The tragic, magic man

 

© Coronet Books

 

Continuing with the October / Halloween theme, here is a piece I first posted at the beginning of 2020 about a collection of spooky stories by the late, great Charles Beaumont.

 

Last year, while I was back visiting my family in Scotland, I happened to be hoking around in some boxes of books that belonged to me but that’d ended up gathering dust in a corner of my father’s attic.  Inside one of those boxes I discovered a very old paperback called The Magic Man, a collection of mostly fantasy, horror and science-fiction stories by the late American writer Charles Beaumont originally published in 1965.  Dimly, I recalled buying this for 25p, though the cover-price was a pre-decimalization 3/6, in a second-hand bookshop in the Lincolnshire town of Louth.  I worked in Louth for five months in 1983 as a volunteer classroom assistant and houseparent at a residential school for boys with severe behavioral issues – ‘maladjusted’ boys, as they were called in those unsympathetic and non-PC days.

 

I knew Beaumont’s name in 1983 because I’d seen it attached to several movies that’d had a big impact on me while I was growing up, such as The Seven Faces of Dr Lao and Masque of the Red Death (1964).  But after buying the book, I never got around to opening it and it ended up stashed away and unread among the hundreds, eventually thousands of other books I owned.

 

Anyway, 37 years later – this sentence makes me feel absolutely ancient – I’ve finally read the stories in The Magic Man.  The collection kicks off with an introduction by Beaumont’s friend and mentor Ray Bradbury, which while gracious in tone suggests that Bradbury was a hard taskmaster to have as your writing tutor.  He recalls telling the young Beaumont to write and submit one story every week: “He worked, I remember, part time at United Parcel Service, back in the early fifties, so as to spend the rest of his hours finishing that special story that must be sent off in the mail every Saturday.”  Intriguingly, Bradbury also mentions that Beaumont tried, “for years, to convince movie producers to make films out of the Ian Fleming books.”  Obviously, and sadly for Beaumont’s bank balance, someone else managed to convince Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman to make films out of them first.

 

With Bradbury as his guru, it’s no surprise that several stories in The Magic Man bear the imprint of Bradbury’s own fanciful, atmospheric and wistfully nostalgic writing.  The title story, about a stage magician who travels a circuit of small American prairie towns doing magic shows and who doesn’t appreciate the importance that his ‘magic’ holds for the prairie townspeople while they go about their otherwise humdrum existences, has echoes of Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It also evokes Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr Lao, which coincidentally Beaumont adapted for producer George Pal as the movie The Seven Faces of Dr Lao.  Also with a flavour of Bradbury-esque small-town America is The Hunger, although Beaumont’s tale of a lonely, frustrated spinster who feels a strange affinity for an escaped, murderous lunatic pushes the envelope further than the genteel Bradbury would have done.

 

Bradbury’s introduction notes too that Beaumont had a penchant for driving and “burning up the dirt on the nearest racetrack” and a couple of the stories reflect his love for automobiles.  A Classic Affair, about a worried woman asking a friend to follow her husband, whom she believes is in an adulterous relationship, takes a nice twist when the man discovers just what, as opposed to who, the husband is having an affair with, although the twist that follows on from that twist isn’t perhaps so surprising.  Meanwhile, the final story, A Death in the Country, convincingly details the desperate life of an aging and failing dirt-track car racer and is one of the collection’s few non-genre stories.

 

If Perchance to Dream, the story of a man with a heart condition who’s troubled by a recurrent dream where he’s lured onto a literally heart-stopping rollercoaster, sounds familiar, it’s because Beaumont adapted it into an episode of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  This was one of 22 episodes of that series that he scripted or co-scripted.  (Beaumont clearly had conflicted feelings about writing for cinema and television.  According to the cult New Wave sci-fi / fantasy author Harlan Ellison, Beaumont once told him that: “Attaining success in Hollywood is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop, in order to pick one perfect rose from the summit.  And you find when you’ve made that hideous climb… you’ve lost the sense of smell.”)

 

Another story that ended up as the basis for a TV episode is The New People, which became an instalment in the British anthology series Journey to the Unknown (1968-69), made by horror specialists Hammer Films in conjunction with 20th Century Fox.  Beaumont’s story features an enclave of successful professionals and their families living in a well-to-do American neighbourhood who, like the characters in Richard Yates’ novel Revolution Road (1961), are beneath the surface bored out of their wits with their situation.   But while Yates’ characters try to solve the problem of their ennui by contemplating a move to Paris, Beaumont’s characters decide to enliven things by participating in some dark activities indeed.  In the Journey to the Unknown episode, this sinister community is moved to the affluent Home Counties of England.  With a first-rate cast including Robert Reed, Adrienne Corri, Melissa Stribling, Milo O’Shea and a splendidly saturnine Patrick Allen, it’s fairly effective.  But the episode leaves out an important plot element involving the main characters’ sex lives (or lack of them) that gives the original story a satisfying and, with hindsight, logical twist ending.

 

The Magic Man has a couple of weaker entries, which tend to be science fictional.  The Last Caper suffers because it attempts to graft a Raymond Chandler / Philip Marlowe-type private-detective story onto a space-age setting, with characters speaking a futuristic version of Chandler’s famously hardboiled 1940s patois.  (“Don’t push it, rocket-jockey…”).  This sounds awfully dated now.  Similarly, The Monster Show has its characters speaking like futuristic beatniks and doesn’t fare any better.  (“It’s pictures that count.  Flap?”  “Nothing can go wrong.  Nothing-o.”)  It makes me wonder how dated the hip and cutting-edge, for the time, ‘cyberpunk’ sci-fi novels of the 1980s and 1990s will seem in a few decades’ time, if they don’t seem dated already.

 

That said, The Crooked Man, set in a future where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are a persecuted minority, is a fine example of a science-fiction story that highlights a contemporary injustice by pitching its readers into a world where the tables have been turned.  It was pretty bold of Playboy magazine to publish the story when it did, back in 1955.

 

A little too varied in quality, and with some stories that show their influences a little too much – the 1955 story The Murderers, though enjoyable, pinches the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and the 1929 play by John Hamilton on which it was based – The Magic Man isn’t wholly satisfying.  But it contains a lot of interesting and entertaining fiction and makes one wonder what spectacular things Beaumont might have gone on to write if he hadn’t died at the wastefully young age of 38.  Yes, Charles Beaumont was born, grew up, established himself as a writer and died in almost the same period of time that elapsed between my buying The Magic Man and my reading it.

 

The nature of his passing wasn’t pleasant.  He succumbed to a mystery illness, which his agent Forest J. Ackerman theorized was a combination of Alzheimer’s and Pick’s disease, whereby he suffered from headaches, reduced concentration, slurred speech, erratic behavior, weight loss and premature aging.  At the time of his death, one of Beaumont’s sons recalled, he “looked 95 and was, in fact, 95 by every calendar except the one on your watch.”

 

So, while the main character of the title story here styles himself as the Magic Man, I can’t help but think of the story’s author as the Tragic Man.

 

From twilightzone.fandom.com/wiki

Short, sharp shocks

 

© New English Library

 

We’re into October now, a month that ends with the scary festival of Halloween. In keeping with the spirit of the season, I thought I would repost on this blog a few old entries that have a macabre, and hence Halloween-y, theme.  I’ll start with this item, which I originally wrote in 2017.  It’s about my favourite volumes of short horror stories: books that deliver a series of short, sharp shocks. 

 

These are the ten collections of short horror stories that have had the biggest impact on me.  To keep this exercise manageable, I’ve limited it to collections written by a single author.  And the authors included are ones who are still alive or were alive when I started reading their work.  Hence, no Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft or Arthur Machen.

 

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

Patrick McGrath has spent his career writing fiction that shows his love for the gothic and grotesque but, in a rare display of broad-mindedness, critics have avoided pigeonholing him as a ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ writer and treated him as a serious mainstream-literary figure instead.  What a lucky man he is.  Blood and Water… showcases McGrath’s short fiction and features, among other things, a diseased angel (The Angel), a hand that starts growing out of an unexpected place (The Black Hand of the Raj), a community of anaemic vampires (Blood Disease) and, most surreally, a girl who discovers a jungle explorer camped in the bushes at the bottom of her suburban garden (The Lost Explorer).  Particularly vivid is The E(rot)ic Potato, a meditation on decay told by a fly.  And an even less likely narrator relates the events of The Boot’s Tale, an account of a nuclear holocaust that manages to be both horrible and funny.

 

© Penguin

 

The Bloody Chamber (1979) by Angela Carter

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

 

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

In the mid-1980s Clive Barker caused a sensation with the publication of his six Books of Blood, which are basically six volumes of short horror stories linked by a clever framing device.  Such was their impact that Stephen King dubbed Barker the Beatles of horror writing – whilst likening himself to horror’s slightly old-fashioned Elvis Presley.  To be honest, I found many stories in the later Books of Blood a tad pretentious; but Volume 1 is just about perfect in its blend of the funny, the profound and the hideously, graphically bloody.  Humour comes courtesy of the demonic-haunting spoof The Yattering and Jack and the charming supernatural-theatre story Sex, Death and Starshine (no doubt drawing on Barker’s experiences running the Dog Company theatrical troupe in late 1970s and early 1980s).  Profundity is supplied by In the Hills, the Cities, which takes place in the then-Yugoslavia and spookily prefigures the Balkans conflicts of the 1990s.  And for sheer, gross horribleness you can’t beat The Midnight Meat Train or Pig Blood Blues, the latter being one of my candidates for the title of Scariest Story Ever.

 

© Sphere

 

Dark Companions (1982) by Ramsey Campbell

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

 

Night Shift (1978) by Stephen King

I can’t not include Night Shift here.  In my boyhood I’d go to scout summer-camps in the countryside near the Scottish town of Hawick.  During one camp I spent three days stuck almost permanently inside a tent because the Scottish weather was doing its normal thing and pissing non-stop with rain.  Luckily, in a Hawick bookshop beforehand, I’d bought a copy of Night Shift, a 1978 volume of Stephen King’s short stories, and to keep boredom at bay, I read that during the three days.  It made a big impression.  King has produced slicker collections of short stories since, but the unpleasant things inhabiting the tales in Night Shift have stayed with me for 40 years.  A huge demonically-possessed laundry machine that rumbles into malevolent life (The Mangler)…  Giant mutant rats lurking in the basement of a factory (The Graveyard Shift)…  A man slowly transforming into a monstrous flesh-eating slug (Grey Matter)…  A Mafia-type organisation that helps you give up smoking by threatening to torture and kill your family every time you puff a new cigarette (Quitters Inc)…  No, Night Shift isn’t subtle, but it certainly scared the bejesus out of me when I was a thirteen-year-old boy scout.

 

© Panther

 

The October Country (1955) by Ray Bradbury

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

 

Shatterday (1980) by Harlan Ellison

Remarkably, the science fiction / fantasy writer Harlan Ellison managed to win fame by largely eschewing novels and writing masses of short stories instead.  Well, fame in the USA at least.  His name was little-known and his work hard to come by in Britain.  Among many collections, Shatterday is possibly his best.  Particularly memorable is the melancholy Jeffty is Five, about a little boy who refuses to grow up; The Man Who was Heavily into Revenge, about a schmuck who haplessly wrongs another person and then, inexplicably, finds the whole world venting its wrath upon him; Count the Clock That Tells the Time, a cautionary tale about the consequences of doing nothing meaningful with your life and frittering it away; and the unsettling title story, about a man who phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself, or more precisely, to a sinister alter-ego who’s planning to usurp him from his own existence.

 

© Penguin

 

Swamp Foetus (1993) by Poppy Z. Brite

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

 

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

Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes is much underrated.  Her stories, often set in the dour, oppressive society of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Scotland, when the Presbyterian Church still had undue influence, are impressively disturbing in their quiet way.  Perhaps most disturbing is The Peculiar Case of Mrs Grimmond, about an old woman who takes pity on a strange, unidentified little animal that her cat drags into the house one day and, while she looks after and nurtures it, incurs the wrath of the community around her.  Haynes also tackles myth and legend.  Her very Scottish takes on such fabled creatures as banshees (The Bean-Nighe), fairies (Paying Guests) and changelings (The Changeling) are satisfyingly grim and creepy.

 

© Black and White Publishing

 

The Wine-Dark Sea (1988) by Robert Aickman

I’ve written about Robert Aickman before on this blog, so I will just say here that this, for me, is his finest collection of stories.  There’s one stinker among its contents, the supposedly satirical Growing Boys, which is an unwelcome reminder that, first-rate writer though he was, Aickman was also a grumpy, reactionary, modernity-hating conservative.  However, everything else is excellent, if frequently challenging and baffling.  The Inner Room is a phantasmagorical story about a weird doll’s house.  Never Visit Venice pokes fun at the modern phenomenon of mass tourism with its an account of an unwary visitor to the title city taking a ride on a gondola from hell.  And Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, about an unsociable man becoming addicted to a telephone, through which he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not exist, shows Aickman’s unease about the loss of face-to-face interaction that new communications technology was causing – the story was written in 1953.  Maybe it’s just as well Aickman passed away in 1982.  He’d have really hated our era of smartphones and social media.

 

© Faber & Faber

Rab Foster gets theatrical

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

I’m pleased to announce that my 13,000-word story The Theatregoers has been published in the July 2021 edition of the webzine AphelionThe Theatregoers is a sword-and-sorcery story in, I hope, the tradition of such revered pulp writers as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and C.L. Moore and, as usual with my fantasy fiction, I have published it under the pen-name Rab Foster.

 

On this blog I’m not normally presumptuous enough to offer other writers, or aspiring writers, advice on how they should go about creating stories.  On this occasion, though, I’ll suggest two strategies that helped me to put The Theatregoers together.

 

Firstly, when you have an idea for a story, get that idea written down as quickly as you can before it flits from your memory again.  (At my age, things flit from my memory with terrifying speed.)  I have a 17-page-long document on my computer hard drive containing more than 400 ideas I’ve had for stories over the years and I’m constantly adding to it.

 

Admittedly, many of those ideas will probably never see the light of day as stories and, to be honest, looking at some of the ideas I wrote down long ago thinking they were bolts of divine genius, I don’t think the world will be missing anything if they don’t.  I doubt if anyone really wants to read a story about the notoriously bad Dundonian poet William McGonagall building a time machine in order to travel back in time to prevent the Tay Bridge Disaster from happening; or about a Sri Lankan tuk-tuk driver who’s secretly a superhero; or about ‘a fashion show for serial killers’, where the dresses have been fashioned out of…  Well, you can probably guess what they’re made of.

 

The other writing strategy I’d suggest is to keep reviewing your list of ideas and particularly think about how two or more ideas can be incorporated into one story.  In other words, don’t see each idea as a single seed from which a single story is grown.  Many times, I’ve had an idea that’s looked good on paper but that has resolutely refused to develop into a story – until it’s occurred to me to try splicing it together with another, seemingly totally different idea elsewhere on the list.

 

In fact, with The Theatregoers, I ended up throwing no fewer than four disparate ideas from my 17-page list into the creative blender.  I’d always wanted to write: (1) a story set in an abandoned city out in the middle of some inhospitable desert (similar to the setting of the 1921 H.P. Lovecraft story The Nameless City); (2) a story set in a theatre, where the characters would have adventures falling through trapdoors, scrabbling down stage curtains, flying about on wires above the stage, running through storerooms full of assorted props, and so on; (3) a story about vampire-like creatures that don’t drain their victims of blood but of moisture; and (4) a story about a tattooed person whose tattoos aren’t as inanimate as you’d expect, reminiscent of the title character in the classic Ray Bradbury collection The Illustrated Man (1951).  Somehow, I came up with a single, hopefully coherent narrative.

 

© Panther Books

 

For the next few weeks, the main page of the July 2021 edition of Aphelion can be accessed here, while The Theatregoers itself can be accessed here.

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

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.