Books

14
Mar 09

SF Writers: Samuel Delany

The Brown Wedge6 comments • 334 views

It’s hard to know where to start with Delany. He’s not really been much within SF for a long time, and my favourite novel by him (and probably by anyone), while published as SF, mostly isn’t. Still, he started in the field, writing extraordinary works blending poetry, space opera and philosophy in a way that is very representative of the transitions the new wave brought about in the ’60s. If I had to choose the cleverest person ever to write SF, he’d be my nomination.

A good example of the early SF might be Babel-17 (1966), a novel where the threat from alien invaders is not in any sense physical: it’s their language. It changes the minds of anyone that it touches. We get spacecrafts and their crews, but these are not at all military or heroic in style – the characters are outsiders and poets and the like. The effect of the language embodies the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistics, that language affects our perception and interpretation of the world, and a reaction against Chomsky’s ideas (much the more favoured at this time) that language is functional and natural. This approach to SF was new.

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12
Mar 09

Crime Writers: Lawrence Block

The Brown Wedge2 comments • 271 views

I like a good series character in my crime fiction, and no one has offered us more of these than Block, and they cover a range of styles.

Matthew Scudder (16 novels) is a private eye in NYC, whose best friend is a hardened criminal. The novels vary in tone and story, some tough to the point of brutality, but morality is always complex, and Scudder being a recovering alcoholic plays a big part. These are worth reading in order, mostly, because the character does develop (including getting married, eventually).

Bernie Rhodenbarr (10 novels) is a professional burglar who also runs a bookshop.

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Hauntography: The Mezzotint

FT + The Brown Wedge8 comments • 5,538 views

To read the story, click here; to read about our ‘hauntography’ project, click here.

“See that space between the panels? That’s what comics aficionados have named “The Gutter!” And despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics! Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.”

– Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics

A ghost story about a picture that comes to life might or might not be frightening. “The Mezzotint” isn’t one. It’s a ghost story about a picture that turns into a comic strip, and as McCloud says, it draws its fear from what’s happening – or what might be happening – from one frame to the next.

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9
Mar 09

SF Writers: Theodore Sturgeon

The Brown Wedge1 comment • 208 views

I happened to just now read one of his, The Cosmic Rape, which prompted me to write about him next. This short 1958 novel is about a hivemind entity making first contact with humanity. It has taken over two galaxies and is working its way through its third, and all of the intelligences it has encountered are collective. It concludes that humanity has split apart as a defensive measure at first contact with this alien mind, so its first task, before taking it over, is to put it back together.

There are two points to make about this. Firstly, unlike almost any other writer before the New wave, Sturgeon’s interest is in mind, in how we think, rather than in futuristic tech and aliens and so on – this is what made him a key figure to the New Wave, why we get a blurb on the back cover by Samuel Delany saying his work “is the single most important body of science fiction by an American to date”.

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6
Mar 09

Crime Writers: Ed McBain

The Brown Wedge3 comments • 251 views

McBain, writing under that name and Evan Hunter (which he changed his name to in 1952, from Salvatore Lombino), is the only writer by whom I have read over a hundred books, and that is likely to remain true for a long time, maybe permanently. And I’ve not read any by five of his other pseudonyms, nor any of his poetry, plays, autobiographies, children’s books or screenplays (I have seen a few, notably The Birds). He was crazily productive: 25 books and some stories from 1956-1959 was his peak.

He’s best known for his 87th Precinct stories, 57 books spanning almost 50 years, though Detective Steve Carella and his fellow detectives in an analogue of NYC don’t age at that pace. These defined the police procedural, and are the model for most modern police TV shows, to one degree or another. They are short on heroics and car chases and genius detectives, long on professional cops doing their jobs, interviewing and following up leads. They are elevated well above the routine by his superb use of and descriptions of weather, and crackling and convincing dialogue, vital in the long interviews. He also reproduces documentation regularly.

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18
Feb 09

Hauntography: Lost Hearts

FT + The Brown Wedge10 comments • 1,778 views

To read the story, click here; to read about our ‘hauntography’ project, click here.

An elderly man takes in his orphaned young cousin. It is surprising, given that the man is known as something of a recluse, a retiring academic type – specialist in the later pagans and their mystical beliefs – seemingly more comfortable with books than persons. Or maybe it is not surprising for a man to take an interest in the welfare of a young relative, if interest of a distant kind. He asks the boy’s age, and such, and sends him off to be looked after by the housekeeper; and the housekeeper tells him, one day, of her master’s kindness, that he has taken in children before, a little gipsyish girl and a little foreign boy, although being gipsyish the little girl ran off after a few weeks, and being a foreign ragamuffin and naturally unruly so too did the boy.

Strange dreams this young cousin has, of a thin thin body lying moaning, hands pressed to its heart; and he sleepwalks at night at times; and there are rats in the house too, huge ones they must be, for there are scorings on the young boy’s door and even scratches on his nightgown, all down the left side of his chest, after he has spent another night in a dream he cannot quite remember; and it might be rats or the wind in the cellars at night but the butler will not go down to fetch the wine once dark has fallen, for in that dark such scuttlings and sighings have a sound uncommonly like speech.

And, now the boy is eleven and a half, something dreadfully exciting is to happen: for his uncle has asked him to sit up until quite eleven o’clock, and to come and visit in his study.

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10
Feb 09

Hauntography: Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook

FT19 comments • 5,476 views


If you want to read it first, you can find it online here.
And if you want to know why I have written this, go here.

I read a lot of so-called genre fiction, but I have never read many ghost stories. Even my brief dalliance with horror fiction tended to lurch towards scientific horrors rather than the supernatural. As a rationalist, I have little time for the spooky. And I expect to not be blown away, as a short ghost story has very little room to manoeuvre outside a straight up tale of the unexpected with or without twist. In our circles this is known as “there b’ain’t a signpost ‘ere for twenty year”. I am of the opinion that ghost stories don’t have a lot to throw at me that will shock, and thus scare me. That said, I like good cinematic ghost stories, The Orphanage last year was one of my favourite films. So perhaps I should just enjoy the sensation without holding on for the scare.

So this is my first proper M.R.James story. I approached Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook without a forensic eye, I wanted to be entertained and to see what a good short ghost story could do for me. So I racked up lots of spooky music (thanks Spotify for Spooky Tooth) and read. And quickly got the hang to what seemed to be M.R.James’s core trick: obsessive detail. James is marvellously specific with his times, place and reference. He manages in a few paragraphs to sum up this French village and this haunted verger (I prefer the term to sacristan).

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5
Feb 09

Hauntography: The Ghost Stories Of M R James

FT + The Brown Wedge9 comments • 4,821 views

montague-james Like all new Freaky Trigger series, the idea for this one came in the pub. I had been re-reading MR James’ Collected Ghost Stories and started talking about them with Mark and Rick: within moments I thought, “let’s blog it”. Hence Hauntography: a collaborative reading of the James stories, by whoever wants to be part of it.

It’ll work in a kind of “book club” style – we all read the next story, one of us blogs about it (along whatever lines they see fit) and we all pile in in the comments box. You do too, since even if you’ve never read James before most of his stories are available online. (Or you could pick up the Wordsworth Books edition for a couple of quid.)

What do we hope to achieve? Diversion and entertainment, as usual, but also I expect we’ll think about ghosts, history, academia, dialect, what makes stories frightening, what makes them funny… we will approach the stories like Jamesian antiquaries ourselves, pottering around and following our noses – hopefully not awakening any restless spirits, but I guess there’s always a risk.

Join us next week to read Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook.

26
Jan 09

Crime Writers: Andrew Vachss

The Brown Wedge8 comments • 320 views

Vachss is a unique writer. Most of his novels centre on a man named Burke, someone far enough beyond the underworld that they don’t know he exists. He makes a living ripping off child porn fans and wannabe mercenaries, and will take a PIish case if it grabs his interest: basically this means if it involves abuse of children. Vachss himself is a lawyer specialising in such cases, a recognised expert on the subject, and his all-encompassing hatred and understanding of abusers makes for often heavy going. He also understands the victims, the effects it has one them. He’s not remotely part of the legal establishment, with no interest in convicting people – he wouldn’t consider getting someone arrested instead of killing them. Obviously many crime writers hate their villains, but none of them despise them like Vachss does.

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18
Jan 09

Crime Writers: James Lee Burke

The Brown Wedge2 comments • 254 views

(Introductory notes: my series Comics: A Beginner’s Guide seemed to go over quite well, as far as I can tell. It occurred to me that there were two other areas where I have sometimes been asked for guidance and recommendations – the other is SF writing, coming soon. My tastes are very much for tough American crime, and my interest is that of someone who mostly reads literary fiction, so I’m looking for the same sort of interest and stimulation and entertainment I get there, rather than clever mysteries – though some of the writers I’ll mention do provide that.)

If I were looking to recommend one contemporary crime writer to someone who was only interested in mainstream literary values, I’d go for James Lee Burke. His descriptive prose is of the highest order – especially on the swamplands around New Orleans, the plants and water and animals and weather. He leans rather towards the pathetic fallacy at times, but that’s fine with me. He’s also one of the most serious crime writers ever in thematic terms: lots of unflinching and honest examination of good and evil, race, sex, money, power, politics, crime, law and so on. His sense of evil is particularly powerful, virtually Biblical in conception at times – he reminds me more of Cormac McCarthy than any other writer. Indeed, McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men has much in common with Burke’s novels, not least for the scariness of the central villain.

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