Wednesday, 16 March 2011
Read and Returned
The Read and Return Bookshop in Exeter is set to shut at the end of this month. It’s pluckily stood for some while against the general trend of second-hand bookshop closures, but its time is finally come. It’s apparently been providing the people of Exeter with popular literature since 1972, and I can certainly vouch for its having been here ever since I arrived in the area some 20 years ago. Bookshops which operated on a part exchange basis used to be scattered all around the country, and were a cost-efficient option for the frugal bookworm. I used to either cycle or catch the number 21 bus into Lewisham to stock up at the Popular Book Exchange there, and discovered many writers who subsequently became favourites, finding paperbacks by the likes of Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock (along with plenty of Conan and Piers Anthony, which I happily devoured too). I also managed to amass most of the Best of New Worlds and New Worlds Quarterly anthologies, paperback passports back to the experimental excitement of the 60s. I didn’t fully understand the stories and poems in them at the time, but there was something thrilling about their attitude.
The Exeter Read and Return used to be very much a shop of two halves, with a partially screened-off backroom full of ‘adult’ material and the whole place exuded a rather seedy aura of the kind evoked in M.John Harrison’s short story Egnaro, which equated the escapist fantasy of men’s magazines with that of mass market fantasy fiction. A woman took the place over, knocked down the divisions between front and back room and opened it up so that it was much more light and airy, getting rid of the porn and clearing the shop of its furtive atmosphere. But second-hand bookshops (and particularly those concentrating on paperback fiction) are swiftly disappearing from the map. Totnes used to be dotted with them, offering a fine day’s browsing for the idle bibliophile, but they are now mostly gone. Each time I walk up the Charing Cross Road, for a long time the centre of the book trade in London (as immortalised in the book 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff) there seem to be fewer bookshops. The reasons for all this are well-aired: internet selling, the growth of supermarket book retailing, rising rents and rates, and perhaps even a less traditionally literate public. Much the same arguments can also be adapted and applied to record shops, another dying breed. All of which is saddening for people of my general age and inclinations, but perhaps not of any great concern to anyone else. Anyway, I’m writing this as I sit in for the day in the shop, so let’s have a look at some of the enticing titles on offer (and offer is the right word, since they’re all available on a buy one get one free basis).
Angela Carter’s second novel, Several Perceptions, set in a sixties London which has ceased swinging and is now just nervously twitching, is available in a 1970 Pan paperback edition with a gaudily cartoon-psychedelic Alan Aldridge-esque cover which is very much of its time and all the better for it. It may indeed be by Aldridge for all I know, as he did produce a few covers for Penguin science fiction paperbacks in the latter half of the sixties. Charles Williams’ War In Heaven, in which forces of mundane evil battle for possession of the grail in 20s London and a small home counties village, comes as part of the ‘Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult’, a series whose prominent use of his name is justified by a brief, half-baked intro (mainly consisting of giving the plot away) by the self-important purveyor of mock-deviltry. David Pringle’s Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels offers a widespread selection of the post-war literature of the fantastic, with 1 or 2 page summaries and assessments giving pointers to a disparate range of greater or lesser known works. Amongst those he includes are: Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber, The Once and Future King by TH White, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, The Owl Service by Alan Garner, The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss, Little Big by John Crowley, Lanark by Alasdair Gray, The Anubus Gates by Tim Powers, The Glamour by Christopher Priest, Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, Gloriana by Michael Moorcock, The Unconquered Country by Geoff Ryman, Grendel by John Gardner, Peace by Gene Wolfe and Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter. Fine books, all, several of which I was guided to by this very tome.
There are a number of books by Brian Aldiss, including the three semi-autobiographical novels which go to make up his Horatio Stubbs saga (The Hand-Reared Boy, A Soldier Erect and A Rude Awakening), which traces the bawdy misadventures of the eponymous protagonist through wartime and the post war world. There’s also Moment of Eclipse, a fine collection from 1970 which contains some hauntingly allusive and quietly experimental stories, and Frankenstein Unbound (in normal and film tie-in editions), an homage and love-letter to his literary heroine Mary Shelley. Aldiss himself looks very youthful, clean-cut and respectable in the inside cover photo from a 1961 paperback volume of the Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus. A collection of Fredric Brown stories gathers sheaves of his shaggy dog stories, bathetic squibs, parodic SF and set ups for groansome punchlines. At an average length of a couple of pages, these make for ideal bogside reading.
Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray’s Raven is a novelisation of their TV follow up to Children of the Stones, with Phil Daniels bedecked in Arthurian robes on the cover, and some rather nice line drawings inside which promise more than the series is ultimately able to deliver. There are a couple of James Blaylock’s excellent fantasies (The Last Coin and The Digging Leviathan), in which an amicable group of eccentrics, usually living in some gently bohemian enclave of North California, become embroiled in some quest involving arcane lore and long lost artefacts with magical properties. Blaylock always creates a warm and likeable cast of characters, and even his villains tend to have redeeming features. Another Californian writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, appears on the shelves with his novella A Short Sharp Shock, a piece of absurdist SF worthy of Jorge Luis Borges in which an amnesiac man awakes and walks a narrow, rocky isthmus which girdles a watery world, encountering people whom he literally can’t avoid along the way. Samuel Delany’s Neveryona is the lengthy novel from his Neveryon series, in which he examines the nature of heroic fantasy and exercises his acute critical faculties upon its conventions whilst at the same time offering its traditional pleasures, albeit in startling and unconventional form. There’s John Crowley’s debut novel The Deep, with admiring comments from Ursula le Guin on the back cover, and an early novel by Elizabeth Hand, Aestival Tide, which sets her interest in myth and ritual in the context of a planetary romance.
John Sladek’s Roderick at Random (the title a tip of the hat to Tobias Smollett’s 18th century novel, whose picaresque form it follows) is the second half of his tale, both hilarious and poignant, of the education of an innocent, newly created robot who is abandoned (a foundling) and left to make his way in the world. Robert Sheckley’s Mind Swap, in a 1969 Mayflower paperback edition, boasts a far out cover (to slip into period parlance) which mimics the fun house distortions of then voguish photographic portraits taken of reflections in sheets of mirrored mylar (the cover of John McGlaughlin’s Devotion springs to mind here). It’s obviously designed to appeal to a ‘head’ readership. This makes me think of an unusual photograph of Jimi Hendrix, resplendent in crushed velvet finery (though the photo is black and white, I assume it's purple), with feet up, wholly absorbed in reading a volume of the Penguin SF Omnibus (not the one mentioned above, however). Which particular story was commanding his attention to such an intense degree, I wonder.
There’s a copy of Lucius Shepard’s Life During Wartime his novel of future warfare in the jungles of South America which is fought out in the dense undergrowth of the mind as much as amongst the lianas and mangrove swamps of the rain forest. Carl Sagan’s Contact casts his interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life and the way in which we should go about communicating with it, as well as the conflicts and confluences between scientific and religious world views in fictional form. This is a pre-movie edition. I’ve never seen the film, but there’s an interesting piece about it over here which makes me think that perhaps I should. There are a number of Michael Moorcock paperbacks, mostly his fantasies (many of which he confesses to having knocked out for a bit of ready cash). But there’s also a 1970s Mayflower copy of Behold The Man, his agonised account of a character whoenacts his own martyrdom by travelling back to the time of the crucifixion and taking the place of Jesus (who proves inadequate to the task), providing salvation for his own manifold sins which are magnified by his sense of self-loathing. It’s interesting that such an excoriating psychological portrait (its iconoclasm is largely beside the point – this is no attack on religion) can sit side by side with the escapist likes of Count Brass and The Quest for Tanelorn (not that I’m really knocking these, or denying the need for escapism). The last two novels in the Pyat Quartet, which tells of the progress of another character who is decidedly unheroic (except in his own mind) through the first half of the twentieth century, are here. They join together to form the second clause of the sentence which the titles of the sequence combine to create: Jerusalem Commands The Vengeance of Rome. Moorcock also edits The Best SF Stories From New Worlds 5, which contains The Last Hurrah of the Golden Horde, which offers Norman Spinrad’s American take on the Jerry Cornelius character. Also included are The Death Module, one of JG Ballard’s experimental ‘concentrated novels’, and Brian Aldiss’ The Serpent of Kundalini, one of his acid-head war stories, set in a dazed future England in which reality has been fractured by the after effects of LSD ‘bombing’.
Interzone magazine is also represented by a best of anthology, its overlap with its English antecedent indicated by the inclusion of stories by Ballard, Aldiss and Thomas M Disch, alongside later luminaries such as Geoff Ryman (whose debut story was published in one of the later New Worlds Quarterlies in the 70s), Graham Joyce, Kim Newman, Dave Langford and Brian Stableford. If you wanted to complete your reading of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, you have a choice of 3 different editions of Titus Alone. The King Penguin copy has Peake’s drawing of Irma Prunesquallor on the cover, which is strange since she makes no appearance in the novel. The 1989 Mandarin edition has a dun coloured watercolour by Mark Robertson on the cover, with romantic ruins in the foreground and in the background what could either be the towers of the city to which Titus is journeying or those of Gormenghast from which he is fleeing cast into a dreamy mirage by slanting shafts of sunlight. The 1998 Vintage edition has entered the age of digital publishing, with Nick Robertson’s cover a computer-aided collage with Peake’s drawing of Gertrude, the Duchess of Groan shrunk to a small reproduction shunted into the lower right hand corner. I think I’d go for the King Penguin, myself, but I’ve already got several copies so that would just be greedy.
Nestled amongst the Kings and Herberts on the horror shelves you can find the more genteel shudders of Marjorie Bowen’s collection of ghost stories The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories, which is not to be confused with Elizabeth Bowen’s essays in the form. Less subtle and more liable to induce feelings of biliousness than chills are the novels of Guy N Smith, of which there are a generous selection here. What would the collective noun for a shelf of Guy N Smith novels be? A slime-trail, a clawful, a jugular spray? There are none of his crab books, alas – someone’s obviously netted those. I remember these cropping up in all the revolving wire racks which used to be found in newsagents and at railway and bus stations. You would have thought that one novel would have pretty much exhausted the variant possibilities of giant crab attacks, but apparently not. They rended and pincered their way through seemingly dozens of the things, all featuring covers in which the monstrous crustraceans advanced, gore dripping claws raised triumphantly to the skies, bent on revenge for all those crab sandwiches in which their brethren met ignoble (but undeniably tasty) ends. Smith’s books all come emblazoned with bylines which attempt to summon up the spirit of the matter within, and illustrate pulp hyperbole at its finest. Blood Show bears what appears to be a parental admonishment taken a step too far: ‘It began as a harmless game – and ended in terror and death’. The Lurkers promises ‘New Terror in a place of Ancient Dread’. Bats out of Hell offers a succinct and vaguely scriptural ‘and with the bats came death’. Accursed, which seems to be an Egyptian mummy tale, goes for the medical metaphor, graphically explaining how ‘an old and terrible evil had been lanced open, spilling out its putrefying essence’, whilst The Pluto Pact simply resorts to hysteria with a gibbering ‘Burn…Burn…Burn…In Screaming Torment’. My personal favourite is the byline for Blood Circuit, which offers a simile of camp ghoulishness: ‘Death clung to her like a haute couture shroud’. We are also confronted by The Slime Beast (‘a monster from Earth or beyond the Stars?’) and Caracal, an African and West Asian lynx which is let loose in a Welsh hippy commune, and whose taxonomical obscurity suggests that Smith and fellow pulp horror writers had by this stage worked their way through the more obviously fearsome ranks of the bestiary. Finally, we have Sabat 3: Cannibal Cult, which unequivocally declares ‘his enemy is the eternal principle of evil made flesh’. Turning to the back cover for more information, we discover that our troubled hero, Mark Sabat, ‘ex-priest, SAS-trained killer, exorcist, is a man with a dreadful mission. Driven and haunted, he has to seek out and destroy his mortal enemy. An enemy who has chosen the Left Hand Path, who embodies the eternal principle of Evil (capitalised, of course). An enemy who is his own brother’. Sounds like he’s got some serious shit to deal with there.
There’s a copy of Italian Nietzschean Gabriel D’Annunzio’s 1900 novel The Flame, in case you want to find out what every self-respecting fascist was reading in the 1920s. James Morrow’s The Last Witchfinder is another of his seriously humourous dissections of faith, rationalism and fundamentalist religion, this one set in 1688 and crossing the Atlantic from London to Salem. Apparently, it’s ‘perfect for fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, The Historian and the novels of Terry Pratchett’. Ir it’s anything like his previous satirical and searching fantasiesTowing Jehovah and Blameless in Abaddon it should be well worth reading. There’s a couple of novels from modern Glaswegian writers: James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, written in the vernacular, and Agnes Owens’ A Working Mother, which is graced with a cover by Alasdair Gray, who is friends with and has drawn portraits of both authors. Nell Dunn’s two sixties novels set in the London, both of which were turned onto mildly controversial films, Poor Cow and Up the Junction, are both here, the former with a cover featuring a still from Ken Loach’s film, with Carol White in the main role. There are also film tie-in editions of A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines (an not the usual one with Billy giving the world a two-fingered salute) and Bill Naughton’s Alfie, with Michael Caine instructing one of his ‘birds’.
JB Priestley’s Lost Empires evokes the long-gone world of variety theatres, recently recalled by Michael Grade and his interviewees in a two part BBC series. Colin Wilson, meanwhile, is Adrift In Soho, according to a 1961 semi-autobiographical novel (from a time when he still had a few shreds of his reputation intact) set in the bohemian world of the London district which he and other writers, artists and alcoholics frequented. It was the kind of milieu enjoyed by George Melly, and his rambunctious and thoroughly scurrilous memoir Rum, Bum and Concertina (a title taken from the old naval saying ‘on shore its wine, women and song, but on ship it’s…’). Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor is a quietly apocalyptic novel which observes the decay of civilisation from the detached perspective of a suburban housewife who is able to dream a better world beyond the wallpaper which she spends ages gazing at (a nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story The Yellow Wallpaper, perhaps). Lessing would no doubt not be averse to her novel being called SF, having long been an advocate of the genre within more aloof literary circles.
Finally, there’s Roger Fulton’s Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction, in case you wanted to remind yourself of the details of a particular episode of The Twilight Zone, or of an old Doctor Who story. There’s also some old curiosities to unearth, such as the 1978 BBC Birmingham production Stargazy on Zummerdown. This takes place in an utopian England (now known as Albion) in the 23rd century, a society in which technology and agriculture are maintained in careful balance by the Commonwealth of New Harmony. Play Away/School presenter and sometime Pagan folkie Toni Arthur starred. Here’s hoping for a screening or a dvd release. Wine of India was a 1970 Nigel Kneale play, alas now wiped. It’s set in the year 2050 and depicts a society in which the aging process has effectively been halted. As a result, however, population growth is kept under control through the imposition of a pre-determined lifespan, with state-enforced euthanasia when your time is up. The play takes place during one couple’s final party, with officials present should they attempt to evade their duty as citizens. It starred Brian Blessed and Annette Crosbie as the youthful-looking 90 year olds, and also re-united Catherine Lacey and Ian Ogilvy from the cast of Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerors. David Ambrose’s 1977 drama Alternative 3 was a fake documentary which, like most such hoaxes, caused a certain amount of consternation amongst some of the more credulous (or insufficiently cynical) viewers. It looked at the potential environmental disasters arising from the escalation of the greenhouse effect and offered three alternatives: cutting population, reducing consumption or leaving the planet, effectively writing it off as a lost cause. The programme’s ‘investigators’ unearthed evidence of scientists setting up bases on Mars and the dark side of the moon, suggesting that the third alternative was the one being actively pursued.
All these and plenty more are available at crazy knockdown prices. So come on down and grab ‘em while you can. This offer is available for a limited time only.