Adventures in Bookland: Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

Beyond the Black River by Robert E. Howard

By the time Robert E. Howard wrote this tale of Conan the Barbarian, he had both thoroughly learned the craft of writing and fixed the world of the Hyborian Age in his own imagination and the imagination of the reader. The result, in Beyond the Black River, is a taut, surprisingly melancholy tale told through the point of view of a young man who aspires to be a warrior like Conan. The story is as sharp as one of Conan’s axes and as spare as a winter wolf. There are very few writers who create characters who transcend their own ability and time: with Conan, Howard emphatically did so.

Adventures in Bookland: Sea Above, Sky Below by Richard Medrington

Puppet State Theatre’s production of Leaf by Niggle

Back in 2017 – which seems a long time ago now – my family and I saw Richard Medrington’s one-man show of JRR Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle for Puppet State Theatre. It was a wonderful, uplifting, heart stopping evening that highlighted once again the extraordinary dramatic power and possibilities of theatre. If Puppet State Theatre ever puts the show out on the road again, I would urge you to see it.

After the show, Richard Medrington said that a side-effect of rehearsing and producing the performance was that he had dusted off a three-quarters finished novel that, like Niggle, he had never finished but, inspired by Niggle, he had finished and it was available for sale if we would like to buy a copy. So, I did, hoping that some of the hope sparkle of the evening would be dusted over the pages of the book.

And it was. In fact, the book is a testament to ideas and writers sometimes being able to transcend their own technical limitations to produce something better than the words on the page. How can a book, that is made entirely of words on a page, transcend those words? Because words are magical, sound engines of meaning, creators of worlds and vistas; givers of the Secret Fire of life – in Tolkien’s thought – as far as is possible for we sub-creators. So while there are problems on the surface of Medrington’s book – some repetition, stricly speaking it should be cut by a quarter for better narrative drive, and a few other things – the singular vision that drives it, and the characters that populate it, particularly Alma who hides behind a bin and finds a door to another world, enable the story to transcend its formal limitations and reach – or point – beyond itself: just like that Leaf, by Niggle.

Adventures in Bookland: Suleiman the Magnificent by Hourly History

Suleiman the Magnificent by Hourly History

A short but thorough, within the limitations of the space, introduction to Suleiman, tenth sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the man who raised it to the height of its power and prestige. While the European princes of the Renaissance, Charles V, Francis I and Henry VIII, vied for prestige and power, Suleiman brooded in the east, exquisitely aware of his power and even more exquisitely, indeed excruciatingly, aware of the lack of his family’s prestige with respect to the ancient monarchies of Europe. By the high point of his reign, all that had changed: the crowns of Europe glanced nervously eastwards to the brooding sultan in his Sublime Porte. Indeed, it is quite likely that Suleiman’s presence made possible the enduring split in Christendom that produced the Reformation: Charles V could never devote all his forces to defeating the Reformation due to the ever-present threat of Suleiman – a man who regared Charles’ imperial title as Holy Roman Emperor as a direct personal insult for there can only be one emperor and, so far as Suleiman was concerned, that emperor was him. A well written gallop through a most important reign.

Adventures in Bookland: The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson

Channelling my inner football pundit, if ever there was a book of two halves, this is it. As to the content of those two halves, the subtitle of The Hobbit describes it perfectly: there and back again.

But this is also a book that is difficult to review as it was both one of the most extraordinary and one of the worst books I’ve ever read – although the extraordinariness outweighed the bad sufficiently to pull me through to the ending, even though the second half of the book (the back again) was significantly worse than the first half (the there).

It’s also a book whose influence has been substantial. Its narrative structure was stolen wholesale by Olaf Stapledon for his extrapolation of humanity’s future, Last and First Men and its vision of the future has inspired a whole tranche of writers.

So, let’s say something about The Night Land. It begins in some undetermined but vaguely early modern kingdom where a young man of low station falls in love with a princess, who after some trials returns his love, and they are married, blissfully happy until the princess dies in childbirth and the unnamed narrator is stricken with grief. Then, in his grief, a message, an intimation from the far future reaches back to him, of his own soul reborn into the last age of mankind, when all humanity has retreated to its final redoubt, a huge pyramidal structure, to hold against the obscure but terrifying monsters that plague the Night Land – for the sun has gone out and all is dark. But when I say all humanity, it turns out that this is not the case: there is another colony, holding out against the Night, and among its residents is the reincarnation of the narrator’s lost love.

Mirdath the Beautiful is her name and the narrator leaves the safety of the Last Redoubt in search of her (the there). This part, as the narrator travels through one of the strangest, most intensely imagined landscapes ever committed to paper, is the strongest part of the book, as the deep horror of this haunted land drags the reader into the story: it’s an extraordinary imaginative exercise in an almost physical darkness.

But finally reaching the other redoubt, our narrator finds that it has fallen to the forces of the night. However, he finds the reincarnation of Mirdath the Beautiful and then begins the back again. Here is where the story drags, firstly because they are literally going back over the same footsteps and with largely the same dangers and obstacles, but secondly and worse because of the turgidity of the love story – yes, we know she is the most beautiful and lovely woman in the world but there is a limit to how often we need to be told that as readers, that limit being reached before they have managed to cover more than one tenth of the journey home.

So, I confess, the back again part I read with the aid of a fair amout of skipping – whenever it returned to another bout of mutual mooning, or teenage squabbling (with a weird overlay of corporal punishment) I turned the page – but having travelled so far with our narrator, I wanted to see him home again. And they make it! Back to humanity’s final refuge, holding out against monsters and evils too strange to even describe, until it too falls and the night rules all.

The whole thing is written in repetitive, cod-17th century prose, however I found that less of an issue than the irritation with the cooing love couple.

But the vision – ah, the vision, of the earth in its desuetude and the final struggle of humanity against the night…

There are few books that can overcome so many problems with their style and their plot, but this is one of them. I will remember it long after many ‘better’ books.

Adventures in Bookland: The Colonel’s Monograph by Graham McNeil

There was a question, extant in publishing in the 1990s, that I think I can now answer: who (or what) killed horror? Back in the 1980s, on the back of the huge success of Stephen King, Clive Barker, James Herbert and Peter Straub, horror was the big genre, with publishers greenlighting pretty well everything calculated to scare the reader.

And then, horror died. The readers stopped buying, the publishers stopped publishing and those writers who had started off in the genre had to find another outlet for their talents – or another career entirely. The usual reason given for the sudden collapse of the market was over saturation: too many books by too many mediocre authors. But that has scarcely been a problem for chick lit, or detective fiction so why did horror fiction crash?

I think it was because, for horror to be truly frightening, there has to be an underlying belief, on the part of the writer as well as the reader, that there is something worse than dying. There has to be consequences for moral choices that transcend merely pain and suffering, which, however bad, will terminate in death, and a sense of the possibility that we, as human beings, can fall into an eternal state that cuts us off completely from what we are and what we should be. For horror to work, there has to be a profound sense that, while human beings enter this world as human beings, it is possible for us to leave it as creatures anywhere on a hierarchy from the basest and most depraved to the highest and most exalted, and that these possibilities carry on after death. For a horror that is based purely on this world becomes, in the end, nothing more than torture porn, variations on the suffering that can be inflicted on to the physical body and a mind that is conceived as nothing more than an emanation of the physical. As such, horror loses its horror, for death brings down the curtain on all suffering and cuts every story, well, dead.

This is exactly what happened with the decline and fall of the horror genre: it devolved into variations on how to cause pain, with Clive Barker’s Cenobites representing the terminal perfection of this view of horror: pain as ecstasy, horror devolved into a sado-masochistic forever.

But in the Warhammer 40k universe, there really are things that are worse than dying. Accepting the premises of the universe, with its pervasive dread of a corruption that can continue far past death itself, there is the possibility of reworking the necessary tropes to make horror work, to return it to its Victorian prime, and I’m pleased to say that Graham McNeil takes the opportunity in his stride. Indeed, with the nods to M.R. James, doyen of Victorian ghost fiction, in the book, it’s clear that he knows exactly what he’s doing in The Colonel’s Monograph. There are worse things than dying and McNeil lets that deepening dread seep through the controlled prose of this taut novella. A fine addition to the 40k universe.

Adventures in Bookland: Low Lives by Denny Flowers

Number 9 of 10 and the standard of this Black Library novella series remains incredibly high. In fact, Denny Flowers’ tale of Caleb Cursebound, ninth-most dangerous man in the Underhive, rates among my favourites for its wit, its vividly unusual antihero and its evocation of the Underhive. Caleb is a chancer, a gambler and a man whose mouth too often catches his brain by surprise – with consequences that usually involve being precipitated into danger among dangerous people. That’s the case here, where overindulging in the local brew leads Caleb to tell a group of Underhive miners that he can get back their find from the gangers who have claimed it without bloodshed, unpleasant disagreements or the array of dead bodies that normally accompany Underhive disputes. It doesn’t turn out that way. But Caleb is unusual in the Warhammer universe as being a character who genuinely would prefer to solve a problem without killing people – and it makes for a refreshing change. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: Thieves’ Paradise by Nick Horth

It really is set in a paradise for thieves. To be precise, the Latchkey Isle, the place where thieves, rascals, adventurers and general scallywags go when they die in the Warhammer Age of Sigmar universe. And, as a welcome antidote to the general grimness, Latchkey Isle sounds like the sort of place that would be a rather enjoyable home for eternity: night-time feasting and partying and days spent cracking the ever changing puzzles and challenges set by the island. All rather splendid.

Of course, following the Necroquake the whole place is under threat from various forces but the island still stands and to it comes a splendid Elven anti-heroine – a phrase not often written in fantasy literature – with the job of finding and retrieving a treasure from the island before the bad guys get it. Shev Arclis is an engaging character – it’s good to find someone who relies on wit rather than not very marked fighting skills – but the real draw is the fantastical setting: I would love to read more stories set on Latchkey Isle.

Adventures in Bookland: Fairacre Festival by Miss Read

I don’t know how it is with you, but my wife and I have a running joke that one way of ensuring either of us never read a book is for the other to recommend it. We have very different reading tastes: my wife’s ideal, as she says herself, is a book where nothing much happens, there are no particularly high stakes, and everyone ends up reasonably happy ever after. The wife (Harriet) is the most voracious reader I know, probably reading over 200 books a year, whizzing through them at the rate of three or four a week! She reads to calm what is the most active, imaginative and empathic of minds, one that will engage so completely in the drama on the page that it’s for her own good that she avoids the grimmer reaches of modern fiction (although she is kind enough to read my stories in manuscript and, at times, when the mood is right, she will whizz through a whole shelf of classics).

Among her favourites has long been an author named ‘Miss Read’, a rather precious pseudonym it seemed to me, the pen name of one Dora Saint. Miss Read wrote tales of rural English life set in two villages, Fairacre and Thrush Green, where, as would be expected in any English villages outsider Midsomershire, nothing much happens. The Fairacre novels are written in partial first person by, in a metafiction device before anyone else had ever heard of metafiction, Miss Read herself: an unmarried teacher who is headmistress of the the one-form village school (it literally is one form, not one-form entry, with everyone above the infants taught in the same class by Miss Read). Harriet has read and reread every single one of the Miss Read books (the smaller set featuring Miss Read and the larger set written by ‘Miss Read’), returning to them in times of stress and difficulty to settle back into life at Fairacre. The stories are set in a slightly indeterminate time, both between the Wars and in the two or three decades after the end of the Second War.

There, you can tell how much and often Harriet had recommended the books to me by the amount I know about them without even reading one. But then, finally, barricaded in the small room to find some peace and solitude during this lockdown, I realised my only companion, and reason for staying longer in this grabbed-for chance for privacy, was a Miss Read book, Fairacre Festival, left on the floor by Harriet. So, I picked it up. I started reading it. And ended having the family check on me that I hadn’t died on the toilet!

It’s a delight. The story itself is light: a storm damages the roof of the parish church and the village rallies round to stage a festival to raise funds for its restoration. But the skill and dexterity of its telling revealed a master literary craftsman at work. The story is written in partial first person, with some chapters told from Miss Read’s (that is, the village headmistress) point of view and others in third person. The shifts between perspective are done effortlessly, without the reader realising any of the craft that went into smoothing out these transitions. The style itself, apparently so simple and unaffected, serves to put all the reader’s attention on the story and characters: it is the purest of storytelling and among the cleanest examples of prose writing I have read, comparable, if truth be told, to the literary cleanness and clarity of no less a writer than Evelyn Waugh.

The hardest thing of all is to write simple stories. Ornamentation serves to hide any underlying weaknesses, but strip this off and all that is left is story: people and plot. Miss Read (her real name was Dora Saint) wrote simple stories of ordinary people leading normal lives and infuses them with a particularity and place that makes them, effectively, timeless. A masterclass in writing. I will have to read some more of Harriet’s recommendations.

Adventures in Bookland: Marik’s Way by Nick Brown

Nick Brown is one of my favourite contemporary writers of historical fiction, bringing some much needed intelligence and character insight to its Roman Empire sub-genre with his Agent of Rome series. Now, with Marik’s Way, Brown tries his hand at fantasy and he proves as adept and engaging a writer in this field as he is with historical fiction. Admittedly, the world building does not stray that far from the tropes of historical fiction, being a largely medieval creation, but it’s sketched in well enough to make a convincing setting for the story’s main focus, Marik himself, which allows Brown’s greatest talent, the creation of interesting, engaging protagonists, to come to the fore.

With Marik, Brown has written a worthy companion to Cassius Corbulo, the Agent of Rome. Like Corbulo, Marik is a man who relies on his intelligence to get him out of bad situations (although if it does come down to fighting, he’s far better at it than Corbulo without becoming the sort of ridiculous invincible warrior that disfigures so much historical fiction), with a proper moral code and sufficient motivation, by way of shame and guilt, to keep driving him on to fresh adventures. I, for one, hope that Nick Brown will write further adventures for Marik and reveal some more about the world he has begun sketching out. Highly recommended.

Adventures in Bookland: Little, Big by John Crowley

How do you write about something that escapes words? It might sound like a relatively restricted problem – after all, we are an incessantly garrulous species whose rise has been intimately intertwined with our ability to speak and, later, to read – but in fact there are whole classes of experience that are almost impossible to speak or write about in any other way than by appealing to a shared experience of the subject in question. Take the smell of a rose. How on earth would it be possible to describe the perfume to someone who has never pushed their nose into one? The vocabulary we have for smells is dependent on analogies that only work if you have experienced something similar – simply an extension of the impossibility of describing red to a blind man. So language has limits of application to common areas of human experience.

But what about its application to uncommon areas of human experience? In Little, Big, John Crowley tries, and almost succeeds, in doing this. The area of human experience he deals with is the borderland between humanity and the Otherworld – not the spiritual realm of the heavens but the crossing dimensions of the Grey Folk. The people and places glimpsed in peripheral vision, the sudden recollection of a dream dreamt a month ago, the shimmer between being there and not being there. There is no language for this because it is an analogue, in human experience, to the quantum realm where the more precisely one knows the momentum of a particle the less one knows its position. The closer one looks the more it escapes from view (in astronomy, one has to look from the corner of the eye to see the faintest stars as the light-sensitive rod receptors are richer in peripheral vision).

In Little, Big, a family lives, in a house of indeterminate size and interdimensional complexity upon the story borders between this, prosaic, world and an Otherworld that is so other that, for the most part, it escapes description. Its presence is felt by its effect and the silence of those who have slipped over the border and come back changed. Crowley attempts to convey this through a rich prose style, studded with unusual words (Little, Big required me to repair to a dictionary to look up unknown words once every three or four chapters) and an allusive, elliptical story telling style. And he succeeds extremely well for most of the book, suggesting without stating the other worlds that impinge upon Edgewood, the big house on the edge, and its generations of inhabitants. In fact, I think it only really breaks down a bit when Crowley, towards the end, imposes a narrative upon the events, with manners all rushing towards a conclusion that has slipped from my memory in the way that the overall feel and mood of the book has not. A remarkable book that almost manages to express the inexpressible.