A wide open space odyssey

 

© Pan Books

 

So it’s farewell to the author Larry McMurtry, who passed away on March 25th at the age of 84.  Here’s what I wrote on this blog about Mr McMurtry’s most famous opus after I finished reading it early last year.

 

The cowboy-herding, dust-churning, all-mooing-and-lowing cattle drive may not be the biggest trope in the western genre.  That accolade probably belongs to the High Noon-style showdown.  But it’s surely a major one.

 

Most famously, a cattle drive figured in the classic 1948 Howard Hawks / John Wayne western movie Red River and as late as 1972 Wayne was still herding cattle across the prairies in Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys.  Elsewhere, cattle drives have been the basis for eight seasons of the western TV series Rawhide (1959-65), been subjected to revisionism in the raw-edged film The Culpepper Cattle Co (1972), been lovingly parodied in the Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers (1991) and even been reimagined in a bucolic British setting in Richard Eyre’s Singleton’s Pluck (1984).  That last movie, written by Brian Glover and starring Ian Holm, told the tale of a poultry farmer who’s forced by a transport workers’ strike to walk his thousands of geese to market, all the way from Norfolk to London.

 

However, the above cattle drives last within the timeframes of films or TV episodes and take up no more than a couple of hours of your time.  By the time you get through the 843 pages of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove (1985), you almost feel you’ve taken part in a cattle drive.  I started reading it at the beginning of 2020 and by the time I’d finished it the most of three weeks later, I felt mentally as saddle-sore as its characters felt physically after riding from the parched plains of southern Texas to the wintry uplands of Montana.  Though, like those characters when they arrived in Montana, the feeling was accompanied by a buzz of fulfilment and satisfaction too.

 

To be fair, the cattle drive in Lonesome Dove doesn’t take all of 843 pages.  There’s a leisurely preamble whereby McMurtry sets up his characters and prepares them, and the reader, for the odyssey ahead.  The characters belong to the Hat Creek Cattle Company, based at the south Texan town of the title, Lonesome Dove.  The company’s proprietors are two former Texas Rangers, the garrulous, witty, warm-hearted and philosophical Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae and the stiff, unsociable, emotionally repressed and work-driven W. F. Call.  Gus reminds Call early on: “You was born in Scotland…  I know they brought you over when you was still draggin’ on the tit, but that don’t make you no less a Scot.”  Obviously, Call never recovered from his early exposure to Calvinism.

 

One day, a familiar face appears on their property.  This is Jake Spoon, another ex-ranger and an old friend of theirs but someone who makes a living by gambling rather than cattle-dealing.  It transpires that the charming but unprincipled and fickle Jake is on the run because he accidentally killed a man after a card game turned ugly in the Arkansas town of Fort Smith.  The victim managed to be the town’s dentist, and the town’s mayor, and the brother of the town’s sheriff, July Johnson.  Also, Jake brings with him stories about the opportunities offered by the newly opened-up, barely explored and still unpopulated territory of Montana.  This prompts Call to gather together the company’s livestock, employees and physical possessions, such as they are, and abandon Lonesome Dove and embark on an epic journey north.  The hope is that their business will prosper on Montana’s seemingly limitless grazing lands.

 

To bolster their supplies of cattle and horses before they leave, Call and Gus embark on a raid across the border and steal some herds from a wealthy Mexican rancher called Pedro Flores.  They do this without any moral qualms, since the unscrupulous Flores does the same thing regularly in the other direction, from Mexico into Texas.

 

Also, they increase their crew by hiring for the drive a motley collection of cowpokes, misfits and youngsters.  Jake tags along too, taking with him a young prostitute called Lorena from Lonesome Dove’s saloon, who’s fallen, temporarily at least, for his oily charms.  But the workshy Jake keeps his distance from the Hat Creek gang and sets up a private camp for himself and Lorena.  They quickly lose their enthusiasm for camping and the outdoors as it becomes apparent that pampered, saloon-loving cardsharp Jake is no Bear Grylls.

 

And so our heroes hit the trail.  There follow hundreds of pages featuring sandstorms, thunderstorms, blizzards, hazardous river crossings, run-ins with bad ’uns and encounters with unfriendly wildlife such as locusts, snakes and bears.  Other characters appear, including Sheriff July Johnson and his hapless deputy Roscoe, rival cattle baron Mr Wilbarger, murderous renegade Indian Blue Duck, the no-better trio of white outlaws the Suggs Brother, and feisty Clara Allen, once courted in her youth by both Gus and Jake.  Clara now runs a horse ranch in Nebraska and Gus, still carrying a torch for her, intends to visit her during the drive.  Larry McMurtry sub-plots furiously, with characters constantly hiving off from the drive or running into it.  His characters encounter one another, part company with one another, are reunited with one another and, occasionally, kill one another.

 

One thing that’s striking about Lonesome Dove is the underlying randomness and arbitrariness of it all.  Big events happen but often the reasons causing them to happen are fleeting whims, snap decisions or simple happenstance.  The pragmatic and unimaginative Call isn’t normally taken in by Jake’s bullshit but, somehow, he falls for his tales about Montana, with the result that the Hat Creek Cattle Company uproots itself and goes.  The bemused Gus tells him, “I hope it makes you happy…  Driving these skinny cattle all that way is a funny way to maintain an interest in life, if you ask me.”  Elsewhere, July Johnson didn’t particularly like his dead dentist / mayor brother (“Once when he had pulled a bad tooth of July’s he had charged the full fee”) and regards his death as an accident, but is bullied into going after Jake by his widowed sister-in-law.

 

What sets all these things in motion is the fact that in the Fort Smith saloon where Jake got himself into trouble, someone unwisely left a loaded shotgun propped against the wrong part of the wall.  If this was how the West was won, Lonesome Dove suggests, it was by accident rather than design.

 

Similarly, the subplots often don’t resolve themselves in the way you expect, or don’t resolve themselves at all.  The long-awaited showdown between Jake and July, for example, never happens because both characters get distracted by other events – Jake falling in with the Suggs brothers and soon being party to worse things than the accidental shooting of a dentist, and July learning that his dissatisfied wife has taken advantage of his absence to run away from Fort Smith and setting off in pursuit of her instead.  And the expected subplot whereby the vengeful Pedro Flores pursues the Hat Creek Cattle Company to get his animals back never materialises for, soon afterwards, Call and Gus receive word that Flores has suddenly died.  (“I never expected that…”  “I never either, but then I don’t know why not.  Mexicans don’t have no special dispensation.  They die like the rest of us.”)

 

Meanwhile, the mid-point of the book is shocking for how the plot-threads of three characters, in whom the reader has invested a lot of time and sympathy, are abruptly terminated.  I’d like to think McMurtry did this for dramatic effect, though I suspect he just realised his plotting was becoming too tangled and he needed to prune it.

 

©Picador

 

Talking of being shocking, there are times, especially when Blue Duck and the Suggs Brothers are centre-stage, when Lonesome Dove veers off into the gruelling, blood-soaked territory inhabited by another famous western novel that appeared in 1985, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.  However, despite its occasional darkness, Lonesome Dove contains much more humanity, warmth and optimism than McCarthy’s nihilistic gorefest / prose-poem.

 

It also isn’t afraid to evoke the conventions that were staples of the westerns of yore and I wonder how a young 21st century readership would react to some of those conventions today.  The western was traditionally a genre where ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ and it paid little attention to feminist sensibilities.  Accordingly, some may find the character of Lorena problematic, since she starts the novel as a hard-assed grifter but steadily becomes more dependent on the men around her.  First, she falls for Jake, and then she falls for Gus, who rescues her after she’s been abducted by Blue Duck.  That said, the rancher Clara Allen is one of the toughest and wisest characters in the book.  Near the end, she gets a chance to speak her mind to Call, somebody she’s always had a low opinion of: “You men and your promises: they’re just excuses to do what you plan to do anyway, which is leave.  You think you’ve always done right – that’s your ugly pride, Mr Call…  You’re a vain coward, for all your fighting.  I despised you then for what you were, and I despise you now, for what you’re becoming.”

 

Another old Western convention that’s less palatable nowadays is that of having native Americans as the bad guys.  And in Lonesome Dove, Blue Duck and his henchmen are particularly and memorably vile.  But in McMurtry’s defence, I’d argue that more often the natives featured in the novel are impoverished, pitiful and dispossessed due to the remorseless encroachment of the White Man.  At one point, for instance, Call donates a few of the company’s steers to a band of starving Wichita tribespeople.  It’s insinuated that if people are treated cruelly, some at least will come to behave cruelly too.  Interestingly, Clara shows no concern about a Sioux chief called Red Cloud who’s on the warpath in her neighbourhood because, she explains to July, her late husband behaved honourably to Red Cloud and his people once.  “I know Red Cloud…  Bob was good to him.  They lived on our horses that hard winter we had four years ago – they couldn’t find buffalo…  Bob treated them fair and we’ve never had to fear them.”

 

Also, though Call and Gus’s earlier line of work as rangers frequently involved them killing native Americans who violently objected to the US government’s policies towards them, Gus at least questions the wisdom of what they did.  This is especially so now that the White Man’s ‘civilisation’ – as epitomised by ‘the bankers’ – is moving in and taking over.  “Does it ever occur to you that everything we done was probably a mistake…?” he asks Call.  “Me and you done our work too well.  We killed off most of the people that made this country interesting to begin with.”

 

Later, he speculates that a time will come when the bankers will need to kill the likes of him off too.  Which, in a roundabout way, makes this densely plotted and ruggedly entertaining novel a forerunner to David Mackenzie’s excellent modern-day western movie about cowboys versus bankers, 2016’s Hell or High Water.

 

From facebook.com

The big Gray man

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Today, January 25th, 2021, has been designated ‘Gray Day’ on Scottish social media in honour of the celebrated Glaswegian polymath Alasdair Gray, who died in December 2019.  As my way of marking the occasion, here’s a reposting of a blog entry I wrote shortly after the great man’s death.

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away on December 29th, 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer any new insights on the man or his works.  But he was a huge influence on me, so I’m going to give my tuppence-worth anyway.

 

In 1980s Scotland, to a youth like myself, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use to describe Gray as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s sci-fi ‘B’ movie.  He once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Iain Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) explaining to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and finished my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young, doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and I similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as reminiscent of the great Bohemian writer.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism.  Fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a devolved Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister.  During this reign, Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Iain Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

© Canongate

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off, including Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark but was less enthusiastic about Janine.  However, it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did with his creature.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows a highly entertaining mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads because Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as a witless fantasy and portrays herself not as Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke of male attitudes towards women, especially insecure Scottish ones that are partly possessive and partly, madly over-romanticised.

 

© Canongate

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious, and they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then on his way down in London, but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is really a series of connected short stories and again features much sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990, something he regarded as a huge, missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find the quality of his short fiction variable, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was also an artist meant that his books, with their handsome covers and finely detailed illustrations, made decorous additions to anyone’s bookcases.  The illustration by Gray I like best is probably the one he provided for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised, with their back-cover blurbs, review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I went there with my brother a few years ago to attend a Bob Mould gig, I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer… and forgot to look upwards.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking with huge animation to a group of friends and admirers.  I was, however, too shy to go over and introduce myself.

 

One writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, it was probably the favourable comparison to Gray that prompted Banks to take me on a session.

 

From austinkleon.com 

Zee-lanka

 

© Navin Weeraratne

 

In the old days, ‘overkill’ was a necessary, even a desirable component of a zombie-holocaust story.  There had to be a large and increasing amount of killing.  This would ensure there was a large and increasing number of dead people, who would then come back to life as zombies.  In turn, this would  ensure there was a large and increasing number of zombies posing a large and increasing threat to the small and decreasing number of human beings who were battling to survive.

 

Unfortunately, as far as zombies are concerned, ‘overkill’ has now taken on a different meaning.  These days there’s just too many movies, TV shows, books, graphic novels, comics and computer games featuring the bloody things.

 

They’re everywhere.  In the movie world alone, they’re in mega-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters, like 2013’s World War Z, and in low-budget rubbish, like last year’s ultra-opportunistic Corona Zombies.  They’re in Scottish movies, like 2008’s The Dead Outside.  They’re in high-school movies, like 2012’s Detention of the Dead.  They’re in musicals, like 2018’s Z-O-M-B-I-E-S.  They’re in Christmas movies, like 2012‘s Christmas with the Dead.  Why, they’re even in Scottish / high-school / musical / Christmas movies like 2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse.

 

Today, in other words, zombies are ubiquitous.  And they’re predictable.  And dare I say it, they’re boring.

 

But having got all that off my chest, I have to admit I enjoyed Navin Weeraratne’s 2018 novel Zeelam, which is about modern-day Sri Lanka suffering its own zombie apocalypse.  The expected story-elements are all present and correct – bites, infections, ‘conjunctivitis-red eyes’, mayhem and lots of blood, gore and grue – but the book is helped by having a strong dose of social commentary too.

 

And social commentary is something I believe all good zombie stories should have.  For example, the first three zombie movies made by George A. Romero, the visionary filmmaker who created the template for zombie holocausts, commented on the civil rights movement and Vietnam War (in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), mindless consumerism (in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead) and the stupidity of the military (in 1986’s Day of the Dead).  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflected a modern Britain where anger was an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ had entered the popular vocabulary, while its sequel, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007), was an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq.  And Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirised a twenty-something slacker generation who couldn’t tell if someone was a zombie or just pissed, hungover or stoned.  Carrying on the tradition, Zeelam takes multiple swipes at the institutional and societal shortcomings of modern Sri Lanka.  But more about that in a minute.

 

Zeelam has two main characters.  One is Ruven Daniels, a member of a military response team whom we first see being sent to deal with an incident at Colombo’s posh Hilton Hotel. There, zombies – ‘zees’ as they’ve become known in Sri Lankan parlance – have suddenly appeared during a children’s birthday party attended by rich ‘Colombo 7’ housewives and their pampered offspring.  The ensuing carnage takes place under a PA system blasting out Bryan Adams’ The Summer of 69.  (“I love this song!” enthuses one of Ruven’s comrades.)  The other is Dinuka Fernando, a woman working for an NGO trying to prevent the zombie infections, which are caused by a virus being spread by mosquitoes.  Dinuka is a kick-ass character who goes about her duties armed with a Japanese katana.  Unsurprisingly, that katana is deployed with increasing frequency as the novel approaches its climax.

 

The zombies in Zeelam aren’t the dead-come-back-to-life ones portrayed in Romero’s films.  They’re more in the style of 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, people infected by a virus that sends them into a terrifying, murderous, red-eyed frenzy.  Weeraratne has his characters hypothesise that the virus was present in Sri Lanka for decades already in a less aggressive form.  Originally, it manifested itself in the country’s high levels of domestic violence, which didn’t receive much coverage because attentions were focused on the Sri Lankan Civil War from 1983 to 2009 – which itself became an outlet for the violence caused by the virus.  But now it’s mutated into something more devastating and its effects can no longer be concealed behind the walls of peoples’ homes or camouflaged by the mayhem of the battlefield.

 

Thus, though Weeraratne’s zombie scenario is imaginary, the context that gave rise to it isn’t.  Indeed, the text is peppered with superscript numbers that refer the reader to a lengthy appendix of endnotes.  Here, Weeraratne provides links to real-life studies, reports and news items about Sri Lanka and its relationship with violence, showing that he’s grounded his ideas in depressing reality.

 

Zeelam is also interesting because the virus is shown to create different types of infections.  These range from fully fledged, ‘berserker’ zombies to asymptomatic people who merely carry the virus around in them.  Most intriguingly, there’s a category called ‘sleepers’, who only show their zombie tendencies at night and are perfectly human-like during the day.  Indeed, among the book’s supporting cast is a character, a government inspector called Siripala Fonesaka, who spends his days desperately trying to cover up the monstrous things he’s done at night.

 

This diversity makes the threat posed by the zombies more hydra-like and difficult to deal with.  Also, it helps Zeelam to dodge the criticism I made at the start of this entry, that zombie stories have become too dull and predictable.  However, I have to say the pedant in me wished Weeraratne had explained these variations in the virus’s effects with the same scientific rigour with which he described the virus’s origins.  How, for example, does sunlight temporarily neutralise the virus in the sleepers?

 

As I’ve said, just as George A. Romero’s zombie movies highlighted the shortcomings of American society, and just as Danny Boyle painted an unflattering portrait of modern-day Britain in 28 Days Later, so Weeraratne spends much of Zeelam taking potshots at the frustrations and annoyances of 21st century Sri Lanka.  These include venal and corrupt politicians – the outbreak at the Hilton Hotel in the novel’s opening pages is the consequence of a seedy MP booking in there with a prostitute – and bungling, incalcitrant bureaucrats, and elements of the armed forces who in their minds have never stopped fighting the Civil War and pose as a big a threat to the public as the zombies do.

 

Then there’s the country’s class system.  Weeraratne doesn’t show the people at the top of the pile in a particularly sympathetic light.  When Ruven’s men cordon off a neighbourhood where an outbreak is in progress, one privileged young asshole rolls up in a fancy car and demands to be allowed to drive through because his father is ‘a judge’.  In a corresponding endnote, Weeraratne describes how he once heard someone say the exact same thing when people objected to him parking on a double-yellow line in Havelock Town.

 

Later, an alumnus of one of Colombo’s prestigious private schools, and thus an entitled member of the city’s ‘old-school-tie’ network, meets a humiliating end at the blade of Dinuka’s katana.  Described by Weeraratne with obvious relish, his death involves, shall we say, the relaxation of sphincter muscles.  This amused me because in the real world the school in question is at the top of my street.

 

114 pages long, Zeelam is a slim volume, and its impact is slightly lessened by a number of typos.  You sometimes wonder what was distracting the proof-reader from their duties — were they struggling against an encroaching zombie infection at the time?  But as an enjoyably gory piece of entertainment that doesn’t pull its satirical punches, it’s still pretty tasty.

 

From facebook.com

From sci-fi to Sri-fi

 

© yudhanjaya.com 

 

During the half-dozen years I’ve lived in Sri Lanka, I’ve read a  fair number of novels and short story collections by local writers, including works by Martin Wickramasinghe, Romesh Gunesekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Carl Muller, Ashok Ferrey, Ameena Hussein and Michael Ondaatje.  The latter is probably the best known internationally, though ironically for a novel that doesn’t have much to do with Sri Lanka.  Their output is what snobby literary critics would describe as ‘mainstream’ literature.  I’ve seen none of them associated with ‘genre’ fiction, although Muller’s work contains a lot of humour and labelling it ‘comedy’ certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

 

On the other hand, I didn’t expect to encounter anything in the past six years that could be classified as ‘Sri Lankan science fiction.’  But, to my surprise, I have.  Romesh Gunesekera’s 2002 novel Heaven’s Edge is set in a surreal future Sri Lanka where the Civil War hasn’t ended but gone on and on, with the country becoming increasingly authoritarian and its environment increasingly despoiled.  An uneasy mixture of dystopian fiction, allegory and magical realism, with flashes of J.G. Ballard and William Gibson, I have to say I find Heaven’s Edge the least impressive of Gunesekera’s books that I’ve read.

 

Better is the 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke.  Although Clark was in many ways a very English Englishman, Fountains is for me a very Sri Lankan book.  Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka for decades by the time it was published and the fictional island the story takes place on, Taprobane, is simply Sri Lanka with a few tweaks, for example, with Sigiriya Rock and Adam’s Peak being near neighbours when in the real Sri Lanka they’re 175 kilometres apart.  Set mostly in the 22nd century, though with some bold flashbacks to 2000 years earlier in Taprobane / Sri Lanka’s history, Fountains is about the construction of a giant ‘space elevator’ linking the earth’s surface with a space station in geosynchronous orbit.  Geographical factors necessitate the elevator being built from a mountaintop in Taprobane / Sri Lanka, which coincidentally happens to be the island’s most sacred location.  The book meditates on the conflict between preserving heritage and culture and pushing on with scientific and technological progress, with Clarke treating both causes sympathetically even if it’s obvious which one will ultimately prevail.

 

Now, I’ve discovered the 28-year-old Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and recently read two of his novels, Numbercaste (2017) and The Inhuman Race (2019).  While neither book is entirely to my pernickety tastes, I’d say they make a good case for Wijeratne being hailed as the potential future of Sri Lankan science fiction.

 

On his website Wijeratne identifies himself as a member of a ‘Data, Algorithms and Policy’ team working for a thinktank called LIRNEasia.  This background obviously helped shape Numbercaste.  Its narrator, Patrick Udo, is recruited by a tech company called NumberCorp in the 2030s and gets involved in a project with revolutionary consequences for humanity.  Its purpose is to collate every human being’s data – salary, bank balance, credit card rating, police record, social media profile and a thousand things more – and distil it into a single score, an all-important ‘number’ that determines the social and professional options open to him or her.  As Udo says near the book’s end, “Every morning I’d check Number News on my phone.  Tap, tap.  There, just above the news and the social gossip and the who-checked-in-wheres, was my score.  My score was critical.  It got me the best tables at restaurants I went to, all simple but pricy affairs.  It got me into the VIP section of any club where I wanted to party.  It got me first class tickets on the airplanes.”

 

A person’s number isn’t immutable.  It can rise or fall.  As Julius Common, NumberCorp’s visionary founder and leader, argues, this makes it a positive force because it rewards good behaviour and punishes bad.  For example, police officers who blot their records with corruption or brutality will see their numbers drop below the threshold required for them to remain employed.  Thus, they’ll be replaced by less crooked cops with better numbers.  That, of course, is Common’s spin on the system and the question throughout the book is if it’ll actually become a tool of oppression, locking everyone into their own social and professional cells on different tiers of society and keeping everyone in line with the threat of demotion to lower tiers if they don’t obey orders.  Will Common and NumberCorp lead the world to utopia or dystopia?  In the book’s afterword, Wijeratne notes that China has tried doing something like this in real life with its social credit project.

 

Much of Numbercaste details Udo’s Boswell / Dr Johnson-like relationship with Common.  This relationship sees Udo play the role of humble employee, then trusted lieutenant and finally fallen-from-favour outcast.  Although it’s largely set in California, a culture where the names Zuckerberg, Musk, Gates and Bezos are intoned as if they’re ancient but all-powerful deities, Sri Lanka makes an appearance along the way as an early test lab for Common and his scoring system: “We need a sort of guinea pig to test this stuff.  A small population that we can monitor and test and retest the bulk of our SEA algorithms on… This place is perfect…  Highly connected, almost everyone’s online, and the government will let us do whatever the hell we want as long as their ministers are happy.”

 

© Harper Collins

 

As I’m a relative luddite with information technology, and an avoider of most social media, Numbercaste isn’t a book that automatically appeals to me.  Also, I suspect more could have been done to humanise Common whilst chronicling his inexorable rise.  Perhaps he could have been given some Citizen Kane-style foibles that taint his success with bitter unhappiness.  Nonetheless, a lot of Numbercaste impressed me and Wijeratne’s prose style is spot on.  It provides just enough detail to give a firm sense of time and place, but never overdoes it and doesn’t get in the way of the fast-moving narrative.

 

Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world have made a lot of science fiction published before 2020 but set a short time after it seem dated.  In the real future, people in 2025, 2030 or 2035 will presumably talk about the 2020 pandemic in the way that we still talk about 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis now.  In the near-futures of pre-2020 science fiction, the characters aren’t talking about it because the writers had no idea it was going to happen.  The 2017-published Numbercaste gets around this credibility problem by accident rather than design.  It alludes to something called ‘the TRS-8I superbug’, which ‘hit Asia hardest’ and ‘had done in millions of people’.  Among its victims were ten million Sri Lankans, who presumably perished from it sometime in the 2020s.  So that’s why nobody mentions Covid-19 in Numbercaste.  The TRS-8I pandemic was so traumatic that it erased the earlier virus from the collective memory.

 

The Inhuman Race, meanwhile, takes place in an alternative universe, in a version of Sri Lanka in 2033 where, to quote the book’s back-cover blurb, “The British Empire never fell.  Communism never happened.  The flag of the Commonwealth still flies over its colonies, which lie stripped bare in the name of British interests, powerless to resist.”  The story begins with gangs of feral children scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of the Colombo seafront.  This is a legacy of the Chinese Emperor deciding to give the British a bloody nose: “having won the might of a united China,” he “brooded over his navy from his darkened throne-room.  The white devils that flew the Union Jack ruled too much of the ocean for his liking.  Dimly, he remembered Fa-Xian’s accounts of Ceylon, the Buddha’s blessed island…  And thus the British Empire’s first direct contact with China in two hundred years was when the Chinese warships pulled into Colombo port and began their assault.”  In the ensuing carnage, Colombo’s ‘Galle Face Green became Galle Face Brown.’

 

While the novel’s first part offers some good post-apocalyptic fun, with the different gangs using as their headquarters the shells of the different luxury hotels that used to do business along Galle Face, such as the Shangri La, the Taj and the Cinnamon Grand, and with a gigantic mountain range of garbage separating the city’s devasted seaboard from its more habitable parts inland, I enjoyed the later chapters more.  Here, the action switches to the island’s still-intact administrative centre, the mountain city of Kandy.  At the same time, the book’s main theme emerges, which is about how much robots built to emulate living beings should be regarded as living beings themselves.  This is hardly a ground-breaking theme in science fiction – though you might think it is if your name is Ian McEwan.  But Wijeratne explores it well, through the eyes of a sympathetic character called Dr Kushlani de Alemeida.  She’s an employee of a company manufacturing and using robots for dubious entertainment purposes.  Though these products look ‘a lot like what God would have made the humans to look like had he been limited to metal and cheap plastic’, Alemeida uncovers evidence that they’re more sentient than anyone had imagined.

 

What I really like about the book’s Kandy sequences are the glimpses it gives of Sri Lankan society in this weird, alternative-universe scenario where the British Empire is still a thing.  Order is maintained by ‘British’ soldiers, actually Indians and Gurkas, and by a fearsome outfit called the Inquisition that consist of ‘hooded monk-like figures’, from whom ‘a pale face with ruby lenses for eyes’ occasionally appears.  The economy has been portioned off to the control of several rich houses, the Ratwatte, Madugalle, Rambukpotha and Bandaras.  The judiciary is staffed by Buddhist monks, which leads to some interesting debate when Alemeida tries to convince a court that the robots should be treated like living creatures.  The British themselves, apart from a mention of a Governor, are invisible – though evidently creaming off the country’s wealth at the top.

 

In this way, The Inhuman Race reminds me of certain works of Sri Lankan literature set when the country was under British rule, like Martin Wickramasinghe’s Ape Game (1940) and Madol Doova (1947) or Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913).  (Okay, Village wasn’t penned by a Sri Lankan but by an Englishman, Virginia Woolf’s husband no less, while he worked for the Ceylon Civil Service.  But it was written from a native’s point of view, not from a colonialist’s.)  In those books too, the British are barely around.  The administrative machinery they’ve set up is run by the locals, which gives a semblance of Sri Lankan autonomy.  But again, up above, the Brits are discretely pocketing the profits.

 

One small but nice touch in The Inhuman Race’s is when a character refers to the words of ‘the great Pratchett’: “There is no justice… there is just us.”  So not only has Terry Pratchett churned out Discworld novels in this alternative universe too, but he’s even more revered than he is in our one.

 

I was slightly frustrated that The Inhuman Race didn’t show more of its future-imperialist / Buddhist society or, indeed, of the secretive Chinese Empire that pulverised Colombo at the novel’s start.  But The Inhuman Race is supposedly the first part of a trilogy, so hopefully Yudhanjaya Wijeratne will supply more details in the instalments to come.

 

© Harper Collins

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