July 20, 2014

SMILEY'S PEOPLE

by John le Carre
468 pages, Sceptre

Review by Pat Black

“I used to love those double-double games,” says an old intelligence researcher in Smiley’s People. “All of life was there.”

Smiley’s People is the final part of John Le Carre’s “Karla” trilogy, concluding the long-term, long-distance battle of wits between British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet nemesis, the head of the Thirteenth Directorate of Intelligence in Moscow – the man with the curiously feminine codename.

Smiley, the hero of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the reluctant leader of the decimated British secret service in The Honourable Schoolboy, is once again in retirement at the start of this novel. Old, fat, owlish, short-sighted, with the air of a thoroughly repressed Oxford don, Smiley is the anti-Bond. It’s difficult to imagine him cocking a gun without pursing his lips in distaste, and it’s almost as difficult to think of him slipping between the sheets with pretty young things. Indeed, his wife, Ann, is quite famously unfaithful, having proven to be Smiley’s great weakness and the entry point, pun intended, for Karla’s mole in Tinker Tailor.

Smiley might well have been a librarian in another life, burrowed deep in a section of dusty, forgotten books in dead languages which no-one ever, ever borrows. Indeed, there’s a hint that this is precisely what he has done, dedicating his attention to abstruse academic interests and idling towards the grave in a dingy house in London, while his wife whoops it up with ballet dancers and actors down in their country pile in Cornwall.

But, as in Tinker Tailor, Smiley is brought back to do what he does best. An Estonian general Smiley once acted as case officer for has been found in Hampstead Heath with his face turned into raw mince by Soviet bullets. The old general, Vladimir, had been active of late, seemingly chasing ghosts, before being assassinated. The current incumbents of the Circus had written the general off as a crank, a relic from the early days of the Cold War, paying a heavy price for a cry for attention. Smiley’s superiors at the Circus and Whitehall want him to bury the case. But Smiley, in his inimitable way, smells a rat.

Earlier, in Paris, a Soviet defector is approached by an amateurish Russian agent, offering her a chance to be reunited with her daughter, left behind following defection. The woman begins to suspect that the person who is to be spirited out of Russia is not in fact her daughter. She, too, sniffs a rat, and decides to get in touch with a contact in the espionage world she has long left behind: an old Estonian general, now living in London.

To describe the rest of the plot in any kind of haste would be to do it a disservice. Smiley’s People pays its threads out slowly. Although you’ve got plenty of time to slow down and take a good look at what’s happening, the tangle of contacts, aliases, double agents and double-crosses can take a while to unravel. It’s a ponderous book, but I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. At the expense of repeating myself, it’s this considered, measured quality that I enjoyed the most about the Karla trilogy. To me it was unusual and therefore addictive, this slow-burning tension, this perfectly-plotted pathway, that finally leads us to a confrontation between the two heavyweights.

As before, the contrast between “tradecraft” in a novel written in 1981 and what we see in today’s espionage fiction is stark. I can just about remember the early 1980s, but this era’s buttonhole photography, radio microphones and hair-across-the-crack-in-the-door-style security arrangements, as described by Le Carre, seems like the Stone Age. Today’s surveillance and intelligence gathering culture is science fiction in comparison, all of it underpinned by that great esoteric language, the electric Sanskrit of machine code.

One particular section where operatives strive to capture a photo of a Russian agent embracing his mistress seems quaint in a world where people are using tiny hand-held computers to take pictures of themselves, and the world around them, constantly.

And then there’s CCTV to consider, automatic number plate recognition, computer passwords, keystroke mirroring, internet banking and mobile phone technology which can tell security services precisely where you are and where you’ve been, should they be minded to check. Smiley and Co’s trails of breadcrumbs and gingerbread houses look like fun in comparison to our time’s cold, brutal, technical world of instant recognition and retribution.

Smiley’s Englishness is his blessing as well as his curse. He got my dander up good and early, remarking on Circus operative Strickland’s Scottishness, his “Aberdonian brogue”, as a shorthand way of saying that he is brash, obnoxious and aggressive. That’s the kind of observation that I would tend to peg out on the same line as racism.

Smiley wonders why it is that Scotsmen are drawn to the world of espionage. What’s it to you, George? I might wonder the same of moneyed English public school boys and positions of power, their cane-crossed buttocks nestled in hot seats all across Westminster and Whitehall. But, that slip aside, Smiley is a compelling character with a solid moral core. His deep-rooted snobbery could be upsetting in any other context except national security, but his mannered priggishness and protestant work ethic serve him well.

Tough times call for tough measures, though. Ultimately, Smiley the white knight is forced to use the kind of tactics his nemesis is famous for in order to bring him to account. This is portrayed as a defeat, but personally, I think Karla has caused enough chaos in Smiley’s life to merit a bit of George’s marvellous medicine. Endearingly, Smiley retains enough of his poise and moral certainty to know that resorting to the tactics of the brigand is just not cricket, old bean.

This is perhaps the book’s most ludicrous aspect, as far-fetched as underwater bases and satellite-swallowing spacecraft in James Bond; the notion that the men of the Circus are somehow morally superior to their counterparts in Moscow.

Perhaps the concept of western “freedom” carried more weight in 1981, an ideal not quite so corrupted by casino capitalism, neoliberal abuses of power and geopolitical sabre-rattling. Perhaps having an enemy firmly fixed in one location and one political bracket gave us some kind of moral compass which we’ve been lacking since the end of the Cold War.

Smiley finally confronts his one-woman sexual earthquake of a wife in this book, although the kiss-off is done in an oblique, restrained way. This is one time when you realise the real world would have been far harsher on flighty Ann – she would probably have had to answer to treason charges, given her behaviour with the mole in Tinker Tailor. This is done, we feel, to cut away Smiley’s ties with his private life and matters of the heart, to focus all his efforts on bringing Karla down.

Because Karla has made a mistake – the oldest one in history – and Smiley is all over it like Bank Holiday rain. With one mild twitch of a stalk of wheat, the old man spreads his wings over the fields like a golden-eyed owl in the night.

In Tinker Tailor, The Honourable Schoolboy and now Smiley’s People, it is always women who underpin the motivations of the principals, opening the door to their betrayal or downfall. In Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s weak point is Ann – a factor exploited over a period of years by Karla after he stole Smiley’s cigarette lighter, which bears a simple inscription from his wife. In The Honourable Schoolboy, Jerry Westerby is doomed the minute he meets his scarlet woman in the east. In this novel, it’s Karla’s turn to have his heart turned inside out, his emotions leaving a trail as clear and bright as a streamer of blood in the open sea.

The portrayal of women is far less sexist to modern eyes than in the first two books; indeed, in Ostrakova, and in Estonian information mule Willem’s wife, there is an attempt to get into women’s minds that doesn’t paint them as silly, dependent mares, giggling strumpets or flat-shoed harridans - although the depiction of mentally ill “Alexandra”, the key to the whole affair, had a nasty whiff of the Victorian loony in the attic.

With his usual understated cunning and fine-honed intelligence, Smiley closes in on his quarry. Pleasingly, he is not just restricted to ledgers, libraries and sealed reports in this book, taking on the role of active fieldman in order to unpick the knots. There are moments of suspense and the odd bout of violence, but this is more about Smiley covering his tracks, and uncovering those of people who went before him in Switzerland, Hamburg and Paris, than car chases or gun battles. For the most part, the book is a series of tense conversations, but Smiley’s sabbatical out in the field shifts the story into a higher gear.

Likeable sidekick and man of action Peter Guillam makes a brief appearance, an easier bedfellow for James Bond than Smiley. Guillam is about fifty, has a wife half his age, drives a fast car and likes the buzz of the job. Here, at last, is a spy fantasy figure we can relate to. Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian agent, is also called back into action in Smiley’s service, and provides vital assistance as the noose is placed round Karla’s neck.

A problem you may run into is that the sumptuous 1983 TV adaptation, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, follows the book pretty much to the letter. There are even lines of dialogue which gave me a flashback to the show. So if, like me, you knew the Karla story through the DVDs first, then there will be no surprises for you in Smiley’s People.

In turn, though, the old TV show did something the novel could not. It revealed to me Alec Guinness’s acting secret: react to everything as if someone has just farted. Watch his face, next time, and tell me I’m wrong.

It’s the best novel in the trilogy. But what a contast to today’s world – even the fictional one. Compare the “Moscow rules” Le Carre follows to bring us his story, set just 30-odd years ago, with the microchip tempest of 24, or Spooks, with their lightning-strike editing, instant global connectivity and flying saucer technology. In another 30 years our spy stories and the landscape they operate in will look completely different, again, and it’s today’s technology that will seem creaky in comparison.


By that time, we might even have a geographically and ideologically fixed enemy with which to cross swords, to help us delude ourselves that we are in some way morally superior. 

July 13, 2014

THE HUNDRED-YEAR HOUSE

by Rebecca Makkai
339 pages, Viking Adult, Digital Review Copy

Review by J. S. Colley

I should have written this review a week ago, but I was on jury duty and, to be honest, this is going to be a very hard review for me to write, so I've been procrastinating. How to not sound self-righteous nor like a pedant? I don’t know, but I will try, because my intention is not to be either of those things. I will say this author is a talented writer. I highlighted many passages that I found well-crafted or otherwise remarkable. But one’s overall reaction to a novel is very subjective and this review will be just that—one person’s opinion.

I’ve had debates with readers (and writers) about the fairness of judging a book by the “likeability” of the characters. Is it the responsibility of the writer to make the reader love every character? Do we expect to agree with the protagonist on all issues in order to enjoy a book? My answer is, of course not!  How boring would that be? Don’t we learn something about human nature when we read fiction? Isn't that what writers do—reveal, unwashed, the innermost workings of the human mind and take us places we might never go in real life? But where is the line drawn between unlikeable characters and characters so shallow that, because of their very lack of depth, there is no room for us to gain any insight? There is only room for us to wallow around in the muck with them; only wanting to escape.

This story is told in a reverse timeline, starting with the present inhabitants of The Hundred-Year House and working back to the original occupants. The book covers, as indicated by the title, one century. The decisions and actions of the characters during each of the eras are, at best, mean-spirited and, at worst, unethical and immoral. Do all protagonists have to be ethical to be compelling? Again, no. But the actions of these characters—which ranged from blackmail (twice) to stolen identity—were excused by the author for the flimsiest, most selfish of reasons. An example is when one of the several protagonists sets up her colleague to be falsely charged with watching porn on his work computer so her husband might have his job after he’s fired. This woman sees nothing wrong with her actions, in fact she feels supremely justified, because she doesn't hold the same ideological views. Here’s the problem: when the writer has an agenda and it shines through, with no subtly or attempt to make the reader work for it—shoving it in their face like a shaving-cream pie—it jars (if not offends) them.

As viewers, we didn't “like” Norman Bates as he was stabbing Janet Leigh in “Psycho” but neither were we expected to think his behavior was acceptable, no matter that Ms. Leigh had just robbed a bank. He was a compelling character because we knew he was off-balance. And here’s where we might find the real problem: if the author of this novel intended the reader to see that these characters were somehow unhinged, then it was not apparent, at least not to this reader. Was the house supposed to be possessed? Was it evil and made anyone who inhabited it become evil too? In fact, it would have made the book more gripping. If there was even a hint of this, then I missed it and, if I did, then I apologize.

I could go on and on to try and explain my visceral reaction to this book. I could quote and give more examples, but it's probably better to just fall back on that old standard of book reviewers; the characters weren't likeable. Unfortunately, this trumped everything for me, even the splendid writing skills of the author.

Thank you to NetGalley for the review copy.


July 6, 2014

THE SEVENTH PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES

Edited by Herbert van Thal
240 pages, Pan Books

Review by Pat Black

Nineteen sixty-six; now there’s a year. 

Swinging London… mini-skirts… Twiggy… Pet Sounds… the Beatles and Stones in excelsis… LSD is made illegal… America boosts its presence in North Vietnam to 250,000 personnel… the Space Race heats up… Star Trek beams itself into American homes for the first time… Bob Dylan breaks his neck… Charles Whitman breaks records as America’s first mass shooter… and England lift the World Cup at Wembley.

And of course, the Pan Book of Horror Stories continued its gruesome journey, with editor Herbert van Thal at the helm once more for its seventh volume.

Your Yucky Cover: The original 1966 edition sported a bloated, hairy bat with a face like Nick Nolte’s mugshot. But the copy I have is an early 1970s reprint, and its cover is a beauty: a silhouette of one of the walking dead, black against a blood-red sky. 

There’s no gore here - in fact, not much detail at all - but it is the stuff of nightmares. There’s something about the ragged clothing, the shadowplay of the wrist bones, the weird tilt of the fleshless jaw; a suggestion of shambling, inexorable strides… perhaps taken in the direction of your house, while you sleep. I wouldn’t have liked looking at this before lights out, as a boy. The Yucky Covers have now entered their imperial phase.

In the past couple of Pans I’d noticed a dip in general quality. The series isn’t renowned for subtlety, but far too many of the tales concerned the murder of women, sometimes within a domestic scenario. You could argue that the same is true of real life – most murders happen within the home, committed by someone the victim knows. Prowlers, serial killers and multi-purpose weirdos get the headlines, but the majority of homicides have a depressingly prosaic setting. The problem the Pans had in translating this to the page is that a growing proportion of the stories were simple cheap n’ nasties, designed to shock and disgust. 

“Well, Pat, it is The Pan Book of Horror Stories,” you say. “You want The Pan Book of Dainty Shudders? Review that instead.”

Fair enough, but these stories became samey, rather than sinister – some crime scenes were revisited a little too often for my liking.

So I’m pleased to report that number Seven is a return to form, with a little bit more to its game than Grand Guignol shocks. Anyone with a penchant for women being stabbed to death may rest assured – there is some of that in this volume, but the narratives are made to work harder for their gruel.

Charles J Benfleet kicks us off with “The Man Who Hated Flies”. It’s a spiritual inquiry, following a narrator who converses with a colleague who believes in reincarnation. This belief is put to the test in a brutally ironic fashion.

R. Chetwynd-Hayes is a very familiar name to readers of British anthologies. He’s probably been around for most of your reading life, editing horror anthologies for children as well as adults. Dear Ronald left the building in 2001, and his effort, “The Thing”, must count as one of his earliest tales. There is some of his trademark humour, but it’s more subtle than much of his later output. It follows a barfly who encounters a strange apparition which appears to be attaching itself to other pub-goers. Only he can see it, and he wonders if it’s the DTs. It isn’t quite clear what this creature wants, but its effect is plain to see.

GM Glaiskin’s “The Return” looked at what appears to be a little girl, playing out in the sunshine and ruminating on her bucolic life with her father and sisters. The pay-off here was a little bit Loony-In-The-Attic, but again, it’s not a hysterical piece of work, and I enjoyed it the better for that.

David Grant’s “The Bats” looked at a weird kid with weird pets. It’s pretty obvious where this one is going, but it’s a giggle to imagine teenagers reading this story by torchlight, cackling at the murderous conclusion. Was that teenager you, Julian? Jessica sent you her love on the flyleaf of this book, with three kisses, dated 1973. Is there any greater love than being sent the Pans for your Christmas or birthday?

Dulcie Gray, a Pan stalwart, bags a brace of stories, next. “The Fur Brooch” sees a girl in the first glorious bloom of womanhood agreeing to meet up with a young man whose marriage suit she has turned down.  The young man gives her a brooch in the shape of some odd, furry, toothed creature. It turns out that the brooch has other skills aside from looking cute on evening attire; chief among them, getting a lot bigger and chasing people down pitch-dark roads.

The girl in the story is doomed - it’s never in doubt. This idea of a young and beautiful woman being punished in fiction for choosing who she wants to be with is nothing new. From Penelope onwards, women are constantly depicted as something to covet, to seize and to possess. It’s the centrepoint of so much romantic literature; Shakespeare’s line about faint hearts and fair hands resounds through the centuries. When this desire to possess, to win, is thwarted, violent passions can be triggered, even in meek men. In this story, we have a young woman destroyed for being true to herself. It could be The Virgin Spring, except for one troubling aspect: Gray does not intend the girl to engage our sympathies.

You might disregard “The Fur Brooch” as a monster-of-the-week tale, not really worthy of close analysis. But it has applications for our own times. It’s worth pointing out that although most of us have felt the alienation and hurt of rejection in love at some point, hardly any of us carry out horrific acts as a result. But the themes in “The Fur Brooch” endure. We may not commit murder after being rejected, but some people do.

What I’m trying to say is, there’s sometimes a sense of glee about destroying women in some of the tales. It’s part of the experience of horror, and horror story anthologies. But I just don’t like it. As a theme, I find it repellent.

Gray returns with “The Dream House”, a story about a grasping wife and a mild-mannered husband, intermingled with some first-rate DIY and home renovation skills. Again, the story is uxoricidal, and perhaps, just perhaps, you are meant to applaud the villain’s handiwork as a job well done.

The meat is much more to my liking in Harry Harrison’s “The Streets of Ashkelton”. A classic of horror as well as sci-fi, this sees a human trader on an alien planet living in harmony with its intelligent, but naïve half-monkey, half-amphibian inhabitants. One day he is joined on Wesker’s World by another human - a man with a dog collar. When the Christian missionary begins to introduce scripture into the lives of the literal-minded Weskers, trouble ensues. Trader Garth sees it coming just a bit too late.

The pay-off to this story is undeniably horrific. When I first read it at the age of 13 in the Dark Voices* compilation, Ashkelton’s rigid anti-theism struck a very deep chord. However, its message blurs when you consider Trader Garth. This man is exploiting Wesker’s World, no matter how much he provides the godless Weskers with logical guidance, empirical evidence and scholarship. Proselytising clerics and religious dogma are easy to criticise, but the narrative is soft on the forces of capitalism, industrialisation and technical intervention. Trader Garth isn’t a nice person. His initial welcome to Father Mark is delivered with the back of his hand. I wonder if Harrison intended us to see the irony inherent in secular Garth’s exploitative role on Wesker’s World, or if it bypassed him completely? After all, this story was written before the Kennedy assassination, a time when people had strong memories of the Second World War and a firm concept of America’s status as the Leader of the Free World.  

Another big name, next: Ripley creator Patricia Highsmith, with “The Snail Watcher”. Entranced by the oddly sensuous mating ritual of the creatures in the title, the story’s main character goes about filling his house with the blighters, until he finds himself in a very slippery situation.

This one was gruesome, but there’s an interesting footnote: Highsmith was keen on snails, herself. You’d have thought the story was written by a molluscophobic, but apparently not.

So, we’ve had a couple of big hitters. But for me, this next tale is in the all-time bracket: WW Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”. It’s a masterpiece of dread and suspense, and if you’ve stuck with our review this far then it’s likely you have read it. Just in case you haven’t, I shall not spoil it; but I do envy you. This story proves beyond doubt that the menace we can’t see is the scariest.

John D Keefauver, another familiar name from the early Pans, brings us two stories next. The first, “The Last Experiment”, harkens back to the golden age of morally dubious psychological tests; the era of the Milgram or Stanford experiments. In this story, a soldier is locked in a dark, silent room, to allow psychologists to examine how he gets on with near-total sensory deprivation. Not too well, as it turns out.

Keefauver’s second tale, “Mareta”, features another horrid wife and another gory finish, although this one attains pass marks for a lovely piece of misdirection when the narrator stumbles upon “bottles in the cupboard”.

“I’ll Never Leave You – Ever” doesn’t sound too good. It’s all down to the Sinister Dash. “This could be a serious issue – very serious indeed.” It puts me in mind of the Patronising Comma, usually inserted before and after your name. “You know, Pat, we need to have a talk about the length of these reviews. Because I can assure you, Pat, that people will be asleep by now.”

Rene Morris’ story about a highland lassie who is in love with another man while her husband wastes away with a terminal illness would seem to turn the “let’s get rid of annoying wifie” paradigm on its head, but the girl is soundly punished for love. She consults a witch, who offers the girl a voodoo route out of her predicament. As ever, things don’t quite work out as planned.

Pan serial appearer William Sansom next, with the most unfortunate title in the book: “A Smell of Fear”. Maybe some specifics might have worked better? “A Smell of Cabbage”; or “A Smell of Ralgex”… But fear?

All joking aside, it addresses some of the series’ more troublesome themes. We follow a neurotic single girl – is there any other type of single girl in fiction from this time? – as she appears to be stalked around London by a curious man with a limp, a black leather bag and mauve-stained hands, “like a birthmark all over”. The girl is “an arty type”, and while she’s quite good-looking, she is sneered at by her work colleagues and tweed-wearing neighbours. She is not allowed to be herself, but more annoyingly, she doesn’t allow herself to be herself, either. She’s paranoid about the men who surround her, a feeling crystallised in the form of her curious stalker. He may as well have been masked. I was reminded of the Phantom of the Opera, or William Friedkin’s kinky-ass video for Laura Brannigan’s “Self Control”. Does this man represent the uglier outer edge of male sexuality, the mindless desire to possess at all costs?

It all seems to be heading in one obvious direction, but this beautifully-written story’s final shock – its ultimate tragedy, really – was totally unexpected, as grim as it is ironic. Out of Sansom’s output for the Pans so far, this is his best.

I’d like to think there was a snickering sense of humour behind the title of Sansom’s second story, “The Little Room”. The sort of place where one might smell fear? 

It details the last hours of a nun, walled up in a room and left to suffocate. There’s a suggestion of some scientific design behind this atrocity; this is no medieval horror, but one in which the nun can watch her oxygen slowly eaten up on a manometer set into the wall. This one was more of a curiosity, a tad over-written without the plot dynamics seen in “A Smell of Fear” to sustain the interest. But there is horror, as it slowly dawns on our meek protagonist that she is not long for this life – although her heart still beats, blood pumps through her veins and her mind is clear.

Perhaps the blackest aspect of this story for some readers may be its godlessness. As in “The Streets of Ashkelton”, one might expect a god, or thoughts of a god, to intrude upon the narrative’s grim conclusion. But none arrives.

Rosemary Timperley’s “Street of the Blind Donkey” examined a woman escaping from peril, rather than in peril. Having left her controlling husband behind, she’s taking a holiday in Bruges, a place where she enjoyed happy times as a girl. But it seems that her husband’s stout shadow falls over many things – not only the uncertain future, but, more horrifyingly, the untrammelled past.

Martin Waddell brings us back into familiar Pan territory with “Cannibals”, a sardonic look at a pathetic cuckold’s route to the status in the title, via the society bride he has impregnated, her toothsome lover and some blustering blue-blooded in-laws.      

Waddell returns with “The Old Adam” next. It’s a sci-fi story, with lots of sci-fi irritants; awkward code names and acronyms (223367/Qlt/MZ-2 before they decide to give someone or something a name… in this case, Adam) and tooth-grindingly awkward terms for future tech (“he turned on his vocordiemordimer and vapbanged his wumqwaz”… I made those up, but you get the idea). It looks at the sad life of a synthetic human, grown in a bottle in a Soviet research lab. It’s not clear what Adam’s purpose is, but he suffers from the same plague of loneliness as the rest of us. Hope rises in the form of a strange creature with hundreds of mandibles in the jar next to Adam. It looks like it wants to hug him; if only they could be together…

 “The Island of Regrets” by Elizabeth Walter caught me at the wrong time, I guess. It was too long, took too many tangents and took too much time to get going. It tells the story of an engaged couple who visit the island in the title off Brittany. It’s got a bad reputation, though. Lots of stories of ill luck, early death and madness abound, and the villagers, hoteliers and café owners are palsied with dread when the couple suggest they want to visit. The man is superstitious, but the woman is spirited, and bullies him into going to the island. Apparently setting foot on the island grants you your first wish – but you always come to regret it.

This one devolved into the story of panic, anxiety and delusion, as the girl falls sick, and the man grows frantic in his attempts to put matters right, believing himself to be responsible. The supernatural may be responsible for the events that transpire, but maybe not. Were we to step outside the horror genre, this would be a fascinating, well-written story about an odd place, unusual people and unhappy coincidences befalling a mis-matched couple. But it just exhausted me. I was in a rush to finish it before lights-out, eyes closing over mid-flow more than once. A shame, as it’s one of the few stories written by a woman (unless it’s a pseudonym; the Pans are crawling with these). As such, it’s interesting to have a woman depict an unsatisfactory relationship and disillusioned lovers, but… I regretted reading it. It was dull. I needed a bit more punch.

Careful what you wish for, as they say. Alex White brings proceedings to a close with “Never Talk To Strangers”. It puts us squarely in the zone the rest of the book had tried hard to avoid. We’ve got a naïve young girl in London, with a ripper on the loose. She arrives in Paddington, hoping to meet her friend, but the friend doesn’t arrive. Soon, unsavoury people take notice of the girl on her own, and they approach… If only there was a gentleman around, someone to pay for dinner and provide her with shelter?

Like “The Island of Regrets”, this one couldn’t have been more obviously signposted. The impact comes in the final few pars, when an atrocity is described. The best thing about this – and many of the other “London murderer” Pan stories – is the image of the old London it conjures up. This is a London of guest houses, dripping taps, grubby linen, dilapidated houses and bombsites, a world away from the chrome and glass city-state it has become, gentrified and burdened with colossal house prices, with the less salubrious places and the poorer people clinging to the outskirts.

As for the murder and horror… I was a bit tired, and fed up with it. I’ve read a few horror books in the past few months, maybe too many. I think I’ll take a wee break.

But when I come back… it’ll be Pan Eight. And Pan fans will know what that means.
Head. In. Hat. Box. 


*The Best of the Pan Book of Horror Stories, printed to coincide with the title’s 30th anniversary in 1990. In the context of the original series it’s worthy, but inaccurate. The editors chose to play it safe, whereas the books gloried in doing the opposite.

June 28, 2014

THE GREAT AND CALAMITOUS TALE OF JOHAN THOMS

by Ian Thornton
300 pages, The Friday Project
  
Review by: J. S. Colley

Tale: 1) a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted

At the age of seven, Johan Thoms outwits a chess master, but on June 28, 1914, at the age of twenty, he discovers he can’t drive a car in reverse. While chauffeuring the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Sophie, he takes a wrong turn and haplessly delivers the couple into the hands of an assassin, and thus, (in his mind) starts a world war. Unable to face the ramifications of this horrific blunder, he flees Sarajevo into a life filled with regret and self-blame (but not without adventure).

This is a “tale,” of course, and while the assassination of the archduke and his wife is historical fact, there is no historical Johan Thoms. In truth, historians can’t be sure who was chauffeuring the royal couple that day. (Was it Leopold Lojka or Franz Urban? The debate is still not settled.)

When Johan takes flight from his nightmare, he leaves behind his eccentric (at best) father and loving mother, his closest friend, his flamboyant benefactor, and the love of his life, the beautiful Lorelie. As he journeys out of the city, he begins to acquire a menagerie of new friends (including the faithful dog, Alfredo) and eventually crosses paths with many of the “players” of that era. (How could one not mention Hemingway when discussing the Spanish Civil War? Or Dorothy Parker?) The history of that time is used as a vehicle to deliver an epic tale.

I could ask questions about why Johan does (or doesn’t do) certain things but, to quote the book, “‘Exaggeration is naturally occurring in the DNA of the cadaver known as the tale.’ [...] this part of the game was not to be taken lightly.” (Also, if I posed these questions here, I’d have to include a spoiler alert.)
This is a story born of tragedy, of luckless blunders, of faults in perception and judgment, of misplaced guilt and missed opportunity, of squandered love. But, for all Johan lost, he made up for in his newfound friendships. For all the ugliness of that day on a street in Sarajevo, Johan meets much beauty as he runs from it—from the angelic women who nurse him, to Cicero, to the Hooligans, and even the perceptive dog, Alfredo. He makes a positive impact on the lives of so many, and who knows if he would have been able to do this if he’d stayed behind? Is this his redemption?

The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is clever and erudite, rich in detail and complexity without taking itself too seriously. It’s a tour de force of craftsmanship. It has elements of magical realism, and themes abound. The humor is quiet, sublime. The reader has to pay attention to be in on the joke. Some of the references, either overt or covert, require a level of knowledge that not all readers will possess, and I’m sure I missed a few. Asides, oblique mentions, footnotes, all pull the reading into the narrative—as if it is a true story being recounted and not just a work of fiction.  This type of rich, lush book is uncommon, not only due to a rarity of talent but, as the author revealed in an interview, it was seven years in the making. Well worth the wait.

As a footnote about the history behind this fiction: I do not believe the driver of the car carrying the royal couple accidently turned down the wrong street. It is too big of a coincidence. However, I suppose bigger ironies—coincidences—have happened in real life. I read on the Internet (but how reliable is anything you read there?) that Lojka, one of the men attributed to being the driver, was given a stipend and opened a hotel where he displayed the bloodstained suspenders of the archduke and an item of the duchess’. If he had been innocent, would he do such a thing, especially since an innocent child was killed in the process? Perhaps so, the world is so wicked. But I prefer to believe the driver would have felt some remorse, some sense of guilt, like the fictional Johan.


June 24, 2014

THE WOODS ARE DARK

by Richard Laymon
256 pages, Headline, Kindle edition

Review by Pat Black

Hmm. Tricky one.

I wouldn’t say Richard Laymon’s work is bad for you, but some of his books should carry a warning on the cover. Not just because of the subject matter, which is always horrible, but because they can be an addictive substance.

I last read some of the American author’s work in 2002. Like a smoker who’s given up for years, I was tempted back into it knowing full well that one hit can return you to a path you’ve avoided for years, and with good reason.

Laymon wrote the literary equivalent of slasher films. Before he died in 2001, aged just 54, he had penned dozens of novels mainly dealing with maniacs and their victims. He rode the crest of a crimson wave during the “horror boom”, and achieved popularity in the United Kingdom before he was well-known in the States. In the early 1990s his books dominated British shelves alongside the genre’s Big Three: King, Koontz and Herbert.

When I was younger I loved horror writing. I can remember my English teacher’s exasperation upon learning this. Try new stuff, he said. Read widely. Don’t restrict yourself.

He was right, and I did grow out of that brief, but intense ghoulish phase. But right in the middle of this splatterpunk obsession I read my first Laymon book. It was The Stake.

I loved it, and I read more of them over the course of about 18 months. The last one of his I read was Island, which I took on holiday as a departure lounge impulse buy a few years later. I cut through that book in record time, and its tropical setting was perfect, but when it was over I decided not to go back to Laymon. Island felt exploitative in its scenes of sexual obsession, cruelty and violence. Truth be told, I was a wee bit ashamed.

I shouldn’t be reading this stuff, I thought. It’s a Bit Much.

But here I am. And here we are.

Laymon’s predilection for writing about pervy sex and violence is apparent in The Woods Are Dark, one of his earliest novels. The set-up places some outsiders in a rural American town in the middle of thick woodland. After checking into a “dummy” hotel where the vehicles in the car park are simply stripped-out shells, guests are taken out into the forest and left handcuffed to The Killing Trees. Once there, a bunch of feral maniacs called the Krulls appear from the foliage to rape, mutilate and cannibalise them. The townsfolk’s offering is pseudo-religious, ritualistic; some of the inhabitants aren’t happy with the arrangement, but they know these sacrifices keep the Krulls away from the town and their otherwise normal lives.

You shouldn’t go into a book like The Woods Are Dark and be shocked to discover violence. You’d be naïve to think there won’t be blood. But that’s never been the big issue with Richard Laymon.

Laymon’s books often come from the focal point of randy teenagers (a sly nod, perhaps, towards his readership?). But aside from the usual teenage kicks he tends to depict pretty women being stalked by maniacs and imbeciles, and tested against overwhelming lusts and twisted appetites. The ultimate expression of this is rape, which does take place in this book. It is focalised from the point of view of the victim, but it is by far the most uncomfortable thing about Laymon’s writing. The Woods Are Dark is full of this stuff, although it does not truly erupt until the final third, when we get an insider view of Krull culture.

The story has three narrative strands. The first concerns Sherri and Neala, two women on a road trip who are passing through the hick town. Then there’s the holidaymaking Dills clan, who have the misfortune to stop off in the same phantom motel for a night. Finally we have Peg, a local resident, and her whip-smart daughter Jenny. They are being helped to escape the blighted town by her brother John, who swears off escorting newcomers to the Killing Trees after making a “delivery” which includes Sherri and Neala.
Their stories intertwine on one long night of bloodshed. Not everyone survives.

Laymon does write sexually provocative, morally dubious scenes. One priapic young town-dweller molests the women he has helped capture. This was nasty enough, but I have to tell you, it’s mild compared to what happens later.

Although some of the female characters do fight back and take revenge on their oppressors, there is an element of exploitation. Movies like I Spit On Your Grave featured similar retribution, but these are not remembered for their empowerment of women.

This is a shame. Because while I would not recommend The Woods Are Dark to you on these grounds, I am happy to say that its author’s command of prose is considerable.

Richard Laymon juggles seemingly simple elements of plot, character and dialogue into a mesmerising blur. Laymon reminds me of something Martin Amis once said to Elmore Leonard: “You make Chandler look clumsy.”

Shock follows shock; plot twist follows plot twist. Memorable characters drop into the narrative, make their mark, and drop out again - sometimes in several different pieces. The action is bloody and horrible. The suspense is first rate. The dialogue is realistic. The pace is terrific. You cannot stop reading.

So if you want a good page-turner to distract you on the bus, this does the trick. But only if you aren’t afraid of getting your Kindle cover a little grubby.

Be in no doubt – very, very dark things happen in this book.  So dark, in fact, that after reading the last seventy or so pages, and even knowing full well what Laymon was like, I felt a familiar sense of shame.

Be curious if you like, but be warned, too. If my teenage son – aged fourteen or fifteen – was reading this stuff, I’d be a bit concerned.


And the twitchy vicar declared to his flock: “I was so shocked and disgusted, I read the whole thing!”

June 6, 2014

HOLY WAR

by Mike Bond
406 pages, Mandevilla Press

Review by J. S. Colley

This is a story of the Siege of Beirut during the Lebanon War.  It’s a disheartening, yet thought-provoking, look at a religious war—about how utterly senseless and mystifying it is to onlookers.

The story is told through three points of view. These characters’ lives intersect in strange coincidences that are usually only believable if they happen in real life, but Bond makes it convincing.  First, there’s Neill, a war correspondent from England sent on a mission for MI-5 because he is the ex-boyfriend of Layla, the now wife of Mohammed, who is a powerful and dangerous Hezbollah leader. Second is Andre, a French commando out to avenge his brother’s death at the hands of terrorists during the bombing of a US base. 

Third is Rosa, a twenty-something Palestinian who sees no side but her own. Although Bond does a good job of keeping his personal political opinions from seeping into the story, I found Rosa the most disturbing, as she appears the most uncompromising in her ideology. Even if her leader, Mohammed, might seek an end to the war, she will have none of it.

On all sides, there seem to be those few who want peace, but their voices are drowned out by those calling for blood and more blood. But how do you stop the inculcation of youth to whatever side they happened to be born? This quote says it all:

“Calm down, brother! Tell us, what religion are you?”
 The man … trying to gain time to decide if these men who had grabbed him out of the darkness were Christian or Muslim, Druze or Hezbollah, Sunni or Shiite, Maronite, Syrian, or Palestinian or Israeli.
“Answer right and I kiss you,” one of them said. “Answer wrong and you die.”

As always, a novel is as interesting as its characters, and the players in Holy War do not disappoint. Each character brings his/her own perspective to this baffling conflict.

This is a gripping, chilling novel about the futility of war—especially one based on differences of religion.

Thank you to NetGalley for the review copy.


May 18, 2014

FAHRENHEIT 451

by Ray Bradbury
192 pages, Harper Voyager

Review by Pat Black

I’m a little late to this party. By more than 60 years. And there’s an empty chair at the head of the table.
Fahrenheit 451 isn’t Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece – look to the short stories, if you want some contenders for that title - but it is his best-known novel. It’s a 20th century dystopia, forming an unholy trinity with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World.

Orwell examined how political forces could enslave the individual, as well as the state, intruding on our very thoughts. Huxley was more concerned with science, and how humanity’s search for perfection in the genes could strip away everything that’s good in us. Bradbury, writing in the time of the House of Unamerican Activities’ attempts to have books banned from US schools and libraries (and about 20 years after the Nazis invented book-burning as a social event), wanted to look at how the state could suppress freedom of expression, shut down intellectual inquiry and breed ignorance. All three books are important, and continue to resonate with modern readers.

Fahrenheit 451, a reference to the temperature at which paper ignites, follows Guy Montag, a fireman. The irony, of course, is that firemen in this America don’t put out fires - they start them. All books are banned, and if the authorities find out any are being hoarded by strange, musty-smelling individuals in cellars, attics and sheds, they send out the firemen to barbecue them.

Guy enjoys his work to begin with, but things change in a somewhat dodgy fashion when he meets Clarisse, a young girl in his neighbourhood prone to odd habits such as walking alone at night, and peeking beneath the covers of the dreaded books. There’s little to suggest that Montag, a married man of thirty, is sexually attracted to the 16-year-old, but she certainly lights a fire of sorts in him. After Clarisse disappears, and Montag participates in a book-burning that takes a horrific turn, the fireman takes a closer interest in the forbidden objects he’s paid to destroy.

Bradbury was more of a poet than a visionary. Fahrenheit 451 must have seemed explosive at the time – first appearing in episodic form in a new magazine called Playboy - but time has been slightly less kind to it than Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World.

Bradbury, a lover of libraries his whole life, would have been appalled to see bookstores vanishing from the high streets, and public libraries continually threatened by governments of all hues. But, irony of ironies, I read Fahrenheit 451 on my Kindle. Bradbury’s writing career spans the nuclear age and the digital age, but his feelings about the internet and computers were quite clear. The technological revolution was not for him.

And yet, e-readers, smartphones and tablet computers, the stuff of science fiction just 20 years ago, are with us already. The printed book has plenty of life in it yet, but people being able to read Fahrenheit 451 on a whim thanks to wifi - a few pounds cheaper and a couple of days earlier than if they’d ordered the paper version through the post – can only be a good thing for the survival of Bradbury’s work. His hellish vision of centuries of culture, wisdom and intellectual vigour being snuffed out thanks to morons in authority with flame throwers has been outmoded by technology. Although automated books and automated facts only last as long as servers (and remember folks, all hard drives must fail, just as all living things must die), there’s a fair argument to be made that thanks to the internet and information technology, the world is far more literate and better educated than ever before.

Not necessarily more intelligent, though. Bradbury saw the television as a brain-sapping device, and looking at some of the stuff on offer from the schedules on any given day it’s hard to disagree. Montag’s wife, Mildred, participates in interactive soap operas where viewers are given personalised “families”, beamed onto giant wall-mounted screens. She reads a script in order to participate, and the characters speak to her as though she was part of the plot. Witness any number of people attempting to create fantasy lives for themselves on Facebook or Twitter, in plain view of acquaintances who know better but say nothing; these fantasists are the type who would succumb to that sort of narcissistic interaction. 

Bradbury’s spot-on when it comes to the box’s power to manipulate, as we see in any number of “reality” shows and prefabricated talent contests. But I was troubled by how our author chose to paint Mrs Montag; “sexist” isn’t a label I’d attach to Ray Bradbury lightly, but in his examination of Mildred and her friends you can feel a dripping contempt for women’s leisure, women’s interests and women’s opinions.  

Montag seeks out Faber, a former English professor who tops a list of the firemen’s reading suspects. From there, he learns about a renegade group of academics and intellectuals living outside the city. Montag forms plans to spread literacy as a sort of book group-cum-terrorist-organisation, but his dream goes up in smoke when his reading habit is exposed.

This brings us to the central crisis of the book, and a troubling issue for me as a person. Bradbury sees the world of books and reading as immaculate. There’s no doubt literature and liberty of expression are among the foundation stones of a free society, and I have adored and gorged myself on books since I was a child. But as my father used to say, you can’t eat books. Are they a necessity? My father might have quarrelled with Ray Bradbury about that one. I’m on Ray’s side, but the nagging doubt persists that we can get a little bit precious about books.

Montag, and Bradbury, look to ancient texts such as Ecclesiastes and Aeschylus for wisdom, intellectual fine grain and philosophical guidance, but this does not chime well with practical, day-to-day living for ordinary people. I almost can’t believe I’m typing this, it feels like apostasy, but if you show me someone who delivers Latin and Greek phrases as they might dish out a slap, I will show you a snob. I wish I had Bradbury’s unshakeable conviction about the importance of books, and I say that as someone who has dedicated much of his life to reading and writing them.

A somewhat spiky afterword to this 2008 edition doesn’t help to dispel my lingering philistinism. In one of his many bizarre latter-period fulminations (massive corporations should be trusted to improve the world? Are you sure, Ray?), Bradbury states that if children could be harnessed into libraries before the age of six and a love of reading fostered in them, then “our drug, street gang, rape and murder scores will suffer themselves near zero”.

Bless your heart, Ray, but that’s wishful thinking. What about children who are bored by reading? The boisterous ones, the playful ones, the ones who flower late as readers… yes, even the destructive ones, who would tear out the pages, add glasses and moustaches to enigmatic author portraits, loop cock and balls across the flyleaf and perhaps, if let alone long enough, build themselves a bonfire? They may be crass, but they aren’t all stupid. Books are for the quiet children, usually, the types who happily retreat into corners. As the fire chief, Beatty, notes, these junior readers are the ones feared and scorned the most in schools. 

They’re the ones who are most easily bullied, the thinkers, the odd-ones-out. Maybe kids like Bradbury was; maybe kids like you, dear reader. Culture is what it is, and we’d all rather sensitive, thoughtful people were more highly valued. But placing their interests and hobbies above others is high-handed, and a touch disingenuous. Bradbury knew this. Describing Montag’s feral joy in igniting the books in the opening chapter, the author acknowledges that making fire is as much a part of human nature as stories, art, poetry and song, like it or not.

So, while Orwell is the greater prophet, and Huxley is the more progressive, Bradbury is the better artist. Fahrenheit 451 is mired in its time, but it’s a wonderful read. When Bradbury’s prose soars, few writers can match it. Montag’s fugitive hours are breathless and utterly compelling, as is his fellow tramp Granger’s elegy on the destruction of historical narratives – perhaps the most dangerous idea Bradbury touches on. To apply Bradbury’s allegory to modern times, perhaps what we should fear nowadays is not something as spectacular as piles of books set aflame, but something more subtle; an intellectual treachery attained not by striking a match, but by clicking keys on a computer.

Think of all those e-readers, out there already… sometimes books “update” themselves, if you’ve got wifi switched on. Perhaps in the future as technology evolves, we’ll end up with radically different versions of key texts, altered subtly over time, without fanfare… more sanitised, less controversial. Like tapioca pudding, to paraphrase Beatty – but more palatable to the right kind of government. And without a definitive physical text to refer to, future generations might never realise the deception. Now that, my friends, is a scary idea.

April 29, 2014

MYRA, BEYOND SADDLEWORTH

by Jean Rafferty
282 pages, Wild Wolf Publishing

Review by Bill Kirton

The words ‘Myra’ and ‘Saddleworth’ in the title will resonate with UK readers of all but the youngest generations but perhaps be neutral for those not familiar with what were known as ‘The Moors Murders’. The victims were children who were tortured and killed on Saddleworth Moor by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley between 1963 and 1965 and the case’s notoriety still persists. Hindley died in 2002 but here the author creates a fiction which suggests the death is a deliberate misdirection and, in fact, she’s released into the community with a new identity.

Given the hatred that’s always been directed at Brady and Hindley, it’s perhaps not surprising that news of this novel created some negative reactions. People assumed it was part of an attempt to rehabilitate Hindley and portray her as a ‘normal’ human being and, even if they didn’t, they objected that it might cause further distress for the victims’ families. Such reactions show a form of blind censorship, i.e. objections aimed at a book that was never written. Here, in the foreword, the author makes it clear that the book is in no way sympathetic to Myra Hindley or Ian Brady and writes unequivocally that it’s ‘an honest attempt to find out what kind of person commits such atrocities’.

First, then, let’s make it clear that it’s a compelling read. Hindley, Brady and the cast of characters who surround them are vivid creations, thanks to the distinctive things they say and do. The narrative is in the present tense so everything is immediate, precarious, unpredictable. There’s no feeling that releasing her has resolved anything and, given her character, she could send the central story in any number of directions.

And yet that’s misleading, because she’s only part of the narrative. There are several stories here – at least four ‘love’ stories, two of them involving Hindley – as well as examples of betrayals, adultery, deceit, illicit sex, lies, evasions and religious hypocrisy – all variations on everyday cruelties. Hindley and Brady’s involvement in evil was indeed extreme, unthinkable, and yet they don’t have a monopoly of it here. Evil is omnipresent in nature and in people. It pervades the narrative and is made more sinister by the author’s skilful use of the vernacular when letting us hear the characters’ words and thoughts. That throws up many examples of casual, unthinking cruelty. One character ‘thinks Hindley should have hanged. Or better still, be chopped up into little pieces while alive and boiling oil poured over her’. Later, in a phone call to Beth, Pat asks ‘How could you do that to a child?’ Scum. Perverted, whereupon Beth touches the photo of her son ‘for luck’. And that’s the same son who joins the military and, egged on by his lover, abuses, humiliates and debases Iraqi prisoners. So there’s no shortage of evil impulses, and morality seems to be negotiable.

There’s a chapter called ‘the same species?’. It refers to foxes and dogs but its applications to people are self-evident. Indeed, the fox is a recurrent leitmotif and, with his vixen, evokes the pairing of Brady and Hindley. Regularly through the narrative, the fox appears, protecting and feeding his vixen, symbolising power, control. Or else we hear its ‘hoarse, unsettling cry’ which sounds ‘as if it's calling from another plane of existence’. And then there’s the organised bestiality of the foxhunt, which appals Hindley. Ironically, she ‘doesn’t approve of cruelty to animals but this is a British tradition’. It’s just one of the frequent examples of ‘the careless cruelty of those who consider themselves to be the norm’ and it provokes the chilling reaction from Hindley: ‘There’s no respect for life here, no care, no soul.’ The final irony of the hunt is that it’s Hindley who’s blooded.

The fox isn’t the only example of the thematic use of animals. One narrative thread is conveyed almost exclusively via emails or texting between two lovers, Hal and Pat, whose chosen names are wolf and lynx. Pat writes that, in bed, Hal is ‘ferocious, insatiable, a BEAST!!!!!’ Themes of animal cruelty and beauty are linked as the exchanges show that love and death are close companions. Pat says of Hindley, ‘I hope she rots quickly’ and her words are followed by the reply ‘I love your fierceness’ which leads swiftly to Pat’s desire to ‘make love  … till the sweat drips from our fur and we’re exhausted. I’ll lie along the length of you and lick the salt from your pelt and we’ll fall asleep together, satiated by love.’ It’s a world of the senses: of touch (of course) but also of sights, smells and perfumes and those ear-splitting shrieks in the darkness. It taps into the traditional romantic association of voluptuousness and death, sensuality and extinction.

Hindley, then, may be a monster but she’s living amongst people who themselves are far from innocent. Crimes are perpetrated to defend the status quo. Indeed, the text says ‘If only humans could be made innocent, but they know too much, want too much.’ And one of the characters, Jude, says of Brady and Hindley, ‘we are all like them. Which of us gets to go through life without hurting other people?’ We’re defined by our actions. Brady could rationalise his horrific acts (if rationalise is the correct word) as a statement of identity, but he has no control over how they are perceived. We all form opinions of one another which are instinctive and which we assume to be ‘true’, ‘valid’. And that highlights a seemingly simple, relatively innocent question that comes near the end of the book. To avoid spoilers, I’ll summarise it by saying that there were two people who came to be very close to Hindley in the course of the narrative and yet neither of them suspects her true identity. So the question is how did neither of them know? The text asks: ‘Shouldn’t they have nosed out the stench of her, the ugly, grave-crawling putridness inside her?’ Well, precisely. They didn’t. So how can there be such a distance between the inner monster and the perceived person? What value can we put on moral judgements? And why does the loathing engendered by the monstrous acts overwhelm with such ease any compassion we might have felt?

I’m aware that this is very long and yet there are many other aspects of Myra, Beyond Saddleworth I haven’t touched on. It’s a compulsive read, carefully and beautifully written, which, while seeking to discover the real Hindley and her motives, conjures up a broader context of a society in which civilisation is not much more than a tacitly agreed veneer.