January 31, 2016


Hooo haaa haaaaa haaargh, etc: Pat Black

James Herbert was the godfather of British horror. His books, which dished out lashings of sex and gore, were massive bestsellers. Alongside Stephen King, he helped usher in the Horror Boom - a golden age of schlock and awe lasting from the 1970s to the early 1990s. 

After The Rats scampered into the public consciousness in 1974, Herbert remained on the bestseller lists for the rest of his days. His popularity threatened to make horror mainstream, if not quite respectable, no matter how grim the content.

While he may once have been the stock-in-trade of sniggering schoolboys, passing dog-eared paperbacks between them like porn, or stealing a quick glance at the dirty bits from their parents’ shelves, the author grew to become an elder statesman in British publishing. Herbert’s books were on everyone’s shelves.

Many readers over 35 will have been dismayed when he died in March 2013, aged 69. It's jarring when people who dominated the arts in your youth pass on, whether you were a fan or not. 

I was a fan.

So, sit back, relax, and pour yourself a glass of something red, as we take an affectionate look at the career highlights of this revered and much-missed writer. 

That's the one with... what's it about, again?

James Herbert was a working class art school boy born during the war, much like Lennon and McCartney. He was an advertising executive barely out of his twenties when he sold The Rats to the New English Library – perhaps the definitive Horror Boom publisher. 

Herbert was paid a £150 advance for his story of a decaying and neglected east end of London – some parts of it still in ruins from the Blitz – being menaced by giant, mutant, pink-tailed nasties. It must have seemed like the author would take his time earning the advance back, after the book was memorably skewered in the Observer by Martin Amis (writing under a pseudonym), who said it would "make a rodent retch". 

Herbert was apparently devastated by this notice, but the last laugh belonged to him. He was given a far larger cheque than £150 – and many more besides - when the print run of 100,000 copies sold out in a matter of weeks. I'd imagine Martin Amis wouldn't mind having that sort of success, just once.

London school teacher Harris is the hero thrust into the centre of events and confronting the story's final two-headed horror - but The Rats is all about the victims.

Whether sympathetic or unsympathetic, Herbert painted convincing pictures of ordinary characters plunged into nightmare scenarios - and often ending up eaten alive by a swarm of pointy-toothed buggers. The tragic Irish down-and-out, Mary, who gives us a whole new appreciation for the phrase “fond of the bottle”, is the pick of the bunch, although it was quite daring of Herbert to begin his book with a gay character whose life goes off the rails when he is forced out of the closet in those less-than-enlightened 1970s. 

Set pieces include an attack on a Tube station. I read this chapter while on a train with my parents, coming back from a holiday.

Surely there is a German word for that strange thrill of ghoulish glee? Something a bit more subtle than schadenfreude..?

Herbert followed The Rats with an even more startling book. The Fog sees Britain in chaos after a noxious yellow fart emerges from a crack in the earth. The gas drives anyone who sniffs it into a frenzy of sex and violence, like any good Fajitas Friday should.

John Holman is another unlikely everyman hero who is thrust into the centre of the story after he contracts - and survives - the disease.

Set pieces... good lord, where to start? Mad priests; planes crashed into towers; evil children; mass suicide at the beach; emasculation; decapitation. The Fog is an absolute feast of blood, sex and murder. Like The Rats, the chapters alternate between Holman’s hero’s journey, and one-off chapters detailing complete and utter bloody madness.

There were also one or two eye-opening sex scenes for the young Pat. I’m a little embarrassed to recall one chapter with two characters named, let’s say, Joe and Mary. I was confused about who was doing what to whom, until I realised that Joe was a girl, too. Herbert’s naughty scenes may not have been the healthiest way for younger readers to learn about sex, but you never forgot them.

The Fog is not to be confused with the John Carpenter film of the same name (although many people apparently did, in those information-starved times, with some not realising until the movie was half-done), because Herbert’s novel is surely unfilmable.

As the back cover blurb memorably shrieked, “For God’s sake, don’t leave this on aunt Edna’s chair!”

Back on-point. This bonkers novel concerns neo-Nazis attempting to resurrect a zombie Heinrich Himmler, and a cult surrounding the Spear of Longinus, the holy artefact that supposedly pierced Christ's side on the cross. A former Mossad agent, seemingly signed on a loan deal from an Alastair MacLean novel, is out to stop the baddies.

Nazis and the occult grant storytellers such rich material, as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas discovered with Raiders of the Lost Ark. They make obvious baddies, with little political fallout or cultural guilt attached. Oddly, despite its supernatural bent, The Spear is more action/adventure than horror - the best bit being the haunted tank car chase. It’s right up there with Herbert's very best work.

For my money, Herbert was better at writing action than scenes of horror. Perhaps he would have been more suited to a tale of gangsters set in London’s east end? Maybe, in time, he would have reinvented himself as a writer of gritty thrillers.

Sadly, we’ll never know.

The rats are back - bigger, hungrier, nastier, skreee-ier. The action shifts to Epping Forest as the rats spread and multiply... although I have to confess that a section with a flasher pestering people is the thing that stuck in my mind most of all. 

Herbert ripped himself off in this supernatural-themed re-tread of The Fog. Once more, society breaks down, thanks to a descent of demonic darkness rather than a waft of yellow flatus. Murder is once again the norm as the sunlight is blocked out and the whole of London is possessed by a malevolent entity. 

In the best scene, an entire football stadium gets wiped out.

Herbert wipes his hands, and continues. 

I can remember telling people when I was 13 that the second half of this book was "the best I've ever read". At the same time, I also told people that Iron Maiden's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was the best album ever made. 

I no longer hold these opinions.

A little girl can perform miracles. She starts to attract what you might call a cult following. However, the source of her power isn't some heavenly entity, but a wicked witch. 

The finale to this book could only have been written by someone who had a catholic education. I know, because when I was a boy I once finished a horror story about demonic possession in a similar way.

If only things were that simple, Jim!

This is James Herbert's unacknowledged masterpiece - easily the best book he ever wrote.

Domain sees the UK turned into a toxic wasteland after a nuclear strike. A ragged band of survivors try to overcome radiation sickness, the breakdown of society – and each other.

You know what would make this scenario even worse? Yep, those pesky rats! 

The opening nuclear attack is harrowing. The disease suffered by the survivors is horrifying. The rats' gradual incursion into the storyline is nightmarish. The survivors’ encounter with fellow travellers harbouring evil intentions, as in The Road, is scary. Their battle to escape a flooded containment facility over-run by rats is exciting. The whole book is...

Look, do yourself a favour. If you've never read any James Herbert, start with this one. Don't worry about it being the third in a trilogy, or even that it features rats. Domain marks Herbert’s finest hour, and it stands alone. 

There's a killer on the loose. Jonathan Childes has a psychic link to the maniac. The police won't listen to him. The killer's on the way to the island where Childes is hiding out. 

I've made Moon sound more exciting than it is. This stuff began to seem hackneyed and over-wrought, even to a 12-year-old. Even though people still go to see fortune tellers and listen to “psychics”, it's hard to think of a novel with these topics being a best-seller today.

It features a nasty killer, though, and an excellent twist. 

There's an evil thing... something malice... ancient terror, thingy... in a house... Or a castle…

Again, like The Dark, I recall being fully invested in this book, although I couldn't tell you what it’s about or give you a detailed character list for a million pounds.

The main character's love interest likes having her backside skelped, though, so if that's your thing, carry on, soldier.

And finally…

The not-best of James Herbert:

I learned a valuable lesson from Creed - not to trust the gushy testimonials printed on the back cover and inside pages.

I can still remember some of these. “Unputdownable”... “his best yet”... “turbo-charged and spewing black fumes”. 

Absolute nonsense. An attempt to send up the horror genre, Creed is an embarrassing misfire about a seedy paparazzo who takes a picture of a demon having a w*nk - yes, really – and discovers his camera can capture otherwise invisible images of monsters and nasties.

I do not know what his “critics” were thinking, although I have my suspicions as to what they were smoking. It's the horror comedy that's neither scary nor funny. There’s a kernel of a good idea in there, but it’s interpreted poorly.

“For completists only” – Pat Black, Booksquawk.

That said, Herbert insisted several times that Creed was the book he most enjoyed writing.


I didn't go back to James Herbert until I re-read The Rats, years later. I began to realise there's more to life than horror novels, as I realised there's more to music than Iron Maiden albums. Not that there's anything wrong with these things... I felt better for trying other stuff, though.

Herbert has cited Creed as his favourite novel. I wonder if this is the same as when bands – Iron Maiden, for example - say their newest album is "definitely their best" (although I am reliably informed that Maiden’s latest is very good indeed). 

That said, Herbert brought out some very well-regarded novels in the latter part of his career, such as ’48 and The Secret of Crickley Hall, and posted some of his best reviews. But it’s his early shockers that will survive, and keep people coming back.

There may be something in Stephen King's comparison between Herbert's fulminating early books and the spitting, snarling London punks of the late 1970s. They might not have cared, they might not have changed the world, but their work has endured.

I hope the same is true of James Herbert. We are bombarded with insincerity whenever anyone remotely famous dies, but I can say with total honesty that I was troubled by his passing.

I've got fond memories of watching him appear on the Terry Wogan show on Hallowe'en night in 1988. I said to my folks: that's the guy who wrote The Rats. There's the guy in my corner. 

I bought Herbert's last novel, Ash, after I saw it advertised on Amazon for 20p. (Not a typo: 20 pence. I don’t think you can even buy a sweet from a shop for 20p any more.) This was a couple of years before he died.

I was outraged by this. 20p?! I felt so bad about taking the deal that I bought The Rats, too. That made it up to a whole pound.

I've still got Ash waiting on my Kindle. I owe the man a read, so stay tuned.

If you've never tried James Herbert, seek out the early stuff - particularly The Rats, The Fog, The Spear, Domain and The Dark.

I shall miss him. He’s part of growing up, for me. James Herbert was a one-off, and the landscape hasn't quite been the same since he left us. 

January 20, 2016


The Best of Clive James
672 pages, Picador

Review by Pat Black

Clive James was just “a man on the telly” to me, as I grew up in the 1980s.

Possessed of a striking Australian accent in the days before they became ubiquitous with Neighbours, he hosted a raucous Saturday night talk show, as well as an off-beat Sunday night clips compendium which sneered at television from other countries. 

The latter was a schoolboy staple if you wanted guaranteed boobs (no internet then; you young whipper-fappers don’t know you’re born), but it also became famous for screening highlights from Endurance, a Japanese game show where contestants were effectively tortured for your amusement. Curiously, it seems more honest, if not more sophisticated, than most of today’s reality TV.

In the 1990s, James introduced the flamboyant, tone-deaf Cuban cabaret singer Margarita Pracatan to an unsuspecting nation, making her a star. She was discussed and adored in schools, universities and workplaces all over the UK. Satellite TV was available by then, but by and large British viewing was still restricted to four terrestrial channels. Whenever Clive James laughed at something, it seemed everyone in the UK laughed along with him.

James cut a jovial figure on the box – paunchy, but not avuncular; something like a CEO on a jolly to the tropics, though a little less carnivorous, with his Speedos kept in a fusty drawer where they belong. He was someone you suspected enjoyed a couple of beers and a good laugh, which made him a natural on the telly.

What I didn’t know until relatively recently was that James cut his teeth in the broadsheets and literary blatts as an essayist and reviewer of some renown, a noted intellectual and part of a 1970s literary set that included Germaine Greer, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes.

My first taste of this side of James came from The Oxford Book of Essays, which contained an evisceration of Judith Krantz perhaps unparalleled in its blend of brutality and elegance. This whetted my appetite for more.

Although Reliable Essays claims to be the best of Clive James, it doesn’t feature the Krantzing. There is solid work on George Orwell, classic photography, the Holocaust, the poetry of Philip Larkin and modern Australian history. But these were not as interesting as when James dips his toe into shallower water – such as the craze (heightened these days, if anything) for Sherlock Holmes; the frigid ballet of Torvill and Dean; Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels; and the stagecraft of James’ fellow Aussie, Dame Edna Everage herself - Barry Humphries.

Perhaps the best piece in the book is James’ travelogue as part of the British press corps following Margaret Thatcher as she tours China in 1984. It’s an excellent portrait of the late premier’s chilling-to-the-point-of-Bundy personality, as well as a snapshot of Hong Kong as it neared the end of British rule. James is keen to remind us that Chinese civilisation was flourishing while most of the British population was still living in caves. Some journalists, he hints, might have preferred to take residency in those caves after the Chinese junket ended.

I discovered that James made his name through his TV reviews and laconic travel writing, and it was these that led to the Australian transferring to television and national fame. To me, his writing in the more populist pieces is sharper, clearer, and far more entertaining.

James’ intellect looms over his subjects like alien invaders, blotting out the light in some cases. He often betrays an intimidating level of knowledge which hints at more than the reviewer’s standard post-first draft cramming session. There’s always something to learn in his work, and it’s usually something worth learning.

My favourite example of this was his examination of photographer Roland Barthes’ twin concept of studium and punctum. Apologies if this is well-known; I’d never heard of it. Studium is the main subject of a painting or photograph – to take James’ example, an image of a little boy holding a toy pistol to his own head. Punctum is a small, secondary detail which helps bring the whole to life – in the same photo, this would be the grinning boy’s rotten teeth.

So, Clive James might be the columnist Gotham needs, but he’s not always the one Gotham wants. As I’ve just demonstrated, strings of Latin festoon some of his prose, irksome to state-educated laddies like me. For an admirer of the work of George Orwell such as James, this affectation is careless. Still, as one of my old teachers told me, you should never hide your intelligence or your education, whichever comes first.

I feel the same should go for my lack of both. I have an embarrassing blind spot for poetry. I studied it in some detail during my undergraduate days; I appreciate its creativity and beauty and the skill of the artists, and I can analyse it if I need to. But I simply don’t care for it, and rarely pluck it from my shelves. This, I fully accept, makes me a philistine. James loves poetry, and he offers a striking analysis of Larkin’s work at the start of this book. He might as well have been writing in double Dutch. It almost killed my desire to read on.

James is a clever prose stylist, but his vast knowledge of his subject – indeed, of most subjects – sometimes hobbles the reader. Obscure references pile up, and unfamiliar names are scattered like breadcrumbs on the path to a gingerbread house. If you’re going into some of these essays in a state of ignorance, they can be extremely difficult to digest. Fortunately, while I may need footnotes or net searches to understand what James is talking about, the way he talks about it is pleasure enough.

James’ erudition can be especially grating when he betrays his lust for linguistics, examining in minute detail where prose goes wrong. An inappropriate word placed here, a tautology there, honest malapropisms, careless repetitions, shonky grammar, redundant phrasings and tarty clichés all cause James to purse his lips like a convent school English master. He goes into far too much detail at too great a length. He enjoys it. He is a pedant.

If our choice of pornography is one area in life where we truly, honestly reveal ourselves, then perhaps picking up on others’ mistakes is what turns Clive James on. I imagine he’d uncap his red pen with a flourish to match Zorro’s were he ever to read this. Here, the critic comes across as less of the free-wheeling philosopher than a priggish, uptight sub-editor of too many years’ standing, with a big belly, a rancid pullover and an insufferably arch tone. It’s almost a tragedy James’ heyday came around 15 years too early for a guest slot (and perhaps even the presenting gig) on QI – an enjoyable show, but, alongside Only Connect, a facilitator for some of the most annoying arseholes in Britain.

During one of the post-scripts of his own reviews, James admits that his mind can run away with itself. Sub-clauses are fecund things, springing up in the flowerbeds exactly when they’re least wanted. As I struggle to contain my own addiction to parentheses, semi-colons, brackets and simply blowing hard, I loved this withering self-analysis. Note to self: don’t fall out of love with full stops.

James can be cynical, but he is not above getting a bit floral over objects of admiration. He accepts that his appraisal of Barry Humphries’ career skirts close to panegyric, and in obliterating the oeuvre of Sherlockologists, James betrays a childhood crush on Conan Doyle which places him closer to his quarry than he might care to admit.

In his appraisal of Torvill and Dean, who held the whole world spellbound with their figure skating displays throughout the 1980s, James opens with a brilliant comic figure to illustrate his lack of learning on the subject – the author himself, “ankles at 90 degrees, knees at the level of the eyebrows”, trying to ice skate with his daughter. Still, his admiration for his subjects is apparent. In revealing Torvill and Dean’s universal appeal, he encapsulated the times perfectly and triggered a wave of nostalgia in me. I recalled my father – as natural a fit for the world of ice dance as a bull elephant - being spellbound by the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo where Torvill and Dean swept the board to Bolero. This was class-free mass appeal, a factor which James clocked almost immediately.

One or two beatings are delivered. He gets medieval on some Australian historians, and can barely contain his disdain for the writing style of one in particular. He also takes on Norman Mailer’s Marilyn Monroe biography, more or less accusing that sour old grizzly of losing the plot in trying to attach mystical significance to an all-too-human Norma Jean. There’s a cracking footnote to this, when James reveals that not too long after the piece was published, he ended up in the same limousine as the famously pugnacious Mailer. He realised that he might have to look lively, or perhaps hail a cab.

That Mailer not only didn’t punch him, but didn’t even mention the article, despite almost certainly having read it, perhaps speaks volumes about James’ skill and the esteem other writers hold him in. This is heavy praise, not faint.

James has been in the news rather a lot in the past few years, as he has spectacularly failed at dying. Although still very ill and professing to be “near the end”, he has confounded a bleak cancer diagnosis in 2012 which had given him a matter of months to live. While he may not quite have gone down the Wilko Johnson “Lazarus” pathway, I pray that modern medicine continues to sustain him and that he stays with us for a long time yet. With the Reaper held in abeyance for a little longer than anticipated, and with Clive James still writing and entertaining us, I thought I’d pen this essay while the going is good. He is the master at what he does, and we should celebrate him.

James explains that the work of the critic and artist are intimately tied. Without appraisal of art, the art itself would struggle to make itself known. And art helps make life worthwhile. To borrow Frank Zappa’s phrasing about music and time, without art to decorate it, life would be very dull indeed. While Clive James has too much humility to make any claims of creating art himself, this explanation of why criticism exists and why it might matter reminded me of why I bother my backside writing these bloody things. 

January 7, 2016


In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have

Doorjamb Pinball Wizard: Pat Black

Thomas Harris wrote grim, scary novels about serial killers. His most famous creation, Hannibal Lecter, has become one of the most beloved monsters in popular fiction. He’ll nibble yer nubbins.

Harris hit the big time with Red Dragon (1981), introducing us to the dark, brooding FBI agent Will Graham. He’s in early retirement, an enforced career curtailment after he was filleted by the renowned psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter. Graham had a nasty encounter with the business end of a carpet knife after discovering that the doctor’s renowned culinary skills cut a little close to the bone.

Graham is called in by his old boss at the FBI to trace a killer known as the Tooth Fairy who breaks into family homes, kills everyone inside and then indulges his baroque fantasies at leisure.

Graham has a knack of finding such maniacs. It’s like a superpower – something in his mind which parallels that of a psychopath, his intuition closely matching their motivations.

The agent’s ongoing mental instabilities have a cause which goes beyond his trauma at the hands of Dr Lecter; Graham, as that articulate, cultured maniac recognises, is good at catching killers because he suffers from the same kind of compulsions as they do.

I’ve read Red Dragon twice, but it’s indistinguishable from the Michael Mann adaptation Manhunter to me. A very good film, but so eighties it hurts. Cue shots of William Petersen as Graham, staring moodily into the pale blue morning light, his face reflected in windows… backed by eighties synth.

Red Dragon has lots of big “thriller” moments, but its true horror is in its forensic detail of crime scenes. It’s well-researched, possibly in finer grain than we need. We don’t read about the initial crimes taking place, but we see their aftermath, up close. We go into the cold calculations needed to triangulate victims, motive and murderer. While the bodies are reduced to a forensic puzzle, Harris puts the victims’ humanity back into the book through the device of home-movies the families shot just before they were killed. Graham pores over these tapes of birthday parties and barbecues obsessively, trying to spot what might have attracted the Tooth Fairy.

There’s also a loathsome journalist, Freddy Lounds, who is enticed into helping out with the FBI’s investigation. Lounds’ fate was particularly interesting to me, given that Thomas Harris worked with the AP press agency for a number of years.

Red Dragon is not a whodunnit. We meet the killer, Dolarhyde, fairly quickly. When Dolarhyde meets a blind woman who takes a shine to him, something resembling humanity emerges. This doesn’t quite work. In reality someone like Dolarhyde would see Reba McClane as just another object to control and manipulate, and ultimately destroy. It was a sentimental touch from the author, a hint at something like personal redemption for his monster, something tragic. It’s contrived, and when Dolarhyde takes the blind woman to hug a tiger while the beast is under anaesthetic, it becomes clumsy.

But I can’t blame Harris for taking this turn. Everyone craves a little bit of light in something so appallingly dark.

The climax to the novel is a true shocker. Neither movie adaptation had the bottle to go through with it. If you remember Manhunter, you’ll recall Graham’s character diving through windows, his gun roaring with magic explosive bullets to kill the beast. Brett Ratner’s remake/reimagining/retread/reflux from a few years ago with Edward Norton ran very close to Harris’ original ending, but didn’t have the nerve to go all the way.

In both filmed versions, the brave knight slays the dragon, or helps to. Nietzsche quote epigram. Fade to moody blue.

Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon takes a different tack. Graham’s a victim, not a hero. It remains a deeply unsettling finale.

Red Dragon introduced Hannibal Lecter – polydactylous, maroon-eyed, a psychiatrist by day but a cannibal by night. He’s a caged beast, taking pleasure in taunting Graham from his cell. He even has a hand in the events that lead to the bloodbath in the beach house, ingeniously tipping off Dolarhyde, his former patient, as to where Graham lives. Lecter is the puppetmaster supreme.

The not-so-good doctor was a terrific supporting character, and arguably began a trope in Hollywood where heroes have a dialogue with an imprisoned antagonist (this appears again and again in superhero films). It’s a neat way of allowing deadly enemies to interact without recourse to fights or firearms.

Small wonder Harris returned to Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1988). From there, we might say his work went viral. It doesn’t hurt that a brilliant, and faithful, Hollywood adaptation appeared soon afterward, hoovering up Oscars left and right, giving an already successful book a kind of immortality.

Lambs follows FBI trainee Clarice Starling as she seeks help with her studies, meeting Lecter in his cell in the bowels of a secure unit. We know about their encounters almost by rote, now, thanks to Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins; their verbal jousts were instantly parodied in comedy shows and spoof movies, a sure indicator of great success. It’s a long-established cliché to say, “I remember Brian Cox as Lecter in Manhunter, and he was better”, but Anthony Hopkins’ performance got the medals, baby.

Although Lecter is urbane and gives the impression of being civilised, I can’t say that The Silence of the Lambs gave any hint that he is a romantic hero. He has a priggish concept of manners and propriety which wouldn’t be amiss in Downton Abbey. But for all that, he’s still a guy who butchers and eats people for a laugh.

Structurally, though, the narrative leans towards Lecter being a protagonist this time, not an antagonist. In tandem with Starling’s hunt for another maniac - the flaying/needlecraft expert Buffalo Bill - this story also looks at Lecter’s attempts to manipulate the system that contains him, and ultimately escape. It becomes his story as much as Starling’s.

This is similar to something I noticed about The Empire Strikes Back a few years ago. Vader, not Luke, is the tragic hero; searching obsessively for his lost son, letting nothing get in his way - and ultimately losing out. His dark heart’s true desire thwarted. Darth Valentino.

The Silence of the Lambs delved into psychotherapy territory – something we see again and again in the novels of the 1980s and 1990s, with characters attempting to get to the bottom of their own personalities and disorders as much as solving problems posed by the narrative. The apogee of this was Tim Burton’s Batman, its hero a walking therapy tutorial in fetish gear. In Lambs, Lecter cruelly exposes Starling’s character tics and failings, peeling away her defences as he uses scalpel-like insight to examine her childhood traumas.

Lecter takes a keen interest in Clarice beyond some latent professional curiosity. There is a note of sexuality - something that a gourmand like Lecter might pick out on the tip of his tongue - but no more than that. It flows in only one direction, if it’s present at all. You suspect that there’s a cerebral element to their dialogue that Lecter enjoys, and if a monster like him can truly feel tenderness towards another person, it’s of a strictly buttoned-up, almost Victorian variety. Lecter might well be a psychotic version of Hopkins’ character in The Remains of the Day.

In Lambs, there’s no question of these feelings being reciprocated by Starling. But that’s not to deny that some people could admire Lecter. Serial killers are notorious for drawing female attention after they’ve been found guilty and jailed. This is incomprehensible to most of us, but is undeniably true. An examination of the aberrant psychology involved might run something like this: There are some women in denial, who refuse to believe that such men could be guilty of these ghastly crimes, and seek to exonerate them. There are others who have a reforming zeal, who want to “claim” these lost souls and harness them into something better. And there are some who are simply turned on – seeing the serial killer as the ultimate alpha male in the pack, with his choice of mate.

Regardless of how true any of that is, none of these scenarios represent a mindset that we could project onto Starling with regard to Lecter.

That’s what makes the end of their story so astounding.

It’s about 16 years now since Hannibal (1999) was unleashed. Coming just before the Harry Potter hype machine really cranked up, the news Starling and Lecter would return in a sequel caused a frenzy in publishing at the time. But surely no-one, outside of grotesque fan fiction producers and consumers, could have seriously envisaged this pair ending up together.

Most people were expecting more of the same from Harris – Starling and Lecter’s paths crossing once again, a series of crimes that need solving and victims who need avenging, and then a final showdown. Not so.

Hannibal started out weird, got stranger, and ended up with a near laugh-out-loud finale. I was 23 when I read the paperback, and my first reaction to the final pages was stupefaction.

As the years have passed I’ve changed my tune. Hannibal is a masterpiece, an immense joke, a subversion of its genre, a true comedy in both form and content, and an underappreciated classic of its time.

Similar to what the late Wes Craven did to slasher films with Scream, Harris gleefully, deliberately sent up a genre he helped create. Instead of being played with or alluded to, the absurdity of Hannibal Lecter being portrayed as a hero was fully exploited. What was a mild, creepy hint in The Silence of the Lambs became the major component of the story which culminates in Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling consummating their relationship… and then dancing in the moonlight.

I can picture Harris’ initial meetings with agents and publishers, hands folded, a spotty handkerchief in his blazer pocket, eyes glittering.

“So, Tom, are we going to explore Starling and Lecter’s relationship in this book?”

“For sure.”

“And are we keeping in that hint that Lecter’s sweet on Starling?”

“Oh, I think we can manage a bit more than a hint.”

Standing ovation. What a pair of balls that took. I’ll never know how Harris got away with it. Maybe once you have an intellectual property that popular, you hold all the aces.

“I want to put Hannibal Lecter in space.”

“Sure thing, Tom. Whatever you say.”

Personally, I’d like to have seen this communion take place in an even more apt setting – the dinner table. Instead of f*cking Clarice, Lecter should have eaten her. Savouring every single morsel, taking infinite care in the preparation, agonising over what wine to use as an accompaniment. His magnum opus.

Even Ridley Scott, normally such an assured film-maker, didn’t know what to do with the property, getting his 2002 adaptation badly wrong. Jodie Foster - who, don’t forget, won an Oscar for playing Clarice Starling - stayed well away. We’ll never know if Scott wanted to film the ending as Harris wrote it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if studio bosses vetoed that idea. High-wire disembowellings, pigs eating people’s faces, flash-fried brain suppers… obviously, the violence is okay, but Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling becoming lovers and waltzing off stage like Fred and Ginger was a step too far. Leslie Nielsen, never mind Anthony Hopkins, should have taken the title role.

It comes across as a risible delusion of late-middle age; that a guy orbiting his twilight years can seem attractive to a beautiful, capable, clever woman in the prime of her life on account of his intelligence alone - ignoring some glaring deficiencies.

To be fair, there’s an element of Stockholm syndrome in Lecter and Clarice’s hook-up; a suggestion that her mind has disintegrated under conditioning and doping, with Lecter scooping up the pieces. But it was a breath-taking achievement to turn the third chapter of this very dark trilogy into an outright comedy, in form and execution.

That’s not to say Hannibal is a laugh riot. From its misty opening moments, when Lecter stalks Florence’s streets in his beautifully-cut clothes, with his perfect Italian and his imperious cultural knowledge, this king in exile is at the centre of a gothic horror. The bloody retribution carried out on the corrupt Florentine detective who figures out that the dapper professor is one of the FBI’s most wanted men is planned out from the very first page, a plot from a Poe story realised in a splash of entrails on ancient cobblestones.

From there, we meet poor old Mason Verger, one of Lecter’s former patients whom he persuaded to remove his own face after a special LSD-soaked therapy session. Verger has a twisted revenge in store – in the form of a buffet for man-eating pigs. Once news of Lecter’s whereabouts reaches Verger, a conspiracy is put in play to capture the not-so-good doctor, with Clarice Starling used as bait.

This book was sumptuous, meticulous in detail, but it has a sense of refinement and grandeur which I suspect its author failed to realise comes across as pompous. Lecter’s bilious balloon inflates and inflates and inflates, but never bursts. It’s common for superficial people – like psychopaths, I guess - to hold up something they enjoy as some kind of personal validation, whether that’s food, art, travel or, indeed, books, as compensation for their lack of human qualities. This comes across as exponentially silly with regard to Lecter.

“My god, this guy’s a one-man renaissance!”

Yeah. But he’s also a sordid, filthy murderer.

Perhaps these absurdities had to be addressed surreptitiously.

So, hats off to Thomas Harris. Had this book been about Starling and Lecter hunting each other, and then perhaps a confrontation which left Lecter dead and Starling glowering into the moody blue dawn, with some eighties synth parping away in the background… I’d have forgotten about it already.

Harris’ great joke of a novel beautifully subverts what I think is a problematic construct: Hannibal Lecter as hero. Added to this is the troubling idea that we should admire someone because they crack open a book now and again, or can recite some poetry… despite the fact they’re off-the-charts evil. It’s an entertaining book, but it also laughs in your face.

Unfortunately, not everyone got the joke. For some, Lecter may well be a hero. I’m sure Harris didn’t intend him to be as such, but if you create a monster, then some people will worship it.

Making a killer into someone to root for is problematic, if not exactly dangerous. Lecter’s not quite a cartoon character like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees; his crimes are fabricated and given the exaggeration of mainstream fiction, but of course, multiple murderers are a grim reality. I think I preferred Red Dragon’s clinical examination of these monsters to Hannibal’s operatic stylings.

However, in the 15 years since I read Hannibal, the technological revolution has changed our ideas of evil in society. Hannibal Lecter, with his private mania and hidden compulsions, the bodies of his victims strewn around for detectives to solve like an Edwardian parlour game, comes across as dated. Watching The Silence of the Lambs again is like when you stumble over an old episode of Friends, and the gang’s haircuts, make-up and pop culture references look like old hat. (“I scored some tickets for Hootie and the Blowfish!”) With a jolt, you’re aware how much time has passed, how much things have changed.

Consider that in the past few weeks we’ve seen a disturbed man shoot two people dead, live on television, before broadcasting his own footage on the internet for anyone who didn’t catch it first time around. Even in the early 1990s, this activity would have been restricted to sci-fi novels. We’re into an era where murderous fantasies can be facilitated and distributed by technology within seconds of it happening. Someone, somewhere, is making money off all those clicks. We have become consumers of murder.

The blame is the same: it rests on individuals. But ever since 9/11 - the nightmare that we saw in so much detail that we can almost imagine we were actually there - grim death, terror and even the most graphic, sadistic killings are now in our faces. Sitting there, right now, you’re only a rogue search engine keystroke away from humanity’s darkest depths. Things so bad we couldn’t even imagine them, until we saw them. And it can only get worse. How long before we get a complete first-person perspective gun massacre, a video game nightmare come true?

There may come a time when we look to Hannibal Lecter’s evil as a reflection of a more innocent time. Like Dracula, he will become a safe monster, to be played with and then stored away in his box at bedtime. Someone to dress up as at Halloween. No harm done. 

January 1, 2016


Wherein we squawk about our favorite books from 2015

J.S. Colley:

The books I enjoyed this year are, in no particular order:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper, a story about an 83-year-old woman who sets out to hike 3,232 kilometers across rural Saskatchewan, Canada to the sea. She leaves a note for her husband, Otto, that reads, “I will try to remember to come back,” and a box of recipe cards so he won’t go hungry. Russell is their neighbor who has loved Etta from afar for years, and James is a coyote who befriends Etta on her long journey. It’s a poignant novel covering a myriad of themes, ranging from aging, illness, death, friendship, love and loss.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt: A Novel by Tracy Farr. After losing her mother and her father, Lena Gaunt is introduced to the Theremin, a musical instrument that is played without physical contact. (This is a real instrument—who knew?) Sounds are produced by the oscillations of the musician’s arms and hands. But that’s not the only odd thing about this novel. The protagonist is a bisexual, octogenarian junkie. While I thought a few of the plot points were forced—something that has annoyed me with a few works of modern literature—it was, overall, an excellent read.

It’s fascinating what will spark a novelist’s imagination. Tracy Farr read about the Theremin and, from there, created this whole world—this fictional life—of Lena Gaunt. Imagination truly is a gift, for both the reader as well as the writer.

The Moon Casts a Spell: A Novella (The Child of the Erinyes) by Rebecca Lochlann. I wanted to give a shout-out to this companion novella to Lochlann’s larger volumes in The Child of the Erinyes series, which follows the lives of three people through various incarnations. In this installment, fate brings them together on the “windswept isle of Barra, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.” The atmospheric setting casts a spell over the reader. Will the trio ever discover their link to the ancient past? This novella will help Lochlann’s fans endure the wait until the next full-length novel in her new series is published.

Bill Kirton:

Lisa Hinsley was a very gifted, sensitive young author. I first came across her through her book, My Demon, which I enjoyed very much. Through a friendship on Facebook, I also came to know her as a warm, compassionate person who had lots of time for other people and was perennially positive. This was true of her even as she fought cancer for three and a half years, telling us of her tribulations but with never a sign of the self-pity or ‘Why me?’ which comes so naturally with the condition. When she went into hospital for the last time, she was the focus of an online party which she herself described as, literally, 'a party till you drop’. It was a joyous event which went on for many weeks, filled, on Lisa’s insistence, with laughter and happy, uplifting contributions. If any partygoer let any of the underlying sadness show, it was Lisa who raised their spirits through her astonishing bravery and example. She died on December 9th this year, just 2 days before her birthday, but left an example of how to live for everyone who knew her, even if only online.

So, while it’s always difficult for me to say which of the books I enjoyed is ‘better’ than the others, this year the choice is easy. It’s Stolen, by Lisa. Not because of its deathless prose, its insights and revelations or any particularly literary qualities (although it has plenty), but because it was written by one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known. I don’t believe in an afterlife but I really wish there were one - just for Lisa.

Pat Black:

For new books, I enjoyed Sarah Lotz's The Three. Part ghost story, part conspiracy thriller, written in a unique style. Extremely unsettling. 

But my choice is Roger Deakin's Waterlog. Classic nature writing, one of the best books I've read in years. 

Marc Nash:

A story that dissects a husband and wife's love so expertly.

A book that tears back the veil of communication and how double-edged it is and how easy to misinterpret meaning.

A science fiction world that wears its inventiveness very lightly, yet somehow manages to authentically conjure up a truly alien sensibility.

A novel about religious faith which I would normally run a million miles from rather than read and enjoy.


December 17, 2015


In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have

Most-slapped person at parties: Pat Black

Long before I learned how much fun it is to give lawyers all your money, I put John Grisham's 1990s legal thrillers in the dock.

During a strange period of my life in between my final year at school and the end of my first year at university, I emerged from a long-lasting horror novel phase into what I thought were more "varied" types of fiction. In truth these were not so much interesting books as different types of commercial fiction.

On top of genuine curiosity and a love of books, there was method in my mediocrity. I wanted to know what made these headline act novels tick, no matter what the genre. I wanted to learn how to write one.

I took a punt on The Firm (1991), moving out of my fiction comfort zone, and surprised myself by really enjoying it. Grisham’s breakthrough blockbuster showcased what I believe are the two greatest assets of any commercially successful novelist: pace and plot. 

Grisham can crank out a tale. He knows when to take a break from the main action, when to drop in a twist or two, and - I wouldn't suggest for a minute this was any consequence of his legal career - he knows how to construct a tangled, twisted storyline peopled by amoral bastards.

The Firm’s hero has a comic book name: Mitch McDeere. MM is a hotshot fresh out of grad school, having finished near the top of the class at Harvard where, like all straight-A swots, he was probably reviled. He has a beautiful wife, and is going places. He's hired by the firm in the title, and seduced with the promise of great wealth as well as the odd trip to the Caribbean for "work". 

As a scrubby 17-year-old living in a squalid tenement with utterly no prospects, I was goggle-eyed at the scenes of McDeere working out his terms of employment. "And did the man say Mercedes?"

I must confess to some rumblings of envy, and perhaps a little belch of greed. Maybe I should have done Law instead of this Arts and Social Studies nonsense, I thought to myself...

McDeere ties up his big house and fancy car, but things aren't quite what they seem at the firm. Some of his colleagues die unusually, and messily. Not quite “fall into an industrial liquidiser” unusual, but odd enough to raise an eyebrow or two.

McDeere hires a private eye to do some digging, and finds out that the firm is actually a front for a massive money-laundering operation for the mafia. McDeere appears to be at the end of a long trail of dead lawyers once attached to the company. 

Things get tastier when McDeere is contacted by the FBI, who offer him a choice not many of us would relish: snitch on the mafia and go into witness protection for the rest of your days, or remain on the inside, knowing that if you don't end up in jail, you're probably going to have an unfortunate accident. 

McDeere takes a gamble, and plays the two sides off against each other. 

Sub-plots are nicely blended in. There's McDeere's brother, a convict who helps put him onto the private investigator. McDeere's wife has a hand in stealing documents relating to the firm's illegal activities, a vital bargaining chip with the FBI. The private eye's investigations would make a great tale on their own.

There's also an intriguing moment when McDeere's McD gets the better of his McBrain on a sandy beach one starry night. This leads to horrible complications when it turns out he's been humping away on top of a buried honey trap.

These secondary elements were handled well. It's a lesson in thriller writing; that's how you keep a big novel moving. 

Most of us can only dream of how it must have felt for Grisham, selling millions of copies, knowing the book was going to be turned into a movie starring Tom Cruise, knowing he was made for life, a dazzling career up and running. It can't be too far off how Mitch McDeere feels when he's handed the keys to the kingdom. Into the great wide open, indeed. 

Great success in publishing is experienced by very few of us. Sometimes it's down to a mixture of simple luck, good contacts, Jedi-level editing, a stout advertising budget, pure hype… and already being famous. But sometimes you have to take your hat off to talent, and Grisham, in his plotting and execution, has it in the locker. 

(Talent, not my hat.) 

I returned to Grisham for The Pelican Brief (1992). This one follows a hotshot law school undergrad, Darby Shaw, who discovers that a couple of top judges were assassinated as part of a plot to force through oil drilling on environmentally-protected land, a habitat for endangered pelicans (ta-da, title!). 

As in The Firm, once the conspiracy is discovered, bodies start dropping, including Shaw's college professor (and lover). This type of "uncovered corruption" story used to feature journalists as the key guys, and Grisham acknowledges this by switching the action to a newspaper and introducing the other main character, a hack with the slightly less impressive superhero name of Gray Grantham. 

There's a siege of sorts at the newspaper offices as Darby seeks refuge under the protective wing of the free press, hoping that those silly old concepts, truth and justice, will prevail. 

This one had the same elements which helped make The Firm a hit, though its finale fizzled out rather than exploded (arguably this was The Firm's weakest point, too). It's an engrossing thriller, though. 

These are aggressively American novels. By that, I mean that they have a strong strand of the classic American Dream in their DNA. Mitch McDeere and Darby Shaw are master-swots. They come top of the class. They work incredibly hard - McDeere bills 100-hour weeks; Shaw's life is an avalanche of case files - but their rewards are in sight, and achievable. It all pays off for them. They succeed on their own merit.

I can see how my younger self was hoodwinked by this notion that if you work hard enough at anything, success must follow. This is a strangely American conceit, and of course it's absolute nonsense, in the same way as the plucky Briton who reaches the top through a mixture of luck, charm and unstructured natural talent is also total bunk.

Hard work was never a barrier to success, of course. But we know that many successful people are on the fast-track to the big time before they've even popped out of the womb, and sometimes rewards bear little relation to how hard their recipients worked.

These go-getter heroes of western capitalism with their bizarre fetish for cosmetic dentistry are very rare in UK stories. We tend to champion less obviously successful characters, and usually outright underdogs. There's something peculiar in the British national character that tends to sneer at a clever, neatly-turned-out, well-educated, ambitious person. 

I'm not saying either stance is right or wrong; every "winner" I've ever met could do with adding a bit of humility to their game. Equally, crazy, quirky people trying to bumble through life on the strength of charm, eccentricity, a nebulous concept of "natural talent" and nebbish self-deprecation could benefit from lessons in hard graft and assertiveness. 

But it's interesting to me when US and UK cultures clash. We share a language, popular culture and some traditional and ethnic elements, and there's an almost reflexive tendency to think the countries are the same, or at least close siblings. They're not.

Once The Pelican Brief had flown, my John Grisham story came to an abrupt end. I began to pay more attention to the classics, left-field literature, cult properties and generally more interesting books than what appeared in the window at WH Smith. But I did have a third bite at Grisham's tasty torts in The Brethren (2000). 

It's not one of Grisham's better-known books, but is well worth checking out. It follows three judges who've been jailed for a variety of crimes. They operate a blackmail scam from their cells, targeting well-known politicians and celebrities who are secretly gay, and extorting cash out of them for their retirement fund when they are finally released. One of their targets is involved in a political assassination, and soon they draw attention from criminals, political Mephistopheles and Machiavellis and, as before, the FBI. 

What struck me was the sheer nastiness of the plotting, the calculated way the Brethren reeled their marks in, and how skilfully they manoeuvred out of tight situations, both inside and outside jail. This is a book without heroes, and no-one to root for - just a set of bastards trying to work things out to their satisfaction. It's a tight, and surprisingly tart piece of work. 

Case closed. One thing about all these books of yesteryear: although I could make a great case for the defence of physical books, one undeniable argument in favour of e-readers is that you don't have to go far to find the stuff. In just a couple of clicks, you can have them downloaded. That can’t be a bad thing.

:: Next: The Blind Reviewer feels his way into one last review... But he might have to tread carefully. He's in a basement of some kind... 

Christ, it's all sticky in here. Is this some kind of wall? Am I stuck in a well

I knew I should have told someone I'd been invited to Thomas Harris' house...