Cloud Chamber 110
October 2000

Recently I read a stack of 1920s-1950s novels by the generally inoffensive and modestly ingenious but now forgotten crime writer Philip MacDonald. This led to the reflection that fictional serial killers, today vaguely regarded as having been invented in the 1980s by Thomas Harris, have a longish pedigree in thrillers. I'm thinking of the truly insane random killer here, not the pretend version who fakes a pattern of deaths by way of distraction from a single profitable crime, as in Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders, or who has compelling reasons to eliminate a whole seemingly unconnected crowd of people, as in MacDonald's The List of Adrian Messenger (1959), or as appears to be the case in Rex Stout's more devious The League of Frightened Men (1935). Macdonald invented a couple of interestingly 'genuine' killers, one with a grudge against policemen in X v. Rex (1933) and a less focused sadist in Murder Gone Mad (1931; a similar connoisseur of anguish appears in one of H.C. Bailey's 'Mr Fortune' stories). Elsewhere, Ellery Queen had New York plausibly terrorized by a serial killer in Cat of Many Tails (1949), and Ngaio Marsh dumped one into a rather small shipboard party – a kind of floating Isolated Country House – in Singing in the Shrouds (1958). Both the latter villains are provided with laboriously Freudian webs of motivation, marking a transition between the MacDonaldesque presentation of the problem as one of mobilizing society against an anonymous multiple murderer who's invisible in the crowd, and the more modern stress on how jolly psychologically interesting such monsters must be – the attitude that eventually foregrounds them as towering antiheroes like Hannibal Lecter, and which Neil Gaiman deplored by implication in the 'serial killers convention' sequence of Sandman. So the almost impersonal logistical problem of tracking or trapping a random murderer gives way to a quest for psychological intimacy verging on complicity; the serial killer subgenre drifts away from classic detective fiction in the direction of horror, and ends up with an entry – however Cluteanly disapproving – in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. Perhaps a mini-thesis could be written here, but I don't fancy putting in the research on fictional serial killers of the modern, gorily detailed persuasion. Also, my fondness for 'classic detective fiction' does not quite blind me to the counterargument that such fiction's handling of the serial killer theme is artificial and sanitized by contrast with the older, darker cult appeal of, notably, Jack the Ripper. Deep waters, Watson.

Ansible 159 Erratum. 'Gotcha!' said John Clute. 'It wasn't Pamela Zoline at my party, it was Pamela Sladek.' I grovelled deafly. John continued: 'And you left out Hilary Bailey! All right, you'd gone before she arrived. Do say she was there, with her three kids, and her grandchild. That'll wind up Moorcock....' [Fixed in electronic and reprint editions.]

Commonplace Book. Dept of Statistics: 'Rockfist was born in the mind of Mr. Frank Pepper and he first appeared in the pages of The Champion, a boys' comic, in October 1938. He finally left the scene some 1,000 chapters and five million words later on May 6, 1961. And considering that Leo Tolstoy used 700,000 words in War and Peace, that must put Rockfist among the all-time greats of fiction.' (Liverton Gazette) • Dept of Alcoholic Bees: '"We can even get them to drink pure ethanol," said Charles Abramson, of Oklahoma university. "I know of no organism that will do that, not even a student."' (Independent on Sunday, 24-9-00)

The Horror! I get strange e-mail from people discovering the Langford/Ansible web sites, a recent puzzler being the lady who while living in California had published stories in a semiprozine run by local fan Dave Langford, who claimed to be my nephew or perhaps cousin. This does not fit any known branch of the family tree.... More alarming was the chap who asked if I was the Dave Langford who used to attend the One Tun, did the Helliconia maps (eh? the endpapers were by Margaret Aldiss) and had persistently tried to seduce the enquirer's wife. At last it emerged that maps meant globes ... and the correspondent went into paroxysms of mortified apology at having confused me with, oh argh, Dave Angus. Slightly more similar-sounding surnames than 'Zoline' and 'Sladek', I have to admit.

Random Reading

HugeSouthAmericanRiver. Presumably those reports of huge losses (and such masterstrokes as not making a profit on Harry Potter IV because it was so massively discounted) are finally having an effect at editorial budget level. Reviews of Banks, Baxter, Rankin, Millennium SF/Fantasy Masterworks etc. are still wanted, and likewise some Gollancz yellowjacket reissues; but when it comes to crap sf like Sten or crap commercial fantasy like R.A. Salvatore, the routine 'yes, we need a review' has become 'er um, let's think about it' followed by eternal silence. To the annoyance of Paper Tiger editor P. Barnett, sf/fantasy art books tend to get a blanket thumbs-down on the basis that they never sell enough to justify a review (exception made for an X-Men tie-in). Small presses were always frowned on, so I had no luck with my plea to review Savoy's 50th-anniversary hardback reissue of Maurice Richardson's wonderfully daft The Exploits of Engelbrecht: Abstracted from the Chronicles of the Surrealist Sportsman's Club, as tirelessly plugged over the years by James Cawthorn (intro) and Mike Moorcock (afterword), and now including (as well as the illustrations from the first edition) much Ronald Searle artwork that accompanied the chapters published in Lilliput magazine. Well worth the £20. • Peter F. Hamilton, The Confederation Handbook ... this 'nonfiction' companion to the Night's Dawn trilogy seemed a bit of a rush job, and I e-mailed the great man to suggest that – since what I'd received was allegedly a proof copy – it might be a cunning plan to fix the howler where he obviously meant to write the 'dark side' or 'downside' of some technology, and it appears as 'the distaff side'. Ouch! Also, I asked, why not expand the bloody timeline to cover the trilogy's events rather than reprinting the identical version published in all three volumes; and wouldn't a glossary of non-explicitly defined neologisms like 'bitek' make this more of a useful book? Swiftly came the reply: 'Hi and Arrrgh. / No, it's too late to correct the book before printing. Not even terribly sure how distaff got in there, suspect some editorial padding (it is a somewhat slim volume and I did say they could "work it over"). Write it off to What Authors Will Do To Get A Thog Mention. / As to the timeline ... I'm always reluctant to simply list events in the trilogy as it seems to be the ultimate spoiler, of course as this is the kind of book that will only appeal to someone who has read the trilogy in the first place I probably could have done. Gosh two bad production decisions in one book.' • Michael Moorcock and Storm Constantine, Silverheart, a collaboration which leans rather heavily towards Moorcockian tradition as the hero Max Silverskin is afflicted with the 'silverheart' curse that will eat his heart if he fails to complete his quest on schedule (cf. Dorian Hawkmoon in The Jewel in the Skull, with the Black Jewel poised to eat his brain), and is then assigned a shopping list of four magical plot coupons, which seems modest for Moorcock (cf. the needed bull, spear, oak, ram, sword and stallion of the second Corum trilogy) until you discover with a thrill of narrative innovation that the first three items each need to be assembled from three separate components. Need I mention that the relevant spare parts tend to be in high-security vaults and/or guarded by fearsome beasties? Knowing the ongoing war being waged in Maureen's garden, I hastened to tell her about the deadliest sentinel of all: '"The creature that guards their territory is the most terrible – Gorpax, the slug king." / "Slug king," said Max, smiling. "What kind of beast is that? Couldn't it be vanquished with a barrel of salt?"' No indeed: it requires a whole paragraph of Discovering New Powers Within Oneself. • Brian Aldiss, Non-Stop (1958), slightly titivated for its deserved Millennium SF Masterworks reissue. I wondered why Aldiss bothered to insert a gratuitious mention of 'quantputers', to rename the heat-ray welding tool as a laser (thus dragging the terminology kicking and screaming to the cutting edge of 1960, eliminating the possibility that it works by magnetic induction, and thus raising the question of why no one ever gets blinded by reflection or scatter), or to change the female scientist Payne to Besti so that the alien amino acid which she christens is updated from paynine to bestine. Other added sentences try to patch the original implausible biochemistry by saying 'viral' a lot. Tra la. Fearlessly outspoken Malcolm Edwards explains: 'Brian wanted to make some changes to Non-Stop, and those are the changes he wanted to make.'

Other Reading.Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon ... which everyone else read last year but I acquired late and guiltily kept putting off owing to its sheer size. At last came the opportunity of a long train journey with no backlog of review work; and Cryptonomicon certainly lived up to all those enthusiastic reviews. Not sf, probably, but splendidly sf-ish in feel, especially for those like me who very much like a flavouring of maths. Although I take certain people's point about the digressions and mini-essays impeding the flow of story, they nearly all seemed fun to me – had never seen the anecdote about Alan Turing's bicycle chain and its equivalence to a multistate logic machine so nicely retold and expanded, for example. By the end, I was wishing this were longer. Niggles? Am unconvinced by the usage 'intercity train' in 1940s England, and find it hard to believe that the minor character who contracts leprosy (a rather slowly progressing disease) no earlier than September 1942 could have become a skull-faced figure of nightmare before the end of the war.... Surprises? No one, I think, had warned me that Cryptonomicon is intermittently very funny indeed. • Bernard Levin, A Walk Up Fifth Avenue (1989) ... another verbose, discursive author with a subject big and interesting enough to merit the torrent of words. Chatty, lightweight and inoffensive mini-travelogue about the indicated street, with digressions on now outdated New York politics and a dollop of routine Levin art-museum babbling. • Paul McAuley, the Confluence trilogy: Child of the River, Ancients of Days, Shrine of Stars ... about which I was slightly nervous owing to the reviews' consensus that our Paul was doing deliberate homage to The Book of the New Sun, a ambition fraught with likely pratfalls. But despite or because of a million points of resonance with Wolfe's epic, it reads remarkably well. • David Almond, Skellig ... another delayed catch-up with a chorus of recommendation in and out of Acne. Good stuff, very moving; gains force from carefully not explaining or even describing the ambiguous 'angel' of the title in over-much detail. • Jorge Luis Borges, The Total Library, found at last in Blackwell's (Reading), cunningly misfiled under Fiction. Lots of splendid passages here, still being dipped into. Am always impressed by the conjuror-like deftness with which Borges can unpack some 'ordinary' insight into a dizzyingly cosmic – or, to use his favourite adjective, atrocious – generalization. 'From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.' Am sure he loved the magniloquence of that conceit, which in the Borgesian spirit of 'every writer creates his own precursors' shows his evident influence on the one fragment of Sherlock Holmes's nonfiction quoted by Conan Doyle (in A Study in Scarlet). • Peter Lovesey, Mad Hatter's Holiday (1973), enjoyable Victorian-era murder mystery with series sleuth Sergeant Cribb tackling dark doings amid the revelling holiday crowds in Brighton. • Joan Fleming, Nothing Is the Number When You Die (1965), stylish and offbeat thriller with an unusual amateur detective from Turkey finding the locale of his investigation – Oxford – less romantic and scholarly than expected. How many crime novels feature gunfire in Blackwell's? • Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1860) ... agreeably gripping old-fashioned melodrama whose lead villain, a Bad Baronet with a Dread Secret, is entirely overshadowed by the egotism, intelligence, style and corpulence of his (initially) mere henchman Count Fosco, who in another century would have been a James Bond baddie doomed to many resuscitations. Blofeld may sinisterly stroke white cats, but Fosco got in there much earlier with a disquieting love for white mice. Meanwhile the hero's wetness is indicated by his ending up married not to the book's most intelligent, characterful and resourceful, albeit allegedly unattractive, young woman – greatly admired by the discerning Fosco – but to her beauteous though utterly wet and weedy sister. I diskard him. • Julian Symons, The Man Who Killed Himself (1967), clever, witty but ultimately hollow-seeming crime caper starring a born loser of a murderer whose cunning plans and shuffling of multiple identities are clearly doomed to go awry because he has such terrible luck. • Alfred Kubin, The Other Side (Die andere Seite), new Dedalus European Classics translation of this German artist/illustrator's 1908 fantasy that apparently wowed the Expressionist movement. Have duly written a review of it for submission to Steam Engine Time.... • Art Buchwald, While Reagan Slept (1983), collection of mildly humorous newspaper columns from the Reagan years. Intermittently funny, but lightweight and not half as sharp as his fellow-liberal Calvin Trillin. • Harold Lang & Kenneth Tynan, The Quest for Corbett (1960) ... I dote on Tynan's essays and criticism but had no idea that this piece of small-press silliness existed. Apparently it's the script of a 1956 Radio 3 non-fact documentary constructed as a Citizen Kane-ish probe into the mystery of Aphra Corbett: circus artiste, author ('Reading it was like watching a wrestling match between Dostoevsky and Amanda Ros'), literary salon-keeper, suffragette, war heroine, playwright, and all-round Famous Monster, who as things get more surreal is ascended by a dedicated team of mountaineers ('Because she was there'), takes to the air as the first woman zeppelin in aviation history only to merge unsubtly into the Hindenberg disaster (' – my God, this is a terrible thing – fragments of burning whalebone are scattering all over the crowd – '), becomes the subject of heated postwar disarmament talks, slips with suspicious ease into the role of Moby Dick, etc – all decorated with trendy blots, scribbles and collages. Highbrow goonery; some of the more excruciating puns were later recycled in articles by Tynan. Funny what you can find in musty Gwynedd bookshops. • Richard E.Grant, With Nails (1996) ... another impulse buy in a charity shop. Enjoyably candid-seeming diaries from the production hell of various movies, mixing Angst, funny bits and manic OUTBREAKS OF CAPITALS. I've never actually seen any of the films, besides part of the megaflop Bond spoof Hudson Hawk on video at some Microcon or other. 'My death-scene in the original version involved a fight between Bruce [Willis] and me in the back of the purple limousine, ending in standup fisticuffs through the sunroof. This reveals that the car is hurtling down the interior corridors of the Kremlin before it crashes into a vast statue of Lenin, which topples forward, resulting in the decapitation of of [Grant's Bond-villain character] by Vladimir Ilyich himself.' Dearie me. • Yasmina Reza, Art ... for years I've been walking past posters for this play's Charing Cross Road production with the ever-changing cast, and curiosity got the better of me. There's rather more to this than easy laughs at minimalist art (all-white canvases, etc). I wonder how it plays on stage? No, don't go there, Langford....

Reread.E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady, thanks to the stimulus of Acne discussion. Yes, Cherith, book 1 at least appeared as a running column in Time and Tide (our Harlech copy has a T&T acknowledgement or dedication omitted from the Folio edition in Reading), and parts of book 3 in Punch. • J.E. Gordon, The New Science of Strong Materials (1968 Pelican original), classic, splendidly lucid pop-science exposition, recently reissued for the umpteenth time. • Philip MacDonald, various detective novels as mentioned above, mostly inoffensive. One cringe-making exception is The White Crow (1928), with its unquestioned acceptance that the albino Negro heavy – see subtle title – is inherently repulsive of aspect, has a distinctive pong that makes his race identifiable in the dark, and is so unthinkable a partner for a white woman that the villainess's depravity is established by the mere fact of her being this chap's girlfriend. • Also: various dippings into Agatha Christie, C.S. Forester, A.A. Milne, Dorothy Sayers, Rex Stout and others, as safety valves after too much reviewing.

Mailing 92, September 2000

Maureen. The massive Tor proof of Arthur C.Clarke's The Collected Stories arrived on 1 October, and there it is in the Foreword: 'I am greatly indebted to Malcolm Edwards and Maureen Kincaid Speller ...' Congratulations on new fame! • Paul K. It was very disconcerting at Lexicon when the fickle finger of Farah pointed at me from the back of the room as – I eventually gathered – one of the British candidates with whom she plans to stuff the Pilgrim Award list. 'No, no, not me, take Brian Stableford!' 'He's already had it.' 'Er, how about David Pringle?' I should have added: 'And Paul Kincaid!' • Had completely forgotten about Philip K.Dick's dead twin sister until a curiously gratuitous mention of her in the publicity sheet for Three Early Novels. But ... at the end of August I visited Newport to help my mother clear out oppressive piles of paperwork, and in a deed-box of older material discovered the birth certificate and (dated very shortly afterwards) burial plot receipt for my unknown brother Dennis Michael Langford – born two years after me, two and a half before Jon. Something the family had never talked about but expected one to absorb by osmosis. As I later said to Chris Priest, it felt like a Prestige moment. • Mark. I thought I was buying a Weird Tales BRE in Harlech the other day, but A Book of Weird Tales (1960) turned out to be a one-off UK digest mag with a single original story – 'The Wild One' by Marion Zimmer Bradley – amid a mass of reprints from other magazines, going back to 1926. Fandom's own Forrest J. Ackerman (writing as Dr. Acula) contributes an obituary of Bela Lugosi, which very Ackermanesquely informs us that 'His favorite meal, of course, was Hungarian Ghoulash.' One fact new to me: until its preview in Hollywood, the legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space was more upfrontly known as Grave Robbers from Outer Space. • Apparently the 'you have won a mobile phone' prizes have such vast connection charges that the relevant telecoms companies hand out the phones for nothing anyway. Hazel and I received a more subtle scratch-card scam: 'You Have Won One Of The Six Prizes In The Gold Prizes Panel', arranged with £10K cash or a BMW at the top and £2.5K or a CD MIDI hi-fi system at the bottom, so it looked as though the fiver's worth of premium-rate phone call needed to claim your prize is a good investment. I was suspicious enough to tap the expertise of CIX, where the word is that everyone wins the middle prize, 'trip to France', consisting of a ferry ticket voucher for one person only – no car, no transport to the south coast. Which is indeed technically worth over a fiver: the company makes its profit from all the vouchers people can't be bothered to cash in, plus presumably a little extra from unwary punters who claim lesser 'silver prizes' and get the cheapest possible pen, diary or calculator for their £5 call. • Alfred Bester was such a sloppy writer in matters of scientific plausibility (as opposed to the glitter, glamour and rhythmic excitement that he did so well) that I suspect he never thought twice about the NOMAD tattoo being seen in a mirror. • Catie, Penny, Ian, AMB and others with vast book lists: I started an on-line log of books received, now visible in all its alarming hugeness at www.ansible.co.uk/books.php. Of course this allows me to link them all to Amazon – I've been getting a nice quarterly pittance from the adjacent page of links to my reviews there. • Andy S. Am most impressed by, and envious of, your Polish trip report. Hazel thinks that bread and dripping as exotic hors d'oeuvres may be an indicator that this is the Earthly Paradise. • Paul H. Similar slack-jawed admiration of the visit to Rome. (Hazel: 'I wouldn't have gone to all those religious places until after seeing the really ancient bits....') • Steve J. Gene Wolfe has a 'story' which is a review of a bizarre nonexistent movie, 'Parkroads' in Storeys from the Old Hotel. Wolfe was pleased that after its original magazine appearance, several people wrote to the editor asking where they could rent the film. I liked his notion of New York scenes shot in the Netherlands: 'the effect of traffic simulated by putting cars, trucks, buses and subway trains aboard canal boats is at times very pleasing.' • Yes, 'Jingling Geordie's Hole' was the Interzone story that Ian Watson later incorporated into, or threaded through, The Fire Worm. • Steve Sneyd also sent memories of Ken Cheslin, who twice wrote (Tuckerized) Steve into his fan fiction, as a brewery electrician and as a crooked archaeologist. But 'he didn't take it well when I pointed out the copyright NESFA edn of Brunner's Tomorrow Could Be Even Worse, still in print when KC decided on unauthorized reprint in his Millennium Atom ...' Oops. • Chris H. Your sense that 'natch' in The Squares of the City seemed overly modern slang for 1960 sent me scurrying to the OED, whose first citation of the word (in the 'short for naturally' sense) is 1945 – the source being a dictionary of jive talk published that year, suggesting that in speech it's older still. • You're not the first to be irritated by Sam Moskowitz's view that each but the chronologically first appearance of an sf idea is some kind of plagiarism, and his seeming refusal to accept that writers come up with notions independently. James Blish is enjoyably acidic on the subject in More Issues At Hand (1970), arguing that SM was reduced to this kind of influence-hunting because he had a tin ear for stylistic indicators, and noting that he would doggedly defend 'a publication gap between two stories of less than one month as being significant of [creative] priority'. • Bruce. Since you give Forever Peace the lowest possible rating on your kindly scale, I imagine you'll have to invent some new and damning symbol for (should you ever read it) Forever Free. Better not. • KVB. You tempt me to think of other autobiographies by detective authors: Chesterton's Autobiography, Christie's An Autobiography and Ngaio Marsh's Black Beech and Honeydew come to mind. Conan Doyle's The Stark Munro Letters is fictional but makes heavy use of real episodes from his medical career. • I very much agree with your assessment of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, which may have formulaic bits but still radiates real magic and wonder. • More in our next! (8 Oct)