Wednesday, 12 December 2018

(Part # 1)

Unlike ‘films watched’ (or ‘records purchased’), I’ve never got into the habit of keeping a list of the books I read. Instead, I just tend to pick one that takes my fancy off the pile, read it, stick it in a vaguely sensible place on the shelves (eg, wherever I can make it fit, effectively), and move on to the next one. It’s all pleasantly chaotic.

As such, the following reflections on some books I read during 2018 are borne not from consulting a pre-existing list, or referring to notes or whatever, but simply from the reading experiences that stick most strongly in my memory from roughly this side of January ’18 onwards -- which is perhaps as good a test of worth as any.

In keeping with this approach, they are presented in no order whatsoever.

Fast One by Paul Cain
(No Exit paperback, 1989 / 
originally published 1932)

I’m pretty sure I bought this at the tourist book exchange in Faro, Portugal in 2015.

Somebody’s always got to push things too far, and in terms of the early history of hard-boiled crime fiction, that somebody was Paul Cain (a pseudonym of occasional screenwriter George Carroll Sims, who collaborated with Edgar Ulmer on the script to ‘The Blak Cat’, no less), a man whose entire literary output consists of a fistful of stories and a single serialised novel which appeared in ‘Black Mask’ magazine between 1931 and 1936.

That novel – aptly titled ‘Fast One’ - was put back between paper covers by UK imprint No Exit Press in the late 1980s, and it is nuts.

Though he was writing just a few short years after Dashiell Hammett first defined the parameters of the ‘hard-boiled’ style with ‘Red Harvest’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’, Cain already seems to have been determined here to drive it to the furthest extremes of self-parody, a thousand miles distant from the comparatively elegant, well-mannered prose of Hammett and Chandler, delivering a yarn that still probably stands as one of the most relentlessly violent, amphetamine-damaged and generally demented stories in the history of the genre.

The carnage begins when Gerry Kells, a former mob triggerman now attempting to enjoy a comparatively relaxed life as a professional gambler, finds himself framed for murder by an LA gangland associate, inspiring him to instigate a revenge scheme that gradually escalates into a full-scale, death-or-glory assault upon the entire infrastructure of the West Coast underworld, all seemingly taking place over the course of a single, blood-and-whisky soaked forty-eight hour rampage.

Gradually pulling together an unlikely assortment of allies – a hard-drinking, dipsomaniac blonde known only as S. Granquist, a taciturn heavy named Borg, an eager young newspaperman – Kells leaves a trail of corpses, flaming gambling boats and bullet-riddled hotel rooms in his wake, acquiring an ever-expanding portfolio of cash, guns, incriminating evidence and debilitating injuries as he goes, all the while emptying whisky bottles at a speed that would make Oliver Reed wince.

Cain’s writing evokes the kind of pitch black, sadistic absurdism that Jim Thompson would later make his trademark, and as events progress, becoming ever more disorientating, it becomes increasingly clear that Kells and his gang of misfits are basically on a collective death-trip – pushing their luck about as far as they possibly can before the asphalt finally comes up to meet them. The scene towards the end in which they sit in an incongruously quiet diner on the outskirts of town, enjoying a hearty cooked breakfast as they shake with exhaustion and nurse their wounds, knowing that just about everyone outside the door wants them dead, is just beautiful.

Knowing Raymond Chandler, he was probably holding his nose when he described this book as “…some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner”, but for those of us who’d take that as a recommendation, he sure wasn’t kidding.

(For some fascinating insight into Cain/Sims’ life and work, check out this article by Boris Dralyuk in the Los Angeles Review of Books.)

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
(Pocket Books paperback, 1993)

I found this on bookshelf at DIY Space For London - £3 paid at the bar as requested; the volunteers seemed confused. As did my scanner when I tried to feed this archetypical shiny-lettered '80s/'90s horror cover into it last night - apologies for the dodgy image quality.

 I’ve always enjoyed Kim Newman’s work as a movie buff and all-purpose cultural critic -indeed, between encountering his co-authored pulp SF compendium ‘Ghastly Beyond Belief’ at an early age and subsequently devouring his horror movie overview ‘Nightmare Movies’ shortly before I first launched this blog, it could be said that he played a pretty significant role in launching me upon my current path to perdition, whilst his frequent contributions to DVD extras, documentaries and so forth are always a delight, never failing to push me a step or two further down the aforementioned path. (And, as he must no doubt be fed up of people telling him, he always seems like a lovely bloke whilst he’s at it, so that’s nice.)

So, as such, I thought it was probably about time I gave his fiction a go and, to coin a phrase, I’m very glad I did. ‘Anno Dracula’ is exceptional – in fact it is one of the most engrossing and entertaining pieces of popular fiction I’ve read in years, building up such a head of steam in its best moments that it transcends such boundaries altogether, becoming simply great writing, with no genre caveats required.

Somewhat more serious in tone than I had been anticipating, the book is bit of a tour de force to put it mildly, taking the form of an epic, fact-and-fiction melding alternative history, using the narrative of Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ as its initial launch-pad. The key point of differentiation here though is that, when Van Helsing and his followers first confront Dracula with their crucifixes and holy water in Mina’s bedroom, the arch-fiend laughs in their faces and sends them packing, leaving them fleeing for their lives into the woods surrounding Carfax Abbey, never to darken his undead door again.

A year or two thereafter, and Dracula is comfortably ensconced in Buckingham Palace as the Prince-Consort to Queen Victoria (which isn’t that much of a stretch, when you consider his aristocratic bloodline, his mesmeric powers and the possible reasoning behind his decision to relocate to England), and vampirism has become an accepted part of day-to-day (well, night-to-night) life, sweeping through the monied classes as an exciting new lifestyle trend, and causing predictable carnage lower down the social scale; a problem only exacerbated by a widespread resurgence of medieval barbarism spear-headed by the arrival in the city of Dracula’s hand-picked Carpathian Guard.

Van Helsing’s mouldering skull sits on a spike at Traitor’s Gate, whilst in the East End, Dr Seward, maddened by the loss of his beloved Lucy, takes his scalpel in hand and begins trying to curb the spread of the ‘curse’ by culling the ever-growing number of vampire prostitutes, gaining a nickname you can probably guess in the process. Less predictably however, his crimes also attract the attention of Mycroft Holmes and his fellows in the shadowy Diogenes Club, who dispatch one of their best agents to try to track down the killer…

Of course, vintage pulp fiction character mash-ups like this are ten-a-penny these days in the wake of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but back in 1992 I suspect that Newman was one of the first to really take this idea and run with it… and for my money he remains the best, on the basis of his achievements here at least.

As you might reasonably expect given the encyclopaedic knowledge of popular and literary culture Newman often displays in his work as a critic, the references he manages to sew into the fabric of ‘Anno Dracula’ are densely-packed and wide-ranging, running the gamut from 19th Century British politicians and socialites to Mario Bava movies,‘70s American TV, shady European folklore and beyond. But, crucially, ticking off the references never becomes the point of the exercise, and rarely distracts from the central thrust of the story.

If you happen to know that Lord Ruthven began life as the protagonist of Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ in 1816, well, good for you, but if you don’t, never mind – he exists here as a lively and well-drawn character in his own right, playing the unlikely role of Britain’s louche vampire prime minister. Indeed, it is a testament to Newman’s unique knack for blending his own inventions with those of his predecessors that, on a number of occasions whilst reading ‘Anno Dracula’, I found myself searching the web trying to pin down the origin of a particular character that I was SURE I recognised from somewhere, only to discover that they were Newman originals.

The extent of Newman’s world-building prowess here is little short of awe-inspiring; his take on vampirism and its attendant transformations is convincingly realised, and his prose is fiery, emotive and gripping. As a horror novel, ‘Anno Dracula’ is as blood-thirsty and atmospheric as a fan could wish for, and as an (alternate) historical epic, a Victorian-era conspiracy thriller and an open-ended meditation on the theme of vampirism (both literal and metaphorical) through history, it does the business just as effectively.

Somehow, this book succeeded in completely fusing my grown up, critical faculties. It took me right back to the feeling I used to get reading novels as a teenager, completely enthralled in whatever outrageous saga I was ploughing my way through; experiencing their now-familiar narrative twists and turns and hair-raising climaxes for the very first time, finding them fresh and new and exhilarating.

Naturally, I’m look forward to getting stuck into Newman’s many sequels to ‘Anno Dracula’, and, though I naturally fear diminishing returns, I can for now at least confidently recommend this first instalment to anyone who enjoys the kind of stuff I write about here. It’s quite a read.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
(Mellifont Classics hardback w/ dust jacket, 1940s(?) /
originally published 1847)

I bought this proto-paperback, mass market ‘pasteboard hardback’ type effort from a small shop cunningly concealed down an alleyway in Hay On Wye last year. The owner was a very friendly chap, and we chatted for a while about Lionel Fanthrope and British pulp fiction and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, he said he was closing down the shop in a few days because he couldn’t keep up the running costs. I’m sad that I won’t be able to visit his shop again, but I wish him all the best.

It occurred to me a while back that I had never actually read this beloved cornerstone of the English novel. (Sadly, the English Lit ‘classic novel’ options I was subjected to in school skipped over it in favour of wall-to-wall Jane Austen.)

So, two decades down the line, I decided it was probably about time to rectify this oversight, and am happy to report that the second best Brontë sisters joint (because no one fucks with ‘Wuthering Heights’) still holds up as a cracking read nearly two hundred years since its initial publication.

I mean, well -- I suppose I had been expecting a lot of hand-wringing interior monologues and wistful descriptions of the changing seasons and so forth, y’knowwhatImean? But instead I was delighted to discover that ‘Jane Eyre’ is basically written like a thriller. Which is to say, the chapters are short, and each one of them contains some important new narrative information, conveyed in an exciting and intriguing manner.

I hope that the above observation doesn’t make me sound like too much of an idiot. I mean, I’ve certainly read plenty of 19th century fiction over the years, but, whereas the era’s prose is normally something I need to make an effort to persevere with to a greater or lesser extent, I instead found myself banging through this one as if it were a Elmore Leonard book or something.

As far as the story itself goes, it is difficult to find much to say about a narrative whose assorted episodes have each become such indelible cultural touchstones -- something that is perhaps more evident to me for coming to the book so late in life.

The early Lowood school stuff. is the archetypical “boarding school hell” narrative, cribbed time and time again by subsequent iterations of the perennial “girls school” genre and what we’d now no doubt call Young Adult novels, whilst the subsequent stuff at Mr Rochester’s pad – though far from the first gothic mystery, of course – is nonetheless clearly the definitive “dark, handsome stranger with an unspeakable family secret” yarn, exerting an overbearing influence not only upon later gothic writers, but upon successive generations of horror screenwriters too.

Certainly, there are scenes of initially mystifying horror-ish surrealism here that could fit straight into a ‘60s Bava or Freda movie, and – uh, 170 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT? – how many bloody “mad relative in the attic” stories has each of us sat through over the years? It all begins here folks, and I’d contest that Brontë handles this aspect of things better than any of her successors in this particular, highly specialised idiom.

It helps of course that the sheer vividness of Brontë’s blunt, almost naively emotive, prose helps to push things over the line from the specific to the archetypical oh so easily.

There is a kind of quasi-fantastical, ‘children’s book illustration’ quality to many of the story’s images (loved all the stuff with Jane hunkering beneath the big road sign in the middle of nowhere and subsequently suffering such terrible, penniless deprivations after she flees from Rochester’s improper love), and the novel’s recurring pattern of collapse and redemption feels childlike in the best possible way; kind of melodramatic, but seemingly without awareness of the cynical audience manipulations required of true melodrama..?

By repeatedly taking the reader through this “everything’s terrible!”, “everything’s ok!” spin cycle, Brontë revels in the simple pleasures of letting our emotions run loose and then reeling them back in with a nice feeling of relief, yet it feels as if she’s doing so more for her own enjoyment than to impress a potential audience.

Admittedly, all the stuff in the closing third where Jane’s knocking about with that sanctimonious priest bloke and suddenly discovers she’s massively wealthy and has a bunch of lovely, friendly cousins whom she just happened to run into one winter’s night etc etc is a bit of a drag, but by that point the book has built up such a reserve of good will that we can see it through – and anyway, we know old Mr R is going to be striding manfully over the hill to take her in his sinful arms any minute, so it’s all good.

Actually, it just occurred to me that perhaps one of the fact I found ‘Jane Eyre’ such a pacey read might have something to do with the fact that the dust jacket blurb on this Mellifont Classics edition quietly states that the text has been “delicately edited”; I’ll have to get back to you on how “delicately”, but to be honest I fear the worst.

Never mind though, I think I get the gist well enough to bullshit people re: my ardent appreciation of this great work (see above), and hey, isn’t it pretty…?

Ambient by Jack Womack
(Unwin paperback, 1989)

No idea where I bought this – I think it’s probably been on the ‘unread’ pile for the better part of a decade. Cover illustration by Peter Andrew Jones.

I read a number of Jack Womack’s books back in my teens and early twenties, and even at that point had him down as being one of the best pulp sci-fi authors of his era – that unfortunately being an era that didn’t offer a great deal of leeway for pulp sci-fi authors to do their own thing, lurking conspicuously in the garish gutter separating the ‘proper’, critically acclaimed SF from the routine space operas.

Essentially working in the tradition of writers like Dick and Spinrad, Womack used (and possibly still does use – I’m not sure what he’s up to these days) hard-boiled, comic book style prose to explore loudly subversive ideas about corporate and political responsibility, the inherent violence of post-industrial society and assorted forms of alternate reality-hopping metaphysical hoo-hah, all whilst keeping his foot down sufficiently hard on the exploitation pedal that no one was ever going to mistake his nasty little weirdo thrillers for anything “literary”.

Books such as ‘Random Acts of Senseless Violence’ (a sort of “Diary of Anne Frank” for a dystopian, near-future New York) and ‘Let’s Put The Future Behind Us’ (which predicts an organised crime takeover of post-Communist Russia, would you believe) greatly impressed me as a youngster, so, for no particular reason, I thought I’d go back to Womack’s first published novel to see how his work stands up to my slightly more, uh, ‘mature’ sensibilities.

Pretty well, as it turns out. Though I may have some reservations about how well ‘Ambient’ holds together as first novel, it’s difficult to deny that it packs a punch. Essentially painting a hysterically exaggerated picture of the damage that that excesses of unchecked free market capitalism have wrought upon an early 21st century world (fancy that), Womack welcomes us to a vision of New York in which corporate CEOs roar through Manhattan in heavily-armoured, battle-ready limousines, thoughtlessly blasting and crushing any poor unfortunates who get in their way on suspicion of wink-nod ‘criminal intent’ whilst the ‘pay-cops’ keep their distance, preferring to occupy their time with random beatings and gang rape.

In the boardroom, corporate takeovers are carried out by means of a Rollerball-is-for-pussies style blood-sport in which near-naked female gladiators vie for dominance with spiked steel baseball bats and super-powered tasers, taking the heads of terrified enemy accountants as trophies. Back on their fortified New England estates meanwhile, the High & Mighty indulge in unspeakable, Caligula-style outrages against human decency whilst plotting and scheming amongst themselves as per the usual tradition of such things, but with a lot more explosions.

As you will have gathered, ‘Ambient’ ain’t exactly subtle. By the half-way point, I was hoping the inevitable barbarians-at-the-gate would turn up just for the sake of light relief.

The book’s title refers to the tribe of telepathic, physically deformed young mutants who form a growing subculture beneath the surface of this terrible world (characterised by their punkoid fashion sense and celebration of non-hetero sexual identities, curiously enough), but nonetheless it feels deeply ironic, given that, in the colloquial sense of the word at least, this is about the least “ambient” book imaginable.

Indeed, it is a relentlessly assaultive, near-headache inducing reading experience, defined throughout by an ultra-cynical, inhuman cruelty and obsessive wallowing in fetishistic sex and violence, often giving the impression that the author’s presumably satirical intent has been strangled by his own demented blood-lust. Sadly, Womack feeds this impression somewhat by fumbling much of the novel’s characterisation, failing to really connect too deeply on a human level, and by falling into rote routine thriller territory in the closing act – but hey, what do you expect? After all, the guy’s just a PULP writer, right (nod, wink)? As a sheer assault on the senses, ‘Ambient’ remains an astonishing statement of intent – perhaps more so now even than in 1989.


To be continued...


MajorWeir said...

Excellent selection! I rated the follow up to ‘Anno Dracula’, ‘The Bloody Red Baron’ as highly as the first book, though the series is hit or miss from then on. Given the glut of vampire media since they came out, I’m baffled as to why none of these were filmed. Oh, and I seem to remember there was a graphic novel of ‘Fast One’.

Ben said...

Thanks Doug! Yes, looking forward to getting around to 'The Bloody Red Baron'. I'd imagine one of the main reasons these books have never made it to the screen is that they'd just be so massively expensive to stage...

But yes, the sprawling, multi-character nature of the story would perfectly suit one of those big budget, "must watch" TV series that are so popular at the moment wouldn't it? Especially with the current vogue for Victoriana and fictional character mash-ups and alternative histories and so forth... hmm, maybe I should try to slip my copy into the pocket of a TV exec or something...

Maurice Mickelwhite said...

Ambient art - straight outta White Dwarf 1989! Excellent!