So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
When William Came by Saki (H H Munro) is a complicated novel. On the face of it, it’s a straight propagandist story at the peak of the anti-German pre-First World War war fever craze, to warn the British to start preparing for war and get the young men into the army as soon as possible. Underneath that, it’s a classic Saki story. It’s witty and sly about glossy boys who prey on middle-aged Edwardian matrons, who know perfectly well what they’re doing, and understand the duplicity of their upper-class society. At an unexpected third level, it’s a rather strongly-felt hymn to the English countryside, English values and the tragedy of not being able to live in England. And I say ‘England’ deliberately: this novel is about England, not Britain. And, finally, it’s a strangely subtle fantasy about the grafting of European values and culture onto London society, which has the surprising effect of letting us see what Saki thinks about the rest of Europe, about Germans, Italians, Jews and all. I’m going to try to avoid the word ‘offensive’ because one person’s outrage can be another person’s delighted amusement, especially in fiction from a historical period that we don’t live in.
When William Came isn’t at all a black and white, easily polarised narrative. This is what makes it probably the best of the war fever novels, because it is not simplistic, not single-level, and so it has survived as a novel, rather than as a novelty, beyond the fad of fear of Germany. No-one now would read The Battle of Dorking unless they were literary historians: there is no other excuse. No-one now would read The Swoop, or, How Clarence Saved England, unless they were completist P G Wodehouse fans. They certainly wouldn’t read it for the enjoyment of war fever fiction. I have a fat volume of these tales, lovingly and painstakingly collected by the late I F Clarke, the great pioneer in the recording of really obscure, very generic fiction from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was interested in science fiction and feminist fiction too, any kind of genre fiction as long as it was from around this period, and war fever fiction was one of his specialities. His bibliographic achievements are invaluable to literary historians, but this particular fictional cul-de-sac has not been much visited by the average reader.
One hundred years later: is When William Came still worth reading? If you like Saki, absolutely. There’s a lot here for those who appreciate Saki’s particular style to enjoy. If you’re a war-fever collector: yes, certainly. This novel is a sophisticated addition to the canon, it’s by a most accomplished stylist and it’s actually a really fascinating read. There is no conventional plot: the novel is a series of scenes with political speeches laid on, but they are very cleverly arranged, have real characters, vintage Saki creations, who continue to live on after you’ve finished the book. The propaganda value is potentially immense, but I doubt whether anyone took the novel seriously because of who Saki was.
Saki was a satirist, a writer of light squibs, frothy cynical superficial fiction for amusement, and the after-dinner quotation. He made his name by sending up turn of the century Westminster political pretensions in The Westminster Alice, in which he rewrote topical political events in the style of Alice in Wonderland. These were published in weekly instalments, and as a book in 1902: he was really a newspaper columnist. He then became celebrated for his short stories. If you read these en masse in one of his collected fiction editions, they give you a total immersion into callous candour and heartless selfishness. They are brilliant: he had a gift for seeing straight through the pretension and pompousness of Edwardian upper-class society, and for being bitingly straightforward about the hypocrisies of daily life. When William Came was his last novel, because shortly after it was published, the First World War broke out, he joined up (over-age) and died in November 1916, killed by a sniper’s shot. His last words, to a fellow soldier, were ‘put that bloody cigarette out’.
When William Came is speculative fiction, a what-if story, so when it begins we are immediately intrigued by the something that has occurred. It is referred to, politely and discreetly, by the characters as the ‘catastrophe’, or is simply not mentioned at all, as if it were rather too unpleasant to discuss. ‘It’, of course, is the German invasion of Britain, which was accomplished very easily in only a few days because the British were too lazy to train their young men to be an active defence force. The mighty power of the massed German armed forces overwhelmed the puny and pathetic British attempts at self-defence, and in a remarkably bloodless takeover, Germanised the entire country. Actually, we only see London, and a bit of the countryside, but we are to take it that whatever happens in London, must have happened to the rest of the island. Streets have been renamed in German. Road signs and place-names now have signs in both languages. The British way of socialising has been transformed to German habits. There are no pubs any longer, only continental-style cafés where you argue, play chess and read the paper at set times in the morning (when Saki was writing, this was very un-British). A German monarch sits on the British throne, and many, many Britons have left the country to settle in other parts of the Empire. The British king now has his court at Delhi. There is a richly sentimental episode where a traveller in Mandalay, or somewhere similar, visits an English family who have settled there, where they can still raise the Union Jack on a flagpole. Charming German aristocrats are infiltrating the British social scene. The British middle and upper classes, already supine, are being slowly squashed, and British men have been emasculated. The only successful British men are the charming glossy boys whom Saki specialised in writing, who exist by flattering and serving their own interests. It is now illegal for British men to join the army, they have no masculine role any longer. But hope still exists: even if British men have been beaten and are unable to fight back, with fox-hunting their only active, physical pursuit, British youth will not lie down under the German yoke. At a grand review in Hyde Park, at which the Boy Scouts of the nation are to parade and salute the German emperor and his son, the gathered crowds are first embarrassed, then gleeful to see that British youth has decided to ignore the summons by the German Emperor, and simply do not turn up. It’s a sad sight to see an Emperor kept waiting by his subject race, and so the novel ends on this uplifting but flatly ridiculous sight. There is hope for the nation, even an unprepared nation, if its youth keep a proper attitude towards the enemy. At least, that’s what I think Saki is saying.
The scorn in this novel is very, very evident. It is a Tory rant. Decadent social customs are held up for ridicule: modern dance, couples who do not live together in harmony, the adoption of pretty boys by older women as agreeable social accessories. The most wonderful character in the novel is Joan Mardle, an irritating woman related to practically everyone in Society, who invites herself to events and then comments on them loudly at moments when the din of conversation has dropped. She is the spirit of inconvenient candour, a kind of anti-flatterer, whose ringing voice and piercing tones say aloud what everybody else has been thinking, or trying not to say, or would have preferred not to be noticed. She alone is worth reading this book for, but when she is part of a glorious satirical shower of scorn, she makes When William Came simply magnificent.
How does this novel fit into the literary scene of 1913? It’s obviously part of the anti-German war fever fad, and it’s also a nice example of early twentieth-century speculative fiction. It’s a strong example of Edwardian satire and dilettantism, the kind of literary alley down which you would also find E F Benson and Anthony Hope. These are minor sub-genres: Saki was not a major writer, but he was absolutely brilliant at what he did.
I knew about Alison Bechdel from her culture-changing idea of the Bechdel Test, that thing you ask of films, books and other cultural productions. If two or more women are having a conversation, if it about something / someone other than men? If the film or book can answer ‘yes!’, then it has something to say to more than one segment of the population and has a fair chance of not being gender biased. She was also awarded one of the 2014 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Awards, to allow her to keep writing and creating. Fun Home is far more than a graphic novel, because it’s a memoir, not fiction at all. (It was also made into a smash hit musical.) It’s painful, beautiful, poetic and symmetrically chilling. It’s about Alison Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time she grows to realise that her father is more than an obsessive house renovator and the grim community mortician (Fun as in Funeral). He oppresses his family, but he also loves them, and he loves boys too, though is too closeted to come out. Thus the circle of escape, obsession, dictatorialness and unexpected admissions of pleasure continues. The story moves back and forth in time like a weaving shuttle, so the reader experiences layer after layer of story, with each new layer gaining texture and resonance from its foundation.
The sad and ordinary fact of Bruce Bechdel’s death, hit by a truck as he crossed the road, is examined again and again for clues and for answers. He took the children camping, he took them to stay with friends in New York (where he could go cruising at night on Christopher St), he had them cleaning and doing chores every day, he taught them to swim. Helen Bechdel, a former actress who gave up her dreams to be the mother of a family, endures her husband’s erratic ways and endless, casual affairs with angry endurance. She retreats into acting and a thesis, while he is in a world of his own, sourcing chandeliers and Victorian glassware, and foolishly buying beers for underage boys. The children separate as well (the renovated house certainly has enough space), so isolation and private experiences become normal.
When Alison goes to college she works out the name and the meaning of her own sexuality, which adds another layer to her relations with her father. She had loved men’s shirtings and suits as much as he did, and she fetishised the lines of a man’s body, wanting that shape for herself, as much as he wanted their bodies. The artwork tells more than half of this complex, shifting story, with frames repeated to silently show that yes, there was more going in here, in this particular exchange or event, than the younger Alison had noticed. Although the seven episodes of the book move back and forth in time in a patchwork of recollections and linked stories, the language of the narration begins simply, increasing in complexity as more understanding emerges. When moments of comprehension surface in the small or adult Alison’s mind, the effect is stunning: word and image working together simply and beautifully to hit the reader for six.
You can read this as a memoir of family life with an unusual proximity to death and its processes (I’ve barely mentioned the family funeral home business: that’s an entirely separate story). You can read it as a sad story of closeted homosexuality (Bruce), or as a satisfying and wryly self-deprecating memoir of an out lesbian at ease with herself and her life. You can read this as a book about the importance of reading the right book at the right time to realise the truth about sexuality, in all its manifestations. You can certainly read this book as a pointed rebuke at the pretentiousness of college English literature tutorials, and the dangers of obsessing over one particular text (Bruce was also a high school English teacher). We don’t read a lot about Alison’s brothers as adults, and perhaps that was by their wish. At the end of the book, her first acknowledgement is to her mother and brothers for ‘not trying to stop me writing this book’. Her portrait of her mother is understanding but also unsparing: Helen was an expert mother and an understanding woman but not warm or friendly. Those children lacked hugs. That family lacked warmth. It was not a fun home, by any means.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. A Family Tragicomic (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), ISBN 978-0-224-08051-4, £12.99
This week in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I plunge into Rudyard Kipling’s least read novel, The Naulahka. It was an absolute joy to read, because it was a rare treat: a novel by one of my favourite authors that I hadn’t already read, despite having been reading Kipling for about 40 years. I simply don’t understand how I’d never read this novel before. It’s not as if it’s a new discovery, or an obscure short story no-one’s reprinted yet. Kipling has been studied intensively in the last 30 years, and there are many editions of his stories and novels available. I’ve even read his The Light That Failed, a thoroughly depressing and gloomy novel that can’t have many fans. But somehow The Naulahka had not crossed my book radar until recently.
It is one of those novels that needs to be read, if not at a sitting, then with a lot of concentration. When I finished it I was still immersed in a part of India I had never read Kipling writing about before, and among characters I had never read him describing. So why all these differences, and obscurities, compared to Kim, and all the Kipling stories I know practically by heart? Because this was a co-written novel, a joint project between Kipling and the man who would have become his brother-in-law if he hadn’t died before the wedding. The involvement of Wolcott Balestier in the novel’s planning and creation has brought out the snobbery in Kipling critics who snoot at his role in The Naulahka’s invention. I picked up a sense that critics excuse Kipling for being saddled with this unfinished novel by his dear friend Wolcott that he obviously never wanted to co-write in the first place.
From the evidence in the early, American section of the novel, Balestier seems to have been developing a writing style and subject in parallel with Willa Cather, one that she would go on to make her own, and which Owen Wister was already exploring. Balestier writes of the American West and frontier life with clear, passionate description, and a practical awareness of the expectations from life of the women who kept the frontier houses clean and fed. But the novel is not about sod houses and shoot-outs, but the civilised life of first-generation frontier towns that already have the furnished houses, the water supply, and the town newspaper, and now want the railroad and mining investment too.
Most importantly for The Naulahka, Balestier’s impetus got Kipling to write a novel about a woman; in fact about three women, and their effect on the American hero, Nick Tarvin. He will chase halfway across the world to steal a fabulous necklace from one woman, to give to another, so that he could marry the third. Kipling didn’t normally write about women very much – Mrs Hauksbee is the only memorable and reused female character in his fiction – and he hardly wrote about contemporary Americans, except an unintelligible arms dealer in two of his South African stories. So I found that The Naulahka, to my great pleasure, has a lot of new territory for Kipling: novel-length female protagonists, an American hero who doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘no’, and the drive and business sense of the American West applied to British India and Rajput cunning. The Naulahka itself is a necklace that is the soul of the state of Gokral Seetarun, consisting of a monstrously-sized emerald, ruby, sapphire, diamond and a black diamond. The traps and mishaps that threaten Nick’s life, by the malice of his enemy the gypsy queen, are excellent reading. The corruption of the Maharajah’s court and the indifferent impotence of the British Resident are fascinating: this is British India written, for once, from a non-British perspective, and it is not complimentary.
There are flaws and annoyances, of course. The central premise of the plot is that the heroine’s desire to dedicate her life to serving the poor women of India as a nurse is a waste of time, because Indian women will not respect her since she has not yet had children. Kate’s true destiny is to be a good wife to the hero: I gritted my teeth through Nick’s self-satisfied assumptions that Kate would eventually come to her senses about this destiny. I shared her outrage on finding that he had travelled to India before she got there on her nursing mission, and that he will not go away and let her do her work. I was increasingly infuriated that Nick lies and deceives to try to steal the Naulahka, and expects Kate to share his triumph in having carried off a spectacular scam. I was horrified that the culmination of his brilliant plotting was that Kate’s life is in danger simply because Nick has tangled with the gypsy queen. Nick is a great creation, but his moral sense is distinctly shabby. One of the great satisfactions at the end of the novel is his realisation that he cannot have everything, no matter how cleverly he has planned things.
One of the strengths of the novel, according to the critics, is the portrait of the very young prince, the Maharaj Kunwar. I’m not sure I agree. Kipling has depicted young Indian boys far better – the small boys in Lucknow in his greatest novel, Kim, are more convincing – and since much of the speech of the Maharaj is in Indianised English, he isn’t his own person, he is a creature of the British Raj. The situations that the Maharaj leads Nick and Kate into, on the other hand, are definitely interesting: power and plotting follow him everywhere, and when he isn’t a protection to them, he’s a danger. Kipling worked out a fiendishly clever plotline to do with the transfer of the necklace, the safety of the prince, and how far the gypsy queen will go to get her revenge. The really refreshing thing about Nick is that he is written in Kipling’s instantly identifiable style, but he isn’t English, and my word, what a difference that makes.
Kipling’s English heroes are all steeped in an awareness of honour – their own, or other people’s – and Nick’s sense of honour is, compared to Kipling’s average British army subaltern, definitely skewed. The two other key women in the novel – the wife of the railway magnate, and the gypsy queen – are also excellent creations, making this novel the most interesting exposure of how Kipling wrote women characters. The railway magnate’s wife has tremendous power, or so we are led to believe, but doesn’t seem to realise the way of the world. If she had actually accepted a necklace of colossal value from Nick, and then tried to persuade her husband to take the railway through Nick’s town instead of through the slightly more suitable rival town, I think we’d all be justified in wondering what else she had offered Nick in exchange for such a magnificent jewel that she has not the wit to appreciate. There’s something wrong with Kipling’s understanding of human nature there, even if the railway magnate’s wife is not interested in Nick.
The only woman to try seducing Nick does it with murder in mind: the gypsy queen is a marvellous creation, and deserves her ascendancy in the corrupt zenana schemings. Kate herself is an unfinished creation. Kipling can’t convey the truth of religious fervour to convince us that her vocation comes from a revivalist meeting, but he is completely persuasive when writing about her grim months of nursing training, and her capacity for hard work in the hospital. I also believe her completely when she continues to urge Nick to just go away and let her get on with her job. It’s maddening that Nick doesn’t listen, and refuses to take her desires seriously when they don’t coincide with his own, but it’s also very modern. While a lot about this novel is great Victorian fiction, there are some highly suggestive elements which make this a thoroughly modern novel of feminist aspiration.
This is a complex novel, a very enjoyable read, and is totally gripping in its last three chapters where Nick and the gypsy queen try to outmanoeuvre each other with hostages and hidden gunmen. It’s vastly underrated, and undeservedly forgotten.
This podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book is on the first of Gene Wolfe’s epic science-fiction & fantasy tetralogy The Book of the New Sun,The Shadow of the Torturer (1981), the only one of the four I have been able to finish. It is EPIC, a tremendous, sprawling feast of fantastical invention slathered over a strong sf foundation. To reassure those not wishing to read celebrations of violence, it contains only two torture incidents, both very brief, and described in such a way that we are more interested in the how and why than the what.
Here’s the story: Severian is an apprentice torturer, and hopes to rise one day to become not just a journeyman but a master torturer. The torturers are the executioners and punishment inflictors for the Autarch, who is the supreme ruler of this part of Urth. That’s our Earth in the very far future. Severian becomes emotionally too close to a ‘client’, as torture victims are called in this world, closer than he should be, with the result that he is sent on a journey. The journey introduces him, and us, to his world, which is convenient since he and we are equally ignorant about its fascinating details, while the things that Severian knows about that we don’t are not explained because they are the mysteries of his trade, and we the readers are not privy to these. It’s a familiar way to tell a story – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle came to mind quite a few times while reading this.
Severian narrates the story from many years later, with more than enough remarks about his later career, so we don’t have to worry about whether he’ll survive (an awkward pitfall of first-person narration: if they’re still alive to write/dictate the narrative, obviously they’re not going to fall down a cliff or onto a spear halfway through). As I say, we are given so much reassurance that Severian will survive, in a narrative where death is simply everywhere, we can concentrate with greater avidity on his story, and try to work out why his society makes a guild of torturers necessary. The McGuffins that keep the plot moving are (1) that Severian has to get to his destination, and (2) by the end of this first novel in the tetralogy he finds a certain extraordinarily valuable something and he has to decide what to do with it. There are other, smaller mysteries as well: why does Dorcas have no memory? Will Vodalus the rebel ever come back to challenge the Autarch? How will Severian reach the destiny we are told about almost at the beginning of the book?
This society is medievalised, which is a peculiar convention in fantasy literature. It is oddly common for a fictional future society to have reverted to pre-industrial technology. This produces useful hand-to-hand, one-to-one combat scenes between characters the reader has learned to care about, rather than big impersonal explosions between anonymous armies (though fantasy still deploys these: looking at you, Michael Moorcock), but why the reversion? What events cause a society to forget all it once knew and regress, other than a lack of industrial quantities of resources? As a former economic history student (one term only, till I failed the course utterly), these motivations for world-building bother me.
Wolfe complicates the medievality by allowing glimpses of, for instance, the fliers owned by the rich, which zip through the air like silver tears. The lighting in the Citadel is clearly from something as long-lasting as nuclear power; some of the torture techniques are based on psychotropic drugs; and the Tower of the Torturers is clearly part of a long-defunct and partially overgrown and overbuilt spaceship. In this respect Wolfe has done what Anne McCaffrey did with her dragons of Pern novels, but he’s stayed on Earth. Extra-terrestrials are mentioned briefly; they are cacogens, pale and thin, but a few more clearly alien creatures and people appear in the last crowd scenes of the novel, with the effect of letting us know that Wolfe has hardly got started: this is just the first act.
On rereading The Shadow of the Torturer, I found that I had not remembered anything much except a sense of wonder and a world that I wanted to return to. Sometimes you get a sf novel where the society is more interesting than the plot, and I think Wolfe may have tipped the balance with this one. I don’t care very much about Severian and his agonies of conscience, but I adore his world. There is a fascinating use of hierarchies in his society. Severian knows his place and refuses to be elevated from it, because his role is more important than the man. He dissuades the chiliarch from giving him his executioner’s fee with his own hand because this would have demeaned the chiliarch’s own office, and was not traditional: his fee had to be flung at him on the ground.
Chiliarch. Yes: what’s a chiliarch? For this purportedly post-historic frame narrative Wolfe adds a note at the end explaining his ‘editor’s need to invent words for ancient concepts that had not come into existence’. Instead of leaving us to accept that sf is just invention like any other kind of storytelling, Wolfe adds extra meaning to the very idea of sf, like so many other sf novelists, by inviting the reader to think about these stories as being the narratives and records of history that have not happened yet. So we don’t just read ‘story’, we also think about these stories as histories, reports, assessments, commentaries: all of which let us consider how future reality might yet be.
With this in mind, we might read The Shadow of the Torturer in this way with some relief, because its most striking aspect is its vocabulary. Opening the book at two, unrelated, pages at random, here is a representative sample: cataphract (some kind of guard), sateen (a fabric, but not the Victorian cheap furnishing fabric with the same name), optimate (middle-class, burgher), armigette (woman of the trading classes), anagnost (official from the justice courts), jade (low-grade mistress, much the same as its early English meaning), bravo (thug, ditto from Renaissance English), sabretache (satchel, also a British nineteenth-century military accoutrement), fuligin (a colour darker than black). Their meaning is fairly obvious in the context, and there are very few words whose meaning is totally obscure, because otherwise how would we understand what’s going on? Wolfe doesn’t want to scare his readers off, he wants us to work through the story with the experience of not everything being familiar or clear.
The associations carried by the similarity of these strange words to existing words add layers of sound and meaning to the prose. His new vocabulary (mainly nouns) sounds as if it was altered by changing a vowel or suffix to make new words from a familiar root. He also changes the meaning of real words, like destrier, which in his world isn’t a horse, but another animal that is however ridden and used like a horse for the upper classes, which is what a destrier was. Wolfe warns that even some words that are familiar may not mean what we understand them to mean, like ‘metal’ and ‘hylacine’.
The early scenes of the novel are set in the apprentices’ world in the Tower of the Torturers, which inevitably recalls Earthsea, or Hogwarts, and then we think, no, this is much darker. The Shadow of the Torturer is about medical training with a particularly non-Hippocratic use of the Oath to ‘do no harm’. These medievalised characters are also not saving the world through magic. There isn’t any magic in these novels: it’s all physics and invented alien biology. This is a magical world only in the sense that it is conjured up by invented and archaic words.
Wondering what the words mean, and knowing that there are going to be gaps in our knowledge throughout the story, keeps us nicely off balance. Nothing can be taken for granted. Wolfe is an expert distracter of attention, of casting casual asides down in our path just as we expect to be focusing on something else, with the clever result of dividing our attention. At the same time that we are focusing on the present we are also looking at the past. Being told things in such an oblique way also changes the focus. Because we aren’t told anything about screams, bleeding flesh, details of pain, or anything else that we might expect from a torture scene (and believe me I do not read that kind of fiction, so I’m just guessing here), we don’t feel immediate horrified empathy. Instead, we’re told about the event from a very clinical viewpoint, and also an artist’s perspective. We are first invited to admire the skill, we applaud the careful work, and only then do we think about the poor suffering ‘client’, and wonder, with increasing horror, what the clinical details actually mean to the nerve endings concerned. It’s very effective, because the displacement of our attention from natural, emotional empathy for the victim to rational admiration for the technical expertise is done solely by the narrative voice, by the torturer himself.
After the distancing, comes the interest in the details of the technique, the rituals, the taught practice, the means of doing the job properly. The torturer is concerned to maintain dignity for all, there is no degradation, but there is also no exceeding or mitigating the sentence handed down. The final, most important effect of the distancing technique is that we never forget that the role of the torturer is to be an officer of the law, a means to enable justice as decided to be enacted. And this leads us to ask, who sets these punishments? What IS this society that maintains torturers to separate verdict and punishment? You will only find out by reading the next three novels. (Caveat: I have tried the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator, but it lost my interest.)
Recently I posted a collection of short hatchet jobs on books that I felt so strongly about I had to be bitter about them in public. This was one of the most popular reviews I’ve posted in the last 6 months, so you clearly like this stuff. I’ve found a few more. I haven’t included those books which everyone says are Great Novels, but which I didn’t, personally, much like. Nor have I included the books that I only feel ‘meh’ about, rather than ‘arrgh!’ Here I warn you off the ‘arrgh!’ books, because I think they’re bad.
Bram Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1911) By the author of Dracula.This is dreadful. At first I wondered if the British place-names had been invented since they have no relation to real geography. The narrative is more like journalism than fiction, but also clumsy; and the characterisation is perfunctory and tedious, like symbols going through the motions. It’s a Victorian male quest romance with medieval adventures in magical woods infested by snakes, and still I gave up out of boredom. So much potential wasted.
Noel Langley, Cage me a Peacock (1935) Arch little number. This was Langley’s first novel (I reviewed his There’s a Porpoise on My Tailhere) and has some spectacular imaginative leaps, related in the style that Richard Garnett invented in 1888 with Twilight of the Gods, in which tales from the classical period are told in modern colloquial conversation. (Naomi Mitchison did it too, cutting out the slang to make the modern historical novel.) It’s a retelling of the Rape of Lucrece from Suetonius as if by Noel Coward, and the result is more tasteless than witty. Tonally, the novel struggles to make the sexual mores of the classical period sound like a glamorous cocktail party, and the casual executions, suicides and rapes are really desperately unfunny. It’s the novel I dislike the least from this selection, because it can’t reconcile its subject and style, not because it’s particularly bad.
Elizabeth Goudge, Gentian Hill (1949) Historical romance and sentimental sludge. Goudge can be a bit gushing, but this is the worst I’ve read. Its manner is affected, and the plot has nothing solid to grasp. She can do so much better: The Dean’s Watch (1960), for instance, has a hard and serious edge that redeems the gloop. This one is uncontrolled, woolly, besotted and tedious. The characters are largely copied from her much more famous The Little White Horse, published three years earlier, and the dragging coincidences and characters’ secrets are signalled so blatantly that Goudge must have expected her readers to need to know where they were going to be able to enjoy the journey. I didn’t.
T J Bass, The God Whale (1974) Science fiction. I did like the automated whale built to harvest and process at molecular levels, and I love the Trilobite bot that worships her with such cheerful eagerness. But the stories of the humans escaping dystopian body-harvesting madness through tunnels and chomping machinery are much less interesting. The idea of a future society pouring vast investment into keeping alive a half-man from the past that it has no value or use for, seems wildly improbable. So many good ideas that go nowhere, and shrivel up for want of some thought-through nurturing.
Ngaio Marsh, Last Ditch (1977) Detective. One of the very last Roderick Alleyn novels by Ngaio Marsh, in which she seems to be wandering in time. It’s set in the early 1970s (flares, drugs, T-shirts, jeans) but Ricky Alleyn (in his very early 20s) smokes a pipe, and the alluring family with whom he gets friendly are straight out of the 1930s in behaviour and attitudes. Roderick Alleyn is stuck in his 1950s period, and in any case would be aged about 100 by this time. The slang feels wrong and unexpected. The scenes of excessive violence and torture are quite unlike anything Marsh had written before. It’s a jumble of elements that can’t and don’t work well together, like a really badly-conceived party without gin to oil the wheels.
Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood (1984) Fantasy. Its 25th-anniversary reprinting and praise from writers I admire persuaded me to buy this, and I am SO DISAPPOINTED. What a noxious, incomplete load of tosh. How can it have won the WFA Best Novel award? Or spawned a series? The central idea of a mythago, archetypes brought into being through the characters’ minds and their proximity to leylines (or something like that) is interesting, but why did it have to be so violent, misogynistic and ultimately sterile? There were some great ideas, but the whole thing is a soggy, pointless, swampish mass of ideas, not a novel. I resented being asked to accept illogical origin stories and endless tedious journeys for no purpose. The RAF photography from the air was the novel’s saving grace: the application of modern technology to a fantasy plot makes a serious contribution to telling stories about impossibilities. But everything else was desperately unsatisfactory, and historically out of whack when it should have been precise.
Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997) Historical sf. This novel was promoted as hilarious, and I believed the hype. It is classically farcical, but not often in a good way. It has a technically challenging time-travel plot from Willis’s Mr Dunworthy series of fictions, that fails because she uses time-travel as a casual means to an end, not as the life-threatening, risk-loaded business that her Doomsday Book, for instance, tackles with proper caution. The plot is crammed with babbling, caricatured characters on a tediously slow progression along the River Thames by rowing-boat with a dog and Oxford eccentrics as drawn by an American in awe of comedy moustaches. I think that’s part of the book’s problem for me: it’s dependent on American readers finding quaint English eccentricity funny. Adding farce to the terrifying implications of being able to travel in time, and trying to squeeze jeopardy out of that, is tonally jarring. It’s a self-indulgent homage to Three Men in a Boat, but I didn’t think that was funny either.
If I’ve dissed your favourite book, I’m sorry. We all have different tastes, and I’ve tried to be fair, or at least rational. That’s the lot for 2016: I’m hoping 2017 will be a better year, all round.
By the time you read this, I hope to be in Hawai’i (actually Kauai). This is a major splashout holiday, for a particular reason. It’s halfway across the planet from my home, but it’s also halfway between where my siblings live, and the Christmas holiday is conveniently close to a significant birthday that they will be celebrating (they’re twins), so the clan is gathering.
We will be flying light, and I shall be severely restricted for my reading, as I loathe and abhor ebooks and refuse to use them now except for work when I have no choice. I shall take two fat novels for the flights, and intend to collect more when I’m in the US. I am also taking some slim volumes for reading on the beach as I rest from snorkelling practice, or while listening to the munching of dinosaurs behind me in the forest. I understand that Kauai was where Jurassic Park was filmed, so naturally I expect to see or hear dinosaurs. Hopefully just the herbivorous ones.
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies
No, I haven’t read them yet. Yes, I know. Yes, my husband was immersed so deeply in them he forgot to watch Have I Got News For You. Yes, I hope so. I like Mantel’s non-fiction writing, especially when she blasts prejudices into molecular fragments, so I’m looking forward to these. But, when I finish Wolf Hall, will I be able to wait for a fortnight before beginning Bring Up the Bodies on the return flight?
Aliens, ed. Jim Al-Khalili
My favourite physicist broadcaster interviews loads of scientists about what alien lifeforms might look like and how they might function, depending on the speciality research area of each interviewee. Since my father is also a scientist (retired), but has no truck with science fiction, this will produce some interesting conversations.
Karen Russell, Swamplandia
This has been waiting to be read for far too long, I’m going to DO IT. I loved St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, so I’m going to dive into the full novel-length version of her peculiar world.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
I’ll be on an island. I’ll need advice. I’ve also never read this, except for a dreadful abridged children’s edition at primary school that made no sense.
Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry
I’ve ordered this from the lovely John Sandoe Books in Chelsea, because they slid a catalogue into my bag when I was buying Christmas presents and I was seduced. I’m hoping for poetical subversion, and sarcastic lines to read aloud to annoy people
If you have any suggestions for books I should be looking for in Hawaai’ian bookshops, do let me know.
The next two weeks on this site will offer two humdinger posts, and normal reviewing services will resume in early January. Joyeux Noel, Prettige Kerstdagen, Prettige Feestdagen and Bonne Année!