, would have made a great double feature with the Book of Skulls film, had it ever been made. Turns out William Friedkin was going to make such a thing back in 2005/06, but it never happened. Shame.

The edition I bought has the cheesy cover.  Lame.

What Happened in 2010

An lot of things happened in 2010. This blog wasn’t one of them.

It’s alive though.
In 2011, This Blog Shall Rise.