Monday, 27 December 2010

'The religious imagination, he felt, was a most precious part of the human spirit, but he was convinced that it did not require particular religious beliefs, or indeed any religious belief.' Oliver Sacks on David Randolph

THE LAST EXORCISM (2010)



I thought that the last major English-language exorcism-themed movie that I saw, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, was morally reprehensible. Created in the wake of cases where exorcism techniques contributed to the death of a minor, the movie claimed to present a dialogue between faith and doubt and wound up stacking the odds in favour of faith and tacitly condoning the emotional and physical abuse innocent, troubled people are subjected to in the name of faith.

So when I read about this, a film that portrays an evangelical minister who has had a crisis of faith and wishes to do one last exorcism in the company of a documentary film crew to expose the whole fraudulent process, I had high hopes. Even given that it was a horror film, there were so many ways the horror could play out without falling into the sanctimonious space occupied by the Emily Rose flick.

And for a while, that's what it seemed to be. When his disabled son is helped by doctors, he realises he is grateful to the doctors, not to god. He reads of an autistic child being killed during an exorcism, and this compounds his disillusionment. So far so good. The backwoods Louisiana farmer whose daughter is apparently possessed is a man of stern, almost insane faith, which provides an ironic contrast to the slick reverend, who is able to work the charismatic godman mojo on autopilot even after his crisis.

Then it turns out that the girl in question is more than just a little troubled, and the reverend's brand of exorcism-as-catharsis isn't enough to chase away her demons. Still, those demons are presented as purely psychological, and I have no issue with any of what is shown right up until the last 15 minutes of the film. That's when the film takes a sudden u-turn into schlock Hammer-style Horror, complete with Satanic cult, demon fetus and murderous cultists - all updated via Blair Witch-style shakeycam mockumentary cinematography.

Those last few minutes might serve up the requisite eleventh-hour big screen horror chills, but they also betray all the promise of the rest of the movie. So - the girl wasn't possessed, but the reverend was wrong and the devil still is real? Who wrote this script, the pope? Maybe this wasn't a loathsome apology for child abuse like 'Emily Rose', but 'The Last Exorcism' was a film that had a chance to stick to a skeptical, humanist viewpoint and still be a chilling film, and then threw it all away to hit a few all-too-familiar horror flick power chords.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Most 'creative' people I know, meet them again 5 years later and they still haven't written that novel, painted that masterpiece, drawn that graphic novel, composed that awesome set of songs, but they've thought up so many new ways to make money out of their so-called talent. Here's a little credo against becoming like them. 

There are so many ways for people with some creative ability to dumb down what they do and sprinkle a bunch of bullshit keywords and jargon over it and make money.

Most people with any talent whom I've known tend to fall quite happily into that rut and get by for years, decades even, without ever doing anything creative that stretches them to the limits of their ability and is compelled from within rather than from fiscal necessity.

To live like this is a fundamental form of dishonesty; it doesn't matter if they make token gestures like clinging to a bohemian lifestyle or refusing to wear ties. They are already cogs in the machine, because the machine is cunning and knows how to use their surface individuality to power its own cookie-cutter agenda.

Don't spend your whole life being a cog.

Start a web comic and update it at least twice a month. Write a short story every week. Keep the good ones, revise them, send them out. If they get rejected, start a webzine and publish yourself. Start a garage band. Rehearse like you mean to break into the Top Twenty, but write songs that actually mean something. Do something, anything, for the love of it. Do it consistently, keep getting better at it. It may get you nowhere, but at least you'll die having lived, and not just having packaged and hawked your surface individuality to the corporate overlords.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

It's That Easy

'you need to sound human, and that the only way to do that is to BE human'

death, again and always

It's been horrific.

All day, the sounds of trees being cut, the roar and rumble of construction equipment. At night, the barking of dogs around 2 AM as displaced strays from the construction site roam the yards and alleys looking for new turf.

Then, on, saturday, after three nights in a row of letting the strays out of a fenced compound down below that they'd been jumping into but couldn't scale out of, the bodies. Two of our lovely, peripatetic cats dead. Suddenly we realise why three of our other cats who loved to roam the neighbourhood haven't come home for a while. Asking around, Yasmine finds that a dead cat was found in an adjoining compound. Sounds like one of ours. I'm scared to pursue this line of inquiry.

So now we go around at night, rounding up all the little furry wanderers, bringing them back home and locking them in for the night. Yasmine built a barricade out of abandoned lumber and discarded plumbing. It seems to have kept the dogs out, but this morning we could hear them rattling the pipes. They want to find their way back in. They mean to.

I feel like Neville, but worse, with a flock to look after and protect from the nocturnal siege.

It's horrific.

Monday, 20 December 2010

This book is currently rocking my world:





Odysseus/Ulysses is an interesting character, a man on the verge. He's not quite like the rest of the Achaean heroes, not driven by rage like Achilles, pride like Ajax or greed like Agamemnon.  His motivations and methods are more complex and subtle, and this subtlety has often brought him odium - accusations of cowardice, trickery and deceit. Placed in a 4th century legend, he belongs more to the emerging Greek world of the 5th century, he's a forerunner to a more recognisably modern type, but he's still archaic in many ways, still halfway between Trickster and Hero, roles that, at his best he combines to present a more integrated ideal. He is an exemplary character, but even the qualities he exemplifies are more subtle than simple courage, strength or honour. The different phases of his myth-history, the ways in which different eras have reacted to and redefined him say a lot about changing ideas of morality, reality and humanity. Perhaps all this will also serve as part of a big build-up to a re-read of both Homer and Joyce next year.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Beethoven during breakfast

saturday morning

the roar of the construction sites churns the hapless air
they're building tombstone towers for the zombies out there
i'm listening to beethoven's fifth
i'm nursing a clenched fist
three days after an old friendship finally comes to its senses and ends
there is a moment when someone reminds me that we're old friends

and i decide not to have that glass of brandy after all
so why am i pincering splinters out of my gullet
why am i laughing blood into the air
filled now with the final ride into the breathless allegro

(That was a weak poem by me. The title is a reference to this, a rather good poem by Richard Wilbur)

Friday, 17 December 2010

I should just dedicate the rest of my life to quoting M. John Harrison. Here we go again:

A fantasy is not a promissory note, cashable in the bank of the real. A fantasy should attempt to stand for something that isn’t there; somewhere in the turbulence generated by that attempt, it should imply all the things that are.

ted, just admit it

Science, Education & Art are more important.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Yesterday, waiting for a traffic light to change, I found myself beside a stationery shop. For nearly 4 minutes I gazed at this paragon of blameless, beneficial and clement industry, wondering why I had not ended up in such a placid and stable job. Then I thought about the forests axed, about the slow shift to pixel, and I decided it was probably a pipe dream anyway. A momentary pipe dream of a stationary occupation.

'I think we're property. '

The Radia Tapes leak showed us what most reasonably aware Indians have long known or at least strongly suspected - that the nation is little more than a private project being run by a small group of CEOs, politicians, gurus and journalists. In a similar way, the Wikileaks shutdowns have shown us what we all should have known all along - that the net is not free or open, and it never was.

Pigs, geese, cattle.
First find out they are owned.
Then find out the whyness of it.
I suspect that, after all, we're useful -- that among contesting claimants, adjustment has occurred, or that something now has a legal right to us, by force, or by having paid out analogues of beads for us to former, more primitive, owners of us -- all others warned off -- that all this has been known, perhaps for ages, to certain ones upon this earth, a cult or order, members of which function like bellwethers to the rest of us, or as superior slaves or overseers, directing us in accordance with instructions received -- from Somewhere else -- in our mysterious usefulness.
- Charles Fort, The Book Of The Damned (1919)

Friday, 10 December 2010

The cry for likable characters that resounds across user-generated book review pages. How does it signify? I can understand wanting coworkers, parents, friends, spouses you can like - better yet, wanting downright amazing, challenging and constantly stimulating characters in said roles. But likable is so dishrag, so neutered Legacy Character. Likable is what happens when you take the idea of following the adventures of two rogues but then sink into soap operatic explorations of past traumas and comings of various ages to the point of overwhelming the essential roguishness. Fafhrd & Mouser rarely paused to dwell on past regret before moving on to the next heist, the next wench, the next crazy caper. Likable? Not always. Compelling? Completely.
 (Here observe a likable fellow; a family man; religious; would do anything to help a pal)

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Timescape by Gregory Benford

This is a fascinating and gripping novel, full of ideas, expressed lyrically but with precision and peopled with well-rounded characters whose personal and inner lives are not merely dimension-lending addenda to the story. It falls apart a bit because there are maybe too many ideas, too many strands of thought and speculation - time travel, time paradoxes, multiple universes, the nature of time, of reality, of causation, unpredictable outcomes, environmental myopia and so forth. These are all interesting elements, dealt with intelligently, but it's all a bit too much for even this relatively lengthy novel (around 400 pages in trade paperback) and as a result some of the themes seem insufficiently explored or resolved. Still, a good novel, both as science fiction and as fiction, and it gives me more reason to explore Benford's work than the first of his novels that I tried, 'Against Infinity'.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper, thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don't even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.
 - Marcel Proust. Quote via A Piece Of Monologue who found it in Alain de Botton's Proust book.

Monday, 6 December 2010

There Will Be Skulls

Wow.

I've always known Silverberg is one of the Great Old Ones. A cornerstone of the genre, author of books like Nightwings, Thorns and Dying Inside that are classics in  the genre, and would be classics outside the genre as well if the consensus cogs would get their heads out from up the bums of D. DeLillo, I. McEwan and so forth for long enough to notice. But it's one thing to admit a writer into your personal canon and and quite another to be reminded, knee to the groin, uppercut to the jaw, nose leaking blood, head pinned down in the sand, that here, make no mistakes, is the real thing - a champion brawler, and he's not pulling his punches.

The Book Of Skulls is a yarn about four young men on a quest for immortality. It's a playing out of a cunningly crafted problem in human nature - given that only two out of four will win, that one must kill himself and one must be killed with the consent of the others, who will crack, who will triumph, and why?

It's a quadruple character study as we weave in between four first-person narratives, each one not perfectly reliable, each one rendered with perfect pitch. A virtuoso performance, but that's not all. Why are these four young men on this quest? Which of their motivations has what it takes to survive all the hardships and doubts on the way? What makes a person strong or weak? Silverberg unfolds answers to these questions with a feel for plot, language and character that is frankly awe-inspiring.

He also scores one for the genre in general.This story could not have been so profound and so real if it was just another 70s yarn about college boys from different backgrounds roadtripping across the US of A. It's the fantastic element that throws everything into perspective, that lets Silverberg give his story the momentum, presence and the power to say something about the everyday human concerns that underpin it. They say speculative fiction is about thought experiments and this is a thought experiment in human nature, conceived and carried out by a behemoth talent.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

three new ones

1. marginalia
There's a margin of error
a margin for miscalculations
a margin for the unexpected
In my book of squares
a margin where the solution is worked out
a margin for calculation
a margin where the expected evolves
Beyond the margin, the next page
or no pages at all: the rest of the world

2. exotica
 definitely a scent of coriander
and quite certainly a whiff
of devil's root
then let's take a walk
yes that is a jacaranda
see where the domesticated
holy basil blossoms
you want grime? contrast? We'll
see unwashed children
play in and with dirt
leave mounds of dung
alongside this ribbon of black
 - that men rush along
alone in vehicles that seat eight
- that is dug up every three months
phone lines, water lines, power lines
see the data pulsing, humming
the antiseptic boxes of servitude
where serfs earn the right
to strut in their own realm
you want texture, scent, stink,
old, new, young, old,
silk, cotton, jute, gold, lies, truth
a senile culture/a superpower's youth
yes ma'am, yes sir
it's all here just walk this way
you'll have it all
I'll introduce you to the exotic pets
who will sing to you the exotic texts
just don't expect me
to wait around and listen

3. minutiae
now that I've dispensed
with the pomp and expense
of the large themes

I can start
my diary of dreams

Monday, 29 November 2010

two from Italy

 Black Sunday, I'm afraid did not do it for me at all. Barbara Steele is a horror icon, and both director Bava and this film are considered to be cornerstones of Italian and indeed European horror. Personally, I thought the atmosphere and character design (as far as the two villains went) was brilliant, but the story itself did nothing especially interesting or well. The opening scene with the mask of Satan is searing, but that intensity is lost in a film that meanders about, spending far too much time with the wrong characters. There was an eerie story here about a young girl growing up in an isolated castle, each day resembling the portrait of an ill-fated ancestress even more. A story about a personality that managed to survive death, shaping innocent victims into its own form until it could find the perfect vessel. But it is lost in a stock horror plot that adds nothing new to the bag of tricks pioneered by Universal in the 30s and 40s and fails to capitalise on its sporadic moments of utter brilliance.


Far more satisfying was Umberto D. which sat perfectly on that cusp between the maudlin and the cynical both of which are viewpoints that would have distorted the humane clarity of this brilliant story. I really can't bring myself to say more than that - you simply have to watch this one, if you haven't already.

Friday, 26 November 2010

"What helps for me-- if help comes at all-- is to find the mustard seed of the funny at the core of the horrible and futile."

 - Philip K Dick

In that spirit, a new, futile fiction.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

favourite music of 2010, so far

I've listened to maybe a 100 of this year's releases so far and here are a few that stood out. In no particular order:

  1. Fatso Jetson: Archaic Volumes
  2. Triptykon: Eparistera Daimones
  3. Horn Of The Rhino: Weight Of Coronation
  4. Karma To Burn: Appalachian Incantation
  5. Drudkh: Handful Of Stars
  6. Hail Of Bullets: On Divine Winds
  7. Man's Gin
  8. Jeff Beck: Emotion And Commotion
  9. Ramesses: Take The Curse
  10. Firebird: Double Diamond
  11. Samsara Blues Experiment: Long Distance Trip
  12. Darkthrone: Circle The Wagons
  13. Bison BC: Dark Ages
  14. Earthride: Something Wicked
  15. Torche: Songs For Singles
  16. Eibon: Entering Darkness
  17. Sardonis
  18. Bongripper: Satan Worshipping Doom
  19. Dragonauta: Cruz Invertida
  20. La Otracina: Reality Has Got To Die
  21. Kings Of Frog Island 3
  22. Slough Feg: The Animal Spirit
  23. Agrimonia: Host Of The Winged
  24. Weapon: From The Devil's Tomb
  25. Coffinworm: When All Became None
  26. Negura Bunget: Virstele Pamintului
  27. Deathspell Omega: Paracletus
  28. Those Poor Bastards: Gospel-Haunted
  29. Melechesh: The Epigenesis
  30. Immolation: Majesty And Decay
  31. Zoroaster: Matador
  32. Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky
  33. Witchery: Witchkrieg
  34. Nominon: Monumentomb

SEX MISSION




When I heard about this movie, over on the Science Fiction forums on yuku, I knew I had to seek it out and watch it, ASAP, as the corporate drones say. A Polish film, it was made in 1984, Iron Curtain still intact, Communist regime still in place, and became one of the most popular Polish films ever. How did they get away with it?

Because, despite the title and the flashes of nudity throughout this film, it isn't even a soft porn but a social and political satire in that broad, knowing but not quite cynical manner that I associate with Eastern European satire in general. In the 90s - the near future when this film was made - two men are put in suspended animation as an experiment. They are to be revived in three years. Instead, when they are finally awakened, half a century has passed. A global war involving nuclear and biological weapons has rendered the surface of the earth uninhabitable and wiped out the male species. Female survivors live in underground shelters, reproducing by what essentially amounts to a form of cloning.

When the two men are found and resurrected, they soon find that this all-female future world has no room for them, considering them 'the missing link between apes and women' their fate is either to be killed or 'naturalised' - turned into females. One of the men is a cocky, swaggering braggart, the other a clumsy, bumbling worrier. Together, they have to somehow triumph over armed and deadly female warriors and find a way to escape. Fortunately, the braggart's inept attentions have stirred long-dormant instincts in one of the female scientists...

This film is often laugh-out-loud hilarious with its digs on politics of both the sexual and official variety. Much fun is had at the expense of various forms of sexism and authoritarianism - so much so that one can't help but wonder what the censors made of it all. A hidden gem from the bad old Cold War world (already then on its last legs) and an excellent science fiction satire.

Monday, 22 November 2010


I've finished Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang, and I liked it quite a lot. Ostensibly a post-apocalyptic novel about cloning, it's basically a meditation on the role of individuality and our relationship with nature as defining elements of being human. Kate Wilhelm suggests that our grounding in our own sense of individualism and our feeling of kinship with nature are powerful components of humanity that we would not do well to outgrow.

The genetic holocaust that overtakes her near-future world is not particularly deeply explored or explained as it is in books like Brunner's The Sheep Look Up where the nature of the apocalypse itself is a large part of the theme of the story, and while the consequences of cloning form a large part of the plot machinery, the real emphasis here is not on a rigorous thought-exploration of the pros and cons and possible results of cloning, either. Instead, Wilhelm charts the gradual dilution of human nature into a sort of insectile collectivism through repeated cloning from the same limited gene bank and the resilient resurgence of the undiluted human spirit. Wilhelm's story states that it is better to forgo all the benefits of years of progress and technology and revert to a primitive form of life if it means preserving the diverse range of personalities and the instinctual elements of human nature.

It also touches on the importance of creativity, storytelling and myth-making to humanity, with the first truly human beings in several generations turning to artistic self-expression and the telling of just-so tales.

All this is framed in a narrative that, even if it is low on tech-talk and action, conveys a vivid sense of character and place. A very satisfying reading experience all in all, even if I'm just a little uncomfortable with the bucolic patriarchy established in the end - which is probably a reflection of how comfortable I am with the trappings of our decadent world civilization. Where the novel fell short for me is that none of the underlying points of the story were new, and probably weren't even at the time - paeans to individuality are not rare in American SF and the virtues of feral humanity as opposed to synthetic clones were explored in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

two lights

I wrote this for a short-short story competition in 2006. Didn't win anything. It'll fill a nice half-page in that posthumous collection.


'The lights help you to aim. When you eat the root and recite the chant, your vision will blur – this is temporary. Do not worry. Find the glowing lights, and align yourself in between and a little above them. Take a deep breath, and run towards this point as fast as you can, leaping up just as you come abreast of the table.'

'What's in the picture?'

'The painting itself is unimportant. A bucolic landscape in pre-industrial Europe, a close up of fungal growths on a dead bison – it makes no difference. For this moment, the canvas is a membrane, and one that you may penetrate.'

'What's on the other side?'

'A dying world circled with debris-rings, dwarfed by an immense red star, an archaic space where warring celestial factions loom ominous over a cowed populace, a gleaming, automated future where steel servitors nurture a fleshy elite, or a world just a sideways-step askew from our own – who knows? Others have seen these places, and more. You must tell us what you see, for we cannot tell you what you will see.'

'The chant is silly. What kind of mumbo-jumbo is that?'

'If it helps you focus, you can even chant the words to 'Louie Louie'. Our aesthetic sense is not that fragile.'

'What if I don't want to come back?'

'Oh, we'll get to you. An assailant in the park, a person from Porlock, a woman in a velvet mask – we'll get to you.'

'Oh.'

'So, are you ready?'

Sunday, 14 November 2010


let the chainsaws roar
the cry of the prayer-leader
ululates in discord
calling the faithless to feast
on these fallen idols
to strip the limbs and the hide
tattoo the flesh and expose the bones
trampled then to dust
beneath the feet
of the apes
scaling the towers

to this canopy of synthetic light
that blinds the night and hides the stars
and replaces dreams

ETA: Also see: http://penciljam.ning.com/group/dailysketchgroup/forum/topics/116-beware-its-the-tree-feller

what I've been reading lately: Moorcock and Manchu

I've long though of the Corum books as the least among Michael Moorcock's works; indeed, they don't match the verve of the End Of Time sequence, the madcap invention of the Cornelius quartet or the elegiac weirdness of the Elric tales at their best. But Moorcock at his closest approach to by-the-numbers epic fantasy is still head and shoulders above the average fantasy hack.

The Corum books begin with the end of an age that was nobler and more beautiful than ours; they follow the sole survivor of this world, Prince Corum Jhaelen Irsei in his attempts to mitigate the damage somehow and re-assert the balance between Law and Chaos by defeating the three Sword Rulers and helping the forces of Law regain some control. For the seasoned Moorcock reader, this immediately signals that Corum is another manifestation of the Eternal Champion and gives the story added resonance in the context of the ongoing struggle between law and chaos in Moorcock's Multiverse.

But even on the level of the first-time reader, what makes these books stand out from contemporaneous hack work by the likes of Brooks or Eddings is the complexity (not mere ambiguity) of Moorcock's moral context, his knack for vivid atmosphere and description, his ability to conjure up an entire culture in a few breathless sentences packed with descriptive lists and most of all, the utter weirdness he can conjure up. His fantasy owes more to the Weird Tales stable of writers than to Tolkien, but he goes one better than Robert E Howard at least in the depth of characterisation and, dare I say it, mastery of plot.

In short, I'm finding myself pleasantly surprised with the Corum books and am now 2/3 of the way through The Queen Of The Swords the second installment of the first Corum trilogy.

I've just finished The Mystery Of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the first of Sax Rohmer's Fu-Manchu thrillers. A lot of contemporary commentators emphasise the racism of these books, hinging as they do on the 'yellow peril'. For myself, I have to say that the racist elements that occasionally creep in hardly interfere with my enjoyment of these thrillingly paced and often very eerie thrillers. Rohmer had a great sense of atmosphere and tension and the weird elements, always amenable to reasonable explanations place these books somewhere on the peripheries of both horror and SF apart from being classic thrillers, I think. I've acquired the whole set of Fu-Manchu omnibus editions released by A&B in the 90s and look forward to revisiting this classic adventure series.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

THE HEARING TRUMPET - LEONORA CARRINGTON

I'm not the biggest fan of Penguin's policy of frequently reissuing chunks of their catalogue in new jackets or formats. There are entire blogs that seem to exist largely to croon lovingly over every new reissue, and I will admit that Penguin's redesigns tend to be aesthetically pleasing more often than not (there are exceptions - I still don't like the new look Modern Classics with their blurry snapshots and oversized sans-serif titles), but it's frustrating to have, for example, an un-uniform set of Nabokovs or Penguin's excellent set of Joshi-edited Lovecraft collections just because the titles in question were issued in both Black Classics and Modern Classics editions, subjected to the new Modern Classics redesign or simply put out in a special edition with new covers, and all in the space of about a decade, so that all the different editions may still be bought first-hand. Its things like this that have converted me to one of those quasi-Philistines who no longer judge a book by its cover (once thought of as a mark of wisdom, I believe).

On the other hand I can't really complain if it is that luxury edition of Pride And Prejudice or Lolita's eleventy-hundredth new cover which help to push sales and make it possible to include lesser-known treasures in the catalogue. Books like JL Carr's luminous 'A Month In The Country', or G. Nagarajan's bleak and brilliant 'Tomorrow Is One More day'. Or the book at hand, Leonora Carrington's 'The Hearing Trumpet'.

Leonora Carrington's own life is something of a marvel - an English heiress who ran away to join the Surrealists, was rescued from a Spanish sanitarium by her nanny, who arrived by submarine, a writer and artist in her own right who now lives out a remarkably extended old age in Mexico City.

As for her novel, it's every bit as original and astounding as her life seems to have been. It's hard to pin down its charm to any one factor - the sideways wit that propels memorable bon mots as wise and unexpected in their own way as the paradoxes of Wilde, the boundless, unconventional imagination that takes us from a sinister home for elderly women to Grail-chasing intrigue in the 18th century to the next Ice Age and beyond - the narrative voice, that of an incredibly ancient, somewhat doddering but definitely alert and irreverent old woman (one wonders if Carrington was anticipating her own older self) or the somewhat breathtaking vision of personal and global transformation that underpins the whole work.

This novel was a study in the unexpected for me - from the gradual opening-out of scales that takes us from an admittedly unusual old woman's senescent musings to the end of the world as we know it as well as for the unexpected delight of finding something so funny, wise, smart, weird and magnificent by someone I'd never heard of before. I'm far more resigned to putting up with Penguin's next novelty edition of Dickens if it helps ensure that I continue making finds like this elsewhere on their list.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Now this, perhaps, could be called the anti-Twilight. A romantic vampire movie in which monsters remain monsters and vampires are not romanticised. A young man encounters a mysterious young woman and tells her, quite accurately, that she is not like any other girl he has ever met. A fairly new vampire, she is one of a pack who roam the back roads of the southern USA, finding victims to slake their blood thirst in a variety of creative and nasty ways. A pack of killers, and now it seems that young Caleb, bitten and turning, has to join them - or be killed.

Despite a couple of plot holes, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. The 80s aren't really my favourite decade for horror (although they're a lot better than the 90s) but this film shows off the slick 80s look at its best and marshals an excellent ensemble cast together to deliver a story that brings us to the very verge of vampiric cool without falling off.

Because vampires are monsters, parasites who kill to live, and this movie never lets us forget it, even as the vampires go about their dirty deeds in a series of scenes of escalating violence that culminates in a massacre in a highway diner that shows off both the deadly style that the vampires exude as skilled, enthusiastic killers and the terrible, senseless brutality of what it is that they do.

Best of all, the movie plays out a happy ending to its love story, one that does not require the monstrous to be somehow vindicated or diluted, quite to the contrary. This is a horror story that does not have difficulty in telling apart the horrific and the human, and for that alone it is worth viewing, despite a few flaws.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Story Behind: Run For Your Life


For some stupid reason, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine has agreed to publish my story 'To Stand And Stare' in their 48th issue. As a build-up I'm regaling my minuscule audience with incredibly detailed essays about the making of some my previous, immensely obscure, short stories.

This time, I've chosen to write about Run For Your Life, published by the online magazine Pratilipi (who may be running something else by me later this year, by the way).

Sometime in 2003, I left the advertising business for what should have been the last time (I foolishly ventured back in 2008 but luckily it didn't last). At a loose end after 4 months of prison camp conditions I did something I very rarely do, homebound slug that I am - I agreed to go on a roadtrip with a friend. We rode to Sravanabelagola, Belur and Halebid with a stopover at Hasan, where my mother used to live at the time. We stopped at a few wayside bars during this time and I got to wondering about their clientele, especially the ones who came in, gulped down large shots of their favourite booze and quickly exited. Once, I saw a barman chasing a fleeing customer. Apparently the customer, a poor farmer from a nearby village, had downed three large shots of rum before attempting to run away without paying his bill. A while later, the barman returned, winded and without his quarry.
This incident had a lot of resonance for me. In the last year, I'd been out of work more often than not, and underpaid when I was working. It's the poorest I've been yet in my adult life and while I maintained a semblance of middle class solidity, I came much closer to the edge of actual poverty than I'd ever expected was possible. So my thoughts often ran to methods of dealing with low or non-existent finances. While thievery never seemed like a good option to me, I had often cadged loans off friends and family. So I could sympathise with that anonymous farmer's desperation.

Back in Bangalore, I often thought back to this incident and it became a favourite anecdote to regale friends with. At one time I even discussed making a short film based on it with some friends of mine who were experimenting with filmmaking. Then, I got a new job and soon had other things to think about.

But I think the image of that running man continued to haunt me, silently. Then, in 2009, I found myself without a steady job once again. This time around I had enough experience and contacts to make some sort of steady living freelancing, but I felt that old background sense of instability that I'd experienced back in 2003. Naturally this made me think of the running man once again. I knew I had to tell his story, and that I had to figure out not just what he was running from but what he was running to. The last 6 years had shown me that the places we think we want to be in are never quite what we'd expected once we get there. All these thought and ideas found their way into the story as it now is.

One more thing: the first version of the story simply had Ramu collapsing, dead, at the end of his run. It isn't clear whether or not that isn't case in this version as well - at least it shouldn't be. I wanted the ending to be a bit ambiguous, even though I know exactly what happened.

Again, this story could do with some more editing, with more showing and less telling, but, again, I think it isn't a bad little tale as it stands.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

hey hey do the zombie stomp


And - thud! - I watched a more or less mindless zombie flick last night, Tombs Of The Blind Dead, a 1971 Spanish film. Some attempt is made at an original backstory involving medieval knights, Egyptian ankhs and blood sacrifices, but basically it's pretty much the zombie film template with fresh meat delivered up to the slow-moving but unstoppable terrors, midnight resurrections and so forth. Much of it is beautifully shot with a great sense of atmosphere, like the scenes of the horse-riding undead knights galloping in slo-mo in a sort of eerie semi-twilight, but the film is undermined by gratuitous bits of sex and nastiness and a mediocre script.

For a film that largely keeps its more brutal moments off-camera there are some serious lapses in taste - an extended scene of the torture of a young woman by the knights in their pre-undead state (I believe it's called 'being alive') and a bloody scene of a mother and child being attacked by a zombie in a train. There's also a lesbian scene and a rape scene which could both have been omitted without losing anything save some cheap titillation - especially the second instance. For all of that, I quite enjoyed this film in parts, although it lacked the verve of, say, Fulci's approach to grue as well as not quite delivering the sheer WTF-inducing unintended charm of something like Lamberto Bava's Demons (although I don't know why I'm comparing a Spanish film to a bunch of Italian ones).

PS: Where the hell did the undead knights get their horses from? They're clearly not undead horses.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

'the magic isn't real'


It would be facile to say that fans of Stephanie Meyer's vampire romance and its cinematic spin-offs need a remedial dose of this unsettling film by George A. Romero. Martin is not simply the anti-Edward/Lestat/Angel, he's the antithesis to the romantic dream that seems to stand at the heart of the killer mythos in popular culture. Not just a deconstruction of the lush, Castlevanian settings of vampire flicks by Universal and Hammer, Martin is also, in my opinion, a riposte to the rising tide of slasher flicks that Romero didn't really participate in, even if his work is sometimes lumped with it as 'mindless 70s gore horror'. Because Martin isn't just an antidote to the legend of the Nosferatu; he's also the truth at the heart of that other great romantic myth of horror cinema: the unstoppable, totally committed, totally crazed killer, a form of untrammeled ego that we are all too often invited, tacitly, to identify with. He's a confused, sick individual whose impulses are misdirected and dangerous, a misfit who craves the same things we all do. And yet this neither excuses him nor, we realise in the shocking last scene of this film, those who would persecute him in the furtherance of their own delusional agenda. Vampires don't burn in the daylight, boys may survive heartbreak but not stakes through the heart, killers aren't gods, god isn't watching, the magic isn't real. That is all.


PS: Is it significant that Martin's first victim reads this book? I don't know.

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Dancers At The End Of Time: Michael Moorcock

(Illustration: Aubrey Beardsley, The Scarlet Pastorale)

I'm currently re-reading these novels (in the handy SF Masterworks omnibus edition) and am again discovering just what a fine writer Moorcock at his best is. His swords-and-sorcery, with the exception of Elric, has always been a little hit-and-miss for me, but it's his so-called literary fiction and his non-traditional fantasy that impress me the most. Along with the freaked-out Jerry Cornelius novels, this trilogy stands among his most original, subversive, satirical and flat-out fantastic work.

It's Moorcock's on take on a dying earth milieu, filtered through a Decadent lens. The immortal and nearly omnipotent denizens of the end of time vie with each other in coming out with ever more elaborate fads, crazes and parties, recreating past epochs in various highly anachronistic ways and indulging in every pleasure - and pain - known to living beings. One of them, Jherek Carnelian, decides to try and revive the ancient mysteries of 'virtue' only to be diverted into another archaic spasm, 'love' by the arrival of a time traveller from the 19th century.

The sheer fertility of Moorcock's imagination, the vividness of his descriptions, the variety and sting of his satirical barbs and the sparkling dialogue indulged in by his endtime decadents all make these books an absolute delight. I suspect they'd leave readers expecting some sort of epic fantasy or SF a little nonplussed, but for the reader with no expectations except brilliance, these books may just be the ticket.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

men, maids, monsters: Ken Russell's GOTHIC



A 19th-century sojourn at the Villa Diodati in Switzerland remains one of the pivotal events in the history of horror and science fiction. As a fan of both these genres, I was understandably keen on watching this.

It was a strange mix - incredibly well-researched (the shelf from which Byron takes down Fantasmagoriana also bears a copy of Hieroglyphic Tales, a rather obscure but very appropriate work by Horace 'Otranto' Walpole) and also sensationalist in an almost puerile way at times (the orgy scene, some of the enactments of various characters' nightmares/fantasies). The imagery is over the top, but it doesn't quite have the hermetic, dreamlike feel of the imagery in, say, Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre - it's a mix of Hammer and Freud, for the most part. Horror, terror and sex. And yet, it's a gripping film, one that somehow feels true to the famous characters it imagines and that remains gripping all the way through. I also liked it a lot better than Russell's Mahler pic, which felt far less true to its subject.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Newpace: Aranya Out-take

In an earlier post, I related how I'd initially planned to write my story Aranya's Last Voyage as a science fiction story. Here's all I could find of that original draft:

Needles of steel, glass and plastic slice through space in every direction, everyday. Many of them wind up lost, broken on the crags of some distant asteroid belt, sucked into the gravity well of a gas giant, or simply absorbed into the furnace of a distant star. Others fetch up on habitable worlds and the seed-crew lands to start a colony; sometimes they die in a few years, felled by unforeseen hazards, sometimes the precious sentient stock takes root and a new world joins the glittering array.


Sometimes, it gets really strange.


There are whispered tales of ships that fall through vortices in space and time into paradoxical rabbit-holes where up is down and left is right. Tales of ships that slip through the trellis to a still place, untouched by entropy where everything blends together in a super-concentrated singularity. Tales of ships that fly far beyond all known stars and galaxies to oldspace, the farthest circle of this bubble cosmos, where the fabric of reality starts to fade and to fray.


My story is stranger still.


It was my first time out as captain. I’d ridden on missions before, to-and-fro trade runs between settled worlds, supply chains to fledging colonies, rescue parties to communities which had run into some unforeseen crisis, recovery crews for the remains of settlements that had failed. I’d worked my way up through the ranks from cabin boy to captain of my own colony-ship, looking for a new world to settle.


We traveled cocooned in stasis, to shelter us from the cold agony of the empty reaches between the stars.From time to time, the computers pulled the umbilici out of my body, injected my bloodstream with quickening agents and pulled me out of suspension to survey the surroundings. I jacked in to the monitoring systems and ran my accelerated sentience through the datastream anomalies that prompted these resurrections.


I was the human agent to make the human decisions to stop and explore. To turn and run or to press forward; decisions which can never be turned over to machines, no matter how sophisticated. I’d already diverted us from a score of dead ends, chosen the more promising branch on a dozen cosmic crossroads, and then subsided back into the ageless dream.



This time, however, everything was different. The data that I was being fed was either anomalously rich or disturbingly empty; I could not make out which. Baffled, I accessed further input streams and found the same paradoxical pattern. At last, I activated the external monitors and gazed, amazed, at a planetary surface where none should have been.



We seemed to have fetched up on some strange new world that was confusing the senses out of my machines. Stirring out of my pod, I drifted through nutrient fluid to the sphincter, which ejected me into the command section. I showered briefly, pulled on overalls (standard grey, with a small seedling-and-stars motif on left chest) and sat down at my console. I pressed buttons, called up surveillance records and guided cameras and samplers through exploratory routines.



Slowly, the flow of data began to subside into intelligible patterns. Gravity: .9. Atmosphere: Present, earth-like with a somewhat higher proportion of nitrogen. Native life forms: single-celled organisms detected. I ran through checks and counterchecks, but the results seemed determined to remain stable after the initial chaos, although much was still unclear. My immediate surroundings seemed to be a hospitable enough terrestrial environment. Beyond a certain point, my instruments failed. I could not discern the overall mass of this world, the star it orbited, the solar system it inhabited, nearby stars, or even the usually omnipresent expanse of space itself.



I sighed, and closed my eyes to distance myself from my confusion and think things through. When I opened them, still confused, the data had increased. They seemed to hint at a planetary mass in the range of a regular M-type planet, some orbital data (tilted axis – there would be the familiar seasons and climatic variations). Still no signs of a star, but the vista outside seemed sunlit. Shaking my head in wonder and dismay, I knew I was about to take a gamble. I slipped on a radiation suit and a breathing kit, and then programmed the ship to take off and retreat if I did not return within a stipulated time. My throat was dry, and there was a fluttering in my stomach as I stepped out of the airlock and down the dozen steps to alien soil.

Thursday, 21 October 2010



I liked this even if I would not rate it as highly as Martin Scorsese does (although his list is rather good). An old-fashioned ghost story, well told. I began suspecting the good mother/bad mother switch about halfway through, but it was still a good twist. I thought Gail Russell overdid the wide-eyed naif bit, but mainly I wonder how much better this might have been if the studio hadn't insisted on bringing the ghost onscreen; the reaction shots where someone stares, rapt in terror, at something outside the frame were far more chilling than the actual floaty-gauzy thing. It's the same quandary I face in writing my stories: how much to tell? Is the answer always: less is more?

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

THE CHANGELING (1980)

The more violent the irruption of the numinous, good or bad, into a narrative is, the more necessary it becomes for the narrative to be rooted in the loam of everyday human aspiration and emotion. Stephen King's hoary horrors sell the way they do because he always takes the time to build his characters and their small-time lives to the extent that we momentarily mistake them for foreground; then the bad shit breaks out.

Another way to anchor a tale of supernatural terror is to hinge it on some human act of horrific proportions; this is the method of many a classic ghost story. So many of M.R. James' apparitions are doomed to remain in their spectral state as the consequence of some horrible act that operated in the purely mundane realm.

The Changeling, a 1980 film directed by Peter Medak deploys both strategies. The story begins with a man stuck in a phone booth, unable to intervene, watching as an out-of-control automobile smashes his wife and child to death. We learn that the grieving widower is John Russell, a composer; that he has taken up an assignment as a lecturer in a Seattle university soon afterward. He leases an historic mansion, a beautiful place with wooden floors, vast, gracious halls and a music room with a grand piano. As he tries to work on the elusive second movement of his latest composition, he finds a melody presenting itself to him; things seem to be working out.

But there are strange disturbances in this house. And this is where this movie, ever so slightly, overstates its case: I could have done without some elements of this build-up. The dripping tap, the door that seems to open or close on its own, the ever-so-spooky sound effects. But these elements stand out as much as they do because of the excellence of everything else - the deliberate pacing, the dignified and empathetic presence of the lead actor, the cleverly played double- or triple-herring where we are made to believe that the haunting - for haunting it surely is and not just an old furnace with odd habits, as the building's caretaker claims - might be by Russell's daughter, or by the daughter of a former resident, a girl who died in a road accident that strikingly parallels the death of Russell's daughter. This confusion is good; we are right to be confused and mistaken when first confronted by the supernatural.

The word 'occult' is often used loosely as a synonym for 'the supernatural'. It's a good word; it means 'secret', and most good tales of terror hinge on the unraveling of some secret that would have been better left alone. It's no accident that Poe, father of the Anglophone detective story was also a master of the tale of terror, or that Arthur Conan Doyle also wrote a mean ghost story and eventually became a believer himself. And the narrative in The Changeling soon follows the course of an investigation. First there is a seance, which feels like a bit too much at first, an overly credulous gesture. Then it takes a truly creepy turn, exposing a secret that was not previously suspected. The weight of this revelation, and the way it is delivered, its impact on Russell is what gives this otherwise rather hokey device substance: once the whole horror of what happened in 1909 in the attic room of this house dawns on Russell, he physically collapses. It's the casualness that so many B-movie protagonists show in the face of terror that deflates those narratives; Medak dodges that bullet, even if he succumbs to a few more creepy-flick cliches than he needed to have.

The rest of the move builds frantically, in the honoured tradition of the best (and worst) films of the genre. Although the supernatural manifestations grow in force and virulence, the impact of the horrible human act that started it all is underscored in a pivotal scene featuring the titular changeling, played marvelously by an aging Melvyn Douglas. It's the bitter, tortured weight of his character's guiltless complicity that serves as a counterpart to the child-spirit's final act of vengeance and destruction. Not a simple drama of good versus evil, in its final act, this story leaves us with no simple moral truths - although I'm willing to concede that some of this ambiguity may stem from my own analysis of the changeling's complicity rather than the writers' intentions.

There are moments along the way where it nearly tips over, this delicately-balanced tale of horror and its terrific consequences. There are, as I've said, a few too many instances of the standard devices and tropisms of this sort of film being trotted out. And yet, the moment Russell moves into his Seattle mansion, I felt a cold, icy breath run down my spine, and a sort of hushed foreboding took hold of me. This movie gripped and even, at times, scared me as few horror films have lately and I heartily recommend it to connoisseurs of the more subtle cinematic chills.

Here is a scene that illustrates both this film's brilliant sense of pacing and how it cannot fully escape standard haunted-house mechanisms:

Sunday, 17 October 2010

book haul and a plea for better artificial memory


I went out cruising the bookstores with my wife and mother today, which resulted in a somewhat gargantuan and no doubt rashly timed book haul:

  1. Collected Poems: Tony Harrison
  2. Selected Poems 1908-1969: Ezra Pound
  3. All Shot Up: Chester Himes
  4. Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand: Samuel R. Delany
  5. Maigret Mystified: Georges Simenon
  6. 10,000 Light-Years From Home: James Tiptree Jr
  7. Shards Of Space: Robert Sheckley
  8. The Saint In New York: Leslie Charteris
  9. The Princess And The Goblin: George MacDonald
  10. Fundamental Disch: Thomas M. Disch
  11. Johnny And The Dead: Terry Pratchett
  12. Melmoth The Wanderer: Charles Robert Maturin
  13. Marriages and Infidelities: Joyce Carol Oates
  14. Damned To Fame - The Life Of Samuel Beckett: James Knowlson
  15. Asimov's Guide To The Bible
  16. Raymond Chandler - A Biography: Tom Hiney
  17. The Real Life Of Anthony Burgess: Andrew Biswell
I wonder when I'll get around to reading all of them. My backlog of unread books has reached ridiculous proportions, even though I work diligently at finishing them all. Sometimes I wish they'd work out the brain-computer interface a little faster (if they're working on it at all) so that I can have all these books already in my memory instantly, in such a way that all the correlations and connections you make with the contents of a specific book and everything else in your memory (which is the knowledge and context each individual carries around in their own head) are automatically made. As for the first-hand, sensual pleasure of reading the actual book, that can be done at moments of leisure by remembering their contents in perfect detail. Even though I love collecting physical books I'm no Luddite; if such a technology existed, I would be all for it.

(The image at the head of this post is courtesy jef safi. It's the Sator Square, a mnemonic device that dates back to Roman times and may have been used to remember a religious or magical formula. Another fascinating historical method of extending the human memory was the memory palace.)

Friday, 15 October 2010

Dracula's Daughter (1936)

(A weird feeling of...boredom)

After watching a couple of James White's excellent contributions to Universal's classic horror portfolio, this weak effort, directed by Lambert Hillyer, struck a particularly discordant note. Bogged down by cheap attempts at humour and romance, wooden acting and absurd dialogue, this film fails to really get off the ground even in the last 15 minutes, those crucial last 15 minutes of a horror film when a sudden burst of energy, inventiveness and pace can redeem any number of past infelicities. Some critics have praised Gloria Holden's Countess Zaleska and Irving Piche's Sandor, but the only performance that briefly rose above the level of basic dialogue recitation and glassy-eyed staring was Nan Grey's very brief turn as a doomed victim. The camerawork fails to conceal the multiple takes required to coax even this dismal level of performance out of the players and the pace doesn't meander so much as plummet quickly to a nadir from which it never ascends. There's no sense of immediacy, of threat or even of the campy yet sinister evil conveyed in a film like The Old Dark House. This one's only for the completists.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Story Behind: Aranya's Last Voyage

The next issue of the Australian spec-fic magazine, Andromeda Spaceways, will include my story 'To Stand And Stare'. As a build-up to this, I'm doing a series of posts where I link to previous stories of mine that are available online and share a bit about the creation of each story. First up: Aranya's Last Voyage.

Aranya's Last Voyage won the 2009 Sunday Herald Short Story Contest. You can read it here.

I often suspect I'll never write a novel because it takes me years to write a short story.

This is only half-true.

In actual fact, once I've found the right combination of plot, theme, setting and narrator for a story, it takes a week or two of concentrated effort to get the damn thing down.

Getting all those elements aligned just so is what seems to take years.


I first had the idea for the story that would become Aranya's Last Voyage in a dream, sometime in 2005. I had this vision of people alighting on a world where their imagination could shape reality. I saw them eagerly using their imaginations to reshape the world around them. Only one of them chose to turn away, return to his craft and speed away from this place. I woke up suffused with the wonder of a place where you can reshape reality any way you want, and wondering why that one person turned their back on it.

I first tried to answer this question with a science fiction story entitled Newspace. It began with a series of stylistic flourishes that I am still very proud of, but the problem was that it rapidly fell into the standard strange-planet-visited-by-exploration-team stylistics we've all encountered in so many Star Trek episodes and Golden Age SF stories.

When it comes to hardcore SF, it takes someone with the wide reading and theoretical grounding of Adam Roberts, or the genre credentials and scientific knowledge of Stephen Baxter to be able convincingly deliver a new twist on an old tale. I read a lot of science fiction, but I haven't seriously contemplated writing it ever since I read Ted Chiang's short stories and realised two things: it wasn't worth writing science fiction unless I could write it like this, and that I just didn't have the extrapolative rigour or scientific orientation to write like him.

So Newspace floundered and was never completed, even though I'd even penned the titles for a series of sequel tales in a notebook. I had a vague of idea of turning the whole sequence into a sort of environmental parable, on broadly similar lines to Ursula K. LeGuin's The Word For World Is Forest. I didn't really do anything further with it because I think I knew even then that I didn't have the toolkit to write that sort of science fiction.

Also, I still hadn't figured out my breakaway character's motivation. That came from a re-read of James Blish's A Case Of Conscience, a novel where a priest encounters an alien race that he admires, but which also has no religion at all, precipitating a deep crisis of conscience. Like Blish, I am an atheist, but I liked the idea of a compassionate, questing yet deeply committed believer coming face to face with a situation that is at odds with his beliefs. Faith is basically a conceptual framework and I realised that eventually my story was going to be about how much we should or can impose our own frameworks on the world, and whether it really makes a difference in the long term. Predictably, my conclusions are somewhat pessimistic.

Finally, I realised that instead of trying to write about a space-going priest, and finding a theological conflict that would fit the bill, it would be easier to set the whole tale in a fantasy world where a society ruled by a priestly class is embarking on a phase of exploration and discovery. Once I named my lead character Aranya, the story seemed to begin telling itself.

The first draft had already crossed 5000 words when I heard of the Sunday Herald contest with its 5000-word limit. I did a new draft keeping this word limit in mind, and I think it worked to the story's advantage, and to mine as a writer: it helped me develop a certain compressed but still vivid style that serves as a tool to get a story down before running out of steam while providing enough cues to expand on if needed. In fact, I'd like to rewrite this story a little at some point, expunging infelicities and fleshing out some details. Still, it's not a bad little story as it stands and I hope you enjoy it.

(Original illustrations in this piece were drawn by Yathi Siddakatte for Sunday Herald)

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

then again, ginger spice seems to have liked it...


I reviewed One Day by David Nicholls for the Sunday Herald. Here's what I thought of it:

This is a remarkably unimportant novel; which is fair enough, but also a rather shallow, weightless novel, which isn’t. Following the lives of two individuals who first meet in 1988, at the end of their college lives, Nicholls’ novel attempts to track the lives, loves and fates of two people who one assumes serve as a sort of embodiment or microcosm of their era - Thatcherite Britain and its aftermath.

I had the same problems with this book as I did with Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, perhaps not coincidentally another book that was very succesful and was eventually adapted into a movie. These problems were: lack of empathy and total predictability. One Day is essentially a dual character study, but at no point did I really warm to, or at least conceive some degree of interest in Emma, to whom life seems to happen somewhat by happenstance, even when she achieves some measure of success, or Dexter, a self-absorbed child of privilege, a pale shade of similar characters to be found in the novels of Evelyn Waugh or Nancy Mitford (although one might argue that modern Britain itself is a sort of faded version of the era those writers lived in and wrote about). We are made privy to a great deal minutiae about their inner lives, but ultimately these feel like cues to the reader to identify with elements of the zeitgeist of a certain generation and, by identifying with the characters, or identifying them with people they know, do the hard work of characterisation themselves. A neat trick, but it didn’t really work for me. Ultimately, even a fluffy novel has to make you feel invested in its narrative. At least for the time it takes to read the book in question, we care for Bertie Wooster’s latest lamebrained scheme, or for the fate of the Ringbearer’s quest. Nicholls offers no compelling reason to care for his characters or their futures except that they’re there, living out their lives on page after page of this novel and we’re here, reading those endless pages.

Just as bad, the story was predictable. The various travails and travels of the two characters, down to actual details like pillow talk and dead-end jobs, to say nothing of the eventual foregone conclusion were all strikingly self-evident from the first page. About halfway through the book, at the fourteenth or fifteenth new plot development that I’d seen coming for pages in advance, I decided that this was one of those books that ideally reads itself, with the putative reader simply sitting passively and turning pages at regular intervals while the novel gleefully communes with itself.

To sum up, there’s some humour, some pathos, some bathos - a bit of everything, but not enough of any one thing, like a hastily assembled buffet lunch. And ultimately, haste is this novel’s metier. It zips along nicely in that sort of unexceptionally readable prose that is the hallmark of the middling British writer and it’s perfectly conceivable to finish reading it, appropriately enough, in one day and then pass it on to your significant other. A day later, you could meet up over coffee to compare notes and find, as I have, that there really isn’t that much to say.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

I used to be fascinated by urban decay as a sort of found art with a very distinctive aesthetic. There's a certain satisfaction in the sight of the kitschy artifacts of commerce and publicity falling into bits. A certain decadent grandeur in the sight of a heap of smashed automobiles, a wistful sadness in the discouraged but still elegant aspect of an old bungalow slowly rotting.

The most central attribute needed to appreciate this form of beauty is one of hope, I think. Of being able to see beyond the collapse of the past and the chaos of the present to a hoped-for and worked-towards better state. Without that vision, all one sees are the discarded skins of a serpentine civilization slithering its way down a spiral process of uglification and mindless change whose only byproduct is garbage.

I don't really have that sense of hope. Urban decay no longer seems like a bit of cool window dressing as we ascend to our various singularities. Instead, it reminds me that no matter how vast the future is, it becomes the past in the blink of an eye. Promise turns to failure before you even realise it's happening and that's the only constant truth that I can discern from these piles of twisted machinery that failed to remain new and improved past their sell-by date, these broken husks of dwellings that housed ways of life that we can only dream of in our high-rise middle-class slums, these useless dreams that could not prevent the truth from happening.

it's pretty bleak in Whitefield

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


'His glance happens to skim the heavens. Heaps of scattered lights make his hair stand on end. He's never wanted to know what they are or what they stand for. He has had the childish wish to fly among them. He doesn't wish that now; just looking at them is frightening.'

A small-time pimp and fixer schemes his schemes, looks back on his short, sordid life and comes face to face with the unforeseen. Is it a murder mystery in disguise or just another hard luck tale?

The translator's introduction holds up Chekhov and Camus as comparisons and influences on Nagarajan's blend of realism and existentialism.

These are good comparisons and valid reference points, but the book also puts me in mind of the bleak visions of noir writers like Chandler and Hammett and especially the novels of Simenon, themselves a form of existentialist crime fiction. This in turn puts me in mind of James Sallis, basically an existentialist who writes crime fiction. These are only comparisons, Nagarajan was not exposed to any of the writers I've just named, as far as I know.

Nagarajan's fictional world is bleaker than all these writers', except perhaps Simenon's, and there's a strong sense that this might be because it is, in fact, identical with the real world. An unforgettable narrative and a perfect miniature, containing vaster volumes than many longer novels.

Monday, 20 September 2010

When you work in communications or the media, and fancy yourself a writer, and read a lot, in some way your whole life revolves around the production and consumption of words. Joseph Nacino lives that life too, and here he's turned the allure of the verbal, the satisfying flavour and fullness of some words, the tart bitterness of others, the queasy richness of neologisms, the sickly-sweet heaviness of cliche into the hook for an amazingly richly-realised tale of a man whose appetite for words is very, very literal. It's also his first international publication; doubtless the first of many.

Sunday, 19 September 2010


Like Despair, this novel hinges on a sleight of hand. In the case of Despair, the narrator failed to see things as clearly as we, the readers, could. In The Eye, the narrator carries out a substitution trick a short while into the book,something I only started to suspect towards the end. I'm not quite clever enough for Nabokov, but I hope to improve. Along the way, there's the expected but nonetheless delectable mix of verbal pyrotechnics and many a startling, searching insight into love, obsession, identity and volition.

Friday, 17 September 2010

a lifeless voice intones empty words

10 lucky people can download a .wav file containing a recording of me reading out the first 500 or so words of my story Empty Dreams, in a blatant attempt to copy my friend Suresh, except that I held the mike too close and there are all these disturbing thumping noises. Gah.

ETA: Thanks to the munificence of pal Suresh, who has a premium Rapidshare account, more than ten people can now enjoy this. Even though I have to say it felt really weird including the words 'more than ten people' and 'enjoy this' in that sentence.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

inverted blindness...

My friend Suresh is one of the best weird fictioneers you've never read. And you still don't need to! Here, on his blog, is a recording of one of his most concise, mind-blowing and vividly realised tales.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Petterson book was vivid, evocative, a deeply imagined and felt character study. It also featured an almost haphazard narrative flow, leaping back and forth more or less at random, a narrative voice that was gently reminiscent at best, almost soporific at worst. It was a compelling enough read because of its richly imagined main characters, even gripping at the time, but it somehow failed to leave a distinctive aftertaste of any kind. I remember thinking it was almost too easy to read and it may prove even easier to forget.

Friday, 27 August 2010

shhhh

joyous, vibrant the bubble
babble creativity, babel unison
these towers should (will) fall

i broke my own rule but
it’s a good one
if you can’t make art
at least don’t make kitsch



(regurgitated in response to this)

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

IN DEFENCE OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT BY TZVETAN TODOROV


Not a perfect book - Todorov sets up easily-dismissed strawman versions of the internet's potential (and actual) impact on human co-operation and the space program's relevance to our fate as a species. There's also a sense that his vision of Enlightenment thinking is so subtle as to be almost nebulous - it's not the radical descaralisation and scientism of Dawkins et. al., nor the radical relativism of post-modernism, just as much as it isn't the pursuit of theocracy or autocracy, but I think this is to the good, as I'll explain in a moment. He makes an important distinction between societies that uphold the common good and the general good - the former leading to some form of totalitarianism while the latter necessarily embraces diversity. In his conclusion he points out that 'the fate of humanity is not to find truth, but to pursue it', and this is as compelling an argument as any not to enshrine a rigid set of ideals or ideas as our guiding light, but to imbibe the spirit of open-minded, clear-thinking questing as individuals and as a species. There are certain basic values that we are to be guided by - Todorov rejects the Sadeian notion of the individual as a sort of monad, adrift in a hostile world, pointing out that we are embedded in a web of relationships without which we could not exist. However, there is no privileged source for these values or for answers to the many social, economic, political and moral questions that face us. Todorov makes the case that a certain bent of mind, identified with the Enlightenment, can give us a way to negotiate these challenges without resorting to the kind of totalitarian or Manichean policies that made the 20th century such a minefield and seem likely to do the same for the 21st.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

it's tomorrow today.

Antipodean weird fictioneer Anna Tambour sometimes shares fiction by other writers on her site. I'm thrilled that the best darned subcontinental ghost story you'll read this year (I think we've crossed over from false modesty to spurious arrogance here, people) is part of the Virtuous Medlar Circle.

Friday, 6 August 2010

HOTEL SAVOY BY JOSEPH ROTH



A soldier is on his way home after being confined to a Russian prison camp during the Great War. He fetches up in an Eastern European town in the Hotel Savoy, his first taste of civilized Europe in ages. At first it seems like a return to the pre-war verities: a soft mattress, maids with starched collars, a certain settled way of life that had gone on for ages. But he soon realises that, if the hotel is a microcosm of Europe, it is a microcosm of a Europe that has changed in a fundamental way, and can never return to its past glories.

Much like Thomas Mann, Roth tells a story that resonates on the literal and the allegorical level, with various characters and events standing in for the larger currents that would continue to wash over postwar Europe for the next decade, eventually plunging the continent and ultimately much of the world back into war. Unlike Mann, Roth conveys a gritty, lived-in feel, full of odours, stains and earthy humour, very far away from the middle-class anguish of Mann's protagonists. In that sense, his works are closer to the rambunctious, garrulous yarns of Bohumil Hrabal, which are not without their own dark side, perhaps not quite as dark and bitter as the underpinnings of Roth's vision, however farcical or absurd individual scenes may be. Like Bulgakov, Roth has a flair for group and crowd scenes for picking out the most telling moments and images to illuminate his history-haunted narrative.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

THE WHITE GUARD BY MIKHAIL BULGAKOV


I wasn't sure if Bulgakov's first novel, described as a historical novel about the fortunes of the city of Kiev in the year 1918, as the repercussions of the Russian revolution and the tail-end of the first world war play out, would be as good as his satirical masterpieces, The Master And Margarita and Black Snow.

It certainly is.

Bulgakov was a literary genius, that's the only conclusion I can draw. Not only does he maintain complete control over a narrative that segues constantly from the panoramic to the personal, he keeps finding memorable motifs and metaphors to bring his tale to life. There is an entire section where he describes people's expressions and states of minds in terms of clock-hand positions. It seems like a subjective, potentially opaque conceit, but Bulgakov makes it work brilliantly. A good deal of his tale is told through dreams - again something potentially confusing and tedious that he does incredibly well. His talent for invoking the truly fantastic was evident in The Master, as was his facility with conjuring the bad numinous. Here, in an early vision of heaven, he brings us face to face with an equally convincing vision of divinity, both comforting and chilling.

There are numerous bravura scenes of crowds and action, and of the thoughts and experiences of a his focus characters. This novel is also amazingly well structured, casting out a bewildering array of narrative threads that are all woven together into a tight, immaculate narrative tapestry. In all this, Bulgakov's trademark black humour is never very far away, either, although I don't think it dominates as much as in his later novels.

The novel ends with a virtuoso display of oneiric head-hopping which culminates in a passage which shows where the true strength of this novel lies - not in its many technical merits and literary flourishes, amazing though they are - but in its strong sense of the pathos of human destiny.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010



Dali painted two works called 'The Invisible Man', as far as I know. This one fascinates me the most. Much has been said by others about how the surface calm of a picture of a gloomy, sparsely furnished room where no one seems to be present conceals the variously eucharistic and phallic deployment of loaves of bread, propped, balanced and chopped. What sticks in my mind is the room's primary source of light, that glowing patch of the moon's surface pressed right up against the window. So this is an ultra-mundane space, subject directly to the influences of our satellite's rays, a room where both lunacy and poetry, truth and the retreat from it, may propitiously be pursued. A Moonroom, complete with chair, table and bread.