October 17, 2017

WATCHING THE DETECTIVES:

Kurt Wallander

Faceless Killers
by Henning Mankell
304 pages, Vintage

Review by Pat Black

The first Wallander story, Faceless Killers, appeared in 1991, but its themes might have dated from the past fortnight.

The Swedish inspector’s first published case is a murder at a remote farmhouse, which sees an elderly man and his wife battered and garrotted by one or more intruders.

The only clue is revealed in the chilling opening chapter after a kindly neighbour realises the couple haven’t followed their usual routine, and arrives just in time to hear the dying wife’s last word:

“Foreigners.”

Heading the police inquiry is Kurt Wallander. Try not to roll your eyes, now (or eye, if you only have one): he’s in crisis, his wife having left him, and his daughter – who survived a suicide attempt - doesn’t speak to him. He drinks, and sometimes gets in his car afterwards. He is perhaps not best suited to such a high-pressure, responsible job.

Hmm. Any character tics or foibles? Yep, of the Morse-y variety: he listens to opera on cassette tapes.

I’ve noticed Scandie Noir detectives are bang into their pastries and coffee, and Wallander is no exception. At time of writing, this doesn’t half put me in the mood for pastries and coffee. I imagine the writers, tucking into pastries and coffee as they type – about pastries and coffee - chuckling as they imagine their readers also tucking into pastries and coffee, or wishing they could. It is a curious metaphysical symbiosis, akin to someone reading Bukowski poetry about getting blootered in a pub, composed when he was blootered in a pub, while they themselves are getting blootered in a pub.

Wallander is horrified by the crime. It’s seemingly without motive, and there are no witnesses. But matters take an even more sinister turn when the dying wife’s last words are leaked to the public.

In the context of the story, Sweden has been taking in refugees in great numbers, and this has already caused tensions among the established population. So the idea of “foreigners” coming to Sweden and slaughtering an old couple ignites nasty, white supremacist tendencies.

Wallander is warned in a series of anonymous phone calls that “something will be done soon unless you catch them”. Something is done – first, a cardboard village is torched, and then a black refugee is executed at random, in cold blood, his head blown off with a shotgun.

So our hero has two major inquiries to sort out – the double killing at the farmhouse, and then the asylum seeker’s shooting – and all while his boss is on holiday.

The late Henning Mankell wrote this book as a response to similar tensions affecting Sweden in 1990. Their parallels with the present day are all too clear.

Mankell was aghast at the racism which emerged in Sweden in response to the influx of refugees. At the same time, he advocated controlled immigration, rather than doors flung open to just anyone. On the face of it, that’s a common sense approach - except I’m not sure that the latter scenario marks the actual truth. “They’re just letting anyone in” sounds a bit like a myth spewed out at the pub by a boozed-up farmer who doesn’t live within five miles of anyone non-white – and he’ll tell you he still thinks Brexit is a good idea, while he’s at it.

Whatever the case, this is a view that Wallander shares, and makes explicit in the book.

His investigation, much like any real-life inquiry, is a methodical, logical process; speaking to witnesses, finding discrepancies in stories and tracking down Persons of Interest. Wallander is led down a few blind alleys, but by and large he follows reasoned steps to find his killers. He even gets a couple of action scenes - one while on stakeout, another as he chases down some bad guys.

I liked the procedural element. There are few if any credibility-stretching leaps of logic disguised as insight, and a wilful rejection of the guess-the-killer card game of most whodunnits. With detective stories, there’s a constant tension between a realistic depiction of police work and the need to create an engaging puzzle. Wallander is more on the side of the nitty-gritty than many of his contemporaries.

Wallander also tries to seduce his district’s new chief prosecutor. She’s a young, ambitious woman who rattles his cage with her attitude – read “competence” – before haunting his daydreams. He is punching well above his weight, here. It comes across as some last-beer-in-the-crate fantasy of a middle-aged, bang-out-of-shape man; the delusion that the good looking woman in the office wants his body.

It seems doubtful that anyone would want Wallander’s body - he is a mess, dishevelled, hung over most of the time, just about clinging to the cliff-face of life. Why a married, accomplished woman would want to get mixed up with someone who screams “loser” at you from a long way off is anyone’s guess, but we probably all know cases where this has happened.

This encounter was problematic as Wallander initially forces himself on her. He does, thankfully, take no for an answer, but even at a gap of nigh-on 30 years, I think he’d end up in trouble in real life for this. Eventually, though, he succeeds.

Maybe I’m a little bit too uptight on this score. Perhaps it’s all down to that mythologised Scandinavian openness over matters of the flesh. I once asked a Swedish person I studied with if this tabloid aspect of his national character had any basis in truth, and he assured me it did. Well, you would say that. There are some national stereotypes that people enjoy living up to. Like if you had a national trait that championed hard drinking or proficiency at violence; some folk would rather this assumption was made about them on first impressions than not.

Whatever the case, I thought Wallander was a wee bit out of line.

There are some fascinating side-characters, including a hard-working lieutenant who does a lot of the spade work for Wallander. This was true to life, as real murder investigations can use dozens of officers making hundreds of inquiries, and not just one maverick gumshoe on his own, eating pastries and drinking coffee, on a hangover.

I was intrigued by Wallander’s father, who lives on his own and suffers from dementia. I felt sure there was Meaning to be found in the old man. He’s an artist, famous for painting the same scene and figures, over and over again. The old boy, who lives alone, has taken to downing his paintbrushes and wandering off into the background, in one case vanishing for a day before the authorities pick him up.

Wallander is worried sick for his dad, and knows the time will come when a hard decision must be taken.

Should we read something into this? Should we see a more romantic notion of Swedish life and society grown corrupt, become sad and dysfunctional?

Even if you choose to read nothing into it, Wallander’s first case is worth checking out. 

October 6, 2017

FIELD NOTES:

Country Matters on Booksquawk

Being A Beast, Adventures Across the Species Divide, by Charles Foster
256 pages, Profile Books

Review by Pat Black

I wouldn’t like to ask for this one over the counter at Waterstones. Imagine having to repeat yourself to the person at the till:  

“No, it’s Being – A – Beast.”  

The inquiry would go out on the public address system across the entire shop (which, naturally, would be the busiest bookshop in the world at that point): “Gentleman at the till wants Being A Beast, that’s Being A Beast… This guy here wants to Be A Beast…”

I picture something going terribly wrong somewhere – or, an evil gremlin getting involved. Perhaps it would be sniggering Rob – there’s always a sniggering Rob – who wrote and illustrated the shelf-stack index card blurb for Fear And Loathing with his own marker pen.  

Soon, a beautiful girl appears at the counter. “Was this the book you wanted, sir?”

Front cover: Jimmy Savile.

But, this book isn’t concerned with that kind of beast. Charles Foster’s natural history effort seeks to go that little bit further than his peers in an increasingly crowded field. He wants to know what some of Britain’s most famous creatures actually experience. He wants to go as close as he can to the lives of badgers, foxes, otters, stags and swifts. He wants to run, eat, sleep, pee and poo like these animals.

Surely, you think to yourself, this is a wind-up.

It might be a wind-up. Foster’s tongue is firmly in his cheek throughout, but Being A Beast is not just a journey into English whimsy, guided by someone who has worn tweed on purpose.  

There’s some scholarship on show, a physiological examination of how animals process the world through their senses, and how they differ to us in that regard. Foster carefully steers between the Scylla and Charybdis of nature writing: anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. He comes to the same conclusions as John Lewis-Stempel in Meadowland. We can never know precisely what goes through a badger’s mind, but there’s surely an equivalent, something both species can relate to. Most of us have eyes and ears and tongues, same as our fellow mammals. We share many characteristics with fish and birds. And we’ve all got to eat.

Foster says the experience of people who have synaesthesia (they might “taste” colours, or process sounds visually) is as close a match as we can get to trying to express the sensory world of the animals – the fox creeping through gloomy alleyways; the otter zipping after fish in the water; the badger prowling the forest floor by moonlight.

Sadly, Foster doesn’t engage with the animal kingdom by going Full Furry. It surely crossed his mind to don a giant badger or fox suit. When he heads into the forest accompanied by his son, I imagined them walking hand-in-hand in a cute parent-and-child badger onesie combo. Would that make it a twosie? Hmm.

Nor does he go naked, reasoning – persuasively – that most animals have highly specialised “natural” clothing that helps them survive the outdoor environment, which humans lack. This did beg a question from me: why are humans naked? But that’s for someone else’s book.

There’s something to learn in each of the sections. For example, badgers are highly social animals, with long-established hierarchies, even down to the generations that came before them whose bodies are incorporated into the walls of their setts. We are shown how the fox’s body is perfectly calibrated to the horizon to allow it to look around while it is depositing droppings. The otter’s world is always on fast-forward, its metabolism a nightmarish electrical crackle of activity. And then we are shown how far the swift travels in service of its unknowable rhythms.

There’s no disguising the foolishness of this enterprise, and Foster is happy to address that, recording the opinions of everyone around him as they tell him he must be off his head. Foster gets a farmer to dig him a trench near a forest, covers it over with branches and acts like a badger. He builds a den in his garden and comes out at night, like a fox. He dons neoprene and turns over submerged stones in rivers with his nose. He is chased through the Highlands of Scotland by friends with dogs, in an attempt to become a stag.

Sadly, he does not don Acme-style wings and leap off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote style, in an attempt to become a swift. They are things of permanent wonder, it seems. We’d best look to the poets for guidance there.

It’s very silly, but done in deadly earnest, and thankfully Foster gets the picture before he comes to any harm. Perhaps the most dangerous moment is when he becomes an urban fox, and a policeman comes across him while he is sleeping in some bushes. The conversation they have is straight out of a badly-dated sitcom (“Are you trying to be clever, sir?”), but Foster does come close to trouble more than once. Discretion might have been a better bet when he decides to stay in his badger sett during an immense, best-since-records-began storm. Later, when he mentions how lovely a woman looks through her bathroom window, as spotted from an alleyway, you’re bound to raise an eyebrow or two.

How animals eat, and how they go about obtaining their food, is the part that stuck out the most for me - but not for any palatable reason. If you’re squeamish, I’d recommend avoiding the next few paragraphs.

This book is disgusting. It opens up with the sensation of biting into an earthworm. Earthworms are a key part of badgers’ diet, and so they must become Foster’s, too. He ruminates on the different tastes of worms in different parts of the world. French worms are a gourmand’s delight, you won’t be surprised to hear, but some, unearthed close to urban landfill sites, taste of nappies.

Foster encourages his son to eat worms, too.

Scoffing creepy crawlies is not a problem. Biting into minnows which have bellies full of larvae similarly presents no difficulty. Foster can identify the types of maggot that can be found in different sources, whether that’s dead animals or dung, and encourages his children to do so as well. It’s all good nourishment.

So, too, is the stuff that humans throw away in the city, which foxes thrive on – half-eaten portions of rice in takeaway containers, chicken legs, spare ribs, and of course, dead pizza, enough to pave a city with. Strewth, we waste so much, Foster thinks, nibbling on a rancid spicy chicken wing.

As he roots through bins, Foster wonders at the human phobia of other people’s saliva. I think you might find basic hygiene reasons are behind that one, fella, which are similar to the reasons we don’t eat out of bins unless we really have to.

He’s undoubtedly playing with us here, but there is food for thought. Only, you might find you’ve lost your appetite somewhat.

Matters of dung are delved into with both hands – and kneaded, stretched, tenderised and sniffed. Foster seems to violate a basic rule by shitting where he eats in his sett, but I’d guess he had researched that one already and was quite happy with the decision.

While he lives as an otter by the riverbank, Foster and his four children take part in sprainting – leaving droppings, to mark territory. They all endeavour to identify each other’s spraints based on known characteristics of the members of the brood, as well as what the family was eating over the previous day or so.

The Foster pack’s momma bear is curiously absent from Being A Beast, but it’s not a stretch to imagine her thoughts and feelings on this and other matters.

And of course, in nosing through the long grass, Foster encounters a lot of dog turds. I half-expected him to stumble out of the vegetation like some English Rambo, smeared with the stuff as camouflage. “I wonder why we don’t use it as a natural skin cream? After all, it’s packed with nutrients.” He doesn’t say or do this, of course, but he is swimming along the same pipe. It would be no surprise if he did so.

So, the book’s an acquired taste, you might say. It led to one vivid nightmare where I was helping myself to squirming worms, as Foster does, like they were peanuts in a bowl at a party. I could well imagine their horrid final moments, their frantic struggle for life on my tongue. More tragic still (though slightly less disgusting) are worms who simply give up, just at the moment before they are crushed between two human molars. They stop moving, Foster informs us. They accept their fate, and their lowly place in the food chain.

In the stags section, Foster outlines his previous life as a hunter. After term time was over at his prestigious university, he would pack up and head to the Highlands. There, he would stalk and destroy magnificent red deer in sprawling estates, his progress steered and his shooting prowess flattered by tough but deferential wee Scottish men with terse accents and flat caps.

Now, Foster’s apology for this behaviour in his youth is explicit, and he is similarly transparent about his subsequent environmental enlightenment and his love for animals. He has no desire whatsoever to shoot anything now. Indeed, the section where he tries to be a stag could be seen as expiatory, as he reverses roles and tries to live his life as a hunted animal.

Foster is apologetic about his past life in blood sports, but he is not ashamed of it. He used to love it; he relished the sharpening of the senses, the tingling sensation of closing in on prey after hours of patient stalking.

I don’t know the guy. I don’t know where he came from. But Charles Foster appears to be a successful man in real life, a barrister, well-qualified with the relevant paperwork from Oxford or Cambridge. I presume he is paid well. Was it natural selection that allowed Foster to research, write and publish books about his crazy whimsical journeys through the British countryside and other parts of the planet? Some innate talent honed across the generations? Was it hard work - sheer graft - that pulled him up by the bootlaces? Did he survive and prosper by his wits, intelligence and raw instinct? Or was something else at play - some natural resource enjoyed only by a few?

That’s not to belittle his character, wit or intelligence. Foster is rough and ready enough, charging into canals with his clothes on after pub sessions, and making friends with live Glaswegians. But his progress calls to mind a treacherous observation I could not suppress about the lovely Roger Deakin: that it takes lots of money and spare time to become a gentleman author of natural history books. We’d all like to have a house in the country with a moat around it.

This, I am aware, is chippy on my behalf - my own flaw as a simple mammal. But the thought persists, and I have to let it run free. I can say no more without sullying my own happy experiences of nature writing, and those who write it.

Let’s not leave things on an uncomfortable note. This is a fine book, lots of fun with plenty of laughs. Crucially, it teaches without being didactic, a very difficult trick. It falters a little during the final section on swifts, but Foster has done enough by that point to allow us the indulgence of his travels in the bird’s slipstream.

I’ve read some truly great books as part of this journey through the fields and meadows, taken while there’s still some blue in the sky – and this was another one.

It’s colder, today. There’s a change in the air. Things are on the turn. 

September 24, 2017

READY PLAYER ONE

by Ernest Cline
345 pages, Arrow

(This review is of the audio version, read by Wil Wheaton. Yes, that one)

Review by Pat Black

Ready Player One. This is the dream we all dream of.

The phone goes: it’s Spielberg. You assume it’s a joke, a prank played by your pals. But after some pre-watershed-sitcom misunderstandings in which he chuckles at your growing consternation, you find out that no, it’s actually Spielberg.

He wants to adapt your book into a movie. Shall we draw up some paperwork? Sign here to become a total winner. Your official title is now Sir Victor de Jacquepotte. No, don’t bother going back to work on Monday. We’ll send a limo round to collect your P45.

This actually happened to Ernest Cline with Ready Player One. It’ll be a movie soon, directed by the most famous film-maker who ever lived. Ooh, you jammy bugger. Talk about finding the Grail.

Set in 2044, the novel tells the story of a teenage shut-in called Wade Watts who spends his spare time in a fully-immersive virtual reality world called the Oasis. Provided you’ve got the equipment, the Oasis is free to access. You can go to school in it, play games in it, “interact” with others in it, and do pretty much whatever you want in it, across countless virtual galaxies, in any realistic or fantasy setting you could wish for. You can create worlds; you can fight people; you can make love. You can hunt dragons, complete quests, direct space battles, become a kung fu master or a sports hero – anything you like, any way you like it. It even has a pseudo economy, a virtual currency system using experience points – basically a personal scoreboard after you complete games, pick up artefacts, pass exams, or whatever.

You control your 3D avatar with haptic gloves and visors. Some sensory information is added to whatever you can see, depending on how up-to-date your set-up is.

All of this happens while you are sat in your house, oblivious to the real world.

The inventor of the Oasis is a tech geek/punk baron called James Halliday, a composite of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and that guy who wrote Chuckie Egg. When Halliday dies, a great game begins – the search for the ultimate Easter egg, hidden somewhere in the Oasis, which will grant the finder Halliday’s entire fortune – hundreds of billions of dollars.

People who look for the Egg are called Gunters. These are the amateurs, and there are millions of them. But with all that lolly on offer, you can bet that corporate interests start getting involved. These are represented by the boo-hiss baddies of IOI industries, a tech firm with designs on control of the Oasis, monetising it, and doing all that bad old capitalist stuff.

People flock to the Oasis because the real world is shit. Cline posits a future where the Great Recession never ended. As time ticks on, this moves from an outrageous prospect to prescience. This is a vision of the western world in irrevocable decline. The environment is a nightmare, junk food is a normal diet, public services are almost non-existent, crime is endemic and… let’s just stick a big “dystopia” label on it.

Wade – who calls himself Parzival in the Oasis, a nod to his Arthurian quest for Halliday’s Egg – has one friend in the virtual world, a fellow 1980s geek and video game nerd called Aech (pronounced as the letter H), who you can be certain is not what they seem.

Parzival is obsessed with pop culture from the decade that Halliday became a teenager and got interested in computing. As a result of painstaking research, Wade/Parzival succeeds where millions of others have failed over the years, and uncovers a clue which will help him find one of three keys which he needs to claim the Egg.

Along with Aech, Parzival teams up with other virtual partners, including the geek Dream Girl trope, Art3mis, as well as two Japanese brothers, Daito and Shoto. With the villainous IOI agents taking a murderous interest in his activities, a classic treasure hunt is on.

This involves solving riddles and playing classic video games such as Joust and Pac-Man, but also includes Dungeons and Dragons modules, the back catalogue of Rush, the movie War Games, primeval text-based eight-bit adventure games, and many other pre-internet geeky touchstones.

I had a wee problem with this.

One thing which must exasperate authors is when readers hit them with criticism that boils down to: You didn’t write the novel I was expecting. Why didn’t you write your book like this (inserts own idea)?

I can’t avoid this with Ready Player One.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite comic strips was The Computer Warrior. It appeared in The Eagle, and came out during the Triassic era of British home computing in 1985. It has more than a hint of Tron about it, but if Edgar Wright ever wanted to adapt a British comic book property, The Computer Warrior is a perfect fit.

In it, a kid gets sucked into a virtual realm through his Commodore 64-type machine. Here, computer games become reality – you fight for real. If you lose, you are sent to The Nightmare Zone. 

This is where his best mate ended up; so the kid has to complete several computer games in order to win his friend’s freedom. To begin with, the games were fictional, generic Space Invader-type battles. Then someone hit upon the idea of using real-world computer games as a promotional tie-in. So the Computer Warrior played Wizard of Wor, Gauntlet, Pastfinder, Desert Fox, Side Arms and many other now-classic, sometimes forgotten games, before completing his quest. The strip was a big success, and ran for a whopping nine years, right up until Eagle closed.

I expected Ready Player One would be something like The Computer Warrior. It isn’t.

During key moments, when Parzival has to play classic games in order to find one of the keys or clear the gates for the next stage, I thought we’d have a description of someone playing a real-world version of these digital relics. The thoughts and feelings of Pac-Man, as he chomps his way around the maze, avoiding ghosts; now that’s something I’d want to read.

But you don’t get anything like this – you read about a kid standing in front of a games cabinet, mashing buttons and hunting for quarters in his pockets. It’s not quite the same, nor is it anywhere near as exciting.

Why didn’t you write your novel this way?

I know, I know.

The treasure hunt parts were fun, although the increasingly smug, high-five eighties geek lore references did get on my wick. I’m not saying I was the cool kid at school or anything but there’s something horrendously lame about this kind of behaviour.

So we get lots of references to video games, movies, TV shows and board games - most you’ll get, some you won’t. (One big thing that was missing, for me, was adventure gamebooks – the Fighting Fantasy/roll a dice games, or good old Choose Your Own Adventure.) These things have a currency in their own right, as the geeks compete either consciously or unconsciously, testing themselves to see who has the most knowledge of digital arcana, fully referenced, sourced, dated, accredited and annotated.  You wonder if scientists do the same thing; or academics; or cloistered monks a thousand years ago, poring over illuminated manuscripts.

Away from the trivia, there are some very serious points to be made in Ready Player One, and it is here that the book works best.

For a start, this book has lots to say about a life lived online. At one point Wade comes right out and says it: I’m a fat, pimply recluse. A shut-in. A loser. The only reason he isn’t in his mom’s basement is because mom’s long dead.

The book’s best part is when Wade is made a legalised slave for IOI industries. He works in tech support, and hates it. His stinging comments to mouth-breathing Oasis users are filtered out automatically by AI, and his very tone of voice is modulated so as not to offend. There’s a delicious cynicism in these parts; the revenge of patronised IT workers the world over.

Cline explores the idea that, in the future, having accrued astounding levels of personal debt, young people will become indentured to big companies. Wade is given enough food and shelter to exist on, with the dangled carrot of “paying off” his dues through work, which he never will.

The book is excellent during these parts. It was almost disappointing to jump out of Wade’s real world and back into Parzival’s digital grail quest. In these sections, Ready Player One was exceptional.

Cline also warns us about the perils of meeting people online. Now I have met people online and am happy to say I’m friends with them, despite never having met them face-to-face. But when you cross the boundary into love, romance, or just plain old sex, Problems Can Occur. I know folk who have met partners online, either through dating sites or shared interest forums, and I say to them: well played. There’s good sense in filtering out personality elements or interests in a potential mate which clash with your own. But you still have that messy, awkward, social interaction thing to do in real life, with all its blemished wonders.

Sex will be a key driver of virtual reality, as it has been in lots of entertainment technology (John Waters’ infamous quote about the real reason VHS was invented springs to mind). To his great credit, Cline goes there, outlining exactly what a computer geek shut-in like Wade will do for teenage kicks in this wild digital frontier. Have you seen those weird lifelike Japanese dolls? They’re targeted right at the Otaku, you can count on it. This stuff is moving faster than Chuck Palahniuk can imagine it. People are doing this right now.

There is another moment where Cline pulls the rug out from under us, when it seems Parzival and Art3mis are going to fulfil the story’s romantic requirements at a virtual nightclub in the Oasis. It’s almost a John Hughes or Cameron Crowe movie moment, complete with soaring pop music epiphany… almost… Until Art3mis brutally rips the needle off the record.

This scene was the best in the book. It was a necessary collision between unbridled fantasy and harsh reality. These things happen to most folk in teenage life, regardless of technology, but it will be food for thought for anyone who is enthused about all the distractions and controversies virtual reality is bound to bring. The most basic of which is: none of it is real.

If you scoff at the idea of people spending their lives plugged into machinery and experiencing nothing of the world outside, you should consider how computers are already an indispensable part of our existence. Your working day; your shopping; your aimless babble on Twitter, your herd mentality likes and shares; the commercial-break reality you serve up for friends and relatives on Facebook; the porn you climax to; the book reviews you read. At the risk of donning a full Chicken Little outfit, there are surely grave dangers in making our online existence even more immersive than it already is.

Whiny nerd voice: Why on earth didn’t you finish this novel with the words Player Two Has Entered The Game?

Now, I’m off for a run in the sunshine. Time for fresh air and exercise.

During my run I will listen to music on headphones, to help me forget the pain, the tiredness, the sweat, and the tedium. Later on, I’ll write some fiction, in the hope of one day taking people’s attention away from what’s really happening in their lives.

Maybe one day I’ll get my own call from Spielberg - who knows? Then people can sit down in a darkened room and see my fantasies projected onto a screen for a couple of hours, lost in a world of their own.

Reality can be over-rated. 

September 15, 2017

THE PRINCESS DIARIST

by Carrie Fisher
288 pages, Black Swan

(This review is of the audio version, read by Carrie Fisher and Billie Lourd)

Review by Pat Black

It’s something Carrie Fisher must have dreaded at first - people coming up to her and saying: “You were my first crush…” 

Over time this apprehensiveness mutated into many different things – boredom; hilarity; wry acceptance; shock and awe; even love, in return.

In her writing and on talk shows, Fisher made great comic capital out of being Princess Leia, the poster girl and fantasy fixation for millions of adolescent boys (and not a few girls). She was a very funny, talented and creative person.

Was. Ouch.

The Princess Diarist feels like it only came out about five minutes ago, and it sharpens a worldwide sense of grief over the still-stunning fact that the woman who played everyone’s favourite space princess is gone.

It contains Carrie Fisher’s actual diaries from 40 years ago, penned when she made the original Star Wars movie, aged just 19. However, that’s only a portion of the book. For the most part, it’s a memoir, written in the style of the role she played in the last couple of decades of her life: Carrie Fisher, raconteur.

Most of this book deals with the Star Wars shoot in the United Kingdom all those years ago, with a young cast who probably couldn’t have imagined even in their most stoned moments how successful George Lucas’ space opera would become.  

Well, I say “young”… are you still young at 34, the age Harrison Ford was when he first played Han Solo? That seems young-ish to me. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The main meat of this book is Fisher’s relationship with Ford. They had an affair during the Star Wars shoot, which for me has become more of an interesting story than anything to do with lightsabers, the Force, spaceships, ray guns, the Skywalker clan or intergalactic asthma.  

“Carrison”, as Fisher calls it, is the centrepiece of the book. She admirably, if disappointingly, keeps the juicier details under control. But we can be sure of one thing: she absolutely adored him.

He was married, though. And there is a galaxy’s worth of a difference between the ages of 19 and 34. She defends him, insisting Ford was not a womaniser; that their affair was “something that just happened”. (This is what people who have been caught having affairs usually say. “Oh, alright then,” said no-one in response, ever. I suppose an icepick in the forehead is something that can just happen, too.)

She also insists that she has never gone public before with the affair out of respect for Ford’s wife at the time. But Fisher is being just a teensy bit disingenuous. I remember something from a few years ago, either a talk show or a newspaper interview when one of the prequels came out, where she mentioned “how much fun” Harrison Ford was, and how he used to play pranks on her in her room while they were shooting Star Wars. “In her room” was the part I mentally underlined.

Fisher’s style for the memoir parts is mainly “crazy auntie”. In talking about Ford’s seduction of her, she comes across as a bouncy, but still insecure teenager, trapped in the body of a middle-aged person. The perfect guest on The Graham Norton Show, in other words. You can imagine her wry lines and puns being practised over many years on after-dinner speaking tours.

Part of this actually becomes painful. Funny though it is, Fisher over-thinks things, and her own part in them. I wonder if Harrison Ford – a man who comes across as bored, at best, in interviews – gave a fraction of this consideration to his on-set conquest. But for the most part, the Carrison story is fun, breezy - and absolutely first-class gossip.

Then something happens that slams on the brakes, Warner Bros cartoon-style. Fisher reveals her actual diaries, and her daughter Billie Lourd takes over the narration.

It’s a startling volte-face. Fisher is so serious, so cynical, in her teenage diaries that it’s hard to believe it’s the same person. There’s no doubt that it was written by a fairly young, fairly naive person – but the soul behind the words seems ancient. She is as proficient as she is playful with her pen – a precocious talent, without a doubt (and it’s worth remembering that writing was Fisher’s true vocation). I was listening to this being read aloud so I don’t know what form the lines take, but the young Fisher turns to poetry quite a lot, often catching you unawares. Nothing you’d put in a textbook for bored English students, but certainly startling and spontaneous.  

The diary is all about Harrison Ford. I’ll say it again – she absolutely adored him. We could be talking about love; certainly we are talking about infatuation. Fisher later admits she fantasised about marriage (“after a decent period of time following his sad divorce”, she inserts, somewhat hurriedly).

This has become a story on its own. It has textured the whole of the Star Wars saga, for me. What must she have felt when her character had to be “seduced” on screen by the same actor a couple of years later when they shot The Empire Strikes Back? To kiss him again, even on camera? How did Han and Leia’s “thrown-together” romance on-screen reflect the actors’ own lives and feelings at the time? 

There are other startling moments, too, such as when the young Fisher says: “I’m sorry it wasn’t you, Mark” - meaning Hamill, surely.  

It’s… heavy.

Fisher also discloses that she and other members of the cast and crew were smoking strong waccy baccy (Chewbaccy?) at the time. Sadly, it seems Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing did not partake of a puff, though a fellow can dream.

Later, Fisher and Ford sit beside each other in economy class as their plane crosses the Atlantic, after Star Wars has wrapped. They talk for most of the journey. Fisher’s melancholy is near-palpable. What a sad, poignant moment in life: your first big adult event, your first love affair, and it’s coming to an end.  

She remembers something Ford tells her, his exact words (I can almost hear the drawl): “You’ve got balls bigger than a samurai, kid.”

Princess Leia’s famous gold bikini from Return Of The Jedi was something worn under duress, we find out, though it’s also embraced in a curious way. You get the sense that Fisher is kind of embarrassed, though happy to accept she looked terrific in it - and probably wise enough not to complain too much, given that it’s such a fixed part of her on-screen identity. I was about to say, “not to mention its place in the fantasies of millions of boys” - but she does mention that, many times.  

More troubling is the idea that the young Fisher was told to lose 10 pounds before shooting began on Star Wars; that she thought she looked fat, and hated her appearance. It’s a sobering reminder that insecurities can seethe behind the prettiest faces. And that unpleasant people can foster them and profit from them.

The rest of the book is taken up with Fisher’s post-Leia life spent on the convention circuit, or “celebrity lapdancing”, to borrow her phrasing. There’s some gentle and not-so-gentle mockery of the things people say to her at these signings and celebrity meet n’ greets. But like many actors who are most commonly associated with one big role, Fisher moved from contempt to acceptance, and finally gratitude that people still love work she did decades ago. She admits that she loves being Princess Leia, although her favourite role will always be Carrie Fisher.

There are some stinging references to mortality. She mentions how much more valuable all those scribbled autographs will be once she dies. It’s difficult to accept that she has died. She is past tense; gone.

It’s a tough one, in so far as you can find it tough to lose a person you never met. Last year accounted for a lot of beloved stars, but the author’s death right at the very end of 2016 was one of the hardest to take. It’s unpleasant to think that Carrie Fisher could actually grow older and die; but you could say the same for anyone who became famous in the colour television age – David Bowie, Lemmy, Alan Rickman, Sir Roger Moore; take yer pick from a rich crop of recent recruits alone. 

Thanks to the glowing box in the corner, these people became ghosts while they were still alive - moving pictures, familiar to millions, but stuck in time, even as their real-time forms fell prey to the same forces which will account for us all. I’ve heard it said that the main reason we mourn singers, sports stars and actresses is because their deaths are a glancing blow from our own mortality. It’s not the biggest reason, for me, but it’s definitely part of the mix.

I didn’t know Carrie Fisher. I have no connection whatsoever with her life and her family, aside from a crudely-painted face on an action figure, or a flickering image beamed onto a screen from 40 years ago. (“Who is she? She’s beautiful.”)

And yet we feel so sad. She was my first crush. There’s not much more to it. That’s where I’ll leave this. 

September 8, 2017

THE NINTH PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES

Edited by Herbert van Thal
252 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

Argh… 1968… White Album… uh… George Best, Wembley, Man United… eh, Vietnam… (clicks fingers), umm, Dr King and Bobby Kennedy, of course!

This is hard without Google and Wikipedia. Christ, what did we do before we had those? We take access to facts for granted these days. We’re now nearly 20 years since AOL and that primary wave of mass internet connectivity. Remember? The first appallingly high phone bill as a result of using your 56k dial-up... Your knuckle-gnawing horror when someone told you what “cookies” were…

Children born at the same time as Yahoo and Google are leaving school and going onto a life of professional indenture and never-ending debt with university, or at least thinking about it. That’s a whole generation used to being able to find out exactly what they want, whenever they want to. It’s…

(Get on with it!)

Your yucky cover: “From the sublime to the ridiculous”. That’s the sort of cliché we might have used in the pre-internet era, to mask a lack of knowledge. It fits the shift in front cover aesthetics between Pan Eight and Pan Nine perfectly.

Pan Eight – ginger bloke’s head in a hat box. Grim, but amusing, looks like my friend, no blood. Disturbing, yet sardonic. Best cover in the series.

Pan Nine, however, features a mugshot of what looks like a doddering mummy after he’s had a “re-wrap” with some fresh white dressings after a spa hotel held a “monsters only” morning. He might have asked for, and got, a Swedish massage and some blackheads squeezed while they were at it – and going by his glazed expression, possibly a couple of digestifs beforehand, sipped while he waited for the girl, clad in his dressing gown, listening to Pan Pipes Mellow Moods. He’s lit from below in lurid green, but it is the glow of a mobile disco’s spot-rigging, not the ghastly witch-light of an uncanny tomb.

He’s not remotely threatening; even loveable, in his way. He could easily be illustrating a children’s anthology. Furthermore, he could probably appear at a children’s Hallowe’en party without ringing too many alarm bells. In fact that’s probably where this photo was taken – right after he’s been blasted with the bubble machine. While they’re playing Monster Mash, and the kids are running all around him, shrieking with laughter, doing the actions, having the time of their lives.

This mummy is in the moment. He is mindful. For the first time in 3,000 years, he is happy.
He does not hint at the nastiness to come in Pan Nine, from 1968.

I’d read that the Pans dropped off in quality as they crept closer to the seventies – ironically, when you could write whatever you wanted. And so uncle Bertie commissioned stories that were heavy on bloodshed but not so good on atmosphere. Apparently there is some dreadful schlock to come, among the Stephen King stories everyone’s already read in Night Shift.
That’s the theory, but this isn’t borne out by Pan Nine. For the first time, all of its stories are originals. They seem fresher. And because of that, it might be the best of the lot so far.
Okay. Twenty-three stories, I’d best keep it brief.

“Man-Hunt” by Raymond Williams has a man on the run arriving at a remote farmhouse, where his fate is inevitable. He’s managed to choose for a hideout the house of some relatives of the person he killed. Wes Craven explored similar avenues with Last House on the Left several years later, but that movie’s reversal didn’t seem as much of an unbelievable coincidence as the one we’re supposed to believe here.

I remember Raymond Williams from before; ditto Dulcie Gray, who follows up with “The Fly”. This one doesn’t have much to do with a fly, but it does feature a Pan staple – a husband and wife who hate each other. One attempts a murder, the tables get turned, and none of it’s a huge surprise - although the story’s final “splat” is memorable.

Dorothy K Haynes’ fine work looks at superstition and folklore turning murderous in the Scotland of two or three hundred years ago. “Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch…” might be the best of her Pan stories. It deals with supposed second sight, superstitious villagers, and finger-lickin’ good barbecue, all carried out for the sake of jealousy and romantic rivalry. This was not only a perfectly horrible story, but also perfectly believable.

Lindsay Stewart’s “Strictly For The Birds” was disgusting, featuring a chap who likes to feed some feathered friends in a public park with some strange green goo.
Come to think of it… the dude in this story… is it the chap on the front cover? If so, that puts a different complexion on our cover star.

Pan stalwart Martin Waddell must be due a testimonial by now, and he weighs in with “Bloodthirsty”, a typical tongue-in-cheek body-swap vampire story which just about gets by on good nature. Hey, I’ve had some chocolate, I’m feeling generous.

Adobe James penned some wonderful stories for Bertie, and “An Apparition At Noon” is a beauty. It dabbles with alien invasion, but still has time to be seedy, as a man finds out some stuff he’d probably rather not have known about his beloved wife, thanks to some other-worldly trickery.

Rene Morris’ “The Baby Machine” could be seen in the context of 2017 as a prescient look at automation, and the clear suspicion we should have for our machine masters, especially if we do something as silly as allowing them to look after our children.

“The Best Teacher” by Colin Graham sees a man describing his own murder on tape – although don’t suppose that should spare you any details. A tight, tidy little shocker.

Walter Winward’s “Stick With Me Kid, And You’ll Wear Diamonds” was very British and brimming with hate, as a sad little man in a sad little job makes a predictable end to his sad little wife. It isn’t quite as trite in the execution as I’m making it sound.

Dulcie Gray’s “The Happy Return” looks at a woman who is impregnated and dumped, and the ghastly revenge she takes on her ex, the child she bore him… the planet, the wider universe, and any sense of decency whatsoever. It was another lithe, lethal tale.

“Father Forgive Me” by Raymond Harvey was quite, quite dreadful. And that’s why he got the gig.

It sees a decent, conscientious parish priest first of all propositioned by the town imbecile, a malevolent man who seems to know a bit or two about the form when it comes to indecent parish priests. That obstacle being removed, the priest is then seduced by a lively young girl. This fresh obstacle being not so much removed as obliterated, the parish priest finds himself back where he started, with a proposition to consider.

This story was awful. I loved it.  

John Burke’s “A Comedy of Terrors” is not what it says it is. We are shown a man who works in horror films who is genuinely deranged – bumping off actresses for fun, in imitation of the lurid kill scenes he dreams up for his cheap n’ nasty features. The tables get turned, of course.

Tim Stout’s “The Boy Who Neglected His Grass Snake” appears to signpost where it’s headed from its very title, but slithers into darker territory before the end. Unsettling.

“Jolly Uncle” is nothing of the sort. In fact he’s a total prick who wants to get his hands on some inherited cash – with the obstacle of his nephew in the way of it. After he’s devised the means by which to scare the poor laddie to death, enter a supernatural element. Lindsay Stewart’s story is a four-pager, but packs in an awful lot of sheer meanness.

WH Carr’s “Mrs Anstey’s Scarecrow” was a study in lifelong jealousy stemming from childhood, and that one guy who breaks through from brooding resentment and hatred to actually doing something about it. It turns into a creepshow, as the killer appears to be haunted by a scarecrow which might be the body of the dead man come to exact revenge. There’s a fudge before the end, but the creep factor was very high.

“Not Enough Poison” by Alex Hamilton reminds me of that “everything is fine” meme with the dog sitting at a table while the world burns around his ears. Substitute the dog for a lazy colonial lady in Africa, and swap the fire for ants.

Martin Waddell’s “Old Feet” was completely vile, surreal, but also enjoyable, blending tea leaves with decomposing feet to bring about a very familiar taste – green tea.

Peter Richey’ “Don’t Avoid The Rush Hour” sees a young man trapped in the Tube overnight after he’s gotten out of his depth with drink. And he’s not alone. Can he survive?  This is an old-fashioned chiller, with a couple of twists and turns before the service terminates.

Eddy C Bertin’s “The Whispering Horror” was downright creepy, looking at childhood horror as two boys playing in the woods break into an old ruin and find something which wasn’t meant to be disturbed.

Raymond Williams returns with “Smile Please”, an eyeful of an almost-over-the-hill stripper tempted by a huge amount of money to give a private show in a remote old house. It’s never a good idea, is it? This one evoked the grimy atmosphere of a seedy old “cabaret” club very well, and even manages great sympathy for its luckless subject and the tired old stagers who work at the club with her, as she sees an opportunity to escape the never-ending sleaze.
AGJ Rough’s “Compulsion” looks at the shifting modus operandi of a thrill killer, and… gasp… he’s still out there… 

Mary R Sullivan’s “Crocodile Way” was horrifying in a matter-of-fact way, as three blokes in a boat negotiate a dark river swarming with pissed-off dinosaur throwbacks out in the colonial tropics. As you’d expect, the links in the food chain tighten. Oddly enough, there’s a fate at the end of this story which is almost as bad as ending up as a reptile’s dinner, all the better for being unexpected.

Jamie McArdwell’s “The Green Umbilical Cord” sought a fresh approach to the plants-hate-you genre, which by this point in the Pans feels as limp and tired as a neglected geranium.
A fine anthology is then closed out by Tanith Lee, not then as well-known as she would become, with an eight-line piece of silliness, “Eustace”. She must have laughed like a drain when the cheque came through from Bertie. I didn’t.

In sum, this was an excellent Pan, much improved by having 100% fresh stories, even if many of them are double-shots from series regulars. This bucked my expectations. Can Pan Ten match it?

We shall see… cackle… we shall see…

(Puts on Monster Mash)

(Children shriek with delight)

(World seems a bit better)