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.


Friday, 9 September 2011

Predatory Males

I have always been slightly bewildered by the term "predatory male" to describe a man who is enthusiastic in desiring (and proactive in attempting to secure) sexual relations with a woman. A predator, in my understanding, is a creature that hunts and eats another creature; the result is that the eaten creature always dies. This metaphor seems at best a little extreme when applied to a man who simply is willing to exert energy and brainpower in order to persuade a woman to jump into bed with him. Romance is supposedly the prelude to the pounce. And yet I have never witnessed a lion taking a zebra out for a candle-lit meal.

It is often said that the writer H.G. Wells was a predatory male. There seems to be a general consensus that this is true. Really? Let's take a look at him compared with a cheetah. Forgive me if I lack imagination but I can't picture Mr Wells reaching speeds of between 112 and 120 km/h in short bursts over the African savannah, accelerating from 0 to over 100 km/h in three seconds. I can't even picture him attaining 20 km/h on his way to a newsagent's in Bromley. Would Wells even have been capable of catching a young fleet-of-foot woman, let alone an impala? I doubt it. I do, however, recommend his books, including his unjustly neglected later works such as Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, The Autocracy of Mr Parham and the especially marvellous Christina Alberta's Father...

Another point: a cheetah has an average killing success of 50%. This compares unfavourably with the wild dog's average of 80% but favourably with a lion's average of 30%; a tiger's average may be as low as 10%. Now let's consider the success rate of the so-called "predatory male". In my life, like almost all men throughout history, I have chased women. I have managed to entice a certain number into bed (it would be tasteless to specify an exact figure; let's just say that it's a positive integer that equals twice the sum of its decimal digits). If we divide the number of women I have attempted to get into bed with by the number I have succeeded in getting into bed, my success rate is 0.00375%. Any true predator with such an abysmal average would surely evolve into a herbivore!

So let's drop this unhappy phrase, "predatory male". Let us simply speak of "normal males" or just "males".

Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Master in Café Morphine

Ex Occidente recently published a tribute volume to the great Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. I was delighted that one of my own stories was chosen for inclusion... Bulgakov was an amazing writer, one of the finest of the 20th Century. Best known for the satirical novel The Master and Margarita, his oeuvre in fact encompasses a huge variety of styles.

Anyway, the tribute anthology is limited to only 100 copies. It is probably the finest book I have ever been published in. It's available from the publisher
here. Originally it was planned that each of the contributors would write a set of notes explaining why they decided to write the stories they did. In the end, it was felt that such notes might prove a little distracting. After all, the main focus of this anthology is Bulgakov!

However, I here take the liberty of posting the notes I prepared for my own contribution, a story entitled 'The Darkest White'.

Notes for 'The Darkest White' (Bulgakov tribute story)

I once had a Russian girlfriend named Margarita; and it was she who was responsible for introducing me to the work of Bulgakov. The coincidence of names isn't a mandatory requirement of some fussy God of Literature. We don't need girlfriends named Thérèse or Eugénie to discover Zola and Balzac, and indeed it might even prove a hindrance.

But one result of my initiation in this manner was that I came late to Bulgakov. A dreadful shame! From the very beginning of my discovery that reading novels is an important pastime, I worshipped the Russians. I devoured Tolstoy's War and Peace when I was fourteen, following it with more Tolstoy and works by Pushkin, Gogol, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky and Sologub. The old Russians were authentic masters.

But I was suspicious of the Soviets, the moderns, for I had made the curious mistake of assuming that any writer who lived and worked in the USSR must, like Gorky, Sholokhov or Paustovsky, be a propagandist for an abhorrent political system. It simply never occurred to me that an author who remained inside the nightmare (through the ill luck of being born at the wrong time or lacking the resources to flee) might only appear on the surface to be working for the state, and that their true, secret work might be against the insanity and injustice.

Thus I was blind to a great deal of courage and genius; and I remained ignorant of the words of Kharms, Mandelstam, Vvedensky, Zamyatin, Babel and all the others. So when I did finally come to Bulgakov it was somewhat in the manner of a penitent, on my mental knees, so to speak. And that is still my posture. When I was asked to write a tribute story to him, I was intimidated: he was too great to look in the eye. I considered missing the chance to write a tale in his honour. I lacked the effrontery; at least I thought I did.

My answer was to be found in an oblique approach. I used Bulgakov as a frame around a different kind of tale, a story inspired by yet another great writer of that era: Lev Nussimbaum (alias Essad Bey, alias Kurban Said). After all, Bulgakov was fond of the framing device, and he spent time in the Caucasus during the tumultuous events that Nussimbaum also endured. I like to imagine they met in some café on the shores of the Caspian. Probably they didn't; but the picture is pleasing to me. I wanted my framing device to lead to a story that led back to the framing device; so Bulgakov and Nussimbaum do meet at last, indirectly, across time as well as space, and almost on the page.

'The Darkest White' is perhaps the most overtly political story I have ever written. I am strongly anti-communist, for I have travelled widely in lands that once groaned under communist regimes, and from Albania to Angola I have seen the damage caused. Had I lived during the Russian Civil War I like to think I would have had the courage to fight on the side of the Whites; and yet I am not pro-Tsar, and the belief that all opponents of Bolshevism were supporters of the monarchy is indolent and ignorant. Bulgakov himself has been cited as a Tsarist. This accusation is absurd. The Whites were a loose gathering of anti-Bolshevists who came from a very broad spectrum of political positions, some of them more genuinely 'socialist' than the Reds. I hope my story helps to show the sheer diversity of the resistance to the nightmare.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Chômu Press

The most interesting independent fiction publisher to have arisen in the past year or two is Chômu Press. I suspect the word 'Chômu' has a specific meaning, maybe something to do with Japanese aesthetics or fin de siècle decadence, but I'll be dashed if I know what that meaning is -- and I don't dare ask the publishers because I don't want to look more ignorant than I already am. The little hat over the letter 'o' makes it more tricky than usual to keep writing the name, but it's worth it. Chômu, Chômu, Chômu... Without that hat the word might get wet when it rains.

Chômu Press have just released their tenth book. Let's have a quick look at each of these in turn. First up, we have Remember You're a One-Ball by Quentin S. Crisp. The title (I presume) is a punning reference to the old Wombles song. When I was younger I misunderstood the lyrics. "The Wombles of Wimbledon / Common are we." Because of the phrasing I thought that the Wombles were from Wimbledon (the town) and that they were common; but in fact they are from Wimbledon Common and no comment concerning their scarcity was intended. I had the pleasure of once meeting Quentin S. Crisp and I wrote about that encounter here. His writing style is superb. He does many fine things in his writing, but there's one quality especially that catches my attention. His forceful clarity. He has a skill that many writers don't have: the ability to upload almost instantly whatever it is he wants to say into the reader's brain. There may be ambiguity of effect but there's never any ambiguity of clarity with his prose style. Ballard does this very well; M.John harrison, Marguerite Duras, Boris Vian, Ernesto Sabato, a handful of others.

The second and third Chômu books were I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like by Justin Isis, and The Dracula Papers, Part 1 by Reggie Oliver. I suspect that the Oliver volume is the best-selling Chômu title so far (I might be wrong about that). Quentin S. Crisp once emailed me to say that Justin Isis was one of the best living writers. That's high praise indeed from a man of Crisp's taste and discretion. As for Reggie Oliver: I am reliably informed that he's excellent. Personally I'm not a big fan of anything to do with vampires, but so what? Both books should adorn the shelves of any progressive horror fan. Are you a progessive horror fan? if so, maybe you ought to consider purchasing one or both...

Revenants by Daniel Mills has attracted considerable attention as a thoughtful and original historical novel. Here's a quote from the hugely influential Booklist: "Readers [of Revenants] are swept into the towering forests of colonial New England right along with the settlers as Mills calls up both the majesty of stately oaks and chestnuts and mist-laden scenes of terrified Native American women and children who were slaughtered where they stood. Otherworldly fiction from a promising new talent..." As for The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children by Brendan Connell, what can I say? Connell, in my view, is perhaps the best contemporary master of the weird. Only Cisco rivals him. Connell's ideas are always brilliant, his style is clear but lyrical, his story structures are immaculate. Frankly, he's a wonderchild. He really deserves to be read by everybody. That's all I plan to say about him for now...

Mark Samuels. I dislike the man personally (or rather: I dislike some of the things he says and does) but what does that have to do with his writing? Nothing! The Man Who Collected Machen is one of his best books, so I've been told. The thing about Samuels is this: somehow he has tapped into something that deeply affects people, he doesn't just get under their skin (almost anyone can do that) but under their souls, and that takes pure talent. Years ago, Samuels told me that he didn't want to be a horror celebrity and win awards in the present but that he'd much rather write one story that was still remembered one hundred years from now. One story, just one. Turns out he was being accidentally modest. It seems a safe bet to say that he has already exceeded his ambition by several orders of magnitude!

Michael Cisco: genius. I'm not alone in thinking this. Thomas Ligotti believes it to be so, Jeff VanderMeer too. Cisco = genius. Simple equation. Good that it's simple because nothing about his writing is. That doesn't mean that his work is murky or obtuse; it's not 'complex' or 'difficult' in that way. No, it's mind expanding, authentically so. I liked The Great Lover so much I wrote the Introduction for it... As for John Elliot's Dying to Read, I'll state that there's just one kind of crime fiction I'm a fan of: the offbeat kind. I like 'Death and the Compass', the novels of Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Don't Point That Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli, etc. Elliot's novel can be joyously put in amongst those works. It's very offbeat, very funny and very original...

What can I say about my own book? Link Arms With Toads! is a collection designed to be a comprehensive 'sampler' of the totality of what I do, so it runs the full spectrum of all the genres I've attempted, and is therefore probably the best entry point for readers new to my work... Most of my other books are biased to specific genres, but this one is biased only to its own syncretist aesthetic. Get your laughing gear around that! It features 18 stories, the earliest dating from 1994 and the most recent from 2010. One of the stories, 'Hell Toupée', is one of my own personal favourites, perhaps in the top 10 of all the stories I've written. Another tale, 'Discrepancy', provides the ultimate "key" to all my other fiction and in fact justifies the entire projected cycle of 1000 interlinked stories that I plan to write.

Enough of that! Let's look quickly at D.F. Lewis' Nemonymous Night. Lewis is one of the most eccentric figures in the independent writing world. Most of the time I have no idea what he's talking about. His work is non-algorithmic and non-systematic. It should be nonsense and yet... it evokes a particular kind of atmosphere, a unique ambience, that no one else can do. It shouldn't work but it does! The simple truth of the matter is that after Lewis is dead he'll get a blue plaque on his house. Most other writers won't. That says a lot, I think... I can't really say anything about Joe Simpson Walkers' Jeanette because it hasn't been published yet. Indications are, however, that it's a transgressive novel along the lines of The Story of O. Let's wait and see! A writer by the name of Joe Pulver also has a book due out from Chômu at the end of 2011, but that doesn't have a cover yet. I may talk about it when it's published.

Chômu Press deserves to flourish. But before they can flourish they deserve to survive. Please consider buying at least one of the above books from them. It's a tough economic climate at the moment for everybody and publishers are especially vulnerable to the bite of the recession. Buy a Chômu book and help keep excellence alive. Thank you!

Friday, 20 May 2011

Five Books in Six Months

This is going to look like I'm showing off, but I'm not really. I'm just delighted to report the fact that in the past six months I've had no less than five books published; and if it's permissible to count the two ebooks (The Phantom Festival and Scamps of Disorder) that also appeared in that timespan, then my total is 7 books in 6 months (but ebooks don't actually count)...

This is a photo of the five books in question. They are the ones standing with their front covers facing forward (much as I'd like to take the credit, I'm not responsible for Italo Calvino's Numbers in the Dark, John Sladek's Complete Roderick, Jack Vance's Alastor or Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad)...

From left to right my five books are: (a) Mister Gum, an obscene satirical novel, 2nd edition, (b) Worming the Harpy, definitive version, (c) The Brothel Creeper, hardback (there's a paperback version available), (d) Link Arms With Toads! and (e) The Coandă Effect. Next month (or the month after) may see the publication of yet another book, Sangria in the Sangraal.

And later in the year it's possible that I might have two more books out: Tallest Stories and The Impossible Inferno. If this does indeed happen, 2011 will be my most successful writing year ever!

OK, I admit it -- I'm showing off!

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Not in My Name

The recent death of the actress Elizabeth Taylor has reminded me that when I was younger I saw some novels on the shelves of my local library apparently written by her. This astonished me. "I didn't know she wrote fiction!" I said to myself. She didn't, of course. It was a different Elizabeth Taylor.

Even back then I felt that something about this situation was unfair. The actress had usurped the other Elizabeth Taylor's name, consigning the writer to oblivion. As it happens, that's not quite true: Elizabeth Taylor still has her dedicated readers (Roald Dahl was one enthusiast). However, if someone speaks the two words "Elizabeth" and "Taylor" in succession, it's a safe bet that most people will assume the speaker is referring to the actress, not to the author.

Coincidentally, the actress's husband played the same trick on another historical figure. When I first read in an encyclopedia that the first European to see Lake Tanganyika was Richard Burton I was truly amazed. Apparently he was looking for the source of the Nile at the time. The idea that a drunken Welsh thespian might even be able to find his way up the River Taff in Cardiff was remarkable enough. But to journey up the Nile? I scarcely believed it!

Naturally, it was a different Richard Burton... The explorer is still justly famous. Nonetheless, if someone speaks the two words "Richard" and "Burton" in succession, it's a safe bet that most people will assume the speaker is referring to the actor, not the explorer. Again, this seems grossly unfair.

Recently, someone told me that they greatly enjoyed the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. My first reaction was to exclaim, "What? They allow her to write books in prison? And make money from them? Outrageous!" I was confusing her name with the names of two serial killers. I know who she is now, but I still think she sounds like a psychopathic murderer. Might as well be called Myra Ripper or Jack the Shipman...

I have long been obsessed with the horrible thought that someone with the same name as me might come along and do something far more remarkable and/or notorious than anything I have ever done, thus appropriating my name for themselves. I have worked hard to make a name for myself as a writer. To be displaced overnight by a different Rhys Hughes would be a dreadful fate; consignment to oblivion in such a manner strikes me as a cruel joke! Let's coin a name for this fear, shall we? How about usurp-phobia?

If such an usurper does appear, please let him be a man of honour and talent, not a drunken actor or (even worse) a vile criminal. I know there is already a Rhys Hughes who plays bass for The Shirehorses; and another Rhys Hughes is president of Interflora; but recently I discovered this news story and it depressed me. I don't want perverts and criminals to take possession of my name. I had it first!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Wonders of the Smugverse

Recently I watched a BBC documentary entitled Wonders of the Universe. I hardly ever watch television. I made a special effort on this occasion because the programme was subtitled 'Destiny' and a title like that is almost fated to catch my attention. Turned out that the documentary was hosted by the physicist Brian Cox.

The programme irritated me slightly. No, actually it irritated me a lot. For one thing, Brian Cox looks like a guy I used to know, a former publisher by the name of Darren Floyd. Here's a photo of Mr Floyd. I bet you thought it was a photo of Brian Cox, didn't you? See what I mean... Anyway, Darren Floyd was one of the most incompetent publishers I've ever dealt with (and I've dealt with more than a few). One of his many faults was utter and consistent failure to pay his writers; if they insisted on receiving at least some money he would cite "low sales" of their books as the reason for non-payment, making up figures from the top of his head. I want to say that Darren Floyd was (and is) an individual with no talent whatsoever, but that would be stretching the truth. He is, in fact, very good at being a rubber-faced chump.

And Brian Cox is his spitting image (spit as thick and sticky as the sap of the rubber tree)... And although Brian Cox has brains (unlike Darren Floyd) he has the same pneumatic smugness about him. Having said that, there's a lot of smugness at large (and at small) in the world, so I had no intention of going out of my way to pick on Brian Cox... But then I saw
this entry on the Scary Duck blog ("Not Scary, Not a Duck") and some floodgates deep inside me opened... Yes, Professor Brian Cox does know who would win a fight between a baboon and a badger. Because he's a genius. And here's a short list I drew up of other things Brian Cox is (or can do):

* Brian Cox is an aardvark in gibbon's clothing.
* Brian Cox can sword-swallow chainsaws.
* Brian Cox is the pussy's jimjams.
* Brian Cox is the pot calling the hookah smoky.
* Brian Cox likes a lot of chocolate on his club.
* Brian Cox digs the funk and plants mandrakes.
* Brian Cox lives in a prehistoric trombone.

How can anyone deny the truth of those statements? Eh?

Because the problem with Wonders of the Universe isn't merely that it's a bit boring. It also attempts to be a bit manipulative. Yes, our universe might well end in a bleak heat death. Any chance of mentioning the existence of other universes too, Brian Cox? I know the multiverse is only a hypothesis, but so are black dwarves... Trying to bleak us out according to the rules of some hidden agenda, are we? Get us shopping to relieve the bleakness, is that it? Prop up the consumer economy, is that what you're up to, Professor Youthful-Face-but-Slightly-Greying-Fringe? I love science. Science is my god. But please, if you're a scientist, be a little less smug. The 'truths' of science do change over time: often they get completely overhauled. Talking as if everything in science is as utterly crystal clear as symbolic logic is asking for trouble, in my view. The 'truths' of science are ideas, often amazing ideas but still just ideas.

In the programmed subtitled 'Destiny', Brian Cox acted as if entropy only ever increases. How did we get here then, pal? And when the universe is just a soup of photons and everything's at maximum entropy... then the only way left is for some localised decreases of entropy, surely? And then maybe time's arrow will reverse... Brian Cox is a cosmologist but either hasn't read Boltzmann or (I suspect this is more likely) is withholding information for some hidden purpose: either because he has been told to be a patronising half-truth giver (maybe that was written into his contract?) or else for political reasons (bleak out the proles). Like I said before, he likes a lot of chocolate on his club.

Contrast him with another cosmologist, with the wonderful
Carl Sagan. Now he never acted like he had a political agenda or was attempting to prop up the diseased consumer-economy model of corrupt Western Society. Sagan was the real thing. Sagan was Oannes. Sagan came and gave us good stuff. Sagan had gills. Sagan was the man. Sagan laughed at chocolate clubs. Lord Protector of the U-men. Sagan and I'll say Gantu. Let's grow erbs in his onour. What kinds of erbs? Baysil. Baysil, yes. And parsec-ly. And thyme's arrow too. And when we've grown them, let's take them to Scarborough Fair and give them to Artery Garfunkle and Appalling Simon.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

The Importance of Titles

When it comes to works of fiction, titles are very important to me. I like evocative, playful, strange titles. I like titles that make me wonder, "what can that story possibly be about?" I like titles that are one-line poems, that are genes that control the growth of the story, titles that already contain in potential everything that can possibly happen in the text that follows but that simultaneously preserve the mystery wholly intact. Josef Nesvadba was a master of these kinds of titles. 'Expedition in the Opposite Direction' and 'Inventor of His Own Undoing', for instance.

A title should be lyrical, offbeat, original. It should have a magical quality. It doesn't have to be elaborate, but I tend to prefer those kinds. What I absolutely DON'T like, except in a few special cases, are simple titles, one-word titles, plain titles, titles that give away nothing and conceal nothing because they are essentially nothing, mere formalities or conventions. The worst kinds of titles are utterly unmemorable and generate no tingle in the soul. They are supposed to be "punchy" but in fact are really just limp. Patrick Süskind's Perfume may well be a superb novel, but the title is dreadful.

My top ten candidates for best title for a work of fiction are as follows:

The Well at the World's End -- William Morris
Aberration of Starlight -- Gilbert Sorrentino
The City in the Autumn Stars -- Michael Moorcock
The Inner Side of the Wind -- Milorad Pavić
Froth on the Daydream -- Boris Vian
Dwellers in the Mirage -- Abraham Merritt
Malign Fiesta -- Wyndham Lewis
Half Past Human -- T. J. Bass
The Dark Light Years -- Brian Aldiss
Landscape Painted with Tea -- Milorad Pavić

Although it's somewhat reprehensible to do so, I feel compelled to stake my own claim to being pretty nifty with titles... I try hard to generate the types of titles that I most admire in other authors. Here's a very short selection of my favourites among my own titles: 'As I Walked Out One Midsummer Night's Dream', 'Occam's Beard', 'Abaddon in Abydos', 'Pepper on the Ginger Star', 'An Awfully Bubonic Adventure', 'My Rabbit's Shadow Looks Like a Hand', 'The Once and Future Peasant', 'Doom it Heavenwards', 'This Werewolf Prefers Muesli', 'The Infringing Lanterns', 'Ondes Martenot on my Pillow', 'Dynamiting the Honeybun', 'The Biscuit Viziers of the Tongue Sultan', 'Caterpillar the Hun', 'My Bearable Smugness', 'The Curious Cabinet of the Fortunate Rabbit', 'Moonmoths, Umbrellas and Oranges', 'When the Tide Comes In, Belinda Puts Out', 'The Heat Death of Mr Universe'.

Anyway, that's my view on the topic. And it's one I'm entitled to!