Wednesday, February 25, 2009


There's a perceived wisdom these days that everything needs to start with a bang, an event that drags the reader into the story. I even read a recent piece of writing advice which stated that every story needs to start with the hero in physical trouble or in action in the first sentence (the old 'I hoisted my pistol and pushed through the trees' or a variation thereon).

In a sense it's a throwback to the old pulp style of writing - the hook and backfill - start with a hero in terrible peril and then go back and explain to the reader how this came to be:

"Clinging by his fingertips to the sheer cliff face, Jed Colic glanced down at the two ravenous tigers prowling on the ground far below him and wondered how he had managed to get himself into this situation, again."

In truth, the hook and backfill technique isn't a bad way to start a story and runs in parallel to the excellent piece of advice about 'arriving late' in a story, but if every single piece of adventure fiction or SF or fantasy began with a moment of momentous physical difficulty for the protagonist what an incredibly dull world it would be.

I've lost count of the number of stories that I've read recently that have begun with a variant on:

"Look behind you!" Mothven screamed.
Kilfannon turned and saw the Grinfall beast rushing towards him."

Of course, the purpose of any beginning is to make the reader want to read on, but there are other ways of doing it rather than the immediate action or the killer first line. (although as a killer opener you'd go a long way to beat Camus' opening sentence from The Outsider: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.")

Sometimes, it's enough to write well, to create a mood or an atmosphere that hooks a reader's attention:

"During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher." Edgar Allen Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher.

"The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide." Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Or, if you must have the immediate danger element:

"Across the red drifts and mail-clad forms, two figures glared at each other. In that utter desolation only they moved. The frosty sky was over them, the white illimitable plain around them, the dead men at their feet. Slowly through the corpses they came, as ghosts might come to a tryst through the shambles of a dead world. In the brooding silence they stood face to face." Robert E. Howard, The Frost Giant's Daughter

Or to get a little more modern:

"As near as I can discover, Mortdieu occurred seventy-seven years ago. Learned sons of pure flesh deny that magic was set loose, or even that the Alternate had gained supreme power. But few people could deny that God, as such, had died." Greg Bear, Petra.

"From the hill north of the city, Rice saw eighteenth-century Salzburg spread out below him like a half-eaten lunch.
Huge cracking towers and swollen, bulbous storage tanks dwarfed the ruins of the St. Rupert Cathedral. Thick white smoke billowed from the refinery's stacks. Rice could taste the familiar petrochemical tang from where he sat, under the leaves of a wilting oak."
Bruce Sterling & Lewis Shiner, Mozart in Mirrorshades.

With the exception of the Howard piece none of these openings shows us the hero in danger or indeed engaged in anything terribly exciting - Poe's narrator is riding towards the House of Usher, Conrad's is sitting aboard a ship at rest, Mozart in Mirrorshades begins with a description, Petra with a theosophical statement - yet there is an undeniable power to each of them a glimpse into another world that impels the reader further into the narrative.

Not everything in fiction needs to be fire and fury, even in something as action oriented as sword and sorcery there is still room to lure rather than bludgeon the reader:

"There comes, even to kings, the time of great weariness. Then the gold of the throne is brass, the silk of the palace becomes drab. The gems in the diadem sparkle drearily like the ice of the white seas; the speech of men is as the empty rattle of a jester's bell and the feel comes of things unreal; even the sun is copper in the sky, and the breath of the green ocean is no longer fresh." Robert E. Howard, The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune

“It is the colour of a bleached skull, his flesh; and the long hair which flows below his shoulders is milk-white. From the tapering, beautiful head stare two slanting eyes, crimson and moody, and from the loose sleeves of his yellow gown emerge two slender hands, also the colour of bone, resting on each arm of a seat which has been carved from a single, massive ruby.” Michael Moorcock, Elric of Melnibone.

Arguably, both those passages represent the protagonist in trouble although there are no swords drawn or physical threats present, rather, the trouble they experience comes from a sickness of the soul. Action does not necessarily mean combat and narrative drive does not always imply the physical movement of the characters from point A to point B.

There are, of course, no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing. What may work for one writer and one particular story may not necessarily work for another. The hook and backfill technique applies to all of the stories mentioned here: using the opening of the story to hook the reader and then going on to explore their environment or predicament, it’s just not done in an obvious way.

And that, I feel, is the most difficult task facing a writer when he or she begins a new story – to avoid the obvious.

As a writer I have always found beginnings hard, middles difficult and endings damned near impossible. The preceding has been a little bit of writerly therapy for me which other writers may find of use (or totally disagree with, hey, I’m not setting myself up as an expert here). Thanks for indulging me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


The short story is in peril, or so we are told, and there are those who are confidently (and not without a certain amount of schadenfreude) predicting its imminent death.

At a casual glance, it’s easy to see why: magazines close every day (Realms of Fantasy, for instance, recently announced that it was to fold), the circulation figures for even the biggest genre magazines have dwindled to a shadow of their former selves, and the Big Publishing Houses rarely produce either single author collections or anthologies of new writing – even the prestigious Year’s Best anthologies are under threat these days.

Stephen King has described the short story as a dying art, although he is one of its last commercial viable exponents, and publishing trends veer more and more towards the doorstep novel or the trilogy form. Yes, things are in a bad way.

Or are they?

Although hardly an optimist by either nature or nurture I prefer to see the brighter side of things. Historically and culturally they often serve as very much an apprenticeship for those writers who go on to produce novels. In science fiction and fantasy they are very often the sounding boards for larger and more complex works, (Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep found its germ in The Little Black Box, for instance) or become an integral part of a ‘fix-up’ novel (such as Keith Roberts’ Pavane or Clifford Simak’s City).

Granted, there were and are those writers who find that the short story suits their style and temperament – James Tiptree Jr’s best work was, arguably, produced in the short field and similar case is true of Raymond Carver – and there are those writers who have produced a substantial body of work in the short form even when they have been principally known as novelists (Norman Spinrad, Thomas M. Disch, Michael Moorcock, to name but three)

Of course, Tiptree, Carver, Dick , Simak and a host of others were working at a time when magazine publication flourished, when experimentation was encouraged and there was a hunger for new product. Writers who chose the short form over the novel are working in a much different environment, yet at the same time there are literally hundreds if not thousands of new short stories being published every month on the internet. Quality varies, of course, but then again it always did. The e-zine or webzine, the natural electronic descendant of the fanzine or small press magazine, is in a healthy state as far as I can see, and there is a thriving community of writers, editors and illustrators who find their expression online.

What we have lost is, generally speaking, the professional printed market – those magazines who would pay high rates for short fiction – although they have been replaced with online markets who’s payscales often equal those of the printed media. What those critics who bemoan the state-of-the-art are really talking about is the death of the paying market, rather than the short story itself but then it has been very rare for any writer to make a living producing short stories.

It has, though, led to an evolution in the short story. The days of lengthy passages or large chunks of text have gone in favour of a punchier style more suited to reading online (imagine, if you will, trying to read One Hundred Years of Solitude online with its dense on-page appearance). Flash fiction is rapidly becoming a staple of online magazines – those stories of 1,000 words or less that take their tone from the very short fiction of Hemmingway, Richard Brautigan or Frederic Brown. Yet there is still a place online and in the world for the ‘traditional’ short story running anywhere from 1,000 – 10,000 words.

Similarly there are those small presses who continue to produce anthologies of new writing on good, old-fashioned honest-to-god paper, and print-on-demand books are rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Far from dead, the short story has simply found new avenues, the difficulty for the reader is to sort out the wheat from the chaff, but then again it was ever so.

Monday, February 23, 2009


My story The Glass Cage is currently up at the very fine webzine Aphelion. I’m particularly pleased about this one since it was the first story I completed when I made my return to writing after a somewhat lengthy hiatus.

To mythologize myself for a moment, it’s part of my Shining Cities sequence of stories which so far consists of about half a dozen stories set at the end of Earth’s life-cycle (my contribution to the whole Dying Earth sub-genre of SF and F) two of which have now seen the light of day (the other being What Dread Words which appeared in Sorcerous Signals last year) and a third ‘orphan’ story – The Bone House – is scheduled to appear in Beneath Ceaseless Skies later this year (I call it an orphan story since it is set in the same world as the Shining Cities stories but makes no direct reference to them).

Now, I know that it’s a little strange to write about a series of stories that are (mostly) still at the ‘sitting on my hard drive/ in my drawer/ nothing more than notes and half-finished stage’ but shameless self promotion is shameless self promotion.

The Glass Cage was the first completed story of the Shining Cities sequence before I even knew that it was going to be a sequence (if that makes any sense) and is a fairly straightforward sword and sorcery tale but is the story that sets the tone for the subsequent Shining Cities tales: bleak yet hopeful, action orientated yet (I hope) philosophical in their nature.

Fiction set at the end of the world or the end of time has always fascinated me since it offers endless possibilities for tone, style and narrative choices. Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories with their dulled glitter and hedonistic cruelty, Michael Moorcock’s Dancers At The End of Time with their playful tone and larger than life characters, the slow entropy of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium where audacious feats are not simply the preserve of the characters but of the author himself, turning the very notion of what the stories mean directly on its head, the wildly colourful world of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse and, of course, the jewelled prose of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth.

While I do not and never would compare myself to any of these writers it is because of them that I feel so at home at the end of the world (in a fictional sense). Added to that is a deep and abiding love and admiration for the work of Max Ernst who’s paintings, particularly Europe After The Rain and Silence, have always seemed to me to encapsulate the endless possibilities of The End.

Yes, I feel at home at the end of the world – so I may just stay there a little longer.

The Glass Cage: Aphelion

What Dread Words: Sorcerous Signals(

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Edited by Brian Aldiss and originally published in the early 1970’s (as The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus), this is the book that turned me into a lifelong fan of speculative fiction. Over the years I’ve owned, lent and lost numerous copies of this book and its reissue by Penguin as part of their Modern Classics imprint is like bumping into an old friend you haven’t seen for ages and finding out that you still have a lot in common.

Although, in this case, the old friend has updated his image somewhat, lost a few endearing character traits and gained a few new ones, which is a roundabout way of saying that the old 70’s edition has been given a quick facelift with some old favourites being dropped in favour of newer stories.

So while things like William Tenn’s brilliantly satirical ‘Eastward Ho’ or Howard Schoenfeld’s postmodern experiment ‘Build Up Logically’ are conspicuous by their absence, their replacements, particularly James Tiptree Jr's ‘And I Awoke and Found Me Here On the Cold Hill’s Side’ or John Crowley’s ‘Great Work of Time’ more than make up for their loss.

Although not a broad overview of science fiction as a literary genre, or indeed a who’s who of SF, ‘A Science Fiction Omnibus’ offers some of the finest speculative fiction written in the English language including such giants of the genre as Isaac Asimov (Nightfall & Jokester), Harry Harrison (An Alien Agony), Robert Sheckley (The Store of the Worlds) Clifford Simak (Skirmish), A.E Van Vogt (Fulfilment), Brian Aldiss himself ( Poor Little Warrior) as well as more modern writers such as Bruce Sterling (Swarm) Greg Bear (Blood Music) and Eliza Blair (Friends In Need).

The stories here range in time, space and theme as well as in their place in the science fiction canon (the earliest being Asimov’s Nightfall, first published in 1941 and the latest being Eliza Blair’s Friends in Need and Garry Kilworth’s Alien Embassy, both published in 2006) to provide as good an anthology as one could wish, showcasing the breadth and range of speculative fiction.

It has been said that, at its best, science fiction holds a mirror up to the world – capturing the hopes, fears and aspirations of the society in which it was produced – and many of the stories here do just that: Ward Moore’s ‘Lot’, for example, is a perfect snapshot of Cold War pragmatism (it is not so much a question of If The Bomb will fall as When it will fall) while Clifford Simak’s ‘Skirmish’, with its insidious invasion from both within and without, echoes the fear of ‘the other’ that pervaded much of Western society in the 1950’s (and for that matter still continues to).

Similarly, stories such as JG Ballard’s ‘Track 12’, Frederick Pohl’s ‘The Tunnel Under The World’ or Damon Knight’s ‘The Country of the Kind’ perfectly illustrate the edgy relationship that science fiction has always had with the march of technology – half celebratory, half cautionary – while others explore a more philosophical territory, asking those Big Questions that more mundane literature simply cannot dare to ask – Harry Harrison’s ‘An Alien Agony’ or, again, Knight’s ‘Country of the Kind’.

Ultimately, of course, all good science fiction is about humanity and each of the stories in this fine collection has at its heart a deeply human strain; there are no thinly veiled wagon trains here, no wish fulfillment stories or polemics that cry ‘humanity uber alles’ but rather a thoughtful and reasoned use of imagination that richly deserves to be called classic.

The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus was away too long – it’s good to see it back.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974) Directed by Brian Clemens. Starring Horst Janson, John Cater, Caroline Monroe, John Carson

By the early 1970's Hammer was something of a shadow of its former self, the glory days of The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy were far behind them. The company's efforts to bring their monsters up to date resulted in such films as Dracula AD1972 and 1974's Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, films that are not without a certain charm of their own but that pale in comparison with the earlier work of Terence Fisher or Freddie Francis.

It was a time when Hammer was desperate to create new markets for their films and increased the sex and titillation factor with such films as The Vampire Lovers, Twins of Evil and Lust for a Vampire (sometimes referred to as The Karnstein Trilogy). Into this rather uncertain world came a man who's cult status has continued to grow over the years despite his first and only cinematic outing being dubbed a commercial failure - Captain Kronos, vampire hunter.

Part horror film, part swashbuckler and with a generous dollop of spaghetti western immorality thrown in for good measure, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter is one of the most interesting and inventive films that Hammer produced in their twenty odd years of making horror.

The traditional - cinematic - notion of the vampire is thrown out in favour of an approach that takes the vampire back to its eastern European roots, so much so that one could almost imagine the noted occult scholar Montague Summers nodding sagely at each revelation. Here it is not blood but rather youth that the vampire steals. As Kronos' sidekick Professor Grost explains: "There are as many species of vampires as there are birds of prey."

With a wicked sense of fun and an eerie emptiness (explainable partly by its miniscule budget) Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter is utterly unlike any Hammer film that came before. Superficially, all the usual ingredients are present and correct - the MittleEuropa setting, the cast of fine British character actors, the graphic violence and the fairytale quality that insists that good must ultimately triumph over evil - but mixed together in an icily intelligent script by writer/director Brian Clemens that renders the whole thing much greater than the sum of its parts.

The vampire attacks where young women are aged into old crones in an instant, the lengthy and unpleasant scene where Kronos and Grost attempt to kill their former friend Dr Marcus after he has been 'turned', the mysterious blind girl who appears then disappears for no adequately explained reason, the Djangoesque swordfight in the tavern where Kronos teaches Ian Hendry's swaggering bully Kerro the meaning of the word katana and the final climactic battle between Kronos and the vampiric Lord Durward - Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter is an embarrassment of riches for any Hammer fan.

Horst Janson as Kronos is all Germanic charm and impossible good looks, John Cater as Professor Grost is worldly wise and sinister in a genteel way ('What he doesn't know about vampirism wouldn't fill a flea's codpiece') and Caroline Monroe smoulders as the gypsy girl Carla.

Captain Kronos is a treat from start to finish and somewhere in an alternative universe it was the film that saved Hammer. Well, a boy can dream, can't he?

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Curse Of Frankenstein

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Directed by Terence Fisher. Starring Peter Cushing. Christopher Lee. Hazel Court

There is an argument to be made (and Brian Aldiss made it better than I ever could) that Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel is the wellspring from which SF came – science challenging nature, man challenging the Creator and hubris clobbered by nemesis.

Although all these themes are present and correct in Hammer Film’s 1957 production, and while Jimmy Sangster’s lean and efficient script retains the basic premise of the novel, The Curse of Frankenstein is more in the tradition of Grand Guignol than of deep philosophy on the nature of creation.

Here Peter Cushing plays the eponymous Baron with an icy and at times downright chilling charm: a man prepared not only to rob graves to provide the raw material for his experiments but more than willing to stoop to murder to provide the perfect brain for his creation. And what a creation it is. Although Christopher Lee’s Creature doesn’t make and appearance until nearly half way through the film the first sight of him – corpse white with a hideously scarred face – still has a resonant power over fifty years later.
Unlike Karloff’s incarnation, Lee’s creature is a brutish puppet - the product of crude surgery rather than the European Expressionism of James Whale’s 1931 version of the story – and yet his near silent performance still manages to create a real sense of pathos.

Directed in rich Eastmancolor by Terence Fisher (one of the great unsung directors of British cinema) The Curse of Frankenstein has aged remarkably well – Fisher’s camera dwells unflinchingly on what are (for the time) remarkably shocking and graphic images and Cushing’s central performance raised the bar for all subsequent incarnations of the Baron, causually wiping blood on his lapels or showing off a pair of recently acquired severed hands with all the glee of an insane butterfly collector.

A landmark of British cinema, The Curse of Frankenstein established Hammer as an international force to be reckoned with and proved remarkably influential, with directors as diverse as Mario Bava, Roger Corman and, more recently, Tim Burton, all creating films that all have that distinctive Hammer look and feel.
Hammer would go on to produce many horror films over the next twenty years or so until their decline and eventual extinction in the 1970’s, but The Curse of Frankenstein remains one of their finest achievements – a triumph of both style and substance.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Some said he was the stolen son of a western king, raised by nomads in the desert. A freelance swordsman, a sorcerer, a master of disguise, some said he attracted bizarre, uncanny events as some persons attract misfortune.He with hair like the sky of earnest sunrise, his fair complexion, his whiplash reactions and quicksilver elegance was like a being from another world. A legend. A myth.”

This might sound strange, but sometimes I like to read just for fun. There’s nothing quite like losing yourself in a good book – or for that matter even a bad one when the mood takes you – and not everything in the world needs to inform, educate and entertain. Sometimes entertainment is enough.

And Tanith Lee’s stories of the mysterious swordsman Cyrion are as entertaining as they come. Now, this is not to say that the stories are superficial or one-dimensional or even – heaven forbid – lightweight in any way, but rather that they obey those laws of fiction that insist first and foremost on the reader, rather than the writer, having a good time.

Angelically handsome, devilishly clever and with a past shrouded in mystery, Cyrion could be likened to a quasi-medieval James Bond or, perhaps more accurately, like a medieval cross between James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. Never stuck for a solution to a problem, no matter how thorny or potentially fatal, always more willing to fight with his wits than his sword (although a deadly swordsman for all that) Cyrion bestrides a world modelled on the Middle East in a time roughly parallel to the crusades. A supercharged version of the Arabian Nights, if you will.

It is a time of magic and danger, when the veil between the natural and the supernatural is gossamer-thin and ghosts, monsters and sorcery stalk the land. Cyrion takes it all in his cool, handsome stride – from the demonic vampires of A Hero At The Gates to the black necromancy of Cyrion in Wax and Cyrion in Bronze or the vengeful ghosts of One Night of the Year there is no threat he cannot meet and no enemy he cannot conquer. And he’s a real hit with the ladies, too.

Of course, this makes the stories sound flippant, which they most certainly are not, and at times there is a real sense of menace in the tales – time and time again Cyrion finds himself in impossible situations and part of the pleasure of reading these stories is exactly how he extricates himself from or solves these problems.

Best read in short sittings rather than at the gallop, these tales of high-fantasy make a refreshing change from the Euro-centric/ cod Norse/ Conan simulacrum dominance of much commercial fantasy and in many ways Tanith Lee pre-empted the current trend towards newer, more exotic settings in fantasy fiction (the collected edition of the stories came out in the early eighties).

But most of all, the Cyrion stories are great entertainment and that can be rare enough these days.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


This slim volume by the Scottish author Alasdair Gray manages to pack more wit and invention into its scant pages than most other writers can manage in a whole, hulking novel. And that is quite an achievement.

Reminiscent of Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Kafka at his most mordant, Dunsany at his most playful, or Ernest Bramah at his most esoteric, Five Letters From An Eastern Empire manages to evoke all of these fine writers and yet still create a world that remains uniquely the territory of Alasdair Grey.

Originally published as part of the collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly and then separately as part of the Penguin 60’s editions a few years ago, Five Letters From An Eastern Empire (Describing etiquette, government, irrigation, education, clogs, kites, rumour, poetry, justice, massage, town-planning, sex and ventriloquism in an obsolete nation) comprises of a series of letters from the poet Bohu concerning his journey to and arrival in the capital and his task – one which he has been raised from birth to accomplish – of writing a poem exalting the Emperor.

However, when Bohu discovers that the Emperor is, literally, nothing more than a puppet and that his regime is a cruel and corrupt one, the task seems utterly impossible. How the poet writes his poem and the effects of the finished piece form the narrative of the story, but a narrative that is secondary to the wonderfully twisted world in which he lives, a world that is by turns hilarious and terrifying – although it depends on your point of view which aspects are which.

Describing in minute detail the farcical etiquette, customs and clothing of this strange empire – redolent of the ancient dynasties of China or Persia – Five Letters From An Eastern Empire drags the reader bodily into the story, immersing him in a world utterly unlike his own and yet tantalisingly familiar.

With everything except the denouement seen through Bohu’s eyes, the story moves inexorably towards a chilling – but once again strangely hilarious – climax.

At just fifty short pages, Five Letters From An Eastern Empire is readable in less than an hour, but it is an hour that will haunt you and bring you back to the East again and again and again.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Iron Dream

There was a time when experimentation was not only actively encouraged in SF but almost a stipulation. One of the most important writers of the American New Wave, Norman Spinrad was, along with such authors as Harlan Ellison, Thomas M. Disch and Philip K. Dick, one of the writers who delivered a near-fatal body blow to the lumbering beast that had become genre science fiction (the beast recovered, unfortunately… but that's another story).

His bravura 1972 novel The Iron Dream is almost a textbook example of how the New Wave shook up speculative writing in the 1960's and early '70's. Mixing together alternate world SF, sword and sorcery and savage political satire, The Iron Dream is as much a comment on the nature of science fiction and fantasy as it is on the politics of the extreme.

Broadly speaking it is the story of Feric Jaggar – superhuman of intellect, body and spirit – a man destined to unite humanity and lead them to ultimate victory against the hordes of mutants who populate the earth centuries after a devastating nuclear war. Only he is capable of wielding the Great Truncheon of Held, a mystical weapon fit for a hero, and only he has the will to triumph over the loathsome Dominators of Zind and bring mankind into a new and glorious age that will last a thousand years.

Put in such bald terms, The Iron Dream is almost indistinguishable from a slew of other wish-fulfillment fantasies where good triumphs over evil through strength of arms and intent. The difference here is that The Iron Dream is merely an overmantle for the novel that lies within – a long neglected Hugo Award winning classic called The Lord of the Swastika written by an expatriate German author and artist named Adolf Hitler.

In the world that Spinrad presents here – or more accurately the world that he hints at in the afterword by 'Homer Whipple' (itself a hilariously accurate parody of academic criticism) – Hitler emigrated to the US in the 1920's, forged himself a career as a pulp SF writer and died in the early 50's with his final work honoured posthumously. With this central conceit in place, Spinrad is free to ride roughshod over some of the more cherished tropes of pulp fantasy to create a satire that not only delivers a tremendous broadside at the extreme political right but also those SF novels were alien races exists simply as fodder for the blaster and/or broadsword of the hero.

In a sense the whole book is one long bitter joke, set up with a list of Hitler's previous novels (Tomorrow The World, The Thousand Year Rule), spun out with The Lord of The Swastika itself and finished with beautifully delivered punchline in Whipple's afterword which dissects not only the failings of The Lord of the Swastika and Hitler as a writer, but also paints a picture of SF fandom that is somewhat less than flattering, whereby the various fetishistic uniforms and insignia lovingly described in Hitler's novel (black leather SS uniforms, abundant swastikas and lighting flashes) find their place in the 'real world' where America is the last bastion of democracy in a world almost totally dominated by the Greater USSR.

As a novel The Iron Dream is not without its failings – with so many targets to aim at Spinrad inevitably cannot hit them all squarely – its accurate recreation of the 'penny a word' style of certain pulp writers can be a little difficult to read and the mindset into which both author and reader must willingly place themselves in order to fully understand the satirical nature of the novel sometimes leaves a bitter aftertaste in the cortex. Nevertheless, The Iron Dream is an imaginative triumph and - unlike Adolf Hitler's alternate universe potboiler, The Lord of the Swastika - is itself a genuinely neglected classic.
They don't write them like this anymore. And that is a shame.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Boy In Darkness

Mervyn Peake was one of the finest English writers of the post-war period. Best known for his monumental Gormenghast novels - Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone - set in the sprawling, decaying and decadent Gormenghast castle with its ensconced rituals and mammoth cast of Dickensian grotesques.

Partly satirical, partly horrific, part social-commentary and part comic nightmare, the Gormenghast novels follow the birth, maturity and eventual flight of the castle’s young earl, Titus Groan, as well as the rise and fall of the villainous Steerpike in his attempts to dominate both Gormenghast and its inhabitants.

Less overtly fantastical than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings - and like Tolkien’s masterwork often wrongly described as a trilogy - the Gormenghast novels are arguably more influential in terms of their impact upon the literary development of science fiction and fantasy. Peake’s creation is less easy to imitate than Tolkien's – there are no elves and dwarves here, no magic and no epic struggles that pit good against evil. Rooted in his experiences as a young man in China and in his later experiences in Europe during the Second World War, Peake’s world is a grim and complex one that is more ambiguous than heroic.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in his novella Boy In Darkness. First published in 1956, as part of the collection Sometime, Never, Boy In Darkness is probably best regarded as an addendum to the Gormenghast cycle, one of the tales that happen on the sidelines while the rest of the epic story unfolds.

On the day of his fourteenth birthday, the young earl of the castle – only referred to as The Boy for the majority of the narrative but early on identified as Titus - indulges himself in ‘one tremendous day of insurrection’ opting to leave behind the nonsensical and arcane rituals that govern both the day and his whole life and to explore the vast castle as an explorer might.

Finding himself in a strange and decaying landscape – stranger, even than the castle itself – he falls prey to the sinister Goat and Hyena, warped henchmen of a creature known as the Lamb. Camp and malicious at the same time, the Goat and Hyena provide a singular anchor for both the Boy and the reader, with their echoes of H.G Wells’ grotesque man-animals in The Island of Dr Moreau. Their bickering and violence conversely provide a sort of light relief in what is a dark and joyless world and their comical yet horrific appearance is in stark counterpoint to the Lamb who’s sinister intentions become focused upon the helpless Boy.

The Lamb himself is one of Peake’s strangest and most terrifying creations. His exact nature is never revealed and it is left to the reader’s judgement and imagination to concoct an explanation. Warped geneticist? Evil sorcerer? Product of the Id made flesh? Whatever the Lamb is, he is truly demonic..

Frequently described as a nightmare narrative and often compared to the work of such writers as Kafka and Poe, Boy in Darkness is a masterpiece of atmospheric horror. To say that it proceeds with the logic of the nightmare is to both capture its essence and do the story a massive injustice. Peake was far too controlled a writer to allow the lapses of logic and contrived leaps that the true nightmare brings and there are no such lapses or leaps here, rather the story unfolds in such a way as to make the grotesque seem commonplace and the fantastic appear utterly normal.

A haunting and compelling story from a writer who was unafraid to plumb the darkest depths of the human psyche.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


“On Zothique, the last continent on Earth, the sun no longer shone with the whiteness of its prime, but was dim and tarnished as if with a vapor of blood. New stars without number had declared themselves in the heavens, and the shadows of the infinite had fallen closer. And out of the shadows, the older gods had returned to man: the gods forgotten since Hyperborea, since Mu and Poseidonis, bearing other names but the same attributes. And the elder demons had also returned, battening on the fumes of evil sacrifice, and fostering again the primordial sorceries.”

Together with Robert E. Howard and H.P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was one of the writers who helped to put the ‘weird’ into Weird Tales in the 1930’s. But while Lovecraft and Howard have achieved posthumous fame and critical acclaim, with reissues of their works reaching bookshelves on a regular basis, Clark Ashton Smith remains, to a large extent, the forgotten man of weird fiction.

In some ways, it’s not difficult to see why. His writing is dense and baroque, filled with difficult and obscure words, a style that was challenging even then but more challenging for a modern audience. But it is that very challenge that makes reading the work of Clark Ashton Smith so rewarding. At his best his imagery rivals, and often outdoes, the cosmic horrors of Lovecraft and his tales of swordsmen battling dark forces are as blood-soaked as anything that Howard created.

The combination of naked steel versus the bleak unknown reaches its finest expression in the stories that Smith wrote about Zothique, the last continent. Set in the distant future when the earth itself has reached the end of its life and the sun is ‘a monstrous ember in a charred heaven’ and humanity is ‘a dying race, grown hopeless of all but oblivion’, the Zothique cycle represent Smith’s largest collection of stories. Their influence can be felt throughout the evolution of science fiction and fantasy: in Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, in M. John Harrison’s Viriconium sequence and in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (and in my own Shining Cities tales – but that’s another ramble for another day).

Like the milieu in which they are set, the tales of Zothique are grim and dark, characters rarely survive unscathed and, more often than not, are utterly transformed or destroyed by the dark forces they encounter. More than this, even the antagonists of the stories – long dead sorcerers, ancient alien gods, torturer-kings and ambitious necromancers – rarely reap any reward other than their own destruction. In Zothique nothing is certain except extinction itself.

In the utterly horrific story The Dark Eidolon, for example, a thirst for revenge brings about the destruction of a decadent king, his kingdom and the sorcerer who seeks a dark and terrible justice for a long-forgotten wrong. Similarly, The Empire of the Necromancers sees a lust for power bring about an empire of the reanimated dead who turn upon their creators, while The Isle of the Torturers, surely one of Smith’s most fascinatingly cruel stories, sees a combination of magic and plague lay waste to a kingdom where gleeful sadism is the order of the day. But now and again, Smith allows a small flicker of hope – however dark and twisted – to shine through, as in the reunion of the undead lovers Yadar and Dalili at the conclusion of Necromancy in Naat or the climax of The Charnel God which, nonetheless, sees a glimmer of hope for its two young protagonists.

More pessimistic than Howard, more graphic than Lovecraft and unburdened by either a central protagonist such as Conan or a readily identifiable mythology such as Cthulhu mythos, the Zothique stories allowed Smith’s considerable imagination to rove through eldritch places that Howard or Lovecraft rarely reached.

Unique then, unique now, Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories are a heady wine to be savoured in small but utterly satisfying sips and remain one of the finest achievements of fantastic fiction.
For more on Clark Ashton Smith check out The Eldritch Dark, a wonderful site on the man, his life and works:

Monday, February 2, 2009


"Obeying an inalienable law, things grew, growing riotous and strange in their impulse for growth".

The earth has ceased to turn. Animal life has all but vanished and plants reign triumphant under the constant red glow of a dying sun. Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth) is Brian Aldiss' nightmare vision of the last days of planet earth, where mankind has devolved into greenskinned tree dwellers preyed upon by the many and myriad vegetable predators who dominate the vast banyan tree that covers the daylight side of the world.

Hothouse belongs to that sub genre of science fiction first glimpsed towards the end of H.G Wells' The Time Machine and later given its most common name by Jack Vance in The Dying Earth. But, unlike Vance whose final days are a colourful playground for his characters and imagination, or M. John Harrison's Viriconium sequence with its slow entropy and yearning or even Michael Moorcock's End Of Time novels with their warped projections of the past and infinite possibilities, Aldiss offers little by the way of hope for his characters. Savages at best and mutated throwbacks at worst, the human characters of Hothouse have little time for playfulness or introspection since the only games they can possibly play or the only thoughts they can possibly have are geared towards simple survival. The characters in Hothouse do not stumble over the lost wisdom or cities of mankind nor do they discover the means and methods of overcoming the dangers of their world, for them, ultimately, survival is both a means and an end in itself.

Cast out from his tribe and thence from the banyan tree itself, Hothouse follows the fortunes of Gren and his mate Poyly as they travel through the doomed world. Essentially a travelogue or an odyssey in its structure, the novel is a distant cousin of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels in that the characters become our eyes and ears as we travel with them, and like Swift's savage satire the characters are secondary to the sights, sounds and dangers of the world (in much the same way as they themselves are secondary - at best - to the other creatures around them).

This is not to say, however that Aldiss neglects his human protagonists or reduces them to ciphers, merely that Gren and Poyly and later, following Poyly's abrupt demise, his new mate Yattmur, are reduced in stature both physically and in narrative terms to the status of tiny figures in a much larger landscape.

First published in 1962, Hothouse shares an ecological theme with several novels of the same period – notably John Christopher's The Death of Grass, J.G Ballard's The Drought, Moorcock's The Ice Schooner and Charles Platt's The Garbage World – what separates it from these equally fine novels, however, is Aldiss' baroque imagination and ability to wring humour from even the most ghastly of situations: Gren's symbiotic/ parasitic relationship with the fungal Morel, for instance, where we, rather than Gren himself, realise the Morel's essential naivety and stupidity, the grotesquely funny Tummy Belly men who unwillingly accompany Gren, Polyl and Yattmur, or Aldiss' sheer delight in the use of language and the names he gives to his vegetable creations – crawlpaws, whistlethistles, wiltmilts, oystermaws, burnurns and many more.

Winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, Hothouse is, arguably, Brian Aldiss' finest novel, horrific, playful, inventive, florid, stark and unforgettable.

A new edition published by Penguin Modern Classics is currently available.

A Little Bit Of Shameless Self Promotion

A list of my publications both current and upcoming

Skin-Tight: Emerald Eye, The Best Irish Imaginative Fiction (
Yesterday Today Tomorrow: A Fable: Everyday Fiction (
The Song The Soldiers Sang: A Fable: Everyday Fiction
The Substance of A Dream: Mirror Dance
The Fearsome Knight and the Little Dragon: A Fairytale: Mirror Dance
The Season Without Sun: Aphelion
What Dread Words: Sorcerous Signals
Deepest Black: Jupiter SF
The Iron Morning In The Metallic Sunrise: The Nautilus Engine
The Glass Cage: Aphelion

Coming Soon
The Children of Badb Catha: The Phantom Queen Awakes, Morrigan Books
The Bone House: Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Of Swordsmen and Sorcery

I began writing again about two and a half years ago, having suffered a prolonged period of writer’s block that lasted the best part of a decade.

Learning to write again is, I discovered, a little like learning to use a limb that’s been out of action for a while (I broke my elbow a few years ago so the analogy is, for me, a pretty sound one). You remember how you used to do things and how they should be done but since it’s been a while and the muscles may have atrophied a little, it takes time for the process to become as natural as it once had been (that is, if you regard writing as a natural process to begin with).

I’ve always been a fabulist, my favourite literature from JG Ballard to Philip K. Dick, Norman Spinrad, Michael Moorcock and any one of a dozen other writers I could name has always been slanted towards the fantastic.

But here’s the thing. I used to write science fiction and horror but since rediscovering my passion for writing my current output has headed more and more towards the fantasy side of things, very specifically towards that branch of speculative literature that could roughly be called Sword and Sorcery: wizards, swordsmen, feats of derring-do, monsters and places with exotic sounding names.

And for the life of me, I’m not entirely sure where the turn around came from. I was, and remain, under the spell of JG Ballard, who is one of the finest writers ever to emerge from England, and of Philip K. Dick, who made me understand that a strong humanist or philosophical element is not simply necessary but almost obligatory in good SF.

Yet the dozen or so stories that I’ve had accepted in the last year have generally been fantasy rather than science fiction: now fair enough a couple of them are Dying Earth style fantasies written under the influence of Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance and M. John Harrison, and a few are allegorical fables or fairytales but the fact of the matter remains that I have shifted almost lock, stock and barrel from one branch of speculative writing into another.

Maybe that’s what cured my writer’s block or maybe its to do with the fact that a lot of what I had been reading during that unproductive decade had been from writers like the late, lamented David Gemmell, the equally late and lamented Karl Edward Wagner or the mercurial genius that is Michael Moorcock (in particular the Elric, Corum and Hawkmoon novels).

One of the things that I have discovered, both through writing and, perhaps more importantly, reading extensively in the genre is that what I had once believed to be a narrow field of focus turns out to be one of the most wonderful playgrounds that a writer could hope for.

By standing up and declaring rather proudly that ‘I write fantasy’ I’ve found that anything is possible, that the worlds which open up (even if I steadfastly continue to set the majority of my stories on earth or a recognisable simulacrum thereof) have begun to excite me about writing again. And for that I am profoundly thankful.

Of course it does make a slight nonsense of calling this blog Tales From the Computerbank but I like the title so it’s gonna stay.