A Year In Books – August

The Fog – James Herbert
Fugue For A Darkening Island – Christopher Priest
The Sword of the Gael – Andrew J Offutt
Orbitsville – Bob Shaw
Kill the Dead – Tanith Lee

The Fog by James Herbert

As a much younger man, The Fog was one of those novels that utterly thrilled me, there was something just so . . illicit about owning and reading it. Its pages were filled with graphic violence, graphic sex and a horror sensibility far removed from the Hammer movies and Universal monster features which I knew (loved and still love to this day) as horror.

First of all, of course, it was set in the present day (well, the 1970s, which were the present day to me, back then) its hero a fairly ordinary bloke placed in extraordinary circumstances, secondly it moved at a cracking pace, particularly compared to, say, a novel like Jaws which to the thirteen or fourteen year old me was a huge disappointment (I wanted the film in a book, instead I got a rather ponderous examination of small town tropes with nary an exploding shark in sight) thirdly, as perhaps more importantly, there was the aforementioned sex and violence.

Back then, no one did literary violence like James Herbert, not even Stephen King. A few pretenders to the crown came along in due course – most notably Shaun Hutson and Guy N. Smith – but, for me, James Herbert was the original and the best.

I’d read his first novel, The Rats (another illicit classic), the story of 70s London under siege from giant, mutant flesh-stripping and intelligent rodents, itself filled with the kind of gory imagery that no one else was doing (or dared to do?) but even that could not prepare me for the sheer visceral power of The Fog.

In a nutshell. . .

An experimental nerve gas is released by accident, a nerve gas that drives those infected by it into insane, homicidal rages, as it drifts across the country more and more people are driven to murderous madness, the race is on to find a cure and a way to stop the fog.

That’s it as far as plot goes. The hero of the novel, a minor civil servant named John Hollman (a sort of poundshop Philip Marlow) one of the earliest victims of the fog in its purest form finds that he is immune to its influence and is recruited by the government to aid them in its fight against this strange and seemingly unstoppable phenomena. But apart from Hollman, who serves as a literary guide through the novel, the fog has an uncomfortable way of dwelling on the victims of the fog itself, both those driven insane by it and, in turn, those who they butcher in their madness. Heads are lopped off, eyes gouged, old ladies eaten by cats, drunken men killed by pigeons, farmers trampled by cows, even the whole town of Eastbourne at one point commits mass suicide by walking into the sea and, in the novel’s most memorable and unsettling scene, a group of schoolboys turn upon their teacher and torture him to death.

As Herbert points out in his 1988 introduction to the book, a large part of his inspiration for the fog came from the so-called ‘cosy catastrophe’ novels of 1950s and 60s and its easy to see the shadows of John Wyndham, John Christoper and John Blackburn looming over Herbert’s shoulder. But this is one catastrophe that is anything but cosy.

Even now, some forty years on, The Fog has lost little of its power even if it is not quite as graphic as most reviewers at the time suggested and the rise of splatterpunk and extreme horror have given us writers who go even further than Herbert did in terms of on-page violence. In fact its probably true to say that much of Herbert’s violence is implied rather than described (the infamous castration scene with the previously mentioned schoolboys is, on re-reading, no where near as graphic on the page as it is in the reader’s mind).

And, in retrospect, The Fog has had a wider influence than might be imagined, not just in terms of literary horror but in other aspects of the genre. The Infected of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later owe a great deal to Herbert’s fog maddened maniacs, as do the “fast zombies” of 2004’s Dawn of the Dead and there is little doubt in my mind that, more recently, the eponymous villains of Garth Ennis’ brutal and brutally entertaining Crossed comic are the direct descendants of Herbert’s 1975 novel.

After The Rats and The Fog, James Herbert changed tack somewhat (a couple of Rats sequels not withstanding) and the mass destruction of his early novels soon gave way to smaller and more personal horrors (perhaps rightly, since one can only wreck London so many times) but he had already forged a path that horror fiction would remain upon for some time to come.

A classic from, what was for me, the golden age of the British horror novel.

Fugue For A Darkening Island – Christopher Priest

As a rule of thumb, science fiction doesn’t indulge in prophesy. Rather, as Brian Stableford has said, most sf takes place in the most interesting rather than the most plausible future. This is not to say, of course, that sf writers don’t get it right sometimes – to name but a few. . . Norman Spinrad envisioned a media dominated world in his seminal novel Bug Jack Barron then gave us a globe where America has become a Third World country in a world dominated by East Asia in The Lost Continent, William Gibson gave us the rise of the internet and multi-national corporations in Neuromancer and H.G Wells predicted the use of tank and aerial warfare (amongst other things).

Christopher Priest’s 1972 novel Fugue For A Darkening Island (also known as Darkening Island in the U.S) is one of those novels that, to contemporary readers, might seem like a prophetic work – warfare in Africa has driven the population away from their homes and into Europe in their millions and, subsequently, given rise to the extreme right in European politics. In the novel, it also leads to a second English civil war where the pro and anti Afrim factions clash over London and the Home Counties. And although the current political situation in Europe with regards to refugees from the Middle East is nowhere near as bleak as the imagined future which Priest presents us with, it is tempting to draw a few parallels between the fictional and real worlds.

Focusing on Alan Whitman, a university lecturer who, with his family, flees an increasingly violent and overcrowded London in the hope of finding sanctuary elsewhere, only to find himself drawn into a wider and more savage conflict (like the Balkan war transported to 70s England), Fugue For A Darkening Island is a story of moral, societal and individual disintegration. Initially a ineffectual, ambiguous and, at times, downright weak man by the end of the narrative, with its detached and chilling denouement, Whitman has become absorbed by events over which he has little or no control.

Like the previously mentioned James Herbert novel, The Rats, Fugue For A Darkening Island is heavily indebted to the British catastrophe novel and, in particular, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass, with which it shares much in common, although this is not to say that Fugue For A Darkening Island is in any way derivative, particularly given its fragmented narrative structure where the past and present mingle freely together.

A bleak slice of 70s British sf from one of the finest writers in the genre, one who would go on to write even more remarkable novels like The Affirmation and The Prestige.

The Sword of the Gael – Andrew J. Offutt

There once was a time when Robert E. Howard ruled the fantasy roost. With the Lancer reprints of his Conan stories (added to by L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter and many others) Howard became one of the principle engines of heroic fantasy, so much so that almost any character created by Howard became fair game for pastiche. Conan, of course, was the main focus and writers as diverse as Robert Jordan, Karl Edward Wagner and Poul Anderson added to the saga of the mighty thewed Cimmerian at one time or another.

But Howard, as most fans of sword and sorcery will know, was much more than Conan.

One of his creations, Cormac Mac Art, an Irish sea-reaver who lived, loved and fought in a mythical Ireland, centuries after the fall of the Fianna.

Although Howard himself only produced a small amount of fiction about Cormac – a couple of complete short stories and a couple of unfinished fragments – the potential of the character as a ‘second Conan’ (or perhaps a second cousin of Conan) was picked up on by fantasy-hungry publishers and, as a result, half a dozen Cormac novels were penned by Andrew Offutt (two in collaboration with the Australian author Keith Taylor).

The Sword of the Gael was the first of the series, a dark and sweeping saga of the outlawed Cormac’s return to Errin and his adventures along the way.

Taking a minor Howard character and enlarging upon his life and exploits was something of a labour of love for Offutt as he explains in his introduction and if he takes a few liberties with Irish history along the way, where’s the harm in that?

Packed with incident and lashings of sword-swinging violence, The Sword of the Gael is good old school sword and sorcery – evil druids, marauding Vikings, bloodthirsty Picts, bandits and even at one point a monstrous octopus which threatens the safety of Cormac and his lover.

Taking as it does part of its literary inspiration from the Kiltartanese of Lady Gregory, modern readers might find the dialogue a little bit ‘and it’s the taking of your life I’m going to be’ and there are moments when Cormac’s use of the words ‘dairlin’ girl’ smacks of John Ford/ Victor McLaglen “Oirishness” but all in all it’s a fast-paced and fun read.

Orbitsville – Bob Shaw

Given the wealth of fantastical literature that Ireland has given the world, there are surprisingly few ‘pure’ Irish science fiction writers. Bob Shaw was one of the finest. Working firmly in the Anglo-American tradition of sf, his work was often sweeping in scope, verging on Van Vogtian style space opera.

Orbitsville (and its subsequent sequels Orbitsville Departure and Orbitsville Judgement) was among his most ambitious works, featuring as its central notion the discovery of an enormous Dyson sphere, equivalent in size to five billion earths, and its impact on humanity.

Initially set on vastly overcrowded Earth, Orbitsville begins with the accidental but chilling death of a child. Not any child, but the only son of Elizabeth Lindstrom, the most powerful individual on both Earth and Terra Nova (the only other world capable of supporting human life) and a vengeful, somewhat unhinged individual to boot.

Although blameless, starship pilot Vance Garamond allows the death of Elizabeth Lindstrom’s son – or rather, is powerless to prevent it – and is forced to flee her inevitable wrath. Realizing that the only chance that he and his family have to survive is to find the mythical Third Planet, Garamond and his crew head into uncharted (or undercharted) space and there find the vast artificial world that gives Orbitsville its title.

Up to this point, Orbitsville is a fairly standard, although enjoyable, space romp. Garamond is a likeable protagonist cast in a Captain Kirk mould and Elizabeth Lindstrom proves a suitable villain for the piece. In other hands this might have been a standard ‘chase and pursuit across the stars’ narrative, but Shaw is less interested in the mechanics of the adventure story than in the possibilities of Orbitsville itself, vast and unknown yet seemingly benign.

Much of the novel is taken up with the struggle to understand the unknowable – and many of the questions thrown up, such as who build Orbitsville and why and left unanswered, simply because the answer cannot be found by the characters, leaving the story with an enigma at its heart.

The enmity between Lindstrom and Garamond runs in parallel to the exploration of Orbitsville, and in some ways, although the initial engine of the story, feels a little tacked on, particularly towards the end of the novel when Garamond is forced into a Jack Vance kind of derring-do in order to rescue his wife and child from Lindstrom’s insidious clutches, but on the other hand a simple exploration story would probably have proven less than satisfactory, too.

Ultimately, Orbitsville raises questions of nature over nurture, of how environment shapes our wants, needs and desires, with Orbitsville itself overwhelming the characters both in literal and figurative terms.

Arguably Bob Shaw’s best work, Orbitsville is an intelligent and thoughtful novel where the Idea rather than the characters provides the central focus.

Kill the Dead – Tanith Lee

When Tanith Lee passed away earlier this year she left behind her a huge and often impressive body of work (some 90 novels and over 300 short stories) ranging from the sword and sorcery/ sword and planet of the Birthgrave Trilogy, the decadent and erotic Paradys cycle, the epic fantasy of the Wars of Vis sequence and numerous forays into science fiction and horror, all touched with her lush and dark prose.

Kill the Dead, first published in 1980, is probably a minor work in her canon but no less enjoyable for all that.

Parl Dro is an exorcist, a ghost-killer in a haunted world, who’s task in life is to help unquiet spirits pass into the afterlife, a dangerous job and one that does not always meet with approval. Myal Lemyal is a musician and thief – a genius at one and highly skilled at the other – who becomes Dro’s unwanted companion in the ultimate quest to find the ghost city of Ghyste Mortua and destroy it.

The two are pursued by the vengeful ghost of Ciddy Soban, a witch with a grudge against Dro, more than willing to ally herself with the murderous spectres of Ghyste Mortua in order to bring about the death of the ghost-killer.

A short and fairly slight novel, its strength lies in its small cast of principal characters and the world which Tanith Lee builds around them, reminiscent of the Renaissance in some ways but without the usual Eurocentric bias so often found in fantasy.

To say more might spoil the story but, as is so often the way with Tanith Lee, there is more to Kill the Dead than meets the eye and the novel’s twists and turns are deftly handled, leading to a genuinely moving climax where the whole nature of what has gone before is challenged and revealed.

As a side-note, Kill the Dead has a link with the cult BBC science fiction series Blake’s Seven. Tanith Lee had written a couple of episodes of the show and was, by all accounts, much taken with the performance of Paul Darrow who played the cool-as-ice anti-hero Avon, so much so that she effectively cast him as Parl Dro in the novel (and with at least a small nod to Michael Keating who played the slippery thief Vila in the same series).

Not vintage Tanith Lee, perhaps, but a damn good novel.

In addition:

Senso – Camillo Boito. Written in 1882, Senso is a novella by the Italian writer Camillo Boito, a lush and often erotic story of spurned love, unwise desire and the revenge of a woman scorned.

Lot – Ward Moore. I think I have lost count of the number of times I have read Ward Moore’s Lot over the years. I first read it in secondary school as part of the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus and have silently blessed the bureaucrat who decided that it should be on the syllabus. A pre- (as opposed to post-) holocaust story about a middle-class family fleeing nuclear war and the decisions their father makes in order to survive. A classic.

Born With the Dead – Robert Silverberg. I haven’t read a lot of Silverberg but Born With the Dead is one of my favourite novellas. In a world where it is possible to be reborn after death into a spiritual post-humanity, a man searches for his wife hoping to rekindle their love. Beautifully written with a heartbreaking ending.

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