Thursday, 30 September 2010

Fifteen books that will always stick with you

There are always things like this doing the rounds on Facebook, and when this one hit I happened to have fifteen minutes to spare and a timer on my desk:
"The rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. They don't have to be in order of importance."
So why pick those books? Looking at the list the next day, some of them surprised even me. Most I read as a child or teenager, the first time I clicked with a special author, but others are more recent:

  • Fire and Hemlock – Diana Wynne Jones. A remarkable, wonderful book, where reality is pulled out from beneath your feet so gently that you hardly notice at first.
  • Star Trek 10 – James Blish. Featuring "Galileo Seven" and "The Empath", two of my favourite of Blish's adaptations. "The Empath" gave me nightmares for years.
  • The Eyes of the Overworld – Jack Vance. One of my very favourite books.
  • The Final Programme – Michael Moorcock. I could have picked half a dozen Moorcock books, but this one made me realise how free a writer could be.
  • The Duelling Machine – Ben Bova. Like The Final Programme, this features two characters that ultimately merge into one. I read this as a teenager and it was one of my favourites for a long time, perhaps because it was one of the best books I've read about gaming.
  • Planets for Sale - A.E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull. I just loved reading this with a packet of Hobnobs. I loved it so much I worked my way through all van Vogt's other books: I've come to believe I should have been looking for something by E. Mayne Hull instead.
  • A Blackbird in Silver – Freda Warrington. Strange one this – it's not one of my favourite ever books, but there was something about the way you saw the things floating in the sky, and wondered if you would get to go up there in the story, and then you did, that made a huge impact on me.
  • Telzey Amberdon – James H. Schmitz. A book I stopped reading because it was so close to what I wanted to write, but I couldn't stay away. Also: the source of my younger daughter's name.
  • Way Station – Clifford D. Simak. I'm not sure I even remember it properly – I'm probably mixing it up with some of Simak's other rural stories – but I've always thought this would make a great film – a great Tom Hanks film.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas. I read it in French, and learnt to read French properly through it. At the beginning I was reading it at a rate of ten pages an hour, by the end I was up to thirty.
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go – Philip Jose Farmer. The epitome of high concept.
  • The Man Who Japed – Philip K. Dick. More high concept. More dashing of reality. More dual personalities. The first time I realised how special Philip K. Dick was.
  • Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe. One of the greatest reading experiences of my life.
  • McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales – ed. Michael Chabon. I don't think I'd even finished reading the introduction before I started planning Theaker's Quarterly Fiction. I still haven't actually finished it, but it had a colossal impact on my life.
  • Doctor Who Annual 1979. I would end up reading a couple of hundred Doctor Who books, but this was (I think) the first.
The Doctor Who Annual 1979 was the first of these I read (Christmas Day, 1978), and the most recent is either Telzey Amberdon or Fire and Hemlock, from 2007 or 2008.

I imagine that if I'd taken another 15 minutes I'd have ended up with a slightly different list (possibly a less honest one!). I'm disappointed to have forgotten about Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet, which I think about a lot. But this is a good snapshot...

    Ms Wildthyme and Friends Investigate, by Stuart Douglas, Cody Schell, Jim Smith and Nick Wallace

    Iris Wildthyme is a brassy time-traveller and adventurer – a cross between Mrs Cornelius and Una Persson – who originated in the novels of Paul Magrs before achieving a certain notoriety in his Doctor Who books. This book of four novellas is largely devoted to her friends.

    "The Found World", by Jim Smith, featured Professor Challenger, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Watson, submarines and secret Scottish bases, and while it was good and pushed each and every one of my buttons, I fear I'm in danger of exploding if I read another Victorian crossover too soon.

    In Nick Wallace's "The Irredeemable Love" the time-lost inhabitants of the Manleigh Holt Police Station investigate a terrible house in the woods. This relatively serious and surprisingly frightening story, told from a series of overlapping viewpoints, was for me the highlight of the book.

    "Elementary, My Dear Sheila" by Cody Schell couldn't have been more different. This tale of a Mexican wrestler, Senor 105, and his friends – including Sheila, a balloon with a Parisian accent – convening for a book club was surreal and deliberately silly. Welcome qualities in any story! But this one would perhaps have been more enjoyable had the characters treated the silliness with a little more seriousness.

    The punctuation goes a bit haywire in "The Shape of Things" by Stuart Douglas, but the story's good fun, plucking a MacGuffin from the previous story and running with it through time. Iris, her panda and her bus take centre stage and of all the stories this felt most reminiscent of Iris's earlier adventures.

    Unfortunately the book is poorly proofed, and if you haven't read previous volumes it may seem rather randomly assembled, but there is plenty to enjoy regardless: it's entertaining, good-natured and undemanding; a good collection of very varied novellas.

    Ms Wildthyme and Friends Investigate, by Stuart Douglas, Cody Schell, Jim Smith and Nick Wallace, Obverse Books, pb, 192pp.

    Wednesday, 29 September 2010

    Blind Swimmer: An Eibonvale Press Anthology

    Offered the theme “creativity in isolation”, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the authors in this anthology have imagined solitary beachfront or wilderness retreats for their writer protagonists to escape to. One of the most interesting stories here, Nina Allen’s “Bellony”, tells the story of an aspiring writer’s growing obsession with the work of a children’s author. Allis Bennett had escaped Nazi Poland as a child, and then spent her life in seclusion in a dowdy seaside town, producing a series of peculiar books before disappearing without trace. Fond of these books from childhood, the young woman moves into the missing writer’s empty house to discover that Bennett’s official biography is riddled with omissions and deceptions.

    It’s the sort of literary and metaphysical detective story that reminded me of Paul Auster. It doesn’t operate on the same level as a book like Oracle Nights: for one thing there is a tendency for minor characters to provide their life stories replete with the next piece in the story’s puzzle, and the author is a bit too keen on interpreting the story for us, rather than simply telling it. However, she gets the ramshackle, sun-bleached atmosphere of her seaside town just right, and the unravelling of the mystery is genuinely gripping. I did begin to think of Allis Bennett as a real author, and could almost visualise the faded paperback covers of her strange children’s novels.

    Douglas Thompson also conjures a beachfront retreat, but his writer protagonist is already an enfant terrible whose first novel caused such ructions in society, and made him so much money, that he decides to live as a recluse for the next thirty years, to write more of his scabrous masterpieces and avoid the polluting touch of the book business and the fawning world of fans and critics. It’s a premise that raises interesting questions and gets to the heart of the book’s question: how far can any artist remove herself from the rest of the world and continue to produce relevant art? Is it necessarily the case that the further one withdraws into a shell of work and solitary reflection, the more navel-gazing the output? What kind of crazy stories would really get written (if any) by a novelist who spent thirty years without communicating with the rest of humanity, and would there be any point in reading them?

    Coincidentally, on the 26th September on Radio 4’s “Americana” programme, the crime writer James Ellroy claimed:

    I don’t read books. I fear stimulation: going to motion pictures … I ignore the world as it is today. I do not follow politics contemporaneously at all. I have no opinions. I am not on the internet. I do not watch television, have a cell phone or read newspapers. I feel no social obligation to keep up with the world today.

    But is there a point when retreating from distractions means cutting oneself off from any source of real subject matter, or are the contents of a genius’s head enough to keep him going for a lifetime of masterpieces?
    Frustratingly, having stated the question in the premise of “The Flowers of Uncertainty”, and set the thought experiment in motion, Douglas Thompson doesn’t seem too interested in answering it. Instead we have a clever recursive series of nested narratives, a range of alternate universes that the author might have found on his return to society.

    Starting in a languid, poised style, the story becomes steadily more bombastic at each layer of the story, until the characters are waving guns and throwing silly Hollywood action-movie put-downs around. It’s an entertaining ride as the carpet is repeatedly pulled out from under the reader’s feet, but it feels like an opportunity wasted.

    Somewhere further down the coast, in “The Book of Tides”, David Rix’s writer is using his beachcombing finds as inspiration for his magnum opus, a linked series of stories based on his “readings” of the tides. Like Derek Jarman’s garden, his beach hut is surrounded by driftwood sculptures that protect him from the world. He makes tentative connections between his found objects, like a tarot reader hoping that the vaguer his interpretation, the more likely it will contain some grain of truth. The arrival of a more unfathomable bit of jetsam in the shape of a fugitive girl complicates his meditative existence.

    There is something tentative about the tone of the whole story that I found frustrating. A particular lump of driftwood is described as “Barkless and cracked, it seemed to reach out, though he wasn’t sure whether it was in agony or exultation. Maybe both”. There’s a reluctance to assert anything definite, to engage with the world, to make a simple decision. When the two characters find five human corpses washed up on the beach, there is no mention of alerting the authorities, or even of burying the dead. The writer is so caught up in his creative monologue that his response is to assemble another piece of sculpture on the beach.

    There are problems with the pace of the dialogue: it lurches from stammering sentence fragments into unexpected outbursts of emotional anguish. Here and there the conversations had a lumpy quality that reminded me of soap operas where people invariably show their anger or distress by straightforward shouting. But the awkward, disjointed relationship between the two lonely characters is sensitively portrayed, and the whole story is attentive to the small, subtle clues in the way two strangers might relate to one another. It’s a serious piece of work, perhaps taking itself just a little too seriously.

    Thankfully Rhys Hughes is on hand to provide a welcome slice of levity in “The Talkative Star”, a flurry of terse microfictions about the sun and his oblique conversations with various characters including the author himself. This is, I fancy, the same sun who appears in Aesop’s fable, although he is more eccentric and whimsical here, a less gormless cousin to the Mighty Boosh’s moon.

    Like Nina Allen’s writer, Gerard Houarner’s Vietnam Vet in “The Flea Market” finds redemption by rummaging through crates of other people’s stuff, in this case, a stack of pretend, cardboard records drawn by school children which have the power to induce hallucinations and visions of his dead family. It’s a unique conceit, and the story undoubtedly creates a heavy, drugged atmosphere. But there are some bits of stylistic trickery that grated on my nerves, in as much as Houarner tries to wedge large chunks of backstory into a single metaphor:

    “The sense of dislocation was as bad as coming home from war nursing a wound, a habit, and the title ‘baby-killer’ from a rich kid in poor drag at the airport.”

    Andrew Coulthard’s “Lussi Natt” is an overlong supernatural horror in which the by now familiar solitary writer (this time in the Swedish wilderness) is alternately seduced and terrorised by a trio of birch-tree sprites among other evil presences. I think I could see what the author was aiming at here, and all the necessary ingredients to make a genuinely frightening story were in the mix. The author tries repeatedly to escape his predicament, but apparently mundane circumstances frustrate him over and again. There’s always the possibility that his weird experiences are merely the side-effect of forgetting to medicate for his bipolar disorder. One could imagine this as an effective and subtle psychological horror movie, but there is no snap to the storytelling. Every phone call home is laboriously played out in full, and rather than building to a crescendo of unease, the plot meanders back and forth between apparently unrelated encounters with the evil spirits of the woods.

    Underworld clich├ęs abound again in Terry Grimwood’s “The Higgins Technique”, this time about the porn industry, and a desperate writer who tries to resurrect her flagging career by immersing herself in the dark world of rape fantasy porn, in order to write about it. The director is a sweaty, booze and cigarette soaked has-been, the male porn star is a vacuous puppet, and the money men are Eastern European and sinister. Of course the writer has her epiphany, where the hastily sketched backstory of her baby’s cot-death can be brought to closure. The story is almost saved by a disturbingly ambiguous ending – I wasn’t sure whether the protagonist was really going to survive to write her confession.

    The story is told from several viewpoints, including that of the lonely, masturbating porn consumer, and I could see what slant Grimwood has taken on the “creativity in isolation” theme. All the characters are isolated from one another by an abusive industry, and all are struggling to create something: the director is still dreaming of being a real film-maker, the actress is trying to find a unmarketed niche to write herself into, even the porn addict is using his imagination. But the characters are for the most part so two-dimensional, and their motivations and hang-ups so off-the-peg that this potentially interesting take on the given theme doesn’t catch fire.

    Then there is Alexander Zelenyj’s amusingly dreadful tale of sexual obsession that shouldn’t have been allowed to share the same binding as decent stories like Nina Allen’s “Bellony”. “Far Beneath Incomplete Constellations” is the grandiloquent tale of a university lecturer’s controlling, abusive sexual relationship with one of his female Japanese students. It’s a story that never uses one word when half a dozen will do, preferably Latinate and eldritch ones. Whenever the main character realises anything, he has “an epiphany”. There are absurdities such as “it had birthed anger in him” when something makes the protagonist angry.

    The central motif, that of the protagonist riding his lover, who has transformed into a crimson (not red!) winged beast, as a metaphor for sex, reminded me of the animated sex scene in the movie “Anchorman”, when Ron Burgundy and his lover ride pink winged unicorns, and I found that reading the story was a lot less onerous when I imagined the protagonist’s dialogue read out in Burgundy’s voice. Later on my hunch was confirmed when I learned that lecturer’s office smelled of “rich mahogany”, which is of course, one of Burgundy’s least successful chat-up lines (“I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”)

    Besides being at times laughable, the protagonist’s insane notion that his Japanese lover is inhuman, a lust-making shell designed to entrance him, is not seriously questioned anywhere in the story. The Japanese student is herself made too timid, pliable and inarticulate to effectively counter this violent dehumanizing idea. The story ends with the man riding an asteroid accompanied by one last injudicious metaphor: he fishes a drowned bluebird from a pond full of semen.

    Despite editorial oversights such as “Far Beneath Incomplete Constellations”, a lot of care has gone into putting “Blind Swimmer” together. There’s a thought-provoking foreword by Joel Lane, who discusses withdrawal and engagement as two equally necessary modes for any writer, even one who professes to reject “the mainstream” (whatever that is). “How can this loneliness be shared and learned from without falsifying it?” he asks, concisely summing up the problem that seems to haunt many of the writer-protagonists in this collection.

    “Radical and counter-cultural writers in the UK are branded irrelevant” he writes, and “any writer who does not buy into the ‘affirmative culture’ of forced optimism and competitive individualism is isolated by the indifference of the ‘market’ (a prescriptive myth shared by commercial publishers and booksellers).” I take issue with this: I don’t believe that there is a dominant ‘affirmative culture’ operating in the literary mainstream, and I can think of few recent successful novels that have celebrated competitive individualism or any kind of simplistic optimism. There is a danger of small-press and “genre” writers creating an insular victim culture: uncritically reading one another’s books and believing themselves an oppressed minority. To compare the small press market to “shanty towns…crowded with literary refugees” buys into this myth.

    Lane wisely warns writers not to “withdraw into a narcissistic inner world of perpetual wound-licking”, but I can’t help wondering whether the term “weird fiction” panders to that very same adolescent instinct (“we’re different and special and nobody understands us”). Writers might fool themselves that they’re not getting published because they’re just too “out there” for the mainstream publishers, but it’s hardly a recipe for constructive self-criticism. “Nobody likes my writing but that’s just because they can’t handle it!” Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that it’s not good enough. And one doesn’t have to explore the mainstream canon of literature very far to discover that it has always been packed to the rafters with outcasts and misfits who never saw themselves as part of a separate, parallel tradition of “weird” literature. Joel Lane mentions Jean Genet, and there are of course dozens more canonized Great Authors who did not write “horror”, “fantasy” or “speculative” fiction, but who expressed horrifying, fantastical and speculative ideas that could invigorate and widen the scope of so-called “genre” fiction.

    Blind Swimmer – An Eibonvale Press Anthology edited by David Rix. Eibonvale Press 2010. ISBN 978-0956214751 (paperback), 978-0956214744 (hardback).

    Monday, 27 September 2010

    Withdrawing TQF from the British Fantasy Awards

    We were delighted to be on the shortlist of the British Fantasy Award for Best Magazine/Periodical this year, and I'm impossibly grateful to every one of the silly, lovely people who voted for the magazine in the first and second rounds of voting.

    But as the administrator of those awards I only left it in because (a) I assumed it wouldn't get any votes and (b) a constitutional glitch meant that I couldn't ignore the votes that did come in. That glitch was all sorted out at the AGM of the British Fantasy Society – and now BFS members know why I wanted to fix it!

    The winner of the award for best magazine was Murky Depths.

    The BFS is now taking recommendations for next year's awards, and I've decided to withdraw Theaker's Quarterly Fiction from the Best Magazine/Periodical award for as long as I'm the awards administrator, or as long as I'm the editor of the magazine – whichever tenure comes to an end first. (Individual contributions will still be eligible, in the same way that stories from BFS publications are.)

    That's partly because I'd have been profoundly embarrassed to win the award over a shortlist that included for example Black Static and Interzone, magazines to whom, for all our good qualities, we can't hold a candle. But also because a win for us in that category would have cast not just my integrity into doubt, but the integrity of the entire awards.

    Of course, now I can sit back every year and say, we'd have won that. So in a sense, by withdrawing, I get to win every year... ;-)

    Tuesday, 21 September 2010

    Mr Theaker's Quarterly Fiction Goes to FantasyCon

    I spent the weekend with my very dear friend Mrs Theaker's Quarterly Fiction at my third FantasyCon, and it was generally fab. We were both on the organising committee, but with volunteers like Jenny Barber, Pat Barber and Debbie Bennett doing the things we might have done, we had very little to do at times except enjoy ourselves. Our most onerous duty over the weekend was to arrange the name badges in alphabetical order.

    On the Friday night we took part in the FantasyCon quiz, and while an attachment containing the answers may have swished through my inbox at one point, I promise it was never opened. Since I don't think I contributed a single correct answer, it's an easy claim to believe!

    I was however inordinately proud of being able to half-answer the question, "What is the name of the main character in William Shatner's TekWar?" From the depths I dredged up the name Jake, but couldn't quite remember the surname. With the help of a clue, I guessed at Jake Trousers, but it was in fact Jake Cardigan. And I was wearing a cardigan, so I was really kicking myself over that one...

    Tekwar - TeklordsI can't remember what we did next, but it probably involved either food or drink, and then we returned to the main hall to see Joel Lane, Simon Bestwick, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Lisa Tuttle, Stephen Volk and Allen Ashley discussing how their fiction approaches or engages real world issues.

    On Saturday morning I think we spent some time on the registration desk, which turns out to be the perfect place to talk to new people. They have a reason to come up and chat, but also the perfect excuse to leave when it's time to move on: no one wants to spend the whole convention talking to the convention staff!

    At some point in the day I met Douglas Thompson, a frequent contributor to BFS magazines and TQF, and I also had an interesting chat with Allen Ashley, another Eibonvale author.

    Saturday evening was the banquet, and as a committee member I was fortunate enough to share a table with Garry Kilworth, Lisa Tuttle and Bryan Talbot, who were charming company, and not at all put out to be seated with the help. I very much enjoyed the food this year, and going to collect it from a buffet in such celebrated company was great fun.

    The banquet was followed by the awards, and at this point I have video footage to share, because I announced the first prize of the night.


    There I am, announcing the winner of the BFS Short Story Competition 2010. I did a much better job this year, though I should really apologise to Robin for failing to sell his jokes! Lesson learned: next time (if there is one, after this shoddy performance): learn the lines and look at the audience. Plus: wear paper bag over head! And drink less wine!

    I was also the administrator of the British Fantasy Awards themselves this year (although Guy Adams organised the brilliant ceremony), and so watching them be announced was a weirdly emotional experience. In a silly, wine-filled way, it felt as if the awards were my personal gift, bestowed upon these lovely writers, artists, publishers and film-makers at my personal lordly whim. To be even more silly about it, it felt as if I had in some way been the conduit through which all the love in that room had travelled on its way to the award recipents.

    David Howe, award in hand
    But I wasn't the only one with a tear or two. The British Fantasy Awards mean a great deal to the recipients, and David Howe of Telos, who has been a long-term friend of the British Fantasy Society and FantasyCon, was utterly overwhelmed to receive the Best Small Press Award.

    Another rather lovely moment for me was watching Robert Shearman joke about keeping the award for Doctor Who, but knowing that he would later get an award of his own.

    The full list of winners was as follows:
    • Best Novel: the August Derleth Fantasy Award: ONE, Conrad Williams (Virgin Horror)
    • Best Novella: THE LANGUAGE OF DYING, Sarah Pinborough (PS Publishing)
    • Best Short Fiction: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU WAKE UP IN THE NIGHT, Michael Marshall Smith (Nightjar)
    • Best Anthology: THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR 20, edited by Stephen Jones (Constable and Robinson)
    • Best Collection: LOVE SONGS FOR THE SHY AND CYNICAL, Robert Shearman (Big Finish)
    • The PS Publishing Best Small Press Award: TELOS PUBLISHING, David Howe
    • Best Comic/Graphic Novel: WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE CAPED CRUSADER?, Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert (DC Comics/Titan Books)
    • Best Artist: VINCENT CHONG, for work including covers for The Witnesses Are Gone (PS Publishing) and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 20 (Constable & Robinson)
    • Best Non-Fiction: ANSIBLE, David Langford
    • Best Magazine/Periodical: MURKY DEPTHS, edited and published by Terry Martin
    • Best Television: DOCTOR WHO, head writer: Russell T Davies (BBC Wales)
    • Best Film: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, directed by Tomas Alfredson (EFTI)
    • Best Newcomer – the Sydney J. Bounds Award: KARI SPERRING for LIVING WITH GHOSTS (DAW)
    • The British Fantasy Society Special Award: the Karl Edward Wagner Award: ROBERT HOLDSTOCK
    The awards over, and successfully concealing my disappointment at not winning the award for Best Magazine, I decided for some reason to get stupidly drunk, and I'm sure I failed to impress people I met that night with any of my usual wit. Among those suffering my ridiculousness were Steve Upham of Screaming Dreams, David Tallerman, and Johnny Mains, who probably didn't appreciate me celebrating the late start to his Pan Book of Horror Stories event with a high five for being angry. Did I really do that? I choose to believe not.

    On Sunday morning I suffered a remarkably polite little hangover that left me ready to face breakfast and my third Annual General Meeting of the British Fantasy Society.

    In 2008, as the newbie on the committee, I had sat quietly and listened to people row – really row – about the mysterious and mischievous type who had put exactly the same proposal to the AGM two years running but wouldn't own up to it. It turned out to have been a mistake – the proposal had been accidentally copied across from the previous year's agenda…

    In 2009 I had run out of water too soon and found myself unable to speak with any confidence, so this time I was well prepared with multiple drinks.

    I expected this year's AGM to be more stressful, as for the first (and probably only) time I was running it as chair. But I had prepared fairly well, with nice paragraphs prepared on each of my duties, and we had an overstuffed agenda that left little time for anything but moving on to the next item. It helped also to know that whatever happened, I was stepping down and it would be the new chair's job to fix it! On my way to the lift I actually found myself whistling!

    It all went very well, and even a controversial proposal I expected to fail – to allow the BFS to offer ebook only memberships at a reduced rate, should the committee decide it was ready to offer them – went through, possibly because everyone knew that in a matter of minutes I would no longer be in a position to put such mad schemes into practice. And so the burden of leadership was lifted from my head, and transferred to that of the aforementioned Mr David Howe.

    The Mammoth Book of Zombie Apocalypse!The last event we attended in full was the FantasyCon raffle, raising money (£390, in the end) for the Never Again charities. No longer the unwanted stepchild, hosted by debonair FantasyCon chair Guy Adams with his usual wit and showmanship, the raffle this year brought everyone back together to close out the convention in an astonishing shower of prizes, and some of them fell on me, to the discontent of those who had earlier heard me say at the AGM that I was unlikely to buy many more paper books...

    Here are the freebies I brought home this year...
      The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New Horror
    • The Best of Best New Horror, ed. Stephen Jones, picking out the best from the long-running and BFA-hoovering anthology
    • Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts
    • Zombie Apocalypse, created by Stephen Jones, a World War Z type book by many hands that's sure to be a huge hit.
    • The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, by Robert Rankin
    • The Gabble and Other Stories, by Neal Asher
    • New Writings in the Fantastic, edited by John Grant
    • The Poison Throne, Celine Kiernan
    • The Judging Eye, R. Scott Bakker
    • Bartimaeus: The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud
    • Shenanigans, Noel K. Hannan
    • Blind Swimmers: an Anthology of Eibonvale Press Writers (raffle prize)
    • Nightmare Touch, Lafcadio Hearn (raffle prize)
    • The Dragons of Ordinary Farm, Tad Williams and Deborah Beale
    • Best New Horror 21, edited by Stephen Jones
    My work on Dark Horizons gets a mention on pp. 52–53 of that last book, one article being described as "fascinating", so that was nice.

    I also won House of Canted Steps by Gary Fry in the raffle, but one of my fellow committee members looked at it with such covetousness that I just had to hand it over. He'd earned it ten times over – but fingers crossed that it comes through for review, because I really was looking forward to it myself.

    Selected Stories by Fritz LeiberBelieve it or not, I even bought two old-fashioned paper books, though one was with someone else's money:
    • Never Again, edited by Allyson Bird and Joel Lane. Because I want to trick people into thinking I'm a good person.
    • Selected Stories, by Fritz Leiber. The lovely Caroline Callaghan of Pantechnicon insisted upon buying me a treat for helping to get their last issue out, and to be honest I didn't resist much because I love treats.
    And after a glass of wine with the committee to celebrate the successful end of the event – pictured below – it was time to return home, and we caught our train on time, and we got home on time, and overall it felt like the entire weekend had been a very lucky one. Everything that could have gone wrong, didn't. And of course part of the reason for that is the hard work of the hotel staff. In particular I'd like to thank Mary Morris of the Britannia Hotel, who put up with some very poor paperwork from me at first as we found our feet on registrations.

    The FantasyCon committee. Photograph by David Riley (see davidandrewriley.blogspot.com).

    The best part of the event? Reading the blogs, forum posts and tweets where people said what a good time they had. Here are just a few:
    It broke my heart to see on Twitter that a couple of people had a bad time. If I'm ever involved again, I guarantee we'll set up a "bad time" emergency hotline and whenever necessary send Guy Adams around to entertain you with his cheeky ways.

    The 2011 convention will be in Brighton: www.fantasycon2011.org.

    Tuesday, 7 September 2010

    The Empathy Effect, Bob Lock

    Time was, novelists would invoke the threat of bank robberies, assassination or treason, and this would be sufficient for the reader to prick up their ears and steam with indignation that such crimes should be endured. Surely something should be done… at which stage, enter the protagonist. Nowadays most fictional criminals attract more adulation than opprobrium, which is why, when casting about for a suitably unpleasant villain, so many writers plump for the universally reviled paedophile. With a child molester, you can’t really fail to invoke a churning sense of unease and revulsion in your reader.

    Bob Lock attempts a similar move in this light-hearted and vaguely supernatural crime thriller, giving his hit-man Simon not only a fondness for dishing out pain, but also for underage schoolgirls. Unfortunately for Lock, like so many others before him, once he’s wrested that big sack of emotional distress into his shopping trolley, he really doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s certainly not interested in dealing with the psychology of child abusers in a considered way. It’s only a thriller after all, and the chained up schoolgirl is merely what’s at stake: unless the protagonist gets his act together, then the evil Simon will have his depraved way with seven year-old Kim Siong.

    As a reader I’m uncomfortable with this easy use of paedophilia to punch-up the emotional tension. I got the feeling that the author was a little shaky about it too: we see very little of the kidnapped girl beyond a few downcast looks from the depths of her warehouse prison. Sympathy for the potential victim is rather muted, and quickly overshadowed by loud expressions of indignation about some vicious dog-fighting enthusiasts who appear around the middle of the novel. One can feel the author’s relief that he can now express some uncomplicated pity and outrage about these abused innocents. And perhaps in animal cruelty the book has stumbled upon one of the few other remaining unforgivable crimes of fiction. Nobody, to my knowledge, has yet tried to write a book about a gang of cool dog-fighting enthusiasts. Clooney and Pitt will never appear on screen as a pair of glamorous donkey neglecters. The British can be relied upon to hate the perpetrators of animal cruelty almost as predictably as we foam at the mouth at the suggestion of child abuse.

    It’s an animal-human relationship that receives probably more attention than anything else in the story. Relentlessly chipper alcoholic Welsh traffic warden Cooper Jones has the ability to feel the emotional states of others without the usual sensory clues the rest of us rely on. After he becomes subject to a mysterious vendetta, he eventually teams up with Alby, a Jack Russell who’s a ‘bit of a character’, and like a Welsh Turner and Hooch team up to track down the villains.

    There’s a couple of technical problems: we begin the story with Cooper strapped to the end of a pier with industrial cling-film. He describes his predicament in the present tense, and proceeds to explain just how he got himself into this mess. But then, on page 83, while waiting for a taxi, he switches back to the present tense as though he is telling the whole story from this point in time. The same thing happens a couple of times on page 99.

    Details aside, my main gripe with The Empathy Effect was with Jones’s endless wisecracking and humorous asides. At one point he feels compelled to tell the reader that he has big feet – cue a gag about how ducks are jealous of him. Whatever situation he finds himself in, whether he is being tortured by psychopaths, running away from the police, finding a severed finger in his bag of chips, Cooper Jones can always be relied upon to attempt some light-hearted banter. I was relieved when the narrative left him behind for a few chapters to concentrate on the baddies, who cracked less lame jokes, even if they were rather too fond of ramming home their depravity with Dr. Evil-style arch comments and raised eyebrows. Cooper reminded me at times of an adolescent blogger at pains to convince his putative readership that every incident in their humdrum lives is actually fraught with absurd humour and noteworthy weirdness. But there are some things that, however many leaden quips one attempts, remain resolutely unfunny, and I’m afraid I have to count this book among them.

    "The Empathy Effect" by Bob Lock, Screaming Dreams 2010, ISBN 978-1-906652-07-4, paperback, 135pp, £6.99. Publishing date: TBA. Available soon from www.screamingdreams.com

    Dark Horizons #57

    The new issue of Dark Horizons should be on its way out to members of the British Fantasy Society fairly soon. I'm very pleased with this one…

    It features fiction:
    • Colonies, Jim Steel
    • Moonlight on the Northern Seas, Malcolm Laughton
    • The Other Side of Silence, Stephen Bacon
    • The Apocalypse Has Been Good to Us, Charlotte Bond
    • Resistance: a Love Story, Zachary Jernigan
    And articles:
    • Mark Charan Newton, interviewed by Louise Morgan
    • The Sign of the Unicorn’s Head: the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, Mike Barrett
    • Aliette de Bodard, interviewed by Jenny Barber
    • Catastrophia: Allen Ashley, interviewed by Stephen Theaker
    And poetry:
    • TWTMC, Allen Ashley
    • Pretty Little Things, and Blood Pearls, J.R. Salling
    • Folded in Darkness, Graylin Fox
    • Circe Poisoning the Sea, Sarah Doyle
    • The Giftshop Off the Multiverse, Ian Hunter
    • Younger Gods, Roy Gray
    • Witnessing’s End, Alessio Zanelli
    • Addendum, Rick Coonrod
    And more illustrations than ever before, from:
    • Martin Hanford (who provides the stunning cover)
    • John Shanks
    • Inna Hansen
    • Alf Klosterman
    • David Bezzina
    • and Les Edwards (whose cover artwork for Catastrophia is included).
    It's Christmas, your birthday and the time you found a ten pound note on the street, all wrapped up in one hundred and twelve pages…

      Douglas Thompson launches at FantasyCon

      Eibonvale Press will be releasing two brand new works at FantasyCon, including the second novel by a frequent contributor to the pages of TQF and Dark Horizons, Douglas Thompson. The novel is Sylvow, and Douglas will be reading from it on the Saturday morning at 10am in the dealer’s room.
      In the city of Sylvow, brother and sister Claudia and Leo Vestra made a childhood promise to each other: he would look after the plants and she would look after the animals. Unlike most promises, both of these were kept – each in their own way. Claudia is now a vet – looking after pampered pets or putting down strays and leading a mundane life in the city. Leo, on the other hand, disenchanted with modern urban life, has abruptly abandoned his wife and disappeared into the surrounding forest, his only contact with the outside world being a sequence of dramatic and prophetic letters –increasingly convinced that a semi-sentient natural world is preparing to rebel against its human irritants.
      Nature is a strange thing – although we have done an amazing job of cataloguing and observing it, we still know very little about it. Nature always surprises – and always changes, especially under an external influence such as humanity’s devastating effect on the environment. This book follows its cast of characters through a spectacular clash between everyday life and life on the evolutionary scale – as society dissolves and is stripped away under the onslaught of surreal environmental disaster. Douglas Thompson has dug deep into the inevitable guilt that we all feel, as a culture/species, for the disastrous state of civilization and its effect on both ourselves and the world around us. Sylvow incorporates elements of literary surrealism, philosophy, horror, disaster novel and science fiction into a visionary and highly original work.
      Douglas is also a contributor to Blind Swimmer, an anthology on the theme of creativity in the wilderness, with an introduction by Joel Lane:
      Isolation is a subject that humans have a tricky and contradictory relationship with. On the one hand we fear loneliness, seeking to banish it with contact with others and suffering considerable negative effects from it sometimes. Fundamentally we are a gregarious species. But on the other hand, a contradicting force often sends us desperately seeking isolation. Maybe this is a symptom of the world we live in that creates the need to escape from it in order to actually achieve things. Or maybe it is a deeper dichotomy in our own psyches. Writers in particular feel this dichotomy, which must be why it is quite a prevalent one in literature. Lovecraft, for instance, wrote about little else. Blind Swimmer is an anthology of stories and novellas that seek to explore this isolation, especially in terms of creativity and in terms of how that isolation relates to the outside world.
      The anthology is also a kind of "sampler" and snapshot of Eibonvale Press itself at this key moment in time, featuring all of its writers to date, past, present and near future, in a fascinating experiment in collaboration, with various contributors playing off each other and all giving their best towards a sum greater than its parts. Featuring: Joel Lane, Nina Allan, Gerard Houarner, Rhys Hughes, Brendan Connell, David Rix, Allen Ashley, Jet McDonald, Douglas Thompson, Terry Grimwood, Alexander Zelenyj, and Andrew Coulthard.
      Reviews of both should be forthcoming here just as soon as I have time to read again… For more information see the Eibonvale blog and the Eibonvale website.

      Monday, 6 September 2010

      Hunter Prey

      A spaceship crashes, leaving just a few survivors to hunt a dangerous quarry – whose world their race has destroyed – across a desert. Though it's hard to understand what they are saying through their helmet intercoms, it soon becomes clear that this is essentially the Star Trek episode Arena (or the Fredric Brown story it adapted) drawn out over ninety minutes, with a chunk of Enemy Mine padding things out. My impression was that, like Rodriguez making Mariachi, the film-makers did their sums, figured out the bare minimum they needed to make a movie, and managed to do it – for which they have my great admiration. But having worked out that they could make it, I wonder if they asked themselves whether they should, whether this film was really worth the effort. A low budget film needs to offer something you can't get elsewhere: a good idea, a good script, a strong story, a great performance – something! – and this film doesn't have that.

      It's all very flat, with none of the flair that marked Rodriguez as a director to watch, even when working without money, and aside from some decent alien make-up, a couple of nice spaceship shots, and a good performance by Damion Poitier as the lead alien, there's not much to commend it. The mid-way twist might surprise viewers new to science fiction. The music tries hard, but is hopelessly overblown for lengthy scenes of desert wandering. The casting of Clark Bartram as lead human is perhaps the biggest mistake. Best known for his role in Batman: Dead End, the excellent fan film that was Collara's calling card, he seems out of his depth as the lead in a feature. There's little sense of what the character has been through, or the gravity of what he's planning to do, and if his beard harks back to Dallas, MacReady and the other hirsute heroes of science fiction past, the comparison does him no favours.

      Hunter Prey, Sandy Collora (dir.), Kaleidoscope, DVD, 1hr28