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)

August 27, 2017

REBECCA

by Daphne du Maurier
448 pages, Virago

This is a review of the audio version, narrated by Anna Massey

Review by Pat Black

Rebecca? Why bother with a review of Rebecca? This isn’t a new novel, sir. The previous reviewer wouldn’t have bothered with these kind of retrospective pieces, oh no, sir. That wouldn’t do at all. Begging your pardon, sir, I think it would be best if you didn’t review it. Will that be all?

A friend scared me recently by pointing out that there are a finite amount of books to be read before my life ends. We can only guess at this figure, but it is exact.

Going by the national average, my life is half over. I’m from Glasgow, so this assessment may be optimistic. Like the amount of days you have left, this number is unknowable and might not be as bad as you first thought - but it’s still there, and unsettling to consider.

Will it be 1,000 books? One hundred? Ten? Single figures?

I decided it might be an idea to make some of my remaining allocation count. So I read Rebecca.

I’d never read any of Daphne du Maurier’s novels before, though I have enjoyed some of her short fiction. I remember seeing Candida Doyle from Pulp at an event in Sheffield a couple of years back, clutching an ancient green-and-white spined Penguin collection of du Maurier stories. I thought this was a level of cool few humans can attain. And it planted a seed: I really should get round to Rebecca.

I’d never even seen any adaptations of Rebecca, and knew nothing of the plot – that’s almost an achievement, right up there with never having seen The Third Man, Ben-Hur or Citizen Kane. I should watch these films (there’s only a certain amount of films you have left to watch, after all). I should also read Wuthering Heights. And lots more Dickens. And King Lear. And so on.

You probably know the story back-to-front. A naïve young girl working as a companion/dogsbody for a nasty old sow in Monte Carlo meets a handsome widower, Maxim de Winter. He’s rather stern, but good-looking. If Christopher Plummer never played him, then this is a mistake by the forces that shape and guide the universe.

De Winter rescues the girl from a life of dull servitude and marries her in about 10 minutes flat before taking her back to his country pile in Cornwall – Manderley.

The narrator learns up-front that de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca, drowned off the Cornish coast the year before. This is an Important Fact.

The beautifully-kept house near the sea is run by the baleful Mrs Danvers. It’s fair to say she does not take kindly to the new girl appearing on the scene.

The house holds many secrets and lies. Our narrator, who is never named, picks her way through them, diffident and unsteady as a new-born doe.

The book throbs with atmosphere, buried tensions and passions that threaten to erupt at any moment. It helps that Rebecca is an Edwardian novel set in a country house, with servants, titles, calling cards and stringently policed, entirely proper behaviour. It’s beautifully mannered – which makes the spite, jealousy, suspicion and rage even more pronounced when it detonates.

A pal of mine who adores Sherlock Holmes once explained his fascination with the world of Conan Doyle’s great hero this way: “Everyone’s so polite, especially when they’re being rude.” That’s a good approach when it comes to taking Rebecca’s weird pulse.

Rebecca features three beautifully-drawn characters. Remarkably, one of these never even appears in the book. We do not see her face. We do not hear her speak. But we know her name.

I admit to over-using comparisons with the shark in Jaws for any hidden menace, but it’s apt for the lady in the title. Rebecca is dead, but she’s is an ever-present in the book, with signposts to her life and the effect she had on people littered throughout. Rebecca bewitches everyone – even, ultimately, the narrator, whose jealousy over the wild, dark, exotic competitor she will never meet threatens to trip into obsession. The slant of the letter “R” in her signature in the flyleaf of a poetry book; the gleam in the eye of her lovers; the dreadful pindrop silences any reference to her evokes; yellow barrels; the detached pier swinging back towards the beach; E and F, E and F. 

At first, I suspected that Rebecca might still be alive. Her gravitational pull is so strong that the world of Manderley becomes uncanny, warped. Even in death, her effect on people is corrosive. And yet, she is defined by her absence; she is a silhouette on the horizon, an unusual swell in the water. Objects like hairbrushes, mirrors and even dresses hanging in a wardrobe for the delectation of the moths are suffused with her essence. When the narrator intrudes upon the previous Mrs de Winter’s perfectly-preserved chambers at Manderley, it feels like Howard Carter breaking into the tomb of Tutankhamun. Small wonder Hitchcock adapted this book; I wonder if he was tempted to make Rebecca a blonde?

Our second extraordinary character is Mrs Van Hopper, the ridiculous old society dame. She’s the toxic woman in this story that people sometimes forget, hovering over the pre-Manderley section in Monte Carlo like a gleeful, bloated hornet. She chides and harasses her young charge, and takes a near-demented interest in everyone who crosses her path, claiming closeness and kinship with people she’s only known for about five minutes. She peers at strangers in restaurants and salons like a bird-watcher with a pair of field glasses. And like many gadflies who place great esteem on their place in society, Mrs Van Hopper is shockingly gauche when it comes to how other people might perceive her. When Maxim de Winter brutally scolds her at the dinner table, Mrs Van Hopper rationalises it as a compliment.

A common complaint by critics of Dickens is that he creates caricatures rather than characters. Grotesques and clowns, music hall jackanapes, dying waifs, heroes and heroines from the original soap operas. You might even agree with this - until that first moment you meet people in real life who resemble Dickens characters. I knew a Fagin; I knew a Bill Sykes; I knew a Mrs Jellyby.

The same is true of Mrs Van Hopper. I know a Mrs Van Hopper. The shock of recognition was disturbing.

I also know a Mrs Danvers.

A gaunt, poison-filled hypodermic needle, Mrs Danvers is one of the more memorable villains in all of 20th century literature. As the long-standing chief housekeeper of Manderley, who kept the estate running while Mr de Winter went travelling to get over the shock of Rebecca’s death, Mrs Danvers is one of those long-standing employees who imagines that she owns the place. She has no humour in her, no kindness, but fathomless reserves of malice.

In a deft campaign of psychological warfare, Mrs Danvers sets about undermining her lady’s confidence from the very first by placing her in opposition to the memory of Rebecca. The narrator is all at sea, and driven to jealousy by the comparison. Mrs Danvers makes it clear that the new Mrs de Winter is not a patch on the previous one. She even controls where her mistress goes in her own home; trying all the while to keep her away from Rebecca’s shrine. It was the most compelling part of du Maurier’s strange psychodrama.

I am not by nature the sort of person who gets agitated watching the television. I don’t shout at talk shows, or offer alternative suggestions to girls running the wrong way in slasher movies. But du Maurier did something to me with Rebecca. Listening to the audiobook in the car, I was in a state of some excitement during the narrator’s confrontations with Mrs Danvers. I hooted like a chimpanzee, baring my teeth, clutching the wheel, urging the poor girl to do something about that horrible witch. God knows what I must have looked like to people I drove past, or other motorists passing by.   

I fantasised about what would happen if the narrator was a violent Glaswegian rather than a quivering debutante.

“Alabaster vase? Here’s yer alabaster vase, ya bastart!” (crash)

Mrs Danvers may be a puppetmaster, but she is in turn a marionette in du Maurier’s hands. There are several moments of exquisite manipulation by the author, but two in particular stand out. The first of these occurs when our lip-biting narrator is so wrapped up in the mystique of Rebecca that she makes a terrible faux pas when she answers the telephone, and the caller asks for “Mrs de Winter”.

It’s Mrs Danvers on the other end of the line, of course.

What was so extraordinary about this is that, psychologically, I made the same mistake. Du Maurier had planted the idea of Rebecca in readers’ minds so skilfully just prior to the call coming in that we have been conditioned to do the exact same thing as her narrator. Realisation came for me at the same moment as the narrator experienced her own shock and embarrassment. This was neat work.

This ramps up when, bearing that episode in mind, we are hand-led into another horrible moment for the narrator, when she agonises over what costume to choose for a grand fancy dress party at Manderley. This time, the embarrassment is very clearly signposted for the reader, from a long way off - but not to our narrator. Thanks to some barely-noticeable prodding from the satanic Mrs Danvers, she walks right into it; the tension is excruciating. 

There are three extraordinary monologues by Mrs Danvers during three confrontations with the new Mrs de Winter – an escalating series of encounters which reveal the depths of the housekeeper’s unhealthy affection, even passion, for her dead mistress.

The last of these almost ends in murder. The sense of helplessness in the young narrator as she looks out of that window into the fog, with the sea mist rolling over the grounds of Manderley, and Mrs Danvers’ gentle, reasonable suggestions washing over her, had me gnashing my teeth in frustration. Even when Mrs de Winter finally grows a pair and lashes out, her nemesis’ black magic is simply too strong.

The late Anna Massey – who I discovered played Mrs Danvers in a TV adaptation – plays a part to perfection here. There isn’t so much as a pause - not one single consonant or vowel - which feels false or misplaced. It’s poetry. Her Mrs Danvers is a voice echoing from the gates of hell, a truly wicked creation. Massey’s performance here is the best I’ve ever heard in an audiobook. Even when we meet the roguish Flavell later on, the nasal whine she affects is perfectly matched to his Edwardian rake – like a dissolute, morally blighted Bertie Wooster. But her Danvers is the shining jewel. It made me wonder at what new dimensions there are to be uncovered with this character – if she was younger, perhaps, more comely. I could see Amanda Abbington doing great things with Mrs Danvers.  

Then there’s Manderley itself, one of the great country estates in all literature, standing alongside Brideshead and Bleak House. The opening chapter takes us through the place in fine detail, literally leading us up the garden path. This was sumptuous writing, which had me wondering if it would have made it past many agents today, all other elements being equal.

Even after Manderley’s secrets are exposed, there’s still some delicious tension when the bounder Flavell turns up, intent on causing trouble for Maxim de Winter. During informal questioning by a magistrate featuring all the key players, we find ourselves in the queasy position of siding with the conspirators, as suspicions, claims and counter-claims are aired. Without going into too much detail, in case you’re as naïve as me when it comes to Rebecca, this too was remarkable, as villainous characters become the only people who see the truth, and misunderstandings become the engines of salvation. Du Maurier misleads us, time and time again.

Rebecca is a voluptuous novel, wholly irresistible. It’s a dark psychological study of jealousy and malice, and yet also a fine thriller and page-turner, with some crafty twists and turns. Eighty years on it still exerts a weird power over the reading public. By one recent estimate, it still sells 4,000 copies per month. That’s a whole lot of people making the same decision as me to promote it from the bucket list. You won’t regret doing so - it is a treat. 

August 13, 2017

SERIAL KILLER

Read ‘Em And Weep Book One
by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill
310 pages, Millsverse Books

Review by Pat Black

Here’s a thing. If you’re British and you read comics from the mid-70s to the present day, then your life has almost certainly been influenced by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill. This means you would probably want to read this book, no matter what it was about – the migratory patterns of Arctic terns, say; the distribution of lichen at altitude; by-the-minute commentary on the World Snooker championships.

But Serial Killer is about British comics, of course – set in the 1970s, when Mills in particular first burst on the scene. It’s a riotous, often filthy comedy, as if Vivian and Rik from The Young Ones had become writers for children. But it’s also a treasure trove for anyone into comics from this period in British history, when IPC/Fleetway Comics and DC Thomson ruled the world.


 I am trying to rein myself in when it comes to talking about Pat Mills in particular, but it’s difficult. When you consider his output and you leave out 2000AD it’s still a fine CV. Even if he’d only written Charley’s War, the unflinching story of a British “Tommy Atkins” in the trenches of the First World War, he would have a place in the pantheon. I remember, at the age of seven or eight, reading about Charley’s return home, and he finds out one of his neighbours is selling watches encrusted with blood, stolen from dead men at the front. I also remember the cheerful bloke who keeps his comrades entertained with a string of patter, before shellshock turns him into a zombie. That stuff stuck with me, the way Spider-Man socking the Green Goblin hasn’t.

O’Neill’s pedigree as a comics artist ranks alongside Mills’ as an writer, and there was great wit in their work together, particularly on Nemesis The Warlock and The ABC Warriors. There is a lot of that devilment and mischief – picture the twinkle in Torquemada’s eyes – in Serial Killer.

I said I’d rein myself in. There’s a more detailed analysis of Pat Mills, Action! And 2000AD in a very early review of mine, which you can read here.

Serial Killer is the first in a quartet of novels in the Read ‘Em And Weep series, penned by Mills and O’Neill. Our main character is Dave Maudling, a writer with Fleetpit publications (*thinly veiled parody alert*). Dave is still in his twenties, but writes stories for The Spanker comic, which blends two British obsessions: the Second World War, and corporal punishment.

Corporal Punishment is the actual name of a character we meet in Dave’s serial, The Caning Commando, which sees a cane-wielding teacher sent behind enemy lines with his sidekick, Alf Mast, to take a stick to the bottoms of German soldiers. “Let’s carpet bum the hun!”

Inserts from the Caning Commando’s adventures in rigid discipline are drenched in double-entendre and gleeful smut, while still managing to be very close to the tone of many of the boys’ comic strips of this era. I remember Dennis the Menace’s dad clobbering his boy with a slipper every other issue when I was a child. As Mills and O’Neill are happy to point out, this seems a bit much now.

Dave is a mixed-up fellow, surviving on a diet of surplus free sweets which these comics often gave away as an inducement to draw in new readers. He seems to be haunted by the ghost of his mother, who disappeared when he was just a boy; he also has a fetish for fur, manifest either as lust for scarves and coats, or, memorably, the stuff stuck to the outside of a gorilla outfit. He is traumatised by a horrible set of experiences from when he was a little boy, when he was repeatedly assaulted by a sadistic newsagent whenever he asked for his favourite comic, The Fourpenny One – the title being a pre-decimalisation euphemism for a punch in the face. 

Dave’s best friend/deadliest enemy is Greg, who is a similar age but whose career seems to be running on smoother rails. Greg has better ideas and plays the management game more cannily with his editors, which irritates Dave to his very core. The pair, while ostensibly friendly, continually one-up each other, particularly when a new editorial slot comes up among the Achtung Tommy Englander war-obsessed veterans ranked above them.

Then there’s Joy. She’s Glaswegian, which means that she is portrayed as violent and enjoying being violent, but she’s also a first wave feminist with her own very solid ideas about what direction her girls’ comics should go. Alongside the Caning Commando, the exploits of her star character, the werewolfish Feral Meryl, intrude upon the story. “It’s a true friend who can comb her best pal’s face.”

Joy goes out with Greg; Greg doesn’t really love Joy, and wants to dump her. Dave, curled up like a liquorice twist in his perversions, fancies something in Joy, but he’s too weird to see what it is. Greg, who fears violent retribution, tries to palm Joy off onto Dave, with very limited success. The vectors are all wrong, and this makes for some fine comic scenes – particularly a Christmas day nightmare which would have graced any classic sitcom.

I discovered Serial Killer was originally meant to be a sitcom, and you can see why. You have three people who might intermittently fancy each other, but there’s no love involved anywhere. The closest thing you get is jealousy, but even that fades into something a little more pathetic.

Serial Killer is also a murder mystery. Dave’s dead mother infests his consciousness in order to steer him towards the person who killed her. But being his mother, she doesn’t want to make it too easy for him. And there are other demons to contend with, particularly a mysterious figure in a brown coat who floats around Fleetpit’s archives, with one eye on Dave.

The references to the real comic world were beautifully done. Witness the title of Fleetpit’s Scottish-based competitor (*gossamer-thin reference alert*), Angus, Angus & Angus. Then there’s a sly nod towards Jimmy Savile, when it turns out Dave has been sneaking lethal advice into The Spanker under the noses of his editors – how to make a pipe bomb, for example, or how to synthesise deadly poison and put it in someone’s tea. He does this in the hope of killing children; he could well be the serial killer in the title. He takes pleasure in the fact his wickedness is hiding in plain sight, as Savile’s was. Later, we are introduced to a very Savile-esque character, which points us towards the second book in the series.

I can’t do justice to Serial Killer here. Like a review of the ersatz comedy comic Laff!, trying to condense what’s funny into these lines is an exercise in brutal unfunniness. You’ll have to take my word for it on the laughs… on the cackles. But if you’ve ever been into British comics, particularly the pre-2000AD era, taking in Battle, Warlord, Victor and Action!, it’s a must – and penned by someone who was right there in the thick of it. Grossly caricatured though it is, if you grew up with comics, then you know this world.

Serial Killer is an inside job. I loved the anarchy as much as I did the glimpses behind the curtain of a world I loved as a boy, and still love as an adult. The next volume will take in the era that changed British comics forever: the birth of 2000AD.

Place an order at your newsagent – today.

(Who actually did that?)

Read the interview with Pat Mills here

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Pat Mills has done it all in comics – 2000AD, Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Slaine, Flesh… He’s the British Stan Lee for my money, still working at the sharp end.

Alongside artist Kevin O’Neill (they both worked on Nemesis, Ro-Busters and the ABC Warriors), Mills has moved into novels with Serial Killer – the first in a quartet set in the world of British comics from the 1970s onwards.

Here, Pat Black speaks to Pat Mills about life, the universe and 2000AD.

Booksquawk: The references to real-life elements in the UK comics industry in the 1970s and 80s made me chuckle – Angus, Angus & Angus, Fleetpit, etc. Do you miss that world?

Pat Mills: A lot. It was so ridiculous and funny. Today's comic world is a humourless place. So it was fun to recreate the "Comic Life on Mars".

B: Serial Killer is merciless when it comes to poking fun at the war-themed comic strips. You helped to change the game by writing different/more realistic war stories, particularly Charley’s War. What were your feelings about that genre back then?

PM: Before Battle and Charley's War, war stories were often ludicrous. Sergeants Four, for example, in Jet where an English sergeant, a Scottish sergeant, a... well, you get the idea!... tied knots in tank barrels with their bare hands. Sigh!

B: Do you think all those comic titles disappeared in the 1990s as a result of changing times, new technologies and squeezed markets, or were there other forces at play?

PM: Comic pros today largely subscribe to this view. That way they don't have to try again. It's complacent nonsense. The truth is - we all of us got it wrong, we neglected the mainstream readers, and especially young readers and paid the price. That's too painful for most to admit.

But the proof is - Marvel and DC survived the 90s... Games Workshop - which started same time as us on 2000AD are a high street name... French comics are as strong as ever.

The forces at play were a slavish love of elitist and sophisticated fandom in preference to the normal reader in the street.

B: Bearing the above in mind, do you think there’s any way forward for new comics catering for today’s kids?

PM: Absolutely. There's always a way, if it's something you want to do. But it's more a matter of preference. There's no desire to appeal to kids. Although they'll sometimes pretend to.  Most professionals would rather appeal to 40-year-old collectors. Kids are much harder to work for - as I cover in my second book Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD and Judge Dredd: The Secret History. That's why I like the challenge, but I'm in a minority.

Everyone seems to forget - comics started with kids! And where are they now? Gone!

B: I see there’s a collected edition of classic Hook Jaw on the way – it’s top of my Christmas list. We also saw a new version of that old favourite, recently - do you like what they did with it?

PM: I think there was a Titan new Hook Jaw book which I didn't read good reviews about. The collected original Hook Jaws I wrote the intro for. It delivers!

B: How did you and Kevin approach your collaboration on the novel?

PM: Kevin and I wrote a sitcom together which was greenlit by a BBC producer (Gareth Edwards - Spaced) but then turned down for being too niche.  So I adapted it to include in the novel with further contributions by Kevin.

B: Give us a flavour of what’s in store in the remaining parts of Read ‘Em And Weep.

PM: Book One: Serial Killer covers the Battle years.  Book Two: Good Night, John Boy I'm just writing covers Action and the start of 2000AD (in fictional form).  Book Three:  2000AD years. Book Four: Misty era.

The protagonist, the Liquorice Detective, searches for his mother's killer as well as creating comics. There's one scene in Book Two - adapted from the sitcom - where he faces a hostile media presenter who hates his comic Aaagh!  It could well remind readers of the famous real life scene where Frank Bough (before the scandal about him broke) tore up a copy of Action live on BBC TV.  Only the outcome in our story is funnier!

B:  What’s your next project in comics?

PM: I've been so busy writing Be Pure... my second text book, I haven't had much chance to pursue comic projects as well.

Certainly I need to finish a serial I've started with Simon Bisley - featuring Joe Pineapples and Ro-Jaws from ABC Warriors and Ro-Busters.

Read our review of Serial Killer here