Sunday, 23 December 2018

(Part # 2)

The Virgin of the Seven Daggers: 
Excursions into Fantasy
by Vernon Lee
(Penguin Red Classics, 2008 /
collection originally compiled in 1962)

I think this was from the remaindered bookshop in East Dulwich? Price sticker on the back says £3.

Vernon Lee was the pen name of writer and art historian Violet Paget (1856-1935), and funnily enough, a very strange hardback compiling some of her work was one of the first books I ever scanned and posted on this weblog, way back in 2010. The best part of a decade later, I’ve finally found time to read some more of her work, courtesy of this recent Penguin edition, reprinting a ‘60s anthology of a set of stories originally published between about 1890 and 1910, I believe.

A remarkable personage by any yardstick, Paget/Lee may have been ostensibly English, but she was born in Boulogne and spent the vast majority of her adult life on the continent, eventually settling in Florence. In addition to her fiction, she wrote extensively on European travel, history and culture, and in her day she was considered a leading authority on the Italian Renaissance, as well as an enthusiastic advocate of the Aesthetics movement pioneered by Walter Pater in the late 19th century.

All of this comes across very strongly indeed in her ghost stories, which – in stark contrast to the Anglican parochialism favoured by her near-contemporary M.R. James – are all set in Southern Europe (Italy, and sometimes Spain or Greece), and are chiefly notable for their dense and intoxicating tapestry of esoteric historical detail, blending references to art, architecture, music, geography, aristocratic lineage, religious traditions, local legends and sundry other oddities into such a rich, brooding atmosphere of quasi-fantastical grandeur that it is difficult for an ignoramus such as myself to ascertain where her reportage of authentic period detail ends and her imagination begins.

The opening tale, ‘Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady’, concerns the illegitimate son of one Prince Balthasar Maria of the Red Palace at Luna, who, after incurring the Prince’s disfavour, finds himself exiled to a remote outpost of the kingdom, where he falls victim to the charms of the same predatory female snake spirit who did a number on one of his illustrious ancestors. (Mixing a decadent, fantastical atmosphere with a sardonic sense of humour, this miniature masterpiece was originally published in an 1895 issue of the notorious Yellow Book.)

‘Amour Dure’ meanwhile concerns a highly-strung young Austrian scholar who, whilst undertaking historical research in a mountainous Italian town, develops an unhealthy obsession with a notorious, Lucretia Borgia-like femme fatale who features prominently in the area’s folklore, and – in classic Jamesian fashion – pays dearly for his temporally unsound ardour.

‘A Wicked Voice’ – in which a similarly self-absorbed young composer working in Venice becomes haunted by the voice of an 18th century singer credited with uncannily abilities – has a disturbingly unglued, dream-like feel to it, culminating in a set-piece that feels as if it could have been shot by Dario Argento or Pupi Avati.

Most memorable of all though is probably this collection’s title story, a Spanish number in which the notorious sinner and womaniser Don Juan Gusman del Pulgar, Count of Mirador, uses fiendish necromancy to gain access to a secret subterranean world concealed beneath a tower of the Alhambra at Grenada, there to take possession of the ‘Moorish Infanta’, a Princess Bride who has lain there through the centuries in unholy, magical slumber. It’s quite something.

Needless to say, Vernon Lee’s fiction remains unfairly overlooked, and ripe for rediscovery. Although she began publishing these stories some years before James, they nonetheless represent a series of head-spinning twists on the same basic formula, so, if you’re in search of something a bit different for your Christmas ghost stories this year, look no further.

Maigret Travels South by Georges Simenon
(Penguin Crime, 1963 / 
originally published 1940)

No idea where this one came from. All those Penguin crime purchases blur into one, especially the Maigrets. I’d buy ‘em by the kilogram if I could. (The cover shows Rupert Davies as Maigret, from the BBC TV series.)

For some reason, my favourite Maigrets always seem to be the ones that take him outside of Paris. With typical Simenon wit, this particular short novel sees the Chief Inspector “travelling south” in more ways than one as he arrives in Cannes to investigate the case of a dilettante Australian wool millionaire found stabbed to death on his own doorstep.

Routine sleuthing soon leads Maigret to the backroom of the ‘Liberty Bar’, a commercially redundant, essentially closed establishment where the food is good and the landlady accomodating, but where the air is also heavy, with a persistent atmosphere of fated, self-indulgent melancholy hanging over the handful of down at heel, demi-monde denizens who congregate there.

Like all of the best Simenon stories, this is one in which Maigret’s personal inclinations and human sympathies find themselves directly at odds with his obligations as a detective, and in which he thus finds himself weighed down by the guilt of knowing that his intrusion into the small, self-contained world of the story’s characters – so beautifully drawn by Simenon – has led, inevitably, to its destruction.

Though perhaps no great shakes as a mystery, these hundred-and-something pages pack a considerable emotional punch, knotting up some of the same bits of your insides as the best literary noir. Highly recommended.

MW by Osamu Tezuka
(Vertical Inc hardback, translated by Camillia Nieh, 2007 /
originally serialised in Biggu Komikku manga, 1976-78)

This was a birthday present – thank you Satori.

Osamu Tezuka (1928-89) exercised such a profound influence over the development of Japanese manga as we know it today that some subsequent fans and creators have gone so far as to treat him as an actual, literal God – a claim that begins to make a certain amount of sense when one considers both his staggeringly prolific work-rate and the consistently high quality of his precise, impactful artwork and conceptually innovative storytelling.

Although Tezuka remains best known in the West as the creator of the iconic Astro-Boy, and for his epic, multi-volume biography of the Buddha, his later years saw him expanding into darker, more adult-orientated territory, drawing somewhat on the Taisho-era Ero-Guro tradition of writers like Edogawa Rampo, but blending this influence with his own stark, modernist aesthetic, pushing the limits of his imagination in ever more extreme directions.

Sprawling across over 500 densely-packed pages, ‘MW’ arguably represents the culmination of this particular strain of Tezuka’s work, and describing its contents as “dark” feels woefully inadequate.

Though impossible to summarise in full, the story here centres on the intertwined fate of a grown man and a young boy who – for reasons too convoluted to go into here – find themselves spending the night in a cave on the coast of a remote island. Venturing out the following morning, they discover that the entire population of the island has been exterminated by what is later revealed to have been a deadly experimental nerve gas named MW, stored there by the American military.

Years later, the older man has become a Catholic priest, but he is still driven to tormented, soul-endangering distraction by his continued association with the young boy, who – after nearly dying from his exposure to MW on the island - has rather inconveniently grown up to become an androgynous, Fantomas-style super-criminal and master of disguise. Seemingly devoid of human empathy, as if his “soul” had been surgically removed, he commits all manner of terrible and perverse outrages, seemingly for no reason other than his own cruel enjoyment.

In the course of the story that follows, Tezuka pulls no punches in depicting a range of subject matter that takes in genocide, paedophilia, serial murder, rape, bestiality, torture and familial suicide, but does so with a sense of carefully honed, story-driven artistry that pushes the work way beyond the level of mere “transgressive” button-pushing.

Indeed, the obsessive precision of Tezuka’s artwork provides an unsettling contrast to the outrageous, frequently melodramatic, nature of the events he depicts, adding a genuinely psychopathic edge to proceedings that leaves the author’s actual intentions feeling strangely ambiguous.

Should we read ‘MW’ as a meditation on Catholic guilt and the essential nature of evil, or as a bitter commentary (both allegorical and literal) on the malign effects of America’s post-war dominance of Japan? Was Tezuka deliberately setting out to shock and appall his readers, perhaps using extreme imagery to detract attention from the tale’s uncomfortable political sub-text? Or was he simply concocting a vast ‘shaggy dog story’; a needlessly convoluted saga whose pleasures arise simply from the wickedly unlikely contrivances of its surface level story-telling..?

Somewhat inevitably, the best answer is probably “all of the above and much more besides”, but, whatever you end up taking from it, ‘MW’ remains a dangerous, multi-faceted hydra of words and pictures in which we see a master craftsman pushing the metaphorical envelope about as far as it can possibly go, making for an experience not easily forgotten.

UFO Drawings from the National Archives 
by David Clarke
(Four Corners Irregulars hardback, 2017)

I bought this directly from Four Corners.

Between 1952 (when Winston Churchill demanded to know “..what all this flying saucer stuff amounts to”) and 2009 (when its operations were quietly shut down, having been deemed to have collected absolutely no useful intelligence whatsoever), The Ministry of Defense’s UFO Desk diligently collected and assessed untold thousands of reported UFO sightings across the British Isles.

Since 2007, when the desk’s files began to be declassified and incorporated into the National Archives, writer and academic David Clarke has been going through them with equal diligence, and as a result has compiled this attractive book, presenting a carefully curated selection of the drawings of alien spacecraft submitted to the MOD by members of the public during the years of the UFO desk’s operation.

As well as providing a wealth of rather splendid examples of quote-unquote ‘outsider art’, these drawings, accompanied by Clarke’s concise and non-judgemental summaries of circumstances surrounding their creation, provide an intriguing insight, not only into some very obscure corners of the 20th century British psyche, but also into what I have always considered to be the essential paradox underlying the UFO phenomenon.

Namely, the fact that, on the one hand, the vast majority of UFO reports are absolutely ludicrous - clearly beholden to the whims of popular culture and so completely lacking in plausibility, consistency or verifiable evidence that the possibility of their literal truth seems extremely unlikely.

But, on the other hand (and this in particular is highlighted by Clarke’s book), there is the fact that many of the people who make these reports do not seem to be the fantasists and attention-seekers that determined sceptics tend to assume, but quote-unquote ‘normal’, ‘sensible’ individuals with no prior interest in the subject, who in fact often seem embarrassed and upset by what they have witnessed, and beg the MOD not to publish their names or risk generating any publicity.

(Perhaps reflecting the demographic most likely to report their experiences directly to the government, a curious number of the witnesses featured in the book seem to have had a connection to the military or aerospace industries, and are apt to provide extremely detailed drawings of the craft they claim to have seen, complete with measurements and notes on construction materials, etc.)

Between these two impressions, something clearly doesn’t add up -- and it is this strange disjuncture which continues to fascinate, even as the fact that most first world citizens now essentially carry a HD video camera around in their pocket seems to have largely relegated UFOs to the status of a nostalgic, 20th century phenomenon.

Non-fiction-wise, I also read a great Pelican book about the history of Latin America this year, but I had to get rid of it because it had bookworm and was falling apart as I read it, so no review.

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...

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ah, The Internet.

I’m sorry folks – just a quick “house-keeping” post to formally apologise to any readers of this blog who have been kind enough to post comments on this blog over the past couple of years and have not seen them subsequently approved or responded to.

Basically - I've always relied on email notifications to alert me to new comments, but last week I just happened to check the “comments” tab on the Blogger dashboard and discovered a large backlog of comments awaiting approval that I was previously unaware of, having apparently not received the aforementioned notifications. How embarrassing!

Even worse is that this problem seems to have affected the same few people on multiple occasions, so if you are one of them, I hope you don't think I've been deliberately ignoring/deleting your contributions… my sincere apologies!

Rest assured, I am always grateful and happy to know that actual, real life people are engaging with what I write here (on what is basically an obsolete platform with no promotion whatsoever and an annoying ‘content warning’ affixed to the front), and it makes me even happier to reflect that this blog has always received such thoughtful and good-natured feedback. (In fact we’ve pretty much never had any troll-ish or offensive comments – a few pretty weird ones now and then, but hey, that’s cool.)

So… long may this situation continue, and I hope that the missed approvals etc issue will not recur in future. Actually, I’ve just disabled the moderation/approval stage for comments, so they should now appear straight away and I’ll keep an eye on them manually from now on. (I initially had the approval option turned on to avoid spam, but to be honest there have been very few spam comments popping up in recent years, so it shouldn’t be too hard to weed them out by hand, as it were.)

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work on a few big End-of-Year type posts, so will have them up here as soon as they’re ready – sorry again for the sporadic updates of recent.