In good company


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


I read recently that a new academic study has been published about The Company of Wolves, the 1984 movie directed by Neil Jordan, based on fiction by Angela Carter and co-scripted by Jordan and Carter.  The study is the latest in a series of academic film-books called Devil’s Advocates, dedicated to classic horror movies and put into print by Auteur Publishing.  Devil’s Advocates: The Company of Wolves is the work of Northern Irishman James Gracey, who describes himself in his Twitter profile as a ‘library assistant’ and ‘occasional author of books about horror films’.  Its appearance has reminded me that The Company of Wolves is one of my favourite movies of the 1980s – of any genre, not just horror.


No doubt part of my fondness for the film stems from its source material, because I’m a big fan of the late Angela Carter and her sumptuous gothic prose.  (While I was doing an MA in 2008-2009 at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where Carter had once taught creative writing, I was delighted one day when I got chatting with an elderly assistant at the campus bookshop and she reminisced about Carter and how she used to wander around “in a big billowy dress.”)  The Company of Wolves began life as a short story featured in her masterly 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber.  Considering how other stories in the book are adult, gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story), it’s no surprise that The Company of Wolves is a version of Little Red Riding Hood with, as its villain, not a big bad wolf but an even bigger and badder werewolf.


© ullstein bild / Getty Images


Carter’s Company of Wolves takes its time getting to its main plotline, though.  It begins by recounting several shorter tales and anecdotes that explore wolf and werewolf lore, and the Red Riding Hood character doesn’t set off into the forest to visit Grandmother’s house until halfway through its ten pages.  Additionally, The Company of Wolves is part of a triptych of werewolf-related stories in The Bloody Chamber – it’s sandwiched between ones called The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice (which as well as being an Angela Carter story is the name of a not-bad alternative rock / indie band).  Not only does Jordan’s movie copy the rambling, episodic and anecdotal structure of the fictional Company of Wolves, but it also borrows elements from its two hairy neighbours.


Translating into celluloid Carter’s ornate prose style – which, for example, has a midwinter forest containing “huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy of the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and too forlorn to sing” and “bright frills of the winter fungi on the blotched trunks of the trees” and “a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last year’s bracken” – was a job to which the Irish director and writer Neil Jordan was well suited.   His CV includes atmospheric and flamboyant supernatural movies like Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Byzantium (2012), plus the dark, twisted tragic-comic drama The Butcher Boy (1997); and many of his supposedly more realistic films like Angel (1982), Mona Lisa (1986) and The Crying Game (1992) are imbued with a strange, phantasmagorical quality too.


With The Company of Wolves, Jordan and his production team – take a bow, cinematographer Bryan Loftus, production designer Anton Furst and art director Stuart Rose – excel themselves in crafting a physical setting for Carter’s stories.  The movie mostly takes place in a pre-industrial village and a surrounding, huge Ruritanian forest.  It’s an environment that’s both quaint with thatched cottages, cobbled streets, mossy churchyards and humped stone bridges and lush with bright-coloured flowers, shaggy trees, trailing vines,  beds of fallen leaves and nests of speckled eggs (which, disconcertingly, hatch and release tiny homunculi).  Yet it’s also a claustrophobic place of misshapen branches, drifting fogs, deep snowbanks and, obviously, wolf-howls that pierce out of the dark recesses of the forest.  In other words, it’s part Romantic poem, part fevered dream and part Hammer horror.


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


If anything, the plotting in the film of The Company of Wolves is more disorientating than that in the original story.  The central structure is similar: we get a clutch of little stories about werewolves – here told to teenage heroine Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) and then, later, told by Rosaleen herself – before the film settles down to its main narrative, which is what happens one day when Rosaleen dons a red woollen shawl, leaves her village and takes a walk through the forest to her grandmother’s secluded cottage.


However, the film places this within a framing device that has Rosaleen as a modern-day girl who dreams about being in a fairy-tale village, in a fairy-tale forest, while she takes an afternoon nap in her bedroom.  (As we descend through Rosaleen’s subconscious to the main part of the dream, we also pass through a creepy transitional zone populated by human-sized versions of the dolls and toys in her bedroom, which calls to mind another Angela Carter work, the 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop.)  At the film’s end, this stories-told-within-a-dream framework collapses, for poor modern-day Rosaleen wakes from her dream to find real wolves crashing through the walls of her room.  None of which matters, of course.  The Company of Wolves isn’t a film to be processed logically.  It’s one to be simply experienced.


It hasn’t much character development, since the characters are archetypes rather than proper human beings, but it’s still well acted by a first-rate cast.  Sarah Patterson does what’s required of her as Rosaleen and German actor, dancer and choreographer Micha Bergese is appropriately lithe, flirtatious and, yes, predatory as the young hunstsman whom Rosaleen encounters on the way to her grandmother’s house.  (His eyebrows meet above his nose, which is a dead giveaway.)  Angela Lansbury makes a wonderfully spry and wily grandmother, so much so that I can forgive her for the subsequent dozen years that she spent clogging up my television screen with her dreary TV series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96).  The film also features the excellent trio of David Warner as Rosaleen’s father in both the dream world and the real one, Graham Crowden as the village’s amiable priest, and Brian Glover as the village’s resident Yorkshireman.  (At one point, Glover pontificates, “If you think wolves are big now, you should have seen them when I were a lad!”)


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


In the cast too are Terence Stamp and Jordan’s long-time collaborator Stephen Rea, both of whom appear in the first two stories narrated by Lansbury.  Stamp has a cameo as the Devil, selling a youth a magical balm that, once applied, has lycanthropic consequences.  Rea plays a man who mysteriously disappears on his wedding night and then equally mysteriously reappears seven years later, to discover that his wife has since remarried and sired a brood of children with her new husband.  In the film’s most gruesome sequence, Rea shows his displeasure by becoming a werewolf – a painful process because, to facilitate the transformation, he has to tear his own skin off.


With the young, virginal Rosaleen setting out on a journey and being waylaid by a literally beastly male, but then taking control of the situation and resolving it in her own unexpected fashion, there’s obviously a lot happening beneath the film’s surface.  However, I like the fact that while The Company of Wolves is concerned with themes of female empowerment and sexuality, it isn’t a polemic.  Yes, one of Lansbury’s tales ends with an instance of domestic violence, and one of Rosaleen’s tales deals with a wronged woman getting her revenge on the cad responsible.  But Rosaleen’s parents are depicted as having a loving and sharing relationship.  Despite coming to this film after villainous roles in Time After Time (1979), The Time Bandits (1981) and Tron (1982), Warner plays a gentle soul here; and Rosaleen’s mother (Tusse Silberg) points out to her that “if there’s a beast in man, it meets its match in women too.”  Meanwhile, a village boy (Shane Johnstone) who takes a shine to Rosaleen, while evidently a lustful scamp, seems good-hearted enough and demonstrates concern for her safety.


© Palace Productions / ITC / Cannon


This nuance extends to the film’s portrayal of the church.  It’s hardly an institution of oppressive patriarchy.  Rosaleen’s final tale has Graham Crowden’s priest showing kindness to a feral wolf-girl (played by experimental 1980s singer-musician Danielle Dax).  “Are you God’s work or the Devil’s?” he asks her.  “Oh, what do I care whose work you are.  You poor, silent creature…”


You appreciate Jordan and Carter’s achievement with The Company of Wolves when you consider how many filmmakers since then have tried, and failed, to convert children’s fairy stories into darker, more adult and more gothic movies.  I’m thinking of Terry Gilliam’s disappointingly uneven Brothers Grimm (2005) or the blah Kristen Stewart vehicle Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) or crud like Red Riding Hood (2011) and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013).


Probably the best effort has been Matteo Garrone’s Italian / French / British movie Tale of Tales (2015) which, like The Company of Wolves, isn’t afraid to confound expectations and twist and distort logic.  Which, when you think about it, is what the original fairy and folk tales that inspired both films did anyway.


© Nomad Publishing


My name is Amis, Kingsley Amis


© Vintage Classics


There’s been much talk in recent years about the obsolescence of James Bond.  The thinking goes that as a privileged, white, stuck-up, sexist macho-man rooted in the early decades of the Cold War, Bond has become an embarrassing anachronism in our politically correct, socially aware era today.  Here’s Laurie Penny’s contribution to the debate, for instance, in the New Statesman.


Well, forgive me for being sceptical about this line of thought.  For one thing, with the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit dominating political discourse just now, our times are clearly less enlightened than many would like to think.  Which means there are probably millions of unreconstructed souls out there who don’t give two hoots about political correctness and still clutch old snobby, sexist 007 to their bosoms.  For better or for worse, I don’t think Bond is going to disappear off the popular radar for a while yet.


Also, modern-day Bond-bashers overlook the fact that the Bond franchise – the movies, anyway – has had fun for a long time already with the idea of its hero being outmoded and anachronistic.  In 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Edward Fox’s M tells Sean Connery’s Bond: “It’s no secret that I hold your methods in much less regard than my illustrious predecessor did.”  Thereafter, he lectures Bond on healthy eating and avoiding free radicals: “They’re toxins that destroy the body and the brain, caused by eating too much red meat and white bread.  Too many dry martinis!”  In 1995’s Goldeneye, another M, Judi Dench, takes Pierce Brosnan’s Bond to task for being ‘a sexist, misogynistic dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War…’  And in 2015’s Spectre, Daniel Craig’s Bond is faced with a new, tech-obsessed superior called C (Andrew Scott), who vows to ‘bring British intelligence out of the dark ages, into the light’, where ‘an agent in the field’ can’t ‘last long against all those drones and satellites.’


But however fashionable or unfashionable Bond is these days, nobody can deny that well-regarded authors are still keen to follow in the footsteps of Ian Fleming and have a go at writing new James Bond novels: for example, Sebastian Foulkes (with 2008’s Devil May Care), Jeffery Deaver (with 2011’s Carte Blanche), William Boyd (with 2013’s Solo) and Anthony Horowitz (with 2015’s Trigger Mortis).  And it’s been announced that Horowitz will be unveiling a second Bond novel, Forever and a Day, later this year.


Long before Foulkes, Deaver, Boyd and Horowitz got in on the act, though, another writer attempted to construct a novel around Ian Fleming’s legendary creation.  In 1968, just four years after Fleming’s death, Kingsley Amis wrote a Bond adventure called Colonel Sun and published it under the pseudonym Robert Markham.  By then, of course, Amis was a big noise in British letters thanks to works like 1954’s Lucky Jim and 1960’s Take a Girl Like You.  I should say that my 2015 Vintage Classics edition of Colonel Sun makes no mention of Robert Markham on its front cover and advertises it unapologetically as a Kingsley Amis novel.


© The Times


A few weeks ago, I finally found the time to read Amis’s take on Bond and I thought I’d offer my thoughts on it.  If you haven’t yet read Colonel Sun but intend to, beware – there are spoilers ahead.


Set a little while after the events of Fleming’s Bond swansong, The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) (which Amis is rumoured to have polished up when Fleming died before he could revise it himself), Colonel Sun begins with an audacious attempt by some unidentified villains to kidnap both Bond and M.  They’re only half-successful – M is abducted and whisked out of England, but Bond manages to elude his would-be kidnappers and is then tasked with tracking down his boss.  He soon homes in on an island in the Aegean Sea.  There, M is being held by a Chinese officer, ‘Colonel Sun Liang-tan of the Special Activities Committee, People’s Liberation Army’.


The dastardly Colonel has hatched a dastardly plan.  The Soviet Union is hosting a secret international conference in the area and Sun plans to destroy it and the delegates in a mortar attack, the blame for which will then be pinned on Britain – Sun intends to make it look like one of the last mortars blew up accidentally, before firing, and leave Bond and M’s dead, but still identifiable, bodies in the wreckage.  Thus, China will benefit from the discrediting not only of the USSR for sloppy security, but also of the UK for warmongering.


To rescue M and thwart Sun’s scheme, Bond joins forces with a woman called Ariadne Alexandrou, a Greek communist who’s been working for the Soviets; and a Greek World War II veteran called Niko Litsas who, after fighting Nazis, fought communists during the 1946-49 Greek Civil War.  (Amis discreetly skates over Britain’s sorry role in this episode of Greek history.  In 1944 the British government decided to back the anti-communist faction in Greece against the left-leaning one, even though the former faction contained many former Nazi sympathisers and collaborators and the latter contained many partisans who’d fought for the Allies.)  Despite their ideological differences, the trio bond – ouch! – and are soon prowling the Aegean Sea in a vessel called The Altair whilst figuring a way of taking the fight to Sun and his many henchmen.


Amis’s plot is a generic one and a few things don’t make sense.  For example, why does Sun want to plant the elderly and normally deskbound M at the scene of the crime?  (This is the literary M we’re talking about, not the feistier and more empowered cinematic version played by the likes of Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes.)  Wouldn’t it look more believable if the body of another, physically-able British agent was found there next to Bond’s?  It’s hard to see this as anything more than a perfunctory excuse for the novel’s main gimmick, the kidnapping of M.


© Bantam Books


But Colonel Sun is still good entertainment and it feels more credible as a Bond novel than the other non-Fleming Bonds, like Solo and Trigger Mortis, that I’ve read.  For one thing, unlike the rather bland villains in the Boyd and Horowitz novels, Colonel Sun makes a memorable baddie.


Yes, he belongs to a long tradition of Oriental supervillains found in pulpy colonial adventure fiction – the Fu Manchu books being the most famous, and notorious, examples.  He’s not even the first bad guy in the Bond canon to follow this dubious blueprint, an honour that belongs to the titular character of Fleming’s Dr No (1957).  But Sun is splendidly eccentric.  He’s irritatingly polite and addresses friends and foes alike by their first names.  He also sees himself as an Anglophile: “Sun did not share his colleagues’ often-expressed contempt… for everything British.  He was fond of many aspects of their culture and considered it regrettable in some ways that that culture had such a short time left.”


Then there’s his troubling penchant for torture.  Near the novel’s end and just before he lays into Bond with an array of kitchen utensils (‘knives, skewers, broom-straws’), he explains: “True sadism has nothing whatever to do with sex.  The intimacy I was referring to is moral and spiritual, the union of two souls in a rather mystical way.”  Later still, he surprises us when he confesses to Bond that “I didn’t feel like a god when I was torturing you back there.  I felt sick and guilty and ashamed.”


Admittedly, I could have done without the linguistic quirk that Amis bestows on his villain.  Thanks to his ‘quick ear and passionate desire to learn’ English and a ‘total ignorance of the British dialect pattern’, he’s ended up with a bizarre accent combining the ‘tones of Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast, Newcastle, Cardiff and several sorts of London…’  As a result, every time that Colonel Sun opens his mouth in the book, I imagine him sounding like Liam Gallagher, Billy Connolly, Ringo Starr, George Best, Jimmy Nail, Charlotte Church and Bob Hoskins fed through a mixing desk.


Colonel Sun also feels like a proper Bond novel because Kingsley Amis’s authorial voice doesn’t sound that different from Ian Fleming’s.  Putting it more crudely, it feels closer to the originals than the modern pastiches do because Amis was as much of a curmudgeonly snob as Fleming was.  By the 1960s, Bond’s rarefied world of Bentleys, dinner jackets and private members’ clubs were on their way out; and Amis bellyaches about it as you’d imagine Fleming would.  When Bond drives through some English farmland, he writes: “Places like this would last longest as memorials of what England had once been.  As if to contradict this idea, there appeared ahead of him a B.E.A. Trident newly taken off from London Airport, full of tourists bearing their fish-and-chip culture to the Spanish resorts, to Portugal’s lovely Algarve province, and now… as far as Morocco.”  Also activating Amis’s Licence to Grump is the prospect of the great unwashed discovering the Greek islands.  Describing a waterfront, he observes: “At the near end were whitewashed cottages with blue or tan shutters and doors, then a grocery, a ship’s supplier, harbour offices, a tavérna with a faded green awning.  No neon, no cars, no souvenir shops.  Not yet.”


© Eon Productions


Still, some aspects of Colonel Sun are surprisingly liberal, considering that Amis was well-known for his cranky right-wing politics.  Ariadne, the book’s heroine, is resourceful and able to look after herself and Bond comes across as less of a sexist boor than one might have expected.  Meanwhile, some of the Soviet characters are depicted sympathetically: for example, Gordienko, Moscow’s man in Athens who believes Bond’s warnings that something fishy is afoot and will have bad consequences for both their countries; and Yermolov, the pragmatic, vodka-loving dignitary who at the end expresses the USSR’s gratitude to Bond for foiling Sun’s plan.  Indeed, Yermolov feels like a prototype for the craggy but avuncular General Gogol, the KGB head played by Walter Gottel who appeared in every Bond movie from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) to The Living Daylights (1987).  In Colonel Sun, Yermolov even offers Bond the Order of the Red Banner; just as Gogol awards Roger Moore (‘Comrade Bond’) the Order of Lenin at the end of 1985’s A View to a Kill.


But before we assume that old Kingsley has gone all hippy-dippy and peace-and-love, we should bear in mind that the Soviets are the good guys here only comparatively – because the bad guys are the Chinese.  The novel even postulates that the West and the Soviet Union are on the brink of working together because of the increasing threat posed by China.  (Richard Nixon’s jaunt to China in 1972 must have knocked that fanciful notion on the head.)  Happily, by the time of the 1997 Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, which has Pierce Brosnan joining forces with Michelle Yeoh to take on evil media mogul Jonathan Pryce (basically playing Rupert Murdoch), the Bond-verse had decided that the Chinese could be good guys too.


Talking of which, while Colonel Sun has never been filmed, it’s interesting to see how a few of its ideas have turned up in the Bond movies.  The kidnapping of M was a key plot element in 1999’s Tomorrow Never Dies, while a villain called Colonel Tan-Sun Moon features in 2002’s Die Another Day.  And if Colonel Sun’s musings during the book’s climactic torture scene sound familiar – “Torture is easy, on a superficial level.  A man can watch himself being disembowelled and derive great horror from the experience, but it’s still going on at a distance…  a man lives inside his head.  That’s where the seed of his soul is…  So James, I’m going to penetrate to where you are.  To the inside of your head….” – it’s because they were used as dialogue in 2015’s Spectre, for the scene where Christoph Waltz violates Daniel Craig’s skull using a torture device that looks like a dentist’s drill attached to a robotic tentacle.


In Spectre, Waltz’s character is revealed as being none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  Having James Bond’s great arch-enemy nick his best lines?  I’m sure Colonel Sun would have been flattered.


© Eon Productions


Ursula departs


© The Washington Post


Following the tributes paid in the last few days to the legendary science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away on January 22nd, I feel a little embarrassed to admit that I have only read one work by her.


This was a collection of her first three Earthsea novels (1968-72), set in an imaginary archipelago where magic, wizards and dragons are all prominent.  I read it when I was 12 or 13 and it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realised I’d got its title completely wrong.  The front cover of the book bore the name The Earthsea Trilogy, but ‘Earthsea’ was inscribed in such ornate medieval lettering (especially the ‘E’ and the ‘h’) that I misread it as The Fartisea Trilogy, which would have been pronounced as the flatulent-sounding Farty-Sea Trilogy.  Thus, while I read, I kept wondering when the characters were going to pack their bags, leave Earthsea and move to the obviously-more-important Fartisea of the title.  D’uh!


Anyhow, the Earthsea stories really impressed me.  It was a revelation at that age to read a work of serious epic fantasy that gradually built a whole fantastical world around its characters but did so in clear, unpretentious prose.  The quality of the writing especially struck me because a little while earlier I’d tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane (1977), the first of ten volumes of Tolkein-esque fantasy written by Stephen Donaldson and known collectively as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  But I’d soon given up, defeated by Donaldson’s pompous, overwrought prose-style.


Other things that I liked about Earthsea are neatly encapsulated in this tribute that the American science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote about Le Guin in the Los Angeles Times the other day: “This was a subtle gift that Le Guin gave to a young person wanting to be a writer – the idea that there was more to writing fiction than ticking off plot points, that a rewarding story can be told without overt conflict, and that a world wide and deep can be its own reward, for those building the world and those who walk through it.”


Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reading a collection of short stories called The Dream Archipelago (1999) by Christopher Priest, which like Earthsea are set on an imaginary group of islands that have fantastical properties.  One story, The Negation, is about a young, naïve man called Dik who aspires to be a writer but who gets drafted into the military and assigned to a bleak snowbound frontier-town when war breaks out between his country and a neighbour.  He discovers that as a propaganda stunt / cultural morale booster, the government is sending a writer called Moylita Kaine to live in and write about the town for a period; and, because Kaine wrote the novel that first fuelled Dik’s writerly ambitions, he arranges to meet her.  He subsequently gets into trouble when Kaine decides to involve her trusting young admirer in an act of subversion.  I hadn’t realised that The Negation was autobiographical, but on his blog the other day, whilst paying his respects to Le Guin, Priest described the story as “a disguised but also explicit account of my meetings with her.”  He’d known her while she and her husband were living in London in the mid-1970s.


Knowing this, it’s easy to imagine Le Guin (who was then in her 40s) as the enigmatic Kaine, brusque but self-effacing, “sometimes… deliberately vague”, her eyes sparkling “in the snowy light from the window”; and the younger Priest as the story’s shy, unsure-of-himself hero.


One thing’s for sure.  I need to track down and read copies of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) soon.


© Penguin Books


Deathlog 2017 – Part 2


© Paramount Classics


American Renaissance man Sam Shepard died on July 27th.  As a playwright he was responsible for Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), Fool for Love (1983), A Lie of the Mind (1985) and others; he acted in movies as varied as Days of Heaven (1978), The Right Stuff (1983), Black Hawk Down (2001) and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); he authored two novels and directed two films; and his screenwriting credits included Zabriskie Point (1970), Renaldo and Clara (1978) and of course Paris, Texas (1984), a movie I can’t think of now without hearing Ry Cooder’s elegiac slide-guitar score in my head.


Other casualties of July 2017 included the masterly horror-movie auteur George A. Romero, who died on July 16th; Welsh actor Hywel Bennett, one-time boyish-faced star of movies like The Family Way (1966), Twisted Nerve (1968) and Loot (1970), who died on July 25th; and Chester Bennington, singer with popular nu-metal band Linkin Park, who died on July 20th – I had little time for nu-metal music generally, but I thought Linkin Park were among the sub-genre’s least offensive practitioners.  Meanwhile, departing on July 15th was distinguished movie and TV actor Martin Landau, who first gained attention as a villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest back in 1959.  I’ll always remember Landau for playing Commander Koenig in the TV sci-fi show Space 1999 (1975-77) and playing a washed-up, drug-addled Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s delightful Ed Wood (1994).


© Toho


Where to start in August 2017?  Old Western movie-star Ty Hardin died on August 3rd, as did hard-working British TV and film actor Robert Hardy, who was still going strong in his eighties thanks to the Harry Potter franchise.  August 7th saw the passing of Japanese actor and stuntman Haruo Nakajima, who filled a rubber suit to play Godzilla in many a giant-monster movie for Japan’s Toho Company in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Having played Godzilla in 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla, Nakajima changed sides, donned an ape-suit and played King Kong in 1967’s King Kong Escapes.  Passing one day later was American country-and-western singer Glen Campbell, whom I’ll remember best for one of his occasional acting roles – as La Boeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins forces with Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) and Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) in Henry Hathaway’s 1969 western True Grit.  The last day of August saw the demise of American TV actor Richard Anderson, fondly remembered by 1970s youngsters as Oscar Goldman in The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-78).


Another horror-movie auteur, Tobe Hooper – of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy – passed away on August 26th.  The great English science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on August 19th; while Gordon Williams, Scottish author of The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969), the basis for Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs, died on August 20th.  And legendary Hollywood funny-man Jerry Lewis left us on August 20th.  To be honest, I found his comedy movies about as amusing as toothache, but I can’t deny an older Lewis was excellent as the cynical comedian / chat-show host Jerry Langford in Martin Scorsese’s twisted showbiz satire The King of Comedy (1982).


Bruce Forsyth, English TV gameshow host, entertainer and comedian – and supposedly the last person working on British television who’d first appeared on it prior to World War II – died on August 18th.  I found Forsyth’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking showbiz schtick hard to take, but I liked him for the guest appearance he made on The Muppet Show in 1976, when he helped Fozzie Bear stand up to those wizened, mean-spirited hecklers Statler and Waldorf.  That was definitely Bruce’s finest hour.


© ITC Entertainment


Len Wein, the great comic-book writer whose many achievements included creating the squishy half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing with the late Bernie Wrightson back in 1971, died on September 9th.  The following day saw the death of Irish-American author J.P. Donleavy.  I loved Donleavy’s 1955 novel The Ginger Man as a teenager, though I wonder if I would find it a bit juvenile if I read it again today.  Grant Hart, who manned the drumkit for the brilliant 1980s alterative-punk band Hüsker Dü, died on September 14th, and one day later yet another Twin Peaks (and Paris, Texas) alumni, the marvellous American character actor Harry Dean Stanton, passed away.  Another American actor, Bernie Casey, died on September 19th.  Casey’s roles included that of Felix Leiter in the ‘rogue’ Sean Connery / James Bond movie Never Say Never Again (1982), which made him the cinema’s first black Felix Leiter a quarter-century before Jeffrey Wright landed the part in the Daniel Craig Bond films.


Boxer Jake LaMotta, whose chequered career formed the basis for the classic Martin Scorsese / Robert De Niro collaboration Raging Bull (1980), died on September 20th.  A week later saw the death of Hugh Hefner, millionaire founder of Playboy magazine.  With his playmate-filled mansion and penchant for pyjamas, pipes and ship’s-captain hats, Hefner struck me as a sleazy and infantile old letch.  But I can’t belittle his literary taste – in between the nudie pictures, Playboy published work by Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ian Fleming, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joseph Heller, Shirley Jackson, Ursula Le Guin, Norman Mailer, Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut and many more.


September 25th marked the death of English actor Tony Booth, best-known as a cast-member in the controversial but influential BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75) and for being the real-life father of Cherie Booth, i.e. Mrs Tony Blair.  Here’s a fascinating fact: Booth claimed his great-great-great-uncle’s son was John Wilkes Booth, who was both an actor and the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.  I wonder if the staunchly socialist Booth felt tempted to emulate his ancestor once his son-in-law had been in office for a few years and shown his true colours.


The music world suffered another blow on October 3rd with the death of the agreeable American musician, singer and songwriter Tom Petty, while the comedy world said goodbye to the ground-breaking Irish comedian Sean Hughes on October 16th.  The same day saw the passing of venerable Guernsey actor Roy Dotrice, whose career stretched from The Heroes of Telemark (1965) to Hellboy II (2008), via 1984’s Amadeus where he played the title character’s father.  Like many a veteran British character actor, Doctrice got a late-career boost when he was cast in Game of Thrones (2011-present).  Other actors to die in October included Robert Guillaume – wonderful as Benson, droll butler to the chaotic Tate family in the American TV comedy Soap (1977-81) – and on October 9th the distinguished French actor Jean Rochefort.  Ironically, Rochefort may be best-known to English-speaking audiences for a role he didn’t play.  He was lined up to be Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s monumentally ill-fated and eventually-cancelled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.  In anticipation, Rochefort even learned to speak English.  The 2002 documentary Lost in La Manca tells the story of this epic that never happened.




October 22nd saw the death of Daisy Berkowitz, one-time guitarist to Goth-metaller / shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and on October 19th the Italian movie director Umberto Lenzi passed away.  Lenzi was prolific in several genres, but I’ll remember him chiefly for his 1974 thriller Spasmo, an elegant if not terribly sensible example of the Italian giallo genre.


November brought a rash of music-related deaths – Chuck Mosely, the 1980s frontman for the great American alternative / funk-metal band Faith No More, on November 9th; Michael Davis (nicknamed ‘Dik Mik’), who in the 1970s operated the appropriately futuristic-sounding ‘audio-generator’ for the legendary ‘space-rock’ band Hawkwind, on November 16th; and Australian-born TV composer Dudley Simpson, who died on November 4th.   Simpson’s career-highlights include the incidental music for Doctor Who during its creepiest phase in the 1970s and the unsettling and pulsating theme tune for The Tomorrow People (1973-79).  Saddest of all for me, however, was the passing on November 18th of Australian guitarist Malcolm Young, co-founder of AC / DC and mastermind behind that band’s mightiest guitar riffs.


November was also a bad month for British TV sitcom actors, witnessing the deaths of Keith Barron on November 15th and Rodney Bewes on November 21st.  In between television work, both men appeared occasionally in films – I particularly remember Barron in 1974’s movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land That Time Forgot and Bewes (playing James Mason’s son) in the 1970 adaptation of Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine.  Meanwhile, actor John Hillerman died on November 9th.  Hillerman played Higgins, the snotty English concierge of Tom Selleck’s building in Magnum P.I. (1980-88).  So convincing was he in the role that following his death I was surprised to learn he’d actually hailed from Texas.


© Universal Television


Finally, German actress Karin Dor died on November 9th.  In 1967’s You Only Live Twice, the villainous Dor tried unsuccessfully to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond by trapping him in a plummeting airplane.  Then her boss Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) punished her for her failure by dropping her through a trapdoor into a pool of hungry piranha fish – and lo, a cinematic cliché was born.


On December 6th, France mourned the death of its very own Elvis Presley, the Gallic rock-and-roller Johnny Hallyday.  I’m unfamiliar with Hallyday’s music, but fondly remember his acting performance in the 2002 movie L’Homme du Train.  In this, he starred alongside Jean Rochefort, who’d died just two months previously.  Indeed, the film’s ending, where both men die simultaneously and wind up standing together in ghost form on an ethereal railway platform, seems sadly and eerily prophetic now.  Five days later saw the death of English entertainer Keith Chegwin, whose relentlessly cheery presence was a staple of British children’s TV during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Swap Shop (1976-82) and Cheggers Plays Pop (1978-86).  Later, self-deprecatingly and post-modernly, Chegwin played himself in Ricky Gervais’s TV comedy Life’s Too Short (2011-13) and the movie Kill Keith (2011); but I liked him best for his appearance, at the age of 14, as Fleance in Roman Polanski’s ultra-violent version of Macbeth (1971).


Bob Givens, the veteran American animator who designed the world’s coolest cartoon rabbit, Bugs Bunny, died on December 14th; while Christmas Eve saw the death of American actress Heather Menzies.  She was best-known for playing one of the Von Trapp children in wholesome musical blockbuster The Sound of Music (1965) but I preferred her for playing the heroine of a less wholesome movie, the Joe Dante-directed / John Sayles-scripted Piranha (1978).  Following her death, Dante called her a“lovely person who was immensely helpful and supportive as the star of Piranha, my first solo directing job.”


Finally, December 2017 saw the departures of two men who, in different ways, were excellent ambassadors for the world of science.  Heinz Wolff, the German-born scientist who appeared on British TV shows like Young Scientist of the Year (1966-81) and The Great Egg Race (1979-86) and who, with his bald, domed head and bowtie, looked splendidly like how you’d imagine a scientist to look, died on December 15th.  Meanwhile, space-shuttle astronaut Bruce McCandless, who in 1984 became the first human being to make an untethered flight in space, died on December 21st.  It seems dishearteningly symbolic that their deaths came at the end of a year when the most powerful man on earth was a nincompoop who didn’t just seem ignorant of science, but actively seemed to despise it.





Deathlog 2017 – Part 1


© Eon Productions


The Grim Reaper seemed to cull a record number of big-name celebrities in 2016: David Bowie, Prince, Umberto Eco, Muhammed Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher.  2017 has seen less carnage, but nonetheless some people I admired have passed away.  Here’s a post about them.  Links are provided to those people whom I’ve already written about on Blood and Porridge.


January 19th and 21st saw the deaths of British writers Hilary Bailey and Emma Tennant, who by a sad coincidence were friends and occasional collaborators.  I read some of Bailey’s work in the New Worlds Quarterly paperback series that she’d edited in the 1970s – the series was a reincarnation of the famous science-fiction magazine New Worlds that her one-time husband Michael Moorcock had edited during the previous decade.  I’m unfamiliar with Tennant’s work but have a tenuous link with her.  She belonged to the aristocratic Glenconner family who owned the Glen, a mansion in the hills a few miles southeast of my Scottish hometown of Peebles.  I’ve hiked past the Glen many a time and, according to Tennant’s Wikipedia entry, she lived there as a child and remembered it as “the strangest place possible.”


January 27th saw a further literary demise, of novelist and filmmaker William Peter Blatty.  He authored The Exorcist (1971), which was made into the ground-breaking and massively successful horror movie of the same name two years later.  In 1990 Blatty directed the film’s second sequel, Exorcist III, which has its admirers; and in 1980 The Ninth Configuration, a movie ignored on its release but now viewed as an offbeat classic.   Film critic Mark Kermode described Configuration as “a breathtaking cocktail of philosophy, eye-popping visuals, jaw-dropping pretentiousness, rib-tickling humour and heart-stopping action.”


© Warner Brothers


Also checking out in January were American character actor Miguel Ferrer – Albert Rosenfield in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017) – on February 19th; acclaimed English actor John Hurt on January 25th; Scottish politician Tam Dalyell on January 26th; and, on January 25th, the American film and TV actress Mary Tyler Moore.  Through her sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77), she was instrumental in getting American television to portray women in a more proactive and empowered fashion.


January 26th saw the death of a more conventional American TV performer, Mike Connors, who played tough-guy private investigator Mannix from 1967 to 1975.  Mannix fans presumably included a young Quentin Tarantino, who named a character after the P.I. in 2015’s The Hateful Eight.  Two days later saw the passing of keyboardist and guitarist Geoff Nicholls, who played in legendary Brum heavy-metal band Black Sabbath from 1980 to 2004.


February was had a relatively low death toll, although on February 17th we said goodbye to another Twin Peaks alumni, Warren Frost, who played the kindly Doc Hayward in its first two series in 1990-91 and briefly in its 2017 revival series.  And the much-loved movie character actor Bill Paxton died on February 26th.


March 14th saw the death of veteran American film producer Jack H. Harris, who’ll surely be remembered as ‘Father of the Blob’.  Not only did he produce hoary sci-fi monster movie The Blob in 1958 (starring Steve McQueen as an unfeasibly old teenager) but he masterminded its 1972 sequel Beware! the Blob, which was directed by none other than J.R. Ewing himself Larry Hagman and thus became known as ‘the movie that J.R. shot.’  Furthermore, Harris produced the 1988 remake, directed by Chuck Russell, and at the time of his death was trying to get a second remake off the ground.  On March 18th seminal rock-and-roller Chuck Berry passed away, and the following day the masterly American illustrator and comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson died too.  Checking out on March 26th was actress Darlene Cates, splendid as Johnny Depp and Leonardo Di Caprio’s mother in the 1993 movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?


© MGM / United Artists


American funny man Don Rickles died on April 6th.  I wasn’t a fan of Rickles’ humour (“Who picks your clothes?  Stevie Wonder?”) but as an actor he was memorably nasty in Roger Corman’s X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) and memorably pathetic in John Landis’s Innocent Blood (1992).  One day later, the English stage, film, TV and radio actor Tim Pigott-Smith passed away.  My juvenile self will always remember Pigott-Smith for playing: (1) Hotspur (to Jon Finch’s Henry IV, David Gwillim’s Hal and Anthony Quayle’s Falstaff) in the 1979 BBC production of Henry IV Part 1, which I was made to watch at school; and (2) Thallo in 1981’s Clash of the Titans.  Meanwhile, bowing out on April 12th was Charlie Murphy, elder brother to Eddie Murphy and a distinguished comic performer in his own right.  His Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories turn on Comedy Central’s Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006) was hilarious, perhaps most of all when he described an alleged encounter with Prince, where the diminutive funky singer-musician showed an unexpected flair for basketball.


We also saw the departures of American blues singer and guitarist Lonnie Brooks on April 3rd; hugely influential British comics artist Leo Baxendale on April 23rd; and American guitarist John Warren Geils Jnr, mainspring of the J. Geils Band on April 11th – how I loved the Geils song Centerfold when I was a fifteen-year-old.  American director Jonathan Demme, whose CV included Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984), Swimming to Cambodia (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Philadelphia (1993), died on April 26th.


And American character actor Clifton James died on April 15th.  James was best-known for playing redneck police officer Sheriff Pepper in two Roger Moore James Bond movies, 1974’s Live and Let Die and 1975’s The Man with the Golden Gun.  (In the latter film, Sheriff Pepper turns out to be less of a redneck than expected.  Holidaying with his wife in East Asia, he refuses to have his photo taken with an elephant: “Elephants!  We’re Demy-crats, Maybelle!”)  For a more nuanced Clifton James performance, however, check out his supporting role in Richard Lester’s Juggernaut (1975).


© 20th Century Fox


Another notable movie policeman passed away the following month, on May 10th: Michael Parks, who played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dawn to Dust (1996), Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) and the Rodriguez / Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse (2007).   Parks also played the villainous Jean Renault in the first two series of Twin Peaks (1990-91) – so yes, he was another Twin Peaks casualty of 2017.  Another man who was no stranger to violent action-thrillers, character actor Powers Boothe, died on May 14th.  Boothe’s career saw him perform in such gritty movies as Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort (1981) and Extreme Prejudice (1987), Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005).


Other notable actors departing in May included the cinema’s longest-serving James Bond, Sir Roger Moore, who died on May 23rd; and English character actor Geoffrey Bayldon, who passed away on May 10th.  Bayldon appeared in British horror films like The House That Dripped Blood (1970), Tales from the Crypt and Asylum (both 1972) but will be remembered by British TV viewers my age for playing a medieval wizard transported by magic to the present day in the children’s fantasy show Catweazle (1970-71).  Meanwhile, the musical world took a hit on May 18th with the death of yet another grunge-band frontman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.


From Wikipedia


Before taking leave of May, we should raise a glass of vodka to the memory of Soviet Air Defence Forces officer Stanislav Petrov, who died on May 19th.  Petrov is credited with saving the world from nuclear destruction in 1983.  Suspicious of an early-warning report about an American missile approaching the USSR, he disobeyed an order to launch a retaliatory strike.  The initial report turned out to be false, the result of a malfunction in the satellite tracking system.  Phew.  Looking at the shitty state of international politics in the early 21st century, I suspect we’ll need a few more people of Stanislav Petrov’s calibre in the years ahead.


June 2017 wreaked havoc in the world of children’s TV entertainment.  On June 9th it claimed Adam West, square-jawed star of the campy old Batman TV show (1966-68); on June 19th Brian Cant, narrator of the revered British stop-motion-animation shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969); and on June 5th, the venerable Peter Sallis, who provided the voice for Gromit in Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit quintet.  Sallis also played Norman Clegg in all 295 episodes of the BBC’s seemingly never-ending sitcom Last of the Summer Wine (1973-2010) and appeared in a couple of Hammer horror movies.  I love the fact that he was in both the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and the Wallace and Gromit epic Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005).


© Aardman Animations


Anita Pallenberg, 1960s icon, actress and muse to the Rolling Stones died on June 13th and Dave Rosser, guitarist with the reformed American alternative-rock band the Afghan Whigs, died on June 27th.  Finally, June 30th saw the passing of Barry Norman, English movie critic and host of the BBC’s long-running Film… review show from 1972 to 1998.  I disagreed with many of Norman’s opinions – he could be annoyingly conservative and prissy in his tastes – but he performed his duties with undeniable wit, charm and aplomb.  And a long time before the Internet, when the UK media didn’t seem particularly interested in films as an artform, his weekly show was an invaluable lifeline for cinephiles like myself.


To be continued…  Alas.




My favourite Christmas things




This Christmas and New Year, my better half – Mrs Blood and Porridge – and I decided to forego our usual custom of heading back to Scotland to visit my family, mainly because we couldn’t handle another late December / early January spent in the cold, wet, windy and generally shite winter climate of the Scottish Borders.  Instead we elected to stay where we are, i.e. in southern Asia.  We’ve just spent four days at Unawatuna Beach on the southern coast of Sri Lanka.  I’d like to say the experience was entirely the idyllic sun-drenched experience suggested by this photograph.



Unfortunately, half the time, the area was battered by thunderstorms and Unawatuna Beach looked more like this.



In addition, the hotel we’d booked into turned out to be still under construction, workmen with whining drills, snarling saws and clattering hammers working on a new function room at the end of our corridor and more workmen plastering the walls beside the outdoor swimming pool (even while it was pissing with rain).  The place looked like something out of Carry On Abroad (1972).  But overall we had an enjoyable sojourn there.  We’re now spending Christmas Day in Colombo and plan to visit Thailand for a week-and-a-half over New Year.


Anyway, sitting in our Colombo apartment this Christmas Day, listening to our neighbours setting off fireworks – which is how they seem to celebrate everything in Sri Lanka – I find myself wondering what my favourite Christmas things are, in terms of books, films, TV, music and art.  Here’s what comes to mind.


© Vintage


Books.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) doesn’t do much for me these days, probably because I’m overly familiar with its plot and characters – who isn’t?  But a few months ago, I finally got around to reading Susan Hill’s enjoyable Gothic pastiche The Woman in Black (1983).  Hitherto knowing it only by its 2012 movie adaptation, I was surprised to discover The Woman in Black qualifies as a Christmas story.  At least, it uses the Victorian custom of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time as a framing device.  It’s during such a seasonal storytelling session that the middle-aged narrator gets unwillingly transported back to his youth and he begins to recall the terrifying experiences he had as a young man at Eel Marsh House.


Films.  A little while ago I wrote about the grim 1971 Australian movie Wake in Fright.  I realised it could be described as a Christmas movie, because its story of debauchery and squalor takes place during the festive season – though with the sweltering, fly-ridden Outback providing a background to the Christmas trees, decorations and carols.  In fact, if you fancy an Antipodean anti-Christmas double bill, you should watch Wake in Fright back-to-back with 2005’s Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition, whose climax has Ray Winstone and Emily Watson sitting down to a genteel English Christmas dinner in the heat and dust of the 19th century Outback while a pair of crazed bushrangers gallop towards their house intent on rape and murder.


© First Look Pictures


For more properly seasonal cinematic fare, though, I guess you can’t go wrong with The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) or the Finnish monster-Santa epic Rare Exports (2010).  And I have a soft spot for 1982’s beautifully animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ 1978 picture-book The Snowman.  I particularly like the version of it that has a prologue featuring David Bowie, who tells the story as a flashback and makes out this happened to him as a child.  Thus, the man who was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke also flew with a snowman to the North Pole and met Santa Claus when he was a wee boy.  Wow, that David Bowie really lived a life!




Television.  To me, Christmas TV means two things – comedy and (again) ghost stories.  Any time I’m in the UK during the festive season it isn’t difficult to track down on a Freeview channel one of the following comedic classics.  First, the 1974 Steptoe and Son Christmas special in which Harold tries to persuade his decrepit dad Albert not to spend Christmas at home in the rag-and-bone yard for once and spend it on holiday abroad instead.  This episode is poignant because it’s one of the few where Harold actually enjoys a victory and it was also the last Steptoe episode ever broadcast.  Second, the 1975 Christmas edition of Porridge where Fletcher, Gobber and co. form a Christmas carol-singing choir to hide the noise of an escape tunnel being dug out of Slade Prison.  And third, the 1996 Father Ted special where Ted and Father Dougal’s Christmas shopping takes an unexpected turn when they get trapped inside ‘the largest lingerie section in Ireland’.  I find it sad, though, that I haven’t massively enjoyed any festive TV comedy made in the last 20-odd years.  (Incidentally, if you say you like the Mr Bean episode where he ends up with a giant Christmas turkey stuck over his head, you don’t deserve to live.)




As I mentioned earlier, Christmas was traditionally a time for telling ghost stories.  The BBC’s supernatural dramas that were broadcast every Yuletide during the 1970s under the title of A Ghost Story for Christmas now seem deeply festive – even though the stories themselves didn’t have Christmas-time settings.  (That said, most of them were based on works by M.R. James, who liked reading his latest tales to his friends at King’s College, Cambridge, “at the season of Christmas”.)  1971’s The Stalls of Barchester (based on a James story) and 1976’s The Signalman (based on a Dickens one) are probably the most memorable; 1977’s Stigma, set in the present day and using an original script by Clive Exton, is the subtlest and saddest; and 1975’s The Ash Tree, based on another James story, is the freakiest, ending with a pack of little spider-things with human faces scuttling up the branches of the titular tree to a bedroom window.  All the episodes are currently up on Youtube.


© Charlemagne Productions Ltd


Music.  Christmas songs are generally dreadful – apart from the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York and Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis – and the songs that get to the Christmas number-one spot in the UK are generally worse than dreadful, especially now that they’re usually sung by the latest non-entity to have rolled off the Simon Cowell Conveyor Belt of Karaoke.  But for an enjoyably berserk Christmas listening experience, you can’t beat the heavy metal versions of Christmas songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells recorded in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by the late, legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee, star of the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars movies and many horror ones.  The combination of the nonagenarian Lee’s still-booming operatic voice, twiddly power-metal guitars and Christmas – what’s not to love?


Art.  In the last few years English-speaking culture has become aware of the goat-horned, curly-tongued Krampus, the demonic figure of Germanic and Slavic folklore who acts as an anti-Santa Claus and goes around at Christmas punishing children who’ve been naughty.  Among other things, there’s been a Hollywood movie made about him, 2015’s Krampus, and he turned up in a 2016 festive episode of the BBC anthology series Inside No 9.  Only recently did I discover that mainland Europe has had a long tradition of exchanging Krampuskarten, greeting cards featuring the Krampus.  These include some bawdy ones where the saucy old festive demon is seen cavorting with buxom young ladies.  Here’s a few examples – charming in their visual designs and quaintly Roald Dahl-esque in their sentiments.






So Merry Christmas – I trust Santa Claus has been good to you.  Or if you’ve misbehaved, the Krampus has been bad to you.


Brian’s big three


© The Guardian


August 19th saw the death of the great English science-fiction novelist, short-story writer and editor Brian Aldiss.  Everybody has to go sometime, and Aldiss undeniably had a longer and better innings than most – he expired a day after celebrating his 93rd birthday, he wrote over 80 novels and over 300 short stories and was still writing until recently, and in his later years he acquired a wheelbarrow-load of awards, honours, fellowships and honorary doctorates including an Order of the British Empire in 2005 for ‘services for literature’.  But I was still saddened to hear of his passing because he was responsible for three of my all-time favourite sci-fi novels, Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962) and Greybeard (1964), written when Aldiss was on a creative roll in his thirties.


Non-Stop has as its premise a common science-fiction device that solves the challenge of how humans can ever hope to colonise earth-type planets in orbit around other stars – because the distances separating our star system from other star systems are vast and would take a very long time to cross.  The device in question is a multi-generational starship, i.e. a spacecraft big and well-stocked enough to sustain several generations of humans living (and dying) inside it while it makes a voyage as long as several human lifespans.  Hence, it’s the descendants of the people originally on board who reach the destination planet.  (Other common sci-fi solutions to this challenge are putting the crew in long-term suspended animation through some yet-to-be-invented cryonic process; or simply having magic spaceship-engines that can travel many times faster than light.  Yes, Star Trek, I’m looking at you.)


The multi-generational starship in Non-Stop, though, is in trouble.  Thanks to an epidemic that decimated the crew in the voyage’s early days, society on board has broken down.  The ship is overrun with a tenacious species of creeping plant that’s escaped from its agricultural section and turned the rooms and corridors into jungles – ‘the tangles’.  Roaming wild in the undergrowth are various animal species that have escaped too.  Meanwhile, the descendants of the surviving crewmembers have divided into tribes and factions and live in different parts of the ship as primitive, superstitious scavengers and hunter-gathers, no longer knowing their true whereabouts or their ancestors’ mission.


The novel’s hero is the quaintly-named Roy Complain, a member of a tribe living precariously in the starship’s bowels – they spend their lives hacking their way along the corridors and settling temporarily in the spaces they’ve created while the creepers reclaim the spaces they were in earlier.  Complain falls in with Marapper, his tribe’s crafty and mysterious priest and the only tribe-member who suspects that they’re on board a spaceship, and they and a few others set off on an expedition through the seemingly endless corridors and seemingly impenetrable undergrowth to locate the ship’s control room.  What follows is an inversion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).  Instead of the characters journeying from civilisation to savagery, the characters here attempt to journey out of savagery and rediscover civilisation.


© Pan Books


Along the way, Aldiss has great fun conjuring up strange creatures for his heroes to encounter – mutants, rats that have developed a worryingly-high level of intelligence, and mythological ‘giants’ and ‘others’, who are supernatural creatures believed to take on the guise of humans.  (The real identities of the giants and others are explained later.)  You’d expect the narrative to slow down in its later stages as the characters approach the truth of their existence, but Non-Stop’s narrative gets ever-more hectic – becoming a rollercoaster of incidents and plot-twists as Aldiss hits the reader with more and more revelations about the starship’s situation and about what the ship is capable of.  Non-Stop clocks in at a modest 250 pages, but by the time you’ve finished it, such has been the amount going on that you feel you’ve read something twice the length.


If Non-Stop is a rollercoaster, then Hothouse is a helter-skelter.  Set in the very distant future, it depicts an earth that has one side permanently facing an enlarged sun.  The sun-facing side is covered in a vast mesh of undergrowth that’s actually the branches of one gigantic, mutant banyan tree.  In this sweltering, jungle-choked world, only a few species of animals have survived – including human beings, who’ve shrunk to a fifth of the size they once were.  All the other life-forms are plants, often mobile, intelligent, carnivorous and deadly.  Hothouse follows a band of humans on an odyssey across this psychedelically weird but highly dangerous future-earth.  Along the way, some of them end up on the moon, which no longer orbits the earth but is stuck in a fixed point, snagged amid giant cobwebs spun by huge spider-like plants called traversers.


Hothouse began life as five loosely-connected short stories published in a magazine in 1961 and as a result its novel-version feels disjointed and episodic.  But that doesn’t matter – what’s important is Aldiss’s imagination, which seems as fecund as the jungle-buried world of the story’s setting.  He has a glorious time describing its flora and fauna.  In addition to traversers, there are tigerflies, termights, sharp-furs and sodals, much-evolved future incarnations of wasps, termites, baboons and dolphins respectively; a sentient fungus called the morel, which forms a disturbingly symbiotic relationship with any host it manages to attach itself to; and the tummy-belly men, humanoid creatures linked to a tree by umbilical cords, who prove hilariously harassed and hapless when those cords are cut and they’re let loose.


© Sphere Books


On its publication some reviewers, including the traditional sci-fi writer James Blish, condemned Hothouse for its disregard for scientific accuracy, and especially for having the moon mired in giant space-cobwebs and no longer able to move in orbit.  I’m sure Aldiss knew this was nonsense himself, but the image of a cobweb-trapped moon seemed so entropically powerful that he couldn’t resist sticking it in the book.


After the gleeful inventiveness displayed in Non-Stop and Hothouse, Greybeard, set in southern England in the near-future, seems an altogether more sombre work.  But its melancholy premise quickly draws in the reader and creates a world that feels both credible and bewitchingly strange.  In Greybeard, humanity has been sterilised by a mishap involving nuclear weaponry in the late 20th century – still the future in 1964, the year of the book’s publication – and by the early 21st century the remaining human population has aged to the point where you’re considered young if you’re in your fifties.


Greybeard begins with the titular character – real name Algy, but nicknamed Greybeard due to the colour of his lengthy facial hair – and his wife Martha living in the English countryside in a village community that’s been cut off from the surrounding world for a decade.  Ten years earlier, Britain ceased to be governable.  Already tottering from the economic, cultural and psychological impact of having no young people, society finally collapsed thanks to a devastating cholera epidemic.  Since then, nature has reasserted itself and the cities, towns, roads and farms have vanished beneath the undergrowth – or, as the country’s system of rivers and lakes revert to their natural state, beneath water.   What remains of humanity, meanwhile, is old and senile.  They’ve regressed to a medieval level of superstition and paranoia, with people terrifying one another with tales of marauding Scots raiders, packs of killer stoats and even malevolent ‘gnomes’ in the encroaching woods.


Greybeard, Martha and a couple of friends decide to leave the village before it entirely deadens their wits and they become as infantized as its other wrinkly inhabitants.  They sail along the River Thames and into slightly less isolated regions, where they encounter a market-fair that resembles a geriatric re-enactment of Merrie Olde England, complete with bawdy octogenarian prostitutes; then the university town of Oxford, where a feudal society has evolved under the stewardship of some venerable Oxford dons; and finally a phantasmagorical inland sea of mist, tiny islands and sunken villages.  Here, they make some surprising discoveries about what’s really going on this verdant new world that seems determined to leave humanity behind.


The science fiction writer Adam Roberts, who wrote the introduction for my edition of Greybeard, has likened Aldiss’s descriptions of the post-civilisation English landscape to the work of Thomas Hardy.  I wouldn’t go as far as that, but the way that Aldiss invokes this mouldering-yet-blossoming future England certainly has an impressive, elegiac power.


© Signet Books


Incidentally, in the right hands, I think all three novels would make great movies – though I doubt if that will happen now because, in the years since their publication, many of their ideas have appeared onscreen in less impressive forms.  The notion of a multi-generational starship going wrong was the basis of at least one TV show, 1973’s terrible The Starlost.  Modern developments in cinematic special effects could now bring the jungle-world of Hothouse to spectacular and terrifying life, but cinema audiences have already been treated to a lavishly-detailed, alien jungle-world in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009).  Mind you, comparing the benign, hippy-dippy jungle of Avatar to the one in Hothouse is like comparing the music of Coldplay to that of Rage Against the Machine.


And Greybeard’s concept of a childless world was used by P.D. James in her 1992 novel Children of Men, which was filmed by Alfonso Cuarón in 2006.  I haven’t read James’s book, but I’ve seen, and really enjoyed, the movie.  Nonetheless, I feel Children of Men (the film at least) wimps out in setting its action soon after the child-extinguishing apocalypse, so that many of its adult characters are still relatively young.  Whereas Greybeard, depicting a world populated entirely by old and nearly-old people, takes the idea to its disturbing extreme.


So yes, 2017 saw the sad departure of Brian Aldiss.  But at least in Non-Stop, Hothouse and Greybeard, we have three great books with which to cherish the life of Brian.


The marble yawn


© Airmont Books    


I’ve always been an admirer of the elegant 19th-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Over the years, I’ve enjoyed Hawthorne’s novels The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and The Blithedale Romance (1852), his collection of Greek myths rewritten as children’s stories Tanglewood Tales (1853) and his marvellous short fiction like The Minister’s Black Veil (1832), The Maypole of Merry Mount (1837), Dr Heidegger’s Experiment (1837) and Rappaccini’s Daughter (1844).  I therefore had high hopes a few weeks ago when I started his 1860 novel The Marble Faun, which is set in Italy and was written after Hawthorne spent a year-and-a-half touring the country in the late 1850s.


Maybe it’s because I’ve grown more demanding in my old age or because by 1860, four years before he died, Hawthorne had lost his touch.  Whatever the reason, it pains me to say I found The Marble Faun a real plod.


It didn’t help that the main characters failed to engage me.  The plot centres on four young people, three of them artistically inclined, living in mid-19th-century Rome: Miriam, Hilda, Donatello and Kenyon.  As well as being an artist, Miriam is an enigma because her past is shrouded in rumours and speculation.  She’s variously said to be “the daughter and heiress of a great Jewish banker”; and “a German princess”; and “the offspring of a Southern planter” who’d fled her native land because “one burning drop of African blood in her veins so affected her with a sense of ignominy”; and “the lady of an English nobleman” who “out of mere love and honour of art, had thrown aside the splendour of her rank, and had come to seek a subsistence by her pencil in a Roman studio.”  Whatever else she might be, though, I found Miriam a royal pain.  She’s so absorbed in her murky past and intent on projecting a sub-Byronic aura of torment and danger that she reminded me of various posers I knew at college who’d swan around and emote: “Watch out!  I’m dark and edgy, I am!  I’m trouble!  I’m mad, bad and dangerous to know!”  (Come to think of it, they’re probably all working as stockbrokers now.)


Still, Miriam is preferable to the insipid Goody-Two-Shoes Hilda, an American copyist artist whom Hawthorne is determined to present as pure in thought, word and deed.  He has her living in a studio at the top of a tower, symbolically high above the city and all the crime, squalor and corruption that it harbours.  The outer wall of this tower is also home to a shrine of the Virgin Mary, with a lamp burning at the effigy’s feet, which Hilda ensures never goes out – though coming from good Puritan stock, she makes it clear that she only keeps the lamp burning as a neighbourly kindness: “You must not call me a Catholic.  A Christian girl… may surely pay honour to the idea of Divine Womanhood, without giving up the faith of her forefathers.”  And to ram the idea of Hilda’s saintliness home yet further, Hawthorne shows her caring for a flock of white doves that frequently alight on her windowsill, something that brings Miriam out of her self-absorption long enough to comment: “…how like a dove she is herself, the pure, fair creature!  The other doves know her for a sister, it is sure.”


Also unpromising is the winsome but artless Donatello, a youth from the Italian countryside who’s latched on to the group and, in the earlier chapters at least, behaves like and is treated like their airheaded mascot.  “What a child, or what a simpleton, he is!” remarks Miriam to Hilda.  “I find myself treating Donatello as if he were the merest unfledged chicken…”  Probably it’s just as well that Miriam’s attitude towards him is so patronising, for the lad is madly in love with her and for the first half of the book he practically stalks her.  If Miriam wasn’t so blinkered by her condescension, she might find the way that Donatello dogs her every step a little creepy.


The last member of the quartet is Kenyon, an American sculptor.  Compared with the others, he’s a reasonably sensible and balanced character.  Unfortunately, he’s also the only one who isn’t directly involved in the plot’s main incident, which occurs a third of the way into the book.  As a result, for the remainder of The Marble Faun, he’s an onlooker rather than a participant in the story – in other words, the most tolerable character becomes the least proactive one.


Having said all that, the first half of The Marble Faun is promising.  It’s a potpourri of fanciful and mildly macabre elements that made me think I was in for an agreeable gothic entertainment in the tradition of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796) or Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) – albeit in a more genteel form.


For instance, we get an episode where the group realise Donatello is the spitting image of the Faun of Praxiteles in the Capitoline Museums.  (And why is Donatello so reluctant to lift his long brown curls off his ears?  Could it be because those ears are… pointy?)  There’s some creepy stuff in the Roman Catacombs, which are said to be haunted by the malevolent spirit of “a pagan of old Rome” who “for fifteen centuries at least… has been groping in the darkness, seeking his way out of the Catacombs.”  Miriam duly gets lost in this subterranean maze and encounters an evil-looking figure who, subsequently, starts following her around above ground too – with this apparition and Donatello both stalking her, she really doesn’t have much luck.  Also disturbing is how the face of the spectral Catacombs-dweller begins to appear in her artwork.


Later, there’s a murder.  And then comes a satisfyingly grim scene in Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins – a real-life church famous for its crypt, which has ghoulish decorations and displays made out of the bones of some 4000 friars from the Capuchin order – where the murderers are unexpectedly confronted with their victim’s corpse.




But around the midway point, the book goes astray.  Literally astray, for Donatello relocates to Tuscany, presumably to give Hawthorne an opportunity to use some of the descriptions he’d jotted down whilst travelling through the Italian countryside.  Improbably, it transpires that Donatello is an aristocrat who’s in possession of a country house and tower.  More improbably still, he transforms from a bubble-brain into a morose, introspective type who spends his time stalking around and brooding on top of his battlements.  Kenyon pays him a visit and we get a long section where the pair seem to do nothing but discuss life, death, love, God and, generally, What It All Means.


Later still, Kenyon contrives to bring Donatello together with a now-chastened Miriam and then the plot returns to Rome where – oh no! – for another long section it focuses on Hilda, who’s still such a vapid milksop she makes Laura Ingalls Wilder seem like Courtney Love.  There’s some business where Hilda forces herself to enter a confessional – not, Hawthorne stresses, because she likes the Catholic Church, but because she has a terrible secret she needs to get off her chest.  After that, she mysteriously disappears, much to the consternation of Kenyon, who’s now back in Rome.  And then in the last few pages Hawthorne ends the tale in a decidedly hurried and ambiguous manner.


In fact, the ending annoyed Hawthorne’s contemporary readers so much that he felt obliged to add a postscript to the book’s second edition, explaining more of what’d gone on and addressing some of the plot-threads that’d been left hanging.


The Marble Faun, then, is ruined by its tedious second half, which I found a chore to read.  However, I’ll give Hawthorne credit for his descriptions of Rome.  It’s interesting that while he records the glories of the city – St Peter’s, the Coliseum, etc. – this is no starry-eyed travelogue like the movies Roman Holiday (1953) or Three Coins in a Fountain (1954).  For he observes its darker and seamier side too.  At one point he muses: “All over the surface of what once was Rome, it seems to be the effort of Time to bury up the ancient city, as if it were a corpse… so that, in eighteen centuries, the soil over its grave has grown very deep, by the slow scattering of dust and the accumulation of more modern decay upon elder ruin.”  Elsewhere, he wonders if a ‘malignant spell’ has compelled modern Romans to “fling dirt and defilement upon whatever temple, column, ruined palace, or triumphal arch, may be nearest at hand, and on every monument that the old Romans built.”


Even during an account of a Roman carnival, at which vendors are selling thousands of flowers, he notes how the flowers are ‘miserably wilted’ and ‘muddy’, because they’ve already been bought, discarded, trampled on the ground and picked up again by the vendors to be sold again “ten times over, defiled as they all are with the wicked filth of Rome.”


Whenever Hawthorne’s Rome turns from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde in this fashion, it reflects something correspondingly dark and troubling that’s happening in the plot or in the psychology of the characters.  And these glimpses of a dissolute and decayed city, amid the expected descriptions of its venerability and beauty, are one of the book’s saving graces.


It’s just a shame that during the latter half of The Marble Faun, in terms of plot, Nathaniel Hawthorne loses his marbles.


© Dell Books


Short, sharp shocks


© New English Library


In this blog-post I’d like to talk about my favourite volumes of short horror stories – books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks.


Three things have inspired me to write this.  Firstly, tomorrow is Halloween, the time of year when all things macabre are celebrated.  Secondly, I’m about to start reading the 2015 short-story collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King, who despite being famous for telephone-directory-sized scary novels like Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Stand (1978) is also, in my mind, a great practitioner of short horror fiction.


And thirdly, in my previous post, I mentioned how in my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because – typical Scottish summer weather – it pissed non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, the 1978 volume of stories by Stephen King.  So, to keep boredom at bay, I spent the three days reading that.  Not only did Night Shift stave off boredom, it entertained, enthralled and terrified me too.  It was probably the first book of scary short stories I’d read in its entirety and it made a big impression.


Here, then, are my ten favourite collections of short horror stories.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to books of stories written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or who were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Blood and Water and Other Tales (1988) by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that indulges his love for the Gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… is a fine showcase for McGrath’s short stories.  It features tales about, among other things, a diseased angel, a hand that starts growing out of somebody’s head, a community of anaemic vampires and a little girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden.  And if you think that sounds surreal, wait till you get to The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay as seen through the multiple eyes of an insect; or The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that’s narrated by, yes, an item of footwear.


© Penguin


The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

Horror stories are often likened to dark fairy tales and Angela Carter’s short fiction commonly explores the overlap between the two.  For me, The Bloody Chamber is her best collection.  It provides adult, Gothic reworkings of such fairy tales and myths as Beauty and the Beast (The Courtship of Mr Lyon), Snow White (The Snow Child) and Bluebeard (the title story).  It also contains one of the most languid and gorgeous vampire stories ever, The Lady of the House of Love.  And werewolves get a look-in too thanks to the stories The Company of Wolves, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, which were later incorporated into the classy 1984 movie The Company of Wolves, directed by Neil Jordan and scripted by Jordan and Carter.


Books of Blood, Volume 1 (1984) by Clive Barker

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such were their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – King himself being its slightly old-fashioned Elvis.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood rather portentous; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the spoof demon story The Yattering and Jack and the wistful but surprisingly-upbeat Sex, Death and Starshine, which is about a haunted theatre (and no doubt draws on Barker’s experiences running the Hydra and the Dog Theatre Companies in the 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues – the latter surely a candidate for the title of Scariest Story Ever.


© Sphere


Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has long been regarded as Britain’s greatest living horror writer and Dark Companions is an ideal starting-point for anyone new to the Campbell oeuvre.  Both grim and believable, his short stories take place in a recognisably frayed and decayed modern Britain, populated by lonely people whose everyday fears gradually take on tangible form.  Highlights include the distinctly un-Christmassy Christmas story The Chimney; The Depths, a dismaying exploration of why someone would want to write a really nasty horror story; Mackintosh Willy, which combines childhood fears of the bogeyman with all-too-real themes of homelessness and child abuse; and The Companion, surely the best ‘haunted-fairground’ story ever written.


Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

As I said earlier, Night Shift helped inspire this list, so I can’t not include it here.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since then but the visceral tales in Night Shift, and the unpleasant things that inhabit those tales, have stayed with me for nearly 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous carnivorous slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle.  But it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a twelve-year-old boy scout.


© Panther


The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is someone else I couldn’t not have on this list as, to me, the guy was a god-like genius.  He could turn his hand to writing anything – horror, science fiction, fantasy, magical realism and, yes, our old friend ‘mainstream literature’ – but The October Country is probably his purest collection of macabre stories.  It features such wonders as The Scythe, about a man who finds a mysterious scythe, starts using it and becomes the Grim Reaper, harvesting souls rather than wheat; The Jar, wherein a man buys the titular jar at a fair and becomes obsessed with the indescribable something that’s floating around inside it; and the splendidly-morbid Skeleton, about a paranoid man convinced that the bony figure embedded inside his own flesh is an imposter and he has to somehow remove it.


Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison has managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least – his name is little-known and his work is hard to come by in Britain.  Among his many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorable are the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of frittering your life away; and the deeply unsettling title story, about a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself – or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.


© Penguin


Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite’s collection Swamp Foetus was a revelation when I read it in the 1990s.  It’s inhabited by the archetypes of traditional Gothic fiction – ghosts, zombies, freaks – and by characters from another type of Gothicism, the modern-day sub-culture that arose when kids, inspired by punk, new romanticism and Edgar Allan Poe, started dressing in black, applying kohl eyeliner and listening to bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Cure.  Swamp Foetus thus has stories like His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood wherein decadent, black-clad, absinthe-swigging youths fall foul of ancient voodoo / vampire horrors.  That said, no Goths are to be found in the best tale here, which is Calcutta, Lord of Nerves.  Calcutta… takes a fresh angle on George A. Romero’s original trilogy of Living Dead movies.  In the films, Romero’s zombie apocalypse is a very American one, with barely a mention of events in the rest of the world.  Brite imagines the same apocalypse happening amid the beggars, dirt and noise of a developing-world city.  What happens?  Nobody seems to notice it that much.


Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1996) by Dorothy K. Haynes

The late Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her short stories are often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, still lorded over by the Presbyterian Church, and are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Maybe her best one is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a weird little creature that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Also featured in Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch are her takes on legendary beings like banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling), which are satisfyingly grim, creepy and un-romanticised.


© Black and White Publishing


The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I’ll just say here that this is, for me, his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents – the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary conservative – but everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room, for example, is a phantasmagorical story about a strange doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a mysterious woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease at the loss of face-to-face interaction caused by new communications technology.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1981.  He’d have hated our age of smartphones and social media.


The spy who tried something different


© Vintage Books


First published in 1962, The Spy Who Loved Me is the ninth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and holds several records in the Bond literary canon.  It clocks in at 198 pages, which makes it the shortest Bond book.  It was also the last book to appear in a world that knew Bond as a literary and not a cinematic character, because its publication came just six months before the release of Dr No, the first Bond movie produced by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.  And it was the worst-received of the books.  The Daily Telegraph reacted to it with a despairing “Oh Dear Oh Dear Oh Dear!”, the Listener dismissed it as ‘unremittingly’ and ‘grindingly boring’ and the Observer demanded, “why can’t this cunning author write up a bit instead of down?”


As soon as the critics stuck in their knives, Fleming himself disowned the book.  He asked his publisher not to print a paperback edition of it, a request that they honoured until two years after his death.  He also stipulated that any movie version of The Spy Who Loved Me could never use the book’s plot, only its title.  (I’m sure that 15 years later when Cubby Broccoli got around to filming The Spy Who Loved Me, he must have been distraught about this.  “You mean,” lamented the cigar-puffing mogul, “I can’t just follow what happens in the book?  I have to put other stuff in my movie instead?  Like cars that travel underwater?  Giant oil-tankers that swallow nuclear submarines?  Indestructible henchmen with steel teeth?  Roger Moore with quizzical eyebrows?  No!  NO!”)


A few weeks ago, I finally read the original much-maligned The Spy Who Loved Me.  My initial reaction was Ian Fleming at least deserved credit for attempting something different.  Fans of his previous eight books were surely surprised when they started reading it in 1962 and discovered they were hearing a first-person narrative voice rather than Fleming’s usual, authoritative, third-person one.  “I was running away,” it begins.  “I was running away from England, from my childhood, from the winter, from a sequence of untidy, unattractive love-affairs, from the few sticks of furniture and jumble of overworn clothes that my London life had collected around me; and I was running away from the drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia of close horizons and from my inability, though I am quite an attractive rat, to make headway in the rat-race.  In fact, I was running away from almost everything except the law.”


The first-person voice is that of Viv Michel, a young French-Canadian woman who’s been left in charge of a closed-for-the-winter motel called The Dreamy Pines Motor Court in the mountains of northern New York State.  After a first chapter where Viv doesn’t cope well with a thunderstorm raging above the motel’s empty cabins, playground, swimming pool and golf range – she stupidly pulls an electrical switch at the same moment that a bolt of lightning lets rip, and the resultant electrical shock knocks her unconscious – she spends the next eighty pages explaining how she’s ended up in this situation.


She describes her early life in Canada; being sent to a finishing school in England where she “was made to suffer agonies” for her accent, for her table manners “which were considered uncouth”, for her “total lack of savoir-faire and, in general, for being a Canadian”; and finding work in London while suffering the afore-mentioned “sequence of untidy, unattractive love affairs”.  After the last affair results in her having an abortion in Switzerland, she returns to North America and resolves to search for some adventure and self-discovery and shake off the memories of the men who’ve used and abused her.  So she purchases a Vespa 150cc Gran Sport and sets off on a road trip.  It’s on the road that she comes across the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, where she gets offered employment; first as an end-of-season receptionist and then, when it closes for the winter, as a caretaker minding the premises until its owner, one Mr Sanguinetti, arrives to take possession of the keys.


Viv’s position at the Dreamy Pines feels a little like that of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and things soon go as badly for her as they did for the ill-fated Jack.  Two hoodlums with the nicknames Sluggsy and Horror show up at the motel in the middle of the night and take her prisoner.  It transpires that Sanguinetti is a gangster and the pair are henchmen tasked with burning the place to the ground as part of an insurance scam.  Viv, the only witness, looks likely to be torched along with the motel.


It’s here that we encounter the single detail of the book that makes it into the 1977 film ‘adaptation’ with Roger Moore.  Looking at Horror’s face, she notices “a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth,” indicating that “they had been cheaply capped with steel.”  Sound familiar?


© Eon Productions


By now we’re more than halfway into the book.  Back in 1962 at this point, readers must have been panicking: where the hell is Bond?  Well, he appears at The Dreamy Pines later that same night – Viv’s first impression of him is that he’s “good-looking in a dark, rather cruel way” with a scar that “showed whitely down his left cheek” – and he explains that his car has suffered a flat tyre on the road nearby and he’d like to get a room.  He soon wises up to the situation and joins forces with Viv.  The next seventy pages play more like a Mickey Spillane novel than a Fleming / Bond one, with considerable running, hiding and shooting before Sanguinetti’s scheme is thwarted and Sluggsy and Horror end up dead at the bottom of the local lake.  Then Viv and Bond indulge in some love-making and then, as abruptly and enigmatically as he arrived, Bond slips off again.  In the final pages, Viv muses: “He was just a man who had turned up at the right time and then gone on his way.”


Though The Spy Who Loved Me wins kudos for bravely departing from the usual Bond formula, there are moments when seemingly Fleming remembers it’s still a Bond novel and is forced to compromise, with awkward results.   He wants Viv to be more believable than the average Bond girl, which is why we see her depicted as a working Londoner.  But on the other hand, as a Bond girl, she can’t be too ordinary so she also gets a French-Canadian back-story to make her appear more exotic – the overall effect of which feels contrived.  Also, while Fleming wants her to be feisty and independent, he needs her to have a vulnerable side too – to be a credible damsel-in-distress, for whom Bond rides to the rescue as a knight in shining armour.  That may explain the opening chapter where she panics during the storm and, quite honestly, comes across as something of a dolt.


And to make up for Bond’s late entrance into the plot, Fleming feels he has bring his readers up to speed on what Bond’s been doing in the meantime; so we get the telling of a previous Bond adventure.  In a twelve-page chapter entitled Bedtime Story, Bond explains to Viv in great detail why he was on the road that night – he was driving south after an operation in Toronto wherein he and the Canadian Mounties prevented the assassination of a Russian defector by both the KGB and SPECTRE.  By now, Bond and Viv know the extreme danger posed by Sluggsy and Horror, so you’d think they’d have other things to concentrate on besides telling stories.


One thing I found surprisingly impressive about The Spy Who Loved Me is Viv’s account of her love-life in London.  It’s as far removed as possible from the fantasy romance / sex scenes associated with the Bond novels.  Just out of school, she gets involved with a youth called Derek Mallaby, whose posh, confident veneer hides, temporarily, the fact that (a) he’s desperate for sex and (b) he’s clueless about how to have sex.  What follows is a painful tale set in the England of “drabness, fustiness, snobbery and claustrophobia” that existed before the 1960s started to swing and the permissive era arrived.  The only privacy Viv and Derek can find for making love is in a small balcony-box at a cinema, “a meagre-looking place, showing two westerns, a cartoon and so-called ‘News’ that consisted of what the Queen had been doing a month ago.”  Their attempted lovemaking, on the floor with Derek on top “in a dreadful clumsy embrace”, is anything but sensual and it ends abruptly when a furious cinema manager bursts in on them: “Filthy little brats…!  I’ve a damned good mind to call the police.  Indecent exposure.  Disturbing the peace.”


Barely articulate about what they’re trying to do, relying on strained expressions like ‘doing it’ and ‘being a sport’, and not even knowing what a condom is called and having to describe it to a shop assistant as “one of those things for not having babies”, Viv and Derek are products of a repressed, joyless, monochrome Britain that the Bond novels, with their exotic glamour and glitzy hedonism, were supposed to give readers of the era an escape from.  No wonder The Spy Who Loved Me pissed so many of those readers off.


Once Viv and Derek have properly ‘done it’ a few times, Derek predictably proves to be a cad and dumps her.  She then gets into a second relationship with a German man called Kurt, which culminates in her getting pregnant, having an abortion and being dumped a second time.  (Kurt “had inherited strong views about mixed blood… and when he married, it would be into the Teutonic strain.”  Fleming’s well-known dislike of the Germans is on full display here.)


This part of the book is so interesting because it suggests Fleming, a writer not noted for his empathy with women, is trying to think outside his normal male-chauvinist box for once and identify with a female character having a hard time in a world populated with predatory, shitty men.


Alas, all this is rendered null and void later when Bond, hardly un-predatory and un-shitty himself, turns up and Viv promptly goes doe-eyed and weak-kneed at the sight of him; implying that Viv’s problem wasn’t men, it was just the absence of a fully-fledged alpha male like Bond to satisfy / tame her.


And, late on, Fleming truly sabotages his cause when Viv comes out with this jaw-dropping assertion: “All women love semi-rape.  They love to be taken.”  These ten words have rightly earned Fleming and The Spy Who Loved Me much opprobrium over the years – for example, here – and they undo whatever good work he did with his depiction of Viv earlier in the book.


In the end, I have no reason to disagree with the many people who label The Spy Who Loves Me the weakest of the Bond novels.  The contradiction at its heart, that it’s a Bond story and yet it wants to be something different from a Bond story, makes it uneven and inconsistent.  And it’s all over the place in its sexual politics – and, at worst, those politics are unspeakable.  But as I’ve said, it deserves a little respect trying to do something out-of-the-ordinary, and thanks to Fleming’s always-amenable prose it’s an easy-enough read.  And, in parts, hints of a better book glimmer through.


© Penguin Books