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You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison

November 19, 2017 Leave a comment

You Should Come With Me Now is M. John Harrison’s latest collection of weird tales from Comma Press, who kindly provided me with a copy for review.  Harrison stands alone, in my mind at least, as the only author I can think of who started in science fiction, transformed into a literary author, and then transformed back. More importantly, he’s one of the greatest British authors of the post-war period. I’ve been reading him for close to twenty years now, since I discovered his Viriconium series in the Millennium Fantasy Masterworks series circa 2000. Even then he was straddling genres, as he also had The Centauri Device in the Science Fiction Masterworks. I liked those, but I loved his literary novels and especially Climbers best of all. Harrison returned to SF with Light and its sequels Nova Swing and Empty Space (this last volume is one of the more baroque and difficult texts I’ve encountered in any genre). There were short fiction collections along the way in The Ice Monkey and Travel Arrangements. Harrison has been at it for all of fifty years, and on the basis of the current volume he hasn’t lost the knack for creating unsettling tales that are at once exotic and homely.

These stories are uncompromising, however. Many are filled with strange architecture, strange oddments and stranger motivations. No one is ever particularly happy in an M. John Harrison story and there’s rarely anything like a happy ending on offer. This isn’t a criticism, more a warning: don’t expect any answers. Some of these stories are set in the land of Autotelia, which seems to exist partly in our world (you can fly there from London). Others remind me of the earlier Viriconium stories. There are a number of flash fiction stories on offer, none of which I bonded with particularly, as well as pieces that remind me of J. G. Ballard’s ‘condensed novels’ in The Atrocity Exhibition (the final imaginary review in ‘Imaginary Reviews’ is of ‘The Last Fish’, which is more than a little Ballardian). My favourite pieces tended to be those that were longer and more human, some of which are set in entirely in our world. This is my way of saying that I still prefer the M. John Harrison of Climbers to that of Empty Space.

‘Cicisbeo’ is an engaging domestic story of a kind that Harrison has been writing for decades, a sort of low-key love triangle that reminds me of Graham Greene’s ‘The Destructors’. In ‘Yummie’, a man wakes from heart surgery to find that he’s being shadowed by a creature that offers obscure advice and no one else can see. ‘Dog People’ is an off-beat romance of the strangest variety, featuring the aggressive Myra, the ugliest woman our protagonist has ever seen (it doesn’t take long for them to start fucking, however). My favourite story was ‘Entertaining Angels Unawares’, written in the mode of M. John Harrison’s I like best, in a similar vein to The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life. Here you’ll find a dilapidated church undergoing renovation, a persistent dream of chopping people’s heads off with an enormous sword (‘biggest fucker you’ve ever seen’) and gobbo (‘a kind of grout made from mud and goat-hair’). Many of the varied offerings in You Should Come With Me Now are too elliptical for dullards like myself to fully comprehend, but it’s a book of magic and perverse humour nonetheless.

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Nightmare Alley vs Nightmare Alley

October 2, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading a lot of classic noir fiction in recent times, as well as watching a host of noir films of the 1940s and 50s. I hadn’t heard of William Lindsay Gresham or his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley until I picked up a copy of the Pocket Essentials guide to Noir Fiction, which has put me onto a number of obscure but worthy authors. The novel was an instant success at the time of publication and was turned into a 1947 film of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. Instead of reading the book first and then watching the film, I had a notion to sample them side by side, watching ten minutes or so of the film and then reading a chapter or two. This worked fine for a while, except that the film ran out long before the novel. I enjoyed both, but neither are without flaws.

Tyrone Power stars as Stan “The Great Stanton” Carlilse, who starts in a local carny before deciding to try for the big-time spook racket. Power puts in a wonderful performance as the amoral confidence trickster, and he’s ably supported by Joan Blondell as the aging Zeena, also pictured here. The film also features Colleen Gray as the young starlet Molly and, my favourite, Mike Makurzi as strongman Bruno. I thought Makurzi seemed familiar – turns out he’s another strongman character in Night and the City, which is possibly my absolute favourite of the forty or so noir fictions I’ve seen. The film fascinates early on but to my mind bogs down a little in the second half as Stan perpetrates his various cons. Presumably to keep the censors happy, the film stresses the NON-religious nature of Stan’s schemes, a point of clear divergence from the novel, and there’s even a sloppy happy ending. Good, but not ideal.

The novel is a different beast altogether, far coarser and for the time far more shocking. None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming characteristics, certainly not Stan, and there’s no hint of a happy ending. Again I found certain chapters overly long or tangential, but certain passages and chapters were among the best I’ve ever read. Some are desperately bleak:

“How helpless they all looked in the ugliness of sleep. A third of life spent unconscious and corpselike. And some, the great majority, stumbled through their waking hours scarcely more awake, helpless in the face of destiny. They stumbled down a dark alley toward their deaths. They sent exploring feelers into the light and met fire and walked back into the darkness of their blind groping.”

There’s a chapter about midway through the book where Stan goes back home to visit his dying father, whom he hasn’t seen in decades, that is to my mind one of the most perfect pieces of work imaginable. The rest is a bit up and down, and it does help to have seen the film (which definitely smooths out the complexity), but it’s a worthwhile read overall. Gresham only wrote one other novel, Limbo Tower, which is apparently bleaker still. Penniless, he killed himself in 1962.

Down There with David Goodis

January 26, 2017 Leave a comment

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About once a year I discover a writer whose work intrigues me sufficiently that I allow myself to become obsessed with their lives and work. Most of these have tended to be American crime or country noir authors. In 2009-10 that writer was Harry Crews. In 2012 it was two authors, Megan Abbott and William Gay. Two again in 2013 with Derek Raymond and Daniel Woodrell. In 2014 it was a Russian, Mikhail Bulgakov. In 2015 I discovered Jim Thompson and in 2016 I read almost everything by James Sallis. Though the year is young, 2017 is shaping up as the year of David Goodis.

In the case of many of these writers, such as Thompson, Raymond and Goodis, their status nowadays is that of ‘long forgotten, recently rediscovered cult crime author’. All three were relatively successful in their time, all three had plenty of movies adapted from their novels, all fell from favour after their deaths only for their work to be resurrected decades later. Goodis’ personal life story seems especially poignant and I won’t try to summarise it here, but suffice to say that his fall from grace during his lifetime was the steepest of the three. A successful author and Hollywood screenwriter by the age of 30 (pictured below with Bogart and Bacall, stars of the 1947 noir film Dark Passage, adapted from Goodis’ novel of the same name), a decade later he was churning out cheap paperback originals for the same pulp houses as Jim Thompson. A decade after that, at 49, Goodis was dead. page0_2-2

Goodis is by no means the perfect writer. Having read four of his novels now, I feel safe in saying that. His plots creak and often threaten to bust at the seams. He is overly reliant on coincidence and often having a character overhear long sections of dialogue. His protagonists are almost always the exact same kind of morose down-and-out. Goodis often uses lengthy expository passages and pages and pages of interior monologue (this last point is both strength and weakness).

And yet Goodis has heart. This, above anything else, is his greatest strength as a writer. He demonstrates care not only for his suicidal protagonists, but for those practically all of those downtrodden souls who inhabit his books. Goodis uses flashback sections effectively to explain the plights of his protagonists and also to link prior action to that happening now. He writes action scenes and especially punch-ups particularly effectively. He demonstrates an admirable attitude toward women and ethnic minorities, and writes largely without racial prejudice. Goodis describes settings in atmospheric fashion, often using the weather itself as a character in his work. In short, he’s a diamond in the rough.

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To the novels themselves, I began with Shoot the Piano Player, renamed thus from Down There after the French film upon which it is based. I liked this plenty, especially the frozen setting of deep winter in Philadelphia. Goodis’ most obvious attribute as a writer is that he genuinely writes about the down-and-outs of society, and these pages are filled with them. I also really dig the early 90s Vintage Crime/Black Lizard edition pictured here (I have several Jim Thompson novels in these editions). Under its original title, the novel is also available in a Library of America edition of 50s noir.

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Far less successful in my view is The Wounded and the Slain, available from Hard Case Crime. This one is probably unique in Goodis’ ouevre in that it’s set outside the U.S., in Jamaica (which Goodis apparently visited). I didn’t much care for the sunny setting but what especially galled me here was the extremely poor plotting. I thought the writing and characters reasonable enough, but the plotting to be on the level one might expect from a small child. Others apparently disagree.

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2012 must have been a watershed year for Goodis’ fans, as this signalled the release of Five Noir Novels of the 1940s and 50s from the Library of America, an edition I’ve recently obtained. In fact, many of the novels herein are only in print in this edition. So far I’ve only read The Burglar and Street of No Return, meaning I still have Dark Passage, Nightfall and The Moon in the Gutter to come. Quite brief at 52,000 words, The Burglar is a sharp noir tale set in Philly and Atlantic City in the 50s. All the main characters are well drawn, the protagonist’s manias are convincing and there aren’t too many dumb things in the plot. I enjoyed the hell out of this, basically.

Street of No Return reads like an inferior Shoot the Piano Player, however. There our protagonist previously had a glittering career playing the piano, whereas here he was a singer, but otherwise the setup is much the same. One of the problems with this is clunky plotting. Here there are three separate groups: cops, white crims and Puerto Rican crims, all vying for control of the Hellhole in central Philly, but Goodis doesn’t seem to have the necessary skill to pit them against each other convincingly. Another problem is that here the femme fatale barely appears on the page at all, other than in a flashback chapter (Chapter 6 – by my reckoning the best in the book).

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I’m waiting for the arrival of Black Friday and Selected Stories not only for the title novella but also for the stories, many of which were written in the 30s and 40s. There’s also an essay by Adrian Wootton on Goodis that I’m keen to read. I’ve also managed to find an old paperback of Cassidy’s Girl on Ebay for a reasonable price, which brings me up to nine novels of the eighteen Goodis published owned. The others are all available secondhand, but are usually very expensive. I have my eye on copies of In Tender SinThe Blonde on the Street Corner and Night Squad as all three were at least reprinted at some point in the nineties. The other six appear not to have been reprinted for many years. All are available, but none cheaply.

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Those like me attempting to absorb anything Goodis related as quickly and as cheaply as possible have their work cut out for them, unfortunately. There’s a 2010 documentary that I’ve just ordered on Ebay (the DVD seems to have recently gone out of print on Amazon). There’s even a biography written in French in the eighties that was only published in English in recent years (Goodis: A Life in Black and White), but this can only be obtained direct from the publisher at a hefty cost of $65 including shipping for us poor Aussies. There’s even a short book by James Sallis (Difficult Lives: Jim Thompson – David Goodis – Chester Himes) but it’s out of print and prohibitively expensive secondhand. Online, there’s a wealth of (not very clearly organised) material on davidgoodis.com, and there’s the occasional excellent review by the likes of Australian author Andrew Nette.

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As for finding copies of Goodis’ novels cheaply secondhand, it seems that the French have been the real curators of his legacy over the years. The downside to this is that most of the cheap editions of Goodis’ novels on Ebay are in French translation and thus of little use to me.  I’ve just ordered a DVD of the 1947 film version of Dark Passage and no doubt the other adaptions are available in some way and for some price, but that will have to do me for now.

Off I go, back down there into The Moon in the Gutter.

Two book launches and a crime fiction review

November 18, 2016 Leave a comment

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I’ve been busy this week, not only in chipping away at the draft of City of Rubber Stamps, but also with some other writerly events. Firstly, my review of David Whish-Wilson’s excellent Perth crime novel Old Scores is up at Westerly’s Editor’s Desk. My wife and I had the pleasure of attending the novel’s launch at the suitably noirish Buffalo Club in Fremantle on Wednesday night. There I caught up not only with David but with a cadre of Perth crime fiction aficionados and writers like Ron Elliot, Bruce Russell, Michelle Michau-Crawford and Ian Reid. Old Scores is a rip-roaring trip through eighties Perth and highly recommended. You can read more about it and even a sample chapter over at the Fremantle Press website.

Tonight I’m off to my second launch for the week, this one at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. It’s launch day for Writing the Dream from Serenity Press, which is a book of non-fiction pieces on writing and publishing by 25 mostly WA authors, including the likes of Juliet Marillier, Natasha Lester and Louise Allan. If you are keen on meeting the authors and picking up a signed copy, then you’ll need to head up to the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Greenmount on Sunday 27th November for the second launch date. I’d love to attend this myself, but as I’ll be on my honeymoon in Tasmania it’d be a long way to travel. Writing the Dream is an outstanding and highly practical ‘how to’ guide to writing and publishing as well as being a source of inspiration for aspiring writers. It’s available now from any number of online outlets such as Amazon and Booktopia.

Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews in Review

May 3, 2016 2 comments

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It was 2009 when I first picked up an old paperback with an intriguing cover depicting a snake, Ouroboros-style, eating its own tail. The book was A Feast of Snakes, its author Harry Crews unknown to me, but as I sat down to read I was electrified. I’ve only felt this way a handful of times, experiencing an instant, profound connection with a book and author. I enjoyed A Feast of Snakes so much that, upon completing it later that day, I started from page one and read it cover to cover again. Thus began my ‘Crews Cruise’, a year-long quest to obtain and read all twenty or so of the author’s books. The only book of Crews’ that I didn’t obtain and read at that time, aside from obscure titles like The Enthusiast and Madonna at Ringside, was the very expensive, never-released-in-paperback This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven. I eventually rectified that omission in 2013, but by then Harry Crews was dead.

Having read pretty much all of the published secondary material on Crews as well, I proceeded to wait patiently for the author’s follow-up to his heartwrenching memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. Crews had completed writing it before he died, I’d read. That title, Assault of Memory, never came, but here’s the next best thing, a touching biography by Ted Geltner. (As an aside, I must be about the first person in Australia to have read this book, several weeks before its slated release date. I have my local bookstore, Barclay Books, to thank for that.) Not every author gets the biography they deserve. Some years ago I was rather underwhelmed by a book on the never-boring Brion Gysin, whereas on the other hand Julie Philips’ biography of James Tiptree Jr has to be the best I’ve ever read. Happily, Blood, Bone, and Marrow falls squarely in the latter camp.

Harry Crews led an immensely interesting life, but I’ve long been starved of information on all but the first decade of that life. The outstanding documentary “Harry Crews: Survival is Triumph Enough” makes for compelling viewing, but it’s almost completely devoid of anything about Crews’ actual publishing journey. Similarly, no one could write better about Crews’ childhood than the man himself, but that seminal memoir ends with the author still a small boy. Most of the remaining seven decades of Crews’ life were blank to me, interspersed as they were by snippets from interviews (most of them collected in Getting Naked with Harry Crews and Critical Perspectives on Harry Crews) and non-fiction pieces collected in Blood and Grits and Florida Frenzy. Geltner’s biography fills those blanks for me and I believe that that’s a major part of what a literary biography should do.

More than that, though, Blood, Bone and Marrow offers a compelling, often funny and frequently sad account of a deeply flawed and yet profoundly influential American writer. Harry Crews toiled his whole life against the cards life had dealt him and he went to his grave without knowing the answer to one of the most fundamental of life’s questions: Who is my daddy? What blood runs through these veins? When Harry Crews passed away in 2012 I felt like I lost a treasured great uncle. Around the same time I lost J. G. Ballard and William Gay, too. I can only thank and applaud Ted Geltner for bringing Harry Crews alive for me again, albeit fleetingly.

The epigraph of the book’s final chapter is a quote from Crews himself: “The big oaks have to fall down so the little oaks can grow up. And now it’s my turn to go down.” Harry Crews was a big oak, one of the biggest, and in my mind he’ll never go down.

2015 in Review: My Top Ten Reads

December 21, 2015 Leave a comment

In 2015, for the second consecutive year, I read more than 100 books. A few of these were in conjunction with my work as an English teacher (indeed I read a couple of these books aloud to students), but the vast majority were for my own personal reading. Around a third of these were crime fiction, with the rest being literary fiction, non-fiction and the odd SF novel. This year I revisited the works of J. G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, all of whom are authors who were important to me in my twenties. I completed my reading of the works of Pat Barker, Mikhail Bulgakov and Derek Raymond, and I’m one book short of completing everything by Peter Temple, too. I read multiple titles by the likes of James Lee Burke, J. M. Coetzee, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vicki Hendricks, Cormac McCarthy and Larry Watson. Authors that I read for the first time in 2015 include Julian Barnes, James Darnielle, Candice Fox, Christopher Isherwood, Henning Mankell and Ron Rash. I didn’t enjoy all of these books and authors equally, but all have something to recommend them. My author of 2015, however, was definitely Jim Thompson. I ended up reading twelve of his books. What follows is my top ten reads for 2015 with brief description and links to Goodreads.

Brittle Innings by Michael Bishop

It’s a sequel to Frankenstein, set in the US in the first half of the twentieth century. Oh, and the monster plays baseball. He can really hit them out of the park.

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The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember much of what happened in this slim volume. I do remember, however, than the writing was exceptional.

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Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

I’ve read about ten of Coetzee’s novels now; this is yet another outstanding piece of work from the Nobel Prize winner.

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Liza’s England by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is an exceptional writer but in general I prefer her WWI books to the rest. This one, however, a bildungsroman set in England in the early twentieth century, is very powerful and far superior to the recently-released Noon Day.

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Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

This is a fascinating portrait of life in late-Weimar Germany told through the ‘camera’ of ‘Christopher Isherwood’. I’ve read four Isherwood titles recently, but this was my favourite of them.

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A State of Denmark by Derek Raymond

Probably the best of Raymond’s non-Factory novels, this is part Orwellian dystopian England, part rural Italy. Fascinating.

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The Hidden Files by Derek Raymond

Raymond’s memoir is part autobiography and part thesis on what he calls the ‘black novel’. Rambling but ultimately rewarding for authors of crime fiction.

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Savage Night by Jim Thompson

The first Thompson novel I read happened to be one of his very best, and it precipitated a book-buying-bender on my part. This is a slim and savage little crime novel that I greatly admire.

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A Swell-Looking Babe by Jim Thompson

I especially liked this Oedipal (and partly autobiographical) tale of Dusty Rhodes, hotel porter. It’s another Thompson stunner.

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Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson

I’m saving the best for last. This is by far my favourite book of 2015; it’s a caustic, outrageous comedy noir set in Hicktown, USA at the turn of the twentieth century. This has to be the very best of Jim Thompson and that’s really saying something. Go read this book immediately!

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The Red Fog Rises: On Derek Raymond

November 18, 2015 Leave a comment

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I hadn’t heard of UK crime writer Derek Raymond until I was given a copy of his novel The Devil’s Home on Leave about two years ago. I enjoyed that well enough, finding it to be exceedingly gritty and bleak (and thus to my tastes) and in time I got my hands on the other novels in the Factory series, He Died With His Eyes Open, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright. The first of these I liked best, the last the least, and I didn’t enjoy the much hyped Suarez as much as I thought I might, although perhaps that was the point. Raymond can be artless at times and there’s a certain repetitiveness to his work, but it’s genuine, powerful and oh so very sordid. Ideally I’d obtain the entire Factory series in either the UK Serpent’s Tail editions or the US Melville House, but as usual (as you can see from the above photo), I’ve ended up with a bit of both.

There’s more to Derek Raymond than the Factory novels; quite a bit more, in fact. Next cab off the rank for me was the excellent A State of Denmark, a remarkable mix of 1984 and some really vivid writing about country life in Italy. This would be close to the best of Raymond’s earlier work, originally published under his real name of Robin Cook (he chose the pseudonym in the 80s due to the popularity of the other Robin Cook). The other early novel published by Serpent’s Tail is The Crust on its Uppers, the author’s first. I didn’t enjoy this very much, and nor did I like the late, weak Nightmare in the Street. Raymond did have one more good shot in him, as it turned out, the posthumously-released Not Till the Red Fog Rises, which I’ve just finished reading today. This reads very much like the Factory novels except that here we see things from the criminal mind of Gust, a dangerous man to cross. Finally there’s Raymond’s memoir The Hidden Files, a combination of personal history, treatise on the ‘black novel’ and a lot of other oddities thrown in for good measure. Out of print, expensive and obscure, this is nonetheless an important and very interesting book.

So that’s the end of my Derek Raymond adventure, or is it? As Robin Cook, the author published four other early novels that are yet to be reprinted and may forever remain so, given that the author died more than twenty years ago. They are named Bombe Surprise, The Legacy of the Stiff Upper Lip, Public Parts and Private Places and The Tenants of Dirt Street. All are obtainable secondhand, but all are expensive. After finding The Crust on its Uppers a chore to get through, I’m disinclined to blow my money on these obscurities, but perhaps I’m making a mistake? If you know, let me know.

In summary, Derek Raymond is for lovers of British noir. He’s not for the squeamish, and perhaps it’s best not to read too many of his books in one go. His best work, in my view, can be found in novels like He Died With His Eyes Open, A State of Denmark and Not Till the Red Fog Rises. If you like your novels served black, then you’ll very much enjoy these titles.