December 6, 2020


Edited by Herbert van Thal
236 pages, Pan Books
Review by Pat Black
(Crypt door creaks open)
Like any movie nasty, we’re back when you least expect it, with more Pan Horror
Scary dots, I love these. The sinister ellipses… And then the italics!
Your yucky cover: After the previous effort’s bizarre Halloween disco/ goofy mummy/ “Grandad’s had an accident!” number, we’re back to something slightly more serious.
It looks like a clay sculpture of a bald bloke, perhaps a study of a Roman emperor, minus laurels. He has been decorated with a variety of invertebrates – a few earthworms, a centipede, a wasp and what could be a locust. The figure doesn’t look too bothered about his forest friends. As far as it goes, this one isn’t very disturbing.
This book first appeared in 1969, the year future historians will probably refer to as the high watermark of American scientific, cultural, economic and military power. The year of the first moon landing, of Tricky Dicky being in the Oval Office with no apparent signs of trouble, and the zenith of flower power. This latter phenomenon might have been linked to the counterculture and a revolt against power that crossed international boundaries, but it was unmistakably American. Soft power crystallizes into hard power, over time.
This was before Woodstock turned into Altamont. When we still had Jim, Jimi, Janis and all the rest, and as far anyone knew, The Beatles were still together and making records.
It couldn’t last, though. The peak came and went. The counterculture was about to experience a comedown, and it would be brutal. This was the point, according to Hunter S Thompson, when the surging wave broke and rolled back. Welcome to the 1970s.
Free love might have been in the air in 1969, but openness, permissiveness and tolerance isn’t much in evidence in this collection. Most of the stories concern infidelity, jealousy, and bitter, nasty revenges taken as a result. If sexual liberation is one side of the coin, then this is the other: teeth clenched, eyes bulging, quivering with impotent, psychotic rage.
It’s a step away from more outlandish and dated gothic concerns, and there is something to be applauded in that. Grim and grubby as it is, much of this book concerns earthly horrors, and on occasion, it strays into the territory of Things That Might Really Happen. But I can get a belly full of that. Sometimes I’m OK with good old ghosties and monsters.
The opener is “The Acid Test”, by Chris Murray. It features a dastardly plot after a young woman makes a successful play for a rival’s date on a night out. The spurned party, Paula - who we are told has “Sicilian blood” - enlists the services of some goons to capture Marie and make her suffer for her impertinence.
The punishment is a quick dip in a bath of acid. Paula is stripped, dangled from the ceiling and leered over by the heavies who kidnap her. The story has a sleazy atmosphere without explicitly detailing Marie’s body – the kind of eroticism a teenager might dream up.
How the story works out is a little cheesy, even down to the unexpectedly positive ending. But it’s a pacy opener, and it sets the tone for the rest of the book: some cheating, some flesh, and some torture.
AGJ Rough, a series regular, returns with “Something In The Cellar”. That something is a cheating wife, who is chained up down there by her husband after he catches her in bed with another man. She is walled up for good measure, left with an oxygen supply and just enough food and water to survive his long business trip abroad. That’ll teach her, he thinks.
However, the husband has a serious car accident, and ends up in a coma. One year later, he returns to his house to see what’s happening down in the cellar…
No cheating spouses in John Christopher’s “Ringing Tone”, but there is a sleazy bloke. To the outside world, he’s a retired military man, unmarried and referred to as a “bachelor” without any connotations attached. Someone well-liked in his community, a familiar face often to be seen with a half-pint at the pub near his house.
However, he has a secret hobby - looking up the names of women in phone books, and then making obscene calls.
“Phone books? Huh?”
He gets all kinds of responses. Some of the women hang up, some are stunned, some are furious, some are fascinated, and some are totally into it. There’s one victim, however, who gives him pause – a desperate-sounding young woman who implores him not to hang up.
This is a disturbing story, but it could have been published anywhere – it’s a tragedy as much as an outright horror tale, and one that leaves you wondering about the fate of the people on either end of the line once the connection is cut. I will remember this one.
Dulcie Gray, now, a familiar name from the early Pans alongside MS Waddell. “The Necklace” puts us in nasty, uncomfortable territory, showing us a young man with learning difficulties who is sent away to a special school, relieving a terrible, shameful pressure on his parents. When he comes back from his residential term, he has a surprise for mummy and daddy. This one was all wrong, and probably wouldn’t be written today. Turn the page at your own risk…
Walter Winward’s “Self-Employed” places us back in the realm of cheats given their come-uppance. It sees another middle-of-the-road bloke who marries poorly. He’s in denial about his wife’s infidelity, until he catches her in the act. There is a lot of this in the Pans, but this volume seems particularly riddled with it.
She’s punished, but not in the way you imagine. You won’t guess the twist, but it isn’t particularly clever, and the “revenge” moment was less psychotic but somehow more distasteful than the guy who left his wife in the cellar earlier on.
Rosemary Timperley is one of the Pans’ most respected authors – a Rolls-Royce in a sea of Austin Princesses. But guess what? She writes here about infidelity, and revenge.
“Supper With Martha” concerns a married man happily cheating on his wife. His mistress is fun, exciting and dangerous, while Martha is dull, dowdy and conventional. But - unfortunately for him, and especially for his mistress - Martha isn’t daft.
You’ll see the twist coming – if you didn’t clock on with regards to the title immediately - once Martha offers to cook supper for her husband, but it’s still a cracking read. Great writers can do that, no matter what kind of tale they want to tell, no matter what kind of anthology.
No infidelity in “Punishment By Proxy”, by James Connelly, but there are some infidels, and lots of sexual propriety. This is a kind of story which crops up in the genre now and again – Roald Dahl’s story about the guy whose car breaks down on a desert road is one of them – in which white men are invited into the house of a rich Arab, and are granted sexual favours with women under his roof. Part of his harem, one supposes. Until relatively recently, this wouldn’t have seemed that racist. But there is a streak of unpleasantness in it, as the white adventurers find a sense of honour and grandeur once the stakes are raised, with only an oblique reference to their hypocrisy. This is dodgy territory.
Two oil executives are sent to tie up a deal with a sheikh from a fictional country. On a tour of his opulent house, they are shown a line-up of naked women, and asked to choose which one they would like to sleep with. After they’ve made their choice, the sheikh asks them which part of the woman’s body they liked best. After the reasons for this become clear, our two trusty heroes become, eh, heroic. There’s a fight and a desperate flight for freedom. But they have a big problem: the younger sister of one of the men, who has come along for what she thinks is an exotic shopping trip, didn’t get the flight home.
A perfectly readable story, but nasty in ways that it probably didn’t intend. It trades on the fear of the other – painting him as a savage, despite his riches; a man of barbarous customs, at odds with the de facto decency of white western culture. Some regimes do qualify on this score for barbarity, of course, but stereotypy helps no-one, and this sense of the corrupt, decadent alien underpins just about every tuppence ha’penny piece of anti-Arab racism you’ve ever heard. And if you think the western business community are strangers to degeneracy, then I could tell you one or two horror stories.
Frances Stephens’ “The End of the Line” was a welcome change of gear. A troubled young woman is drawn towards a boarded-up old railway tunnel. Something terrible happened there – something to do with a baby, maybe hers, maybe someone else’s. It’s a disturbing look into a disordered mind and toxic thought processes. The kind of story I would have thought was a throwaway if I’d read it as a teenager, but I now know this is uncomfortably close to true horror.
And now we’re at the obligatory MS Waddell, with his or her usual foray into grubby, ironic territory. “The Fat Thing” sees a strange creature feasting on people who are overweight. It’s slimy, leaving a viscous, filmy trail wherever it goes. Despite this it can mimic humans, getting close enough to gain their trust before snaffling them. There’s a nursery rhyme theme which has barely been thought through, and isn’t worth examining. The narrator – who is, gasps, revealed to be The Fat Thing – stalks prey based on verse such as Little Jack Horner and Old Mother Hubbard. The author all but admits he is winging it, at one point. What a scream it all is. Imagine, me sitting here writing this story with no idea how to go on! I think I’ll write that down. It’s ironic, you see? You see?
Imagine getting paid for that.
I get that the editor might have wanted to shift the tone and introduce some comic relief, but it seems forced. This story is tone deaf, inexplicably pleased with itself, betrays a nasty sense of disgust about overweight people, and is an acquired taste at best.
Two good ‘uns in a row, now. First, “The Flatmate”, by B Lynn Barber. I did wonder if the B was redundant, and whether this was the famous interviewer Lynn Barber. The story takes the form of a series of diary entries by a young girl after she moves into a flat, a couple of weeks after the previous occupant killed himself. It shows us the tragedy of a lonely, fanciful person as she makes what she thinks is a spiritual connection with the dead man – and then tries to right some wrongs on his behalf. It’s a nasty tale with a bloody conclusion, but skilfully done. You never lose sympathy for the dead man or the delusional girl.
After that, snowbound frolics with “The Ski-Lift”, by Diana Buttenshaw. A European skiing setting gives it the crisp, clear sense of a fairy tale. All that’s missing is the wolves.
It’s about two lifelong friends on a skiing holiday who find themselves at odds over a girl. When they find out that the object of their desires is actually staying at the same Alpine resort, with a man who might be her cousin, but probably isn’t, Werner and Klaus both decide they will catch up with her to check if the story is true. But it’s getting late, and the ski lift is about to close for the night.
One of them decides to make a very large bet against evolution by climbing a pylon and jumping on one of the last of the chairs before they disappear over the mountain. The other follows, and they both make it. But the ski-lift suddenly stops in mid-air for the night, the slopes are deserted, it’s extremely cold, and, yes, you know where this one is going.
What fascinates me is that it’s quite a short story, told economically. You get all the backstory and details over with quite quickly, and the author is not afraid to tell, rather than show. It never goes off-piste. No detail is spared in the grim conclusion, though. A nasty treat.
A sign of the times, now – CA Cooper’s “Magical Mystery Trip” has the Beatles on its mind – it even quotes I Am The Walrus. The band stomp as they play inside your cortex, distorting it with sound waves which roll and break in red and purple crystal shards on an amethyst sea while tiny green spiders with ruby eyes surf towards shore, giggling –
You get the idea. This sees a young man on an LSD trip, plagued with waking dreams of nightmarish things. The acid hallucinations are quite convincing. Toes become fire engines. People’s faces go on fire. Giant crabs fill the sky. This would be bad enough if he’d chosen this experience for himself, but he has no idea how it happened. It seems he has been spiked by his friend.
The trip doesn’t end. Day after day after day, more and more and more nightmares, while life goes on as usual outside his perception bubble.
Much like the peculiar sexual morality we see elsewhere in the book, this story sees the Pans saddling up a high horse. The warning about psychedelic drugs – and this was 1969, remember – couldn’t be clearer.  Whatever you might think about this finger being wagged in your face, the main character’s predicament is an absolute nightmare.
Frances Stephens’ second entry with “Pussy Cat Pussy Cat” next, a depressing but well-constructed tale of baby-meets-cat domestic horror. The main character is alone in the house with a newborn baby and her older son. The latter wants to keep a stray cat that keeps showing up. The mother’s every instinct tells her to chase this creature – correctly.
Like the same author’s “The End Of The Line” above, this story was plausible, and much more affecting when read as an adult than it would have been had I discovered it as a teenager. I found the closing lines difficult to stomach. “That’s why they call it ‘Horror Stories’, Pat.”
David Lewis’ “Long Silence, Old Man” sees a grown man visiting his elderly father. The story would seem to be set in Mexico, going by the characters’ names, but I could be guilty of an appalling assumption. Manolo is bringing his new wife to visit his dad at his remote desert shack. It is crudely implied that Manolo has some psychological problems which affect him in the bedroom with his bride. This has its roots in some awful behaviour from the old man, cruel punishments meted out to Manolo when he was just a boy. Manolo decides to pay his father back, plus interest. It’s not quite therapy, but it is therapeutic.
This was a grim, but also very sad story. A reminder that an unkind family home is a nursery for monsters. 
Now a curious one, William Sinclair’s “The Terror of Two Hundred Below”. The title suggests a monster mash, with some deadly creature haunting an ice cavern or the depths of the ocean. Instead, it’s a science-hates-you tale, with the title referring to temperature.
This is a bad story with a decent idea at its centre. It starts with the main character fleeing down dark streets (this is in Glasgow – it’s not the last story in the book to be set there). She meets a man, and begs him for help. The baddies are chasing her. The good knight takes her home to his flat, makes her a cup of tea, and then listens to her story.
She is a scientist, part of a group that won a huge research grant prize, snatching it from under the nose of the man who was widely expected to win. It’s fair to say he is upset about this.
After a series of totally implausible and deadly episodes, she ends up working for the guy who took second prize. You’d think this lassie’s every instinct would be telling her to keep this man as far away as possible, but no. Perhaps she doesn’t realise she’s in a horror story.
At the naughty scientist’s Highland research laboratory, she discovers the Awful Truth about his Unethical Experiments. Her grim fate is laid out for her. But she escapes. And then, oh dear…
There’s a lot of things to pick at here. The dialogue is terrible – the story is told by the main character as direct quoted speech, but it doesn’t resemble anything that would come out of the mouth of a real person, outside of an Ealing comedy. Some of the events are truly horrible – she’s raped, and while there is no explicit detail, the way it’s described as an afterthought is dreadful, whether this story is read in 1970 or 2020. The central fate laid out for the main character is admittedly (yep, I went there) chilling. It’s not a very good story, though.
Next up, an all-but-forgotten writer whose work fascinates me. Dorothy K Haynes’ previous two stories for the Pans were brilliant – historical tales set in Scotland, concerning witchcraft, the second sight, and diabolical coincidence. “The Bean-nighe” and “Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch” were so good they had me searching for other work by this forgotten writer. She’s been out of print for a good while. “The Cure” reaffirms my belief that this is a mistake.
We’re back in a Scottish village, not in the present day, which sees a young man with unspecified issues and his mother being offered up to the judgement of the town. The father was hanged, and his body is still swaying in the wind, after a sentencing which many thought was harsh. According to old superstitions, the touch of a hanged man can cure a person of their ailments. The fact that the person requiring the cure is the dead man’s son adds a bit more flavour to a pungent recipe.
Haynes is very, very good. She touches on many themes familiar from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” – the corrosive quality of back stoop gossip, and its close relationship with irrationality.
Alex Hamilton’s “Image of the Damned” sees a genius waxwork artist creating his masterpiece, in the form of a notorious rake, shagger and gambler who is about to be executed. The condemned man hatches an outrageous plot to escape the gallows, which no-one in their right minds would fall for. This story is silly but it is very well told indeed, with a tone befitting its chief character.
Norman P Kaufman’s “A Sharp Loss of Weight” sees a man imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit released from jail, and on the lookout for the man who framed him. There’s a bit of a twist involving revenge already being taken on someone else’s behalf, but this story is an odd ‘un. I want to say that “it goes to show that events usually end up paying horrible people back”, but I know that this is wishful thinking.
Desmond Stewart’s “An Experiment In Choice” sees a man waking up at the top of a huge chimney. He is informed that he has a choice to make, as part of a psychological experiment: jump to the ground on the outside of the chimney, or make the leap into the darkness inside. So, it’s certain death, or uncertain, but probable death. In case he thinks he can just stay where he is and pray for rescue, a steel blade begins to rise beneath him. Think fast. What would you do?
Robert Duncan’s “The Evil One” takes us back to Glasgow, and sees a woman at a party having sex with a man she is irresistibly drawn to. She’s betrothed to someone else, but that hardly seems significant. After the deed is done, she takes a look at the sleeping man under the sheets, and complete and utter madness follows.
This story has the framing of horror, but it’s about something else altogether. It’s got nothing to do with madness or diabolism, but is all to do with a woman having good sex with someone she isn’t meant to. Freud noted how closely horror stories are linked to sexuality – almost a continuum – and with many of the stories here in mind, it’s difficult to disagree. It also fits in with the distinctly Calvinist tone of this volume.
Joan Aiken’s “Marmalade Wine” sees a chap taking a walk in the woods, and happening upon the arboreal bolthole of a famous surgeon. They get talking, and the surgeon offers him a drop of the stuff in the title. It’s awfully good, but wasn’t the surgeon in the news for something a little while ago? Oh, mate.
Finally, it’s “Monkey Business” by John Arthur. A British guide in Singapore takes an obnoxious American tourist out to see the sights. There are two thick strands of racism here – we’re back to the type of stuff we saw in the Arabian harem above, with strange, warped customs, set at odds with the supposed decency of white people. Well… when I say “white people”, I mean “English people”, because the second piece of racism is at the expense of Americans - portrayed as brash, fat, greedy and uncultured. This is a lazy stereotype alongside the mean Arab or the treacherous Oriental, and we shouldn’t tolerate it either.
That said, the story is an utter shocker, truly horrifying. It would have been very easy to hint at the loud American’s fate, and leave him to it – but John Arthur goes there, and then some.
It reminds me of something George A Romero said about Night Of The Living Dead, which also appeared in 1969. He was used to horror films that showed you the shadow of the knife rising and falling, then a cut, and then a body on the floor, and maybe a drop or two of blood. But George wanted to show you the knife going in, and the blood pouring out. That’s similar to the stunning final paragraphs of this story.
It was a fitting capper to one of the best of the Pans. I have far too many books to read, and also one or two to write, so who knows when the Pans will be back here? But never fear… they’ll be back!
(crypt door slams shut)

July 12, 2020


by Billy Connolly
336 pages, Two Roads

Review by Pat Black

I was born a sort of fart…

Signed by the author. That’s what it said on the Waterstone’s email promo. I don’t think I would have bothered actually buying a copy, had the autograph been by any other author living or dead outside of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.

There it is, on the flyleaf. Billy Connolly’s signature. An autograph by a guy with Parkinson’s. Perhaps there’s a joke to be told there, but I’ll leave that stuff to the experts.

Tall Tales and Wee Stories is a best-of, a transcript of his best comedy routines. We all know it.

Jobbie wheekers… I needed somewhere to park my bike... Tarantulas and their wily ways... This awful longevity of sex... “I know you…” But in the North Sea, you don’t…

You can hear him saying it as you read. The thing you lose on the page is Connolly’s sublime talent as a mime; to paint a picture in your mind by gesture and movement. The only editorial intrusion on these basic transcripts comes when the book fills in the gaps where it needs to. The descriptive parts that he never actually said jar a little against the recording that plays in your head. The routines are so good, though, that the book made me laugh out loud at jokes I’ve heard many times before.

They are bastards, and they do it on purpose… “It’s him, mammy… it’s him again”… This thing arrives at your f*cking house in a taxi... And there it is, a wee beige jobby...

There are murals with Connolly’s face on them on the side of buildings in his home city, Glasgow. It seems remarkable that this iconography should be bestowed upon someone still alive, but it’s apt. Billy Connolly feels like a folk hero even while he’s still alive. Which is hardly an inconvenience, for him or us. It feels a wee bit like – yes - the songwriter who laments being far away from Scotland, while he’s still there.

Glaswegians, or those of us privileged to live on the outskirts, feel as if he is one of us. He has seeped into our consciousness at a national level. He is single-handedly responsible for Glaswegians thinking themselves funny, as opposed to hard. Mixed feelings for many people, on that last one.

The first time I saw him was at Celtic Park, when he opened a rebuilt stand – I think before Celtic played Sporting Lisbon in a friendly, in 1996. Ancient history in itself. I remember thinking: I’ll always tell people that I saw Billy Connolly in the flesh.

I remember he had a purple beard. He’d only just brought the beard out of retirement. It suited him better, no doubt about it. He didn’t always advertise his football allegiances, but everyone knows the talented guys support the Celts. I grew up thinking he supported Partick Thistle. (“I thought they were called Partick Thistle Nil.”)

“Just phuck off.” Peas and mince. It saves a lot of time…

Then, a few years later, I saw him up near Woodlands, in Glasgow, when I was a passenger in a car. He was right behind us in a Range Rover, and you could not mistake him for anyone else. I was 24 years old, and when I spotted him I did something utterly ridiculous – I turned around and waved, as he took a turn on a roundabout. I suspect he was going to see up-and-coming comedians at The Stand, which was not too far away. “Hullo Billy,” I said.

Our eyes definitely locked. I can easily imagine his response. If “prick on a roundabout” becomes a thing in his routines, it was probably me.

Next time I saw him, it was at a live show, at long last, in 2012. The Doncaster Dome. Ominously, he repeated one or two old bits and pieces, but still got big laughs for them. It’s fine for a band to play the hits, but that is less well accepted in a comedian’s act. Connolly proves a rare exception to that.

Also, if we’re being critical, he has punched downwards once or twice in his career. Overweight people and the disabled have been awkward components of some of his patter, through the years. But we forgive him, as we do not forgive others.

“Now say Jesus!” “Jeeeesus!”

The next time I saw him was five or six years later - his last stand. The Parkinson’s was becoming apparent. He slapped “flies” out of the air and referred to them non-stop. And despite my initial scepticism, it turned out there were one or two bugs flying around.

Finally, he hit one, and I could see a black thing on the stage floor. “Got ye, ya bastard.” But whether he was plagued by flies or not, I think it was either a stalling tactic for him to remember his lines, or a means of distracting his hands from doing what they wanted to do – which seemed to be to crawl up his chest and strangle him. He was in a bad way.

He grew confused once or twice, badly losing the place and filling it with dead air. It was excruciating. He stopped what he was saying completely, and did not return to that line of thought. This was at a gigantic arena in Sheffield. The silence, and the sympathy, was near absolute.

After one extra-long gap, he said: “I just want to leave.” I’ll never forget it. As one, about 10,000 people inhaled.

But, like a pro, he got on with it, and he finished the show. There was an air of sadness outside the venue as everyone filed out into the car park. I thought, like many others: that’s the last time I’ll see him. We’ll never know how much he suffered to bring us those last shows, what he must have put himself through.

A hero is a person who does the right thing, no matter what they have to suffer. He was my hero that night. He was my hero anyway.

The true Billy is the guy on all those home videos – and before that, the vinyl records, including a load of scratched ones I was duped into buying when I’d had a few pints, one time. He's the guy the whole family settled down to enjoy. As a very young child I was well aware of the slightly scary, bearded man from as far back as I can remember; but I also remember my dad’s reaction, howling with laughter at the videos and vinyl records. Billy came from the same streets, the same flats and tenements, the same back courts, the same uniquely Glaswegian background. He was one of us.

As a boy, I thrilled at the bad language before I got any of the jokes. I remember a wonderful night with the buzzy old black and white turn-dial portable in the bedroom I shared with my brother, both of us in bed watching a repeat of An Audience With Billy Connolly. (“Spot the dead celebs” becomes more horrifying with every fresh viewing of that one.)

A couple of years later, my eldest brother brought home a VHS rental of Billy And Albert. “What are you laughing at?” my dad barked at me, during the masturbation gag. In truth, I didn’t know. The correct answer was: “I’m laughing at the funny man.”

A hero could also be described as someone who brings sunshine to people when it’s been raining. Billy is my hero for that, too.

A reservation on the outskirts… The place with the vans…

Billy’s still with us, even though the family members who I watched the videos and TV specials with are long gone. The bastard will outlive me, now that I’ve written that.

Regardless, when he goes, this is how people will remember him – the warmth and laughter among family and friends; the bits and pieces that ring true for us, whether that’s as Glaswegians or simply as people; the parts we repeated among ourselves in playgrounds, pubs and workplaces; and the universal laughs at ourselves and our bodies and our embarrassments.

He is up there with the Beatles and the Stones, the Pythons and David Bowie. Someone who defined an age. I can see him painted as a Renaissance figure, certainly with a ruff collar. Someone, please do it.

February 7, 2020


Country matters on Booksquawk

Potters’ and Planters’ Almanac, part three

by Robert Macfarlane
496 pages, Hamish Hamilton

Review by Pat Black

There’s a lot going on under there, beneath your feet.

Underland is Robert Macfarlane’s most ambitious book. Instead of his usual trails across mountain ranges, clifftops or other high roads, this work goes low, looking at the relatively unexamined world of the underground. That can mean caves, caverns, sink holes, mine shafts, bore holes in bright blue glaciers, labyrinths, hidden rivers, hidden cities, ancient tombs, future tombs, and some teeny tiny wee crawlspaces that you just wouldn’t get me in, for all the lube in Lubya.

In his introduction, the author quotes from a section of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, a book I haven’t read. I have read descriptions of the passage in question before, though – a nauseating journey the characters take through an underground cave that’s too tight to turn your head in, with places that you can barely scrape your ankles through, as you literally inch your way forward in complete darkness, with no way back. And then it gets tighter, and tighter…

If you’re already white-knuckling it, then so was Macfarlane. He admits that this part of the book terrified him as a child. So, in the early part, there’s an element of confronting natural fear, or maybe it’s just masochism, as Macfarlane tries to squeeze through some similar gaps accompanied by a spelunker in the Mendips.

The book thankfully isn’t a series of palpitation-inducing compressions, but broadens out into an erudite examination of what goes on beneath the crust of the planet, and humans’ need to interact with it. That can be for simple exploration or adventure; or for burial and concealment, sometimes for nefarious purposes. On other occasions, the world simply collapses on us. There are sinkholes and shafts, which can open up without warning. There are almost certainly skeletons down there. And there is hidden treasure: most major cities have hidden layers underneath, such as Edinburgh, Paris and of course London. I can recommend one of those tours in the Scottish capital. If ghosts exist, then they must surely stalk those gloomy, dripping spaces.

Then there are hidden worlds that we couldn’t even conceive of until recently, such as the wonders of the wood-wide-web. This is a theory that trees can actually communicate and interact with each other in the forest via an underground network of fungi and spores. Regular readers will have run into this idea before in our coverage of the work of Roger Deakin – a close friend of Robert Macfarlane.

Along the way, of course, there’s some derring-do involving trips to places that I’m not sure I’d ever want to visit. Macfarlane does it, so you don’t have to – and isn’t that the essence of every great piece of travel writing?  

Throughout Underland, there’s a sense of extra dimensions, a trippy element that I thoroughly enjoyed. This starts with the author’s appraisal of a map. You can gain an idea of the terrain and the topography, but there’s no sense of true depth, with the world underneath us and all its riches occluded. Things get even spacier, literally, in one early chapter sees MacFarlane joining physicists in a former mine at Boulby in Yorkshire, underneath the sea bed, where they try to unlock the secrets of dark matter free from the interference of surface radiation. So, this texture and topography, this extradimensionality, can stretch out into the cosmos, as well as growing roots into the earth beneath us.

I was tickled by the section where McFarlane joins a plant scientist called Merlin Sheldrake to examine the wood wide web in Epping Forest. He rarely fails to address the man by his first name, every other sentence - and who could blame him when you can write stuff like: “I joined Merlin for a walk in the forest one misty morning”? The wood wide web shows us that there are states of existence on our own planet, never mind in outer space, which are almost beyond human comprehension. The book is packed with uncanny landscapes. In one chapter, Macfarlane describes beaches of black ash which have never seen the sun during a kayak trip through underground rivers in Italy, home to whole thriving ecosystems and animal populations which get by without human interference perfectly well. There must be loads of this we’ve yet to discover. It makes our blundering progress across the planet and the waste we choke it up with all the more disgusting.

The Anthropocene era casts a shadow over the whole book. Though he’s never preachy, the end of existence on earth – a process which might be well under way thanks to humans - is never far from Macfarlane’s thoughts. Everywhere he looks, there are signs of our impermanence, and proof that in deep time, our greatest achievements and mightiest edifices will be as significant as the gravel on someone’s driveway.

There are a couple of scrotum reducers, such as when Macfarlane visits the catacombs in Paris, and has to follow an almost supernaturally bendy guide as she angles herself through impossible turns in the pitch-black labyrinth ahead of him. On top of that, there’s our opening section when the author crawls through some tight spaces underneath the Mendips in Somerset, a prisoner of brutal darkness underneath a perfect English summer’s day.

This kind of thing is the height – and depth – of Nope, for me. This is a journey to the bottom of the Mines of Nope. This is two thousand fathoms down, inside a Nopeyscape. Verily this is the Nopey-ist of Nopes. This is Pope Nope the Noughth of Noples. And so on. I’m not claustrophobic, as a brief examination of the some of the places I’ve lived in would show you. But this doesn’t really qualify as an irrational fear. It’s a bit like saying you’re not arachnophobic, then having to style it out when a giant spider is dropped on your face. I loved my time on the mountains and I’ve swum with sharks, so I get the appeal of more hirsute pursuits. But that spelunking stuff doesn’t do anything for me. I’ve no desire to die this most Freudian of deaths.  

Macfarlane tells us one horror story, about a caver who got stuck so fast in a twisty pipey natural tunnel far beneath the English soil that he died. They couldn’t even get the body out. The poor lad’s father decided to concrete the tunnel up, with the body inside – ensuring no-one else takes the same path. What a nightmare. For me, that’s up there with “eaten by an animal”, “burned alive” and “plane disintegrates” for the absolute worst ways to go.

Macfarlane also looks at a pit in Slovenia where an atrocity took place during the war, a place so redolent of evil it seems to want to reach up out of the darkness and throttle you. It’s somewhere Macfarlane is quite sure he’ll never return to. It’s no place for us, down there, really.

It isn’t all about close, creepy places, though. There’s high adventure as Macfarlane gets his crampons on and checks out entombed places in the far north, with polar bears to worry about as well as avalanches and other dicey events in Norway and Greenland. In one episode, he abseils down a hole bored in ancient ice by glaciologists who can glean as much from the layers of permafrost as a geologist can divine from layers of rock. I’m guessing they have never seen The Thing, but we’ll let that one slide.

Then there’s a strange episode where Macfarlane checks out ancient cave paintings on an ultra-remote Arctic island, and postulates that ancient people left their artworks in one spectacularly inhospitable cavern of ice as a rite of passage, or an offering to a god. Macfarlane makes one himself, an obeisance to the spirit of adventure. This is fantastic Boy’s Own stuff, although I imagine that Macfarlane’s hairy moments would have led to his family Having A Word with him upon his return.

Macfarlane’s grand finale sees him examine how humans prepare for a post-human future – by trying to prevent an unknown population many years from now from disinterring nuclear waste which is likely to remain hot and extremely dangerous for millennia.

It poses a delicious problem: how do you effectively warn the descendants of the rats and cockroaches or the visiting alien societies that no matter how interesting the burial chamber is, they really, really shouldn’t mess with it?

You could leave all sorts of scary warnings or traps, but we’ve all seen Raiders Of The Lost Ark. That’s just going to spur them on. “Danger? Keep out? I click my chitinous mandibles at your danger.” You’ve got to play it a bit cooler than that… The techniques worked out by scientists are ingenious, but we’ve no way of knowing if they’ll work.

Thankfully, it’s somebody’s else’s problem. Or maybe nobody else’s problem. Nothing’s permanent. Even the ground beneath our feet must shift and change, given the passage of deep time; it could turn out to be desert, or a forest floor, or the top of a mountain, or a cavern half a mile underground that will never see the sun again, or more likely a seabed - and finally it might be nothing at all, turned to stardust within the fatal boundaries of our engorged red sun.

Everything that ever existed on this earth might have come to absolutely nothing, and been of no consequence, an interesting flash in the sky for whatever life might exist out there as we all boil away.

Imagine that? In deep time, nothing we ever do matters. I can’t decide if this prospect is terrifying, or awesome. All that remains might be what’s on the Voyager probe’s information disc. Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode might be one of the few things in all of human artistic endeavour to survive the passing of the planet itself. Strewth.

There is the smallest chance that Earth will survive the sun’s greed as it expands, billions of years into the future. It might just, just sneak into the “survival zone”, leaving a crispy outer shell and nothing still living, like one last round at the pub swiped on your bank card in the hours before your pay arrives.

Whether there will be anything left of the human race anywhere in the universe by then is debatable. There’s something in Macfarlane’s tone which tells me which side he’s on in that one.

Speaking of endings, I finished this audiobook when I went out for a walk quite late on New Year’s Eve, at the very end of the decade. I loved the poetry and synchronicity of this, and its entirely unrealistic sense of closure. The definition of a book.

February 3, 2020


by Brendan Gisby
90 pages, Createspace

Review by Pat Black

I’ve met bridges people before. They’re like aeroplanes people, or classic cars people, or (they fit together with bridges people like bank holidays and wet weather) trains people.

I am not one of those people – I am a guitars person - but I am fascinated by one particular bridge. The one that links North and South Queensferry; the one that used to be a punchline for a Sisyphean task, before they invented some fancy paint.

Iain Banks wrote about this bridge. And it is awesome. Were Godzilla to make his way across the Firth of Forth, he might stay his hand a while before smashing it to pieces.

A bridge goes somewhere, but the places on either side don’t. In The Burrymen War, Danny Jaffrey finds himself back in one of these places, in the shadow of the Forth Bridge, attending the funeral of his friend Muldy.

As Danny walks the familiar streets in South Queensferry, he gets to reminiscing. Not just about good times spent with Muldy and another mate of theirs, Lennie. There’s bad stuff in there, too – particularly a murder that haunts Dan. One he was involved in.

There are a lot of laughs in The Burrymen War, but it is a serious examination of a serious subject - a perfectly-pitched look at prejudice and violence in Scotland. Brendan Gisby focuses on South Queensferry, but he could be looking at any number of Scottish towns affected by sectarianism.

You might have a working knowledge of sectarianism in Scotland owing to a well-known sporting rivalry – a topic the tourist bodies do well to stay clear of. I still chuckle at a recent translation of Japanese tourist advice – “beware the green and blue men”. But as Gisby points out, the problem isn’t confined to the west of Scotland. Some might try to convince you that it begins and ends with football. But this is a symptom of the problem, not its cause. Sectarianism’s roots go very deep. But we don’t have time to go into that, here.

Back to the story. Danny, Muldy, Lennie and a few others from the Irish side of the street hatch a plan to get one over on their “opposite number” in the town. It’s greens versus blues, if we’re sticking to football analogies.

South Queensferry has a bizarre tradition, still popular to this day, whereby a “Burryman” is steered through the town during the summer fair in August. The Burryman is a monstrous green figure covered in burrs – the seeds of a sticky weed more commonly known as burdock – and paraded through the town by attendants. A man in a suit, basically.

It seems to be a pagan rite which has survived to the present day. No-one quite knows how the tradition started or what it actually refers to. The first recorded mention of the ceremony comes in the 17th century, but it pre-dates that by a long way. It could have something to do with The Green Man, Celtic fertility symbols or any number of things. It could even have its roots in blood sacrifice, but the truth is – no-one knows.  

It would certainly scare the weans. The Burryman looks like a Scooby Doo villain, pre-unmasking. I’ve got a few monstrous ideas cooking for this clodding creature. In these visions of mine, the Burryman may be plant-based, but he ain’t no vegan. 

Gisby made a much smarter choice in presenting this rite, carried out unthinkingly by its followers on a holiday of obligation, as the basis of a deadly tribal feud.

In the story, the Burryman parade is controlled by the boys in the loyalist pub down the street. So, Muldie hatches a plot to steal a few yards on them by creating a Burryman of their own, and parading it through the town before the other pub begins the actual, official Burryman march. In the process, they seek to give themselves a generous helping of the charitable collection which accompanies the parade.

As you might expect, Danny and co’s rivals don’t take kindly to this. The stage is set for a bloody confrontation.

What I liked most about The Burrymen War was Danny’s sense of regret, remorse and anger over the violence of the past. The author makes it clear from the start that the prank of 30 years ago had tragic consequences – the story shows you the who and how of it.

Gisby also examines misplaced loyalty, something that fascinates me the older I get. Young men form strong bonds with their friends, but sometimes, once the business of jobs and families and children intrude, these friendships can become toxic. They lead us down paths we shouldn’t follow. Once unbreakable ties are severed.

But on the other hand, there’s the purer ideal of sticking by a mate, no matter what the circumstances. What price is loyalty? If you can’t pay it, we are inclined to wonder: what sort of person are you?

The book also examines how bad blood can stain a community for years. Some people only do 10 years for murder. There are some whose actions have caused irreparable, generations-deep damage - but 10 years isn’t forever, and all too soon, they’re back on the same streets, mingling with the same people.

Danny’s conclusion is that there’s really only one firm step you can take to avoid these circumstances.

The Burrymen War is a short but devastating read. It’s the real Scotland, in all its humour, all its contradictions, and all its bared teeth.

November 29, 2019


by Brian Garfield
192 pages, Mysterious Press

Review by Pat Black

Or, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nasty Things.

Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ll know about the Death Wish movie.

Charles Bronson, droopy moustache, feet braced, Saturday Night Special… Michael Winner! Blam!

It tells the story of a middle-class architect living in 1970s New York who decides to execute every street punk he encounters after his wife and daughter are attacked.

Brian Garfield’s original novel tells the same story, in a different way. But only slightly.

In it, Paul Benjamin is an accountant, a liberal (in the sense we used to understand it) in New York City in the same time period. He’s good at his job in the world of finance and sees no apparent irony as he takes on lots of crunchy causes in tandem with his role as a sharp cog in the pitiless capitalist machine.

Liberal guilt, I think they call it; organising fundraisers for softball teams in underprivileged areas, that kind of thing. If he was around today, Benjamin would be the sort of person who might criticise you for drinking from a plastic bottle of water – someone with firm convictions and a strong moral compass, but also a bit of a twat.

His house is raided by a teenage gang, with his wife and daughter inside. There are tragic consequences. This event takes place off-the-page and does not feature any sexual assault. This differs from Winner’s exploitative cinema vision, which spared you few details.

After this terrible shock, Benjamin slowly transforms into a vigilante who stalks the Big Apple’s seamier streets with a handgun, and in the process becomes something of a cause celebre.

“Is that a gun in your pocket, or… ? Oh, it is a gun, and you’re not pleased to see me.”

Justice isn’t exactly blind, but it is indiscriminate in Death Wish. Benjamin never levels the score with the criminals who destroyed his life – he doesn’t really look for them. Anyone committing or attempting to commit a violent crime is fair game for this unlikely avenger.

Garfield didn’t like the movie version of his story, which is a puzzler as it follows the novel’s plot, and its politics, to the letter. It is more cerebral than the movie series would have you believe, but that’s not difficult. At heart, Death Wish is a novel about grief – internalised, corrosive, manifesting itself in other symptoms, and finally exploding. But you’d be foolish to ignore the anger and the retribution, and the catharsis that follows.

In the same way, you could say Jaws is about an honourable man tackling endemic corruption in the face of a public health crisis - and you’d be right. But you’d be ignoring the shark.

For “shark”, read “guns”, here.

Benjamin grinds his teeth at the well-intended efforts of his work colleagues as they pat him on the back in the wake of personal disaster. He occasionally loses his temper with his granola-grating son-in-law, an idealist who accepts the terrible hand he has been dealt with an unnerving equanimity. The man even calls him “Pops”. For god’s sake – get mad, mate! Scream! Swear! You’re on Benjamin’s side in these parts.

This grief odyssey takes several strange paths, including one digression involving a woman our lonely hero picks up in a bar. I liked this illustration of Benjamin’s melancholic state, the devastation of a man with a home and a family and a purpose in life, suddenly set adrift. This is a moment of calm, if not peace, before he gets down to business.

The pivotal moment comes when Benjamin is sent to the South to look after a big account. He sees a gun shop and realises he can just stroll in and buy a firearm if he feels like it.
He does. And he feels empowered. No other word for it.

This is after Benjamin has experimented with taking down a teenage mugger, using a sock loaded with coins for a cosh. I have always wondered at the effectiveness of this DIY weaponry, given the state of some of the ancient socks I’ve got. If I tried that, I’d most likely see my loose change roll away across the street before a blow was struck. Then having to explain myself to the young man I’d just interrupted.

Maybe it’s a status symbol among gangsters – high-quality socks, for use in punishment beatings.

“What you packing?”

(solemn intonation) “Doubled-up Pringle.”

“Yeah? Look at what I got.”

(gasp) “Granpaw’s hiking socks!”

Benjamin’s longed-for confrontations arrive quite close to the end of this novel. They are not played for the sake of gore – I admit, this material would have been far worse in my hands – but they are disturbing. He walks into unsafe areas after dark, literally looking for trouble. If anyone tries to mug Benjamin or is spotted committing any kind of serious crime anywhere near him, they’re going to grow some holes.

How easy it is. Point and shoot. Down they go.

I’m maybe not the best person to criticise here, as I’ve just published a book about a person taking revenge. But Death Wish’s themes felt current.

Admittedly, I wouldn’t trust anyone who says they didn’t in some way empathise with Benjamin’s rage. If you play by the rules, then at some point you will be crossed by someone who doesn’t, and that can be very disturbing. Most liberal consciences would struggle to remain completely intact after any major trauma as a result of crime. It takes incredible strength and virtue not to give in to anger in the face of random, violent events carried out by unpleasant people.

They say you should hate the game and not the player, but this is difficult if the player is someone who has stripped your house of anything valuable before crapping on your favourite rug. There are many time-worn arguments against revenge and retribution. Some are as old as the written word, and most are valid. But few of them address the joy of striking back. A dish best served cold? I don’t know about that.  

Lots of our novels, movies, TV shows and plays know this instinctively. It’s a button they know how to press, even as they appear to tell you something different. It’s a fundamental flaw. It’s deeper than storytelling. It seems like a trace memory, folklore, something in the genome. Get them back. An eye for an eye.

Like the Big Explanation scene which serves as a coda in Psycho, Death Wish offers a built-in analysis of its troubled hero. Benjamin picks up a magazine in the toilet at a house party and reads a psychologist’s assessment of the vigilante whose killings electrify the city. The shrink’s insight is spot-on, and Benjamin begins to worry for the first time that he might get caught.

The book suggests that many people are on his side – including the police. Death Wish examines its hero’s conscience and paints him as a man undergoing a mental breakdown. But there’s no doubt that his behaviour is tweaking something primal in us. That revolver is about taking back control.

We hear that phrase a lot, these days.

Revenge as a driver of plot is as old as storytelling itself. But consider that familiar figure, the lone man with a gun, the reluctant avenger, forced to act for the sake of justice. This is often characterised as “individualism” and is a staple in stories of tough guys doing tough things, particularly in the mythology of the old West in the American tradition.

But zapping people arbitrarily and believing you’re doing the right thing is the work of a demagogue, and worse. “It’s right, because I say it is.”

There’s a lot of that about, these days.

How many damaged people around the world, but particularly in the United States, have pictured themselves as the man with the gun who had a legitimate grievance they’ve seen in the movies? The school shooters, the mosque invaders, the guys at work with a grudge, the people who suddenly open fire in malls and nightclubs.

Often, their issues are phantoms of the mind. But whatever their problem, they thought they could resolve things by ventilating people. They’ve seen it done quite a lot in the movies, after all.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that fictional content causes crime – if that was the case, I’d be a great big criminal. I’ve read about the studies examining violent video games, and that troublesome statistic about other countries who enjoy this kind of entertainment – with little or no gun crime. However, there’s no denying that stories on the page or the screen do model destructive, vindictive behaviour. Watch enough films where problems are resolved with a shoot-out, or a fight, and – if you had certain mental health conditions or a serious personality disorder - you might start to forget it’s abnormal in an ordered, peaceful society; that we have mechanisms like manners and polity and laws so that we can avoid these things happening, as far as possible.

Have you ever met someone who wanted to be a gangster in real life? Have you ever noticed that they really like gangster movies? There’s a reason for that.

But make no mistake. The main ingredient isn’t movies, or gunfights in the movies, or first-person perspective shooting games. It’s easy access to deadly weapons. Add some laws which provide for that, and maybe a dash of entitlement, and you have a disaster at all levels of society.

Making yourself judge, jury and executioner isn’t a good thing. No one person should have the right. It’s taken thousands of years for human society to arrive at that conclusion, and for many even in the bosom of the so-called free world, it isn’t quite clear yet.

I am reminded of an old stand-up routine: if Bruce Wayne really wanted to stem the tide of crime in Gotham, he could use his billions to fund community projects or open a factory in a deprived area, instead of dressing up as a furry and battering poor people, addicts, or the mentally ill.

Death Wish is about a person who doesn’t follow the rules. As a piece of fiction, it’s a great conversation starter, among people you should probably avoid at parties. In real life though, that decision to transgress is a disaster for all of us, as rules in the form of laws – deeply flawed as they can be – are sometimes the only thing keeping us from total chaos.

At times we need rule-breakers, certainly. Some conventions and ordinances deserve to go in the bin. To take one example, imagine if Rosa Parks had meekly surrendered her seat and gone to the back of the bus. But “it’s bad to shoot someone because you feel like it” is not one of them.

When it comes to being able to go about your life and livelihood peacefully, and also – key point - being treated equally and fairly by authorities who have to toe the line the same way as you, then these rules are essential.

Losing a rules-based system would be like having your back door open out onto the Stone Age. Crumbling rules and wobbling democratic systems can be seen all over the world. Even in places where you didn’t think it would happen: specifically, the United States and the United Kingdom.

If you’re not worried yet, you’re not paying attention. At least on this side of the pond, the guns are under control. But who knows where we’re going, politically?

If there’s an analogy for the mythology of the Wild West in modern life, then surely it lies in global finance and information technology. We shouldn’t be surprised when the same cut-throat, merciless practices manifest themselves elsewhere in life.

Another question that’s been bothering me: in a time when we can watch movies or TV shows which feature violent incidents involving firearms as normalised, why haven’t there been any dramas about mass shootings, whether fictional or adapted from real events? It hasn’t been tackled in a big, serious, well-funded mainstream movie yet, with the notable exception of Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine documentary.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is the closest match I can think of, but Lionel Shriver sidestepped the entire guns debate by having that book’s psychopathic title character use a bow and arrow rather than a Smith & Wesson. Also, both book and movie adaptation pulled away from directly showing us what happened.

Gus Van Sant addressed Columbine in another thoughtful piece, Elephant, but without showing us the actual massacre. That’s as close as you get from Hollywood. The only other dramatisations I can see are well-meaning TV movies, or small-scale dramas which weren’t given mass publicity or a widespread release. Not even in the same galaxy as the latest Avengers or Fast And Furious movie, at any rate.

You could argue on taste and decency grounds here – but this doesn’t seem apply to other types of murder. Just this year we had another series of Mindhunter, and we also saw a former teen musical idol become Ted Bundy on the big screen. We’re open to the idea of dissecting the behaviour of sex killers and military dictators responsible for thousands of deaths, but not the horribly prosaic world of the lone gunman.

Why the shyness about the reality of gun crime? What’s the purpose of art, if not to reflect reality in some way?

Surely we should be shown the utter horror of these situations. We should have make-up geniuses or digital artists show us, as realistically as possible, precisely what happens when a round from an AR-15 assault rifle hits a child in the face. A few filmmakers have had a go at 9/11, the ultimate millennial true-life horror, so surely they can apply this industry to a gun massacre – something which becomes horribly real, and horribly current, on a regular basis. We should see the panic, hear the screaming, experience the tears and pleading, people losing control of bladders and bowels. Give people their pornography, as lexicographers understand the term. The grim, unbearable reality. Without a shred of glamour.

Do we need a movie tough guy to play the gunman? Someone comfortably masculine enough for us? Why not? They so often play gunmen. Let’s have it. Let’s see it. Make it real for people. Who has the nerve?

Back on-topic. I’ll say this about Death Wish: even allowing for its brevity, in an age when books can lie on my bedside table for months before I reach the end, I read it in the space of a day or two.

It’s wrong on many levels, but I couldn’t wait to get to the shootings. Tension, and release. Zap, zap, zap, down they go. I have to accept and admit to this duality. You like Space Invaders? I like Space Invaders. You just line up the shot and squeeze the trigger. Easy as that. Disintegrate the dehumanised. Has anyone ever completed Space Invaders? Is it even possible?

Like I say, this feeling doesn’t make me a criminal – it doesn’t even make me a bad person. But there’s a line to be drawn, like it or not, between these confected fantasies and true-life end points almost too horrific for words.

I will repeat: I’ve written a book about revenge. My heroine breaks the rules and feels justified. Everyone does, in taking revenge. Right and wrong isn’t part of that picture. She’s no better than Paul Benjamin, really. Mea culpa.

But surely a sensitive, intelligent person would realise that Paul Benjamin’s way is not the answer.

NB: This review was written before the recent tragedies in California, Texas and Ohio. I’ve held it back for a while.