Thursday, 31 October 2013

Young Dictator

My novel The Young Dictator is coming soon! In the next few days in fact.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Strange Auction: Day Three

The charity auction has now raised £396 for Animal Aid. I'm rather pleased with this sum and wish to extend my gratitude to those who have made bids so far!

But remember: you don't have to bid a sum higher than those already bid. A minimum bid of $25 will secure you a copy of the book and a place as a gladiator in the novel, provided nobody else comes along and trumps your bid. Only the six highest bids will become gladiators; if you are seventh you won't be a gladiator but you won't lose any money.

And if you have already pre-ordered the book, the sum you spent on buying it will be deducted from your bid, so you won't lose out!

Click on this link to Meteor House to get involved...

Today's style of gladiator is called the "existentialist". It's good at fighting itself. Here you can see me at auto-fisticuffs. In the red corner, we have me... and in the blue corner, we have me... Even if I lose, I win! Conversely, if I win, I also lose! That's life.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Strange Auction: Day Two

So the auction got off to a hopping start: a hopping start is like a flying start but further back in the history of evolution...

So far four people have bid for the right to be gladiators. One of them is the publisher himself. Perhaps he thinks it's an orc-shun (i.e. the avoidance of orcs) rather than an auction?

This means there is room for two more gladiators... But of course the more bids the better; the more money raised for Animal Aid the happier a bunny I'll be. But that's nothing compared to how happy the real bunnies will be!

To bid for the right to be a gladiator please click on this link to the Meteor House website.

In the photo you can see me demonstrating a style of gladiator known as the "dustup". The previous photograph shows me dressed as a "charladdie". There are many other kinds...

Monday, 10 September 2012

Strange Auction: Day One

Today is the first day of the STRINGENT STRANGE charity auction! If you want to be a gladiator in my new novel (due out soon from Meteor House) then why not bid for the chance?

The auction will continue until September 16th and the six highest bidders will appear in the book fighting a famous writer to the death (you may choose which writer you want to fight!)...

The monies raised from this auction will go to Animal Aid, so your fictional death will help to safeguard real life. For more details and the chance to make a bid please click on this link to the publisher's website.

In this photo you can see me dressed as a typical gladiator. With bin bag tunic; orange frisbee shield; bucket helmet; and mop lance... Total cost of outfit: about £3.50


Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Last Balcony -- a real time review

The Last Balcony: stories and novellas by D.F. Lewis.

A large new hardback collection from InkerMan Press. Received on August 20th 2012. This is going to be a 'real-time review', which basically just means that I'm going to review the book as I go along rather than waiting to finish reading it, a type of reviewing style that D.F Lewis (also known as Des Lewis) has made his own in recent years. He has reviewed dozens of books this way. Some people may say it's a flawed method, that we can't grasp what any book is really about until we have the whole picture, but I disagree. There's no guarantee that a whole picture (whatever that is) will be available to us simply because we defer writing about a book until we have finished it. A real-time review can have freshness and vigour; it relies on anticipation and excitement: and sometimes a hunch can be more truthful than a careful analysis.

Des Lewis has 'real-time reviewed' many of my own books. Is this now a case of payback, of tit for tat? This is what I think of tit for tat... So make up your own mind. All I know is that he deserves to be more reviewed than he currently is. So do I, as a matter of fact. And so do many other writers I know.

Now then. The Last Balcony consists of 43 short-stories and 2 novellas. That's a lot of work, but the short-stories are mostly rather brief. Looking at the contents list I'm pleased to see that 'Between White Lines' has been included. This was the first D.F. Lewis story I ever read (back in 1991 or 1992) and it baffled me completely but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

August 21st

'A Pie With Thick Gravy' -- the first story in the collection is one page long, no more. It's a single paragraph, hardly a story in any meaningful sense of the term. Nothing startling happens, there is no plot, no great conceptual juggling; and yet it works, it's effective. It's horrid and funny and I imagine it sets up the rest of the book very well, like a signpost at the start of a mountain path.

'Warm Air' -- a fabulous story, D.F. Lewis at his best. This story probably references H.P. Lovecraft's story 'Cool Air' (one of the first Lovecraft stories I ever read and worth reading for the absurd 'Spanish' accent) and begins with a Lovecraft quote (also from 'Cool Air'? I imagine so). Lewis reverses many conventions in this piece, with its daytime sleeper, flooded attic and waft of warm air as the mysterious upstairs lodger walks past the room of the narrator. It's wonderfully written; it dates from 1990 when clarity and a certain kind of twisted directness clearly mattered more to Lewis than it did at certain later points of his career. There are three high obvious phases in Lewis' career, when he was firing on all cylinders. The late 80s and early 90s was the first of these phases; and this story is a classic from that period.

August 22nd

'The Pillowghost Stories' -- this is either a fully integrated novelette made up of nine thematically linked parts or a retroactive fix-up of loose vignettes unnaturally forced together. I just don't know. I should know, but I don't. I have to say that this piece grew on me, but at first I didn't like it. A character who refers to himself in the third person (but who at least is aware of this horrible mannerism), people trapped in a room for reasons unknown to them (and also unknown, I suspect, to the author), an analysis of several neologisms (including 'pillowghost'), confusing and cluttered descriptions, awkward wordplay ('...the tell-tale scribbled poster-message pastry-pasted to a pane...') and a general feeling of baffling self-indulgence... but then suddenly it changes in the segment subtitled 'The Weathering'. Clarity of a sort returns and the disparate elements do seem to connect on some level (though I'm at a loss to say how or why). It turns out to be a good story, but I worry that its difficulty and obscurity might put off some readers from pressing ahead, which would be a shame, because the next story is absolutely wonderful...

'My Giddy Aunt' -- one of the five best D.F. Lewis stories I have ever read. It's similar in many ways to 'Warm Air', with the odd lodger on the top floor, the decaying house, the alien domesticity, but despite the overlap the two stories don't really tread on each other's feet in any way. There's a certain sort of conjuring with a particular kind of atmosphere that Des Lewis does better than anyone else (in the same way that Bruno Schulz made 'mercantile gothic' his own subgenre) and in this story his abilities in this regard reach their zenith.

August 23rd

'A Work of Art' -- another strong piece, a two part tale (or two tales joined together?) that simply asks the question: what is art? The fact that no definite answer is forthcoming is a relief. The first part concerns a middle-aged asylum seeker who spends his time in a library researching the question, looking for perhaps a 'de jure' solution; the second part is about two people on the outside seeking perhaps a 'de facto' answer in the roofs of the surrounding buildings. The writing is good, lyrical and clear and rhythmic.

I'll be having a brief rest from reading The Last Balcony now, just for a day or two. I rarely read short-story collections without pausing for breaks. I'm enjoying it very much so far, though...

August 28th

I've had a slightly longer break from reading this book than I expected. I went climbing and hiking on Sunday, a really hard all-day slog, and I was still too tired yesterday to do much writing, so I mostly had a day off from the computer. I did, however, read two more stories of The Last Balcony.

I ought to point out that I tend to have more than one book on the go at any time. At the moment I am also reading the following: Trawl by B.S. Johnson; Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa; The Human Angle by William Tenn and L'Abbé C by Georges Bataille. Until a few days ago I was also reading a Raymond Carver collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but I hated it and abandoned it halfway through. When I was younger, I had the strange rule that if I started a book I had to finish it. These days I'm acutely aware that life is too short to waste on books that one isn't enjoying.

The Raymond Carver was exactly the sort of fiction I dislike; but I didn't just hate it because of its boring subject matter (alcoholics) and its style (pared down) but because none of the stories actually made much sense. I don't demand plot. One of my favourite writers is Donald Barthelme, who never used plot; but if you're not going to use plot, then you must have wit and invention as substitutes.

Des Lewis has wit and invention. He doesn't always show it and some of his worst short stories are as pointless as Carver's (though always written in a more interesting way, at least in my opinion) but the wit is there, the invention is there. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find it; other times it jumps out at you.

'The Candlemass Stories' -- another fix-up, a sort-of novelette similar in structure to 'The Pillowghost Stories' but much much better. In fact my regard for that other work has gone down in the light of this mosaic masterpiece. Here is wit and invention, lots of it, jumping out (and jumping back in, only to jump back out elsewhere in a changed form). The wealth of images can't be kept inside the prose. So we have whistling ears, limbs that go walkabouts on their own, giant snails in a circus, a mountain climbing clown, a library that is a nightmarish gathering place for directional arrows. What any of it means is beyond me, and whether the parts add up into an integrated whole is equally a mystery, but the piece works. It's emotionally affecting. I think this must be a fairly recent Lewis piece (I have no real idea about the chronology of any of these stories; the fact that one tale was published before another doesn't mean it was written first) and if so, then I am considerably cheered, because it means he hasn't lost his touch, has, in fact, improved in many ways, and his finest days aren't behind him. The pretentious flimflam that was characteristic of Lewis at his lowest period (in the mid noughties) doesn't appear here at all. There's no "serependipity of the nemonymous noumena is doodah retrocausal" or any of that meaningless artschool bollocks. Here is a welcome clarity, heartily welcome, but not so much that the mystery, the riddle, the enigma is impaired, diluted or broken.

'Chain Letters' -- this is a good story, but one of the characters annoyed me and because of that I was soured somewhat to the strengths of the tale. This is unfortunate, but I'm not such an objective fellow that I can shrug off annoyances so easily. This story is one of what is now a very rare breed indeed, the epistolary fiction. It's a story about deceit and dogs, I think. The annoying character is named Oscar Ablitt and he's a precious pansy and that's why I can't have any empathy for him; and without such empathy I suspect it's impossible or difficult to enjoy this tale as much as it probably deserves to be enjoyed. Published in 1998 it contains curiously old-fashioned allusions to the internet ('Neither of you, of course, are members of the Internet, that Global Information Super-Highway' [don't you just love that members tag and the capitalisation]) and almost self-predicts its own redundancy. This review is more negative than it should be. Please bear that in mind. That simpering affronted Oscar Ablitt is the reason...

As you can see from this photograph, I have taken off the jacket covering the book. It kept sliding down and making the reading experience less comfortable than it could be. The book is now a solid and pure blue hardback. In one sense this is a shame, because the cover design is very good; it was executed by Tony Lovell, an artist of considerable nascent talent but a bonafide weirdo. I will replace it when I have finished the book.

August 29th

'Entries' -- a fairly early Lewis tale, a decent short (three pages) horror story. Early Lewis tends to be more gruesome than later Lewis. There's more blood. I wonder if he was influenced by the fact that 80s 'Horror' was primarily gore-oriented before the genre became more 'sophisticated' in the 90s? I don't know. I've never seen Lewis as having much to do with the scene as it was in the 80s, with its embossed black paperback covers and titles such as The Blood, The Crypt, The Hood, The Demon, The Hatstand, The Pentacle, and stories filled with flabby prose derived as much from Dennis Wheatley as from Stephen King... Anyway 'Entries' is a perfectly fine addition to the 'strange-child-brought-up-by-strange parents' subgenre, the ultimate example of which must be 'Jack-in-the-Box' by Ray Bradbury (and coincidentally, or not, my very favourite Des Lewis story [not necessarily his best] is also called 'Jack-in-the-Box' but isn't a member of this particular subgenre).

August 30th

'Dorothy Alone' -- the weakest story in the collection so far, at least in my opinion (and I can only ever have my opinion; it shouldn't be necessary to state this fact, but stating it does seem to lessen tension, oddly). This story encapsulates why Des Lewis isn't as popular and appreciated as he deserves to be. Let's not misunderstand that remark: he is actually quite popular and appreciated, more popular and appreciated than he believes himself to be. But he deserves to be even more popular and appreciated. Stories like 'Dorothy Alone' (and he has written many, many, many of them) have served only to keep him back, in my opinion, in my opinion.

The main problem with this story is that it's not alive, it doesn't feel as if it's part of the world, not even the world of literature. There are several reasons for this. One of them is that the writing is awkward, and the main reason why the writing is awkward is because of the grammar. The grammar is bad. I'm all for experimental writing, I love writers who find their own rhythms and play around with sentence structure. But when there is unconventional grammar that isn't musical, then we have problems. This is, or can be, one of Lewis' biggest failings. ('Her staccato thoughts were punctuated like the steps of her dolls which she dreamed they made around her bedside when she slept...', 'They were the only two within a mere arm's length jurisdiction vis à vis the mistress Dorothy...', 'A love long won was a love long had. Sudden passions between strangers were little better than self-abuse upon each other...')

This story was published in 1999, so it's mid-Lewis. The early Lewis hadn't yet learned to be too awkward for his own good; the later Lewis seemed to learn self-discipline. But mid-Lewis did his best to ruin Lewis, to bury all the great stuff under a morass of what is little better than word salad, words bunged together into sentences almost haphazardly, sentences woven into impenetrable paragraphs full of meaningless pseudo-tautologies ('Dorothy alone was Dorothy with her Danubian dolls which, I claim, was just another version of Dorothy alone...')

Another reason this story doesn't feel alive is that it gives no indication whatsoever that it was inspired on any level by any real experience, even tangentially. I know from my own writing efforts that stories based at least partly on something I have experienced instantly come more alive on the page than stories that are purely birthed from the imagination (I'm not talking about stories that rely on analytic logic; they don't require much empirical input). 'Dorothy Alone' feels as if it was written by a man who had been sitting indoors for a long long time without going anywhere or doing anything. I have the same problem with many other contemporary horror writers (I won't name names because that gets me into trouble; they are writers who don't travel anywhere ever). Fiction inspired only by other fiction is somehow dead... 'Dorothy Alone' is at least a useful signpost as to the direction Lewis should be trying to avoid. In my opinion. Stuff like this is why his Weirdtongue novel didn't sell very well. People are reluctant to engage with things that don't make sense and Lewis provided ample evidence, again and again, that he knows how not to make sense.

But this isn't the whole of Lewis, this is only one aspect of Lewis, the leftover artschool Lewis. The better Lewis is utterly wonderful and he's here in this book too, probably dominant in fact; and I feel sure he's going to return with a vengeance in the next few stories. Flipping ahead at random I find this killer line: "The ghost was immediate. Like love with no foreplay."  That's the Lewis I want to read!

September 2nd

'Candle-Dreaming' -- a short tale with a nice conceit about static dreams, i.e. dreams that are a single freeze-framed image rather than a moving sequence of images, and how such dreams, being essentially representative of eternity (which is the absence of time rather than infinite persistence), are the most troubling of all. It's a good idea neatly expressed; and this story utilises multiple-perspective shifts in order to make the whole thing more dreamlike, each shift presented as a separate tableau that is almost a single frozen frame in itself. Form and content are closely matched and the result is aesthetically pleasing.

'The House of Cutt' -- a superb tale, one of the best in the book so far. It's another early Lewis (published in 1988; the oldest story in the collection) and it rather unexpectedly turns out to be a proper story. In other words it has a plot. This is very unusual for Lewis. An old house in the fenlands is the gateway to the centre of the earth, where lurks a being that is part demon, part abstract force, part monstrous cuckoo. The feeling generated by this excellent tale is akin to that created by William Hope Hodgson in his novel The House on the Borderland and I imagine that Hodgson was a direct influence on Lewis when he decided to write this tale, but in fact I prefer 'The House of Cutt' to Hodgson's book: it's more concise, condensed and frankly weirder. Some of the writing tricks are great ('...God must have entered a horizon-throwing competition when creating this part of the world, and had won it hands down...'). A classic Lewis fiction.

'Headcount' -- also an early Lewis but not as accomplished as the previous tale. This is almost another example of the 'strange-child-brought-up-by-strange-parents' subgenre (see 'Entries' above) but not quite. The child isn't very strange, only the father. It feels like something of a filler, this piece, but there's nothing wrong with that really.

September 4th

'Down to the Boots' -- another early Lewis (published in 1989) and another goodie. I have finally worked out what it is about early Lewis that is different from mid and late Lewis: before about 1993 there's more energy in his stories and this energy comes from a feeling of hope that suffuses the work, not that the stories themselves are based on hope, but one can feel the hope of the writer himself; and this hope is probably the hope of a writer who believes that success, fame and happiness are possible, are within reach, that he is at least heading in that direction and that these are concrete goals that he will achieve if he keeps going. Then a certain feeling of disillusionment set in and Lewis' work lost that energy; but later, as compensation, he acquired a composure, an equanimity, that gave his work a pleasing symmetry.

Early Lewis: energy. Late Lewis: symmetry. It's the mid Lewis I like less. But these are very broad generalisations and don't hold true in every case, by no means. Anyway, 'Down to the Boots' is as Lovecraftian as 'The House of Cutt' was Hodgsonian: the fishy fenlands are evoked with truly affecting atmosphere. Lewis does crepuscular decay better than almost anyone.

September 8th

'Tugging the Heartstrings' -- a gem, a minor masterpiece, a beautiful story that I found uplifting. I find horror writing too entangled with despair and negativity to make it an easy read (my character doesn't really 'click' with the values of the genre) and when Lewis does horror I have the same difficulty with endurance: I can only take it in small doses. But fiction like this tale I could happily read all day! It's a very brief story, only two pages long, but it's a true delight, extremely odd and yet not forced in any way. The juxtaposition of mock-feudal and space opera setting is curious almost to the point of perversity and yet it feels utterly right.

There's a great visual joke in this story that anticipates my favourite visual joke in my favourite episode of my favourite TV comedy ever. Here it is. The visual joke occurs at the 5:00 minute mark. In Des Lewis' story it's a spaceship, not an ordinary ship. The rest of this remarkable story is a tumble of superb images,including an intertextual reference to 'Jack in the Box', my favourite Lewis story. 'Tugging the Heartstrings' has completely knocked on the head my theory that Lewis went downhill in the 'mid' part of his career. This tale was published in 1997 and is wonderful. I clearly know nothing. Highly recommended indeed!

Today is September 17th. I've had a quite a long break from reviewing this book. I have in fact read four more stories since I posted my last instalment, but I simply didn't have time to write anything about them. I was too busy arranging a charity auction for my next novel. In a sense this is a bit pathetic of me. Des Lewis simply steams ahead with his real-time reviews and makes no excuses because he doesn't need any. Anyway I'm back now, at least for the time being, and so...

'The Plug' -- if I had to grade all the stories in this book like some sort of school exam, I would give this story a 'B'. It's good, very good in fact, but it's not in the same category as 'Warm Air' or 'Tugging the Heartstrings'. In many ways it's a traditional horror story with a fairly conventional ending. It feels a little bit like a reprisal of the first part of 'A Work of Art' but is more substantial. The thing is that for me Des is at his best when his stories are set either in Dickensian territory (crumbling tenements, toyshops, inner cities) or in isolated rural locations (especially marshes, fenlands) and he is slightly less good when his stories are set in the suburbs. In a sense this almost makes him the opposite of J.G. Ballard. But anyway... 'The Plug' is disturbing and effective enough; and it's disturbing not because of the brutal climax but because of the (deliberate) non-sequiturs of the dialogue, which give it almost a Kafkaesque edge.

'Sisters in Death' -- an almost pure 'Gothic' vignette rather than a proper story. I have no feelings about it either way. It left me unmoved. This story of dying/dead sisters is atmospheric but little more than that. It's a filler.

'Starfish Has Lost an Arm' -- great title, but I have no idea what this tale is about, no real idea at any rate. A giant starfish on the bed, possibly metaphorical or illusory or accidental. A tangible sense of fear that envelops the two main characters that might be a radiance of evil or might be nothing at all. However, there is some very effective writing going on here; it's just that I'm not sure what is going on. Maybe that doesn't matter much. Certainly this book has changed my ideas about Des and clarity. I always thought that clarity was his weak point, but the prose in the vast majority of the stories in this collection is beautifully clear and sometimes highly lyrical. I understand the prose of this story but not the meaning (if there is one) or even the dynamic. Perhaps I should read it again.

'Independent Image' -- another classic. Grade 'A' to this one. We're back to what Des does best. Weird toyroom/puppet capers, disturbing as anything, odd, offbeat, leftfield, richly textured and dense but also highly digestible. The language is intricate but slips into the mind easily. Every so often Des conjures up a small detail that changes everything, that loads a story with so much menace that it seems thereafter to palpitate. The key to the toyroom being on the inside is that moment of magic in this story. A synopsis won't do the piece justice. It needs to be read in its totality. Wonderful.

I'm more than a third of the way through this collection now and I have my definite favourites, as follows: 'Warm Air', 'My Giddy Aunt', 'The Candlemass Stories', 'The House of Cutt', 'Tugging the Heartstrings' and 'Independent Image'.

September 20th

'The Mentioning' -- this book seems designed to disprove every assertion I make. No sooner do I make a claim that Des is at his best in 'inner city' or 'isolated rural' (specifically I meant marsh and fenland) locations than he writes a superb piece set on the coast among the cliffs of a wild beach. This story is a meditation, on death, loss and fate, and is utterly infused with the authentic ambience of that margin where land meets sea.

'The Front Room' -- many years ago (back in the late 1980s) I remember reading a collection of stories by a writer named Gabriel Josipovici. I don't recall anything about the plots, characters or themes of the stories themselves (not even the titles) but I came away from that book with a surfeit of certain images that may actually be unrelated to the main concerns of the texts. These images primarily include rooms in strange houses, the smokestacks of factories, grey skies, urban labyrinths as convoluted as those of Gormenghast.

I have never met anyone since who has read anything by this writer, but that book, In the Fertile Land, has always stayed with me, unremembered but ineradicable. This story by Des Lewis seems to occupy the same ground, taking all that ambience and compressing it into a mere three pages. It's a story of exploration, but exploration on a small scale, reduced to the inner horizons of a strange and lonely house, inexplicable but full of (dark) opportunity for the young protagonist. 'The Front Room' is powerful, unsettling and lyrical. It should be clasutrophobic too but somehow isn't.

October 2nd

I've had another unscheduled break. As I said before, I rarely whizz through short story collections in the same way that I devour novels. I often have many short story collections on the go at the same time and I'll dip into them every so often. Have I already mentioned that I've been reading Villiers de l'Isle-Adam's Cruel Tales since 1991? I am also reading The Human Angle by William Tenn, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, The Twilight of the Gods by Richard Garnett and The Book of Fantasy, the big famous anthology of fantastical stories edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo. So Des's book is only one of several collections I am simultaneously reading. It's holding its own, though, so far.

'Crumbling Edges' -- A story in two parts (as are several in this collection) in which the second part probably echoes and amplifies (or maybe mutates and subverts) the themes and concerns of the first part. However I can't personally see the connection between them. This doesn't matter, as both parts are interesting enough on their own. The first part is very Beckett-like, a simple tableau of isolation and introspection, a man without energy or hope sitting on a rocking chair. The second part is about a haunted domestic couple. The writing is superb, crystalline and yet not plain, far from it!

'The Resident' -- a lesser story, more of a vignette or even a detached scene. An old man in a retirement home of some kind is visited by his wife and son. Nothing happens, or if it does (and knowing Des I suspect it does) I have no idea what that thing is.

'A Hairshirt Called Husband' -- another story that completely baffled me. Once again I have absolutely no idea what it's about. But if you go to Des Lewis looking for linear plot then you will generally be dismayed. Des doesn't do such things, he's not an algorithmic writer. Neither was Barthelme, for that matter; so it shouldn't matter, and it doesn't. Here we have fragments of darkness, but in this case they are connected (to what purpose I can't guess) and undoubtedly they add into a sum greater than the parts. At least I'm willing to bet they do. But I don't know what that sum is. Des is able to make a simple game of clock patience seem sinister, to imbue it with a seepiness, for want of a better word, that is even more sinister than plain old-fashioned creepiness. I don't feel qualified to say more about this story other than that it feels substantial. So it works on some emotional level even if I can't comprehend it with my intellect; and that's something worthwhile, surely?

October 8th

‘Shaped like a Snake’ – first published in the traditional (i.e. Jamesian) ghost story journal Ghosts & Scholars, this is one of the most orthodox and straightforward stories I’ve ever read by Des. This is not to say that it’s especially orthodox and straightforward by the normal standards of most genre writers. With the hints of ancient pagan secrets and slightly sinister references to the nature god Pan, there’s much more of an Arthur Machen (‘The Ceremony’, etc) flavour than an M.R. James ambience to this piece. The best thing about this story is the monologue by the woman Myrtle, which is wryly amusing and exasperating.

‘Gates’ – brilliant. A classic. One of my favourites so far. One of the best Des Lewis stories I’ve ever read, definitely in the top ten, possibly in the top five. What I love about this story so much is the fact that it relies on experimental form, but an experimental form that works well, extremely well in my view. It’s almost a Donald Barthelme story. It also put me in mind of Rabelais, with his comical, rhythmic, demented lists of objects as an integral part of the developing story. ‘Gates’ utilises this technique to perfection thanks to the rhythm of the bulleted lists. The conclusion of the story is the last item on the final bulleted list. It’s far better than this brief and inadequate resume makes it sound, believe me! I love this story and I wish I had written it. These days almost no one plays with form. Form is almost a dirty word. And yet it shouldn’t be. There’s still so much that a good writer can do with form, whether that form controls the content, is controlled by it, independent of it, or utterly entwined with it.

October 19th

Another long pause... I'm not really cut out for this lark!

'Mort Au Monde' -- excellent. Another classic. They are coming thick and fast now. But not thick: intelligent. This is a story that is very simple in construction but it lingers in the mind long after it has been read. There's a deceptively ordinary symmetry that works extremely well at the heart of this piece: hotel rooms, cabins on a ferry, and a physical distance between a couple that is also a distance of minds, fates, souls? Who knows? I don't, but I don't care. I love the writing. And there's an overt (or perhaps not overt but core) Kafka strain to the development over only three pages. Sometimes I think I've cracked Des Lewis: he's a kafkaesque writer, resembling the Kafka of 'A Country Doctor'. But no, that's not quite right. Great story. Great.

'The Body in the Bed' -- not as convincing a piece, but still good. It's a tale of perversion but the perversion is never made explicit. Or perhaps the perversion is only a background detail or setting. For some reason I initially assumed the narrator was a dog, and it can be read that way, except for a few troubling details that contradict this assumption (he takes a train on his own). It's odd, it's dark. I don't really know what else to say about it.

October 28th

The last word I would ever use in connection with a Des Lewis story is 'conventional'. He's absolutely not a conventional writer, neither in subject matter nor form, therefore I was suprised when I read...

'Cloysters' -- awesome. What a great story! Let me explain, if I can... It's very un-Des-like; it doesn't feel like a Des Lewis story on certain levels. So if I claim it's one of his best, will that somehow logically suggest that his normal work is too odd (a neat paradox that, I feel)? No, because although this story doesn't feel like Des in its packaging, it's Des through and through underneath; and although we might read it as a non-Des story, we'll think about it later as a bonfide total Des Lewis tale, one of his best, as I've already said.

The format is orthodox. A rich businessman and his wife move out of the rat race of the city and into the country. Things go wrong in an unsettling way; a return to the urban jungle results in a slide down into misery. I have often said that Des Lewis doesn't use algorithms in his writing, but this story is as algorthmical as a Roald Dahl or May Sinclair tale; but it's far denser and stranger than anything by those (very good) writers. The writing, the prose, is just excellent. There are the curious similes and weird-angle narrative approaches, but there's nothing here that couldn't be use to teach a class of creative writing students; and they would undoubtedly be better at the end of it.

'Knee Jerks for Nancy' -- this is also much more conventional in terms of narrative drive than most Des Lewis stories, but unlike 'Cloysters' it has more of a colloquial style, and therefore I didn't enjoy it as much, though it's still a neat tale, a waking nightmare about baby-sitters and the mundane horrors of modern domestic life. If 'Cloysters' deserves a mark of 10/10 (and it does) I would give this one 6/10. That's just the way I feel.

Reading 'Cloysters' this morning made me regret taking another break from this collection after 'The Body in the Bed'...

November 15th

Time is one of the many things I am short of. I am also short of arms and eyes (having only two of each). Otherwise I would read this collection faster than I have been doing, perhaps. Anyway, my estimated time of completion is January 2013. And so...

'Mr Rampives' -- Just like the narrator of this story I have sometimes been asked to help fix a car. I don't own a car of my own and I don't know too much about car mechanics (I was an electronics engineer, not a mechanical engineer; I understand valves and transistors, not gears and pistons. But anyway, on the few occasions where I did successfully fix a car engine, it was always because the spark plugs were malfunctioning. Sometimes it was enough to take them out, clean the ends and re-insert them. I doubt that such 'repairs' were more than very temporary, though! Anyway, this story is a minor delight; there are overtones of menace but they remain overtones only, thankfully.

'Nancy's Mother' -- I have a vague memory of having read this story somewhere before. According to the publication information at the beginning of the book it was published in the first issue of a magazine entitled Uneasy Reading, which I'm positive I never received. So maybe my memory is false. It's a very vague memory, though. Some flavour, some wisp of atmsophere, seems familiar. And yet it's not one of the best stories in this volume, far from it. It's a fairly unremarkable brief account of a grotesque wedding. Not that there's anything 'wrong' with it. It just is what it is.

'The Horn of Europe' -- great title for a story! I wish I had come up with this title. Brilliant. This is a great little philosophical tale, the sort of tale I wish more writers would write more often. It wears the cloak of a horror story, but it's not really; the possible horror is only incidental. Maybe a maniac attacked a little girl. That's not what the story is really about. It's about time and change and that curiously intense bittersweet feeling that comes when we truly think about the state of the universe, about entropy, about everything being in flux. It's a Heraclitian story. A time travel story without a time machine; a story about memory and supposition. One of the most important stories in the book so far...

December 22nd

Another long pause... I am going to try to read the remaining short stories this month and the two novellas in January 2013. Real Time Reviewing is harder than it looks. Actually, all reviewing is harder than it looks; or maybe I'm just finding it harder as I get older. I find myself growing increasingly reluctant to review anything. If I like something I'll plug it to my friends and people who I think might appreciate it; if I dislike something, I'm tending more and more just to keep quiet about it. There doesn't seem too much point in saying too much either way. However, as I have started this Real Time Review, I'll certainly try to finish it. I note, however, that Des himself has given up writing them. Rightly so, in my view: he's done more than his fair share on contributing to the 'cause' of weird fiction. It's time others made a contribution too...

'Was That a Message or a Movement' -- another good title, another enigmatic brief tale. The interior location has almost a Dickensian flavour (Des is good at Dickensian flavours). There's a growing sense of unease as the main character Donald waits to learn what is being planned for him. It turns out that... well, I still don't know what was being planned for him, and maybe neither does he. Suitably it has a 'Christmasy' feel to it, perfect for the season in which I read it.

'A Benchmark for Ghosts' -- Crikey! This story feels very very familiar, But why? When I checked the publication credits I can see that it wasn't published in any small-press magazine I might have encountered in the 1990s. And yet I'm sure I've read it before. Where and how? It's a good story, set in Des' own stamping ground on the Essex coast, with (probably accurate) autobiographical elements co-opted into this tale of loss and the passing of time (at least this is what the tale seems to be about to me: regrets, hankerings, the failure to 'carpe diem'; and let me add that it's easy to urge people to 'carpe diem' but I have found through long experience that women don't like their diems to be carped without a fair amount of work; which is something that the narrator of this story also seems to be extremely annoyed about -- though he'll only admit to being mildly 'jealous').

'Glimpse' -- a classic sudden fiction. Less than a page long, it packs a punch; it's a brief philosophical fable (or disquisition). Des does these short pieces brilliantly. This could almost be a Pu Songling tale in terms of brevity, conciseness and punch of theme, although the incidental mechanics are completely different, of course. Superb.

January 1st, 2013

I failed to read all the short-stories before the end of 2012. No matter. I’ll read them now and also read one of the novellas before the end of January. This means I ought to finish the book in February.

‘Nipping the Bud’ -- a menacing and very dark little tale, almost evil. Des does what he does best: he gives us a slightly sordid, neo-Dickensian interior but riddled painfully through with shafts of bleak loneliness and with such a concrete absence of warmth and sentiment that the reader feels relief that he is outside the tale, even as he feels disturbed by the ghost of an idea that perhaps the reality described in the text is around him. In essence it’s a gruesome and effective black gem of a horror story. It’s perfectly Des-esque and not bulked out by a single unnecessary word. I note that it appeared in 1990 in the very first issue of the fairly well-known (in British small press horror circles) magazine Peeping Tom. Des was more popular back then than he is now: this tale demonstrates why he was popular and also makes inexplicable the fact he is less popular now. But maybe republication in this book will help to rectify this situation...

‘Inside the Bud’ -- this title makes the story sound as if it might be a sequel of some sort to the preceding tale, but it’s not. It has one of the best opening lines I have ever encountered (“I have dreams whilst dreams have me”) but betrays itself a little later (at least in my eyes) by introducing H.P. Lovecraft into the story and presenting him as some sort of Guru of the Imagination (which I don’t believe he really was). This story was written for a magazine called Crypt of Cthulhu, so this example of Lovecraft-Licking may have been a tactical device, though Des rarely plays tactical games of this nature, so probably not. It’s not a bad story, but not a patch on the one that came before.

‘Clad Bone’ -- a dream story, but I don’t get it. I don’t get it in the sense that I don’t really believe there’s much going on it anyway, but also that I don’t understand why Des decided to include it in this magnificent collection. It’s a neither-here-nor-there story. Female vampires in a dream. Not my cup of tea. Was my cup of tea once, when I was about 18 years old, but that was a long time ago. One of the weaker stories in the book so far.

‘The Five Mentagras’ -- a biggie. One of those crypto-novelettes made up of separate and supposedly linked stories that aren’t even really stories but chapters from an unwritten book (or from many unwritten books). I feel I have read this work before. It’s not listed on the publication credits page. Why then, is it vaguely familiar? Was I present when Des was discussing it on some online forum or other? But he doesn’t do that in detail. The first pseudo-chapter, ‘The Drogulus’ (nice allusion to Logical Positivism there) is a jerky and odd tale in which Des refers to himself in the third person; but not in an annoying way because it’s perfectly metafictional. The second pseudo-chapter, ‘The Famulus’, takes us right back into the heart of Des-esque excellence, but how it fits in with what has gone before isn’t clear to me at all; but it’s a superb piece of writing, so who cares? The subsequent pseudo-chapters, ‘The Grinagog’, ‘The Hummum’ and ‘The Mentagra’, all go about their business of being just themselves while nodding and gesturing at each other in ways that I’m barely aware of. This suite of tales, this crypto-novelette, has a perfect ending that probably does tie everything together. It’s a seeking of the opposite of something that is cast as sense but in fact is nonsense. The Logical Positivists believed that all mystical questions were simply nonsense put into the form of sense. Anyway, I enjoyed ‘The Mentagras’ but I can safely say that 10 years ago I wouldn’t have enjoyed it at all. One must learn to loosen up when confronted with Des’s work. It’s almost never pretentious (as I once assumed it often was) but just oddly faceted.

January 20th

It has been snowing. Not much, certainly not enough to get into a flap about, but a perfect excuse for staying indoors by the fire and reading. So now I have finally finished all the short-stories contained in this book. I have only the two novellas left to read. Here are my remarks (for what they’re worth) about the stories I have lately read:

‘Build a Character’ – Des himself said something a while back to the effect that he was very happy with this story. He didn’t actually say that in those words. I can’t recall what he did say, but it gave me that impression, namely that he was proud and pleased with this story. I read it and thought... well, it’s not bad but it isn’t a classic. Not in my view anyway. It’s a sort-of metafictional piece which describes the creation of a character without any pretence that he’s a real person. The story then gives this character an adventure with mythical overtones, an airy fairy (but well written) crepuscular rummage through a magical fantasyland but with gothicky overtones, freak show flavour, like Angela Carter but not quite. Then the character is metafictionally dismantled. I love metafiction but this piece has just a little too much respect for the writer as an important and powerful creator. Writers generally aren’t important creators and they are virtually never powerful. My own experience as a writer is that I’m not important or powerful enough to avoid my tax demands and national insurance bills, for example.

‘Between White Lines’ – the first D.F. Lewis story I ever read, and ah! it brings back memories. Memories of the early 1990s British small-press scene. I look and I see that this was published in 1991 in the eighth issue of a magazine with the charming title Dementia 13. It must have been the first issue I ever saw of that magazine, which was soon after to publish a number of my earliest tales. I remember chatting (via letter) with Pam Creais, the editor of Dementia 13, about this story and about Des in general. “I rarely know what his stories mean but they are addictive anyway,” she told me. Yes, that’s exactly right. I think that ‘Between White Lines’ is about two sentient cars, like dark Herbies or like the robot racing cars in Roger Zelazny’s very first published short-story, ‘Passion Play’. Or they might be dragons or rocs instead of cars. Who knows? I loved this when I first read it 22 years ago and I love it again now.

‘The Lost Balcony’ – A brief tale about a very specific kind of obsession. I recall when I was young playing in the grounds of a large deserted house and noticing a tiny balcony on a high wall, but there seemed no access to it. There was no window behind the balcony and no ladder or staircase up to it. Maybe it was a balcony solely for the benefit of climbers, specifically those climbers who indulge in the difficult and dangerous variation called ‘buildeering’ (buildings tend to be more symmetrical than rockfaces, so hoping for unexpected ledges or big handholds is generally pointless). This story is good but not remarkable.

‘When I was an Old Man’ – a superb title! That needs to be said first of all. A truly great title; and I am a connoisseur of titles. As for the story itself: this one feels odd, even odder than the average Des story, which is odd enough already. I think that the extra oddity comes from the science fictional element, which is unusual and weirdly unsuited to Des’ style. Des has done a few SF stories in his time and none of them are normal SF by a long way. But the images in this story are acute and wonderful. The giant drill on a ramp brings into mind At the Earth’s Core or When Worlds Collide or any episode of Thunderbirds. But the twist in the tale isn’t like the twist in the drill bit: it takes the narrative into Lovecraftian territory, where I really wish it wouldn’t go. But I’m not in control of the destination and yes, it does go into Lovecraftland and that’s a shame. I hate to say this, because it will offend Lovecraft fans, but... the Great Old Ones are boring. Sorry.


February 13th

I have had another long break. I have been very busy. I won’t give details, but I’ll make two points relevant to the amount of time (six months!) it is taking me to read this book to the end and complete this so-called ‘real time’ review: (a) as I’ve already said several times, this is the speed at which I normally read single author story collections (with a few exceptions: Donald Barthelme and Kurt Vonnegut spring to mind) and (b) nonetheless this present speed is too slow to accurately conform to what Des himself means when he calls a review a ‘real time’ review. So this real time review is a real time review de jure but not de facto. Personally I think that when it is finished, at last, someone else should have a go at real time reviewing one of Des’ books, or if not real time reviewing it, then just reviewing it in the ordinary sense of the term. He deserves it.

Anyway, I enjoyed the short story section of this book, as is surely clear from all I have written above over previous months. Some of the stories were better than others; but isn’t that always the case with any collection? Now a confession. From the moment I began reading The Last Balcony I naturally assumed that the short story section was going to be the strongest part. I took it for granted (though I said nothing on the score) that the two novellas that came after would be weaker than the shorter pieces; that they were probably tacked on simply because they existed and Des didn’t want them to go to waste. Yes, I have read and enjoyed Des Lewis at longer-than-his-usual lengths. His novella ‘Agra Aska’, for instance, was very good, very intriguing. But Des is best known for very tight, concise, dense, almost inhumanly compressed prose; and such prose, apt and significant as it may be in a three page story, is too taxing for novelettes and novellas.

Have no fear, fellow readers! The first of the two novellas has defeated my fears and negative pre-judgments that it might be unreadable or extremely difficult to read. In fact, ‘The Apocryphan’ (subtitled ‘The Epifany of the Augusthog’) is Des Lewis’s best work so far, i.e. the best work of his that I have encountered. It goes without saying that this is purely my own opinion. I consider the piece immensely refreshing, bracing even, for here at last, Des has opened out his prose. I won’t go so far as to say that ‘The Apocryphan’ is light reading, no, but it’s perfectly viable rhythmic modern English literature with plenty of momentum. It is extremely well written. More importantly, in terms of literary definition, it is non-horror, non-fantasy, non-weird weird, or rather it is weird writing that seems to be approaching the weird from the mainstream, rather than the other way around, in the same way that a jazz band like the Mahavishu Orechestra approached rock from jazz, rather than approaching jazz from rock, as did The Soft Machine. But enough early ’70s jazz fusion music analogues!

I regard ‘The Apocryphan’ as closer in tone and style and achievement to Ian McEwan, Patrick McGrath or even Will Self than to the standard horror writers one images a modern horror writer would wish to emulate. Set in the rain-drenched seaside town of Bonnyville, the story meanders pleasingly but troublingly through a series of vignettes, little scenes graded in oddity. The background menace, which is always there, never feels contrived or even unavoidable; and the atmosphere is deeply nostalgic instead of horrific. Sadness and dread are there aplenty but muted and made bearable by the solid and therefore ambiguously comforting feel of real life as it is lived all around. There are acute observations galore: I enjoyed the pitch perfect analysis of a barmaid’s task at acting the flirt in such a way that she appears not to be acting to you alone, a sort of play within a play. But that is just one minor example among many. For a relatively short novella it manages to pack a heck of a lot of incident and half-incident into its pages.

Back in the mid ’90s, Des published a story entitled ‘A Brief Return to Bonnyville’ in a now-transformed magazine called The Third Alternative, and I remember at the time being impressed with the superior pacing of that story and the wider spaces that opened out within it as a result; but that piece was still claustrophobic and controlled, whereas in ‘The Apocryphan’, Bonnyville seems like a place one could genuinely stroll around, dig behind, poke around in; there’s an authentic sense of place. And the characters that inhabit this novella are three-dimensional too. The fact that the story is told in many interrelated brief sections, rather than as a single clump, also helps to open out the piece still further and lighten it more; or perhaps the structure was necessitated by the spry content (the tone is spry, but it is dark sprightliness.) And yes, the mode is melancholy despite the briskness; and the briskness is luxurious, not hectic; and this peculiar mix of rates of flow and density of detail is handled with supreme skill.

So, like I said: my favourite Des Lewis piece so far. If he wrote a novel just like this, opening out all the time, I reckon he might make it big.

March 14th

I'm a month late, even when I revised my expected finish date for this RTR, and there's no excuse for that, apart from... what I've already said many times, namely: I don't read story collections straight through, the way I read novels. I guessed that the novella 'Yesterfang' would be something special, but even so I didn't plunge into it immediately after reading 'The Apocryphan'. I had to keep the original rhythms of my reading. But now...

I started reading 'Yesterfang' two days ago. I haven't finished it! I have read 20 pages. There are another 50 or so to go; but I decided to start writing about it anyway because that's the point of a RTR review (and I kind of feel I have done this one a bit wrong).

It seems that Des Lewis himself holds 'Yesterfang' in high regard. I believe he said somewhere that he rates it as superior to 'The Apocryphan', something which if true would make it a very very good piece of work indeed. What I liked so much about 'The Apocryphan' was its maturity: I don't mean maturity of substance or intention (it would be presumptuous and slightly insulting if I meant that, as it would imply Des' previous work wasn't mature); I don't even mean maturity of style in the strict sense of the word, but maturity of control... 'The Apocryphan' was very controlled, but controlled in a very mature way, i.e. the author was prepared to ease up on the control and let the story tell itself when necessary, hence the prose felt much more 'opened out' than Des' usual work.

So I was expecting something similar with 'Yesterfang'. But I didn't get it. What I got (or have started to get) is something completely different. The tone is much darker, more 'Des Des', if you see what I mean. So a return to the ultra-dense Des? No, not exactly. It's sort of halfway between the open prose of 'The Apocryphan' and the dense closed prose of Des' short stories... The main thing being that it works. It works marvellously.

The reason it works so well is probably (or undoubtedly) because it's a story. There's a story here; and it's a damn good one. I am reminded somehow of Harlan Ellison, that story he wrote with the shuffling Victorian figure scampering through the chrome city of the future; not because the imagery of this novella is remotely the same but because the contrast is: the contrast between the horror core and science-fiction setting of 'Yesterfang'. Yes, it's science-fiction, absolutely!

The main character Jawn (John) is a nightmarish figure in a world that is equally nightmarish. Is this a post-apocalyptic future or some sideways dimension? I don't yet know for sure. There are some superb jokes: the city of London being named after the writer Jack London (as all the other cities are named after other writers)... There's also the immortal phrase "Welcome to Lewis" on page 280. Island or man?

I am looking forward to reading the rest of this novella. It promises to be pretty darn amazing.

March 18th

I am now on page 311 of this book, which means that I'm on page 47 of the novella 'Yesterfang', with another 22 pages to go. This means I will probably finish the novella and the book tomorrow.

I don't know what else to say about 'Yesterfang'. The story has changed direction. It has become a very agreeable quest story, part Spanish picaresque, part hemi-semi-demi-Western, part something else. I forgot to mention earlier that the the novella is divided into two parts. The first part, 'In All Dreams But Yours', is dark and groping in comparison with the second part, 'The Pest of All Worlds', which is almost sprightly. The range of scholarly and pulp influences is staggering, and they come from everywhere, and the novella itself picks a path between them, like a man exploring a chasm. It's all rather enthralling.

I like the idea of treating Gulliver's Travels as a Bible, not just as a favourite book but as a literal guide to a belief system...

Des is excelling himself here. Tomorrow (with luck) I will finally finish this volume. I already know that I'll be recommending it most highly to any and all readers whoe love original weird fiction...

19th March

It is done. It is finished. It took seven months to read from beginning to end and in that time I read many other books (if you want to see which ones then check out my Goodreads page); I also wrote a lot of new stories. My reading of The Last Balcony coincides with my rediscovery of rock climbing but that means nothing really. Here’s the book. I seem to have lost the cover. It may be lurking around somewhere and probably will turn up when I stop searching for it.

‘Yesterfang’ progressed well. Swift City, Lovecraft City... The atmosphere and movement were handled with dexterity. And the old Des was there, peeking out from behind the new Des (I can’t help but think of the author of this novella and ‘The Apocryphan’ as a newer Des than the Des I am familiar with, though perhaps this is just an illusion). The old Des... “Cheapest, ripest, dampest tentacles of dampest bite!” That is such a quintessential Des Lewis line!

I wonder at the genesis of this novella. It’s a recent work but parts of it feel as if they have been lifted from an earlier (unpublished) Des work, I don’t know why. Did Des himself safe so somewhere? Another imagining perhaps.

In the final analysis I don’t rate ‘Yesterfang’ quite as highly as I rate ‘The Apocryphan’. It’s extremely good, though... the second best Des Lewis work ever.

If I was Des, and I’m not and never will be, I would now push for a paperback version of this book. I know he doesn’t want to do that, but I would do it. I would also make sure an ebook version was available. In fact I would split this volume into three parts, three separate ebooks: the short stories on their own and the two novellas as an ebook each. They deserve to be more widely read, that’s why.

I salute Des Lewis, a genuine and original voice, a craftsman of the weird who is at the top of his game in what he does!

I will never ever attempt another real time review. No sir!





Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Ultimate Existentialist Horror

Note: This blog entry originally appeared as my 'guest blogger' contribution to Sam's Lair, the blog of writer Sam Stone, on March 9th 2011.

I remember, when I was very small, watching a film called Night of the Demon. I didn't know until many years later that it was an adaptation of an M.R. James story, 'Casting the Runes'. The film impressed and scared me. At the climax, the demon of the title arrives to claim the body (and presumably the soul) of the man foolish enough to have been somehow responsible for conjuring the thing up. I forget the exact details of the plot. I can barely picture any of the scenes to myself. I just recall (or seem to recall) a gigantic monster looking something like a charred corpse looming high over a length of railway track at night.

Although this outcome frightened me, for I was at an impressionable age, I didn't have too much sympathy for the demon's victim. It seemed to me, even back then, that it was his own fault for meddling with the forces of darkness, for aligning himself with the Devil. I grew up as a Christian and I was a truly devout child, utterly convinced that God existed and that his power was without limit of any kind. I assumed that omnipotence meant power without a single restriction. I was blissfully ignorant of the clever arguments of philosophers such as Anselm and Leibniz, who showed there must be a logical limit even to God's power (God, for instance, can't reduce his own power; that option is denied to him). As far as I was concerned, God could snap his fingers, if he chose, and the Devil would vanish into nothingness instantly. God could make time run backwards, cancel out something that had already happened, violate logic in any way he liked. God could do anything.

Armed with my unshakeable faith, I felt only scorn for black magicians who summoned up a demon and then fell prey to it. It seemed obvious to me that one should always fight for God and against the Devil. God, after all, was invincible and always right. If you fought for God, God would look after you, even if the Devil or one of his minions ripped off your head. Work for God and you go to Heaven. Work for the Devil and you go to Hell. The equation was simple.

I continued watching horror films throughout my childhood, and demons, vampires and werewolves, among other monsters, populated my dreams. But still I felt secure and safe under the protection of God. Even if one of those unholy abominations did get me, everything would be fine provided I didn't betray my allegiance to God. Better to be slsiced to little piece and go straight to heaven than to be a turncoat and remain whole, for human life is short but eternity is very long indeed.

I am no longer a Christian and haven't been for several decades, but I was recently filled with a feeling not dissimilar to that emotion I experienced as a child watching Night of the Demon. The object responsible was a book of short stories, John the Balladeer by Manly Wade Wellman, a collection of two-dozen tales and vignettes featuring Silver John, a sort of troubadour-hobo who aimlessly wanders the Appalachian Mountains with his silver-strung guitar, getting into all sorts of scrapes with hoodoo men, ghosts, fearsome critters, bigfoots (bigfeet?) and other supernatural or cryptozoological meanies.

The stories that detail his adventures are colourful and entertaining, but they aren't very scary. They lack tension. They lack tension because the main character, Silver John, quite rightly, is wholly devoted to the cause of good. He's God's man through and through. So evil can't touch him. All he has to do when confronted by an evil spirit is say a prayer and the evil spirit backs off. All attempts to bring him over to the Devil's side are doomed to failure, for John is no fool. He is immune to blandishments, threats and flattery. Even if a beautiful lady vampire sucks up to him, he'll always resist.

John the Balladeer is horror, but it isn't genuinely troubling horror. It's comfortable horror. The book would be troubling only to anyone who works for the Devil rather than for God, in which case it should serve as a timely reminder for that individual to come back over to God's side. After all, God is destined to win. Ultimately the Devil doesn't stand a chance. Why align yourself with the biggest loser in the universe? That's the message of this kind of horror. Work for God.

The same message is implicit in all supernatural horror, for in that kind of horror evil is a tangible force rather than simply an absence of good. And if evil is a genuine form of energy, good must also be a form of energy. If the Devil exists, God also exists. And God always rewards loyalty. Thus, although horrific on the surface, films such as The Exorcist or The Omen hammer home a reassuring message. The Devil exists and he's going to kill me in a horrible way because I refuse to submit to him? Great! I'm off for my first harp lesson beyond the Pearly Gates!

There is, of course, another kind of horror. A horror that not only doesn't make use of the supernatural but denies the supernatural. This other kind of horror may feature psychos, wife-beaters or crack addicts huddled under the glare of sodium lamps. It may be miserablist in nature, or it may be even more pessimistic and depressing than that. Some of this sort of horror might be characterised as existentialist. In other words, it is concerned with existence as it actually is (or seems to be), stripped of faith, hope and the consolations of metaphysics.

Existentialist horror is the kind of horror that is generated and propagated by atheism. Get your head ripped off by a demon and your soul will be fine (provided your allegiance is still to God), so that moment of bloody violence doesn't really matter. What are a few minutes of head ripping pain compared with the bliss of Paradise? But have your head removed by a psycho in a cosmos where God doesn't exist and you are in real trouble. You don't have a soul in such a scenario. So there's nothing better awaiting you after your head plops to the ground. You are dead. Just dead.

Because, let's face it, our main fear is the uncertainty of what happens to us after we die. That uncertainty is the horror locked away inside every instant of every hour of every day of our entire lives. That question. And there are two possible outcomes and both have their own terrors: eternal life is a daunting prospect. But eternal oblivion is worse. There's no point denying it. If we're going to be strictly honest with ourselves, endless oblivion is what we dread most. A cosmos where there is no afterlife, a purely mechanistic universe with no place for souls. The theory that our souls are purely by-products of our minds, and that our minds are merely by-products of our brains, is called epiphenomenalism. When our brain dies we have no more mind, and thus no more soul. We became nothing. Oblivion. Oblivion until the end of Time.

This is a hard prospect to swallow. The meaningless universe. Yet it takes only the appearance of a single ghost, vampire or demon to disprove it. The moment a supernatural representative of the force of evil turns up, it means there is hope again. If supernatural evil exists, then supernatural good must also exist, which means God exists, which means Heaven exists. Just one demon, however small, just one, and the afterlife is back on the agenda! So when an innocent character in a horror book or film is confronted with a genuine demon, he or she should fall to their knees and cry, “Thank you, thank you! You're my ticket to Heaven! I do have a soul after all. No eternal oblivion for me! The afterlife, here I come!”

There's a very cruel story by the French writer Villiers de L'Isle-Adam called 'Torture by Hope'. It's about a man imprisoned in a dungeon by the Spanish Inquisition. He is going to be tortured by them the following day. Then he notices that his cell door has been left unlocked. What a mistake by his jailers! Bursting with hope, he opens the door and creeps down the corridor towards the exit. He is almost free! Suddenly an inquisitor jumps out and cries, “Tricked you!” (I'm paraphrasing, please understand). It turns out that the prisoner had been allowed to escape that far, or rather that the illusion of escape was given to him as part of the torture, for to fill someone with false hope is the worst torment.

There is a television show that takes the concept of torture by hope to its ultimate limit. Frankly, it is the ultimate existentialist horror. The fact that it doesn't seem to be horrific makes it all the more horrible when one truly considers the implications of its core message. That core message is grim, soul-eroding and profoundly nihilistic.

The show in question adopts the format of the paranormal investigation. A group of characters set out to probe into hauntings. These characters include Fred, a typical alpha male; Daphne, a dumb but foxy redhead who is possibly Fred's lover; Velma, an intellectual (lesbian?) analyst; and a pair of pragmatic, hungry survivors, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo. The last character in this list lends his name to the show itself. Scooby-Doo.

Every episode of Scooby-Doo follows a highly formalised schematic. A ghost (or demon or other paranormal bugaboo) is reported in a lonely location. The investigators repair to the scene. They meet the ghost but fail to be deterred from the investigation by it. As they dig deeper into events, the workings of the atheistic clockwork slowly become apparent. There is no ghost (or demon, etc). It is merely an illusion, a man in a mask! The impostor is carted off to prison and the five heroes move on to the next case in a psychedelic van. Somewhere behind all this, in the furthest reaches of metaphor, an enormous Richard Dawkins must be rubbing his hands in glee, looming over the dénouement like the absolute antithesis of the demon in Night of the Demon.

Scooby-Doo offers false hope. A ghost, a demon. Supernatural horror! Therefore the afterlife is real! We won't cease to exist after our deaths! We may even get to visit our loved ones who have passed on. God does exist after all! Everything really is right with the universe! There is no bleakness or despair woven into the fabric of reality. Take me into your arms, sweet Lord! Thank you, ghost! Thank you, demon! Give my regards to that sucker Satan as I preen my angel's wings…

Yes, Scooby-Doo offers that hope, the greatest hope that can ever be offered… and then snatches it away! Every single episode it does this. It is a staggeringly cruel thing to do. It is the ultimate existentialist horror. But people persist in regarding it as a comedy. And that only deepens the horror, the horror. Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you? Shuddering in the grip of angst, despair and abandonment, that's where!

Monday, 28 November 2011

A Tribute Story to Michael Bishop

Several years ago the genius writer Michael Bishop postmodernly, jestingly and excellently wrote my 612th story for me, to save me the trouble. The result was a piece that formed the introduction to my novella The Crystal Cosmos and was entitled 'The Orchid Forest: a Metafactual Narrative Introduction to THE CRYSTAL COSMOS by Rhys Hughes, by Miguel Obispo'. The number 612 was plucked at random, of course. Back then it seemed that I would never actually reach that number myself, or anywhere near it...

But now I have. I've just finished my 612th story. I didn't really want to skip from 611 to 613, so I made sure that the 612th is about Michael Bishop, the same way his story is about me. In his tale explorers set off in search of me; so in my tale explorers set off in search of him. His story is 4467 words long; as a mark of respect I made my story 4466 words long, one less. My story is called 'Transmigrating the Bishop' and I intend to find a proper print outlet for it soon. But in the meantime I have put it online. Here it is:


“I wish I was a real bishop,” said the chess piece.
         “That’s a bit arch,” I replied.
         “No, not an archbishop, that’s not what I want to be. Just an ordinary bishop with a delightful diocese.”
         “Not so long ago you were only a pawn.”

We went in search of the author Michael Bishop, the award winner, the elusive dreamer, the chronicler of the multiple migraines of Time. First we tramped along the Bible Belt, for that is where we had been informed he lived. We scaled the giant brass buckle with difficulty. The Bible Belt drives the Lathe of Heaven, but today was its day off. By early afternoon we knew our informant was wrong.
         “Our journey has been wasted,” I sighed.
         “He must live somewhere, even if not here,” opined Watson. But I was mildly dubious about this statement.
         We asked various pedestrians we encountered. One stooped old timer who was collecting dew from the insides of the belt loops stood when we approached, listened patiently to our query, frowned deeply, scratched his immense beard, each stiff hair tuned to a different zither note, and told us, above the awful plucked discord, “Doesn’t he reside somewhere in Upper Zelazny? I’m sure that’s the location.”
         “Might well be,” I conceded.
         “It certainly sounds plausible,” Watson said.
         “Indeed so,” added Crowther.
         So we set off for that land, which is justly famous for its vast reserves of amber, but it was a long way to go. The sun set as we approached the border, so we stopped at the Sign of the Unicorn and paid for a room. It was an extremely historic inn with a thatched roof, warped beams, a log fire, antique tables and chairs and a landlord named Jack who kept mainly to the shadows. The quaintest place.
         We weren’t the only guests. There were a few hooded pilgrims staying the night. They sat in the far corner.
         “Are you a soldier?” Jack asked me quietly.
         “Lieutenant Hugs of the Speculative Fiction Militia,” I cried, saluting him with the peculiar gesture we favour.
         “Used to be in uniform myself. I still have the power to promote other soldiers if I feel like it. So now you’re a Captain. How about that? I enjoy being altruistic every now and then.”
         I was delighted. “An ale please, landlord.”
         “Light or heavy, sir?”
         “A light ale, as it happens,” I said.
         “What kind?” he asked. “There are several local breweries who supply my cellars with pale nectar.” He lowered his voice. “I can recommend the Lordof for its crisp taste and purity.”
         He seemed genuine enough. So I ordered a Lordof light ale. A tankard of the stuff. I carried it back to my companions, who were still indecisive about their own choice of beverage. Then the pilgrims shouted over some suggestions. They ignored me, of course, which was a relief, for I always have trouble knowing how to treat such people, but Watson and Crowther seemed eager to engage them in debate.
         The conversation passed from the merits of beers to the finer points of theology and philosophy. Arguments and refutations were shuttled back and forth between our respective tables, good naturedly enough, but I still felt very uncomfortable. I generally do.
         The pilgrims belonged to the Cult of Sapp, the tree-juice deity, and it seemed they were lost, for they were supposed to be attending a festival on Happenstance, which is a planet that collided so gently with the Earth last year that it didn’t smash itself to bits but got stuck to ours, making a double world like two vast toffees in the paper bag of space. The pilgrims were on the wrong side, the wrong sweet.
         After quaffing the final mouthfuls of my ale, I felt confident enough to speak up and explain this to the hooded strangers. They pursed their lips, tongues clicking behind like coins, frowned and then sighed. It seemed I had poisoned the atmosphere. Watson and Crowther were also infected with the sour mood and glowered at me. At last I decided to go out for a breath of air and some peace of mind.
         I opened the front door and stepped into the night.
         And standing right before me was—
         A massive sentient pawn.

“Are you quite sure that’s how we first met?”
         “Yes indeed.” I nod vigorously. “How could I ever forget something like that? You blocked the entrance.”
         “It was a full moon and the buttery light was spread thickly over your toasted expression as you emerged.”
         “Toasted? No, I didn’t clink my tankard with anyone.”

I stopped in my tracks, partly because there really wasn’t anywhere else to stop, and said, “A massive pawn!”
         “Sentient too,” came the reply. There was a pause.
         “Aren’t you going to move?”
         “Can’t you squeeze around me instead?”
         “Yes, but with difficulty.”
         The pawn didn’t have a face, so I can’t be sure it grimaced as it waited on its invisible square on the improvised chessboard known as Reality. I pushed beyond it, but now I felt silly, with my back to that anomaly, so I turned and remarked as casually as possible, “I’m on my way with some friends to seek out Michael Bishop, the writer. I don’t suppose you might confirm that he’s in Upper Zelazny?”
         “I know for sure he’s no longer there. You stand a better chance if you take the road to Middle Delany at the next fork, but don’t get your hopes up too high. He’s elusive, very.”
         “And what’s your destination, perchance?”
         “I don’t have one. I lost my chessboard last night. I was being used in a game by two absolute beginners. The one whose side I was on moved me to the last rank, to the fabled place of promotion. Beginner’s luck, I guess. But he forgot to turn me into anything. He just kept me going, off the board. He didn’t realise the edge of the board was a boundary and so I ended up here. Then he went away.”
         “Can’t you move under your own power?”
         “Yes, but I can’t reverse. I’m just a pawn. If I was a queen or a rook I would be utterly free, but unfortunately I’m not. I guess I’ll have to enter this inn and spend the rest of my life getting drunk at a table. Nice talking to you. Have a successful journey.”
         “Thanks. My name is Captain Hugs. And yours?”
         “Mister Pawn. Call me Pawny.”
         “I think there’s a back door too. Maybe you can pass right through the building and emerge the other side?”
         “Sure.” He just stood there, blocking the entrance. I moved off into the rustling, cool night, stubbing toes on stones. The stars above were big and bright, boom, boom, boom, deep in the heart of wherever I was, deep not only in the heart but also in the liver and brain, but I don’t know why they emitted that dreadful noise. Stars don’t usually rumble like that, do they? Probably it was a sign, omen or portent.
         I wandered into the trees and soon I was lost.
         The paths were narrow and complicated and my sense of direction had decided to go off on its own somewhere.
         Risking embarrassment, I finally decided to call for help.
         “Watson! Crowther! I’m lost!”
         There was no answer. They were drunk, too involved with the pilgrims or possibly they just didn’t care. “Help me Jack! Assist me Pawny!” Still no reply. Then I realised I had wandered off the beaten track, further than that in fact, off the unbeaten track, and that was bad news, unless it meant I was back on the beaten track, which it probably didn’t. To safely walk a track it’s essential to have a tracksuit.
         And I was dressed in a smock and long pants.
         It surely seemed I was done for.
         I huddled at the base of a tree. I thought a friendly owl or ghost might alight and give me reliable directions. But they didn’t. So I got up again, kept my legs moving, pushed through bramble and thorn. Exhausted and scared, I kept going. The night passed. The sky grew light. I passed out of the forest and found the highway. Now it was just a case of walking back to the inn and explaining my long absence.
         With a weary step but jaunty hips I digested distance.
         Then I came to a fork in the road. It was silver with three prongs and lay in the dust between a knife and spoon.
         The detour to Middle Delany! There was no longer any point looking for the Sign of the Unicorn and my friends. I might as well continue the quest without them. If I found Michael Bishop, then I could take him to meet them, if he was willing to come. Assuming my friends could really be found. Having said that, they may already have ‘found themselves’ in the company of the pilgrims. Who knew?

“There was a back door to that inn.”
         “I told you so. And did you pass through and continue on your way? I somehow suspect you probably didn’t.”
         The chess piece chuckled. “I stopped and ordered a drink first, but I didn’t have any money to pay for it. Jack the landlord wasn’t very happy about that, so I had to work off my debt to him. He used me for a pump handle. Pawns look a lot like them.”

Middle Delany was a vibrant and energetic place, bewildering at first and too garish, but rich beyond belief. Some of the tall buildings in the capital city were unstable and I narrowly avoided being crushed by the fall of the towers. I leaped to one side and lost one of my sandals. No matter. Along the broad boulevard I strolled until I came to a booth selling Gold Flower Nectar. A man with a metal eyebrow was sitting on a stool sipping a glass of the stuff. “Excuse me,” I ventured.
         He licked his lips. “Yes?”
         “Do you know if Michael Bishop lives here?”
         “Are you referring to the author of And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees? That’s a novel I adore. It’s about genetic engineering and the morality of control and species management.”
         I clutched his arm. “I am!”
         He shook his head. “He left a few days ago. He was going to Tiptree, he told me. If you want to follow, perambulate to the end of this highway and turn right at the Einstein Intersection. You’ll know you’re in Tiptree when you finally reach the Cold Hill.”
         I was frustrated but grateful. “Thanks, mister.”
         “Call me Bron. I’m from Mars originally. Spent a lot of time on Triton and then wandered about for a few years. I feel like visiting the Valley of the Nest of Spiders next. It always seems to me it’s time to move on.” He paid for his drink with silver stars instead of coins. His pocket was full of stars, like grains of sand, not beach sand but some more lyrical kind. “Are you a soldier? Your haircut is severe.”
         “Captain Hugs at your service. And I belong to the Speculative Fiction Militia. I’m on an important mission.”
         “Well,” he said, as he hooked a thumb into a shirt buttonhole, “I have the power to promote you to Major. What do you think of that? I’m in the government now and my position means I’m able to make such decisions without consultation. Don’t refuse.”
         I walked away with a stiff stride, pride locking both knee joints rigid. My elevation in rank was extremely pleasing to me. Quite soon I reached the junction he had mentioned, but the journey to Tiptree was exhausting, emotionally and thematically. I felt sure that Michael Bishop wouldn’t be there when I arrived anyway. I needed to dine and sleep but there were no inns in sight. I lay down on heather.
         That angered her a lot. “How dare you!”
         “Sorry. I didn’t realise you were a proper noun. Honest! Please take a look at the paragraph preceding your protest and you will see your name spelled with a lowercase first letter. I assumed you were vegetation. All I want to do is sleep with an easy conscience, so permit me to apologise yet again and I’ll find another bivouac.”
         Heather was appeased a little. “Where are you going?”
         “Tiptree. In search of a writer.”
         “But you’re already at your destination! Sleep next to me and I swear you’ll be satisfied in the morning.”
         I did as she suggested. When I awoke I was surprised to find me here, on the Cold Hill’s side. I must have accidentally climbed halfway up it in the dark without realising there was an incline. Heather yawned, rubbed her eyes and brewed a cup of coffee for me on a portable stove. I gulped it down and stared at the landscape below. It was full of strange and very seductive figures that weren’t human.
         “Which writer are you looking for?” she asked.
         “Michael Bishop,” I answered.
         “He wrote No Enemy but Time, didn’t he? About a man who uses his powers of dreaming to return to the Pleistocene Era and falls in love with a female he meets there. It’s a thoroughly engaging, clever, original and intricate novel and the author’s speculations on anthropology are among the most interesting and comprehensive in the entire field of imaginative literature. Is that who you mean?”
         I was pleased by her casual erudition. “Yes.”
         “I’m sorry to inform you,” she said, “that he doesn’t reside in Tiptree anymore. He left very early yesterday morning. I can’t be sure where he was headed for, but if I were you I would make my way to Filkdik, which is a land where electric sheep dream.”
         I finished my coffee. “What do they dream of?”
         She shrugged. “Maybe you.”

The chess piece said anxiously, “You don’t intend to describe every place you visited during your quest, do you?”
         “Why shouldn’t I?” I responded rather defensively.
         “Because it will take weeks!”
         “How do you think I should proceed, then?
         “Skim over the details. The same way I skim over squares I don’t want to land on. Just give the big picture.”

I travelled through many lands on my search. I spoke to many entities and listened to their advice. I had an interview with the fabled sturgeon called Theodore who lives in the deeps of Loneliness Saucer. I shared a pipe of dreams with Lucius the Shepherd, who looks after flocks of electric sheep that have wandered off from Filkdik, but that is only how he lives life in wartime; during peacetime he’s a jaguar hunter and a hunter of other cars, using the bonnets to repair his cottage.
         I met individuals of great charisma and wisdom and power. They tried to help me, most of them. Many were fans of Michael Bishop and wanted to talk about his books. “My favourite is probably Unicorn Mountain, the story of a dying man who finds a new life in a backwater; the depth of the characterization is extraordinary and the intensity of feeling generated by the merging of mythic and realistic literary devices is profound, bold and authentic.” That was a typical reaction…
         This was another: “Ancient of Days is the one that really sends shivers of awe and fear along my spine. The theme of inherent evil depresses me and yet the quality of the prose and sheer power of the empathy invoked in the reader also fills me with hope.”
         I wore out my remaining sandal climbing ragged high mountains and my smock grew holes until it became nothing more than a net draped on my shoulders; but I caught only a cold with it. Yet there was peace in my heart, a curious peace true enough, whenever I met some traveller, a new individual full of warmth and appreciation of the writer I now suspected I would never find during my lifespan. “My favourite is Catacomb Years, a mosaic of subplots that fit neatly together.”
         And I was promoted many times. From Major to Colonel. And shortly after that, from Colonel to Brigadier. And then, while busy exploring the numerous Di Filippo Islands, to General. I’m tempted to say that my rise was meteoric, but meteors don’t fly upwards, not in my experience. But I began to feel like a fraud, for although I was now a personage of note in the Speculative Fiction Militia, I was no closer to finding Michael Bishop than when I had tramped the Bible Belt.
         At no point did I meet Watson and Crowther again. I occasionally did stumble upon their footprints. Clearly they were looking for me. I left as many coherent messages for them as I could manage, pinning notes to old trees, leaving them under rocks. I urged them not to worry on my behalf, but I added the comment that if they resisted my urging in this matter, I would be forced to issue an order to that effect, for now I was a General, and so they had to obey without question.
         I have always wondered what would happen if a General ordered one of his subordinates to ask a question; how could the poor fellow obey that order without question? He would explode.
         Surely he would. Even if it’s biologically impossible.
         General Hugs has specific concerns.
         But that’s not a bad thing. I take my responsibilities seriously. Just like a professional clown. Excuse my mutterings. I am weary and need to rest for a short time. Here is a hammock suspended from a tree. Someone has left a book swinging inside it. A Michael Bishop novel, Stolen Faces. An impressive coincidence or something more sinister? Or less sinister, for I see no reason why things that aren’t coincidences should be distrusted. A finely crafted work, as they all are, examining deceit and the psychology of manipulation in an unbearable setting.
         I pick up the book, stretch myself on the hammock and start to read as I relax. A scented breeze turns the pages on my behalf. I am so engrossed in the wonderful story that I notice nothing when hooded figures sneak up and saw with wavy blades the ropes that secure the hammock to the trees. The rascals carry me away just like that, as if they are servants and I’m in a floppy palanquin, and I still don’t realise what’s happening. Only later I learn the details of my stealthy abduction.
         The hammock is a trap; the book is bait for the unwary.

“You had no fear in your expression at all.”
         “That’s true,” I agreed, “but not because of bravery. I simply had no knowledge of my kidnapping until the bandits reached their lair. Then I looked up and I realised I was in a familiar place; but I had seen so many places in my travels that my memory—”
         “We called to you at the same time, Jack and I.”

Back in the Sign of the Unicorn I found myself. I had wandered in a huge circle, perhaps all the way around the world, around Happenstance too. A long way for a solitary man on his bare soles. The bandits turned out to be the lost pilgrims. Instead of trying to find the festival on Happenstance, it was easier for them to change profession. Now they waylaid wayfarers, a profitable but excessively unholy business.
         I recognised the landlord at once, even though he remained ensconced in his shadows, an inhabitant of his own penumbra; but the other one who knew me was a mystery. A very large chess piece, a bishop, he was. Then I struggled to my blistered feet, the traitorous hammock entangled around my legs, and croaked, “Not Mister Pawn?”
         “What do you think?” came the retort to that.
         “I don’t rightly know. You have his voice but not his shape.” And that was truly the case. He laughed happily.
         The front door creaked open.
         “Customers!” cried Jack. “The first for ages!”
         I rubbed my contrived eyes.
         “Watson!” I babbled. “And Crowther!”
         And yes, it was they, no less, who had also wandered in a circle. It was too much for them to speak right now, before having a refreshing drink, a meal and a nice sit down on cushions; Jack was an attentive host and soon they were looking more robust, healthy enough to speak and recount their adventures, which were quite alarming.
         “We went back to Headquarters, for we had given you up for lost, but they sent us back out. So impressed were they by your dedication that you have been promoted to Field Marshal.”
         I clapped my hands. I had reached the last rank!
         “Here’s the documentation confirming the promotion,” said Watson as he dipped in the pocket of his greatcoat. But he pulled out a book instead, a Michael Bishop novel, Count Geiger’s Blues, a modern satire, blistering and funny and strangely poignant too.
         “I don’t think that’s my promotion,” I remarked.
         Crowther dipped into his own pocket. He too pulled out a work by the great Michael Bishop, Transfigurations, a quest story that explores depths of feeling the subgenre has rarely reached before. “That’s strange! Where can it be? We rolled it up in a scroll…”
         I waved a dismissive hand. “No need to show me. Your word is proof enough. Yes, I am Field Marshal Hugs!”
         “I also was promoted recently,” said the chess piece.
         “So you are Pawny?” I cried.
         “Now I’m Bishy and I can do diagonals!”
         “But how were you promoted?” I persisted. “There is no chess board near here and your original players went away. Did they come back and do the right thing? Why weren’t you promoted to a queen? It’s rare for a pawn to turn into a bishop, isn’t it?”
         “Very, in chess,” agreed the bishop, “but my promotion had nothing to do with that game or my original players.”
         “I’m eager to hear your tale…”
         And he told me. A year or two after I had wandered off into the woods and got lost, two authors entered the inn and ordered cider at the bar. But cider didn’t like taking orders and went sour in a sulk. So they requested ale as an alternative. As Jack operated the pump handle, they admired its unusual girth and sheen in the firelight.
         “It’s actually a giant sentient pawn,” Jack said.
         “Is that so?” the authors chorused.
         “He is working off his debt,” explained Jack.
         Now they became interested and when the landlord served the ale and went away to attend to some other business, one of the authors, who was named Christopher Priest, leaned on the bar and whispered in the ear that didn’t exist of the pawn in question, “Psst!”
         “What’s the matter?” the pump handle hissed back.
         “Why don’t you let us convert you?”
         “What into, I wonder?”
         “Can’t you guess! I’m a Priest.”
         “How does that help?”
         “If you adopt the faith, you can become a bishop and you’ll be able to move to any diagonal you please.”
         “That sounds grand, but an ordinary priest doesn’t have the power to elect a new bishop. I must decline.”
         “I am not the one who will make you into a bishop. It’s my colleague here who’ll do that. Say hello to—”
         His companion tipped his staff to me in greeting.
         For it was Alexander Pope.

“The most unorthodox way a pawn has ever become a bishop,” I laughed gently. The chess piece shrugged.
         “I suppose it is. But maybe the word ‘unorthodox’ is inappropriate in context of that particular situation. There was nothing remotely heretical about Priest or Pope. A fine pair.”
         “And now we are best friends. Isn’t that odd?”

Time passed slowly and pleasantly. Jack the landlord retired and left the running of the inn to me. Watson and Crowther drifted away; the pilgrims grew too feeble to molest travellers on the road. Only Bishy remained as steadfast as a stalwart. One morning something occurred to me and I was shocked that I hadn’t thought of it before.
         I ran to the chess piece and said, “I can promote you!”
         He frowned. “What do you mean?”
         “You’re a chess piece and I am the final rank, for it’s impossible to go higher than Field Marshal. If you come closer and touch me, it will mean you have reached the final rank; and when a chess piece reaches the final rank it gets promoted, doesn’t it?”
         “Generally that only happens to pawns.”
         “Yes, but you’re not a real chess bishop, are you? You’re a pawn that has been ordained a bishop, so really you’re still a pawn. It’s worth a try, don’t you think? Go on: touch me!”
         And he did think it was. And yes, he did touch me.
         All at once he split down the middle.
         I was horrified for a second, a split second, the same kind of split that now sundered him, wide and growing wider. But my apprehension was a misplaced thing, for there was something inside the rent, a solid object, a human being, a man who fell forward.
         I was flabbergasted. “Michael Bishop in person!”
         He was dazed but soon recovered.
         “What I was looking for was under my nose all the time!” I said with a tinge of embarrassment, for the moral seemed a trifle cheesy, and I prefer my trifles made from fresh, not curdled milk; but Michael Bishop put me at my ease by smiling and remarking:
         “Nice tavern you have here, Field Marshal…”
         “Hugs. May I get you anything?”
         “Certainly. Whatever you care to recommend.”
         “I recommend Brittle Innings, which may well be the finest variant of the Frankenstein theme since the original appeared. On the other hand, a reader new to your work might prefer—”
         “Drinks, not books,” he replied. And I blushed.
         I brought him a big refreshing beer.
         He drank it with those special authorial gulps invented decades ago by Dylan Thomas. Then it was finished.
         After a long pause, I ventured the burning question, “Now you are no longer a chess piece, are you still a master of diagonals?” And I indicated the flagstones on the floor, alternating squares of red and white, adequate for a game of chess with vast pieces.
         He studied them briefly, put down his glass.
         And slid along the squares with ease, a man with frictionless heels and a superb sense of fun. “I can also do orthogonal rook moves and jump an obstructing piece just like a knight.”
         “All pieces rolled into one? That’s what I call versatile.”
         And I was absolutely right. He is.