Thursday, 25 November 2010

Cocking a Chapbook Snook

A chapbook is a cheaply-printed pamphlet often regarded as a 'sampler' of a particular author's work. Chapbooks may feature essays, stories, poems or a mix of all three: they have a venerable history in the publishing world. My own first chapbook was issued in 1995 by an obscure outfit known as Wyrd Press and it consisted of fourteen short stories.

Since that time I have had a further five chapbooks published and I have always regarded them as worthwhile additions to my growing body of work. But lately I have been entertaining doubts about the wisdom of doing this. What value do they have really? Not much. True, I never gave them the same status as proper books: I always listed them separately in my bios. And yet I still listed them. The truth is that they don't deserve to be acknowledged in that manner. I have given up keeping a record of anthologies my stories appear in, so why should I persist in glorifying what are essentially just flimsy squares of stapled sheets? It seems perverse. I have thus decided to stop listing chapbooks among my publications. I will now acknowledge only my real books.

Another thing. Too many readers who have ordered copies of my three most recent chapbooks have complained that they never received them. Clearly there is a problem with the publishing house involved, Ghostwriter Publications. The chapbooks in question are: Madonna Park, Plutonian Parodies and The Fanny Fables. A so-called 'box set' of all three titles was also issued under the name Tempus Fugit. I do have a few spare copies left. So if you ordered any of these titles and didn't receive them, please email me ( and I'll send you what I've got left until it runs out.

I'm rather an easy-going chap. I rarely complain when publishers fail to pay me, issue books years late or fail to issue them at all, riddle my fiction with typographical errors, even spell my name wrong, etc. Life's too short to fret about such things. But when readers pay money for goods they never receive, I must draw the line. That's simply unacceptable. Therefore I have decided to officially break with Ghostwriter Publications and also turn my back on chapbooks in general. Why settle for something so spineless?

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Porcelain Pig

A daft short story by
Rhys Hughes
Starring: Hogwash and Bum Note!

Did I ever tell you the tale of the two explorers who discovered a gigantic porcelain pig in the jungles of Yuckystan? They climbed to the top of it and had an adventure that turned into a riddle. I don’t think I did tell you about this, partly because I’ve never met you before; and also because I’m making it up as I go along. Making it up off the top of my head! But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. As for tops of heads: mine is perfectly smooth and sealed and doesn’t feature a slot.

Yuckystan is a remote and inhospitable land and nobody knows much about the ancient civilisation that thrived there in the dim and distant past. So dim and distant was that past, in fact, that the people were required to go everywhere with powerful lamps on the ends of long poles. If they didn’t do this, they tended to blunder into the margins of this paragraph and beget bruises on their brows and noses. How fortunate we are to live in a bright future where artificial illumination is needed only at night!

The names of the two explorers were Hogwash and Bum Note. They were an intrepid and valiant pair and already responsible for a number of astounding discoveries. Hogwash had explored Aplantis, the sunken vegetable continent, and charted the Awful Anguished Alcoves of the Alliteration Nation. Bum Note had explored his own sexuality in a Soho nightclub. Together they were a formidable team and on their very first joint expedition they even sneaked across the borders of Nullity itself and discovered the source of the Nil.

“Tell them about Wearyland too, won’t you?”

Excuse me. That was Hogwash requesting that I inform the reader out there about the time he realised the landscape he was crossing was so heavily eroded that it was literally worn out: he encountered a yawning chasm. Even geology has a right to be tired! I went to Wearyland myself once, searching for a mythical mud monster. After many weeks I found it too, and wrote a report about it. I delivered my report on the mud monster to the committee of the Eldritch Explorers’ Club but it just didn’t wash.

“And what about NoNoLand? Don’t forget that one!”

Now Bum Note is trying to get in on the act and create another digression, but I won’t be too hard on him and in fact I’ll do what he asks and mention the occasion when they visited a micronation so small it was occupied entirely by the embassies of other countries with no territory left for itself. I haven’t been there myself yet. By the way, I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced. My name is Thornton Excelsior and I’m a tack of all jades, a sharper but greener version of the familiar jack.

So. The two explorers in Yuckystan… They hacked their way through the tangled vegetation of the rainforest with hire purchase machetes and sweated in the humidity like tightly gripped overripe fruits. Then they burst into a clearing and saw the pig. Thirty feet or more it towered above them. What could it be? The statue of a snuffling god? They used a grapple and a length of rope to get to its summit. In the very centre they discovered a narrow slot that dropped into the hollow interior of the thing. Hogwash was astounded.

“Why, it’s nothing more than a grossly magnified piggybank!”

Bum Note cried, “But what’s it for?”

“Saving monumental pennies,” guessed Hogwash, “no doubt.”

“They must have been a frugal people who built it, a civilisation of skinflints. I wonder if there’s any spare change left inside? It’s too dark to see very far down but if—”

“Look out, Bum Note!” shouted Hogwash.

But his warning came too late. The other explorer had leaned over too far and was in the act of falling headfirst into the slot. Hogwash lurched forward, grabbed one of Bum Note’s ankles and managed to pull him out. But this feat of heroism so unbalanced Hogwash that he tumbled into the slot and disappeared. Bum Note heard the sickening thud of his body as it landed and all his bones broke. There was also the sound of vast clanking pennies deep in the belly of the pig. Hogwash had sacrificed his own life in order to rescue his friend!

Bum Note climbed down and erected a small memorial by the side of the loathsome but financially astute edifice. Then he left Yuckystan and never returned. He gave a lecture at the Eldritch Explorers’ Club that was attended by nearly every member. At the end of his talk he declared himself happy to answer questions about the expedition, including those primarily concerned with the dreadful fate of Hogwash. But the main question that everyone in the audience wanted to ask couldn’t be answered at all.

Which of the two explorers was saved?

Note: This is the first in a series of stories about Hogwash and Bum Note. Every story in the cycle will be (invisibly) prefaced with the following data: "All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is Life. Medium atomic weights are available -- Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver, Steel, Wood, Cheese, Catnip, Drizzle, Rum, Coke, Marmalade, Hogwash and Bum Note. Hogwash and Bum Note have been assigned..."

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

My First Self-Illustrated Story

Monsters of the Victorian Age

Lecturing Monsters

In 1877 monsters were finally allowed to give public lectures. These talks often generated considerable controversy due to the fact that the electric system of amplification invented by Emile Berliner and his Detectives the previous year rendered subtext audible for the first time. People didn't like what they heard and turned away in droves. Even drovers turned away in droves. The question of whether monsters should have delivered these lectures behind closed doors, in universities and technical institutes, is purely academic.

Making the Beast with Two Backs

Victorian gentlemen greatly enjoyed making the Beast with Two Backs. In their spare time they studied engineering especially for this purpose. It is not clear why the activity was kept secret from their wives, but so it was. Hangars were erected in every major city to house the equipment needed for the regular making of Beasts with Two Backs. In 1883, some of the finished Beasts escaped and had to be legislated against. They were hunted down by Coppers and other steam-powered robotic policemen and sent to operate treadmills in the workhouse, grinding urchins.

Musical Monsters

The vogue for musical monsters began in 1841 when Chumworth Blighter, the progressive impresario, arranged the first season of afternoon concerts in which imaginary beings were the sole performers. Prior to this achievement, common wisdom had decreed that monsters "should be screamed but not heard". Rapidly growing in popularity, recitals by monsters of music composed by monsters soon became the dominant form of acoustical entertainment in concert halls, theatres and outdoor arenas. The fad crumpled just three years later when notes H to Z inclusive, the ones most favoured by monsters, were officially removed from the octave in compliance with wide-ranging austerity measures.

Petrified Monsters

The common assumption that monsters are frightening, and that they frighten human beings, and that the reverse situation never occurs, was conclusively disproved by the opening of the Imperial Monster Museum in 1866, a public facility where unique cryptozoological exhibits could be viewed for a nominal sum. The rooms were filled with monsters that had literally petrified from fright after catching sight of a human face. These stone behemoths, sciapods, harpies, colossi, minotaurs, gorgons, cynocephali, onocentaurs and other mythical beasties were arranged randomly after the directors of the museum disagreed on how best to categorise them. The Imperial Monster Museum was closed in 1899 and the exhibits sold at private auction to statue enthusiasts.

Entangled Monsters

The difficulty of disentangling certain monsters after they had embraced each other led to the passing of a law in 1868 that treated knotted conglomerations of imaginary beings as single units for the purposes of moral and scientific research. Monsters can be sticky and massively elongated, making entanglements almost inevitable and natural; and yet the general public tended to regard monster knots as examples of tragedy. On the lighter side, an Italian chef was inspired to create a new dish called "spaghetti" by the sight of an especially intricate knot of monsters off the coast of Margate. Some people dispute this and claim that the first spaghetto was created in the 12th century, but such arguments are now all in the pasta. It is not entirely unknown for Lecturing Monsters to be included in the set of Entangled Monsters.

Chimney Monsters

Chimney monsters keep the Empire happy. Chimney monsters keep the Empire warm. They dine on chopped wood and black stones and never complain. Without chimney monsters where would we be? Not here, not here! Chimney monsters keep stuck sweeps for pets. Chimney monsters call a spade a shovel. Black, blistered and riveted they cough all day; roaring and hissing they glow all night. Chimney monsters share our air. They jut their horns but not their chins. If chimney monsters went away, the Queen would fall and break. The Empire too. Even the smallest chimney monster is grate. Remember that!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Lightly Sautéed Savant

This photograph shows the face of a writer and editor by the name of Gary Fry. It is being fried. Visual puns of this nature are wholly pointless, but I like them anyway. And who are you to deny a complex man his simple pleasures? Only a meanie would do that...

Although bigheaded I am also lovely. When it comes to the writing of fiction I believe that my own concepts and conceits are nearly always vastly superior to those of other writers; that's the bigheaded part of my personality. However, I am willing to admit that occasionally a writer who isn't me comes up with an even better concept or conceit than my own average standard; that's the lovely part of my character. Which do you prefer? Come on, don't be shy.

It doesn't happen very often that a contemporary writer creates a concept or conceit that has me frothing with envy, but it
does happen. A few years ago, a writer (whose name I have forgotten) casually mentioned that he was writing a novel about a town full of quaint buildings and people that is found up Dylan Thomas's arse. I jumped up and grabbed my shadow by the scruff. "Why the heck didn't I think of that myself?" I thundered. For anyone who isn't Welsh the satirical genius of that idea will probably be lost. If so, take my word for the fact of its brilliance.

The kind of fiction I like best tends to be generated or guided by fundamental concepts that are rather more abstract than those favoured by readers of more orthodox fiction. Crack addicts huddled in sodium shadows don't do much for me; nor am I overly interested in the use of physical props; emotional entanglements and psychological interactions don't move me as much as they ought to. I prefer highly formal, abstract, unique and absurdist logical frameworks. My taste in literature isn't solely confined to works that bear this hallmark, of course, but writers who do tend in this direction (at least some of the time) will always command my attention more than writers who never do.

A few days ago, on August 21st 2010 at 7:59 PM, the aforementioned Mr Gary Fry made an off-the-cuff remark that set wheels of joy in my head spinning. At the same time I frothed with envy. His remark contained one of the neatest, slyest, daftest and potentially most fruitful conceits for a novel I have heard for many years. He said simply, "I have a novel in mind about a guy who invents aphorisms so great that he has to transform world events around him in order to use them. Wilde or what? I'm Shaw it'll be a bestseller."

Imagine! The genius of this conceit is that aphorisms and maxims are rarely true or accurate (think of all the clever generalisations made by such luminaries as Lichtenberg, Chateaubriand, Nietzsche; none of which ever apply in every case and some of which apply in no instances at all). So the potential for genuinely satirical and philosophical absurdist comedy is enormous!

For instance, the lead character might quip something like, "A man who wears a necktie at breakfast is like an aardvark that pilots a balloon!" A completely meaningless comparison -- until he forces it to have meaning by arranging for all aardvarks to pilot balloons. The nightmare logistics of that! A novel constructed along these lines could be a new
Candide, or at least rival the strange allegorical texts of René Daumal.

So full marks to Gary Fry! Now I'm going to have him with onions!

Thursday, 19 August 2010

When Satire Goes Too Far

What happens when satire is misunderstood?

The point of satire is that it should be accessible on two levels simultaneously. The surface text tells one story, the subtext tells another; or to put it more accurately, the subtext tells the exact opposite story of the surface text. We might even say that the subtext reverses the polarity of the visible story, coinciding with it word for word, image for image, but in the wrong direction. In this case, the wrong way is the right way.

Writers of satire are surely always aware that their satire may be misunderstood, that the surface text might be the only one that is noticed, that they might be held responsible for holding views they despise. The history of Literature is full of examples of a general misunderstanding of rather obvious satire.

If blatant satire can be so easily misunderstood, what about the more subtle kinds of satire? Surely an author is deluding himself or herself as to their own intentions and motivations when subtlety becomes the key rule of a satirical text? These authors must be comfortable deep down with the realisation that their satire will be misunderstood. One almost wants to claim that they hope it will be misunderstood.

But why would any satirist deliberately manage affairs to encourage a misreading of their own works?

It’s clear that the psychology of such satirists is more complex than a simple desire to criticise something by mocking it. Some satires are so ambiguous that one is forced to conclude that the author has a foot in both camps, that they are pushing both messages equally, that they stand both for and against the object or force that is the subject of the satire, that in effect they are also satirising themselves and their own satire.

One of the finest satires in modern fiction must surely be The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad. First published in 1972, this novel has drawn praise from Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, James Sallis and many other influential writers and critics. In many ways it is the supreme achievement of the ‘New Wave’ movement that reinvigorated science fiction in Britain and America in the 1960s and 70s.

The central conceit behind The Iron Dream is that the grandiose dreams of most SF writers bear too many disturbing parallels with the grandiose dreams of the Nazis. In other words, the galactic empires, glorification of force and xenophobic elements found in so much science fiction betray a purely Fascistic mentality on behalf of their creators.

In Spinrad’s amazing novel, we are presented with an alternate history in which Adolf Hitler left Germany in 1919 and emigrated to New York, where he became a science fiction writer instead of a politician but with his essential psychology unchanged, a fact that made his integration into the world of pulp SF very smooth indeed. In this parallel dimension, Hitler’s greatest work is a novel entitled Lord of the Swastika, and here at last, in Spinrad’s own book, we are presented with the definitive version. But this is no novel within a novel; Hitler’s novel and Spinrad’s are identical.

The events that propel the main character, Feric Jaggar, to ultimate control over the world, and eventually the universe, parallel the rise of the real Hitler. There are analogues of the SS, the Brownshirts, the Soviets and the Weimar politicians. Instead of democrats, communists and pacifists, the enemies are mutants, mongrels and Universalists. Instead of the clichéd Jew pulling strings in the background, there is the non-human Dominator, a being capable of sapping the will of true men.

Feric Jaggar and his followers wear black leather and are constantly thrusting out their arms in phallic salutes and kissing the tips of shiny truncheons. There are no female characters in The Iron Dream. Everything is masculine and direct.

So this book is a straightforward satire against Nazi tendencies in the SF world? No. Spinrad does something more clever and devious here. He makes it impossible not to root for the wrong guys. The reader is coerced into cheering for Jaggar and his purebred warriors; the reader becomes an authentic Nazi for the duration of the novel, thrilling to the cracking of mongrel heads under the truncheons of the Sons of the Swastika, feeling delight and relief at the incineration of foul Doms by cleansing fire, wishing to participate in the utter destruction of the racially contaminated cities where parrotface mutants openly interbreed with harlequins, lizardmen and blueskins. The reader has no ambiguous feelings at all as Jaggar surges to victory. The reader is one of the bad guys too.

This is a very interesting effect. It is easy to proclaim one’s own superiority in terms of holding correct opinions. I am against prejudice of all kinds, totally opposed to racism, homophobia, sexism. And yet under the surface, perhaps not so deep, I am driven by egotism, intolerance and the lust for power. Just as you are. It’s called the Human Condition and it’s purely a tactical device to pretend that one’s stated beliefs are always representative of the way one feels. Morality isn’t really about not having evil urges, but about having evil urges and declining to act on them. While reading The Iron Dream I felt that Feric Jaggar was in the right. After finishing the book I am free to reject his values, even though I enjoyed them throughout the novel. This novel questioned me, and emotionally I gave all the wrong answers, but that doesn’t mean that my reason has to follow suit.

In one of my own novels, Mister Gum, I attempted to do something along similar lines. I wanted to satirise the teaching of Creative Writing in the same way that Spinrad satirised the SF world. So I created a monstrous egotist whose appalling adventures are designed to be unconditionally enjoyed by the reader while reading them; only when the book is over is the reader free to reverse the polarity of their own opinions on the matters treated by my book, namely power, control, exploitation, solipsism and the sublimation of cowardice. I also attempted to satirise satire itself. One of the first reviews of Mister Gum declared that it was guilty of “feeding the worst tropes of modern culture rather than opposing them.” In fact it does neither on its own, but the reader of my book should do both.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Portable Spill

Here's something that's very topical at the moment. Spillage. Oh look, I've created a portable spill! So instead of waiting for irresponsible idiots such as the senior management of BP to create major spills that spread from only one point of origin and are at the whim of unpredictable sea currents, my invention means that spills can be easily carried to any desired location, put in position and adjusted when necessary; they can even be taken back home after they have fulfilled their purpose! Isn't that just dandy?

My portable spill (patent pending) has another advantage over the standard slicks. What is that advantage, you cry? I'll answer you in due course, probably in the next sentence. On second thoughts not in that one. Nor in this one: maybe in the next. Unlike all other spills, mine can flow uphill. Yes, it's true. Look closely. Here's the evidence. It's flowing up the side of the hardback edition of an important and fairly recent Thomas Pynchon novel, Against the Day. Amazing but true! The novel is also amazing. But not true. Do you like Pynchon? My own view is that, with the solitary exception of John Barth, he's the greatest American writer ever.

As if all this wasn't enough, my portable spill also doubles up as a teardrop. The biggest teardrop in the world! Don't believe me? Here's proof! If you ever feel overwhelmingly sad in future, perhaps as a result of listening to heartwrenching music, Brian Eno's Apollo album for instance, you now have a simple and safe way of expressing your melancholy. This teardrop will not dampen clothes: it's a uniquely dry lachrymal. And it doesn't express just sadness; it can be used on any occasion when weeping is appropriate, at a joyous event or during times of immense frustration. The portable spill. You know it makes sense.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Writing Advice

I hate giving advice almost as much as I hate receiving it, but a friend recently asked me if I knew of any techniques to generate "inspiration" when creating an outline for a story or script. I replied to her request. Somewhat pompously, I'd now like to share the answer I gave to her with everyone. This is what I said:

(a) don't sit around waiting for inspiration, (b) don't chase it too hard.

Some people seem to think that ideas are hard to come by. The truth is that they can be manufactured fairly easily. Juxtaposition is a reliable and simple way to create new ideas. Think of the elements hydrogen and oxygen. Pretty neat on their own, eh? Yes, but a bit overdone. Put them together and what do you get? Water! The first time water was created I bet that its originality was astounding, far more astounding than might have been anticipated, for the simple reason that water is not just a fusion of hydrogen and oxygen but something entirely on its own, with its own qualities and properties, most of which hydrogen and oxygen don't have...

This is one technique I use when I want to come up with an outline from scratch... I take two things that aren't connected and put them together to see what will happen... The less connected those things are, the better the process and result, because then you can have more fun trying to connect them... and more ideas will be generated this way.

For example...

* Heroin addiction and macrame...
* Birdwatching and zombies.
* The fashion world and tropical diseases.
* Astronomy and crossbows.
* The Great Crash of 1929 and pickled gherkins.
* Frogs and tangerines.
* Liver salts and scarves.
* Tinted windows and army trousers.
* Bellybuttons and cacti.
* Castigation and dirigible accidents.
* Zoetropes and cheese.

Almost ANY two unconnected things will work!

Recently I learned that the old British comedy show, The Goodies, used this technique at the script stage. I'm sure it influenced me as I was a devoted follower of the show when I was a little 'un, but I never guessed that random juxtaposition was the main way the writers (Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor) generated their initial ideas!

I note that Wikipedia has a "Random Article" function (look on the left hand side of any page near the top). This function is perfect for generating two or more things that aren't necessarily connected but which can be forced together in a story. The approach can be formalised. For instance, you might consider choosing a letter from the alphabet, perhaps the first letter of your first name. Then click on "Random Article" until you get three pages beginning with that letter. Maybe you can give yourself three parameters for your story: (a) location, (b) activity, (c) participant.

Here's my own demonstration of this technique... The first letter of my first name is "R". So I'll click on "Random Article" until I get a location beginning with that letter. Let's try it now:

Rangoon (literally: "End of Strife") is a former capital of Burma and the capital of Yangon Division.

Now I need an activity:

Rugby union is a full contact team sport, a form of football which originated in England in the early 19th century.

And now a participant:

In Judaism, a rabbi is a religious teacher.

There's no need to be too strict in the application of those variables. But they do give me the basis for a story -- it will be set in Burma, involve contact sport and feature a religious figure.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010


I have always been inclined to put real people that I know into my stories. Usually I change their names in some absurd way. I have been doing this almost since I began writing, but it was only last year that I learned the process has a name: Tuckerization. My assumption has always been that people who are Tuckerized will be glad and amused to be turned into characters; but the truth is that they sometimes aren't, imagining slights and insults that aren't there.

I have decided to make a list of real people who have become characters in my stories. This list isn't complete by any means, but it's a good start. I don't include characters such as Philip José Industrialist, Arthur Mucky, Beerbohm Soames, etc, as they were inspired by people (in this case writers) I never actually knew. I am referring only to people I have had direct contact with in real life.

One important point to remember is that in nearly every case no offence at all was intended! Here's my list. See if there's anyone you recognise on it. You might even be one of these characters yourself!

Dan T. Inferno
Nobbel Omit
Beston Simwick
Nemo Lewis
Gamma-Ray Russell
Gary Z McFry
Rosemary Gibbet-Pardoe
Pastor Rowlands
Mark Xeethra Samuels (and his latest incarnation, Sam Markuels)
Ford Snapdragon
Jeff MeerCat
Alleneal Asherley
Simian Kurt Upstart
Graham Yootha
Peter the Tenant
Chris Understatement
Meol' China
Theaker Peculiar
Stepladder Chapbook (tricky one this)
Wishiwashi Joshi
Bob the Lock
Ramsey Crosse & Blackwell
Lord John Problem
Joel Backalley
Stephen Germanic Peoples
Swiss Brendan
Coconut Matt Cardigan (erudite but itchy)
Ready Salted Quentin
Nicholas Peasant
Lavie Tidhar Lavie Do
Esteban Teak
Gwilym Sans Frontières

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Camping Trip

There are few things better than camping trips. The outdoor life seems to scratch an itch that is deep inside the soul. I grew up in Porthcawl and from a fairly young age I explored the dunes that fringe the sea both east and west of that town. The dunes on the eastern side have a more 'friendly' feel -- they are the 'non-haunted' dunes. This is where my first wild camping trips took place, sleeping under the stars without a tent and a fire and wine. Nice!

The last wild camping trip I did in these dunes was probably in 1983 or perhaps even earlier. Recently I went back with Adele, partly as a nostalgia trip for myself but also to show her the places where I used to roam. We have done two such trips in the past two weeks. Everything has been perfect. Sitting around an excellent fire with good wine and a view of the sea, with the moon rising over the hills and the stars twinkling above, is an incredible experience and one of my favourite pastimes.

The rather curious photo below shows the firelight through a bottle of red wine. Camping without wine and a fire always seems something of a minor disappointment. It amazes me how comfortable sleeping on the dunes can be. The combination of sea air and physical exercise surely play their part in giving a relaxing night. I certainly need to do more of this kind of thing. Physical tiredness is a pleasure compared with mental tiredness. Swimming in the sea is also a fine way of feeling invigorated. I wish I was a stronger swimmer than I am: I left it late before learning. My technique is very poor and I tend to waste a lot of energy by thrashing around inefficiently! Nonetheless I enjoy it tremendously.

Candleston Castle stands amid the sand dunes, almost as if it is lost. It's a small castle, more of a fortified manor than a true fortress. The inner staircase has collapsed, which makes climbing to the top tricky, but I was determined to succeed! Getting down wasn't easy and required a cool head. There is another castle nearby called Ogmore Castle that can be reached via a set of stepping stones.

The dunes on the western side of Porthcawl are quite different in character from those on the eastern side. They are more barren and forlorn and I always thought of them as the 'scary' dunes. The region is rife with ghost stories. There is a mysterious lake in the middle of the dune system. Many centuries ago a village stood here but the sand slowly buried it until it vanished. It's said that on stormy nights the bell of the old church can still be heard ringing somewhere under the lake. Apparently the sounds of ghostly hooves can be heard on the beach, and some travellers have reported a bloodcurdling scream that frightens all who hear it, even the bravest, filling them with panic in the same way that the old nature god Pan was said to do.

The most haunted part of these dunes is undoubtedly Sker House. It's an appropriate name ('Scare') for what is often claimed to be the most haunted house in Wales. The most famous ghost associated with Sker House is the 'Maid of Sker'. Her legend forms the basis of the novelist R.D. Blackmore's novel, also called The Maid of Sker. It's a sad story and her spirit is said to peer ocassionally from one of the windows of the upper room where she was imprisoned by her father for falling in love with a man he disapproved of. Another ghost, supposedly a monk, dwells in the basement. When I was young, the house was a ruin, but recently it has been renovated and painted yellow. I don't know what the ghosts think of that! Adele posed for me in front of the house and I was convinced that when I viewed the photo later I would see ghostly images in the background, but I haven't found any yet!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Reading Patterns

I sometimes wish I had kept a record of all the books I have read in my lifetime. What would the total be? I can't even guess. Having said that, my reading pattern actually resembles a low frequency sine-wave. I started reading "adult" literature when I was 10 years old. My first proper novel was The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Then I read The Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau and The First Men in the Moon. I adored the first three but I didn't understand the fourth, so I stopped reading "Literature".

Before discovering H.G. Wells I had mostly read comics (Whizzer & Chips, Marvel, 2000AD) or Dr Who novelisations (the first one I tackled was Doctor Who and the Cybermen by Gerry Davis). I also enjoyed various SF film "tie-ins" (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Alien) but there was a surprise in store for me: the "tie-in" of the Rollerball film turned out to be a short story collection by a writer called William Harrison; I enjoyed the title story and found the other tales bewildering, disturbing and fascinating; they were among the first adult short stories I ever read.

When I was 14 I went back to "Literature". I read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. I enjoyed it so much that I decided that "Literature" wasn't such a daunting thing at all; and the whole pantheon of Great Works throughout History was suddenly available to me. I immediately plunged into War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, followed by Homer's The Iliad and its "sequel" The Odyssey (I bought the third "sequel", The Aeneid by Virgil, but have still never read it). I had no idea that to claim to have read such works at that young age would later be considered "pretentious" by my future critics. So I persisted in reading Tolstoy, Kafka, Voltaire, Cervantes and many others.

In the following decade I surely read hundreds of books, but then I ran out of steam in my mid 20s. By the time I turned 30 I was barely reading any fiction. Indeed, I recall that during the whole of the year 1996 I read a total of one novel (The Assignment by Friedrich Dürrenmatt). My zest for reading didn't really return until 2001. It was a Dunsany novel (The Chronicles of Rodriguez) that re-opened the floodgates. Since then I have averaged a novel every two weeks. But clearly there's a pattern going on, a pattern with a period of 10 years. It seems to work like this: 10 years of frantic reading, followed by 10 years of barely reading anything, followed by another 10 years of frantic reading...

If it turns out that the wavelength of this sine-wave is constant (it might not be; I might have an "FM" personality) then I should now be coming to the end of my new frantic period. Next year should see my reading rate dropping off. I can but wait and see. In the meantime here are pictures of the three most recent books I've read... All three authors have been a big influence on me, especially Calvino, who is probably my favourite ever writer.

One thing about my reading patterns that I need to change is the way I tend to read more than one book at the same time. Simultaneously reading is fine if the books are radically different from each other, with their own distinctive rhythms. Unfortunately I seem to have got into a situation where I am currently reading 10 books with overlapping themes and concerns. This is proving to be a difficult management task: I need to reduce my reading to a sensible level. How I yearn for those more innocent days when I only read one book at a time! I have a plan to return my reading life to that condition -- I am only allowed to start reading one new book after I have finished two from the pile I'm currently tackling. This way the grand total should slowly go down. That's the idea anyway!