Monday, 30 January 2012

Patrick Hamilton: Hangover Square

Hangover Square
Depersonalization is a psychological symptom in which the sufferer's sense of self is affected. The world suddenly feels remote and unreal. According to Wikipedia, it is the third most common psychological symptom, after anxiety and feelings of depression; it can be an indication of many underlying conditions, or induced by drugs, sleeplessness, shock, or even voluntarily, for example by meditation. If involuntary, it can be an unpleasant, alarming experience: I have suffered from it myself. So, undoubtedly, had Patrick Hamilton, who in his novel Hangover Square, gives a series of brilliant descriptions of it:
Like a camera. but instead of an exposure having been made the opposite had happened - an inclosure - a shutting down, a locking in. A moment before his head, his brain, were out in the world, seeing, hearing, sensing objects directly; now they were enclosed behind glass (like Crown jewels, like Victorian wax fruit), behind a film - the film of the camera, perhaps, to continue the photographic analogy - a film behind which all things and people moved eerily, without colour, vivacity or meaning, grimly, puppet-like, without motive or conscious volition of their own...
George Harvey Bone is a big, clumsy, unprepossessing man, living on a small inheritance in Earl's Court. His life revolves around two obsessions, the unpleasant Netta, whom he loves and despises at the same time, and the drink which is his only consolation for her rejection of him, as well as the main interest the two have in common. Netta is at the centre of a small group of hard-drinking, idle friends who exploit Bone for his comparative prosperity while mocking him to his face. It is just after the Munich agreement; Netta and the friends are supporters of Chamberlain, admirers of Hitler and Mussolini, another reason Bone has for hating them. But they continue their round of the London pubs, with a couple of trips to Brighton thrown in, endlessly engaged in the kind of mean-minded drunken smalltalk which is Hamilton's great contribution to fictional dialogue. From time to time Netta has a fling with someone, never with Bone. And from time to time also, he has what he calls one of his dead moods, his attacks of depersonalization. At such moments, he feels an overwhelming compulsion to kill Netta, a certainty that he will in fact eventually kill her. Then the mood passes and he cannot remember anything about it.

Hangover Square is the darkest of Hamilton's novels. Unlike his other masterpieces Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky and The Slaves of Solitude, both of which I hope to blog about in the future, it has very little humour. But, for me, it's his greatest achievement, an unblinking examination of the alcoholic bohemian lifestyle he knew so well, and which eventually killed him. One reason for that is the use of depersonalization: has any other writer described this symptom so well? And yet I strongly suspect it's a common experience of writers, of creative people generally. To write really effectively, you have to be able to drain the emotion from a scene, to look at it as if you weren't really feeling it. That way it becomes strange and new. The term used in literary criticism is defamiliarization - but that's only the literary manifestation of depersonalization. Hamilton gives us a defamiliarized Earl's Court through the eyes of a depersonalized George Harvey Bone. He takes the emotion out so that it will be all the more effective when it rushes back in again:
It almost knocked him down. It made him reel. It was as though he had been hit by something. And yet he knew what it was. It was only his head, cracking back. And with the crack everything came flooding, rushing, roaring back - noise, colour, light, the fury of the real, everyday world.
Hamilton was a successful writer in his lifetime; his plays Gaslight and Rope were both made into films, and made him a wealthy man. But after his death, in 1962 at the age of 58, his reputation went into eclipse. Since then there have been sporadic attempts to revive it, and the current one seems, finally, to have taken off. Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky was dramatized on BBC Television a few years ago, and his major works are all in print, including the Gorse trilogy, which I haven't read, and which is less highly regarded than the other novels I've mentioned. I hope he is now back for good where he belongs, among the major British novelists of his era.

Next time, a surreal story about dreaming by a unique US fantasy novelist.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Jerome Charyn: War Cries Over Avenue C

Sometimes I think I started this blog for Jerome Charyn. Or at any rate that he is the author who most perfectly sums up what the blog is about. I still remember the first book of his I came across - it was in one of those bargain second-hand boxes, three for 50p. I had found two I wanted and was looking for a third, and there was Marilyn the Wild. I picked it because it was short, in good condition, and was published by Bloomsbury, who had just published my novel WHOM. I loved it. My editor at Bloomsbury was a fan, too - every time he moved to a new publisher, he signed Charyn up; but, he added, he just doesn't sell.

Marilyn the Wild is part of a series Charyn has written about a New York Jewish cop called Isaac Sidel. I'll write about these in a later posting, but for now I'm going to consider one of his stand-alone novels. War Cries Over Avenue C is set in New York's Alphabet City, an area which is introduced to us in a spoof prologue supposedly written by 'Doris Quinn, Your Manhattan Spy':
Cars move slower on Avenue A. You could die whistling and might not meet a Checker cab. You've entered Indian country without even knowing it.
The combination of urban realism and disconcerting playfulness is characteristic. He knows the world he's writing about so well that it's hard tell when he's exaggerating, or just plain making things up. Sarah Fishman, Saigon Sarah from her time as a nurse in Vietnam, when she wore two .45s to defend her Viet Cong patients from their interrogators, now lives in a fortified Talmud school on Avenue C with her childhood sweetheart, Howie Biedersbill, a Henry-James-loving assassin who still has bits of shrapnel in his scalp from his own Vietnam years. They manage to survive in a world of CIA agents, Bolivian drug-runners and KGB men who use Mont Blanc fountain pens as a weapon. Howie's arch-enemy Capablanca holds him upside down out of a window to force him to admit that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (El Nobel) is a greater writer than Henry James. The Vietnam that provides the backstory to this saga of a crazed New York is just as surreal: Howie has lived among the Montagnards of the Central Highlands in a tribe of sorcerers and magicians:
They took their hammocks, their chicken claws, their poison tubs, tobacco, salt pots, arrows, antidotes, jewels and silver pipes, opium balls they'd fashioned from their last Cambodian brick and ate like cotton candy, a mound of plastique that Judith kept in a rag, jungle knives, French cigarettes that the matriarchs liked to smoke when their mouths grew sore from silver pipes, cutlery to prepare food for the devils, children's toys, French panties from Saigon for the teenage girls, a medicine chest of roots, barks and herbs, white cotton leggings that the women sometimes wore, a clutch of high-heeled shoes, the spirit table and the spirit chair.
[Judith, by the way, is a man who uses a woman's name for magical reasons.]

A touch of El Nobel in that passage, perhaps? Such a long sentence is rare in Charyn's work - he usually writes in the tersest of hard-boiled prose. But even in the most thriller-like passages of War Cries, there is still the sense, as there is in the work of that other New York Jew William Tenn, of the magic that automatically occurs when tribes who are totally alien to each other are suddenly thrust into proximity. Tenn's Venusians are no stranger than Charyn's Montagnards.

Charyn spent many years teaching in Paris, and still has a home there. Honoured with the rank of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, he is not the first American writer to be more appreciated in France than his native land. (There is another example on my list of subjects for future blog entries.) The author of thirty novels, he is still writing at 74, and his most recent publication, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, sounds like one of his most daring projects. Other books chronicle his interests in film, table tennis, baseball, the Wild West, and, of course, the history of New York. And, as with William Tenn, Robert Irwin, H.F.M Prescott and so many other authors I intend to cover on White Threshold, hardly anyone I know seems to have heard of him.

Next time, a major British mid-20th-century novelist who seems at long last to be on the verge of achieving the reputation he deserves.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no,said Merricat, you'll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!
In Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban makes powerful use of children's rhymes to create atmosphere. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, there's only one rhyme, but it re-echoes throughout, epitomizing the novel's darkly naive tone. Merricat is Mary Katherine Blackwood, the eighteen-year-old narrator, and Connie is her beloved elder sister Constance. The Castle is the grand house they live in with their disabled Uncle Julian; because we see them through Merricat's eyes, and she is clearly quite disturbed, we never really see the Castle and its adjacent village as part of modern America - they are always on the verge of becoming a fantasy realm. Six years ago the rest of the Blackwood family were murdered. Constance was accused of the crime but acquitted for lack of evidence. The villagers, whose children taunt Merricat with the rhyme above, still hate and fear both of them. This is the situation when a cousin, Charles, comes to visit, upsetting the balance of this strange household.

The Gothic has been an important strain in American literature since well before its two great nineteenth-century exponents Poe and Hawthorne. But those two writers stand for the two main currents in American Gothic, the Southern and New England varieties. After all, the Gothic depends on a strong sense of the past, and the South and New England are the oldest parts of the United States, the areas where the image of a castle or a grand old house haunted by ancestral ghosts seems least incongruous. Also both have strong religious traditions and the sense of evil that goes with them. And Gothic without a sense of evil is just a kind of literary fancy dress.

Shirley Jackson was born in California, but lived in Vermont. In her six novels you can see her working her way into the New England Gothic tradition, creating more and more convincingly a world that is both magical and contemporary. And she has the sharpest eye for evil of any writer I can think of. For Jackson, it doesn't come as buckets of blood and torture porn and it never comes unmixed; there are no monsters in her work. There is evil in the Castle, but there is also charm, humour and a particularly touching portrayal of sisterly love. And there is evil outside the Castle, too, in the villagers' hatred - understandable in its origin but always ready to go out of control.

Much of the fascination of the book is in Merricat's voice, childlike in spite of her age. Jackson is superb on children, and wrote a couple of books about her own experiences as a mother: one of them is called life Among the Savages, and as this title implies, her theme, for all the love and humour with which she writes, is that they are as prone to evil as the rest of us - indeed, it's more obvious in children because they haven't learned to hide it. The children persecute Merricat with their rhymes and her own vindictiveness towards Charles is inseparable from her childish preoccupation with the comfortable rituals of her life.

Castle is a short novel, almost a novella, and utterly gripping. The major twist in the plot is one that almost every reader will have seen coming long before, but there is another, almost incidental, surprise which is quite devastating. It's the work of a brilliant writer at the height of her powers: sadly,she died soon after completing it, at the age of 49, worn out by psychological problems and abuse of prescription drugs. Her vision cannot have been a comfortable one to live with, and it says a lot for her both as a person and an artist that her work, though always disturbing, is never depressing. (Much of it is extremely funny.) She is better known in the US than the UK - I'd never heard of her till a reader recommended her on one of the Guardian Books blogs. Even there, her reputation seems to rest mostly on one short story, 'The Lottery', and on her novel The Haunting of Hill House, which was made into a successful film. There have been rumours of a forthcoming film of Castle for a long time now, but I haven't heard of a release date yet. I'll return to Jackson in the future, as I will to several of the other authors I cover in this blog.

Next time, a quirky thriller by an imaginative and immensely prolific US novelist who excels across several genres.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Robert Irwin: The Arabian Nightmare

The Encyclopedia of FantasyOne of my most fruitful sources of cult fiction is The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant. It's much more than a reference work; you can spend hours browsing among its articled under such imaginative headings as Fimbulwinter (the Norse myth of an unending winter has many modern offshoots, including the opening scenes of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), or Into the Woods (Stephen Sondheim's musical is one example among many of the trope of a forest where normal human order is replaced by something more chaotic). I imagine I found The Arabian Nightmare under Dreams, since this is the novel's major theme.

Robert Irwin is a distinguished scholar of medieval Arabic literature, whose works include The Arabian Nights: A Companion. The Arabian Nights is what The Encyclopedia of Fantasy calls a Taproot Text, a classic work that continues to influence later generations of writers. In particular, postmodern novelists like John Barth have found inspiration in the way some of the stories are nested inside each other, many levels deep. The Arabian Nightmare is Irwin's treatment of this idea.

A group of pilgrims enters medieval Cairo, and puts up at a caravanserai, where one of them, a young Englishman called Balian, falls asleep and has a disturbing dream. When he wakes, blood is pouring from his mouth and nose, and the other pilgrims are crowding round in concern. He seems to have an illness - well, at least, they keep reassuring him, it is not the Arabian Nightmare. In the Arabian Nightmare, the dreamer experiences infinite suffering at night, and then wakes up in the morning unable to remember any of it. It is the ultimate in pointless suffering, so much so that some believe the Messiah himself will be one who has been purified by this disease.

The Cairo Balian encounters is a city of squalor and magic. Huge mountains of refuse outside the city walls cause dust and foul air to blow down the hot streets. There are great encampments of beggars sleeping in the open air, dwarfs, mountebanks and storytellers entertaining the citizens. There is a tightrope-walker who performs in his sleep (funambulist and somnambulist at the same time). The streets are haunted by Fatima the Deathly, an irresistibly attractive woman who lures men to their doom, and by rumours of the Laughing Dervishes, whose outrageous hilarity can disrupt the most solemn rituals. Everyone seems to be involved in a conspiracy, either for the Sultan or against him.

But how much of this is real, and how much a dream? Balian keeps waking up in his own blood, unsure at what point he fell asleep. He is having an affair with the seductive Zuleyka, who teaches him the art of giving sexual pleasure to a woman (as a medieval Western Christian, Balian has trouble at first understanding why he should want to). He undergoes treatment from the Father of Cats, a physician who specializes in the diseases of sleep, and is chased through the labyrinthine streets by a secret society of leper knights. Perhaps he has the Arabian Nightmare after all.

This appears to be Balian's story, but there are whole chapters where he doesn't feature. Sometimes we read instead about the Father of Cats, the Dawadar or Bearer of the Royal Inkwell, the English graverobber Michael Vane. There is a narrator, the Coptic storyteller Dirty Yoll, who seems to be controlling things - but is he a character in Balian's dreams, or is Balian a character in Yoll's story? At a certain point it becomes impossible to tell. And just when we are feeling totally lost, Yoll breaks off the main narrative to tell us another set of stories altogether, an Arabian Nights in miniature. There are four chapters of this Interlude, as Yoll calls it:
An Interlude - The Tale of the Talking Ape
The Interlude Concluded
The Interlude Concluded Continued
The Conclusion of the Continuation of the Interlude's Conclusion
It's my favourite part of the book. Stories spawn stories at a startling rate, each one echoing and parodying the others. There is a boy who was brought up by wolves, another who was brought up by apes, by bears, by leopards. There is a voyage to the end of the world. There are murders, enchantments, riddles, seductions. And there is just a page or so on the theme of three wishes in which Irwin plays every possible variation you can imagine on this ancient idea.

The Arabian Nightmare is not a novel for those who can't stand conspicuous cleverness. You can tell it's by an academic, and also, perhaps, that it's a first novel. It begins, anachronistically, with a quote from Proust and there are numerous other literary references scattered throughout. But to me its ingenuity and creativity are irresistible, and it offers a beguiling picture of the medieval Arab culture Irwin knows so well - though it's probably best to confirm some of the details from his more scholarly writings. He is now a full-time writer and has written several other well-received novels. The Arabian Nightmare's reputation has grown slowly; it is still in print some thirty years after its first publication, and has established itself as a cult classic.

Next time I'll be writing about the blackest of black comedies by an arch-exponent of the American Gothic.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

William Tenn: Immodest Proposals / Here Comes Civilization

A smalltime businessman is sitting in his poky office when a man walks in without knocking and asks, "Would you be interested in buying a twenty for a five?" The newcomer is dirty and disreputable looking; the businessman tells him there are no beggars allowed in the building, and tries to throw him out. The newcomer wants to know what's wrong with his offer, but the businessman is unrelenting, so he retreats, leaving his card: he is Mr Ogo Eksar, operating out of a hotel in Times Square. The businessman, Bernie, can't get the incident out of his head. Obviously there's a catch, because no one in his right mind would offer to pay twenty dollars for a five-dollar bill. But Bernie's a bit of a hustler himself - he'd like to know what the catch is, and it can only cost him five dollars, at the worst, to find out. So he goes round to the hotel in Times Square, and they do the deal - the twenty and the five are exchanged and Eksar even insists on a receipt.

What happens now? Maybe Mr Eksar would be interested in another deal, say, buying a ten for a fifty, or a twenty for a hundred dollars?

Eksar is contemptuous. What kind of a deal is that?

Well, Bernie says, isn't there anything else you want to buy?

The Golden Gate Bridge.

This is the opening of William Tenn's short story 'Bernie the Faust'. In the course of a couple of pages, the two find themselves negotiating over other geographical features, like the Sea of Azov (It's only forty-nine feet deep! "Where are you going to do better than three hundred and eighty dollars for a sea like that?"), not to mention fishing and buried treasure rights on the moon. Bernie is slightly uneasy about the fact that he doesn't actually own any of these things, but Eksar is happy to agree to purchase only whatever rights Bernie may have to them, just so long as he gets his receipt. Of course, there is a catch, and Eksar is not what he seems. There are several twists before the end, but I won't spoil them for you.

I was probably about eleven when I first read that story. I was reading a lot of SF at the time, and other stories that made a deep impression on me were Isaac Asimov's 'I'm in Marsport Without Hilda', Damon Knight's 'The Country of the Kind', and Bob Shaw's 'Light of Other Days'. I read them for their inventiveness, and William Tenn consistently seemed to be the writer with the best ideas. I got a book of his stories, Time in Advance, out of the library: all of them were brilliant. I was on my way to becoming a fan.

Then - a refrain that will recur many times in this blog - I couldn't find anything more. All my friends were reading Asimov, nobody had heard of Tenn. In due course, my interest in SF cooled anyway (it has revived in the last few years), and I began to think I had imagined him, until one day about ten years ago I found 'Bernie the Faust' on the web, and it was as good as I remembered - better in fact, because I now understood how cleverly Tenn was manipulating the conventions of Jewish humour to make them into SF. It turned out he had a website, from which I learned that his real name was Philip Klass, and that his complete fiction had been published by NESFA Press, in two volumes (whose brilliant covers are shown here), called Immodest Proposals and Here Comes Civilization.

One reason for Tenn's comparative obscurity is that he was a short fiction specialist. The Golden Age of Science Fiction was dominated by magazines, in particular Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy. That meant a big market for shorter forms, not just the short story proper, but the novelette (defined by the Nebula Awards as having a length of between 7,500 and 17,499 words, and the novella (between 17,500 and 40,000 words). There was a good living to be made writing these shorter forms, and they could subsequently be republished in anthologies and collections. But as the magazine market diminished, so too did the interest in short fiction, and writers like Tenn became marginalized. There is some hope the internet will eventually reverse this process - too late for Phil Klass, who died in 2010 at the age of 89, though from what I've read of him he was not the kind of man to feel any bitterness about it.

Of all the classic SF themes - post-apocalypse, androids, space travel, time travel, etc - it is aliens that Tenn excels in. In 'The Sickness', an arrogant intellectual on an international expedition to Mars is unnerved when all his companions are transformed by a virus into disembodied super-intelligences, like the Martians themselves. In 'Firewater' the aliens who have colonized Earth are so different from us that the only humans who manage to communicate with them go mad - though enriched by their contact with technological knowledge that is a valuable resource for any normal humans who are willing to trade with them. And in 'Venus and the Seven Sexes', he gives us an elaborately worked-out Venusian creature that has adapted to its hilariously hostile environment by evolving into seven distinct forms, creating a life-cycle so complicated it just manages to avoid extinction:
There is only one thing that all the ravening life-forms of Venus would rather eat than each other, and that one thing is a Plookh.
There's a joyous extravagance in his exploration of the idea of alienness and the juxtaposition of incompatible values it implies: they may be bug-eyed monsters to us, but we, to use a term from one of his stories, are flat-eyed monsters to them. This relativism puts him in a great satirical tradition which, as the title Immodest Proposals suggests, he was well aware of. It's also, of course, a natural theme for a New York Jew, aware not only of a heritage of obscure and wonderful knowledge, but also of the daunting fact that many of the other groups around you would rather devour you than each other.

If you don't fancy buying the complete works, his only novel, Of Men and Monsters, is available in the superb SF Masterworks Series. (It is also included in Here Comes Civilization, and illustrated on the cover to that book, shown above):
Mankind consisted of 128 people.

The sheer population pressure of so vast a horde had long ago filled over a dozen burrows. Bands of the Male Society patrolled the outermost corridors with their full strength, twenty-three young adult males in the prime of courage and alertness. They were stationed there to take the first shock of any danger to Mankind, they and their band captains and the youthful initiates who served them.

Eric the Only was an initiate in this powerful force.
Giant aliens have invaded Earth and taken over all our resources. Nothing like a war can be said to have taken place: the aliens are too huge and advanced even to recognize us as intelligent. Human beings are reduced to living, mouselike, in burrows in the walls of alien houses. (Some editions of the novel carry the alternative title The Men in the Walls.) This is Tenn at his most Swiftian, ruthless in the accuracy of his satire. Like the mating cycle of the Venusian Plookh, the anthropology of his parasitic Mankind is worked out with a rigour that probably owes something to the influence of his scientist brother, Morton. It's a very funny, but sometimes dark, book, and makes a great introduction to Tenn's work.

It's about time I did an entry on a living author, so next time I will be blogging about the first novel of an eminent British scholar of Arabic literature, a fabulation set in medieval Cairo.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Russell Hoban: Riddley Walker

Map from Riddley Walker I have always liked the kind of books that have maps at the front. They seem to promise, not just a story, but a whole world. In fact, the more documentation the better as far as I'm concerned - I'm also fond of those lists of characters you get in Tolstoy, and the family trees in epic novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude. Probably the novel that offers most in this department is The Lord of the Rings, with its fold-out maps, and no fewer than six appendices on things like languages, chronology and pronunciation.

Riddley Walker is a slim novel, unlike these other examples, but it keeps the promise made by the map at the front: you get a world as well as a story. It's the world of the eponymous hero, and it doesn't take much scrutiny to realize that it's actually a slightly altered map of Kent, a Kent of the future where some of the landscape and all of the placenames have changed: Cambry is Canterbury, Do It Over is Dover, Sam's Itch is Sandwich, Horny Boy is Herne Bay, and so on. Only the road names eerily remain the same, but you have to walk rather than drive on them, because this is Kent several hundred years after a nuclear apocalypse.

The post-apocalypse story is one of the oldest themes in science fiction, and the post nuclear variety is the most common of all: Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, John Wyndham's The Chrysalids and several novels by Philip K.Dick, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Dr Bloodmoney and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch are classic examples; more recently, Cormac McCarthy's The Road has reminded non-SF buffs of the perennial power of the theme. Apocalypse in general appeals to our fantasies of a more primitive life that may offer greater freedom or excitement - it's closely related to other fantasies of simplification, like desert island stories or pastoral poetry. But the nuclear versions, being based an all-too-possible catastrophic scenario, tend to emphasize the loss and suffering involved rather than the liberation. Often (in Miller's novel, for example), finding out exactly what went wrong is important to the characters, as is trying to reconstruct imaginatively the world before the war. That means defamiliarization comes into play; we know what our world is like, but through the efforts of the characters we get to see it as it would look from a very different perspective, and perhaps value it more as a result.

Riddley Walker is typical in this respect. The characters spend a lot of their time digging up objects from before the apocalypse (One of them is a Punch puppet from a Punch and Judy show), and a lot more time telling stories and singing songs which contain cryptic references to the earlier civilization and what happened to it. The people from "back way back" had "boats in the air and picters in the wind", but they lost it all through their fatal obsession with the "1 Big 1", the nuclear bomb. They've developed an entire culture out of the ruins of ours.

What sets this apart from other treatments of the theme is the language. Hoban's masterstroke was to invent a future version of English. Here is the funeral for Riddley's father, killed while trying to excavate a giant machine from the industrial age:
We done the berning that nite on the bye bye hump. The moon were cloudit over and a hy wind blowin. I put the 1st torch to the stack then Straiter Empy for the crowd then Rockman Bessup for Widders Dump then Lorna Elswint for las. Arnge flames upping in the dark and liting all the faces roun. Catching that time of that nite stoppt on all them faces. You cud smell the berning sharp on the air mixt with the meat smel from the divvy roof. Dogs begun to howl it were coming and going on the wind. The fire blowing in the wind and the sparks whup off into the dark and gone. Dark and gone. Before the wording we sung Sarvering Gallack Seas:

     Pas the sarvering gallack seas and flaming nebyul eye
     Power us beyont the farthes reaches of the sky
     Thine the han what shapit the black
     Guyd us there and guyd us back
This gives some idea of the power of this new language. The description would be vivid even in standard English, but it's full of mistakes or misunderstandings that not only defamiliarize but create new metaphors: galaxies become seas, nebulae become an eye. In the continuation of the passage, the "wording", where the members of the community share their memories of the dead man, it becomes clear that they've misinterpreted the word "thine" in the song; everyone sits round and "thines" hands. The language of the book is full of little touches like this, some funny, some enriching. Reading it is a unique experience.

It could be argued that Riddley Walker is too well-known by now to be considered a cult book any longer. I thought of doing a posting on Kleinzeit, which is my second favourite of Hoban's books, but in the end felt that his masterpiece simply could not be avoided. Like The Man on a Donkey, it is one of the great novels of modern times: my account here doesn't give an impression of how moving it is (the ending is shattering), but readers who don't know it can find much more on the web. Hoban died on 13 December at the age of 86; despite the fame of his best-known novel, he was a cult author through and through, taking the most outrageous risks with his writing and getting away with them more often than might be thought possible.

Since my last posting I've discovered a very recent and excellent review of The Man on A Donkey by Rosemary Mitchell in the online journal Open Letters Monthly. Like me, Mitchell sees it as a great and neglected book; she also cites the similar view of my friend Diana Wallace in her study The Woman's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000. Maybe a groundswell of support for Prescott is beginning at last - I'd like to think so.

My next posting will be on the two-volume collected works of another recently deceased writer, a brilliant satirist from the Golden Age of SF.