“Sometimes as it blows across the Great Brown Waste in summer, the wind will uncover a bit of petrified wood. Mammy Vooley’s head had the shape and the shiny grey look of wood like that. It was provided with one good eye, as if at one time it had grown round a glass marble streaked with milky blue. She bobbed it stiffly right and left to the crowds: who stood to watch her approach; knelt as she passed; and stood up again behind her. Her bearers grunted patiently under the weigh of the pole that bore her up. As they brought her slowly closer it could be seen that her dress–so curved between her bony, strangely-articulated knees that dead leaves, lumps of plaster and crusts of wholemeal bread had gathered in her lap–was russet-orange; and that she wore askew on the top of her head a hank of faded purple hair, wispy and fine like a very old woman’s. Mammy Vooley, celebrating with black banners and young women chanting; Mammy Vooley, Queen of Uroconium, Moderator of the city; as silent as a log of wood.” [The Luck in the Head, 1982, from Viriconium, also in audio download.]
Tag Archives: fantasy
“That whole year, and to a lesser extent the year after, bodies were washed up all along that part of the coast, some whole, some in pieces … In the south of Autotelia, especially, it was a bad year for bodies; but the body of the vanished brother didn’t show up among them. Passive and silent, full of some incommunicable anger, the sister attempted suicide, spent time in institutions; then, her work suddenly becoming popular, left the country for a new life on our side of things.” When Cave meets Julia, he finds himself sucked into her strange alienated history of loss and sacrifice. “Cave & Julia” is a love story set between our world and Autotelia. Available from the Kindle Store today, 99p; or free to borrow from the Kindle Library. You can still find “In Autotelia”, the first Autotelia story, in Arc #1, here.
Just to round up what’s available, electronically and otherwise: you can buy Light, Nova Swing and Empty Space; The Centauri Device, cursed be its name, with its very fine paper-sculpture cover image; and Viriconium in the old paperback Fantasy Masterworks edition. The new edition of Climbers (coming in May) is ready for pre-order, both as paper and as ebook, with a fabulous new Sam Green cover and a very special introduction I’m not allowed to tell you about yet, although you probably already found out for yourself. The books you won’t find, except as pre-enjoyed or remaindered, are The Course of the Heart, Signs of Life and Things That Never Happen.
Since these three, along with Climbers and my new short stories, rather sum up the point of writing for me, I hope we can do something about that soon.
“Cave & Julia” being very much a product of the Ambiente Hotel, back-bar regulars will add value by tracing its beginnings in these entries over the last year or two. I’ve set up a “Cave & Julia” page: leave your criticisms, gasps of almost sexual delight & sighs of sarcastic disbelief etc there, where comments aren’t time-limited, rather than here, where they close after a few days.
Or, of course, leave a review at Amazon.
We are so quick to look for closure, for the clear termination of sections of our life, that we often invent it. After the debacle at 17 Hill Park I had assumed I would never be caught up with Yaxley again. Indeed, obsessed with the Pleroma, he did leave me alone for two or three years. But after his failure with the ritual he called the Infolding, everything failed. The fear that he would be absorbed by the Pleroma grew daily, until his whole position was undercut by it. Associated phobias developed to include a horror of dirt. That, and the residue of one too many magical operations, drove him out of his rooms above the Atlantis bookshop & I lost sight of him. Then I received a telephone call, I don’t believe from Yaxley himself. After I picked up the receiver there was a prolonged silence, into which I prompted–
Nothing. Then someone said softly:
“Go to this address–”
Other instructions followed, some infantile, some meaningless. I did not recognise the magical operation to which they referred. The voice was hard to hear, let alone to identify. It paused, failed, picked up again. Once or twice it laughed. “Two fucks and a pig,” it said. It seemed to come from a long way away, and there were other voices behind it. “Two fine fucks and a pig.”
I walked past the building twice. It was a spacious modern block on the north side of Upper Richmond Road, close to East Putney station. It reminded me less of Yaxley than Lawson, and perhaps it was in fact some fossil of their brief partnership. The people who lived there worked in property or investment banking. Traffic laboured under their windows all day, but double glazing muted the noise to a comfortable hum. By night their black European executive saloons lined up at the kerb in rows. I went through a cold well-kept entrance hall, unrelieved by two shallow brick structures like small municipal flowerbeds filled with decorative gravel, and took the stairs to the top floor. Between landings I wavered; touched for reassurance the white painted metal handrail. Had I heard someone coming up behind me?
Modern flats have a precision, a bleak openness to their angles, which encourages hygiene. Yaxley’s was painted off-white throughout, with white woodwork. Every wall, every wainscot, was spotless. There were some rather nice carpets in a kind of flushed pink. Furnished properly, it might have been comfortable if rather affectless. But all I could find was a telephone on a table and, in the middle of the lounge floor a state-of-the-art television. (When I switched it on, an unlabelled DVD began to play. I switched it off again immediately.) The kitchen was fitted expensively enough, with oak units, Creda Solarspeed hob, butcher-striped roller blinds. Under the immaculate stainless-steel double sink I found Flash, Jif, sponge floor mops, plastic buckets and Marigold rubber gloves–several of everything, all brand new, as if he had cached them against a seige; or agoraphobia.
Yaxley was in the bedroom.
He lay naked on his side in the middle of the uncarpeted floor, knees drawn up slightly. One hand was curled gently under the side of his head to support it. The other cupped his genitals. Death had aged him. With his long deceitful face, grey stubbled jaw, and lips drawn back over blackened or yellowish teeth, he might have been seventy or eighty. He looked like an old untrustworthy dog, shrunk, famished, reduced. Before he died, he had been trying to make something with two sticks. Above him on the wall was pinned a postcard reproduction of the steps of the British Museum. Under this he had scrawled in soft pencil the words ‘The Place of the Cure of the Soul’, a description reputed to have been carved over the doors of the Library at Alexandria. Otherwise the room was empty. There was no furniture, not even a bed. It stank. Yaxley hadn’t washed since I last saw him. The dirt was glazed on, as if he had spent the intervening years living in a doorway off the Charing Cross Road. In addition some sort of fat was smeared all over his emaciated upper body, perhaps as lubrication. He had been frightened the Pleroma would invaginate him. In the event though he seemed to have been not so much sucked in as sucked.
Behind him on the floor I found an envelope; inside that the key to a safety deposit box in the City. In the box, I knew, there would be two thick black notebooks. I had seen them before. I collected them that afternoon, and over the next two days, coming and going under Yaxley’s dead ironic eye, fetched his papers, his pictures and other magical paraphernalia from locations to which the notebooks gave access. Some of the larger items–an old fashioned Dansette record player, a wooden chair with awkwardly curved arms, two crates of books–I was forced to move by taxi. Decaying ring-binders burst and gave forth yellow papers, upon which I read in a scrawled hand:
- “The door! The rosy door!”
- “…two distinct and irreconcilable worlds, pleroma or fullness–which has come down to us as the muddled Christian promise of “Heaven”; and hysterema or kenoma, pain, illusion, emptiness–the life we must actually live. Between them, it used to be said, lies the paradox or boundary-state horos. But the great discovery of this century has been to knock at the door of horos and find no one at home. Horos is the wish-fulfilment dream, the treachery of the mirror…”
Eventually I had assembled it all in the stinking bedroom. The rest of the instructions proved harder to follow. I was required to set certain small objects–including a stoppered bottle half full of rose water and a Polaroid photograph of someone’s left hand–in precise relationships to one another on a small wooden table, about five feet in front of the corpse. The table itself must stand at the apex of a precise triangle, the other two points of which were represented by a burned-out electric kettle from some Tufnell Park bedsitter; and a split PVC bucket. I was to turn on the old Dansette in its peeled grey leatherette case, play a certain record, then undress, fold my clothes in a particular way, and masturbate. I knelt down before the table, with its burden of futile or malign objects. I pulled bleakly and unhappily at myself for perhaps ten minutes, but every time I felt the drowsy approach of orgasm, I seemed to snap back into self awareness, and feel upon me the dead magician’s amused, dispassionate gaze.
“Yaxley never did anything to anybody,” I remembered Pam Stuyvesant advising me. “He encourages you to do it to yourself.”
From the cloth-covered speaker of the Dansette, to a background of crackles and distant music, some chirpy pre-War entertainer sang:
Who’s been polishing the sun,
Sprucing up the clouds so grey?
Does she know that’s how I like it?
I hope she’s going my way!
Suddenly I felt exhausted and ill. I gave up the attempt and instead was violently sick into the plastic bucket. Yaxley, I suppose, may have allowed for this. It was hard to see whether the act had been designed to free or redeem him; or as a last meaningless sneer. Anyway, nothing seemed to happen, so after a bit I left. I closed and locked the door behind me, and later threw the key and the notebooks off Putney Bridge and into the river.
As far as I know, Yaxley’s still there.
[From The Course of the Heart, 1992.]
Unable to find a convincing voice, the narrator provides instead a running commentary on her own credibility, making furtive eye contact with the audience, offering & discarding alternative behaviours & engaging in a muddled discussion of her adventures & decisions. In this way she hopes to divert the unanswerable objection, “But surely in this situation–in which the Boobinog is throwing out vast bolts of power-energy & the ponies have no defense shields!–no one who thought like X would ever do Y!” or “Only somebody completely stupid would have gone into that alley in the first place.” It might be described as the motivational fallacy, typical of the aggressive-defensive relationship between failed writers, who dare not trust the reader, & failed readers, who will not trust the writer. For observers of such nightmare marriages, the appropriate question to ask of the writer is, “Excuse me, how many people have ever found themselves in a situation which even faintly resembles your absurd crock of shit?” While, in every case of motivational fallacy on the part of a reader, a similarly direct approach is to enquire, “What the fuck are you talking about ? None of this hokum has the slightest relationship to what you know or how you know it: so either the writer can sell you her crock or she can’t.” In short, it comes down not to credibility but to charisma.
A genre’s landscape should be littered with used tropes half-visible through their own smoke & surrounded by salvage artists with welding sets, otherwise it isn’t a genre at all. But what Paul Kincaid describes here & here as “exhaustion” is something else. It’s not creative redevelopment, it’s not evolution by bricolage, it’s not the boring old being kicked apart to reveal an interesting new inside. It’s not even laziness. It’s the intense commodification of ideas & styles evacuated of their original meaning & impact, an apparently deliberate industrialisation of the commonplace & worn out. In using the term exhaustion, Paul Kincaid is not announcing the “death” of F/SF as a genre. He’s very clear on that. Nor is he suggesting, from his broad, long-term experience as a reader & critic, that no interesting fiction is being written into or out of the genre–you’d be mad to claim that in a year which has seen the publication of Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, or the long-hoped-for return of Jeff Noon with Channel SK1N, to mention only two examples. What Kincaid seems to be bringing to our attention here is that while genre has always been economical in the way it scrapes the carcass, much of what is published now is the product of a thoroughly mechanical separation & disinfection: LFTB of the imaginative.
Richmond Park. Cold & clear but no frost. An argument about how few cyclists are out this morning–C rightly points out that all we can know is that there is one cow in Scotland & one side of it is black. We run downhill at first, round a wood, along a stretch of bridle path slightly up hill in sand. Stags regard us with momentary irritation from the bracken, then go back to honking & clearing their throats at one another like theorists. It isn’t the Peak District but I feel good just to be outside & not in a street. Later at the hot snacks stand, two men chat about computers. “Of course, of course,” they agree. They laugh. They’re knee deep in terriers, one of which–a Border bitch dubbed “Maisie” –is very clever with a stick. The sunshine looks as if it was applied to every individual item during the night, like gold leaf. It’s as if someone worked so hard to make things nice for the people who come here from Kingston, Richmond, Barnes, East Sheen, as far away as Clapham. Later, Billy the bloodhound arrives, queen among dogs. The Saturday trade is mainly in bacon sandwiches, although one boy eats a frankfurter with thick squiggles of mustard & ketchup at 8.30 in the morning before he gets across his rather beautiful road bike.
Lowrider sword & sorcery. Before the battle of Helm’s Deep, Galadriel, who’s eaten nothing for a week but the wadding from benzedrine inhalers, does Cootchie Cootie in the back of his 1951 Fleetline bomb. It’s a favour for a friend. Wittgenstein, Merlin & CS Lewis look on in passive-aggressive disavowal. After that, for the founding volume anyway, it’s Zap Comic dynamics on a lean-burn version of The Revenger’s Tragedy–the usual tale of poor choices, low ground clearance & self medication. Emotional palette from A Glastonbury Romance, prose from Destination: Moon! & worldbuilding from one of those ads where if you buy the right mobile phone it causes inconvenient buildings to fold themselves away in front of the user so she can get to some other stuff she wants to consume without ever walking round a corner or even, apparently, consulting the phone itself? (The world will be called Eldrano, & not as I first proposed Eldranol, which turns out to be already TM’d for a bovine mastitis application.)
He worked out of a small office the only feature of which was the clarity and interest of the screen saver images. They were beachscapes exotic & hard to place, with a sharp, travelogue quality. He had the screen positioned so it was impossible to ignore these glimpses as they dissolved softly into one another; while to the client he presented the city as a surf of buildings & people & consumer goods. The motives that powered it were tidal. Unpredictable winds played against masses of water, currents too complex to understand. Crimes were whipped off the crest of events like spray. “A great wave,” he would explain, “composed of the billion actions of the very citizens it curls so threateningly above!” It was the perfected experience of art, he said, in the perfect space–art as an aspect of architectonic and thence, with perfect logic, of lifestyle. His clientele were not so sure. These carefully groomed & dressed art tourists would look across the desk at him with a kind of puzzled distaste, & wonder if they were in the process of making a mistake. They understood their own inauthenticity: they weren’t, at the outset anyway, so certain about his. The women had come for the sensorium porn. The men, though they would pretend to enjoy “seeing the world from a different point of view”, were only interested in donkey crime.
Escape began in the 1960s. It was tentative & difficult at first. But later under neoliberalism & identity politics everyone escaped, even the people who were being escaped from. As a result there was nowhere left to go. Escape in that sense was finished as a paradigm & thereafter could only be attached to adverts for hair care product. Escape turned out to be an end, not a beginning. It was a brand; a version of “they lived happily ever after” tenable only as long as you didn’t try to live the other side of it.