Sri Lankan horror – ‘Water in my Grave’

 

© Chandrika Gadiewasam and Nadeesha Paulis

 

It’s Halloween tomorrow, so here’s one last re-posting of something I once wrote on this blog about scary fiction.  This item is from 2014 and concerns a collection of creepy tales from the country I’m currently living in, Sri Lanka.

 

A while ago, I picked up a copy of Water in my Grave and other Horror Stories from Sri Lanka in a bookstore in Colombo.  Now that I’ve read it, I’m not quite sure how I’d describe its contents.  The foreword claims that it’s a collection of “stories of the paranormal based on tales gleaned from persons relating their actual experiences”, but the stories feel more assorted than that.  Some appear to be fictional ones, dreamed up and put on paper by the authors.  Other read like creepy folkloric stories that’ve been passed down from generation to generation.  Others again have the ring of being anecdotes told by individuals who believe they’ve experienced the supernatural in real life.  And there’s a few that are reminiscent of those gruesome urban myths so beloved of school playgrounds and Internet forums.

 

Not that it matters, because on the whole I found Water in my Grave, written by the Colombo-based mother-and-daughter team of Chandrika Gadiewasam and Nadeesha Paulis, an enjoyable and informative read.  The assorted tones of the stories make the book pleasingly varied and they allow you to view the Sri Lankan culture that forms their backdrop from an interesting range of angles.

 

For instance, Tovil for Soma, Let the Dead Live and the fabulously titled The Baby Twisting Nightmare of Modera involve possessions and hauntings.  These aren’t by demons or anonymous evil spirits, but by the souls of deceased family members who have axes to grind with the still-living, which suggests that family fallouts and conflict are as common in Sri Lanka as they are everywhere else.  Called in to deal with the supernatural goings-on in these stories are such Sri Lankan professionals as ‘light readers’ or fortune tellers (anjamankaraya) and ‘demon-priests’, the energetic and expensive local exorcists (kattadiya) who come dressed “usually in a white sarong and red coat type costume… sacrificing chickens, dancing around the fire, breathing fire, talking in local filth to intimidate the entity from leaving the human host.”

 

Meanwhile, Legend of the Devil Dog is a Sri Lankan version of the Black Shuck legends that are found in East Anglia, involving a demon called Mahosona, who “is so fearsome and powerful that his mere presence causes people to faint and then become violently sick immediately.”  On the other hand, Night of the Black Buffalo is impressively inexplicable and weird.  It’s like a script David Lynch would write if he was interested in south-Asian livestock.

 

Other stories show a less folkloric and more modern and cynical Sri Lanka.  How I Bought a Haunted House is narrated by a figure who’s become a scourge of contemporary societies, Western and Eastern – an estate agent.  “(T)he best thing is that in the real-estate sector,” he notes, “properties appreciate with time, whether they are haunted or not.”  Restless Cadaver, set on a campus and dealing with the mistreatment of dead bodies, suggests that medical students in Sri Lanka can be as obnoxious as they can be in the West.  And the major event of recent Sri Lankan history, the Civil War, overshadows both Quiet Soul and A Different Kind of Phantom.  The former is a sedate but sad ghost story, the latter a tale about a lost limb that also draws on Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation for its raison d’être.

 

Elsewhere, Zombie Bus to Purgatory does exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s a gleefully schlocky story that calls to mind the American EC Comics, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, of the 1950s.  The Feud employs a neat little back-story, involving two rival shaman and a demonic assassin, to explain why a particular, desolate plot of land seems to be haunted by “what looked like a decaying body of a small child scuttling about.”  And Hospital Hell manages to be both a gruesome ghost story and an indictment of healthcare in a society where corruption is common, where “the ward sister sells the pharmaceuticals and painkillers she pinches” and “the rations have been cut in half so that the kitchen staff can smuggle out the salmon tins.”

 

The book is a little rough-edged in its English.  In places it could do with tighter punctuation and some of the idiomatic and clichéd phrases could have been pruned out.  The story A Night at River Green is a particular offender with such gems as ‘thank my lucky stars’, ‘what have you’, ‘the girl of my dreams’, ‘Hell hath no fury’ and ‘batten down the hatches’.  Mind you, this roughness could be said to work in the book’s favour because it gives the stories an added feel of authenticity.  By making them less slick, the prose’s occasional awkwardness makes the stories seem more real.

 

At the book’s end, a handy glossary by co-author Nadeesha Paulis fills the foreign reader in on some demonic creatures from Sri Lankan myth and legend.  These include Kalu Kumaraya (an incubus preying on young village girls); Mala Mohini (a female phantom seen eating a baby “with blood drooling down her sari and intestines drooping down her chin”); and Kinduri, an apparition who wears the guise of a pregnant women and goes around knocking on doors of houses.  “If you’re a woman,” Paulis notes regarding Kinduri, “you’re safe.  But if you’re a man opening the door to her knock, I’m sorry but she’ll probably kill you…  She just doesn’t like men.”

 

When you’re in a new culture, a good way to get insight into that culture is to read a selection of traditional ghost and horror stories from the place.  Finding out what makes people scared and finding out how they like to scare others give you some appreciation of their psychology.  Water in my Grave performs that task admirably with Sri Lanka.

Manly stuff

 

© Paizo Inc

 

Ahead of Halloween, here’s another reposting of something I wrote about a writer of spooky stories whom I like a lot.  This time it’s Manly Wade Wellman, author of the ‘Silver John’ stories.  This piece first appeared on this blog in 2016.

 

I’d heard the name of writer Manly Wade Wellman before.  He was, for instance, one of the people to whom Stephen King dedicated his non-fiction book Dance Macabre back in 1982.  But I was unfamiliar with his work until recently when I picked up a collection of his fantasy-horror fiction called Who Fears the Devil?, published in 2010, 24 years after Wellman’s death.

 

The short stories in Who Fears the Devil? are set in the Appalachian Mountains.  Wellman evokes their wilderness areas and remote human settlements as vividly as, say, H.P. Lovecraft evokes the towns, woods and hills of New England that form a frequent backdrop to his tales, or Ray Bradbury evokes those neighbourly mid-western small towns, all porches and picket fences, that feature prominently in his work.

 

Wellman, a prolific writer of pulp detective, science fiction, horror and western fiction who also spent his later decades teaching at the University of North Carolina, captures the stark grandeur of this environment – dizzying mountains, mysterious forests, secluded valleys, frothing brooks and tumultuous waterfalls.  He also nails the character of its human inhabitants.  Their innocence and good-naturedness conveyed in the cadences of their speech.  Practically every page of Wellman’s Appalachian stories seems to ring with unpretentious but pleasingly musical dialogue.  His mountain characters trade such utterances as: “Do my possible best…”, “Won’t be no better singing and dancing the day these young ones marry up…”, “I’ve known men kill them themselves because she’d put her heart back in her pocket on them…”, “I’m right sorry…” and “I hear that somebody around here took a shot at my great-grandboy…”  (There isn’t much innocence or good-naturedness conveyed in that last utterance, admittedly.)

 

Roaming these mountains, valleys and forests is Wellman’s most famous creation, Silver John, who earns a crust here and there as an itinerant singer and musician.  John, who made his first appearance in 1951 in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is no simple-minded hick.  Like many American men of his generation, he’s travelled – albeit in an unplanned manner, doing military service for Uncle Sam during World War II.  He’s also well-read and learned, able to discuss Freud and Sir James Hopkins Jeans’ The Mysterious Universe (1930) when the need arises.  And he’s similarly well-informed about the fields of folklore, superstition and the paranormal.  This is just as well, because wherever he wanders, he seems to encounter trouble in the form of supernatural deities, mythical monsters and havoc-wreaking human dabblers in the occult.

 

Basically, Wellman’s Silver John stories are the adventures of a psychic investigator discovering, battling and defeating the forces of darkness, which come in different guises in each instalment.  In effect, the John stories are The X-Files (1993-2018) without the FBI, the suits or the torturous alien / UFO conspiracy plot, or Scooby Doo (1969-present) without the meddling kids, the Scooby snacks or the Mystery Machine.  Instead, they’ve got hillbillies, dungarees and lots of Appalachian folk songs and balladry.

 

There’s something supernatural about John himself.  For one thing, whatever song he finds himself performing at the start of each story usually, spookily, prefigures or comments on the supernatural events that come later.  Thus, when he sings Little Black Train (a song popularised in real life by Woody Guthrie) early on in a story of the same name, it’s no surprise that an appearance is soon made by a phantom, death-dealing black train: “The little black train is rolling in / To call for you tonight…”

 

John’s nickname, incidentally, comes from the strings on his guitar, which are made of silver.  Supernatural creatures are known for not liking silver – silver bullets are the main way to kill a werewolf, for example.  Thus, John is able on more than one occasion to ward off evil using his music.  In the story O Ugly Bird! he even resorts to using his silver-stringed guitar as a club and just clobbers the monster with it.

 

There’s a bewildering variety of strange and creepy things going on in these stories.  With its theme of unspeakable beings from other universes, One Other comes close to the science-fictional horrors of H.P. Lovecraft.  Walk Like a Mountain deals with a giant who claims lineage from Biblical figures like Goliath and who’s also in the mould of John Henry, the super-strong railroad worker from 19th-century American folklore.  On cue, Silver John starts playing a John Henry folksong on his guitar: “The mountain was high, the sun was low / John he laid down his hammer and died…”

 

Both Call Me from the Valley and Trill Coaster’s Burden feature old mountain customs and practices.  Call Me includes a ‘dumb supper’, which is a midnight ritual enacted by young women as a way of conjuring up the image of the person they are destined to marry.  And Trill is about ‘sin-eating’, which Silver John explains thus: “Somebody dies after a bad life, and a friend or paid person agrees that the sin will be his, not the dead one’s.  It’s still done here and there, far back off from towns and main roads.”

 

Nobody Ever Goes There is an account of a weird, remote town divided in two by a river, where one half is populated and one half is deserted and where for some unspoken reason nobody from the populated half of town ever crosses the bridge to the unpopulated half.  It’s worthy of an episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  Most outré of all, though, is The Desrick on Yandro, which postulates a whole ecosystem of undiscovered mythological creatures living on a remote North Carolina mountain: the Bammat, “something hairy-like, with big ears and a long wiggly nose and twisty white teeth sticking out of its mouth”, the Behinder, which can’t be described “for it’s always behind the man or woman it wants to grab,” the Skim, which just “kites through the air” and the Culverin, “that can shoot pebbles with its mouth.”  Alas, once these fabulous beasties have done their turn in The Desrick on Yandro, they don’t reappear and aren’t mentioned again in Wellman’s stories.

 

Manly Wade Wellman’s writings about Silver John are richly imagined, utterly charming, hard to forget and unlike anything else I’ve read.  Actually, they’re so rich and peculiar that it’s difficult to digest more than one or two of them in one sitting.  It’s best to treat Who Fears the Devil? like a box of chocolates – not to be gorged on but to be dipped into occasionally, so that you have sufficient time to savour each of its treats.

 

From wikipedia.org / Wonder Stories

The unsettling Robert Aickman

 

From the Independent

 

Six days before Halloween, here’s another reposting of an old blog entry about one of my favourite writers of macabre fiction.  This time it’s Robert Aickman, about whom I wrote this piece in 2015.

 

Over the years I’ve learned to be sceptical of the publicity blurbs adorning the covers of new paperback books, which usually assure potential buyers that the book in question is an absolute page-turner and can’t be put down.  However, the blurb on the cover of The Wine-Dark Sea, a collection of short stories by Robert Aickman that was originally published in 1988 and republished in 2014, is bang on the money.  It contains a comment by Neil Gaiman, no less, who says of the author: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was.  All I know is that he did it beautifully.”

 

That’s as good a description as any of the feeling I get when reading Aickman.  You’re aware that he’s going to perform a trick involving some literary sleight-of-hand.  You don’t know what the trick’s going to be, or when he’s going to do it.  Afterwards, you’re not even sure if the trick has been performed, or what the point of it was.  Then you mull it over.  And most of the time, you decide: Wow! That was impressive!

 

I’ve added ‘most of the time’, though, as a disclaimer to that last sentence.  Because, very occasionally, my reaction to an Aickman story has been different: What a load of bollocks!

 

I first came across Aickman’s work in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his stories cropped up in horror anthologies such as The Far Reaches of Fear (1976), New Terrors (1980) and Dark Forces (1980).  Although in those collections they rubbed shoulders with some grisly items, Aickman’s stories didn’t fit comfortably with the ‘horror’ label.  And the claim that some people made about him, that he was actually a ‘ghost’ story writer in the mould of M.R. James, didn’t convince either.  Aickman liked to describe his stories as ‘strange’ ones and ‘strange’ is the adjective I’d attach to them too.

 

It wasn’t just his fiction that seemed out-of-place.  Aickman himself seemed out-of-place in post-war Britain, being a man of old-fashioned views and erudite – some would say ‘elitist’ – tastes.  He was a conservationist who co-founded the Inland Waterways Association and battled to prevent Britain’s no-longer-in-commercial-use canal system from being filled in; a political conservative; and a connoisseur of ballet, opera, classical music and highbrow theatre.  I imagine that by the 1970s, when the UK’s political and cultural landscape was one of Labour governments and frequent industrial action by trade unions, glam rock and bubble-gum pop music, platform heels and loon pants, and cheap, cheerful and massively popular television sitcoms like Man about the House (1973-76) and On the Buses (1969-73), he was not a particularly happy bunny.

 

Inevitably, this sense of alienation appears in his fiction.  His stories feature a lot of discontented middle-aged men (or women) who are set in their ways and don’t do a good job coping with a changing, modern world that seems diametrically opposed to their ways.

 

I found much of Aickman’s work baffling when, as a teenager, I first encountered it.  However, I was impressed by his contribution to New Terrors, a 55-page story called The Stains.  It tells the tale of Stephen, a widowed civil servant, who meets a mysterious, wild-seeming, almost dryad-like girl called Nell whilst rambling on some remote moors.  Stephen becomes infatuated with Nell, with the result that he takes early retirement from his job, abandons his ties with the ‘civilised’ world and attempts to live with her in an empty, tumbledown house on the moors.  Yet the story is no New Age male fantasy.  Aickman steers it in a darker direction.  Nell seems to embody the natural world, but nature soon intrudes on her relationship with Stephen in a more grotesque way.  As their romance progresses, Stephen notices weird moulds, fungi and lichen spreading across the walls and furniture around him.  There are even hints that these agents of decay have manifested themselves on his flesh too, which I suppose makes the story an example of what would later be known as ‘body horror’.

 

The Stains is regarded as one of Aickman’s most autobiographical stories.  Many people see in Stephen’s unpleasantly doomed relationship with Nell a metaphor for Aickman’s love affair with the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard.  After being involved with him, and then with Laurie Lee and Arthur Koestler, Howard married Kingsley Amis in 1965.  Aickman, whose obsession with Howard was described by one friend as a ‘mental aberration’, must have found the thought that she’d chosen the increasingly boorish Amis over him hard to stomach.  Incidentally, like several of Aickman’s stories, The Stains shows that he wasn’t afraid to infuse his work – no matter how fuddy-duddy the characters – with a strong dose of the erotic.

 

© Berkley Books

 

My teenage self was sufficiently curious to seek out more of Aickman’s work and I located two collections of his short stories, Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975).  Predictably, some of those stories bewildered me, and a few irritated me; but several, like The Stains, have haunted me ever since.  By the way, I wonder if a young Peter Murphy got his goth-y hands on the earlier collection and was so impressed by it that he pinched its title for the Bauhaus song Dark Entries, their second single, which they released in 1980.

 

One story I remember well is The Swords, in which a young travelling salesman goes to bed with a strangely blank woman whom he encounters at a seedy carnival sideshow.  Again, this allows Aickman to serve up some disquieting body horror at the story’s close.  Also memorable is The Hospice, a Kafka-esque tale of a motorist getting lost at night and asking for shelter at the titular institution.  Inside the hospice, he notices odd things about how the inmates are cared for.  For instance, in the dining room, he sees that one patient is discreetly shackled to the floor.

 

And in the award-winning Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, Aickman tackles one of the commonest tropes in horror fiction in one of its most traditional settings.  This purports to be a series of diary entries written by a young woman in 1815 who’s accompanying her parents on a tour of central Europe.  She becomes excited when she discovers that they’re in the same neighbourhood as her secret hero, Lord Byron, who lives there ‘in riot and wickedness’.  And she soon encounters her own personal Lord Bryon in the form of a mysterious gentleman attending a local contessa’s party.  His ‘skin is somewhat pallid’, his nose is ‘aquiline and commanding’ and, most suspiciously of all, his mouth is ‘scarlet’.   You can guess where this is heading.

 

Aickman’s approach to telling creepy stories was subtle, mannered and leisurely.  Often, his stories needed a lot of build-up before they reached their denouements.  By the start of the 1980s, this seemed anachronistic.  The British tradition of horror fiction had been subtle, mannered and leisurely once, in the days of M.R. James and E.F. Benson, but it’d experienced a punk-rock moment in the mid-1970s when James Herbert unleashed a slew of bestselling horror novels like The Rats (1974) and The Fog (1975) that were unapologetically in your face with gore and violence.  And a little later, in the 1980s, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series (1984-85) would pioneer a style of horror-writing that was in equal parts perverse, visionary and wildly gruesome.

 

So when I read in 1981 that Aickman had died of cancer – which, in his typically obstinate way, he’d refused to have any conventional medical treatment for, preferring instead to rely on dubious ‘homeopathic’ cures – I assumed, sadly, that his work would soon be out of fashion, out of print and out of readers’ memories.

 

© Mandarin-Reed Books

 

Years later, I stumbled across a copy of a posthumously-published collection by him called The Unsettled Dust (1990).  It contained one or two stories that annoyed me, but generally I greatly enjoyed it.  By now I knew what to expect from Aickman and was mature enough to appreciate his elegant prose, his subtle build-up of suspense, his oddball but well-drawn characters and his moments of utter strangeness.  Admittedly, I sometimes wasn’t sure what happened at the stories’ ends.  And even after thinking about them carefully, I still wasn’t sure.  But what the hell?  With Aickman, the pleasure was in getting there.

 

I particularly liked the title story, in which an official stays at a stately home whilst negotiating the transfer of the house’s running from the hands of its aristocratic inhabitants into the hands of the National Trust.  He discovers a peculiar room deep inside the house where, like in a giant snow globe, huge patches of dust are continually and spectrally floating through the air.  This illustrates another of Aickman’s abilities, to convincingly weave into his stories scenes and incidents that are totally outlandish.  So sober is the tone of everything else going on that you readily accept these mad bits as parts of the narrative.

 

Nonetheless, it seemed appropriate that I found The Unsettled Dust in a rack of second-hand books in a corner of a small antiques shop in a village in rural County Suffolk – an obscure place to find an obscure book by an obscure writer.

 

But, happily, I was wrong.  Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Robert Aickman, which reached a peak in 2014, the centenary of his year of birth, when Faber & Faber republished The Wine-Dark Sea, Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mind and The Unsettled Dust.  His work has been championed by Neil Gaiman; by Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith of the influentially bizarre television show The League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, 2017); and by Dame Edna Everage herself (or himself), Barry Humphries, who in addition to being a comedian and actor is a committed bibliophile with a library of 25,000 books.  And the Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph have all printed articles about him lately.

 

I’ve just finished reading The Wine-Dark Sea and it’s possibly my favourite Aickman collection yet.  I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, though.  This being Aickman, there has to be at least one story that gets on my wick.  In this case the offender is Growing Boys, a satiric fantasy about a woman who has to deal with two sons growing at a supernatural rate, to a supernatural size, and becoming criminal psychopaths.  An ineffectual police force, an ineffectual school system and an ineffectual father (more interested in running for parliament as a Liberal Party candidate) do nothing to stop them.  Aickman uses the story to bemoan the delinquency of the younger generation and the inadequacy of Britain’s post-war institutions.  It’s reactionary but, much worse, it isn’t funny.

 

On the other hand, my favourite story here is The Inner Room.  It’s about a haunted doll’s house, which is a staple of many scary stories, most famously one written by M.R. James called – surprise! – The Haunted Dolls House.  Aickman, however, treats the subject with dark humour.  The story’s climax is unexpectedly and phantasmagorically weird, meanwhile, and reminds me a little of the work of Angela Carter.

 

Elsewhere, both Never Visit Venice and Your Tiny Hand is Frozen suggest Aickman taking two of his modern-day bugbears and transforming his indignation at them into horror stories.  Never Visit Venice lays into mass tourism.  Its hero is so disappointed in how the city of the title has been degraded by sightseers that, unwisely, he ends up taking a ride in an infernal gondola that seems to have been punted out through the gates of hell.  Your Tiny Hand is Frozen features an unsociable man who becomes addicted to his telephone, through which he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not really exist.  Telephones were becoming increasingly widespread at the time the story was written, presumably to Aickman’s discomfort.  It’s just as well that he didn’t live to see the situation today when smartphones have practically taken over the world.

 

Incidentally, so in vogue is Aickman now that there’s even a Facebook page and Twitter account devoted to him.  Robert Aickman with a presence on 21st-century social media?  I’m sure he would have loved that.  Not.

 

© Faber & Faber

Time to learn about Hearn

 

© Tuttle Publishing

 

As we approach Halloween, I thought I would re-post some blog entries about my favourite ghost and horror-story writers.  Here’s what I wrote about Lafcadio Hearn in 2014.

 

19th-century writer Lafcadio Hearn surely had a confused sense of identity.  Perhaps it’s unsurprising that he had to travel to Japan, considered by westerners at the time to be the ends of the earth, before he found some cultural peace.

 

He was born in 1850 to a Greek mother and an Irish Protestant father, but was reared in Dublin by a great-aunt who fervently embraced Catholicism.  Later, he was later dumped in an austere boarding school in Durham in northern England.  It was during the unwelcome rough-and-tumble of boarding school that a playground accident cost him the sight of his left eye.  At the age of 19 he arrived in the USA, where he found employment as a journalist.  First he worked in Ohio, where he lost his job with a Cincinnati newspaper for committing the crime of marrying, briefly, a black woman, and then in New Orleans.

 

In 1890, he found his way to Meiji-era Japan where he worked as a school-teacher and university-lecturer whilst doing his best to chronicle the minutiae of life in a traditional and, to him, exotic Japanese culture that was fast vanishing under the wheels of Western-inspired industrialisation and ‘modernisation’.  Nowadays, to the Japanese at least, he is the most accomplished foreign scribe who ever attempted to describe their country in writing.

 

Since Hearn’s death in 1904, the Irish – who are good at doing this – have claimed him as one of their own.  So to me Hearn will always be the oddball wandering Irishman who got, and seized, the opportunity to record for posterity the details of life in old Japan just before it changed forever.  But in fact Hearn finished his life as a Japanese citizen.  He’d married a Japanese woman called Koizumi Setsu, fathered four children and taken on the Japanese name of Koizumi Yakumo.  He strikes a solemnly Japanese-looking pose with his wife in the monochrome family photographs of the time.  His head is always in profile with the right side of his face towards the camera, so that his disfigured left eye is out of view.

 

Nowadays, some historians and cultural commentators chuckle at Hearn and at how he hankered after a disappearing Japan that, as an outsider, had never belonged to him anyway.  Indeed, one wonders how much the old Japan described in his writings was embroidered by his own fanciful yearnings.  There’s also an irony in how the Japanese were happy to adopt Hearn as their foreign champion after they’d modernised themselves and dumped the very culture that Hearn was so preoccupied with.  In a way, Hearn’s writings have become the literary equivalent of a holiday brochure, advertising an ethereal version of Japan that now exists only in the imaginations of tourists.

 

But nonetheless, I admire Hearn’s writings greatly.  The descriptions of late-19th century Japan in his journalism, with their gaudy colour and intricate attention to detail, are startlingly evocative.  In our modern digital world, where you can point your phone at just about anything and instantly preserve its image in pixels, the business of writing detailed descriptive prose no longer seems necessary.  It’s probably become a lost art.  But when it was necessary, Hearn was one of its greatest practitioners.

 

© Tuttle Publishing

 

Hearn was instinctively drawn to stories about ghosts and the uncanny, perhaps because of his pedigree.  The supernatural is another thing that the Irish are good at.  Accordingly, his books In Ghostly Japan and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, in which he recorded the weird and creepy folk tales circulating in his adopted country, are among the most famous works in his canon.   What I like about Hearn’s stories, or, more precisely, about Hearn’s retellings, are how commonplace the supernatural elements seem among the human tableau of medieval Japan.  The ghosts, spirits, goblins and demons don’t suddenly and unexpectedly intrude into the world of men and women.  They’re already there.  If they don’t quite exist alongside the Japanese people, they certainly inhabit the forests, mountain gorges, snowy plateaus and crumbling Buddhist cemeteries located at the edges of their existence.

 

Hearn’s tales also make a fascinating bestiary of the creatures of Japanese legends and folklore.  The story Mujina, for example, contains a being called a nopperabo.  In Japanese folklore this is almost perfectly human in its form and dress, apart from its face, which is as smooth and featureless as an egg.  Meanwhile, in the story Rokuro-Kubi, the title creature is a type of goblin with a detachable head.  Once detached, the head can flit about through the air, this way and that, like a giant bumblebee.  (Incidentally, in Japanese folklore, there’s another type of rokurokubi with an elastic neck that can stretch to grotesque and snake-like extremes.)

 

Perhaps the nastiest of Hearn’s supernatural beasties, though, appears in Jikininki, in which a travelling priest called Muso arrives in a village plagued by a hideous monster that materialises whenever there’s a death and a corpse becomes available for it to feed on: “…when the hush of the night was at its deepest, there noiselessly entered a Shape, vague and vast; and in the same moment Muso found himself without power to move or speak. He saw that Shape lift the corpse, as with hands, devour it, more quickly than a cat devours a rat – beginning at the head, and eating everything: the hair and the bones and even the shroud.”

 

I lived in Japan for much of the 1990s.  I encountered several foreign residents – gaijin as the Japanese referred to all us foreigners living in their country – who reminded me slightly of Lafcadio Hearn.  Seduced by Japan and its culture, they’d become ardent ‘Japanophiles’.  They’d ended up as a sub-species of gaijin that ordinary gaijin sniggeringly described as “being more Japanese than the Japanese.”  Such foreign types never seemed to me to be particularly happy.  Unfortunately, when you fall completely in love with a place, you become disillusioned when the place then spurns you by daring to change, losing what it had that attracted you first of all.  And at times there seemed no place in the world more capable of bewilderingly rapid and sudden change than Japan.

 

This certainly happened to Hearn.  Towards the end of his life, he wrote wearily that, “I felt as never before how utterly dead Old Japan is and how ugly New Japan is becoming.  I thought, how useless to write about things which have ceased to exist.”  Well, they may have ceased to exist by then, but I for one am glad that poor old Hearn bothered to write about them in the first place.

 

From the Asian Review of Books

The uncanny May Sinclair

 

© Wordsworth Editions

 

Halloween is just ten days away.  In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d repost some old entries about my favourite writers of spooky stories.  I’ll begin with the impeccable May Sinclair, about whom I wrote this piece back in 2014.

 

I’ve just spent a few days reading Uncanny Stories, a collection of supernatural short stories by May Sinclair, a writer, poetess, literary critic and feminist who lived from 1863 to 1946.  During her life, Sinclair was also a suffragette, a volunteer with an ambulance corps that helped wounded soldiers in Flanders during World War I and a member of the Society of Psychical Research.  She was also the first person to use the term ‘stream of consciousness’ when describing the literary device made famous in James Joyce’s Ulysses.  Tragically, her literary career ended in the late 1920s, thanks to the onset of Parkinson’s disease.  By the time of her death a decade-and-a-half later she’d been forgotten by the literary lights she’d once fraternised with, who included the poet Ezra Pound.

 

Uncanny Stories was first published in 1923, a time when the most famous writer of ghost stories in British literature, Montague Rhodes James, was still alive.  I’m a fan of M.R. James, but it annoys me when mainstream literary critics applaud James’s ghostly short stories for their ‘subtlety’ and ‘delicacy’ and ‘understatement’.  If, for example, you’ve read James’s story Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you my Lad, whose climax sees a mysterious, primordial thing taking physical form in the linen of the spare bed in the hero’s hotel room, like a self-assembling mummy, you’ll know it isn’t that subtle, delicate or understated.  The story ends with an image that’s terrifyingly in-your-face.  Much of the time, James doesn’t imply his supernatural terrors, as those critics claim he does.  He shows them.

 

However, if you want proper subtlety, delicacy and understatment in your ghost stories, you should read the examples of the genre that May Sinclair pens in this collection.

 

There are ghosts in many of the tales in Uncanny Stories, but usually those ghosts serve to cast light on the psychology of the tales’ living protagonists.   In The Token, the ghost is of a gentle, devoted woman who manifests herself only for as long as it takes her repressed, uptight husband to admit to something he never admitted while she was alive – that he loved her.  Amusingly, Sinclair blames the husband’s problems on his Scottishness.  He “suffers from being Scottish, so that if he has a feeling, he makes it a point of honour to pretend that he hasn’t it.”

 

A dead wife also figures in The Nature of the Evidence, wherein the widowed husband – “one of those bigoted materialists of the nineteenth-century type who believe that consciousness is a purely physiological function, and that when you’re dead, you’re dead” – remarries, not out of love but because he cold-bloodedly recognises his own sexual needs and resolves to satisfy them: “It’s a physical necessity…  I shan’t marry the sort of woman who’ll expect anything more.”  Needless to say, when the ghost of his first wife inconveniently manifests herself, Marston’s rationalism, and his second marriage, take an unexpected hit.

 

In If the Dead Knew the supernatural and psychological tension revolves around a mother-son relationship rather than a husband-wife one.  Meanwhile, The Victim seems for much of its length to be a more traditional story wherein a servant murders his master and then becomes increasingly tormented by the murdered man’s spectre.  But while the ghost in a conventional story would be out for revenge, the ghost here has more complex motives, as are revealed in the story’s unexpected denouement.

 

The Intercessor is the final and most impressive story in the collection, recounting a haunting by a child’s ghost that, gradually, leads the narrator to understand the emotional circumstances of the child’s still-living parents.  The story’s intensity and the unforgiving wildness of its setting – the parents live beyond a field where “(a) wild plum tree stood half-naked on a hillock and pointed at the house”, and the house itself has “a bald gable-end pitched among the ash trees.  It was black grey, like ash bark drenched with rain” – are worthy of Emily Bronte.

 

Not all these tales are about ghosts.  Where their Fire is not Quenched and The Finding of the Absolute both speculate on what the after-life might be like.  In one story the after-life is an idealistic one and in the other it’s positively hideous.  The Flaw in the Crystal is about a female telepath who quietly uses her powers to cure other people of depression and instability.  She’s horrified to discover that the suicidal madness of one of her ‘patients’ is leaking into her own mind and threatening to infect those other people she’s psychically linked with.  The Flaw in the Crystal is the story I found hardest to get through, mainly because of its length.  It’s 50 pages long but could’ve had the same impact with 20 pages less.  Nonetheless, it contains some excellent writing and the scene where the madness begins to corrupt the heroine’s perceptions of the world around her is worthy of H.P. Lovecraft.  The standard of the prose is considerably higher than Lovecraft’s, though.

 

A sad fact of life – and death – is that when people die, they usually leave unfinished business with those around them.  The supernatural aspects of the stories here allow their protagonists, living and dead, a second chance to resolve their business with one another.  Subtle rather than frightening, and not hell-bent on wreaking revenge, the worst that can be said about May Sinclair’s phantoms is that they’re unnerving in their determination to sort things out.

 

From wikipedia.org

Kazuo in Kafka Country

 

© Faber & Faber

 

For me, one thing that’s suffered due to the Covid-19 pandemic has been my reading.  Before the appearance of the virus, on average, I was able to get through one book a week.  However, since the pandemic forced some lifestyle changes – starting with two months of strict lockdown, and then a period with more freedom but limitations on my social life and ability to travel, and also a new working life where I have to do everything on a laptop at home with the result that I sometimes don’t go outside for three days at a time – my reading ability has diminished and it commonly takes me twice or three times as long to read a book now.  I suppose it’s something to do with my brain receiving less stimulation than it did in the old days.  In the current situation, my brain has grown lethargic, its processing muscles have atrophied, and reading has become a struggle for it.

 

That said, even back before anyone had heard of Covid-19, I think I would have found the book I’ve just finished reading, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 novel The Unconsoled, hard going.

 

I’d previously read only three of Ishiguro’s novels – 1986’s An Artist of the Floating World, 1989’s The Remains of the Day and 2005’s Never Let Me Go – but I’d enjoyed them and was looking forward to reading The Unconsoled when someone recently bought it for me as a present.  It tells the story of a world-famous pianist called Ryder who arrives in an unnamed city in the Germanic part of Europe a few days before he’s scheduled to top the bill of a concert there.  It gradually transpires that this concert has much invested in it.  It’s supposed to mark the rehabilitation of a local composer called Brodsky who, after many years as a chronic alcoholic, appears to be on the mend.  Brodsky occupies a talismanic position not just for the city’s artistic community but for the city as the whole, and the citizens whom Ryder encounters assume that Brodsky’s success or failure at the concert will lead to the city’s future well-being or decline.

 

This basic scenario is curious, then, but more curious still is what happens to Ryder after he books into his hotel in the city.  For he finds himself deep in the heart of what can only be described as Kafka Country.  Yes, Ishiguro drops his main character into a labyrinth of improbable confusion and frustration, like those that feature in the pages of the great Czech author’s The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926).

 

Firstly, people he’s only just been introduced to pour out their problems to him and beg him for help – starting with Gustav, the hotel’s elderly porter, who believes that Ryder can somehow engineer a reconciliation between him, his estranged daughter Sophie and his grandson Boris.  Also requiring Ryder’s assistance is the hotel manager Hoffman (who thinks Ryder can help thaw the icy relationship between him and his wife) and Hoffman’s son Stephan (who wants to enlist Ryder’s aid in winning his parents’ respect).  Plus Ryder is soon being pestered by various city dignitaries in a panic about what Brodsky might do at the forthcoming concert, and by local journalists who for some mysterious reason want him to do a photo-shoot next to a controversial monument on the city’s outskirts, and by an embittered musician called Christof, whose fortunes have begun to wane as those of the now-teetotal Brodsky have begun to wax again.

 

Ryder agrees to help these many people out and soon ends up with a hectic pre-concert schedule.  But – and here’s the Kafka-esque part – he rarely manages to get from one appointment to another without being waylaid by somebody else.  The plot is a series of resolutions by Ryder to assist Person A by going to Place B, only to encounter Person C and get diverted to Place D.

 

From asianews.it

 

The laws of physics also conspire against Ryder.  Distances unaccountably expand so that addresses and buildings that seem only minutes away become harder and harder to get to.  But occasionally they contract too, so that function halls and restaurants in remote parts of the city turn out at the last moment to handily adjoin the very hotel Ryder is staying in.  Further weirdness occurs when Ryder acquires a temporary omniscience and finds himself eavesdropping on conversations that are happening rooms away from him or witnessing events that happened in his new acquaintances’ distant pasts.

 

To make things more confusing, it’s not just the physical universe that’s collapsing around Ryder.  His internal universe seems to be doing the same.  Improbably, as he beetles about the city, he keeps encountering people he once knew during his childhood and youth in England.  Even though he’s only just met Sophie and Boris, he somehow simultaneously seems to have known them for years, to the point where Sophie is his long-term partner and Boris his son.  And his elderly and ailing parents have supposed arrived somewhere in the city, with the intention of watching him perform for the first time.  But although he keeps hearing reports of his parents, he never quite manages to catch up with them.

 

So what is going on?  I wondered if it was all happening in Ryder’s dazed mind and Ishiguro was trying to create a nightmarish satire on modern celebrity.  Ryder, in other words, has gone mad whilst constantly having to fight his way through throngs of obsequious yes-men and hangers-on, all determined to exploit his fame in different ways.  However, I don’t think it’s a spoiler with this type of novel to warn that you may not have got the answers by the end of it.

 

Incidentally, it’s interesting that The Unconsoled appeared in 1995, just before the Internet took off and just before the carrying of mobile phones became de rigueur for everyone.  I can only imagine what a tangled plot The Unconsoled would have had if it’d been written a few years later, with the beleaguered Ryder also being assailed by phone calls, texts, emails and WhatsApp messages as well.

 

I’m a fan of the works of Franz Kafka and there are plenty of other books I admire that could be described as Kafka-esque.  Alasdair Gray’s 1980 classic Lanark is one.  But what makes The Unconsoled such a slog is that Ishiguro appears to have no ‘edit’ function when it comes to the dialogue.  Or more accurately, the monologues, because the book has an endless succession of them.  People approach Ryder, ostensibly to flatter and fawn over him, but really to unburden their problems on him, which they do in screeds of repetitive and obsessive blather.  It soon got to the point where, whenever a new character appeared, I’d shudder and check out the pages ahead to find out how long the inevitable, pleading soliloquy would go on for.  New York might be the City That Never Sleeps, but the anonymous city here is the City That Never Shuts Up.

 

Of course, this incessant, unstoppable prattling adds to the Kafka-esque quality of the situation enveloping Ryder.  But it isn’t much fun to read, especially when the novel clocks in at 535 pages.  That’s an awful lot of prattling to get through.

 

If Ishiguro had made The Unconsoled half its published length, he’d have created a novel with the same uncomfortable, disorientating qualities, but one that would have been far less of a chore to read.

 

Incidentally, I’ve just checked out the most recent Penguin editions of Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle and found that they run to 208 and 320 pages respectively.  Would they have had the same impact if Kafka had added an extra 200 or 300 pages to them?  Or would this have diminished their effectiveness through overkill?  I suspect the latter.  As it stands, The Unconsoled doesn’t feel so much like a book influenced by The Trial as a book that’s just, well, a trial.

 

© Penguin Books

Ray of light

 

© Alan Light

 

I’ve just realised that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the stupendous American writer Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012.  So, in recognition of the great man’s centenary, here is a slightly revised version of what I wrote on this blog eight years ago when I heard of his passing.

 

The death a few days ago of American writer Ray Bradbury drew tributes, to both the man and his remarkable fiction, from everybody from Barack Obama to Stephen King.  It seems a bit pointless for the author of a lowly and obscure blog like Blood and Porridge to say more about Bradbury and his oeuvre on top of what’s been said already.  But of course, I’m going to say it anyway.

 

Bradbury I would definitely classify among the top ten writers, and quite possibly among the top five, to have most influenced me – not just as a writer (or an attempted one) but in my whole outlook.  Only last weekend, I was having lunch with a colleague and our conversation somehow got around to what our favourite flowers were.  Promptly and automatically, I quipped, “Dandelions, because Ray Bradbury wrote a book about them.”  This indicates how deeply the venerable author of Dandelion Wine (1957), The October Country (1955), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The Illustrated Man (1951), The Small Assassin (1962) and so on had penetrated my psyche.

 

Unfortunately, in the obituaries written about Bradbury during the week, several things were said that I’d regard as misconceptions.  Here are three such misconceptions and my responses to them.

 

Misconception number 1: Ray Bradbury, science fiction writer…

William Shakespeare featured a ghost in Hamlet and three witches in Macbeth, but that didn’t make him a horror writer.  Similarly, Bradbury’s stories contained the odd dystopian future, the odd adventure set on Mars or Venus, and the odd rocket-ship, but that didn’t mean he was a writer of science fiction – certainly not if you define the term using proper ‘science’, because Bradbury plainly didn’t give a hoot about making his settings and plot devices in any way scientifically feasible.  His dystopian futures and alien planets might have been fairy kingdoms where he could let his imagination off its leash and his rocket-ships might have been magical spells that transported his characters to those places.

 

In fact, his supposed science fiction from the 1940s and 1950s has dated far less than that written by his peers, many of whom had engineering or scientific backgrounds and tried to restrict their plots to what the science of the time deemed possible.

 

Two of his most famous works, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, are often cited as key works in science fiction literature, and they do have a plethora of sci-fi trimmings, like mind-controlling totalitarian regimes, populations of citizens kept passive by drugs, wall-sized TV screens, space colonies, alien civilisations, robots.  But I actually find them among his less interesting works.   It’s telling that the most evocative moment for me in The Martian Chronicles comes in the final segment, The Million-Year Picnic, when the human father introduces his family to the Martians by pointing into a canal.  Looking down, they see their reflections in the water – an echo of the famous remark by J.G. Ballard, another great writer who got pigeonholed as a practitioner of science fiction, that the only truly alien world is our own one.

 

I much preferred it when Bradbury threw scientific caution to the wind and just got on with things – never more so than in his short story The Kilimanjaro Device (1965), where the hero travels back in time to prevent Ernest Hemingway from committing suicide.  To do this, he employs a time machine that’s actually a truck.

 

© Panther Books

 

Misconception number 2: Ray Bradbury, whose sentimental, nostalgic stories recalled his 1920s and 30s boyhood…

There was obviously a lot of sentimentality and nostalgia in Bradbury’s stories, many of which seemed to be set in small mid-western towns with neatly trimmed lawns and white picket fences and porches where people sat in the evenings and courteously hailed their neighbours as they strolled past on the street – and occasionally the tone of these stories threatened to tip over into twee-ness.  But it would be unfair to dismiss him as a literary Walt Disney because on closer inspection you’ll find a great deal of darkness lurking around those lawns, picket fences and porches.  And incidentally, many of Disney’s cinematic visions contain more darkness than first meets the eye too.

 

Take, for instance, the small town in Bradbury’s short story The Handler (1947) where the inhabitants mock and belittle the local undertaker – who secretly gets his revenge on them after they die, by burying them in gruesome conditions that match the foibles they had when they were alive.  He fills the veins of the town drunkard with alcohol rather than embalming fluid and stuffs the corpses of a couple of inveterate chatterboxes into the same coffin.   Or the fate of the nagging wife in another short story, The Jar (1947), who is not amused when her simple-minded farmer husband buys the titular vessel at a carnival because it has something strange and indescribable and yet fascinating floating inside it.  The husband eventually snaps at her nagging and what ends up floating inside the jar at the story’s close is not what was inside it at the beginning.  Even Bradbury’s rosiest evocation of his childhood, Dandelion Wine, contains a serial killer among its pages.

 

Perhaps the darkness in many of Bradbury’s stories eludes readers because he imbues his characters, even the very worst ones, with an ordinariness and even innocence.  They’re not the twisted psychopaths that stalk the pages of modern horror fiction.  Rather, they’re believably everyday characters who, somewhere along the line, often through gullibility or unfortunate circumstances, take the wrong turn, with grisly consequences.  Yet the innocence of those characters serves only to make the stories more disturbing.

 

© Panther Books

 

Misconception number 3: Ray Bradbury, with his unique writing style…

And yes, Bradbury was a stylist, but it does him an injustice to imply that that was all there was to his writing.  In fact, his stories would have counted for nothing if there hadn’t been ideas, brilliant ideas, propelling them along while his prose-style brought them vividly to life.

 

In fact, his work contains hundreds of lovely notions and sparks and fancies.  For example, there’s the short story A Season of Calm Weather (1957), where Pablo Picasso takes a walk along a beach in southern France, then stops and uses a stick to spontaneously draw a masterpiece in the sand – much to the delight of an art-lover who watches the creation of this masterpiece from a distance.  However, the art-lover’s delight turns to agony after Picasso walks away again and the tide starts to creep in…  Or there’s the vignette The Foghorn (1951), where the baleful horn sounding from a lighthouse gets answered by a roar out in the mist, which proves to be a last surviving dinosaur mistaking the horn for a mating call.   Or the short story The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1958), where a group of poor Mexican lads of similar build and height pool their money and buy an expensive white suit that they believe will improve their chances with the ladies.  Then, however, they have to figure out how they’re going to share the suit and keep it clean…

 

Even reading those stories when I was 13 or 14,  an age when I was trying my hand at writing myself, I found myself subconsciously cursing Bradbury.  I knew these were all wonderful story ideas but the old bugger had thought of them first.

 

At the time of his passing Bradbury was 91, so he certainly enjoyed a good innings.  Mind you, he’d lived for so long and his fans had become so used to him being around that I’d begun to wonder if he was like a character in one of his stories – someone with so much imagination, exuberance and enthusiasm for life that he’d managed to transcend such things as ageing, mortality and death.  I had a notion that he’d be around forever, kept going by the joie de vivre that was so apparent in his fiction.  But life, alas, is never as magical as it is in a Ray Bradbury story.

 

© Panther Books

Detours into dystopia

 

© Polaris Productions / Hawk Films / Warner Bros.

 

The world is in a dystopian condition at the moment.  It’s being ravaged by a deadly virus that’s especially rampant in countries run by authoritarian, anti-science, right-wing clowns like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro (and not forgetting the UK’s own right-wing pipsqueak Boris Johnson).  Meanwhile, propelled by manmade climate change, temperatures continue their remorseless rise.  Much of Australia was in flames at the start of this year while the recent record-breaking heat in the Arctic Circle indicates that ecological catastrophe could be bearing down on us rather sooner than we’d expected.

 

I feel glad that I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction.  I’ve read so many books set in dystopian futures over the decades that now, when I actually find myself living in the dystopia of 2020, I don’t feel in the least bit surprised.  None of this came as a nasty shock for me.

 

I’ve also been thinking about dystopian fiction recently because I’m currently halfway through Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994), which as its title suggests takes place in an authoritarian society where memory itself is policed.  Gradually, everyday items like flowers, perfume and photographs are deleted physically, from people’s everyday existences, and mentally, from their memories.  As the world loses its precious details and becomes drabber and greyer, the body enforcing these deletions, the Memory Police of the title, becomes ever-more oppressive.  I don’t know if Ogawa will manage to keep this premise interesting for the novel’s full 274 pages, but so far I’ve been impressed.

 

I’ve thought about it too because of the death last month of French author Jean Raspail, known for his apocalyptic novel The Camp of the Saints (1973).  I haven’t read Camp and don’t intend to, because from all accounts it’s the nightmare fantasy of an ultra-right-wing, ultra-Catholic, ultra-privileged white French male and is a bucket of racist slime.  Let me quote from its synopsis on Wikipedia.  Camp depicts France being swamped by a tidal wave of immigrants from India, who have names like ‘the turd eater’, have ‘monstrously deformed’ children, indulge in public fornication, are ‘filthy’ and ‘brutish’ and ‘flout laws, do not produce and murder French citizens’.  They’re aided and abetted in their takeover of France by lefty aid workers, journalists, politicians, ‘charities, rock stars and major churches’.   Needless to say, the book is much admired by the likes of Steve Bannon and Marine Le Pen.  I only hope that, before he croaked, Raspail took a look at the rankings of the world’s strongest economies.  Because he would find that India, source of his racistly sub-human bogeymen in Camp, is now in fifth place, which is two places above his precious France.    Maybe one day an Indian author will write a reply to Camp, in which an affluent India is invaded by hordes of starving, third-world Frenchmen.

 

Anyway, all this has set me thinking.  If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be?

 

© Penguin Books

 

I’d better start by defining my terms.  By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails, either because of hellish political oppression of some sort, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s turned life into a scramble for survival.  It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present.  And there’s the issue of location.  The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global.  Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954) or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975), where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.

 

I will also disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is – a setting, a backdrop against which the plot takes place.  We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters.  So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).  In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront, so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.

 

And I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively, but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories.  The settings are so distant and fantastical that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then.  So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962) are both out.

 

I’ve seen lists of dystopian novels that include ones set in alternative universes, like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005).  But I’m excluding them too because, for me, a properly effective dystopian novel has to take place in a universe that’s recognisably our own one.  The thought, “This could happen to me or to my children, grandchildren or descendants” has to be prominent in the reader’s mind.

 

Finally, I’ve left out Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017) because, although it’s set in a future New York that’s largely underwater thanks to global warming, and although it impressed me with its scale and ambition, I found it a bit too hopeful to qualify.  To hit the required nerve, dystopian fiction has to be depressing and pessimistic.  There’s no room on my list for nice dystopian fiction.  Sorry, Kim.

 

© Vintage Books

 

Right.  I’ve just disqualified nine or ten commonly cited classics of dystopian fiction.  Is there anything left to go on my list?  Well, actually, there is.  I’d have liked to present an alliteration-friendly number of titles, such as a ‘top ten’ or a ‘dystopian dozen’ or a ‘first fifteen’, but I’ve ended up with sixteen.  These are:

 

Greybeard (1964) by Brian Aldiss.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood.

Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood.

The Drowned World by (1962) J.G. Ballard.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury.

A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess.

The Death of Grass (1956) by John Christopher.

Make Room!  Make Room! (1966) by Harry Harrison.

Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley.

Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) by Doris Lessing

The Iron Heel (1907) by Jack London.

I am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson.

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy.

1984 (1949) by George Orwell.

Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972) by Christopher Priest.

Day of the Triffids by (1951) John Wyndham.

 

A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet.  They include P.D. James’s Children of Men (1992), about a near-future world where mass sterility means that no children are being born and society is destabilising as the population ages.  A similarly-themed book is on the list, though, Brian Aldiss’s Greybeard, which takes the scenario further and imagines a future England where nobody is under 50, nature is quickly wiping out traces of human civilisation and the oldsters are finding it increasingly hard to distinguish reality from senility-induced fantasy.  Actually, the sci-fi writer Adam Roberts, who wrote the introduction to my copy of Greybeard, reckons it’s a better novel than the more acclaimed Children of Men.

 

© Signet Books

 

Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy.  Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood is the only person on the list with two entries, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, so Madge is officially the Queen of Dystopian Literature as far as I’m concerned.  I was tempted to include a couple of J.G. Ballard’s other works like The Drought (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), but I opted for The Drowned World because it’s the first and most famous of his surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic novels set during or after a global catastrophe.  And irrespective of their individual merits, The Drought and The Crystal World do feel like variations on a Ballardian theme.  Whereas with Atwood, the nastily patriarchal and reactionary society envisioned in The Handmaid’s Tale and the ecological disaster zone described in Oryx and Crake are two very different creations.

 

Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is actually a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.  It was also a massive influence on George A. Romero’s zombie movies, which in turn gave rise to the zombie-apocalypse trope that’s now a major sub-genre of dystopian fiction, TV and cinema.

 

Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters.  Their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets.  And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids (1955) and The Kraken Wakes (1953), both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books.  But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture.  The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language.  I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a noxious-looking weed growing in somebody’s garden to the state of Helena Bonham Carter’s hair.

 

On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness.  Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as the disasters – a plague that destroys cereal crops in Death, a refugee crisis caused by a limited nuclear war in Fugue – rocking the societies around them.

 

One novel I feel really deserves its place on the list is Harry Harrison’s disturbing meditation on the dangers of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room!  It just annoys me when people compare Make Room with its 1973 film version, Soylent Green, and pontificate that the book isn’t as good because it doesn’t have the film’s two big gimmicks.  These are a euthanasia clinic, to which the character Sol (Edward G. Robinson in the film) goes when he decides that he can’t handle any more of the world’s ghastliness, and the film’s twist ending when it’s revealed that the mysterious foodstuff Soylent Green, a major component of the future human diet, is… people!  (You have to shout it in Charlton Heston’s voice.)

 

© Penguin Books

 

However, as Harrison pointed out, and unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are a bit of a cliché in science fiction.  (Not so long ago, I read Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, published back in 1895, and it had something called a ‘government lethal chamber’ in it.)  And Harrison had researched Make Room meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he knew that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up quickly and require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a form of livestock to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this study shows, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

On the other hand, one novel that nearly didn’t make my list was Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor because it feels rather dated now.  The problem is that the feral kids and gangs of violent youths that populate the novel seem a bit, well, hippy-ish.  Sorry, Doris, but when I try to imagine a Mad Max-style dystopia I don’t normally see crowds of hippies running at me with chainsaws.  Of course, Memoirs was written in the early 1970s when memories of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, flower power, etc., were still fresh.  It’s a pity Lessing didn’t write it a couple of years later, after the much more dystopia-friendly punk rockers had appeared.  Still, I like the novel for its psychological depth, with the narrator escaping from the claustrophobic confines of her apartment by concentrating on a wall until she’s able to ‘pass through’ it into an imaginary realm.  And considering that dystopian novels are frequently dominated by male characters, it’s good to see one where female characters are at the forefront.

 

Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos.  The joke was that in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned.  Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer.

 

Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.

 

© Ballantine Books

 

This is an updated version of an entry that first appeared on this blog in July 2014.

Est-ce qu’on vous sert?

 

© Penguin Classics

 

Anyone born at a similar time to me, and in a similar part of the world, and who therefore grew up watching 1970s British television, will have difficulty reading a novel about a department store without being reminded of the saucy British TV sitcom Are You Being Served?, created and written by David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, broadcast from 1972 to 1985 and, yes, set in a department store in contemporary London.

 

Even though the novel in question is the classic French one The Ladies’ Delight (Au Bonheur des Dames) written by Émile Zola, published in 1883 and set in Paris, I’m afraid that while I read it I kept hearing in my head Ronnie Hazelhurst’s theme song from Are You Being Served?  This was a simple but maddeningly relentless number wherein a lift-girl talks over the non-stop chiming and chattering of a cash register: “Ground floor, perfumery / Stationery and leather goods / Wigs and haberdashery / Kitchenware and food / Going uu-uup…!”  I’ve heard people claim that the Are You Being Served? theme invented rap music, but maybe that’s pushing it a bit.

 

Anyway, on a more serious note…  I admire Émile Zola because of his variety.  He didn’t confine himself to writing about one particular section of society but gave each of his novels a different and distinctive focus.  For example, Nana (1880) is set in Paris’s theatrical world while Germinal (1885) is set in a mining community in northern France.  The Beast in Man (1890) deals with workers on the French railways while The Debacle deals with soldiers fighting and civilians caught up in the Franco-Prussian War.  Thus, his body of work becomes a massive, fictionalised document of French life in the mid-to-late 19th century.

 

With The Ladies’ Delight, Zola turns his attention to retailing industry and the changes it was undergoing at that time.  He tells the story largely through the eyes of young woman, Denise Baudu, who arrives in Paris from the provinces in the 1860s and finds work as a saleswoman at a booming department store, the titular Au Bonheur des Dames.

 

Denise’s job at the store is troubled from the start.  By working there, she incurs the displeasure of her only Parisian relatives, her uncle Baudu and his family, whose little draper’s shop has the misfortune of being across the street from Au Bonheur des Dames and is quickly being put out of business by it.  She comes to the capital with her two younger brothers, teenaged Jean and little Pépé, and Jean – with an irresponsibility typical of many of Zola’s male characters – is soon sponging off her while she barely earns enough to keep Pépé fed, clothed and in school and keep herself alive.  In fact, she almost doesn’t get employed at Au Bonheur des Dames at all.  On the day she applies for a job, the general overseer Bourdoncle rejects her for being ‘too ugly’.  But he’s overruled by the store’s owner, Octave Mouret, who hires the rustic-looking and waif-like Denise on a whim.

 

Nor does Denise – gentle, principled and clean-living – prosper in the licentious and back-biting environment of Au Bonheur des Dames.  The intensity of her workmates’ carnal obsessions is matched only by their determination to shin their way up the promotional ladder, usually by plotting against and undermining whoever’s immediately above them.  She’s eventually dismissed and finds a new job with Robineau, a one-time buyer at the store who was himself elbowed out and has now taken over a shop selling silk garments.  But Robineau’s business is unable to compete against the remorselessly growing, evermore popular establishment he once worked for, and he’s soon forced to let Denise go.  However, she manages to get back onto Au Bonheur des Dames’ payroll and this time she gains the ear of her boss, Mouret.  Though she’s naïve, Denise has excellent common sense and an unerring instinct for knowing what the public wants.  The advice she gives Mouret about how best to treat his customers, and his employees, leads to her rapid promotion.  Meanwhile, the cynical, worldly-wise Mouret starts to find himself unaccountably attracted to her…

 

From wikipedia.org

 

As well as relating the ups and downs of Denise’s career in and outside Au Bonheur des Dames, Zola describes Mouret’s efforts to expand his business and reel in more customers.  His activities include becoming the beau of society widow Madame Desforges, in order to get access to the super-powerful Baron Hartmann, who’s another of Madame Desforges’ lovers.  (Well, these folks are French.)  If he can secure Hartmann’s financial and political backing, Mouret believes he can grow Au Bonheur des Dames until it encompasses an entire city block.  Mouret’s romancing of Madame Desforges, and the flirting and flattering he does with the wealthy ladies who make up her social circle, become a metaphor for the seduction of Paris’s female shoppers that his store is performing on a commercial level.

 

However, it’s the novel’s third strand that’s the most powerful.  This describes the impact that Au Bonheur des Dames has upon the traditional shopkeepers who specialise in one particular type of good and are unlucky enough to share a neighbourhood with it.  The store begins by ruining the drapers but, as it gets bigger and Mouret creates more departments and sells a wider range of products, it also threatens the local furriers, glovers, hatters and so on.  Mouret even encroaches on the business of an old man called Bourras who looks ‘like an Old Testament prophet’ and makes and sells umbrellas and walking sticks.  Bourras’s decrepit shop occupies a sliver of one of the street-fronts that Mouret is expanding his premises along.  The old man refuses to sell and move out, so that his shop ends up with Au Bonheur des Dames on either side of it and resembles a ‘wart’ in its grand façade.

 

Denise’s Uncle Baudu not only loses his draper’s business but also his daughter Geneviève to the store.  Geneviève’s fiancé abandons her after becoming infatuated with a coquettish salesgirl working across the street, and the broken-hearted Geneviève wastes away and dies.  Her funeral provides the novel with its most effective scene.  The mourners include all the shopkeepers who’ve had their trade pulverised by Au Bonheur des Dames and they’re obliged to follow the coffin past the building that’s the source of their misery.  Old Bourras laments, “Oh, we’re a pretty sight; a fine cortege of carcasses we make for the dear child!  It must be odd, for people watching this line of bankrupts going past.  And it seems that the clean-out is continuing.  The scoundrels are opening departments for flowers, for fashions, for perfumes, for shoes, and who knows what else?”

 

While Zola doesn’t hold back in depicting Au Bonheur des Dames as a rapacious monster, his imagination is clearly besotted with the place as well.  He devotes many pages to describing it.  It’s variously likened to ‘an awakening beehive’, ‘an enormous fairground display’, ‘a sumptuous pasha’s tent’, ‘a cathedral of modern trade, light yet solid, designed for a congregation of lady customers’, ‘a monumental gallery’, ‘an enormous carnival’, ‘a vast, many-coloured architectural pile with gold highlights’, ‘a boreal vista’, ‘a great love nest’, ‘a white chapel’ and ‘a dream heaven, a window into the dazzling whiteness of a paradise.’  Whenever you think Zola has finished writing about its appearance, he has Mouret give the premises another upgrade and off he goes on another flurry of description.

 

In my mind’s eye, I found myself embellishing the store’s architecture and décor with flourishes of Art Nouveau.  I visualised the building as resembling some grand project designed by an Art Nouveau artist like Alphonso Mucha, Koloman Moser or Eugène Grasset.  But that would be wrong, since the novel’s 1860s setting precedes the Art Nouveau movement by at least 20 years and those artists would have been youngsters at the time.

 

From alphonsemucha.org

 

The Ladies’ Delight isn’t one of Zola’s best books.  His lengthy descriptions become tiresome.  This is especially true towards the end, when the reader is impatient to see how the various plot strands will be resolved and when those descriptions just seem to get in the way.  Also an issue is the characterisation.  Denise seems too innocent to be true, especially when there’s such a rogue’s gallery of schemers, chancers and letches inhabiting the store around her.  Correspondingly, it seems unlikely that somebody like Mouret could fall for her, even briefly – let alone become obsessed with her, to the point where he loses interest in everything else, including his business, as he does later.  (Predictably, the virtuous Denise rebuffs all his advances, which only leaves him more smitten with her.)

 

Enterprises launched by characters in Zola’s books tend to overreach themselves and come crashing down, both small-scale ones like Gervaise’s laundry business in L’Assommoir (1877) and grand ones like the title character’s theatrical career in Nana.  But that doesn’t happen to Mouret’s store in The Ladies’ Delight.  It simply continues to grow – the cash-register from Ronnie Hazelhurst’s Are You Being Served? theme was clinking particularly loudly in my head during those scenes where Zola describes the cashiers struggling to count and gather up and lock away Mouret’s ever-swelling profits.  In the absence of Mouret getting his financial come-uppance, I suppose Zola felt obliged to give him a romantic come-uppance instead, which is where he deploys Denise.  But as a plot device it doesn’t feel plausible.

 

The Ladies’ Delight is effective, though, when it chronicles how the new store tramples all over the businesses of the old-style traders and leaves a trail of bankruptcies in its wake.  It’s ironic to reflect that in 2020 the same department store would probably be a much-loved historical landmark.  It’d be regarded as an important, if vulnerable, part of its city’s commercial heritage.  Fearful that modern online traders like Amazon might trample all over its business, citizens would be calling on the government to subsidise it and keep it propped up.

 

Yes, this youthful monster of 19th century capitalism would now be regarded as, potentially, an elderly victim of 21st century capitalism.  The French saying ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose‘ isn’t quite true.