Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood

John Smith, Sean Phillips & others
Devlin Waugh: Swimming in Blood (2004)

I bought the Judge Dredd megazine for a while then eventually drifted away without really taking any of it with me, and certainly nothing resembling either nostalgia or pronounced affection for anything I'd read therein. It wasn't that it was bad so much as that it just didn't do a lot for me, and so I picked up this reprint principally because it's John Smith, a writer I always thought had more potential than that for which he has generally been given credit.

Devlin Waugh was proposed as Noel Coward as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and takes the role of one of those demon-hunting exorcist types in the Judge Dredd universe. It's a bit of an obvious idea in some ways - one of those characters bolted together from a combination of dramatically absurd contradictions - and yet it sort of works and even succeeds, because John Smith generally seems to know what he's doing and has a talent for working the essentially ludicrous without quite letting it all slip over into the realm of Bugs Bunny. That said, Swimming in Blood was a bit of a shaky start - nice ideas which don't quite come together in what is basically a generic eighties action movie, and while Devlin Waugh as Terry Thomas is a delight, there are a few points where Smith's revelling in Wildean dialogue forms self-conscious clots in what is already turning out to be a bit of a plod; and a plod further encumbered by the unsavoury note struck when Waugh exposes his darker side - his sadistic impulses and a deeply unappealing misanthropy expressed in his regard of the mutant inmates of Aquatraz as a vile slurry of inhuman filth.

Additionally, Sean Phillips artwork was really muddy and inconsistent on this one, torn between imitating Simon Bisley and Bill Sienkiewicz - as was fucking everyone at that end of the nineties - but without the basic understanding of human anatomy which allowed those guys to get away with it. Phillips has never been my favourite artist, but this is fanzine level stuff compared to what he's drawn since - a fair quota of which has been at least reasonably breathtaking.

Fetish, the second story in the collection, works much better. Being a Dredd saga in which Waugh features, with the shift of focus working in the character's favour, allowing for the kind of mystery which is somewhat lost when he's grinning away and describing something as utterly ghastly on every other page. Ajibayo Akinsiku's art suffers from some of the same issues of contrast and basic figure work as that of Sean Phillips, and he draws Dredd as a chin wearing a helmet, but his better pages are mind-bogglingly hallucinatory. I have some reservations about the story using Africa in pretty much the same way as everyone else uses Africa - the dark, scary continent of mystery and nature red in tooth and claw - but Fetish is nevertheless a thoroughly satisfying effort showcasing the best of everyone involved.

Waugh finally convinces in A Mouthful of Dust with the art of Michael Gaydos perfectly attuned to the story it tells, sort of like Eddie Campbell with less scratching about.

Finally, there are a couple of prose stories in support of my feeling that comic book writers either need to stick to strip fiction, or accept that unillustrated text really isn't just a comic strip without artwork, or the hard-boiled voice-over delivered in short sentences at the beginning of something starring Bruce Willis.

And now he was dead. Cut and mutilated. Lying in a cold locker in a cold Monaco morgue. Dead like all Devlin's other friends. Like Pedro and Sanchez and Joel. Like dear old Bunny Beaumont. Like all the others.

William Burroughs got away with it, but if you're not William Burroughs and particularly if you're writing this kind of prose, use a comma, because distinguishing cut and mutilated as a sentence in itself just looks like you can't fucking write. John Smith patently can write - although both of his prose stories in this collection have essentially the same plot - but the occasional text stories you used to get in 2000AD specials were always pure arseache.

So that's been a fair bit of whining on my part, none of which alters the fact that I enjoyed this one a lot. That which this collection has in its favour greatly outweighs a few blanks fired here and there, and John Smith having delivered a not so much openly as rampantly gay character in the form of a mainstream comic strip without a trace of tokenism has to be applauded; and he did it with humour and genuine wit, and - if memory serves - just ahead of the curve regarding not only demon-hunting exorcist types, but vampires as good guys.

Monday, 29 August 2016

Last Words

William S. Burroughs Last Words (2000)
Towards the end of his life, Burroughs began to experience difficulty using a typewriter, and so James Grauerholz gave him bound, blank books in which he could write as journals, the end result of which is what we have here. What entries Burroughs wrote were more or less daily, so I was sort of expecting something like:

Today was pretty boring. I didn't do much. I watched a film in the afternoon but I can't remember what it was called. It had that Robert Morley in it, so it was probably an old one. Beans on toast for tea. Phoned Ginsberg but he wasn't in, as fucking usual. I might mow the lawn tomorrow.

Whilst there's an element of diary to this material, it's minimal and mostly written in terms that made sense primarily to Burroughs himself, requiring an appendix which decodes certain innocuous passages as referring to him spending the day shooting a pop video with U2, for one example. So it's some of that, along with rambling ruminations on private theories, observations, memories, short scenes written as fiction, and a lot of cats.

It has been suggested that Burroughs became a crazy cat lady in later years, although with just six cats on the clock, I'd say that makes him a relative amateur - a part-timer, if you will - which I state without judgement as a fellow crazy cat lady supporting a congregation of somewhere between twelve and fifteen depending on the weather and whether or not we're counting strays or other members of the b-team; but then anyone who likes cats, as Burroughs clearly did, is okay by me.

However, reading Last Words as the final journal of a crazy cat lady helps make some sense of it in so much as that this is Burroughs' writing at its most private and personal, and so his weaknesses are revealed here and there; and whilst he was capable of great insight into the human condition, the nature of civilisation, reality and all the rest, he had his flaws even without the whole accidentally shooting her indoors thing. Novels have been played to his strengths, but here we encounter blind spots, his being ill-equipped to grasp, for example, why Carl Sagan regarded belief in things which don't actually exist as unhelpful. Burroughs has always inhabited a magical universe, but here it becomes clear just how attached he was to some of that stuff, and how susceptible he could often be to complete bullshit for the sake of poetry. Of course this doesn't make him a bad person, and in Last Words it seems to render him easier to understand as a fellow human being, or at least enables us - and by us I mean me - to identify with him a little better. Above all, Last Words leaves us with the realisation of how much Burroughs cared, and not just about his cats, but about the world we live in, and how poorly we treat each other. Admittedly this isn't anything new, but the emphasis is different; although that said, it's still very much Burroughs with random swerves in the narrative adding up to something which leaves impressions rather than describing anything in any linear sense.

Last Words is confusing but also quite moving, and it makes me realise how much I miss this guy. I can't believe it's been nearly twenty years.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Martians, Go Home

Fredric Brown Martians, Go Home (1955)
I'm not sure quite what I expected with this one based on the somewhat iconic Frank Kelly Freas cover and title, but whatever I expected, the novel has surpassed by a large margin. The Martians have landed, and it looks as though they're planning to stick around; but rather than the traditionally warlike, martial, inhuman, or otherwise hostile invaders from the red planet, this lot are best described as a massive pain in the arse. No wall, locked door or other barrier can keep out these literally little green men, and no-one knows quite why they're here, only that their snide observations and continuous mockery are most unwelcome; and they address everyone as either Mack or Toots depending on whether you're a guy or a broad.

Martians, Go Home is a weird novel but a very funny one, a satire - albeit a satire without any one specific target, excepting possibly the science-fiction novel itself. Thankfully it's entirely free of alien visitors as metaphor for Communist hordes, or any of the other stuff which preoccupied the less-imaginative writers of the fifties. These Martians with their toxic opinions so freely and widely shared might represent something like the self-doubt of the collective unconscious, and perhaps Brown was therefore taking a pot-shot at our propensity for believing any old shit; but I may be over-thinking this angle, and it could simply be Brown taking a pot-shot at the propensity of science-fiction authors to write any old shit - particularly given that the main character is himself an author of science-fiction.

There's probably no way of going into further detail without giving away the ending, although if I've hinted at a certain recursive quality wherein characters understand themselves as interred within novels - well, it's not quite like that, although you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Martians, Go Home isn't some lost post-modern classic, and may even be designed to leave you feeling slightly foolish for entertaining such a notion; but it's thought-provoking, very funny, and reads roughly like Kurt Vonnegut as played by a James Cagney wiseguy; which is good.

Monday, 22 August 2016

The Farthest Shore

Ursula LeGuin The Farthest Shore (1973)
My mother bought this for me one Christmas when I was a kid, specifically the newly published Puffin edition with a cover illustration by David Smee. It must have been 1976, I think. She was probably trying to expand my horizons a little, given that I'd been reading Target Doctor Who novelisations to the exclusion of almost everything else since 1973, but unfortunately it didn't work. I seem to recall liking the cover, but the story sounded old fashioned - as I probably would have described it at the time - and so I never read it; and then at some point down the line, I no longer had a copy.

Several decades later, I've read and enjoyed a couple of Ursulas, and enough so to want to read more and to wonder what The Farthest Shore was like. I keep seeing it on the shelves in Half-Price but my guilt over never having read the one I was given for Christmas is such that I really need that same Puffin edition; and to cut a needlessly long story short, I eventually found one.

The Farthest Shore was - at least at the time of writing - the third part of a trilogy, although a trilogy of three related books rather than a single sprawling saga split into smaller pieces, so my having read neither A Wizard of Earthsea nor The Tombs of Atuan doesn't seem to have presented any significant problems. Nor does the fact of it being a fantasy novel, which is nice, because it's a genre I usually dislike now that I've picked up enough to upgrade my definition from the simpler pejorative of old fashioned. The Farthest Shore, unlike most wizard-based fantasy fiction I've encountered, unfolds at a natural pace, to the rhythm of real life, you might say. Magic has lost its power at the far reaches of the realm of Earthsea, and so our two protagonists set out to discover why. They travel across sea, from island to island, and they encounter friends and foes as an inevitable consequence of their progress, and with none of the rigidly episodic feel I've noticed in lesser works.

That which happens may well happen for a reason, but we're never really sure if it's anything to do with the story or just part of the landscape. There's no suggestion of our needing to take notes because it will all add up to something or other in the climatic final chapter. There are no elves or dwarves or totemic sacred rings found mysteriously at the bottom of a judiciously purchased flagon of mead. Admittedly there's a wizard, a number of dragons, and persons returning from the dead, but LeGuin has made her own world here, which is nice because that's something at which she has always been exceptionally good. The magic of Earthsea - which is used sparringly rather than just splashed around for the sake of it - seems to contain a higher than usual philosophical content and concerns itself with ontological ideas of duality and balance, here specifically that magic is failing due to certain forces at large in the world of Earthsea, or because there's a disturbance in the force - if you prefer. There's a lot of it which puts me in mind of Mesoamerican lore regarding the workings of the universe, and specifically our binary concepts of good and evil simply being different points on a scale. Apparently though, this is a Taoist thing, and so the novel seems loosely pertinent to its time given the rise of the environmental counterculture in the sixties and seventies.

Anyway, as a novel The Farthest Shore seems possibly low on incident, but it doesn't really matter given the richly atmospheric texture; and its point is clearly communicated without anyone having to keep score of which goblins helped forge a mystic tampax from the sacred sheep of some place with a name containing no vowels. I'm pretty sure I would have enjoyed this had I made the effort to read it back when I was eleven, and it may even have sent me down an entirely different road, but I don't suppose there's much good to be had pondering over the what ifs.

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

American Splendor: Another Day

Harvey Pekar, Dean Haspiel & others
American Splendor: Another Day (2006)
Ten years later and I only just discover that Vertigo published Harvey Pekar, which is about the one thing to inspire regret at my having lost touch with what was going on in the comics biz back then, and additionally means I can forgive Vertigo for driving me away with Grant Morrison's Unreadables and Garth Ennis' award-winningly awful Preacher, a comic predicated on the daringly innovative high concept of rural working-class Texans being uneducated with a tendency to marry their own sisters. Nice work, Garth - very brave.

Backtracking further, by 1989 I had finished a three-year fine art degree course and was living alone and on the dole in a damp single room bedsit in Chatham, Kent, sharing a house with ageing alcoholics and persons who were more or less just living there whilst waiting to die. The degree course had left me no more employable than I'd been when I started it, and had taught me only that I had nothing in common with anyone describing themselves as an artist. In June I went for an interview with Royal Mail, and was taken on as a postman, a job in which I remained for the next two decades; but meanwhile back in 1989, Bill Lewis - who lived in the same road - sold me a stack of American underground comics, including a couple of issues of Harvey Pekar's self-published American Splendor, notably issue three which included a story called Awaking to the Terror of a New Day wherein our man forces himself to keep on moving forward through a seemingly futile existence more or less identical to my own without slashing his wrists. That was when I realised that Harvey had something unique, or at least something which is generally in short supply. Harvey understood.

Autobiographical comics briefly became a big thing around the early nineties, although not many of those I saw were that good - the worst possibly being Joe Matt describing his heavy pornography habit in one comic in wilfully lurid detail, then spending the next issue describing his girlfriend's reaction to reading the comic describing his heavy pornography habit with masochistic relish. On the other hand, American Splendor coming from a sixties blue collar sensibility was always heads above other representatives of the genre - a unique hybrid which somehow really needed to be a comic rather than just prose, and yet which never bothered with any of the comic as arts cinema pretensions associated with the comic book's supposedly having grown up - even though that's exactly what this is, and far more so than whatever the latest reinvention of fucking Batman may be. Harvey told it like it was, making wonderful use of the timing and emphasis afforded by sequential panels, then stopping when he'd said what he wanted to say - no real punchline, often not even a moral, sometimes leaving us wondering what had happened to the rest of the story and all because that's how life works, I suppose. It may seem mundane, and it may fixate on details like what thoughts run through your head when asking a neighbour to come and fix your toilet because your eyes don't work so good and you've lost your glasses and all he needs to do is fix the chain back onto the stopper, but never mind comics, this stuff is poetry.

To further infect the review with autobiographical detail, I'd had a shitty day, suffering in the heat of Texas in August, worried about a stray cat which has stopped eating and generally succumbing to good old existential nausea. I'd been reading one of the worst things I'd read in a long time - and the quality of my reading always affects my general mood - and had become fixated on all those people who just can't find it within themselves to add anything good to the world, instead just leaving a path strewn with worm-casts of recycled culture. Who are these people, these product-sponge cunts - as Louis CK calls them? Why are they alive? Why must I be aware of [name of person who doesn't matter excised for the sake of diplomacy]'s existence, and of the blog he has written explaining what he was trying to say in his five-thousand words of generic fanfic delineating a further adventure of [description excised because I'm not having that fucking argument again].

So I picked this and sure enough I feel restored, because Harvey always seemed to understand. There's something profound in his comics, and I've now been reading them for nearly three decades, but I still find it hard to pinpoint what it is, except that I know it's something between the lines, or the panels, I suppose. It may even be as much what it isn't as what it is, if that doesn't sound too preposterous a proposition. There's something calming about Harvey's voice, it being something far removed from all the bullshit and the shouting, or which is at least able to understand and make sense of the bullshit and the shouting - just read Delicacy in this collection, two wordless pages illustrated by Hilary Barta, the comic equivalent of a silent film, I suppose, and packing such a punch that I laughed out loud. That's real art, and if you don't see that, then I feel sorry for you and for the fact that we have nothing to say to each other.

As with David Bowie - of all people - I somehow still can't quite believe that Harvey is gone, because a world which doesn't have Harvey Pekar in it seems weird and unfamiliar, but thankfully we still have his voice.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

A Martian Odyssey

Stanley G. Weinbaum A Martian Odyssey (1962)
Many years ago, amongst the back-up strips in Star Wars Weekly was one of particularly surreal composition set on Mars and featuring all manner of imagined biological Martian oddities. The strip was split over a couple of issues and made a real impression on me, although not quite enough of one to facilitate my remembering what it was actually called once I'd flogged all my old black and white Star Wars comics to Skinny Melink's in Lewisham. For many years I imagined it was probably some Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation, or maybe an extensively revised run through of Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, or maybe even Killraven, Warrior of the Worlds, whatever the hell that was supposed to be.

At last I have the answer, for the story turns out to have been an adaptation of Weinbaum's A Martian Odyssey, one of five shorts collected in a paperback picked up purely because I liked the cover.

Weinbaum was a contemporary of Lovecraft, writing in the thirties and who died young, so his name seems to be fading from our collective science-fiction memory - at least judging by my not knowingly having heard of him despite the impression made on me by the aforementioned comic strip adaptation. This seems a great shame because this really is terrific stuff.

Weinbaum wrote stories rather than the adventures some of us have come to expect, beautifully crafted tales exploring scientific advances in thought pertaining to his era. It's mostly to do with biology and evolution, and he got some of it wrong, but the sheer pleasure he took in grappling with such ideas is obvious and addictive from the point of view of the reader; and unless it's just that I've been reading a lot of shite of late, vintage Weinbaum doesn't really seem to have dated just as the best of H.G. Wells has similarly endured with such elegance.

It's been a while since I enjoyed anything so much as I've enjoyed this collection, which has served as a reminder of what drew me to science-fiction in the first place.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
I've had an aversion to the work of Douglas Adams roughly since I discovered the internet and the disproportionately gushing praise with which his legacy is regularly hosed down. I've seen this particular title turning up in predictably cantankerous lists of the fifty most important science-fiction novels of all time, and I've partaken in bulletin boards upon which more than half of the subscribers are named after Douglas Adams characters, more or less guaranteeing constant repetition of jokes which were admittedly very funny when I saw them on telly back in 1981. Nevertheless, the sheer effort of finding oneself loathing something for crimes of popularity can become wearisome and is at least as stupid as grounding one's love of some cultural phenomenon on how many other people think it's great, so I like to take a bite out of my own bullshit from time to time, just to see how it tastes.

The last time I suggested the guy was maybe not the greatest writer who ever lived, the response I got was hate for Douglas Adams - incredible, with a presumed incredulous shake of the head. We were actually on the mean streets of the South Bronx - the Caucasian Doctor Who webzine editor and I - so the faux-ebonic inference that I be hatin' on Douglas Adams like some trick-ass bitch was entirely in context, because how can you not love Douglas Adams unless you just be hating on him just 'cause you mad-doggin', yeah? Sheee-it, blood, you be flossin' like a motherfucker.

My first encounter with Hitchhikers was the television series, closely followed by a stage production put on by drama students at Warwick University in November 1981. I thought it was brilliant - which is the actual word I used to describe it in my diary - and so I bought the books as they came out. I thought they were brilliant too, because they faithfully reproduced the experience of watching something on telly, and that's what mattered to me when I was sixteen. Oddly though, I found the third book less brilliant than the first two, and I didn't enjoy So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish at all. It seemed ponderous and conspicuously lacking in jokes, and even as a fairly stupid nineteen-year old I could tell that the exploration of Arthur Dent's existential disassociation was a complete fucking waste of time. This was therefore a revelation for me, having previously held that where one brilliant thing can be identified by a logo promising the recurrence of characters and situations, then the recurrence of those characters and situations will therefore always be of equivalent brilliance; which is why all Doctor Who was brilliant, and all things with Doctor Who written on the cover were also brilliant, and anything to the contrary was impossible.

Eventually I grew up, at last taking on board the essential punk rock truism that all of your heroes are usually just lucky arseholes, and that, as Jimmy suggests, you should question everything:

Could you tell a wise man by the way he speaks or spells?
Is this more important than the stories that he tells?

Eventually I grew up, as I already said, or at least I changed - which is surely what you're supposed to do when you grow up. I still read kid's comics, and pretty much anything I want to read, but at the same time I've often found myself in opposition to a general tendency which reminds me painfully of my dumbfuck nineteen-year old self, and seemingly amounts to this thing featured in my childhood and must therefore be considered brilliant. It would be understandable were all those shows - because it's usually television we're talking about - of quality equivalent to, off the top of my head, Carnival of Monsters, but they never are and some bewilderingly average material has been getting itself reclassified as classic prior to sacred cowification because a fifty-something was able to remember it and hasn't really bothered to take an interest in anything outside whatever he experienced before the age of twenty. It's not so much that I worry about the fetishisation of Blake's fucking Seven crowding out anything more worthwhile, or at least slightly less generic; and it's not that I worry about the possibly inevitable end result of culture circle jerking itself into a formless mush of recycled commodity nostalgia; it's simply that I'm mystified as to how people can be satisfied with culture which simply isn't that good. I don't even mean stuff that's actually crap; I mean that which may indeed have done its job well enough thirty years ago, but probably shouldn't be held aloft as a beacon of excellence in the twenty-first century.

Douglas Adams was one of only two people outside of the usual six to write material for Monty Python's Flying Circus, and that was his background. He was a talented writer of comedy sketches performed on either stage, screen, or radio, and those were the fields in which he excelled, assuming for the sake of argument that you enjoy Adam's particular variation on Cambridge Footlights humour - Monty Python by way of Illuminatus! - seeing as I've now read the thing and can't help but notice its influence in more or less everything written since. As a novel, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy reads like a series of sketches strung together with thematic linking material woven back and forth so as to present an impression of narrative progress which never quite finds its feet. The problems result in part from too many magic wands waved in welding disparate elements together, and too much reliance on details which only really exist for the sake of the jokes. The infinite improbability drive, for example, is funny, but not that funny, and it's really the only thing connecting the joke about blowing up the Earth to the one about the two-headed dude and the giant computer.

None of this would matter were Adams a bit handier with his biro, but the prose reads too much like a script for a series of sketches padded out by someone who has never written a book but feels sure that it can't be too difficult; and the thing is, whilst this stuff may well have been pure spun gold in real time, nailed down to a page of text it reveals its weaknesses, how little is actually there, and how repetitive it is; and it's very, very repetitive - over and over, the indignant surprise of an otherwise polite English clergyman confronted by the improbable, surreal, or outrageous; and an otherwise polite English clergyman who uses the word rather in every fucking sentence.

'Ah,' said Arthur, 'er...' He had an odd feeling of being like a man in the act of adultery who is surprised when the woman's husband wanders into the room, changes his trousers, passes a few idle remarks about the weather and leaves again.

Oh my sides. The references are characteristically middle-class and comically understated, the sort of thing you might reasonably expect from someone who hasn't really experienced much beyond the walls of the jolly old Uni, and who still regards the notion of students attending parties and getting drunk as essentially side-splitting. There are some decent theoretical physics gags, but nothing quite strong enough to dispel the faint aroma of dormitory japes, somewhat underscored by the presence of just a single female character in the entire book - and she's Zaphod's bird, someone whom Arthur might have jolly well bonked were it not for jolly old slings and arrows of outrageous jolly old misfortune. I wouldn't ordinarily give two shits about equal representation or points scored on the Bechdel test, but here it seems aggravatingly symptomatic of all that's wrong with this novelisation.

The thing is, none of this is inherently terrible, but if you're still pissing your pants at the idea of forty-two as the answer to life, the universe, and everything in 2016, then I'd say you really need to broaden your horizons. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was a great radio show and television programme, but it makes for an underwhelming and clunky book of a kind which Terry Pratchett wrote about a million times better. As a novel, its stature would seem to rest on brand loyalty and what else you haven't read. It's readable, and Douglas Adams was not without talent, but The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy falls a long, long way short of being Asimov wearing a red nose and big yellow shoes.

Unfortunately, I was really hoping to be wrong about this one; and as for anyone reading the above while insisting that I am wrong, be happy in the knowledge that every other stupid fucker in the known universe agrees with you.

Monday, 8 August 2016

All Tomorrow's Parties

William Gibson All Tomorrow's Parties (1999)
Most of William Gibson's novels have been stylish gibberish so far as I'm concerned. Idoru was the first he wrote which I'd call readable, and Pattern Recognition was fucking brilliant, and this was the one he wrote after Idoru but before Pattern Recognition so you can probably extrapolate a working model of my expectations from that.

Unfortunately though, it's business as usual - elegant prose and startlingly vivid imagery adding up to a whole gang of barely distinguishable characters doing something or other for a couple of hundred pages, but you can't quite keep track of who they are, what they're up to, or why, and then it's over. Virtual Light told the story of a guy who finds a pair of magic sunglasses, and Idoru was about Bono from U2 trying to marry that princess from the Super Mario Brothers game, and this is part of the same saga. The guy with the magic sunglasses is working in a flying convenience store, and the kid from Idoru has detected a great disturbance in the force, and the Golden Gate Bridge burns down at the end for some reason. The rest is mostly informed by William Gibson bidding for collectible military issue wristwatches on eBay. Also in this novel he predicts 3D printers and Pokémon Go - sort of - so that's nice, I suppose, and occasionally there's an interesting observation:

'Instead of what?'

'Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilisation in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilisation went to dream. A sort of unconscious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large. And they did, frequently, have locales with which they became associated. But they became extinct.'


'We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters. They went the way of geography in general. Autonomous zones do offer a certain insulation from the monoculture, but they seem not to lend themselves to recommodification, not in the same way.'

So it's a novel about society and subculture, about that which moves from the underground to the mainstream and so on; or maybe that's just a tasty couple of paragraphs afloat on a sea of stylish Alphabetti Spaghetti. I don't know. I'm not sure even William Gibson knew.

Why you do this, William Gibson?

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The Filth

Grant Morrison, Chris Weston & Gary Erskine The Filth (2004)
I gather Morrison regards this as the final part of a thematic trilogy, the first two having been Flex Mentallo and The Invisibles. Flex Mentallo was okay but I thought The Invisibles was fucking awful, so my take on The Filth therefore amounts to it being The Invisibles done right. The influence of what I now recognise as Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's Illuminatus! remains tangible, here manifest in scuba-diving dolphins, five sided insignia, secret societies, and the continuous layering of reality; but with The Filth there feels like some point beyond wearisome influences garishly embroidered on a sleeve in the hope of casually scandalising an uptight relative. Where The Invisibles was trying far too hard, this plays its cards close to its chest. This also means The Filth seems more obtuse, but I'd prefer to have to work a little than put up with all the screeching.

Greg Feely is a lonely, old man - happily very much not a sulky teenager hanging out in Camden Town with the fashionably disorientated - whose main interests are pornography and Tony, his beloved cat. He also seems to be suffering from delusional schizophrenic episodes in which he works for a secret society called the Hand, unless these episodes aren't actually delusional. Personally I suspect that they are and that the bulk of the narrative comprises an interference pattern formed from Greg's inability to cope with his miserable reality, and that the point of the story is that neither version of reality is necessarily more true than the other. The Hand serve as a force policing the filth, namely all the negative, regressive stuff which seemingly renders human existence so miserable - Moorcock termed it entropy and Philip K. Dick called it kipple if that helps. So The Filth replaces the traditional comic book duality of good and evil with something closer to suffering and redemption. Not that this is necessarily spelled out as such, but it struck me as significant that the heart of the book - the bit which really matters - is also the smallest detail, namely Feely's relationship with Tony, his cat. Admittedly this could just be a distorted impression brought on by my own love of cats, and the fact that I too began to care about what became of Tony. I suppose this means that I too have become a character within the narrative, or something, which is probably relevant given Morrison's characteristic layering, particularly where the Hand intervene in the events of something existing as a comic book in their universe.

The Filth is like The Invisibles with a point and without the showboating, and might also be seen as a dry-run for Seven Soldiers of Victory or Final Crisis given its exploration of the medium it inhabits. That said, it's often disjointed and appears designed to keep the reader disorientated, the effect of which is that the narrative seems all surface, but here it works, inviting us to make the connection rather than smirking out a lizardy don't you understand? before ordering another crème de menthe. This is sort of why I find Morrison such a frustrating writer - why did The Invisibles even exist when he's capable of something like this?

Monday, 1 August 2016

The Manitou

Graham Masterton The Manitou (1976)
I wanted to see the film ever since I read about it in Starburst magazine when I was a kid, but never did, which is probably for the best because it's probably crap. Then about ten years ago I found Revenge of the Manitou in the local library. I started reading it but didn't get very far for some reason, and so all I took from this was a realisation of the film I never saw having been based on a novel. More recently I've been vaguely engaged in an effort to catch up with my own past, reading things I've either forgotten or never finished, so I've been on the look out for this for a while on the grounds of it making more sense to read this one, then see if I can still be arsed to hunt down the sequel and have another crack at it.

I'm not really a fan of the horror novel, excepting I suppose a few things which I'm not sure should really count as horror. The problem is that the genre only seems to have one story so far as I can tell: uh oh - there's some horrible stuff happening so let's hope there's a logical explanation for it, but - oh shit - there isn't, and it really is the horrible thing we were afraid it might be, and there's no way to stop it, but somehow we've managed to stop it so everything's fine; or is it? Therefore, as with Frank Carson's jokes, the success of horror fiction is in the telling and how well the author can blindside the reader by hanging something interesting or even genuinely surprising on a retread of the aforementioned story - zombie squirrels, the undead spirit of an ice-cream man turned killer, some other incongruous juxtaposition of the innocuous and the visceral; or they might just try to make us throw up by describing dripping cocks sewn onto human foreheads, but that stuff isn't really worth bothering with; and nor is anyone who tells you that such and such a tedious gorefest has anything interesting to say about the human condition, because it usually doesn't.

I suppose Native American mythology seemed like a new angle in 1975, and so we have The Manitou. The story runs uh oh - there's some horrible stuff happening so let's hope there's a logical explanation for it, but - oh shit - there isn't, and it really is an evil Native American medicine man born again from a womb-like tumour growing on a young woman's shoulder, and there's no way to stop him taking revenge for what the white man has done to his country, but somehow we've managed to stop him so everything's fine; or is it? I'm not an authority on Native American mythologies by a long shot, although I've picked up bits and pieces through how they relate to aspects of the Mesoamerican cultures to the south; but I'm pretty sure that most of the lore here is horseshit invented by the author based on a few Ripley's Believe It or Not strips in the Sunday newspaper. It doesn't ring true; it makes the basic error of assuming that Native American culture was a single thing comprising consistent variations on a single belief system; and it imposes a good-evil duality upon native American mythology which doesn't really work, at least not from my understanding of the subject.

In addition, whilst I'm rolling my eyes, Masterton is pretty damn free and easy with the term Redskin, so it's one of those of its time novels frequently championed by those who feel that political correctness is somehow ruining their lives.

'Maybe we're totally mistaken,' said Amelia. 'Perhaps the spirit is somebody living today. I mean, a hooked nose doesn't have to be Indian. It could be Jewish.'

She's probably thinking of Masterton's The Rabbi.

Anyway, once you're resigned to all of the above, and the fact that what you're reading is essentially horseshit, The Manitou is actually surprisingly decent for what it is. I managed to assume that liberties taken with Native American mythology were mostly things I hadn't heard of, and the author remains judiciously vague in this respect. The opening chapters with fortune telling, tarot cards, and a bewildering reference to watching an episode of Kojak on the telly seem vaguely hokey, but the pace is sufficient to keep the reader interested, and it pays off once we're past the half way mark. It might hopefully occur to some readers that the Manitou has an entirely legitimate reason to be pissed off, and Masterton happily meets the issue head-on in a couple of places.

Singing Rock frowned. 'But surely you wouldn't object if we transferred the Manitou to someone useless—like a hopeless drug addict, maybe, or a bum from the Bowery, or a Negro criminal?'

'Singing Rock, that's out of the question. This whole thing has happened because one race exercised prejudice against another. If it hadn't been for the way the Dutch threatened this medicine man back in 1650, he wouldn't be here now, threatening us. I can't see that there's any justification for doing the same thing all over again to another racial minority. I mean, we'd just be perpetuating the evil.'

It would still be a massive stretch to claim this as a novel about relative values and issues of race - as I expect some horror bores have doubtless tried - but Masterton's views are nevertheless refreshing, so I'm inclined to disregard a few instances of Prince Phillip style cultural insensitivity. Additionally, the climatic end in which somehow we've managed to stop him so everything's fine wheels out some genuinely surprising shit, not least help enlisted from the spirit of the computer down at the Police Department.

It's a horror novel with all of the limitations of the genre, but The Manitou does its best, and generally succeeds, and does it so quickly that no-one has time to get bored. I'd say classic might be stretching a point, but it's certainly a decent read.