Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Alien Tide

Tom Dongo
The Mysteries of Sedona (1988)
The Alien Tide (1990)
Mysterious Sedona (2000)

Sedona is a small town or possibly a city - albeit not by my own ingrained European definition of the word - somewhere in the upper half of Arizona as you head for the Grand Canyon. Mrs. Pamphlets and myself stayed there in honour of our shared birthday and the occasion of my turning fifty; which was nice because, possibly excepting a couple of places in Mexico, Sedona is host to what is more or less the most beautiful landscape on Earth so far as I can tell. My wife and I very much enjoyed the Grand Canyon, by way of comparison, but as we returned to our hotel in the Village of Oak Creek, we agreed that we both preferred Sedona. The Grand Canyon is off the scale spectacular, but is somehow so spectacular that you can't always tell what you're looking at. Human eyes are not accustomed to viewing that much earth at that angle or at such distance, so in some respects it's almost like being in space. Sedona is nestled within the same general kind of geology but on a smaller, more human scale, semi-desert and layered red rocks sculpted by several million years worth of wind in comparison to which the Canyon seems overstated, the geological equivalent of the worst kind of progressive rock concept albums of the seventies. Arriving in Sedona is like walking into some epic Biblical painting of the nineteenth century, or maybe one of Albert Bierstadt's sublime landscapes.

I have a pet theory that we are each of us a product of landscape, at least by the logic that anyone growing up near the sea will tend to have different views concerning boats to those who know only dry land - this formulated whilst wandering around Mexico and realising just how much sense Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, and all of their theological pals seem to make in context of the environment. Land, and particularly mountainous or otherwise spectacular land, provides an ambient noise of forces greater than can be immediately understood in everyday terms and so, I dare say, will tend to inspire its people towards certain metaphysical modes of thought; or if you prefer - if your mouth falls open with an exclamation of holy shit every time you step outside the front door and set eyes upon your own little bit of world, chance is that your daily thoughts will stray to provinces other than those of insurance policies and which brand of washing powder represents best value for money. So, having spent four days in Sedona - which really is more astonishingly beautiful than I could hope to describe in case I hadn't quite made that clear - I can see why the town has a sizeable New Age community. Ordinarily I might be sharpening the knives at this point of the paragraph, but there really is something special about Sedona, and so special that I'm not going to begrudge anyone a few healing crystals or faintly suspect claims made regarding my aura. If it works and hurts no-one, then fine.

Actually the thing that pisses me off about New Age thought isn't so much seemingly wacky beliefs as the pick and mix appropriation of whichever indigenous culture has something which might go well next to the Navajo rug tastefully hung from the wall next to the telly; and appropriation without really showing that much respect for the source, which means you end up with crap like Aztec Horoscopes borrowing the symbols, changing their meanings to something a bit less aggressive, and pinning everything to an entirely unrelated set of spiritual post-it notes. At worst, New Age thought can be comforting slogans passed off as philosophy without either the depth of an actual philosophy or any of the work one might ordinarily be required to do in order to get your head wrapped around the thing. On the other hand, it's probably worth remembering that no-one was ever beheaded in the name of New Age thought - at least not so far as I am aware - so one should probably try to maintain some sense of perspective here.

Anyway, there I was in the Worm, an excellent Oak Creek book store with its own friendly hound numbered amongst the staff. I picked up The Alien Tide, indulged in some smirking, and then returned it to the shelf. Later in the day I realised I just had to go back and buy the thing no matter how ludicrous it might seem. I read a few chapters in the hotel that evening and then returned to the Worm the next day and bought the other two Tom Dongo titles they were carrying.

My initial fascination had been founded on an impression of The Alien Tide as something equivalent to outsider art, the self-published testimony of a local man who sees flying saucers, amongst other things - although this is an admittedly cynical description of that which drew me, and I tend to dislike the term outsider art, believing that the validity of individual expression depends on the work itself rather than either the approval or financial backing of persons other than the creator; and whilst I don't necessarily believe in flying saucers and the like, neither do I actively disbelieve, and I find the subject interesting as contemporary folk mythology at the very least - a roughly coherent understanding of the world which appears self-organising and as such owes nothing to mainstream or consciously directed culture - or to consensus reality, it could be argued.

Tom Dongo covers certain aspects of this subject with which I might ordinarily have pronounced reservations. He tends to the view that psychic phenomena, channelling, extraterrestrial or interdimensional visitors and the rest are probably part of the same thing. Of course, one might suggest that each is simply a variation on delusion, imagination, or even bare-faced fibs, which is great except that it doesn't really take us anywhere useful and can be kind of insulting. For example, the science-fiction of Richard S. Shaver - supposedly based on events which he claimed happened to him - features ancestral voices, thought projection, underground alien civilisations controlling surface dwellers and mysterious forces operating behind the scenes - all equating to manias associated with certain forms of paranoid schizophrenia, specifically variants in which the two sides of the brain fail to properly communicate with each other, resulting in that which is perceived or conceived in one part of the mind being understood as something occurring externally to the individual in another part. Whilst Tom Dongo potentially ticks a couple of these boxes, I would suggest his writings and observations contain too much to contradict such a refutation for that refutation to be worth anything. Much of what Dongo describes of his own encounters and those of others read as direct experience, by which I mean that whether or not it really was a flying saucer from another world - for one obvious example - it would seem rash to deny that something out of the ordinary was experienced, not least because many of these accounts involve more than one individual experiencing the same thing. The possibility that anyone could just be telling stories is, I would suggest, made similarly ambiguous by the nature of the stories, many of which are just too plain weird. If you were going to make something up, you would probably try to come up with something more consistent, more convincing, more digestible in terms of established UFO lore. Additionally, whilst one may always invoke rational explanations, when a phenomenon can only be rationalised by an improbable cat's cradle of chance and circumstance above a certain baroque level of complexity, it might simply be more useful to admit that something weird happened for the sake of argument, then work ahead from that point. This is roughly what Tom Dongo does, his purpose being discussion rather than proving anything which characteristically eludes examination.

Of course this still leaves a few subjects with which I have some difficulty, notably that of channelling as represented by the testimony of one Erika Porter in The Alien Tide. Unfortunately it reads to me very much as a rambling daydream, and as such seems out of whack with the rest of the book; although on the other hand, I suppose if one is going to investigate this kind of phenomena, it logically can't be just the neat and tidy things which won't offend the sensibilities of some English bloke living in San Antonio; and by the time we get to Mysterious Sedona, Dongo himself expresses certain misgivings about proposals made in the earlier books, certain aspects of channelling significantly amongst them. This is one aspect of why I found these three volumes so compelling, specifically the attitude of the investigation as much as that which is investigated.

There's some seriously far out stuff here - saucers, alien animals, rock spirits, black helicopters, underground bases and all manner of oddities which seem particularly consistent with the geological territory, at least to me; and the author is only interested in making sense of his bizarre world, even if he never quite gets there. He writes openly, honestly with infectious enthusiasm, a conversational tone and none of the crankiness which defeats much paranormal literature; and by Mysterious Sedona it has become clear that he no longer even really cares about whether we, his readers, believe him or not. He's doing this for himself, and similarly we are spared any of those droning overly defensive testimonials about what science may be scared to admit, the things they don't want us to know and so on.

Tom Dongo weaves a genuinely weird, fascinating, and endlessly puzzling account of his experiences regardless of whether we're on his side. There is a generous spirit informing these books, and one of such conviction that it disarmed even my own customary tendency to sneer. This man deserves our support and encouragement.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The Road

Cormac McCarthy The Road (2006)
It's been a while since a book lived up to its hype for me, including even just the recommendation of friends as hype in this instance; but The Road turns out to be even better than promised. It doesn't really have much of a story, just some guy and his boy trudging through a post-apocalyptic wasteland towards some ambiguous possibility of a better life which almost certainly won't happen. The blurb on the back cover promises it to be a tale of love - man and child looking after each other under dreadful conditions - which it sort of is, although the description is unfortunately twee and a little misleading.

The nature of whatever has destroyed the planet is never discussed and probably doesn't matter. Our two survivors get by on what canned goods they can salvage in a world of grey skies, ash, snow, and death - nothing is left growing, and there don't seem to be any animals, and occasionally we are afforded a thoroughly stomach churning glimpse of how other survivors are getting by; and this all serves as dramatic contrast to two people actually trying to keep each other alive. It's simple, but it's really all you need given that this is one of the most depressing and harrowing things I've read in a while, albeit in a good way, sort of.

Weirdly, all the negative criticism I've seen of The Road seems to fixate on how it is written. McCarthy eschews chapters, most contractions, and even conventional sentence structure to yield something which reads very much like an extended poem, or at least a novel rendered as such. The form of the narrative serves to concentrate all actions within the present. There is no longer a future, nor any real past, just cold, brutal reality. The apocalypse has come and gone - and as such no longer matters - and the future will probably be worse, so all that is left is to move forward and hope that it won't be. I suppose it might be argued that this harks back to the earliest literature, things like Beowulf which was similarly composed as epic poetry and might even be seen as casting its characters into roughly the same hostile territory. Whatever the case, I don't think The Road would have worked so well as regular prose.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Tarzan of the Apes

Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes (1912)
I was considerably less than knocked out by 1932's Pirates of Venus when I read it a few years back, but was informed by a reliable authority that Burroughs was at his best much earlier on, presumably before he'd settled into a routine of hacking out one of these things every couple of weeks featuring increasingly implausible juxtapositions of his formative characters and scenarios, Tarzan at the Earth's core of Mars and so on; and true enough, Tarzan of the Apes is more or less readable, and written to a standard sufficient to suggest that its author was making an effort. In fact it starts off so well that I was anticipating something along the lines of a lost classic, or at least something greater than one might expect from its pulp and therefore supposedly inauspicious roots. Tarzan comes so close to achieving escape velocity too, carefully building upon the foundation of our jungle dude trying to work out just who the hell he is, and doing it so well that you're inclined to forgive the occasional howler - notably Tarzan having learned to read fluent English by comparing the words to the pictures in books found in the cabin built by his shipwrecked parents just before they snuffed it.

As we all know, the infant Tarzan is adopted by apes, but not any kind of ape recognised by modern biology. Rather, these creatures seem to be the bloody apes of nineteenth century mythology, as featured in novels, poetry, satirical newspaper cartoons, and even silent cinema as representative of the unknown and fearful - the bestial growling carnivore of near Satanic demeanour signifying the antithesis of civilisation, everything we understand of the world, and all that is holy. Tarzan's version of the bloody ape seems almost to be primal humanity, some forest-dwelling ancestor in keeping - I suppose - with the state of anthropology as of the early 1900s; and it is in some sense at least a relief to have this imaginary hominid as the embodiment of darkest, most fearful Africa rather than the human tribes we begin to encounter about half way through.

I've always had my doubts about Tarzan given its apparent basis in the peculiar notion of the King of the Jungle being some white bloke. So there are already people who've been living there for centuries, but add one white man and just watch him go! It's an idea about which the best can be said is that it's of its time which is always a lousy defence, the most craven application of which is often found dripping from - by way of example - H.P. Lovecraft, the man who brought you On the Creation of Niggers. I love Aitch Pee's writing, but let's face it, there were a hundred of his contemporaries who were just as much of their time without ever having written a poem called On the Creation of Niggers, or an entire body of work serving as extended metaphor for a fear of immigration. Burroughs isn't quite so strongly of his time as was Lovecraft, but after a few hundred pages I found it increasingly difficult to ignore the undercurrent and associated subtext of how much this novel just doesn't happen to like reggae, not being racialist or nuffink.

The African tribe Tarzan encounters turn out to be cannibals of the kind which routinely pop missionaries into the cooking pot, then stand around licking their lips, rolling their eyes, and rubbing their tummies. Yet cannibalism, not less so amongst African tribes, has historically proven to be a myth, usually an accusation made of that lot who live on the other side of the hill, just as we are now all apparently squinting at refugees in Calais and asking why they have mobile phones. Cannibalism has been a major taboo throughout human society at all levels from hunter-gatherer upwards, those few exceptions to the rule usually occurring specifically because it is a taboo; but I appreciate that I'm reading Tarzan of the Apes here rather than W. Arens' excellent The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthrophagy. I still have to wonder though, even without the implied cannibalism, did Burroughs really need to lay it on quite so thick? At one point we find Tarzan sneaking into the village to pinch arrows handily dipped in poison by the natives, whilst our narrative voice reflects upon what a bunch of thickies they are, these jungle bunnies, somehow missing the point of their being at least smart enough to invent something considered worth nicking by a man who has conspicuously failed to invent it for himself. Then we come to the white visitors, numerous aristocratic types who eventually recognise our boy as the son of Greystoke, and amongst their number is Jane and her black maid, essentially a big, fat clown who can't pronounce a word the same way twice and spends the rest of the time rolling her eyes and trembling with fear each time a rhinopotamus approaches the camp. She can't get the names right, silly black woman. Ha ha.

Conversely, as we approach the end of the book, Burroughs seems to take a change of tack, delivering a few surprisingly humanitarian messages in apparent contradiction to some of that which has gone before. Tarzan speaks out against big game hunting, at least big game hunting as an uneven playing field in which the quarry stands no chance, and then we have this exchange:

'Do fingerprints show racial characteristics?' he asked. 'Could you determine, for example, solely from fingerprints whether the subject was Negro or Caucasian?'

'I think not,' replied the officer.

Not quite Mahatma Gandhi, I know, but it's better than nothing, and at least supports the more dubious assumptions of the narrative as borne of laziness rather than design; and I suspect the only aspect to which Burroughs gave actual serious thought was the supposed superiority of the aristocracy, and there being such a thing as the good stock from which Tarzan is descended. Additionally, the occasional incidents of our man hunting and eating lions suggests either lack of thought or research, or a pendant to bloody ape mythology which itself stems from the same; so I suppose one might argue that the more annoying aspects of this novel came about just because Edgar couldn't be arsed, although there's enough here with which he could be arsed to make it sort of worth reading, even with the eye-rolling which may occasionally result.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015


Si Spencer, Dean Ormston, Phil Winslade & others Bodies (2015)
The usual disclaimers about potential lack of impartiality should probably be registered, given that I first encountered Si Spencer as one of three people involved with the publication of Sideshow Comics, and Sideshow Comics, if I remember correctly, was the first place in which I was published. In fact, I suspect it was also the first place in which both myself and Charlie Adlard - he of Walking Dead megastardom - were published, if that's of interest to anyone.

Si seems to have done pretty well for himself since then, and I nearly fell out of my chair when I noticed his name beginning to turn up during the credits of Eastenders. I haven't seen much of his writing for comics, but recall being impressed quite early on by a story from Sideshow, drawn by John McCrea, in which a terrifying nightclub bouncer with fists the size of hams is revealed to be a big old softie by a quietly ingenious twist I won't reveal just in case it's ever reprinted. I can't remember enough of Spencer's stint on Eastenders to comment, but Bodies at least reveals a similar light touch by which supposed outsiders and oddballs are found to occupy quite different, even inverse roles by the close of the tale; and just to be clear, I don't mean anything quite so cock obvious as the bad guy saving the day or any of the other generic twists we've all grown to anticipate with decreasing enthusiasm over the years.

Bodies makes a fairly simple observation, but one that is particularly worth making in the current political climate, namely that the us and them dialogue employed by the more reactionary elements of English society - usually for political gain - makes no sense, and has never made sense, and never will make sense; because English society is not so much inclusive of the outsider as exclusively composed of the same. This could have gone horribly wrong as funny looking weirdos have feelings too, but the fine narrative balance holds back from sloganeering, allowing the story and its cast to speak for themselves. This they do to great effect, despite the potential for confusion arising from the structure of four related tales occurring in four separate eras, revolving around not so much dead bodies as the same dead body. Happily it's all carried along by the momentum of its own surrealism - possibly allegories I failed to spot - rather than attempting any Alan Moore style jigsaw. It bewilders in places, but in an endearing way and never quite at the expense of the story, and it doesn't need to be a problem providing you keep in mind that this is a story which tells you stuff, and probably shouldn't be mistaken for either From Hell - with which it shares peripheral territory - or anything otherwise too literal. Bodies is a comic which really does work like a novel - and by novel I don't mean a sequence of words describing Spiderman catching some bad guys - and the art is great, seeing as I didn't already mention that detail.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
If I might briefly wax psychogeographically, seeing as I'm about the only fucker left who has yet to twist that particular baseball cap around backwards in a pitiful attempt to get down with the kids - I have a friend who used to live in Dickens' old house, or specifically in one of the houses in which Dickens grew up in Chatham, Kent. This is Glenn Wallis of the group Konstruktivists, authors of the album Psykho Genetika which remains one of the most psychologically disturbing slabs of abstract noise you're ever likely to hear. I didn't exactly know Glenn at the time, but had been writing to him for a year or so and was slightly in awe of him. He'd hung out with Throbbing Gristle, and as such seemed to be a peripheral figure on a weird and engrossingly dark musical scene. When Throbbing Gristle were denounced as Fascist in the NME - or whichever worthless rag it was - owing to the cited Nazi salute given by a black clad supporter, it had actually been Glenn, not saluting but reaching up to retrieve his pint from where he'd left it on top of a speaker; and now he had invited me over for a cup of tea, and there was a blue plaque on the house as testimony to Dickens previous residence.

Inside fell some way short of what you might expect of such a hypothetically prestigious dwelling, being as it had somehow been converted into distinctly crappy flats by a slum landlord who occasionally threatened to kill people's pets. The basement served as communal kitchen and lounge, but was used mainly for the consumption of heroin, judging by all the needles. Into this environment Glenn and his new wife had just brought their newborn baby, a daughter they named Jade. They were trying to move out, because it was a seriously crappy situation.

Of all the grim places in which I've ever seen friends endeavour to exist, Dickens' old gaff remains one of the worst; and it wasn't just the squalor or the lack of room or sharing with junkies, the place was saturated with the kind of ingrained darkness which H.P. Lovecraft would have denounced as overwritten - The Exorcist meets Trainspotting or something in that general direction. I still have no idea how anyone could have spent a night under that roof.

Now I realise this was simply the spirit of Dickens Past causing me to shit myself in vindictive pre-emptive payment  - precompense, if you will - of that which I must set to digital paper.

Okay. So I remember enjoying A Christmas Carol as a kid - read inevitably when I was at school - but that's been it. Something has always put me off Dickens, and here I am, nearly fifty and still to tackle a second helping from the greatest writer who ever lived aside from that Shakespeare. At least I'm told he's the greatest writer who ever lived, time and time again, and A Tale of Two Cities is the biggermost selling novel in history, so maybe it's just me.

It's the names which put me off.

I beseech you, Mr. Whimplestropper, for all the goodness which may gladly reside in thine over-generous heart, cast ye not that hamburger into the road where it may provide succour only to stray dogs, instead let it nourish my charge, young Barnaby Tugspangle.

Oh piss off.

Admittedly this impression derives from four million Dickens-based costume dramas every bastard Sunday teatime when I was growing up, as opposed to my actually - you know - reading the fucking things; so I was hoping I might be proven wrong; and I went for A Tale of Two Cities having encountered the French revolution in a few other places of late, plus word on the street was that Chuck had eased off on the funnies with this one, so...

Okay. I can see the craft and accordingly the appeal. Mr. Dickens does indeed bake an exceedingly fine sentence, set a deliciously fulsome, near tactile scene, and upon these he doth build many intriguing and well-rounded characters; and in theory he weaves a wonderful story, delivering chuckles as well as sound moral principles unto an age which really needed a lot more going on in that department. Dickens speaks up on the behalf of the poor, the downtrodden, the starving, and even the just plain useless back in an era when such were routinely regarded as one social stratum above talented pets which had learnt to walk on their hind legs; and A Tale of Two Cities concerns itself with the hysteria of the mob and those injustices which may be perpetrated in its name, a topic which seems now more relevant than ever...

I tried and I tried and I tried but I just couldn't do it. I made it to page two-hundred and still found myself entirely unable to give a shit about anyone. I even looked on Wikipedia, studying the synopsis in order to reassure myself that I hadn't missed anything, and unfortunately I hadn't, but still it went on and on and on - blah blah some sort of legal shit blah blah blah soppy woman getting married without giving me any idea as to why I'm supposed to care yap yap yap yap yap yet another tosser with a silly name, and each time anyone asks a fucking question, what could have been a yes or no answer turns into why indubitably I would do you the honour of gifting something by way of confirmation, and so it becomes my very great pleasure to admit to you, my very dear friend, that the situation is indeed in exact accord with your summation just as you have described it rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb...
It's like being stuck in a lift with my cousin Paul.

I really don't like to give up on a book, particularly as I even managed to finish Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land - albeit skimming the final hundred pages - which has to be one of the worst things ever written, but Dickens was really kicking my ass here, and it's not as though I'm a stranger to fiction of this era. I'm sure A Tale of Two Cities has many wonderful qualities, but I found myself entirely unable to appreciate any of them, and I just couldn't face another couple of hundred pages of this droning bollocks. I always knew I probably wouldn't enjoy Dickens, and so in future I will endeavour to exercise more faith in my own uninformed prejudices, which is probably the exact opposite of what the author intended, which is ironic.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015


John Wyndham Chocky (1968)
I haven't read all of Wyndham's novels, but of those which I have read, Chocky takes quite a different tack in so much as the focus remains on a small, well-drawn cast, as distinct from a small, well-drawn cast responding to a broader catastrophe. In fact it reads more like one of his short stories, and is accordingly expanded from an earlier novella. The first couple of chapters suffer a little from Wyndham's tendency to channel light-hearted Ealing comedies of the forties - as epitomised in the borderline unreadable Pawley's Peepholes of 1951 - but either he toned it down or else I got used to it, because the jolly old ginger beer references appear to subside by the time it becomes apparent that Matthew Gore's imaginary friend may not actually be imaginary. Chocky is, roughly speaking, a first contact story, one which gives away very little of its weird alien visitor, but doesn't really need to, instead working all its magic into the sharp contrast of the admittedly ambiguous presence with a beautifully realised domestic snapshot of rural England in the 1960s. I'm sure Brian Aldiss read this one with smoke coming out his ears, but never mind.

As a novel, it doesn't really do much beyond playing around with how well its people cope with the unexplained, but that's fine because it doesn't aspire to the grand scale, at least not beyond a few brief and intriguing glimpses of Chocky's point of origin. In other words, it does what Wyndham did well with neither an excess of syrup nor the dispiriting introduction of any character bearing too close a resemblance to big hearted Arthur Askey. Chocky may fall short of his best but is nevertheless great on its own terms, and seems to have been an obvious source of inspiration for a whole ton of kid's TV shows in the seventies - not least the quietly terrifying Boy from Space, and including a couple apparently based directly on this book, although I never saw them. Unfortunately, according to Wikipedia, Steven Spielberg acquired film rights in September 2008, and is interested in directing, but hopefully the fucker will have forgotten by now. No-one wants to see Spielberg's Chocky.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015


Will Self Dorian (2002)
I should probably point out that I've never read Oscar Wilde's version, and I use the term version because it seems there are a million riffs on The Picture of Dorian Gray out there - as Google is my witness - not least being a series of audio dramas released under the banner of The Confessions of Dorian Gray. The series in question comes from Big Finish productions and not only features former Doctor Who actors but they've managed to coax none other than Gary Russell to write a few of these tales which, from what I can work out, delineate the adventures of that mysterious traveller in time and a bit of space known only as Dorian Gray, for example:

Taking a much-needed trip to the coast, Dorian finds himself intrigued by two old men playing a peculiar game of chess along the pier. However, it isn't long before he finds himself caught up in a long-standing family feud, and becomes embroiled in a far greater game…

No honestly - I'm sure they're absolutely tremendous. Really.

Anyway, this version began life as a screenplay which was eventually finished as a novel for reasons I can't be arsed to look up a second time. I gather Will Self had the manuscript laying around for a while before its full potential dawned on him. Of course, the mere notion of a contemporary update of The Picture of Dorian Gray hardly constitutes a stroke of genius, but Self goes one better, pinning the established narrative to the brief period of the celebrity of Lady Diana Spencer and, by association, all else which amounted to English culture during that era; and the fit is perfect. It probably helps that a significantly apposite segment of that era saw the rise of AIDS with all its attendant media hysteria; and the reason for the fit seeming so perfect, at least to me, is the shared theme of Aestheticism, Dorian's pursuit of sensuous pleasure as both ideal and end in itself in both incarnations of the novel. The Aesthetic ideal of surface as content, medium as message, seems particularly relevant to the AIDS hysteria of the late eighties given that the stark imagery and invocation of just deserts delivered unto those who hath sinned more or less became its own incorporeal phenomenon, almost entirely divorced from the community to which it referred. So this time, whilst Dorian remains pure and gorgeous, the terrible cost of his lifestyle is confined to his image as captured in the form of Cathode Narcissus, a video piece by the up and coming Baz Hallward, and this image is mainly what the rest of us saw for most of the decade, particularly in the right-wing press.

This being Will Self, there's no flinching from the raw material of his subject revealed in his love of grit and texture - as distinct from mere shock effect - from which angle Dorian becomes a near Burroughsian conga-line of buggery, smack, fisting and leather clubs. I must admit to having had initial doubts about the apparent extremity of this aspect of the novel, it amounting to more or less what the Daily Mail told us about those people and what they get up to™ - aside from the obvious fact of there being an element of revelry or celebration in all the sweating, grunting, thrusting, and sharing of needles. Of course, Self was criticised for writing what reads a little like a grotesque caricature. 

Setting my version in the aristocratic, gay, druggie milieu of the 1980s wasn't too difficult, as I'd spent quite a lot of the eighties in – surprise, surprise – an aristocratic, gay, druggie milieu. So it was with considerable annoyance that I confronted a member of an audience whom I read to at last year's Soho festival. This woman said to me, 'I enjoyed your reading, but I find your characters altogether unbelievable. I mean people like Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray couldn't possibly exist, could they?' Ignoring the fact that these fictional characters were Wilde's rather than my own, I snarled at her, 'Just how many repressed, homosexual, aristocratic drug addicts have you hung around with in your time?' And when she conceded 'None', I rested my case.

For my own purposes, the case is effectively rested in the novel's initially peculiar epilogue wherein the story so far is revealed as a fictional text read by the real Dorian Gray, a widely admired philanthropist and entrepreneur, a gay icon and dear friend of Tony Blair - actually kind of similar to the fictional Dorian, the squeaky clean, eternal Adonis whose sins are passed on to his own degraded video signal, yet somehow our New Labour Dorian is so much more repellent. I take this as referring to perception of the homosexual in contemporary society, or at least the détente by which we consent to approve, providing we don't have to hear about what they get up to at the weekend. Our new gay friend is sanitised and sanitary, welcomed with open arms providing it's the right kind of gay we're talking about here, because we don't want to know about any of that other stuff, thank you very much; but maybe if we only accept gay as a variation on Pat Boone, we haven't actually really accepted him at all - referring to the masculine here principally because that's what we have with Dorian. Sexuality is defined in part by sex itself, and everyone knows the joke about sex being dirty, or at least it is if you're doing it right. So whilst the gay - and male in this instance - can be about marriage and flowers and sunsets, sometimes it's also about cocks and arseholes and even terrifying clubs, because we don't get to pick and choose just the nice pastel bits to which we lend prissy approval; and if that makes any sense whatsoever, I think it is in part what this Dorian is about.

I was a little confused by the inclusion of a character identified as David Hall, sharing a name but no other discernible qualities with the late pioneer of video art - and my old head of department at college as it happens - so I assume this was either coincidental or nothing more significant than a tip of the hat, given the role of video art within the novel. Equally, I can't quite tell how it all relates to Lady Diana Spencer, although clearly it does by some means. I've come to regard Spencer as the perfect victim in the Pre-Colombian American sense, the innocent who takes on the sins of the world and is subsequently destroyed on our behalf, the role of innocent in this case being something which seems very much to have been imposed on her after the fact, not to be confused with any inherent quality. In real life as in this novel, she led a relatively short but undeniably charmed existence very much in parallel with that of Dorian, but it feels a little like an arbitrary association to me.

Nevertheless, this one does more than most authors manage in a lifetime, which isn't bad going considering it's essentially a slightly fancy cover version, so I'm not inclined to complain; plus, with all it has going on, like Cathode Narcissus, I wouldn't be too surprised if the novel tells a slightly different story next time I pick it up.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

SOS from Three Worlds

Murray Leinster SOS from Three Worlds (1966)
I've not yet digested a huge wealth of this guy's work, but on the strength of this and a short story collection read a few years back, I suspect there may be some grounds to consider the Leinster overlooked in terms of the history of science-fiction literature. In some senses he was probably your archetypal pulp author, and it perhaps isn't too surprising that he also wrote adventure, historical, western, sea, and suspense stories according to the blurb inside the front cover. Perhaps unsurprisingly, SOS from Three Worlds scores low as poetry, but nevertheless demonstrates considerable craft - a beautifully constructed hand-tooled sideboard rather than a mass-produced formica carbuncle. Furthermore, it's hard science-fiction in the Asimov sense, at least providing you keep in mind that space travel may actually be impossible so we have to make a few allowances otherwise we won't have a story; and as hard science-fiction, Leinster does a great job, communicating all sorts of fancy ideas about space travel, extraterrestrial medicinal practice and xenobiology with infectious and engrossing enthusiasm. The three episodic tales assembled here share a certain hokey quality as basic transpositions of the frontier doc riding his horse from town to town curing whatever may ail ye, but it's an amiably hokey quality rather than an obvious assemblage of familiar clichés, even with the cute animal companion providing routinely good-natured goofy chuckles.

Shoving my eyes up the internet, I notice that the Leinster actually hasn't been overlooked and seems well remembered as a popular author of a million novels, some ground breaking ideas, and a few tie-ins to shows such as The Time Tunnel; but from reading this one, and considering some of the more recently published shite presently clogging up the shelves of Half Price Books, and the fact that people still worship fucking Heinlein, I'd say Leinster's legend deserves to loom at least a little larger, and not least because you really get the sense of him having had a great time writing this one, and considering recent developments, it's always nice to remind oneself of golden age authors with stated progressive views, such as are found here.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Vermilion Sands

J.G. Ballard Vermilion Sands (1971)
I'm not sure quite why it's taken this long for me to get around to reading J.G. Ballard, but this one - picked from the shelf of Oxfam in Coventry purely because it was Ballard and it was there - probably wasn't the greatest place to start. Vermilion Sands comprises short stories set in and around a resort populated by faded Bohemian types and the idle rich, a fantasy playground of the future as it is described on the jacket, and were this not the first thing I'd read by the guy I could probably confidently describe it as Ballardian by virtue of the cloud sculptures, singing statues, psychotropic houses and so on.
'Do you read a lot of poetry?' I asked, indicating the volumes around her.

'She nodded. 'As much as I can bear to.'

I laughed. 'I know what you mean. I have to read rather more than I want.'

Oh someone peel me a grape, for fuck's sake! Whilst it's all very imaginative and beautifully written, like most utopias of the idle rich, it's also extraordinarily dull, regardless of the surrealism. In fact it's kind of like reading one of those fucking awful David Hockney paintings of a Californian swimming pool. It's not totally without merit, obviously, but Roxy Music's In Every Dream Home a Heartache - which does roughly the same thing - lasts five minutes rather than two hundred pages. I think part of the problem is that it's difficult to tell quite what Ballard is trying to say here, and a clue may be found in his preface which seems to suggest he rather longed after sipping fancy cocktails by the pool in the company of Joan Collins and Andy Warhol.

Where is Vermilion Sands? I suppose its spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema beach, but in recent years I have been delighted to see it popping up elsewhere - above all, in sections of the three-thousand mile long linear city that stretches from Gibraltar to Glyfada Beach along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and where each summer Europe lies on its back in the sun. That posture, of course, is the hallmark of Vermilion Sands and, I hope, of the future - not merely that no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work.

T'rrific, and while we're at it lets also bring back that horrible seventies version of airbrushed deco illustration in which everyone is reduced to the fat pastel sausages of an extra from Yellow Submarine. Wouldn't that be just weapon, yeah?

I'm probably being overly harsh, or maybe I'm just too thick too have appreciated Vermilion Sands, but I really expected much more than an admittedly tuneful Ringo Starr solo album from this author. Moorcock did something similarly louche in his Dancer's at the End of Time books, but I found his version funnier and much more engaging. Sorry.