“…the steady climb, bare land either side, and ahead, on a soft blue sky, the moment of going over. She had in her an intensifying presentiment, a mix of foreknowledge and memory, a place, a state out of childhood into which she was advancing with the sureness of a sleepwalker. Imminence! The brink of a vision of freedom!” –David Constantine, “Fault”, from Tea at the Midland.
Tag Archives: books & reviews
“What is literature, and why do I try to write about it? I don’t know. Likewise, I don’t know why I go on living, most of the time. But this not knowing is precisely what I want to preserve. As readers, the closest way we can engage with a literary work is to protect its indeterminacy; to return ourselves and it to a place that precludes complete recognition. Really, when I’m reading, all I want is to stand amazed in front of an unknown object at odds with the world.”
–David Winters, interviewed by Alec Niedenthal at HTML Giant.
I’m not in the least convinced by this. “…Scandinavian crime dramas–their dour sensibility chimes soddenly with our rain-soaked souls.” But however hard it tries, the BBC Wallander isn’t Scandi-crime. They’ve got the landscapes right, the photography right, the direction right, the script nearly right. But they can’t do anything about the acting. Branagh can’t leave well enough alone. He cues up the crux of every occasion with his eyes or a gesture, recluttering a clean text with the vast pantomimic signage we associate with British TV drama: “This moment is so important. We are so important: us actors, you viewers, this thing we know.” In Britain our souls aren’t “soaked with rain”, they are bloated with the theatricality of denied entitlement, self pity & –wherever the arts are concerned–mutual congratulation. I’d say “mutual self-congratulation” if that bore examination.
Nick Coleman name-checks “the SF awkward squad” of the 70s in his memoir of a life in music journalism: “Thompson was much cleverer than me, but neither of us seemed to mind. What seemed important was that we both liked Harlan Ellison, M John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, LeGuin and the rest of the SF awkward squad.” It is a weird feeling to be on a list like that. But it is less weird than Coleman’s experience. Music was his life: he woke up one morning deaf. How do you encompass that ? What do you do with yourself next ? In addition, The Train in the Night is full of acute observations like this: “‘Make new’ was not the same thing at all as ‘make novel’. Make new meant ‘make real again.’” Some of us should have that stamped on our bank books in case we forget it in the stumbling run to become popular.
Karaoke Culture is a sharp piece of commentary. As ever, Ugresic sucks you in with wit & mad charm; cheekily sandbags you with her ability to merge her observations of cultural events, venues & styles; engineers cheerful hit & run connections between media. You think it’s a rat’s nest but it develops a sly inevitable logic, & it’s probably the only way to get away with some of the things she says. Meanwhile, I wonder if this is going to be anything like as sharp & honest as These Foolish Things, the Deborah Moggach novel on which it’s based, a TLS review of which I’ll put up here if I can ever find it again in my own rat’s nest. Thinking about: Shame, which struck me as little more than a dutiful turn round the relevant sections of DSM IV-TR. I like that smelly nourishing suet of dysfunctional & chaotic behaviour, but Shame didn’t seem an especially intense slice.
I can recommend Matthew Cheney’s piece Stories in the Key of Strange: A Collage of Encounters, at Weird Fiction Review. More and more, Cheney says, he finds himself
attracted to innovative writing that isn’t afraid to leave great gaps within itself, that doesn’t try to stick the world onto a postage stamp, but rather puts a postage stamp in the middle of the world’s unfathomable complexities.
Though he’s careful not to glue them in place, he lays into his collage elements from Leen Krohn, Kelly Link, Barry Lopez, China Mieville, Jan Morris & Christopher Priest; & at one point comes to the perhaps fleeting, certainly controversial but very refreshing conclusion that “all fiction, regardless of its label or merit, possesses an allegorical connection to reality”.
It’s nice to be encouraged to be grown up again, to keep open, as Cheney puts it, “every imaginative and imagined option”. I’m on the edge of my seat to see what happens next at WFR.
I wrote an introduction to the Heyne edition of The Day of the Triffids, which begins roughly– “1949: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris decided he would like to write something more relevant to his time. In turning away from the American pulp market, simplifying his name to John Wyndham, & selecting as his subject matter the disruption of a recognisable near future, he redeemed not just himself but the medium of science fiction. The novel of catastrophe surfs the anxieties of the day, viewing them as a disaster that has already happened; the self-reinvented Wyndham, fresh from his chrysalis, found himself in an age rich with new anxieties. Huge changes were afoot in the aftermath of a war which had shown the English that their most valued possessions–a firm social structure, a quiet life, dependable lines of communication & supply–could be eroded in six months, to be replaced by uncertainty, blackout & shortage. Power had been taken out of the hands of the pre-War middle classes (a process both mourned and celebrated in the quintessentially English films of Powell & Pressburger) & placed in the hands of a bureaucratic infrastructure. After the war, it wasn’t given back. During the austerity winters of the postwar years, overshadowed by science they didn’t understand, no longer comforted by religion or imperial certainty, the English huddled in their underheated houses & began to wonder what the future would be like. The genius of John Wyndham was to offer them a way to think about their situation.”
On the re-read pile: nice crisp Vintage editions of The End of the Affair, The Quiet American & Stamboul Train. On repeat: Slow Club, “You, Earth or Ash”. Seen out of the window: eight or nine redwing. Is this possible in Barnes ?
I came late to this “Questionnaire of the Weird”, but here are my answers:
1: Write the first sentence of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, about 2:19.”
2: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
3: Look at your watch. What time is it?
4: How do you explain this—or these—discrepancy(ies) in time?
There is no dispcrepancy.
5: Do you believe in meteorological predictions?
I think it’s weird you would ask that. You don’t even know me.
6: Do you believe in astrological predictions?
No, I’m not fooled by all those false-colour images of gas clouds, & Prof. Brian Cox calling it the “You-in-Ee Verse”.
7: Do you gaze at the sky and stars by night?
Not in London.
8: What do you think of the sky and stars by night?
I think they’re the last place God made.
9: What were you looking at before starting this questionnaire?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit; then my friend S’s face, in dark, impasto-looking tones on Skype, which made her resemble a Munch madonna. Munch’s madonnas are, as someone once put it to me, “the Anima on a stick” & a great deal weirder than anything wilfully weird.
10: What do cathedrals, churches, mosques, shrines, synagogues, and other religious monuments inspire in you?
“Inspire” is a bit like “gaze” to me, the way you’ve used it in Question 7 above. I don’t really get it.
11: What would you have “seen” if you’d been blind?
I don’t know. But there are plenty of things I would have missed seeing. Dogs. A girder. Two or three larks going up & down like elevators over some upland landscape. Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site. Windmills, linocuts, bees. A bus. A wrist. The list is endless.
12: What would you want to see if you were blind?
To start with, at least, I would want to see some indication that I wasn’t seeing: so, darkness, maybe, or like that. Weirdly enough, my cat went blind not long ago.
13: Are you afraid?
I have deep & constant anxiety.
14: What of?
I was afraid of the dark until I started night-running on moors & hills in the late 1970s. Once you become anxious about putting your foot down a hole in the dark & breaking your ankle, you stop being anxious about just the dark; the vague & generalised is replaced by the actual & practical. Now I’m afraid of the usual things, loneliness, pain, death.
15: What is the last weird film you’ve seen?
Scorcese, No Direction Home.
16: Whom are you afraid of?
I am afraid of everyone.
17: Have you ever been lost?
See answer to Question 9, but also I am an expert at it (see answer to Question 14). At least as much of an expert as Rebecca Solnit, although she is a great deal more articulate about it than me.
18: Do you believe in ghosts?
19: What is a ghost?
A ghost is content. It is subject matter, or grist to your mill.
20: At this very moment, what sound(s) can you here, apart from the computer?
Quite complex tinitus, left ear. A high-pitched whine, like the one you hear after a loud gig. Under that, a sort of hiss such as you might have heard from a valve radio knocked off-station in 1953. Behind that, quite a long way back, various bangs & rumbles I take to be the circulation of the blood, or perhaps a small unacknowledged war taking place a mile or two off in East Sheen.
21: What is the most terrifying sound you’ve ever heard: for example, “the night was like the cry of a wolf”?
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced terror. Certainly not from a sound. But I have a well-honed startle reflex, see answer to Question 13, & any high-attack sound will stimulate it.
22: Have you done something weird today or in the last few days?
No. But I have done uncanny things.
23: Have you ever been to confession?
24: You’re at confession, so confess the unspeakable.
“Weird” is a word for a kind of content or subject matter I often visit, though I have no personal relationship with the weird now except to make metaphors. I went through a period when I couldn’t have HP Lovecraft on my shelves. If I had him on my shelves I would read him. If I read him I wouldn’t be able to sleep. The same was true of Arthur Machen, although it was never true of Robert Aickman because by the time I got to Aickman my life had steadied me down a little. In a sense, he’s too clever to be frightening; in another sense, something like “The Swords” is so uncanny that you know you are probably avoiding the issue so as to remain calm.
25: Without cheating: what is a “cabinet of curiosities”?
Perhaps it’s a cabinet in which you keep curiosities. Have you read “The Hare with Amber Eyes” ? It’s the history of 264 netsuke, displayed for part of their life in a cabinet in Vienna to show off the taste of their owner–to make their owner interesting by association. It’s been quite a bestseller but I found it, in the end, to be a sort of bland imitation of WG Sebald. Anyway, perhaps that’s what a cabinet of curiosities is: a place to keep the things which make you look interesting by association. Or comparison.
26: Do you believe in redemption?
I do, but I don’t know why. For me, redemption is like some aspects of the sublime: I try not to revisit or acknowledge them, in case I taint them with the anti-sublime.
27: Have you dreamed tonight?
I believe so.
28: Do you remember your dreams?
29: What was your last dream?
I don’t remember.
30: What does fog make you think of?
I haven’t seen any really high class fog for a long time. The kind that, if it’s in a city, sets everything at one remove and makes it so interesting again; or the kind that, if it’s on a moor, you think: shit, which direction was I going in before this happened, see answer to Question 9 ?
31: Do you believe in animals that don’t exist?
Do you mean made-up animals ? Why would I believe or not believe in them ?
32: What do you see on the walls of the room where you are?
Skull Radio & Mexican Death TV.
33: If you became a magician, what would be the first thing you’d do?
I haven’t any idea.
34: What is a madman?
One of the people in charge of the asylum.
35: Are you mad?
All I’m sure of today is that I’m not in charge of the asylum.
36: Do you believe in the existence of secret societies?
It isn’t really necessary to believe in the existence of secret societies for them to exist.
37: What was the last weird book you read?
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit.
38: Would you like to live in a castle?
Yes. I would also like to live in a beach hut.
39: Have you seen something weird today?
I haven’t. But I keep wanting to call you “darling”. For instance, in answer to Question 54 below, What goes on in tunnels ?, I wanted to reply, “I don’t know, darling. I’m so rarely in one.” Isn’t that odd ? I find it odd.
40: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever seen?
Do you mean weird ? Or do you mean Weird ? Anyway, I will always have a soft spot for the Brothers Quay’s Institute Benjamenta. I several times tried to watch it with a girlfriend when it first came out on DVD, but we kept having sex halfway through & I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen the end. But it certainly looked weird.
41: Would you like to live in an abandoned train station?
Curiously enough, I addressed this question a year or two ago, here.
42: Can you see the future?
I can, yes, & it works.
43: Have you considered living abroad?
Once or twice.
Because they are warmer & more human than London.
46: What is the weirdest film you’ve ever owned?
47: Would you liked to have lived in a vicarage?
48: What is the weirdest book you’ve ever read?
“The Flight from the Enchanter”, Iris Murdoch.
49: Which do you like better, globes or hourglasses?
I wouldn’t have any use for either. I don’t know what the weird has to do with the mildly bizarre or whimsical.
50: Which do you like better, antique magnifying glasses or bladed weapons?
I’d rather have a new magnifying glass if I needed one. I own an entry-level survival knife. I would like an ESEE-3MIL with a carbon steel blade & a sharpened back edge. But my favourite knife of mine is a 465 Puma Backpacker, circa 1980, which I have managed not to lose all those years. I climbed with a guy called Jeremy who used to be a butcher, so he sharpened everyone’s knives for them. Worried by a certain vagueness he sensed in me, he kept mine blunt.
51: What, in all likelihood, lies in the depths of Loch Ness?
A layer of very cold water.
52: Do you like taxidermied animals?
Sometimes. But I don’t find them weird, & I don’t find myself weird for liking them. Generally I try not to associate myself with things as a way of gaining some of their presumed eros, see answer to Question 25.
53: Do you like walking in the rain?
I don’t dislike it.
54: What goes on in tunnels?
I don’t know, I’m so rarely in one.
55: What do you look at when you look away from this questionnaire?
Mexican Death TV.
56: What does this famous line inspire in you: “And when he had crossed the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.”?
57: Without cheating: where is that famous line from?
Is it famous ? How inappropriate of me not to remember.
58: Do you like walking in graveyards or the woods by night?
Apart from Pere Lachaise, and the really unheimlich two-level cemetery on the A628 outside Tintwhistle, Greater Manchester, I can take or leave graveyards. Running in woods at night can be as entertaining as running on moors at night, especially in the snow. Although I have to admit I haven’t done it for a couple of years. Some woodland is almost ludicrously Aickmanesque: that patch under Rhinog Fawr, for instance, into which you descend if you follow the Roman Steps path all the way east.
58: Write the last line of a novel, short story, or book of the weird yet to be written.
“I wish I’d kept those old clothes.”
59: Without looking at your watch: what time is it?
60: Look at your watch. What time is it?
It’s always 2:19 in here.
In this unwritten pastiche the central character stares out over a deserted coastal town, entangling himself with mysterious couples, psychiatrists and fliers as the world around him falls slowly but irrevocably into a beach-fatigued 50s sf version of itself. “Every so often, as he waited for nightfall–signalled by the long repetitive sweep of the old Ferrari’s headlights against the greenish afterglow above the esplanade–Carson would force himself up and down Hermione Miro’s small swimming pool at a slow crawl, these few enervated daily laps a way of convincing himself that he still existed.” Etc etc. We think this is a metaphor. But here’s the concept: in Carson’s world, as in ours, everyone without sufficient ego is vanishing. As the story progresses, we see that Carson is vanishing too.