April 21, 2015

AMERICANA

by Helen Burke

Review by Bill Kirton

I’ve written before about the apparent artlessness of Helen Burke’s poetry. The need for that qualifier ‘apparent’ is especially evident with regard to this particular collection. She eventually made it to the USA, a country her father (whose happy spirit lurks in so many of her poems), longed to have visited, and she seemed to see things there through the eyes of a child on a first visit to Disneyland. That’s not meant to belittle the place or the poetry in any way – on the contrary, the joy, the surprise, the delight she experiences on encountering some of the people, seeing some of the sights, being part of the throb and bustle of Chicago and New York is fresh, uplifting, life-affirming.

Her advice to the wannabe visitor is ‘Pack nothing except the hopes and dreams you stand up in’. She’s in awe of some huge cakes in a shop that ‘loll about the counter like disgruntled teenagers’ and could ‘double as a country’. When a waitress takes a photograph of her and says she isn’t smiling enough, it’s because the size of the hot dog she’s been served has ‘overwhelmed’ her.  ‘It should,’ she says, ‘be on a leash’.

Like her priceless evocations of specific characters – the doorman outside the hotel where John Lennon was shot, Joleen the room cleaner, the man on Wickenden Street, the customers in his record shop, and many others – her reactions to places and events capture the essence of archetypal America – at least, as viewed through British eyes. The iconic Empire State Building is the setting for a very funny incident involving an elevator, a policeman (or woman) and a cider doughnut. And through her expressions of surprise, joy, wonder at these experiences, through the wide-eyed pleasure of the child creeps the wisdom of the poet, the intuition that there are forces at work which elude easy typification. America keeps surprising her, she loves using its terminology, its vernacular, but she’s aware that these are surfaces under which there are depths.

Nowhere is this more apparent than In Emily Dickinson’s Garden. Burke is a long-time admirer of the American poet. Visiting her house and garden brings a childlike delight, but one which is expressed in terms of a far from childlike aesthetic. She imagines that Emily is the white butterfly which lands on her arm, or a ‘cheeky raccoon’, and she and Emily:

‘sit awhile amidst the honeycomb of air,
Quiet as bees and impossible as mermaids. Our sea spun hands
And the honey of our song is all around.’

That’s not what I call artlessness.







April 7, 2015

DREADFUL TALES

by Richard Laymon
436 pages, Headline Feature

Review by Pat Black

You know how I got all sniffy about Richard Laymon a while ago? “He’s a bit much, pervy sex, dodgy about women, blah blah”?

Remember how I said I wouldn’t go back to him?

I’m back.

Dreadful Tales was released in 2000, a year before Laymon’s death. It’s a collection of his short stories, and offers a flavour of his work from the earliest point of his career in the mid-seventies, right up until the end.

It’s mainly horror, with a sprinkling of crime (the genre the author tried out first before taking a bath in the red stuff).

For reasons that will become clear, Richard Laymon’s detractors tend to really, really hate him, but by and large he is widely admired within his genre.

When I was a teenager I could not get enough of his books. Readability is key; his prose is easy to get into, and slips down as smoothly and as pleasantly as a glass of wine after work… Albeit, with a bit of a coppery aftertaste.

This book is a fair representation of what you can expect from Laymon’s work - the good, the bad and the ugly - and marks an effective testing ground for his novels.

Which can be incredibly nasty.

We start with the knowing set-up of “An Invitation To Murder”. It follows a writer drumming their fingertips in a sticky apartment on a summer’s night. The author has to pen a tale about a 22-year-old woman being murdered. There just happens to be a 22-year-old girl next door, and her stereo is awfully loud. The author cannot concentrate on the story... What happens next, d’you reckon?

“The Grab” is classic Laymon, and was widely anthologised before appearing here. It sees two college boys check into a roadside bar, where patrons are invited to take part in a unique competition.

Behind the bar, sunk into a fish tank, is a severed head. It has a diamond ring in its mouth. All you have to do is reach into the tank and take the ring out its mouth, and the jewelry belongs to you.

Most participants bottle out, but one of the guys in this story has had work experience in a mortuary, and isn’t bothered by the seemingly simple matter of dead meat. He pays his ten dollars to the man behind the bar, and rolls up his sleeve.

Oops.

With “Saving Grace”, we encounter Laymon in unsavoury mode, and it’s probably best to address that early on. Two teenagers out on their push-bikes in the middle of the forest happen upon a man who is doing something unpleasant to a girl he has trussed up in a tree. The lads charge to the rescue, and render the attacker unconscious before tying him up and freeing the girl.

She’s naked, which does not escape the boys’ notice.

Things take on a moral dimension of sorts when the girl reveals she intends to halt her tormentor’s apparent career in capturing, torturing and murdering women by killing him, right there and then, with his own hunting knife. The boys, appalled, try to talk her out of it.

And then she offers something in return for their complicity.

This one has a climax you will see a lot of in Richard Laymon. Shocking endings are part of the horror writer’s stock-in-trade, but it’s the plain, unexpected, unadorned nastiness that really grabs you here.

“Saving Grace” also features some of the stuff that makes me squeamish about Laymon – not the blood and violence, but the sex. This is genre fiction, buried to the hilt in the pulp milieu, and sexual content is to be expected. But its representation here makes me uneasy. A woman who is having her nipples tortured with a pair of pliers one minute (without her consent, I should add) probably wouldn’t be inviting two teenage boys to kiss her breasts as some kind of kinky bribe moments later.

Whether you find that scenario titillating or not is entirely up to you, of course, but such material is the province of sillier self-published fiction these days.

I often wonder why it is that sexual content sometimes seems more shocking than violence. It’s mainly down to cultural conservativism, something most of us suffer from to some degree. But this “selective veiling” instinct makes little sense, as in most modern civilised societies violent behaviour is aberrant and abnormal, while sex isn’t.

My theory is that because stabbings, flayings and decapitations are, I should hope, unfamiliar experiences to us, they seem more cartoonish, and therefore easier to digest in our entertainment. More outré sexual content has an edge, because sexual pleasure is a familiar experience, even if it’s something you experience alone. But when both sex and violence are presented simultaneously, well… that isn’t normality for most people. Problems are known to occur.

However, let there be no lectures here.

“Barney’s Bigfoot Museum” looks at other classic Laymon preoccupations – adventures in the US woodland, and the monsters, human or otherwise, who live there. I’m still sort of traumatised by The Woods Are Dark’s Hills Have Eyes-style rapists and cannibals, but here we face a more familiar foe – Bigfoot. This story sees a man recount a hunting trip gone wrong in which a baby Sasquatch has been bagged by one of the gunmen.

Mommy, it turns out, isn’t very happy about this.

Fantasy violence with monsters I was happy with, but in “Herman” we’re back on dodgier ground. The central premise of the story – that a teenage girl has an invisible guardian angel who takes brutal revenge on two would-be rapists – is a good one, and the final flourish is especially memorable. But the content and the way it’s delivered is pornography, pure and simple, and I was not comfortable with its sexual sadism. If I was editing this volume, I would not have accepted “Herman”.

“The Champion” puts us back in the zone of good old-fashioned, culturally acceptable violence. We’re back at another roadside bar, where a big man pulls in, aiming to grab a beer and a steak. Unfortunately he’s picked the wrong night to head out, and he is forced to take part in a life-or-death, knives-and-knuckles struggle with the person in the title. This monthly event is a form of sport and leisure for the roadhouse’s clientele. The main character is a tough guy, and handy with his fists, but he has sworn off violence owing to bitter experience. He refuses to fight – which makes the outcome doubly gut-wrenching.

This story also makes me thankful the concept of “roadhouses” hasn’t quite caught on in the UK. At best, we have country pubs, where people will head with their families for a spot of roast beef and bickering on a Sunday, while the main rowdiness happens on the roads later when rural drunk-drivers charge home with almost complete impunity. On the rare occasions I’ve heard of out-of-town pubs and nightclubs in this country, they have without fail been total and utter bloodbaths which make “The Champion” seem like less of a cheap thrill and more of a realistic concept.

“The Maiden” re-establishes Laymon’s favourite writing subject: randy teenagers. Here, the main character, a bit of a dork with a less-than-winning-way with the ladies, is taken on a road trip by two other boys from his high school after he has insulted one of their girlfriends. Most of us would sniff out some trouble, here, but the boy, on the promise of a hot date at the other end, goes along. He is then invited to swim across a lake supposedly haunted by the ghost of a girl who was raped and murdered on her prom night fifty years previously. The boy must reach an island in the middle of the lake where his “date” is waiting for him.

You wouldn’t in a million years, of course, but this boy does. By that point, you’ll be so sold on the atmosphere that you’ll happily pitch plausibility across the surface of the water and watch it skip.

“A Good Cigar is a Smoke” has more of a crime feel to it as an abused wife decides to take action against her horrid husband and his loathed cigar habit. It’s surprisingly more in step with feminism than much else you’ll read in Dreadful Tales, and as a result is not your typical Laymon tale.

“I Am Not A Criminal”, however, is so Laymon it hurts. A husband and wife take a drive into the forest (tick). They pass a hitchhiker holding a strange sign (see title). They decide to pick up the hitchhiker, but not before the wife takes her clothes off, utterly gratuitously (tick). The hitchhiker, it turns out, was not being truthful with his signage, and soon the husband and wife’s lives are in danger (tick) while their unwelcome guest helps himself to handfuls of the wife (tick). I won’t spoil the rest, but your expectations will be challenged before the end. It is absolutely classic Richard Laymon, in every respect. Much of its impact, both in terms of sex and violence, comes from the fact that Laymon is brilliant at portraying normal middle class American lives, and then wrenching them out of their comfort zones.

“Oscar’s Audition” was another crime tale. An ex-con fresh out of jail is offered an opportunity to make some easy money by robbing a convenience store. It seems as easy as stealing sweeties from a baby… and, when the twist comes, you realise that it was.

“Into The Pit” was a brand new story written for Dreadful Tales, and takes us back to the era of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb. We follow the son of a similar tomb raider as he befriends an Egyptian boy, who introduces him to the pleasures of the local ladies of the night. One pair of twins in particular hold our attention… before their angry father catches the main character in the act, and hurls him into a pit, where several other fellows appear to have suffered the same fate. The boy tries to find a way out, but the mind can play tricks even in the dark of your own bedroom, never mind in a pit stacked high with desiccated corpses.

“Spooked”, I adored - a quick, nasty tale where a girl is menaced by an unseen presence hiding under her bed.

“The Good Deed”, I did not. Reminiscent of “Saving Grace”, it featured another pair of randy teenagers happening upon a naked girl held captive out in the forest. I wondered if Laymon shifted gear halfway through this story, realising that he’d gone too far with it, before trying to add something slightly more wholesome. The concept is a good, simple one. A girl is left locked in a cage. Whoever imprisoned her could come back at any moment. Can the boys rescue her before the culprit returns to do whatever they had planned?

But that isn’t how this story pans out. When the girl in the cage is released, the only thing I could reasonably predict her doing is banging these two creeps’ heads together, before getting in touch with the police… And not doing what she does. But that’s just me.

Maybe it would turn you on. I don’t know. It isn’t real, I guess. All made up. Not to be taken seriously.

“The Direct Approach” was more crime-oriented, but I enjoyed its turning tables as a woman is accosted by a salesman peddling assassination services.

“Good Vibrations” is more porny in atmosphere, but it is unusual for Laymon – and slightly more palatable as a result – because it follows the focal point of a young woman who decides to go sunbathing at the beach. She is ogled by a young guy in a pair of strange sunglasses, who offers to put suntan oil on her back. Things proceed as you might expect, until… they do not. “Good Vibrations” is one of the better stories in the anthology featuring more overt sexual content.

“Phil the Vampire” was a cracker, where a private eye is contacted by a fretting wife jealous over her husband’s contact with other women. This isn’t an unusual scenario for the gumshoe, until the wife tells him her husband, Phil, isn’t sleeping with the women. He’s feeding on them - or rather, what’s in their veins. Phil is a vampire, she says. And what she wants from the private eye is not a stakeout, but a stake in.

“Paying Joe Back” was another outright crime story, but with a devious twist in the tale as a vengeful woman visits the bar her quarry frequents. There’s a loaded gun in her purse.

“The Fur Coat” was plain nasty, and the most horrifying story in the book. Thirty-six-year-old Janet has barely left the house since her husband died unexpectedly – so when she takes herself to see Cats, which they had both loved, she feels she owes it to herself to dress for the occasion.

It’s a tough night for Janet, but she gets through it, mainly through the memories kindled by her luxurious fur coat, a treasured gift from her late spouse. However, Janet has reckoned without two animal rights protesters stationed outside the theatre. They are armed with cans of spray paint. And worse.

“Blarney” follows a criminal couple on the run to a castle in the Los Angeles hills (don’t ask). A strange Irishman stationed there attends a tourist attraction called O’Herlihy’s Stone, right next to a two hundred-foot drop onto sea-swaddled rocks. Kissing the stone will confer eternal youth upon the kisser, the Irishman tells the couple. The man in the double-act isn’t so sure about this, but the woman is game.

Ah, to be sure now, there’s a catch.

“Dracuson’s Driver” starts off quite pervy, then gets worse. The night desk clerk at a motel has a long-established habit of spying on his female guests when he places them in one particular room, allowing the discerning voyeur to peek through their bathroom window. When a gamine chauffeur shows up at the wheel of a hearse, looking for a room for both herself and her coffin, it seems like a slam dunk for this sad, seedy, doomed wanker.

This one takes you where you expected it to from the moment you read the title, but it’s the journey that disturbs, rather than the destination.

“Roadside Pickup” was another belting tale, looking at the plight of a woman whose car has broken down along the same lonely stretch of moonlit road where her younger sister was murdered in exactly the same scenario, years before. They never caught the killer.

When a sports car pulls up alongside her, the woman wonders: it couldn’t be… him… could it?

“Wishbone” takes us back out into the woods (tick), where a couple are hiking their way through their honeymoon. Near where they pitch their tent, the woman discovers a skeleton hanging from the branches of a tree. It’s clearly been there a while, but even so, she’s a little discomfited, especially when her jerk of a husband decides to throw rocks at it, to prove that there’s little to be gained from superstition.

Hmm.

“First Date” sees a boy and a girl coming home from seeing a movie (look, you can probably do the ticking yourselves from here on in). The girl guesses that the boy has dark tastes, like her. So she suggests they go to a graveyard.

Clothes get removed. Blood gets spilled. But against all the odds, “First Date” was actually kind of sweet.

“Stickman” was not sweet, but thankfully it isn’t seedy, either. It sketches another carload of teenagers heading out somewhere rural and getting themselves in trouble. In this case, they’re out in the cornfields, where the local urban myth figure of the “stickman” scarecrow is said to roam.

A bet is made, and the mouthy girl in the foursome strikes out through the swaying corn towards a scrawny, hat-wearing figure in the middle of the field. Things don’t end well.

And finally we have “Mop Up”, a novella that follows a small squad of soldiers on clear-up duties in a plague-ravaged US city. The virus – released from Iraq, take note – turns people into sex-and-violence-crazed lunatics, or “droolers”. The virus is transmitted by bites, or through the saliva. A widespread cull takes place, with soldiers shooting the droolers before burning the bodies.

While “Mop Up” owes an obvious debt to George A Romero, the most striking thing about it is how germane this story – penned in 1989 – seems in comparison with modern-day zombie/crazies narratives such as The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later, or survival horror video games like the Resident Evil series, even though it predates them by at least a decade.
The story hints at scenes of sexual depravity, but at least when they occur in this instance they are intrinsic to the plot – or at the least, they get a free pass thanks to the disease’s symptoms. It was a blistering finish to the collection, packed with action, and it depicted a world – and a plague – I wanted to know more about.

So much for Dreadful Tales. Although this might seem as much of an advert as the testimonials on the inside and back cover – from such sources as Stephen King, Dean R Koontz, The Times and The Telegraph – I have to warn you, quite sincerely, that Richard Laymon’s work features some disturbing material over and above the traditional dark fiction themes of horror, death, madness and dread.

Several stories feature a perverse sexuality which will cross a line for many. Taboos are broken. It’s for the thick-skinned and the broad-minded. Some subject matter is not easy to stomach, nor is it easy to justify.

And yet, I must admit that I enjoy Laymon’s work, and have done for more than 20 years. He is quite brilliant when it comes to atmosphere, suspense and shock. He is at his best – taut as a drum – with situations like:

The babysitter puts the child to bed… The child is scared of the “bogey man” out in the garden and takes ages to fall sleep… Back downstairs, the babysitter watches a scary film, but switches it over, creeped out. Then the security light goes on in the garden. The babysitter looks out. But no-one’s there. She checks the doors are locked. Then there’s a power cut. The phones go dead. She peers out into the garden, frosted with moonlight… And sees a man climbing over the back fence.

He nails that stuff. Absolutely kills it.

When Uncle Dick’s in gear, it’s a smooth ride. However, when he writes about pervy and occasionally criminal sexual situations, I want to be dropped off at the next service station. I guess I could just be a prude.

This dissonance is hard for me to reconcile. “The Grab”, “The Fur Coat”, “Roadside Pickup”, “Spooked”, “The Champion”, “Phil the Vampire”, “I Am Not A Criminal”, “Stickman” and “Mop Up” are first-rate genre fiction.

He just can’t stay away from unusual sexual scenarios and deviant behaviour, though. If you imagine Stephen King had a maladjusted, permanently sweaty younger brother who also liked to write, but was the sort of guy you avoided at parties, that fits the bill for Laymon’s work.

He has another short story collection, Fiends. But I definitely won’t be reading that. Nope.

No way.


March 25, 2015

THE HEADMASTER'S WIFE

by Thomas Christopher Greene
286 pages, Thomas Dunne Books
Kindle Edition

Review by J. S. Colley

I picked up this book after finishing Gone Girl. Flipping through the first chapter, I thought, Oh, no! Not another jackass character doing jackass-y things. I didn’t know if I had the stomach for it; but I had heard, on good word, that this was a worthwhile read, so I trudged on. As the hackneyed phrase goes, I’m glad I did.

This is a masterfully crafted novel. The way the story unravels; how the reality of the first half of the novel is revealed in the second—all wonderfully done. Greene is able to hold the same poignant tone throughout. Any writer who wants to learn how to avoid passive voice should study it, and readers will recognize that they are in the hands of a skilled author.

The Headmaster’s Wife does have similarities to Gone Girl in that things are not always as they seem and it’s a story about a husband and wife, but the similarities end there. Even though the characters in the former do and think things that exemplify less than our ideal image of human behavior, the reader is not left with the same I-need-to-take-a-hot-shower feeling after turning the last page, as many reviewers seem to have experienced after reading the latter.

What makes this difference? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps it’s the same thing that distinguishes an excellent beach read from a piece of literary fiction—sometimes the variances are so nuanced they are hard to define. In both novels, we get a sense of how shallow, self-centered and indulgent we humans can be. But The Headmaster’s Wife is more. It’s a complex, nuanced and poignant look at love and marriage, life and grief; that what we do, or fail to do, early in our lives affects us until the end of our days.

She considers the past. She measures it and weighs it and holds it in her hand like a plum…moments that happened years before. She turns them over and over in her mind, things she has not thought about in years, and she can see now how obvious it all is. Every small event begets another one, each one built off the other until you have a chain of events that all lead to…this…

What it all comes down to is the fact that there is no avoiding life. Even in the pampered world of the academic, it still intrudes:

Not to have to worry about shopping or meals or where they would live? All that would be taken care of. Teaching—even running a boarding school—is another form of arrested adolescence. Even in their responsibilities, they are all playing Peter Pan, the real world something that happens outside these ivy-covered walls.

A perfectly scripted life, in other words, with regimented days and seasons defined as much by the rhythms of school as by the weather.

This makes one wonder if entrusting our children’s higher learning to lifelong academics is the right course to take. Part of an education should be how to live in the real world, but how can that be effectively taught by people who have never experienced its difficulties—or its own brand of rewards?

As with any good novel, this one makes you think about things other than what’s happening in the forefront.

But I digress.

The title of this novel is misleading (just as in Gone Girl) because this novel is not all about the wife; the husband plays a major role also. In fact, the first part of the three parts (“Acrimony,” “Expectations,” and “After”) of this novel is his story, as told to the authorities who found him disoriented and wandering the park.

In “Acrimony,” we learn that, like his father and his father’s father before him, Arthur Winthrop is the headmaster at Vermont’s elite Lancaster School. As he’s being questioned, Arthur’s story unravels, but what begins as one thing morphs into something quite different.  

In the second part, “Expectations,” we get his wife, Elizabeth’s, more reliable side of the story; and in the last (and much shorter) section, “After,” we see the sum—the aftermath—of the two other parts.

Part love story, part mystery and part tragedy, this is a remarkably crafted novel. It is, ultimately, a poignant look at how we deal with grief.

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. 

March 18, 2015

THE KING IN YELLOW

by Robert W Chambers
193 pages, Gollancz/SF Gateway

Review by Pat Black

Robert W Chambers’ The King In Yellow has had a rub of the green in its eerie afterlife.

Referenced throughout HBO’s serial killer drama True Detective, the US author’s 1895 short story collection has enjoyed renewed interest from readers curious to know more about the chap in the title and his dreaded city of Carcosa.  I’m one of them.

Chambers, who was a popular writer of… oh, just about anything, it seemed, begins his fin de siècle collection in startling fashion. The first four tales, all linked in oblique ways by the text referenced in the title, are uncanny literature of the first rank.

The rest of the stories are not.

The King in Yellow is a fictional play which supposedly sends its readers mad. The characters in Chambers’ first four stories live in fear of this accused book and the half-glimpsed figure of the King. Epigrams hint at the play’s macabre content, but Chambers cleverly keeps the phantom book, its author and even its contents as a mystery, something which adds texture to the tales rather than defining them.

Opener “The Repairer of Reputations” was riven with a sense of madness and embitterment. It is set in an imagined future New York where suicide is legalised and even encouraged in special chambers set up in public squares – a mordant equivalent of wi-fi hotspots. Its wildly unreliable narrator plots to stymie his cousin, a romantic rival. Lurking in the background is the grim old man in the title, an odd sort who lives in a tower and provides services as an agent who makes reputational stains disappear. It was an odd, unsettling story with a jarring conclusion – inspired stuff.

“The Mask,” “The Court of the Dragon” and “The Yellow Sign” all follow similar paths. There’s a lot going on under the surface of these stories; they writhe with sexual jealousy, tinged with references to that cursed play, its strange central figure and the motif of the Yellow Sign. It recalls The Masque of the Red Death; wherever our jaundiced monarch calls, decay, madness and murder follows. “The Mask” looks at artists creating something which flirts with death, and ultimately transcends it, while “The Court of the Dragon” and the “Yellow Sign” see their main characters being pursued and tormented by sinister grotesques.

By the time you’ve finished these four stories you’ll be hooked. The references linking all the tales are subtle, but significant – a statue here, a line of text there, a few recurring names. The references work retroactively at times: consider the four weird sculptures in “The Repairer of Reputations”, and then pay close attention to “The Mask”.

I believed the hype. Here is a forgotten voice of the Victorian era enjoying a repaired reputation, long after his death, I thought.

And then it happens: Chambers kills the groove. The King In Yellow is dead; long live The King in Brown.

Next there’s a romance set during the 1870 siege of Paris. The battle scenes were tense, and again, its main characters are prey to suppressed lusts and jealousies, but there’s a happy ending in the offing (much like in “The Mask”, to be fair). There’s also a time-travelling ghostie story, “The Demoiselle d’Ys”, which aims for a weird atmosphere but just comes across as hackneyed, like a mid-season Twilight Zone episode. “Oh, it turned out she was a ghost!” Strewth.

And then, unforgivably, the book is topped out by three stories about young American art students in Paris, getting pissed dans la rue and chasing jeune filles rather than roi jaune. This isn’t a complete waste of your time – they have some charm, as probably everyone has dreamed at some point of being a boho artist, all scarves, open collars and silly hats, getting bladdered on absinthe and drawing boobs at a fabulous academy. But this is not quite what you expected from The King in Yellow. Where did his majesty go? You’re poised for the chills to start again, but they never do. Imagine Quint, Hooper and Brody setting out to sea… and never finding the shark.

When I finished the book, I wondered if the second half was a practical joke. Some of the creepiest macabre fiction of its time is followed by some of its lamest romances. It’s like a punchline I failed to get. I wondered if I’d missed something in the later stories, some connection to the jaundiced figure in the tattered robe that proved too subtle for my palate. I was so affected by the good stuff that I entertained doubts to this end, even paranoia. The play of The King In Yellow apparently has a first act so anodyne as to lull the reader into boredom, which serves to intensify its horrors from Act ii onwards. Perhaps there’s a similar effect in reverse with The King In Yellow… Maybe I should read it again… But that way madness lies.

It looks like Chambers ran out of stuffing, and upholstered the rest of the volume with stories from the trunk.

The book’s enduring influence is worth examining. In his Carcosa mythos, Chambers nakedly references that sardonic black magician of American letters, Ambrose Bierce. The cursed, ruined city and other names and concepts were first coined by Bierce in his short story, “A Season in Carcosa” (appended at the end of this SF Gateway edition for comparison). But, as the afterword to this collection points out, there seems to be no link between the two authors’ work other than a thematic one, with Carcosa referenced as a bad place where bad things have happened.

Not so much “it’s Chinatown, Jake”, as “it’s Carcosa, Pat”.

The afterword’s writer concludes that Chambers simply liked the names, and pinched them.

The notion of a forbidden, cursed text causing problems for people was purloined in turn by HP Lovecraft for his Necronomicon, which was then nicked by just about everybody. This nasty book causing people to do nasty things, with its contents hinted at but never made explicit, is an irresistible part of that author’s milieu. Lovecraft drank deep from Chambers’ well, with Hastur the Unspeakable’s name also taken from Bierce/Chambers’ Carcosa fever dreams.

Just as Lovecraft spawned countless admirers, imitators and even disciples with his Great Old Ones, we seem to have a whole literary movement under way nowadays taking The King In Yellow as inspiration, led by True Detective. All well and good – but the buyer of the source material must beware.

I had enjoyed the first four stories so much I was starting to get all gushy about them on Twitter. The quality was breathtaking and I couldn’t wait to read more. What a sorry disappointment the rest of the collection was. It’s not that the four “Streets” stories at the end are all bad; it’s just that you’d ordered something completely different off the menu.

It may be better to keep an eye out for the four “Yellow” stories appearing in anthologies on their own, or to source the book from public domain sites. Certainly you won’t be missing anything by ditching the second half.


The biography in this edition concludes that Chambers “tends to infuriate readers” - not by being bad, but because he “utterly repudiated his talents” despite clear signs of brilliance. This was strong wording. I can only conclude that the author had the same experience with The King In Yellow as I did. 

March 9, 2015

GIRLS, GODDESSES & GIANTS

by Lari Don
144 pages, Bloomsbury

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

It’s not easy being the parent of a little girl. It seems that everywhere I turn, my daughter is being bombarded with images of beautiful princesses and waif-like pop-starlets. This isn’t anything new, of course. The mass media has been filling the heads of little girls with such bizarre messages for a staggeringly long time. I just haven’t really been bothered by it before. However, the little baby I once read Moby Dick to every night is now a bubbly little five year old and, like all five year old girls, she is obsessed with fairies, unicorns and princesses. When I ask her what she wants to be when she is older, she replies “a fairy princess”, as if it is the most normal thing in the world. I don’t want to piss on her chips and point out to her that she should have more realistic ambitions about adulthood, but I can’t help but wonder whether some of the princesses she idolises are such great role models.

Cinderella seems to let everyone walk all over her from the beginning. Passive to the point of being virtually horizontal, Cinders seems to say “Yes” to everyone; her stepmother, the ugly sisters and even the fairy godmother manage to push the poor girl around. Redemption comes in the form of a handsome prince who chooses his bride (there’s no word of the young lady’s choice in this matter). All Cinderella has to do to get her happy ending is say “Yes” one more time.

Aurora from “Sleeping Beauty” somehow decides that Prince Phillip is the one for her after a fleeting encounter with him in the woods. In all seriousness, I find the speed at which these wilting maidens fall in love to be a bit worrying. Of course, Aurora has been essentially abandoned by her real parents and brought up by a trio of wholly incompetent fairies whose parenting skills would most likely lead to social services being involved. Starved of real parental affection and human warmth, is it any wonder the poor girl forms an unhealthy attachment to the first strange man that shows an interest in her?

We’re told from the outset that Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” is intelligent and well-read. However, she doesn’t seem so smart when she becomes a textbook example of Stockholm syndrome and falls in love with the hideous creature (not just his appearance, the Beast’s behaviour is totally dickish too) who has taken her prisoner.

Only Merida from Disney’s “Brave” shows an independent spirit not willing to be confined by arranged marriage. Unfortunately the way in which the House of Mouse have marketed big-breasted ‘beautified’ Princess Merida products shows how much they really value such a free-spirited message.

I’m not going so far as to stop my daughter watching these films, but I do try to broaden her horizons a little bit by reading her bedtime stories that have strong female characters. This is why Lari Don’s “Girls, Goddesses & Giants” is so very dear to my heart. Don’s book collects twelve stories of heroines from around the world. In little over a hundred pages, the author manages to retell legends and folktales from a diverse range of cultures, making them accessible enough for young readers whilst still retaining their unique folky flavour. In one story we are following a Viking maiden with a cursed sword, in the next we are learning about wise Sumerian goddesses. Another story will tell us about how a brave Native American girl sacrificed herself for the benefit of her tribe, whilst another tells of a daring Japanese pearl-diver who battles a dangerous sea monster.

Although the stories in the collection are generally child-friendly, Don doesn’t shy away from the blood and violence of the original tales. In the Indian myth “Durga and the Demon”, a ten-handed warrioress is given ten weapons by the gods to engage in bloody combat with a shape-shifting demon named Mahisha. My personal favourite story, “Chi and the Seven-Headed Dragon”, sees a teenage girl lopping off the multiple heads of a girl-eating dragon. More sensitive little ones might find some of the details a bit grisly but I found it refreshing to read a book aimed at girls that avoided being stereotypically “girly”. Similarly, Don manages to inject a healthy dose of scatological humour in the book with the inclusion of Cameroonian folktale “Mbango and the Whirlpool” where a girl finds herself having to eat a plateful of pig dung. The French folktale “The Wolf in the Bed” is an old version of Red Riding Hood which doesn’t include a last-minute rescue by a male woodcutter but does include a sequence where Red Riding Hood manages to escape from the cross-dressing wolf by saying she needs to go to the toilet. Any parent will tell you that children love this sort of coarse humour and there’s no doubt that Don is aware of her target audience.

Don’s prose is pleasingly direct and fuss-free. The stories never get bogged down in description and the action (of which there is much) clips along at a fair old pace. Each tale is the perfect length for a bedtime story and so never overstay their welcome. The mark of a good children’s book is its re-readability. Children love repetition but there is only so many times a parent can return to their child’s favourite bedtime story before insanity comes a-knocking. “Girl’s, Goddesses & Giants” stands out as a book that both parent and child will be happy to return to again and again.

Accessible and readable, with a host of strong female characters and a diverse, multicultural range of stories, “Girls, Goddesses & Giants” has become a firm favourite in the Proops household. If you have a little princess (or prince) whose world-view is becoming a little too Disney-fied, Lari Don’s book might prove to be the perfect antidote.

Hereward L.M. Proops

Read the author interview here.

Read the review of another book by Lari Don, “The Tale of Tam Linn” here.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews Lari Don, author of “The Tale of Tam Linn”, “Girls, Goddesses and Giants” and “First Aid for Fairies and Other Fabled Beasts”

Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Lari Don: I am a children’s writer, brought up in the North East of Scotland, now living in Edinburgh with my family. So far I’ve written picture books, adventure novels, collections of myths and legends, and now a teen thriller (Mind Blind) as well. If I had a coherent career plan, I would probably focus on one distinct age group, but I can’t help myself – I love stories too much, so when I find a tale I want to tell, or start imagining a story I want to follow to the end, I have to share it with the right age for that story.  So I suspect I will always lack a bit of focus, and just fire stories out in all directions!

Booksquawk: You write for both young children and teenagers. Which audience do you prefer to write for? Have you ever considered writing for adults?

Lari Don: I started writing for adults. I started writing literary short stories, and got a handful published and won a prize (the Canongate Prize in 2001). But once I had an idea for a children’s novel (First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts) and started playing with magic and dragons and adventures, I started enjoying myself so much that I haven’t written a word for adults since.  Writing for children is much more fun!  I love writing for all ages of children, but the heart of my writing is the novels I write for 8-12 year olds.

Booksquawk: How did you make the transition from being a writer to a full-time author? Was it a difficult move to make?

Lari Don: I had already stopped paid work to be a full-time parent, and I started writing seriously in the gaps when my kids were little (the gaps generally being once they were in bed at night) so when my younger daughter started school, I just didn’t go back to a ‘proper’ job. I took the decision to see whether or not ‘stories’ could be a job. And with a combination of storytelling (passing on traditional tales orally) and writing, I have almost managed to make a living for the last seven years.  The hours are long and the pay is short… but it is the best job in the world!

Booksquawk: What do you think of the state of the publishing industry at the moment?

Lari Don: I worry about the future of bookshops, because knowledgeable and passionate booksellers are so important. I worry about the future of publishers too, because I know that a good editor can improve any book. I worry about the future of printed books, because a book in the hand is something very special. But in my most optimistic moments, I’m not that worried about the future of writers, because I believe people will always need stories, and stories are what we do.  I think book buyers have to decide what kind of books and what form of publishing industry they want. If they want cheap self-published e-books recommended by a computer algorithm, then eventually that’s all that will be on offer.  Personally, I still buy real books from real booksellers in real bookshops, and I also love working with my editors, so I hope bookshops, paper books and publishers do survive and thrive.  But it’s all up to the people who buy books!  

Booksquawk: “The Tale of Tam Linn” is a wonderful re-telling of an old folk tale. What attracted you to the story and are there any other old ballads that you would like to tackle?

Lari Don: I’ve known the story of Tam Linn for years, because my mum’s family come from the Borders. And it was one of the first old Scottish tales I worked with in my fiction – I used it as the inspiration and background for some of the scenes and plotlines in First Aid For Fairies and in Wolf Notes.  As well as bouncing fiction off it, I love telling Tam Linn straight to audiences. It is both my favourite Scottish story and my favourite fairy tale, so when Floris asked me which story I’d like to write for their Traditional Tales series, this was the story I most wanted to do.  I am aware that Tam Linn is a ballad as well as an oral tale, but that’s not really how I met it or how I work with it.  As far as I can tell, most Border ballads are fairly adult in content, so I’m not sure I will be working with any others.  Tam Linn is the one which holds the most magic for me, and I hope I’ll work with Tam Linn and Janet and their story again.

Booksquawk: Philip Longson's artwork for "The Tale of Tam Linn" is marvelous. Did you have much input in the look of the book?

Lari Don: No, I didn’t.  It was quite nerve-wracking waiting to see what an artist would do with this story that I love so much. But I needn’t have worried. Philip’s style is perfect for the story, bringing all the enchantment and darkness I could have wished for.  In my experience, writers aren’t that involved in choosing or briefing illustrators.  There is a brilliant blog post about how the artist and designer work together on the look of the book (with some great early roughs for Tam Linn), and this blog makes it clear how little the writer has to do with the look of a book. I can’t take any credit for it!

Booksquawk: Which of your books are you most proud of?

Lari Don: The simple and honest answer is that I’m proud of them all, in different ways. But that’s a bit of a cop out! First Aid For Fairies was my first book, so I’m really proud it got published at all. Everything else I’ve written comes from that. And I am really pleased with how Maze Running rounded the whole Fabled Beasts Chronicles series off – I know some readers didn’t want me to end the series, but I felt I wanted to give those characters and that world a good send off.  In terms of other novels, the characters in Rocking Horse War surprised me the most (always a healthy thing) and the darkness of Mind Blind (my first book for Young Adults) was a challenge, so I’m delighted that it seems to have worked for readers.  In terms of picture books, Tam Linn is the most gorgeous, and The Big Bottom Hunt the most embarrassing for my family, both of which make me happy. Of the collections of myths and legends that I’ve written, I will probably always be proudest of the collection of heroine tales, Girls Goddesses and Giants, a book I wrote for my daughters and for everyone else who needs to discover the strong heroines in old stories.  And I was privileged to collect my favourite Scottish stories (including a different version of Tam Linn) in Breaking the Spell, so that book reflects much of the magic that inspires my other books.  But I have to stress, I am proud of every book I put my name to - I write because I love it, and I don’t write books I don’t love!  (So now I feel bad about all the books I haven’t just mentioned…)

Booksquawk: What inspires you?

Lari Don: Everything, all the time! I have so many ideas and so little time… But I am most often and most fruitfully inspired by old stories, new questions and my daughters.

Booksquawk: What are your favourite books / authors?

Lari Don: When I was young, I loved books by Diana Wynne Jones, CS Lewis and Roger Lancelyn Green. In the last 10 years I have loved books by Neil Gaiman and Rick Riordan, and recently I’ve been really enjoying books by Maggie Stiefvater and Jonathon Stroud.

Booksquawk: Have you anything in the pipeline that you'd like to tell us about?

Lari Don: I hope to be working on another picture book with the same team at Floris Books, retelling another Traditional Tale, but if that comes off, it won’t be published for a year or so. My biggest and most exciting job at the moment is another 8-12yrs adventure (I was writing the big fight scene this weekend…) but again, publication of that is a long way off. However, I have just finished a book - a collection of shape-shifter stories, with Bloomsbury, and it should be out this autumn.  It’s (currently) called Serpents and Werewolves, Tales of Animal Shapeshifters From Around the World, and it has been great fun to work on. I’m looking forward to sharing it with readers soon!

Read the review of “Girls, Goddesses & Giants” here, and “The Tale of Tam Linn” here.

Hereward L.M. Proops

February 23, 2015

THE SUCKING PIT

by Guy N Smith
111 pages, New English Library

Review by Pat Black

“When I’m paid, I always see the job through,” says Lee Van Cleef’s character in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. This is just before he double-crosses the guy who hired him with a bullet through the noggin. Give or take a violent act or two, I feel the same way in reviewing another Guy N Smith classic.  

There’s nothing new to say. It feels like going through the motions. I’ve also read his crustaceans-run-amok-sideways classic Night of the Crabs in the past month or so, but surely we’ve exhausted all avenues with that series. We shall go no more a-crabbing.

I was given The Sucking Pit as a gift, and it was a good giggle for its short length. Written in 1975, it’s got all the components of a trash classic from that era: a hint of the occult, a fair bit of sex, and plenty of senseless violence.

We follow Jenny Lawson after she finds her grubby uncle dead in his cottage, in the middle of Hopwas Wood, somewhere in the Midlands. Romany blood runs in the family, and Guy seems to imply that this means there is some kind of supernatural talent bubbling away in their DNA. In addition to this, Uncle Tom has access to a black book of magic spells. Jenny finds the book, and decides to take advantage of its listed enchantments by slaughtering some furry animals and making herself into a Sexperson.

I’m not sure what advantage this spell actually confers upon her. It makes her nastier and a bit sexier, but doesn’t strictly speaking give her any special powers. She just wears fewer clothes and gets a bit of an attitude. 

Jenny dumps and humiliates her boyfriend, the reporter Chris Latimer, before literally emasculating some other poor bloke who takes her up on an offer of a ride in an alleyway for two pounds. I’m not sure if that’s a bargain or not, taking inflation into account (the price, not the castration).

Then she moves into her uncle’s not-so-magic cottage, meeting and greeting a giant called Cornelius who turns up at the door. He says he’s the king of the gypsies. Fair play to you, your majesty, says Jenny, before dropping her scants. Here at last, thinks the lust-crazed Jenny, is a real man.  

After some bonking, she discovers that the gypsies want to reclaim this part of the wood from the landowner, as it houses the Sucking Pit – a bottomless pool of quicksand used by the gypsies to bury their dead, as well as any other corpses it might be convenient to dump. Despite the awesome front cover, the Sucking Pit does not seem to house any monsters or ghosties, although there is a legend or two and some spooky moments involving mist creeping over the bog.

Tramps never last long in Smith’s books, and one of them is killed horribly before a grave is robbed. This forms the best part of the more interesting opening section of the book; it doesn’t make much sense, but it crams in some sleazy content particular to the seventies which holds the attention if nothing else. Let’s have a bit of black magic… no matter that it seems to be a matter of merely drinking some hedgehog blood… here’s some sex… here’s some gratuitous violence…

So you can’t really say that this novel “goes off the rails” at any point. It’s never on them. There are no rails. You’re chuffing billy tottering along a canal bank.  

If someone challenged you to write a horror novella in two days, just 100 or so pages off the top of your head with no planning, it would look something like The Sucking Pit. I’ve a feeling this is exactly what Guy N Smith used to do. He could probably churn these numbers out at a couple of days’ notice, get them signed off at NEL, and then start another one. It sounds like bliss, but it doesn’t make for good fiction. It’s entertaining, at any rate - until the plot kicks in.  

Technically, our first antagonist is Sir Clive Rowlands, the landowner, who is seduced by Jenny as a means of getting herself written into his will. Completely and utterly out of his mind with lust, Sir Clive consents to everything she asks for, until she arouses his suspicion by asking for… a car.

It’s almost like Bully’s big prize board on Bullseye. She’s won a microwave oven, a teasmaid, a cordless phone and the backgammon set; she decides to gamble for the car, but… Uh oh. Sir Clive twigs that the young lady might be into him for more than his sweaty, flabby crisis-sex. He tries to offer her some BFH. That’s when things go awry. Well, awry-er.

Separately, Jenny’s cuckolded boyfriend Chris tries to find her, surmising that there’s something wrong with his good lady other than a deep need to spurn him for better sex with real men. He bumps into another “wronged” person, Sir Clive’s dutiful wife, Pat (no relation), who begins to suspect that her husband’s late nights have less to do with estate management than quivering ultrasex with a travelling community lust queen.

As in many other Guy N Smith books, this couple end up falling in love with each other after a bit of a fumble over the space of about two pages. Smutty couplings are basic components of trash fiction, but Smith always feels compelled to make his “good” couples fall in love. It’s almost wholesome, except that this takes place in a sex and murder novel, and it wouldn’t seem realistic to a 10-year-old. Surely it would be better to have the couple get together naturally without pledges of love? Or maybe they don’t even need to have sex? They could just find common ground and investigate what happened to their partners, Scooby Doo-style.

It’s not like the rest of the book is devoid of sex. We don’t need their sex, but Guy N Smith forces it on us anyway. Here, stock up on some sex, he says. I’ve got barrels of the stuff. Take some sex. Go on, have some more. You’re at Uncle Guy’s house – no need to be shy. Plenty of sex to go around. Get that sex down you. Go on, have one more bit of sex. You can fit another slice of sex in that belly of yours, can’t you?

No thanks, Guy, you say. My hands are full here… we’ve got plenty at home… No, you’re alright, Guy, we don’t need any more sex… Honestly… Guy… GUY, FOR F*CK’S SAKE, WE DON’T WANT ANY, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!

Things build up to a satisfyingly violent climax. When Sir Clive and Cornelius face off, there’s a sense of a big bully being challenged by the class wimp. I haven’t actually rooted for someone in a book fight scene in years, so that goes in the plus column. For a few delicious swipes it looks like a surprise is on the cards, before Smith gets realistic.

There’s time for another confrontation near the Sucking Pit, where Chris Latimer demonstrates the golden rule of pulp fiction showdowns: if you really must take on some baddies, bring a shotgun.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to recommend Guy N Smith’s books to people. Regular people, I mean. Even read ironically, these stories are difficult to digest. They don’t make a lot of sense, and the characters don’t do sensible things. But like the Sucking Pit, once you’re caught in the world of Guy N Smith, you can’t drag yourself out.

And there’s so much more of it out there to discover. How I envy Smith’s career. How much more has he written than Evelyn Waugh? Or James Joyce? His published fictional output dwarfs that of George Orwell’s.


You cannot fault the work ethic, still going strong today. Got an idea? Go for it. 150 pages and you’re done. Zombie traffic wardens in Glasgow? Alligators in the West Country? Man-eating gerbils in Orkney? (One of these is a real plot for a Guy N Smith book, by the way.) Let’s do ‘em all! 

February 17, 2015

H IS FOR HAWK

by Helen Macdonald
300 pages, Jonathan Cape

Review by Pat Black

Aside from a couple of displays at wildlife centres, I’ve only come into contact with the world of falconry once. I was out for a stroll in Lancashire, not too far away from a large urban centre. On my way through a narrow path in between some birch trees, I passed by a chap who appeared to be have a pterodactyl perched on his hand.  

Kes, this was not. I dared not look into its eyes. The thing looked as if it was weighing me up to see if it could carry me, or perhaps just a limb or two at a time. I wasn’t sure whether I was saying “hello” to man or beast.

I’m not sure what breed this bird was. Helen Macdonald is the type of person who would. In H is for Hawk, her blockbusting memoir, she describes how she tames and trains Mabel, a formidable goshawk. When she takes delivery of the creature, her falconry friends think she’s gone bird-brained. Goshawks – “similar to sparrowhawks in the same way leopards resemble housecats” - are notoriously tough to tame, preferring to hunt in the deep forest. They are the “dark grail” of birdwatching, she says, and no-one recommends owning one. But Macdonald is determined.

So it’s a natural history book. But it’s also a book about grief, as the author embarks on her quest in the wake of her father’s death. Curiously, it’s also a biography, taking for its subject TH White, author of the Arthurian novels The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone (Disney based its animated movie on the latter).  

White also wrote The Goshawk, part-memoir, part notorious how-not-to-train-your-hawk guide. This book fascinated Macdonald as a child. I’ve encountered this fixation with White, a complex, troubled man who fled society as the Second World War brewed, in another cracking book, Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside.

Judged on any scale, White was an oddball – a closeted individual, brutalised by his own upbringing as well as his private schooling. He finally became a schoolteacher at an exclusive college, but he was desperate to get away from that cloistered world of ritualised sadism, and by extension what he saw as the formalised cruelties of modern living. He seems to have been a dreadful falconer, taking wrong turns at every stage, but his book endures both as a natural history document and as a curious portrait of a very strange man.

Macdonald imbibed his appreciation of the arcana of falconry, but there’s a more socially exclusive element of White’s make-up which both Macdonald and Hoare identify with: his drive for solitude and communion with the natural world.

On White’s private life, Macdonald is the more unflinching of the two authors. Although there’s no evidence that he followed through on his fantasies, erotic writings that he left behind point towards White as a sexual sadist with a predilection for beating young boys. This doesn’t exactly make me want to fly for his books on the shelves. However, it’s The Goshawk that Macdonald is drawn to; she feels as if she is haunted by White’s shade as she trains Mabel. Sometimes White is present in the book in the third person, persevering with his goshawk beyond all reason, drinking alone at night while the wind buffets his remote cottage, and finally, during one disastrous outing, losing his prize forever after it escapes.

Macdonald’s Rocky-style training montage has a different outcome. She rears Mabel using frozen baby bird corpses, encouraging the creature firstly to trust her, and finally to hunt, building up to the moment where the great bird can fly free – and hopefully return to her gloved fist upon command.

The bird leads Macdonald on a merry chase at times. More than once she is left dazed and bloodied after having grated herself raw through thickets and thorns to help retrieve the recalcitrant bird. A few times, Macdonald finds herself an unwitting poacher after Mabel battens upon pheasants on shooting moors and private enclosures. At times the book is an avian episode of The Benny Hill Show.

Grief keeps us tied down. After Macdonald loses her father, a renowned press photographer, she decides she wants a goshawk. Macdonald is never quite sure if she does this out of some desire to actually become a hawk. By her own admission, she seems to have gotten a little bit lost in the woods once or twice.

Perhaps Mabel is a representation of flying dreams, a means of abandoning her depression the same way White’s goshawk represented freedom from a system that had done nothing but frighten, abuse and pervert him. Coming across her father’s old notebooks, Macdonald sees a correlation between his obsession with plane-spotting as a boy and her own ornithological pursuits from girlhood. Perhaps training the hawk is a way of keeping close contact, no matter how abstract, with the memory of her father.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is the doyenne of despair. You can hardly move these days for books and articles listing her famous five stages of grief. While there are parts of this sequence that we will all recognise, there are plenty that we don’t. People spew out this “five stages” construct as if it was unimpeachable fact, which bothers me. As with all psychological studies, we should learn to treat theories, hypotheses and models with a healthy scepticism.

In despair, Macdonald takes an untypical flight path by going to ground. She shuns human society, becoming ever more shy and anxious in people’s company, preferring to exercise herself in taming Mabel rather than reaching out to people. Finally, Macdonald understands she is depressed, and seeks medical help. It’s hard to say whether Macdonald comes out of this book as a more complete person, if she has fully accepted her father’s death or – silly phrase, I know – gotten over it. There is one lovely reconnection at Christmas when she takes her mother to the United States to spend the holiday period with some of her falconry acquaintances, and has a nice time. This is good, she realises; here is healing. But by and large the grief period is still open when this book ends. Perhaps it always will be.

That’s a difficult thing to explain to someone who has yet to experience the misfortune of a “big death”. You never really get over losing someone in your immediate family. The wound scars over, and the day dawns when it might not hurt any more, but it’s always there. On some dismal days it might even sting a little.

Perhaps grief is more like phantom limb syndrome after an amputation. You’re aware of an absence. Some days your brain even imagines it’s still there. But you’re always confronted with the crude fact that it’s not.

Macdonald revels in strange words, and I’m not ashamed to say my vocabulary got a wee workout thanks to her. A misty winter morning is brumous; a scrubby field is bosky; the clouds anneal in the sky. Once, she either commits a tautology or is checking to see if we’re still awake, describing some clayey soil as argillaceous. The clayey soil was clayey?

Another cracker was accipitrine, meaning hawk-like in aspect. If we were to perch a capital P in the middle, the very word itself conjures the image of what it means.

Best of all was yarak, meaning fit and ready to hunt. Close to “bloodlust”, I suspect, that primal state where we hunt, and revel in the chase. It’s an ancient, full-bore word, like berserk. When was the last time you were in yarak? Don’t you miss those days?

As your grouchy Hemingway-loving English teacher probably told you, if you can’t say something in a clear and simple fashion, maybe you shouldn’t say it at all. There is a feeling that writers who delight in using obscure words which have their readers scrambling for their dictionaries are being… (looks up synonym for “pretentious”…)

Conversely, there’s the Will Self school of thought: an open love of big words, a delight in unfamiliar conjunctions of syllables, a need to dive into them and roll around in them like a lunatic in a ball pool. This is more my bag. I was especially glad that I read this book on Kindle. With a dictionary uploaded, I’ve no excuse for not finding out what the big words mean.

When I’ll get to use them in a sentence is quite another matter. I should probably do more crosswords.

H is for Hawk, and K is for Killing. A lot of Mabel’s forest friends don’t make it through this book. Indeed, a lot of them meet their end in awful ways. Some of them, in the moments before Mabel unspools their guts or skewers their still-beating hearts with her beak, might well end up wishing a cat had got them first. Macdonald examines our mixed feelings on this question of blood, placing humans and hawks in their proper slots on the food chain, while acknowledging that we might have some misgivings over this revelry in death.

It’s somewhat perverse that we should so admire the great predators. Eagle; shark; tiger; crocodile: all streamlined, lean, muscular, even beautiful to look at, though we know they would feast on us if they could. I’m not sure anything in nature can match the perfect symmetry of the face of a snow leopard, an extraordinarily beautiful creature that makes you ponder the big questions about life and the universe even as it sizes you up for dinner.  


I fostered my own fascination for the natural world through watching documentaries about big cats, sharks and other dangerous animals with my dad. As father-son bonding experiences go, watching a lion rip a zebra apart perhaps isn’t the healthiest, but it’ll have to do. My old man would never have read H is for Hawk, or any other book, had he lived a million years. He’d have loved a documentary on the subject, though, and I’m sure he would have felt a keen affinity for the author’s strange, melancholy journey with her ferocious friend.