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.