Tuesday, 20 October 2020

More "Things"

 


Ivan T. Sanderson More "Things" (1969)
This is the follow up to Sanderson's "Things", incredible though that may seem, which I haven't read and am now unlikely to read, having read this one. Sanderson's name stood out from the shelves in the book store because I've noticed him mentioned in a few other cranky paranormal tracts as some sort of authority, which seemingly translates to overwritten prose and the founding of various clubs and societies catering to the interests of those who wouldst know the truth of that which conventional science has been unable or unwilling to explain. As a rule I'm sympathetic towards this sort of thing because it's entertaining, depending on the writer, and very occasionally it makes you think dunnit?

Some of that which Sanderson reports is fairly interesting because just maybe there's something in it, and he writes well up to a point, beyond which he unfortunately invokes a retired colonel droning on at the fireside, endlessly amused by his own testimony. He knows doctors, dentists, professional people, so these accounts of African dinosaurs, sasquatch, and persons who live under the sea must be considered serious business, presumably unlike the same accounts when delivered by nutters and airy-fairy types.

This is all well and good until one notices the considered pondering attended upon Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin's 1967 encounter with bigfoot, as captured on a minute or so of film which probably everyone in the world has seen by this point. The two sides of the argument are clearly presented and evidence weighed, leading to conclude that it's probably real because we can't absolutely confirm that it's some guy in a suit, particularly as more recent testimony from the guy who was commissioned to make the suit and from the one who got to wear it in the film might be just some stuff they made up for a laugh. Having recently re-watched the footage, it looks a lot like a guy in a suit to me. In fact, if you remember the episode of Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge where a disgruntled Alan walks back and forth across a stage to demonstrate a dignified gait to Rebecca Front's amusing impersonation of Vivienne Westwood, well that's how the Patterson-Gimlin sasquatch walks.

In the wake of this, it becomes difficult to take the rest of the book seriously, and Sanderson's blowhard persona becomes increasingly aggravating regardless of how many doctors and dentists he's had the pleasure of knowing as personal friends, and no matter how often he attempts to distance himself from the crackpots like some Fortean equivalent of Uncle Tom. Brad Steiger, for one example, would probably count as a crackpot on the Sanderson scale, not least because he writes in pulpier and more populist spirit, and if Steiger's books cheerfully encompass absolutely anything and everything weird regardless of how potty the source, they make for a better, even more thought provoking read where Steiger's angle is usually an amiable and free-wheeling what the fuck? - as distinct from stuff which is probably bullshit bolstered up on a blustering display of authority.

Monday, 19 October 2020

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate


 

Michael Moorcock The Sailor on the Seas of Fate (1976)
I don't know that I really have anything to say about this second book which I didn't already say about the first Elric title. It's maybe marginally less engaging due to the initial shock having worn off and is perhaps less self-contained than Elric of Melniboné, but Moorcock continues to piss over anything Tolkien - off the top of my head - ever wrote in producing something so resolutely of its genre yet encompassing random swerves and unexpected elements which probably wouldn't have occurred to lesser authors. The influence of Abraham Merritt seems tangible, unless it's just me, and I'm now on the lookout for the third in the series, which must count for something.

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Junk Culture

 


Ted McKeever Junk Culture (1997)
I gave up on the Vertigo imprint around 1996 because they seemed to have run out of anything worth publishing, which is annoying because it means that I missed this. I gather humanity as industrial commodity may be a theme running through a lot of McKeever's work - with which, by the way, I'm only loosely familiar. It informed Plastic Forks and here it is again; except where I felt Plastic Forks seemed to sprawl a little, this is just two issues and is tight as fuck. Also, McKeever's occasionally random narrative swerves are far more effective in this more confined space, creating a truly weird dynamic rather than feeling as though he's making it up as he goes along - as he has admitted he often is - and has just thrown something absurd into the mix to see if it works.

Junk Culture is a fairly familiar story in terms of people as commodities, nothing startlingly original and hardly worth mentioning here, but the way it's told is astonishing and powerful - violent, expressionist, and even comical. The new thing which McKeever brought to the table was therefore not the actual story so much as how it would feel. This one packs a fairly serious emotional punch transposing the industrial violence to what may as well be the town from those Back to the Future movies, yet without going all self-consciously David Lynch. It may even be one of the greatest things Vertigo ever published, and the art is amazing, obviously.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Murray Leinster - the Life and Works


 

Billee J. Stallings & Jo-An J. Evans
Murray Leinster - the Life and Works (2011)

Murray Leinster was a giant in terms of science-fiction for at least half a century, specifically the half a century when science-fiction meant the written word, novels, short stories, and digest magazines. He was your favourite author's favourite author; he predicted the internet in a short story written in 1946, and not just something which sounded vaguely like a similar sort of deal, but something which now seems astonishingly familiar but for the names being different; and yet he's now only loosely remembered, depending on where you're looking. Gollancz SF Masterworks are supposedly going to reprint Leinster's Sidewise in Time - the novel which kickstarted the entire alternate history genre - which is nice, but also kind of shabby given that the imprint has been going two decades and this will be their first Leinster.

I think the problem is a PR issue. For a while, the term science-fiction author conjured images of a certain generic and usually conservative type belonging to a world of women with pointy breasts and cars with extravagant tailfins. He wore a tweed jacket, he smoked a pipe, he churned out story after story for the pulp magazines like a human conveyor belt, and there was absolutely nothing remotely Bohemian about him; and that man, it could be argued, was Murray Leinster. Except as always, the legend bears an only superficial resemblance to the person stood behind, and so it was with Leinster. He made no bones about his writing being a job like any other job and so produced thousands of short stories inhabiting all marketable genres during his lifetime - western, romance, detective, adventure, and of course science-fiction, all hammered out on his trusty Remington as he puffed away on his pipe, smartly turned out in a shirt and tie regardless of the Virginia heat. His writing was tight, efficient, and free of the eccentric flourishes which made the reputations of other, better remembered authors.

Yet, because he treated it as a job, at least in terms of its daily production, he became exceptionally good at what he did. His stories are lively, expressive, always witty, and for all that certain dramatic conventions have subsequently dated, his tales very rarely go where you might expect them to go, and the sometimes homely atmosphere often ends up providing dramatic contrast to some truly weird and peculiar revelation - like a slightly less ponderous Simak.

Similarly, the man himself - as described in this wonderful biography by two of his daughters - bears little resemblance to the image which usually forms as an inevitable interference pattern at the confluence of typewriters and pipe smoking. He was self taught, but properly self-taught, widely read, a jobbing inventor with working and even profitable patents to his name, and in some ways a genuine renaissance man. It's also pretty obvious that he was both principled - someone we won't ever need to excuse as being of his time - and a genuinely lovely guy.

I don't know if his work will ever come back into favour but I'm glad to see that he is at least remembered so well and in such detail by those who knew him; and the fact of this extended portrait being so warmly and eloquently captured is itself probably a testimony to Leinster's influence and generous spirit. This book actually feels like it's doing you good as you read it, and - for what it may be worth - Leinster's own writing advice, as quoted extensively, is illuminating stuff both in terms of his own books and in contrast to all the story arcs and character development bollocks you'll get from other authors.

More people should read Murray Leinster.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Captain Britain: Birth of a Legend



Chris Claremont, Gary Friedrich, Herb Trimpe & others
Captain Britain: Birth of a Legend (2011)

While I've very much been a fan of the Alan Davis version of the character, I've remained largely ignorant of his previous incarnation. I just about remember seeing the Captain Britain weekly advertised on the telly back in 1976, specifically the first issue which came with a free mask which was actually just half of a union jack printed on a bit of cardboard with holes for eyes. Even at the age of eleven I had difficulty seeing the appeal. I'm not sure I ever actually saw an issue of the comic. Something about the enterprise struck me as trying too hard and there was something a bit unpleasant about that weird mask which covered the lower half of his face.

As you probably know, Captain Britain was born when Marvel had the big idea of giving us blokes of Englishland a character of very our own, as distinct from black and white reprints of their American comics. Chris Claremont had been born in London and grew up in the US reading imported issues of Eagle, and Herb Trimpe was apparently living in Cornwall, so I guess that seemed close enough at the time. The problem with it is that, much as I suspected, it was trying too hard.

Firstly, everything was nevertheless done in New York - according to Wikipedia - meaning the deadlines were apparently cunty, and keeping in mind this was a weekly comic produced by a company more accustomed to monthlies with different members of the creative team on different continents and the internet not yet invented; and English comic book publishing tradition necessitated stories told in instalments of seven pages at a time. It's probably a minor miracle that it's not a complete heap of crap.

While I'm sure Captain Britain may have worked as a weekly, at least for a time, these seven-page punch-ups were never intended to be read in a single sitting. The narrative is unusually compressed even by the standards of seventies Marvel, and the action is almost continuous which becomes quickly exhausting. There's even a self-conscious jokey editor's note about it somewhere around issue twenty, by which point the whole thing has begun to feel a little like Dave Smith's Captain Captured from Viz #18 and I had trouble recalling whether our boy had actually taken a five-minute breather since Merlin turned him into a stripier Captain America on that fated night back in the first pulse-pounding issue.




In addition to this, a certain degree of Britface is probably inevitable given the creative team being torn as they were between delivering something recognisably in the Marvel superhero tradition whilst identifiably belonging to the country in which it was published, and hopefully without just being Spiderman with the references switched. Perhaps inevitably, it tries too hard and simply comes across as a bit weird with Britspeak delivered with an ostentatious flourish every few panels. Everyone is either a bloke or a bird and they all read the Times, even the bloomin' cabbies, and references to the pub and something called soccer come faster than a speeding lorry! Cops think about how they're not allowed to have guns during bank robberies. The battle with the Nazi-revivalist Red Skull goes on for what feels like a million issues and begins to suggest maybe someone back at the bullpen noticed all those British war comics and figured it might be one way of tapping into the market, and Red Skull quite naturally kidnaps the Prime Minister - apparently Jim Callaghan, but with a touch of Wilson and even Heath from certain angles; and of course the Queen makes a showing, having been hypnotised by the Manipulator who wants her to lead the Royal Navy into battle against the small African nation from which he was recently deposed. I mean it's nice that Marvel wanted to do something for its loyal British readers, and it is at least sincere, thus avoiding the smug cynicism of Austin Powers and the like, but it's fucking hard to read this stuff if you're actually from England and older than ten.




The actual stories are so ropey that it's weird, which is probably what saves the thing. Captain Britain's battle with Lord Hawk, for one example, makes no fucking sense whatsoever. Professor Scott was some friend of the family, a teacher who jacked it in due to students taking the piss out his Catweazle-esque appearance and outmoded views. His one pleasure was falconry except, as we all know, all of the hawks in England have been killed off by pollution - every last one. Brian - that being Captain Britain's secret identity - designs and builds Scott a radio-controlled robot hawk in the hope of cheering him up. Scott instead goes mental and roams the country as Lord Hawk somehow using his normal-sized radio-controlled bird to destroy power stations and other polluting bastions of modernity.

'The air will once more be pure as it was in the past,' he tells his radio-controlled bird in one panel with a villainous leer on his face, 'in the glorious days of knighthood and ladies fair when noble birds like yourself filled the skies and hunted without choking on polluted air!' He may as well be talking to a model aircraft.

Anyway, this frankly confused senior citizen and operator of what may as well be a model aircraft takes on Captain Britain, the man who designed and built the thing which may as well be a model aircraft, and which was originally a present given in the hope that it might cheer the ungrateful fucker up a bit; and somehow Lord Hawk is enough of a match for Captain Britain for the whole thing to last five issues. More than anything, the comic feels like a distended version of one of the ludicrous superhero strips in Viz, back when it was funny, which is ultimately why it remains readable. It's mostly fucking stupid, but the art is generally decent - members of the royal family notwithstanding - and it's doing everything it can to keep you entertained because it really, really, really wants you to like it. It's not difficult to see why 2000AD blew it out of the water about six months into its initial run, but this first, undeniably shaky version of Captain Britain is nevertheless worth remembering and is not without its own non-ironic charm.

 


 

Monday, 5 October 2020

The Third Policeman


 

Flann O'Brien The Third Policeman (1940)

I've been aware of this one for a while but couldn't quite get past descriptions promising a comedy set in Ireland involving policemen. I've already read Puckoon and it wasn't that great.

Thankfully it turns out to be a comedy in the sense of Gulliver's Travels rather than Are You Being Served? and is both fairly dark and massively fucking strange. More than anything, I'd describe it as a surrealist novel given the peculiar, slightly disturbing atmosphere derived from our man inhabiting a world where the laws of physics work by the logic of dreams. Specifically, if you've ever had one of those dreams wherein you realise you know how to fly or to work some otherwise superhuman power, but you know it's a dream so you have to tell yourself to remember exactly what to do so that you'll be able to do it when you wake up - and of course you always forget - well, The Third Policeman feels very much like one of those; so I suppose we're talking the general vicinity of Beckett.

Additionally, The Third Policeman approximately constitutes Menippean satire, and although it thankfully never quite becomes fully aware of its being a novel - which has become something of an overused trope, I feel - most other signifiers of the form are here, notably the book within the book - in this case the works of de Selby, a pseudo-philosopher who believes that, amongst other things, night is caused by an accumulation of dark air rather than the occlusion of sunlight. Quite a page count is used up in discussion of de Selby's crackpot ideas, many of which seem to echo those of Charles Fort, funnily enough, to the point of later chapters being squeezed up to the top of the page by lengthy footnotes concerning the man's imaginary works. The point of this specific focus is oblique but works because it seems to describe the nightmarish world inhabited by our unnamed narrator. Among de Selby's ideas we find, for example, that a person who rides a bicycle every day will eventually become part bicycle due to an exchange of atomic material between rider and transport, and so the bicycle itself will become partially human; which is explained with a straight face and thus maintains the integrity of the novel as a whole, as distinct from turning it into some awful Douglas Adams gag-fest. So it's funny, but you don't have to laugh if it seems inappropriate, as it most probably will.


The scene was real and incontrovertible and at variance with the talk of the Sergeant, but I knew that the Sergeant was talking the truth and if it was a question of taking my choice, it was possible that I would have to forego the reality of all the simple things my eyes were looking at.



Roughly speaking, we seem once again to be mapping the space between objective and subjective reality, which is possibly why so many of de Selby's peculiar ruminations seem to hint at the weirder findings of quantum theory - unless it's just me - as well as the aforementioned Fort. I can perhaps see why O'Brien claimed to have lost the manuscript when it failed to find a publisher back in the forties being as it sags a little in the middle, apparently spending an eternity in the police station - although that may well have been the point - but its growing reputation seems otherwise deserved.

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Crap Holiday


 

Jenny Morrill Crap Holiday (2018)
At the risk of eclipsing a certain orange president in terms of sheer lack of self-awareness, books which began life as blog posts can be a bit of a lottery. That which might seem like the wittiest thing on Earth in the space of five minutes spent scrolling down a screen can turn into a six hour coach trip sat next to the funniest man in the marketing department once transposed to print. I couldn't get past the first ten pages of Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened and it was the same with David Thorne's I'll Go Home Then; It's Warm and Has Chairs. Cold hard ink on paper plus time somehow exposes failings which might otherwise go unnoticed.

Jenny Morrill tries to avoid the pitfalls by writing something in the spirit of her genuinely wonderful World of Crap blog rather than just selotaping old jokes into a notebook, and mostly it works as a legitimate novel. I say mostly, because the arrows haven't quite lined up with the target here in so much as that the tone of the novel occasionally sits at odds with the subject, and it may be significant that the chapters are mostly short, each being about the length of a blog post - just sufficient length to get in, deliver the gag with a customary roll of the eyes, then get out again.

Melissa is a vaguely directionless young woman with a low tolerance for bullshit who passes long-suffering and caustic commentary on her work, her friends, acquaintances, flatmates, and her entire existence, and she's very, very funny, just as World of Crap is very, very funny, taking grim delight in the absurdity of the shabby and the eternally disappointing. Here she spends four days at a new age festival surrounded by fucking idiots with only a Daniel O'Donnell souvenir mug for intelligent conversation, and it's painful, and great because it's painful, but I could never quite rid myself of the feeling that Melissa simply would never have attended a new age festival, and probably would have faked her own death in order to get out of going, as she pretty much admits in the first person narrative; which leaves us with the possibility of the author having deliberately placed her character in awful situations entirely for the sake of generating sarcasm, which by extension seems a bit easy and obvious - and actually a little like sending Garry Bushell to a gay pride event because you basically know exactly what you're going to get. So while the jokes work and the new age targets are absolutely deserving, the feeling of watching them delivered by conveyor belt only to be picked off one by one somewhat undermines the integrity of Crap Holiday as a novel - as distinct from a series of amusingly withering remarks. Thus when Melissa gets her arse into gear at the end, it ends up reading like something done because that's how this sort of novel is supposed to go.

On the other hand, it is fucking funny in places, and I suspect some of the problem may be that it was written specifically as a comedy where some of it is actually quite grim and probably didn't need to worry about remaining quite so witty on every single page. At best, it reminds me oddly of Brautigan's Dreaming of Babylon - possibly because I read Dreaming of Babylon only the other week - in telling the tale of someone drifting haplessly through their own absurd existence seemingly without much say in where it's going, except that Melissa has a somewhat more dour outlook than Brautigan's private detective.

Regardless of reservations expressed above - none of which really diminish the pleasure of reading this thing - Crap Holiday is almost a great novel, and is impressive for a debut, not least as something written at a tangent to Morrill's usual semiotic deconstruction of old episodes of Rainbow or things found inside packets of seventies breakfast cereal.