Posts Tagged ‘metafiction’

Beyond Apollo by Barry N Malzberg

August 18, 2014 3 comments

Beyond Apollo by Barry Malzberg

I’m reviewing this book in response to comments made by one of the site’s “followers” when I confessed to not having read any of the novels or short stories by Barry N Malzberg (although I now realise I had read some of his work under a pseudonym). This title was offered as one of the best by the author. To understand this book, I have to return to the early 1960s when, narrowly avoiding conscription, I was safely ensconced in university. In literary circles, this was a time of great experimentation when young(ish) authors decided to tear up the rule book and do their own thing. This meant the idea of paragraphs or chapters was rejected. Even sentence forms became optional in some cases. Switching between first and third person at random, and mangling the tenses became standard. And the idea of a coherent narrative? Well, that was strictly gone, man. The approach was not so much to search for quality in the story told, but to be seen to be slaying sacred cows and clasming icons. Think the cut-up and fold-in approaches popularised by William S Burroughs and you have the context in which Barry Malzberg sat down to write Beyond Apollo. A brief glance at the format shows us sixty-seven short chapters, a very unreliable author, some metafiction, and some explicit sex — a real witches brew for a book published in 1972.

In science fiction, there was a general reaction against the pulp plots of the Golden Age. Although the same ideas might be addressed, the authors deliberately chose to come at them from a different direction. So this book may be seen as a completely standard trope. Both in books and the B-movie industry, a small crew of American astronauts is sent off to Mars or Venus. On the planet’s surface, they may not find anything that looks particularly interesting. But the moment they seal the hatches and set off back to Earth, it becomes apparent they have a monster aboard. Now the trick is to kill the monster and for the maximum number of humans to get back to Earth. Except, of course, there’s the problem of what the survivors might say to Mission Control when they land. “Well, you see, there was this monster. . .” does not, perhaps, have quite the right ring of plausibility. So here we have a story about human destiny. Just like the salmon swimming upstream to spawn, man has always moved forward to the next challenge. That’s how the Europeans moved across the Atlantic and colonised the eastern seaboard of America, and then moved across to the West, down into Mexico, and so on. There are always new barriers to break through.

Barry N Malzberg in 1972

Barry N Malzberg in 1972

There’s just one problem. A small percentage of people are heroes and they do a great job of trail-blazing out into wildnernesses, coming back with maps and encouragement for others to follow them. But the mass of people are lazy. Many are corrupt. As humanity has grown in size, the percentage of lazy and corrupt people has become a drag on progress. So although leaders may make grandiose calls like, “Let’s go to the Moon this decade!” or “Let’s conquer the planets before the end of the century.” it’s left to the bureaucracy to implement these lofty goals and, for the most part, the civil servants end up sabotaging the efforts of the heroes. To that extent, this book is somewhat satirical, highlighting the various ways in which the pencil-pushers fail. Indeed, one of the responses to this book would be to question what the point would be of going to another planet. There’s no particular glory in it, particularly if said planet turns out to be vacant rock without enough buried geological treasure to make commercial sense in planning a mining operation there. This is not a book that promotes a spirit of optimism about the value of space flight. It’s just an expensive way of spending resources that would be better spent on relieving poverty on Earth.

At various points, the one astronaut who made it back to Earth from the flight to Venus, is able to outface all the planetside generals and professional psychiatrists. He was a hero. That’s why they picked him from the thousands who applied. He does not acknowledge their right to question him now. Indeed, one of the themes of the book is this astronaut’s desire to write a book about his experiences (not have some hack ghostwriter do it for him). He thinks about how he will write it and engages in general metafictional discourse. So what’s going into this book? Well, it all has to start and, in a way, finish with the relationship between the returning astronaut and the Captain who disappeared. How do we relate to authority figures? Perhaps we depend on them or do we perversely reject their right to command and rebel? Perhaps it’s the same with a spouse. We should sacrifice some of our freedom to make a partnership between equals work. But if we become obsessed with the competition to go on an interplanetary flight and invest all our time and energy in that, the marriage will likely fail. Indeed, if the testing causes impotence or less active interest in sex, the end of the relationship will be hastened.

Of course, all this assumes there really was a flight to Venus. It may all be in the mind of this man who hallucinates the journey, the Captain and the Venusians who would rather the people of Earth left them alone. If that’s the case, perhaps the man Forest, a psychotherapist, really is trying to help this delusional man recover some sense of the reality surrounding him. That the patient believes he was going to Venus represents his desire to find love, whether with his wife or a male authority figure. From this uncertainty, you’ll realise it’s interesting to speculate on precisely what the book is actually about. Indeed, for those who enjoy books that provoke them into thought, this is a doozy (a word much loved by serious reviewers). This leaves me grateful my “follower” prevailed on me to acquire a copy of Beyond Apollo. It’s a prime example of everything that was good or bad about the explosion of experimentation in the sixties and seventies. Alternatively, if you prefer books to be obviously about something, you’ll probably hate this.

Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman

work done for hire

Work Done For Hire by Joe Haldeman is a very interesting book from a man better known for his science fiction. For the most part, this is a contemporary or near future thriller which adopts a somewhat metafictional structure. Since the nature of the plot is clearly intended to build up to an unexpected outcome, I will be careful to avoid anything too explicit in this review. I’ve probably read too many thrillers and SF novels to be taken by surprise. One of the flaws of the book is that, once you are given confirmation your suspicion is correct, there’s no effort made to retrace steps to explain how it was all done. I’m not saying setting this up in the real world would be impossible, but it would have felt more reassuring if Haldeman had offered a few words. Perhaps the US military really does surgically implant tracking devices into its key assets and another group could hack the device and follow him around. Or there’s some other near-future technology in play here. Whatever it is, the author should come clean. As to the actual ending, it’s less than rational and rather perfunctory. As one of the US military might say, this has grown into something of a clusterfuck and wrapping up all the loose ends and consequences in a single paragraph is the worst kind of lazy writing. This seems to be an author who thought of a plot which nicely got our protagonist into a mess and then couldn’t work out how to resolve it. So he threw down a few paragraphs at the end and hoped no-one would notice the arbitrary way in which everything came screeching to a halt.


So what can I safely say about this? Well, meet Jack Daley who was a sniper in the latest conflict. He picked up a wound in his leg and was invalided out. This leads to the usual PTSD problems and he’s heading for the usual scrap heap when he meets the right young lady. He writes a book about his experiences which is not unsuccessful, but no publisher seems very interested in his next book. Then his agent comes back with an offer from a film producer. They have a script outline and are looking for someone to novelise it. Actually, the studio doesn’t want a full novel. Novelette length is sufficient. If the studio likes it, they will build it into a shooting script with a big bonus if it’s made into a film. Note this is pie-in-the-sky future financial security. He’s only sure of the small advance. Throughout the book, we therefore get to read the chapters in this novelette as they are written. Indeed, it’s not impossible to see the emerging science fiction horror story as offering at least two points of interest. The hook for the story is a man down on his luck who’s paid to act as bait for a serial killer. It’s left ambiguous as to whether this Hunter is human or an alien. All we can say about this creature is that he eats those he kills. The second feature is the writing process influences the direction the fiction takes. As our writer as protagonist feels threatened, so his novelette becomes more gory. Obviously a sniper has a different view of the process of killing. His subconscious may therefore be taking the novelette in a direction the studio might consider unfilmable.

Joe Haldeman

Joe Haldeman


Everything is moderately conventional for the first third of the book. Our protagonist begins to demonstrate he’s not the greatest writer of horror which may be sfnal and we get to meet the woman in his life. He then receives a rifle with instructions to set it up for a hit and then stand ready for instructions. If he fails to obey, the voice on the telephone makes the usual threat that “they” will kill his girlfriend. So begins an exploration of how far each side of the potential bargain is prepared to go. Although Daley is not a banker, he’s used as a literary device to explore the phenomenon of moral hazard. He’s been a paid killer for the government. Now he’s asked to continue in his trade for private hire. This plot development might be more interesting if he was told who he was supposed to kill, but because the precise details of what he’s expected to do are never made explicit, the extent of the dilemma is not allowed to develop. Put simply, what we see of his writing suggests he’s never going to make it as a novelist, and he has no other real skills with which to earn a living. Resuming his life as a well-paid killer would pay all the bills and enable him to live a comfortable life. Unfortunately, the details remain largely theoretical and this aspect of the plot loses its impact.


This leaves me thinking Work Done For Hire is undercooked. Far more could have been done to bring the near-future technology into focus. The inclusion of an entire novelette inside the novel slows down the action and leaves less room for the thriller to build and be resolved coherently. The metafictional opportunity to use the fiction as an internal mirror is never seriously exploited. Although the characterisation of Jack and Kit is good, particularly when they go on the run, the book itself never really decides what it wants to do with two such interesting characters. The actual plot mechanism used in the final quarter of the book is very clichéd and makes little sense given what has gone before. So even though there are good features, I can’t really recommend you read this which, for a novel by Haldeman, is disappointing.


For reviews of other books by Joe Haldeman, see:
The Accidental Time Machine


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Noose by Bill James


Noose by Bill James, a pseudonym of James Tucker, (Severn House, 2013) is playing the identity game but with a twist. Under the usual rules, the character under review is based in contemporary times. Because we know the culture, we can understand the process to achieve the particular outcome. But this has changed the timeframe. We’re now back to a twenty year or so period from the 1930s to 1950s in Britain. To the majority of modern readers, this might just as well be science fiction. Readers are transported to a different world and have to begin learning the new behavioral constraints. As I was growing up, we were rebuilding after World War II. I listened to my grandmother telling me what it was like when Queen Victoria was on the throne. As we’ve aged, my generation has been passing on our personal experiences of the bomb damage, food rationing and austerity as it used to be. We’re a link to the past. But when it comes to the 1930s, personal knowledge is not available. It’s all secondhand. That Britain was in a transition phase. The class barriers had been breached and the frustrations of life could more clearly be seen. That was my mother and father’s time. They never seemed to have much to say about the 1930s. Coming back to this novel, the result is a slightly metafictional exploration of the life of one Ian Charteris. We watch forces shape him. We see what might have led the Government to try recruiting him as a spy. It’s a fascinating story, or portrait or life narrative.


We start off in the 1950s. The young woman who may be his sister from the wrong side of the sheets has just ended up in hospital. She’s an actress and he’s a journalist reluctantly invited to extract her story for publication. Perhaps there was a time when ethics formed a part of the journalist’s equipment but, in the early fifties, we’d moved to a time when morality was more flexible and permitted behaviour that focused on generating profits without worrying so much about the means. Hence, the editorial powers see Charteris as their inside track to discover why the “young thing” should have attempted suicide. And even if she didn’t make the attempt, the story can always be written up to imply she’d been unlucky in love and had tried to end it all. Charteris was good at telling stories.

Bill James

Bill James


When he was younger, he’d given evidence in a murder trial. The accused had hung for killing a man in a public air-raid shelter during a bombing run. Journalists often come with emotional baggage. It gives them insights into the troubles of others. It helps build bridges so that trust can be established and confidences exchanged. The storytelling had been learned at his farther’s knee. His father had been a sailor in the 1930s and switched from pleasure craft to the inshore merchant marine when hostilities began. He was a great raconteur even if prone to repeat the same stories. The story of his heroic rescue of Emily Bass had entered the mythology of the family and the area. There was even a special memorial service to mourn the loss of the brave captain who (idiotically) also dived in to try saving the young woman. That was certainly something to remember. A working class hero and a gentleman who couldn’t survive in difficult waters let alone rescue the girl.


I knew men like the captains of the passenger vessels who were racing each other into the harbor. They ran their ships and businesses like unaccountable barons. If anything went wrong, which it often did, they walked away from blame by virtue of their class status. That made men like Charteris Snr. very bitter. They did all the work and carried the can when things did go wrong. That’s why the father was always upset his son had involved himself in the events surrounding the murder. It brought unwanted attention to the family. The fact the boy was only eleven and had yet to perfect his understanding of how the word worked was no excuse. It soured the relationship a little. Later, of course, the son meets the rescued girl again. She’s about forty and tells her side of the story. It explains aspects of his family’s behaviour he’d not fully understood.


Later, as a journalist, he hears many other stories. That’s the nature of his “profession”. How far he’s prepared to go to act on these stories is another matter. It all comes down to trust. People exchange stories for different reasons. Some are laudable, others less so. That’s why I mentioned the problem of ethics earlier in the review. Just what does a journalist do with the information he gleans from all those he talks with? This book provides a fascinating answer. It may reach the end in 1956 but, as a parable, the issues still resonate with us today as Wikileaks and the activities of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden provoke debate about the covert activities of governments. Journalism always has been a difficult and sometimes dangerous role to play. Noose shows us why some people are attracted to the life and the price they sometimes have to pay. It also fairly successfully passes the history fiction test. There’s enough here to enable modern readers to get a real feel for all the main characters and their motives. It’s a clever and engaging read.


For the reviews of other books by Bill James, see:
Snatched: A British black comedy.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes

September 8, 2013 1 comment


Hell to Pay by Matthew Hughes (Angry Robot Books, 2013) is the third and final episode in the To Hell and Back series. I guess that makes it a trilogy although, when it comes to writing the book, you can get different ideas about how many copies there are in each edition and, at the discretion of the characters, earlier books in the series can be rewritten or, if things are not going so well, more books can be added until the plot comes out to everyone’s satisfaction. That’s the big advantage when the whole point of the series is that God and the Devil are sitting down together in the Garden of Eden with a labour lawyer turned pastor acting as referee and editor-in-chief to get a draft of the “book” both can agree on. Once the book gets into the final draft, all this uncertainty can be swept away and the world will be a better place (or not if a compromise or two has to be made made to placate the Devil). From this, you should understand this is a trilogy that fails to take the Christian religion seriously. This makes it convenient to compare this to the Sandman Slim serial by Richard Kadrey.

Initially, you might think them thematically similar in that both play with the ideas that God might not be quite so decisive and all-powerful as the literalists would choose to believe with the Devil and his minions slightly less unpleasant than Pieter Brueghel the Younger and others have been painting them. But there’s a radical difference in tone. In the nicest possible way, I’d describe Kadrey as a thoughtful badass from LA whereas Hughes is an essential rather nice man with roots in Canada and Britain, a combination giving him a rather more mellow view of the world and its afterlife. Although they are both comedic in outlook, there’s a rather more relentless quality to Sandman Slim thanks to his mixed parentage, whereas Chesney Arnstruther is less competent. This is not Chesney’s fault. He was born with a form of autism so the usual socialisation fails to take and leaves him unable to relate to the world. Fortunately, he’s wonderful with numbers. Had his lack of empathy more profound, we might perhaps have classified him as an idiot savant. As it is, he’s an innocent Everyman with dreams that, one day, he can become a superhero. The result of a compromise deal when he turns down the usual offer of fringe benefits from the sale of a soul, are great fun — definitely not in the same ballpark as Sandman when he starts to kill.

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

On balance, Matthew wins. First he knows when to stop. He had a three book deal and does a terrific job in constructing a very elegant plot which plays through all the arguments about the nature of good and evil, and comes to a genuinely surprising conclusion. This is undoubtedly the right place to stop, but the Kadrey juggernaut rumbles on through the plot variations as if there’s no place he can’t take his characters. Second, the humour in Matthew’s books is a deft way of puncturing the bubble of hypocrisy that tends to envelope the religion “thing”. He sneaks up on some profound questions and has you into the debate before you realise the enormity of what he’s suggesting. Kadrey has the Sandman shoot and maim but, as a character, he’s not the greatest thinker. I suppose all this is doing is reveal a cultural preference for the style of humour closest to my own. Finally, there’s the question of the plot. Matthew’s primary concern is the nature of empathy and how it colours our relationship with the world. If selfishness prevailed, the general notion of fairness in interpersonal relationships would disappear. So the angels are on a need-to-know basis and the lower orders of Hell do what they are told. Their world is literally ordered. Only humans have free will but, even within the human race, we have variations like sociopaths and those suffering from autism. In other words, humans don’t always come out of the mould quite as they should.

In a way that’s why Chesney is good at relating to the junior devil allocated to him. They both end up interested in exploring the limits of what they can and cannot feel or do. In theory the devil is limited by the instruction rule book for Hellions, but it turns out there are nearly always loopholes. Chesney ought to be constrained by the laws of physics and human laws but, when you have a devil prepared to bend things around a little, the human can also get superhero things done. In the end it turns out every one in the plot is fallible. Even the Devil and God are forced to admit they haven’t got it right (whatever “it” is). That’s why they are in the Garden of Eden negotiating. Except, in a way, that means they have both taken their eyes off the ball. Chesney and other players are still loose in the world and can continue bending “things” even further out of shape. This final volume builds up to a pleasing metafictional climax in an alternate universe where God was trying out a different approach before our current reality. It’s great fun.

I note the coincidence of a mouse in this final volume who has a question — I was reminded of Douglas Adams in a good way. Overall, Hell to Pay is a very satisfying conclusion to an immensely pleasing trilogy. I suspect even Christians would enjoy it if they could only get past the idea of reading some irreverent.

I note another nice illustration of key plot elements in the excellent cover art by Tom Gauld.

For all the reviews of books by Matthew Hughes, see:
Costume Not Included
The Damned Busters
Hell to Pay
The Other
Song of the Serpent

The Sound of One Hand Killing by Teresa Solana

The Sound of One Hand Killing

The Sound of One Hand Killing by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013), is the third in the Barcelona series featuring twin brothers, Eduard Martínez and Borja “Pep” Masdéu, who unofficially act as private detectives. They keep their relationship a secret and just say they’re partners. On this auspicious day, they set off to meet their metafictional client, Teresa Solana. When they arrive at their offices (for which they don’t actually have a lease), they discover the chaos of a break-in. This is not a problem because Borja has the keys of a flat upstairs in the same block occupied by an American. There’s just one problem. When they enter the flat, they find his dead body.

This presents them with a dilemma. Do they meet with the client and then report the murder? In the end, the thought of a cash advance leads to them postponing the call to the police. There’s just one problem. They are hopelessly compromising the murder scene. Fortunately the client does pay them in advance. So everything’s all right. Well. . . if they tell the police, the client will hear they saw her in a flat with a dead body. And then there’s the small antique that Borja had hidden in the flat. That’s not strictly legal, you understand. So what choice do they have but to clean off all the evidence of their presence and leave the doors open so that the smell will attract interest and someone else will call the police. There, you see, an end to another successful day. Except the school pass on the news Eduard’s five year old son is well on the way to becoming a foul-mouthed football hooligan. This is an unwelcome distraction made worse when the police send a car for them. Apparently someone in the building opposite saw the brothers opening the windows in the American’s flat. No that must be a mistake, surely, their offices are immediately underneath.

Teresa Solana

Teresa Solana

The moral of this story is that, when you’re already in a hole, there comes a point when you must stop digging. It’s just that our two heroes never seem to have received this message during their basic training for doing whatever it is they do. That means it never rains but it pours and then the wind gets up and blows away their umbrella, and lightning stalks the land. It’s at times like this they should go to Zen Moments for a little meditation and relaxation.

From this introduction, you will understand the book is delightful fun. The whole point of farce is that the objective observer can see the build up to the approaching disaster but the protagonists remain oblivious. What gives added edge to the anticipation is the general air of improbability about the set-up. Surely no-one would get into this sequence of events and allow them to proceed. It would be absurd. . . but then we all think back to those times when we were caught up in events beyond our ability to control. We too were swept along and ended up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

This is not to say The Sound of One Hand Killing is a comedy. That rather misses the point of farce. Although there are times when we, the audience, do laugh, the reality of the situations is often more cruel. Because of all the mistakes, misjudgments and misunderstandings, the characters frequently find themselves on the receiving end of humiliation and defeat. In more extreme cases, the threatened consequences of disclosure and discovery can be far more severe. If we do find this comic, it’s only because of schadenfreude, the sense of relief that we are not caught out in this way and some degree of pleasure the characters deserve their misfortune. Well, perhaps not all the misfortune of our heroes being involved in another murder and then kidnapped. It would be so helpful, in times such as this, to be able to speak more than just Catalan and Spanish. But you just can’t prepare in advance, particularly if you think you might be in China. Well that might just be another misunderstanding. And then they have to account to the metafictional author and, of course, there’s still the problem of who had what and wanted it, but might have got something else instead, or not as the case may be. On the way, at least one of the crimes committed is solved which is always reassuring because this is supposed to be a detective murder mystery novel. Or perhaps that’s not the point at all. You really should read it yourself and make up your own mind. I was fascinated.

And as a final thought, don’t forget the healing properties of purée of asparagus.

For a short collection by Teresa Solana, see Crazy Tales of Blood and Guts.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol (translated by Ruth Whitehouse) (Bitter Lemon Press, 2013) is a story about the life of Kati Hirschel. She’s forty-four years old and lives in Istanbul where she runs a shop specialising in mystery and detective fiction. We find her in a moment of crisis. She’s had a major argument with her lover, a lawyer, and her landlady is preparing to impose a big surcharge on her current rent. Her reaction is simple and direct. She will find a new place to live, even if this means entering the treacherous waters of the baksheesh market. For those of you not familiar with the ways of the world outside Europe and America, the majority of civil servants and other people in positions of authority are chronically underpaid. But since they often control access to essential bureaucracy, they can achieve a living wage by taking a little extra money on the side to move people through the system more quickly or, if appropriate, to keep people out of the relevant system altogether. For these purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether you call these payments a tip or a small gift, the majority in the West will condemn this approach to life as corrupt and reject the actual or implied requests for payment. This is to misunderstand the culture.

In fact, the payments also reflect respect for the individual and the work he or she does, and a real sense of gratitude when the work is done well. But to navigate the social conventions and taboos, all the parties have to be in tune with each other. Although our heroine has real experience through living in Turkey for many years and speaks the language well, this is her first interaction with this method of acquiring a new home. Perhaps if her relationship had not just broken down or she did not feel so under pressure, she would have approached this transaction in a better frame of mind. But she lacks the patience and subtlety. Sadly this persuades her to try visiting the places she may be allowed to buy. The fact there may still be people living there who are not be aware of any threat to their continuing occupation does not occur to our heroine. She just wants to make quick unannounced viewings of her potential home. Sadly, in one block, this leads to a major argument. Threats are made. The following day, the man she fought with is dead and she’s a suspect. Well, again, in Turkey this is not a certainty. The police insist people come down to the station to make statements for even the most trivial of incidents. But she feels under threat and so, drawing on her love of detective fiction, she sets off the solve the crime.

Esmahan Aykol

Esmahan Aykol

This is a wonderful book. As a first person narrative, it plays at metafiction with regular asides to those of us reading the book, references to the fact this is her second book, and gentle explanations of who everyone is, how Turkey works as a society, and how she thinks about her own life. As you will realise from the first reference to the book, this is translated from the Turkish. It may therefore surprise you it should take its time to explain and comment on local culture. In fact the author is using the perspective of an outsider to hold up a mirror to life in Istanbul. Our heroine is of German stock but was born in Turkey and has returned to live there. She’s been there long enough to speak the language well and cope with everyday situations. But she discuses her own problems with idiomatic usages and frets she’s not always creating the right impression. She’s also quick to point out when prejudices impact her life. Sometimes, she’s aggressive in her own defence. Other times, she’s able to exploit local conventions of hospitality to be able to sit and talk with people (pumping them for information).

In fact, she remains a suspect to the end of this book. She certainly has motive and opportunity. The fact she’s able to offer an alternative candidate for the two deaths does not get her off the hook. The lead detective has doubts about the first death but, when the alternative suspect makes a significant confession, he’s not going to go anywhere outside this convenient package. This just leaves our heroine to put the final pieces of the jigsaw into place. As a perfectionist, she always wants the satisfaction of a complete picture. And it proves a very satisfying set of solutions because we’ve been able to watch our heroine ferreting out the relevant information and following through on all the details. Although she’s briefly distracted by one or two possible suspects, none of the early candidates fit into the emerging picture of what happened. It’s only when information emerges about a key relationship that she can finally be certain what probably happened. It’s a wonderfully tragic backstory.

For me this is an almost perfect book. It has a beautifully described first-person narrator who navigates the treacherous currents of Turkish society with considerable skill despite her uncertainties over the subtleties of language and the dangers arising from the tensions between different ethnic and religious groups. That she could still be arrested as the last page of the book turns is a testament to the very clever way the mystery is put together. All it would take is for the police or prosecutors to take a different view of the evidence and she would be toast. In the majority of other detective or mystery fiction outings, there’s never any doubt the primary protagonist will be accepted as completely innocent. This book reflects the realities of life in the world of policing where little is ever black and white. As a final thought, Esmahan Aykol is the mirror image of her heroine. She was born in Turkey but has spent many years in Germany. Such a lifestyle enables her to make telling observations about the culture of both countries. On all levels this is a book worth reading.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

February 27, 2013 Leave a comment

First Novel A Mystery by Nicholas Royle

First Novel: A Mystery by Nicholas Royle (Jonathan Cape, 2013) is a slightly challenging but ultimately fascinating book. Think binary: to read a printed book or digital characters on a Kindle screen, read only the first novel or read all the novels by one author, turn left or right, stay or move on. Individually, each decision is insignificant, but significance comes in the accumulation of such decisions, particularly if the choices are skewed by external factors or prejudices. Indeed, the more “ordered” the mind, the greater the potential for obsessional behaviour. A possible example would be placing dummies in a bedroom. This could be Sylvia Plath translated into the real world or the representation of a surrogate family. Talking about obsessional, there’s Grace, a young student on the university course our “hero” teaches on first novels. She’s interested in our first-person narrator, maybe even following him to a bookstore he frequents. And just who is this man who teaches creative writing at a place of higher learning in Manchester? And how reliable a narrator is he, he who sometimes claims to be unable to distinguish between being alive and being dead? Or to know whether to be unfaithful to his wife? And if she finds out, whether the marriage will survive — barring suicide, of course.

If we want to get technical, this is a work of metafiction with a very precise interest in the creative processes that go into writing. The question most pertinent is whose responsibility it is to tell the story and whether it should be told in a linear structure. As an example, there’s the elegant short horror story about salt that wraps up the first section in this book. Reading the main body of the text in order, our narrator instructs his class to write a piece about a recent experience. After hearing the readings, he may independently verify the substance of one or two pieces written. This intertextual story, set in a different font, may be about one of these students visiting his house except the protagonist does not mention it or comment on it. This may be evidence of his unreliability as a narrator. He’s protective of his privacy, particularly when it comes to his own first novel. If one of his students read this story out in class, he would not fail to mention it. So it may be the student who wrote it did not hand it to another to read in or no-one read it out in class, or it may prove to be something else entirely like a story written by Helen, one of his MA students, and taken out of context.

Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

Image by Julian Baker showing Nicholas Royle through a glass darkly

This signals the novel as a work of intertextuality. As one very obvious example, the text of one of Nicholas Royle’s short stories, “Very Low-Flying Aircraft”, which was first published in Exotic Gothic 3 and reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One is scattered through the first sections of this novel. The authorship is later attributed to Grace. In other words, the format of this novel is like a jigsaw and, as the title suggests, it’s for the reader to reassemble pieces like a puzzle and, thereby, to solve the mystery of who this protagonist is. Nicholas Royle is reflecting on the craft of the novelist which is usually to take his or her own experiences and to recast them as fiction. This is not to say the writing of fiction is essentially autobiographical. But we readers expect events to match our own experiences of the world. The test of credibility is whether we’ve seen the same thing ourselves. To fictionalise and get the best results, it may be necessary for the author to change the point of view so the readers get a different understanding of the events described. So if a wife and children leave home in one version, they may be killed in another. Either way the marriage ends. The fact of its ending will feel emotionally credible. We’ve all known marriages that fail, often because of infidelity. The surviving husband will be devastated, particularly if he’s to lose custody of the children. So for the readers, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the truth of what happened. All that maters is whether the fictional version reads as if it is true. It may also benefit to switch from first- to third-person. After all, omniscient authors know what’s happening.

The implicit question posed in the title of this book is, I suppose, why some authors only write one novel or later deny it. That singular excursion into text can be wonderful yet it’s never followed up, or the author does keep writing, but every time a new novel appears and the backlist is mined for titles to rerelease, the first novel never seems to reappear. It’s as if the author or the publisher is somehow embarrassed by it. An example of a brilliant first novel would be The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt which is a study in female identity suggesting that our culture objectifies and denigrates women. Initially the female protagonist is lost and confused as if trying to navigate social relationships while wearing a blindfold. Then she experiments by assuming the role of a young man. In the end, her fragile ego is overwhelmed by the stronger men around her. There’s no happy ending. In this novel, we have multiple views of a male character who’s fundamentally uncertain who he wants to be or where he wants his life to go. Were it not for the odd episodes of sex in cars, you might think him entirely passive, living helplessly if not arbitrarily on the basis of binary decisions: to do or not to do, that is the question.

Taken overall, First Novel: A Mystery is a fascinating piece of writing, exploring the nature of identity and how to capture it on the page. As in the real world, we can often only build up an idea of who a person is by assembling facts and impressions from multiple sources spread over time. Not everyone can afford a private inquiry agent to put together a comprehensive dossier on a person with everything neatly set out in chronological order. So Nicholas Royle here reflects the fractured nature of a personality. We might see different aspects of a character at different times in different circumstances. Only in retrospect can we piece together the most coherent view of the person, lifting the blindfold and looking back with more perfect vision. Sadly, it’s often the case that the most chameleon-like of individuals have something to hide.

For a review of another novel by Nicholas Royle, see Regicide.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

February 26, 2013 Leave a comment

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books, 2013) starts with a particularly amusing introductory piece by another of my favourite authors. Norman Partridge subversively plays with the commission and introduces the author and this collection with obvious enthusiasm. This is a collection that forces me to think about why I so like fiction that sits on the divide between horror and fantasy. To understand, we have to revisit the impressionable young reader growing up in the 1950s. Early on, he discovered novels, collections and anthologies of Victorian and Edwardian horror stories. He found some of them scary. There were the merely unknown sources of danger like “The Horla” by Guy de Maupassant and “Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as one of many by M R James. But it was writers like Bram Stoker with The Jewel of the Seven Stars and The Lady of the Shroud, and William Hope Hodgson with The House on the Borderland and the Carnacki stories that clinched the deal with their blends of the supernatural, fantasy and horror. I suppose I’m still reading in the hope of finding new texts to invoke that same sense of goose-pimpled wonder. Among the modern writers, Laird Barron is one of the few who can still hit the sweet spot for my tastes, infusing Lovecratian Mythos with modern sensibilities.

“Blackwood’s Baby” was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four edited by Ellen Datlow and is a wonderful example of how to use a hunt as a vehicle for suspense and excitement. Written in a pleasingly period style of prose, it begins by setting the scene and highlighting the differences in class that have so bedevilled our past as a species. Not content with finding distinctions in size, racial characteristics and gender, we had to go and invent an entirely new social classification system and assign people to its various grades. When men in a group are supposed to depend on each other for support and, if necessary, defence, the last thing you want are stresses and strains in the relationships. So when this group set off on the annual hunt for the fabled stag, we should not be surprised that not all will return. But the reason for each injury or death might be considered surprising unless the idea of an annual sacrifice to the woods and the creatures that live within is too weird for you to accept. “The Renfield Girls” switches genders as a different group goes off for a short break by a lake with an odd reputation. In theory, this is a more harmonious group of people who work together, but the dynamic is slightly thrown a curve ball by the unexpected arrival of a niece who adds one more to the number. Whereas the first story is more show and tell, this is an exercise in the manipulation of atmosphere. The lake itself, a little of its history and a few unsettling dreams are enough to start us off. What actually happens could just be accidents. People read too much into coincidences and talk themselves into believing all kinds of superstitious rubbish. It’s a very clever piece of writing.

Laird Barron with a monocular view of the world

Laird Barron with a monocular view of the world

Then we have “Hand of Glory” which turns out to be a classic hitman story of a young man following in his father’s footsteps and making a name for himself as an enforcer and killer for a local gang boss. Everything would have been wonderful except for his lack of self-discipline which leads him in self-destructive directions. Then a couple of freelancers try to take him out. He’s sober enough to be able to defend himself but this is all a little too much for his boss. Things need to be set right. So our “hero” must deal with the man who ordered the hit. Even without the supernatural elements, this is a tremendous read. Add in a little black magic and general spookiness and you have an outstanding story.

“The Carrion Gods in their Heaven” by Laird Barron describes the plight of a battered wife on the run with the emotional support of her lover. They take up residence in a remote cabin in the woods. Naturally, there are tales about an earlier occupant, but it’s only slowly the couple realise how believable old tales can be. This is a story firmly rooted in the reality of a fear so great and enduring that it destroys the self-confidence of the victim. The question it asks is whether flight or fight is better. The cabin can only be a temporary hiding place. Indeed, they may already have been discovered. So how far might one run if the opportunity presented itself? Laird Barron offers a nice answer because we can’t be entirely certain where the battered wife ends up. This first appeared in Supernatural Noir edited by Ellen Datlow.

In “The Siphon” we get to ask whether psychopaths are merely human or have connections to creatures living in the cracks between the worlds. In this case, a man with secrets is eventually recruited by the NSA and finds himself at the centre of an operation to track a spy who might want to “come in from the cold”. Unfortunately, this spy is also of interest to other people of power which leads to some tension between the different groups and the sense our hero’s secrets may no longer be safe. This first appeared in Blood and Other Cravings edited by Ellen Datlow.

“The Jaws of Saturn” takes us back to the same milieu as “Hand of Glory” with the same character manipulating people for his own purposes. This time, a hitman finds his girlfriend acting strangely and rashly decides to discuss the changes with the man apparently responsible. “Vastation” is a surreal jaunt through time as the only real human becomes, in his own way (if not only in his own mind) as ineradicable as the Old Ones. The question posed is existential. What would happen to a being who could transcend time and become whatever he wanted to be? Being godlike, it would be possible to make and unmake the world. But what would be the point? You could wipe out all the humans, then repopulate and watch them make the same mistakes all over again. It’s all potentially futile and not a little boring as the millennia pass. So why bother? Even the Old Ones spend their time sleeping, or go off and do other things, or simply exist without thinking about anything. Any of those might be better than hanging out on Earth with no real friends. Perhaps real cosmic horror is realising you’re alone and stuck with yourself so long as you can stand the pain.

“The Men From Porlock” is playing the prequel game to “Mysterium Tremendum”, “The Broadsword” and The Croning, his first novel. All are set in or related to the Pacific Northwest as an area where events of cosmic significance are likely to occur. This takes us back to the time when the Slango logging camp was still functioning and in need of fresh meat. The small group sent out to shoot some of the game running through the forest encounters unexpected problems. In all things, who’s to say where the effects from the cause will stop? Finally “More Dark” plays the name-dropping metafictional game as an author discusses whether life’s worth living, particularly after witnessing a performance by another cultish horror author who never speaks in public but has a puppet to do it for him. Of course, the appearance of the puppet and what it has to say could be evidence of a cosmic intent to spread fear and disharmony, or it might just be an extravagant coup de théâtre designed to appeal to the horror cognoscenti. Let’s all take a shot at deciding which is true.

Put all this together and Laird Barron offers a particularly diverse range of tone in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (to understand the significance of the title, you have to read “More Dark”). We have everything from “traditional” adventure style horror to more explicitly Lovecraftian cosmic horror and the occasional burst of slightly comic horror. It’s a terrific read for anyone who enjoys writing that sits on the cusp between fantasy and horror.

For reviews of other books by Laird Barron, see:
The Croning
The Light is the Darkness

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

I’ve also interviewed him here.

This collection won the 2013 Bram Stoker Awards® for Superior Achievement in a Fiction Collection.

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas

January 15, 2013 1 comment

Beautiful Hell

Beautiful Hell by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Regions Press, published as a standalone in 2011 with the novella first appearing in 2007). It follows on from the admirable collection Voices From Hades, but it represents quite a radical shift in the narrative approach. We’ll come back to that in a moment. For now, let’s confirm the theme in this book remains consistent, so this is not something Christians might feel comfortable reading. As an atheist, I have no problem in accepting the notion that God might feel he hadn’t exactly covered himself in glory when creating the whole Heaven/Hell binary situation. As secularism spreads, it’s hardly fair to blame folk like me for not realising God is real and condemning us to Hell because we “denied” him. So there were churches. Well, try telling that to the Buddhists and all the other folk who honestly worshipped some other deities or held other apparently legitimate belief systems. Just because it turns out there’s only the one true God is no reason to stick us all in Hell for eternity. Once we have the epiphany of arrival at the Pearly Gates only to be turned away, we should be able to redeem ourselves by good works. Yes, I appreciate that may be a little tricky in Hell, but it’s the thought that counts and, as God has been only too keen to tell us, He’s omniscient and therefore knows when we’ve turned over a new leaf and understood the error in our previous ways. I’m sure the same goes for the Buddhists, Scientologists and anyone else prepared to do the whole humility schtick and grovel in apology.

Anyway, having got the question of the theme out of the way, we can come to the story itself and its metafictional form. Here we’re presented with an atheist author who, to his surprise, finds himself in Hell and decides to write a book about his experiences. We therefore get an autobiographical account of how the book we read comes to be written. This meets all the primary criteria to be considered a work of metafiction since the author is drawing our attention to the creative work of capturing “reality” in words. The idea of Hell being treated as real for the purposes of writing a work of fiction is rather elegant with our first-person narrator as the author commentating on the events as they occur and indicating how they will appear in the finished book. For the record, our author names himself Frank Lyre (a homophone of liar making the point that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator). As is required since he’s writing either a sequel or a work in the same universe as the original author, he’s familiar with Voices From Hades. Indeed a copy of the book appears in this story with at least one character reading it with great attention.

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Jeffrey Thomas with studded indifferent walls

Our author has found himself a not wholly uncomfortable role as a sex slave. Well, perhaps that’s how it started but he’s actually grown quite fond of this demon and they have regular sex sessions together. While he’s on his own, this life passes with few problems but then God, a few Popes and reliable support staff come down to Hell. Included in this team is his ex-wife who was a staunch believer. Our author now finds himself caught between two females: an increasingly jealous demon and an angel who might just be persuaded to spend serious time with her ex in Hell. Putting his personal feelings to one side, there’s also the question of why God should be making this visit and it soon becomes apparent he’s come to make some changes. As all of you will know, no-one likes change. Everyone gets comfortable with the way things are so, not surprisingly, the demons are soon up in arms to make their feelings absolutely clear. Except there’s this omnipotence thing. The fact the demons are not consulted, that this is the Old Testament unilateral God who just decides and then does, makes the demons even more outraged. The least He could have done is to ask what the demons thought, consulted on what changes might actually improve the situation. So this visit is equivalent to a declaration of war.

Well there you have it. Beautiful Hell is an irreverent return to Hell with the threat of change being the order of the day. On balance, it’s a book I admire rather than find exciting. It makes a good sequel and leaves things nicely poised for another visit should the author (whoever it turns out to be) choose to write it. Those who, like me, are Jeffrey Thomas fans, should acquire a copy.

For more reviews of books by Jeffrey Thomas, see:
Blood Society
Blue War
Lost in Darkness
Red Cells
Thought Forms
Voices From Hades
Voices From Punktown
Worship the Night

The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan

December 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Good Thief;s Guide to Venice-dec-2011

When we reviewers want to show off, we tend to bandy words like “metafiction” around as if we actually know what they mean. I‘m not entirely sure such academic extravagance is justified but, in this case, it does give me the right starting point to talk about The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice by Chris Ewan (Minotaur Books, 2012). In many ways I’m always inclined to like books that self-consciously play with the medium of writing. Here we have a first-person narrative exploring the world of a semi-retired thief called Charlie Howard. As someone experienced in dishonest arts, this potentially makes him an unreliable narrator but, only in certain key moments does he actually hide things from the reader. For most of the book, he’s disarmingly honest and not a little confused by the circumstances in which he finds himself. That said, he’s abandoned the life of crime to focus on writing crime fiction. Appropriately, he’s created a burglar as hero who, in fiction, plays out some of the “real” crimes the author has committed. Should he ever be suspected as a very good thief, the police would only need to read his books to identify his methods and some of the crimes he had committed. Such are the minor excitements of an author when he choses to write about what he knows best. More importantly, it also gives Chris Ewan the chance to play with the craft of writing and, for example, discuss how to arrive at those sentences at the end of chapters intended to hook you into turning the page rapidly to find out what happens next.

This would all be wonderful if our author had stopped there. But he has also decided to engage in what’s intended as a slight aping of past prose styles. I would have been happy with a parody of hardboiled pulp. Having grown up surrounded by the detective magazines and adventure/mystery fiction that so dominated the first four decades of the last century, I enjoy an affectionate reprise if it’s done well. Nostalgia for days of innocent fun still runs strong. Unfortunately, instead of aiming high for Chandler or Hammett, we have something rather closer to a poor parody of Leslie Charteris filtered though Wodehouse. Now don’t get me wrong, the tradition of the gentleman as a thief is littered with interesting historical relics. The Saint is paper-thin plots but some morality, while Hornung’s Raffles shows slightly more brio. Perhaps the Maurice Leblanc creation Arsène Lupin is the best both in their originals and all those who followed in his footsteps. He does at least manage to avoid looking foolish. Chris Ewan has similar pretensions with his “good thief” taking on criminals who are at least as bad if not worse than he. That he emerges in one piece speaks loudly of some skill and quite a lot of luck, i.e. he does look foolish some of the time.

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

Chris Ewan showing a little British understatement

So where does all this leave us? I like the plot of this novel. There’s a certain elegance on display as we slowly work our way through the revelations to the punchline at the end. There are, however, a number of problems. I prefer to avoid coincidences and the arrival of one figure as we work our way up to the final confrontations is an egregious example of the phenomenon. It’s all a little too convenient in a story that had been moving along comfortably under its own steam. Secondly, there’s a serious problem in the tone of the book. Even at the best of times, it’s very difficult to generate humour out of a thriller scenario. In this instance, the reason for the failure is the metafictional self-consciousness of the first-person voice. When the author is smiling with us, showing us how clever he is in deconstructing the process of writing a page-turner, it’s difficult to make us laugh with or at the narrator when he falls flat on his face or goes through some other experience that might otherwise have raised a smile. This is easier with a third-person show-and-tell. A more omniscient author can expose the mechanism of the prat fall by walking us through the scene, giving us a sense of anticipation, and then laughing as the expected catastrophe befalls the character. In the first-person form, the main feeling is the embarrassment or humiliation of the victim.

Finally we come to the problem of a book wanting to be a caper movie. Although my heart will always belong to Rififi, we’ve all sat through and enjoyed The Italian Job, the Ocean’s series and all the others where the pleasingly criminal show off their skills with a sly but endearing smile. Sadly, this hero could not be played by George Clooney. Worse, the wit and humour, such as it is, comes over as rather more laboured. Earlier in the review, I referred to Wodehouse and the humour of this book has a certain period charm about it, i.e. it is populated by slightly eccentric characters with curious interests and superstitions (our hero feels he can’t write unless he can look up at the first edition of The Maltese Falcon he stole early in his career) with two strong female characters to help and hinder. But the version presented here is too long, the slight jokiness wears thin, and the payoff is not really amusing. It just feels like a reasonably good place to stop. So, on balance, The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice would have been better if a strong-willed editor had persuaded the author to cut out the deadwood and leave us with a faster-paced thriller where we might actually feel our hero was in real danger.

For a review of the next book in the series, see The Good Thief’s Guide to Berlin

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.