|SFX special feature by David Langford: issue #77, April 2001|
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Small press publishers are multiplying like rabbits. The major outfits are leery of marginal books that might or mightn't sell; sometimes little ones successfully step in where biggies fear to tread. At colossal expense, SFX had its current small-press pile conveyed to me in a tumbril ...
Most fun was Junk DNA by Tania Glyde (189pp, £7.95; Codex Books, PO Box 148, Hove, BN3 3DQ), whose SF theme is a kind of anarcho-feminist echo of the big hiccup in human evolution that powered Greg Bear's technothriller Darwin's Radio. Antiheroine Regina, failed performance artist and inept therapist, distributes an unlicenced wonder drug that brings deep bliss but has alarming side effects. It makes women irrationally terrified of the monsters in our midst – children. So the countryside fills with vast separatist camps of female refugees escaping the little horrors. Bye-bye, human race!
All this is blackly comic, full of good lines and knowing satire on style and fashion. A telling aside about SF's conquest of the media: "the most unattainably futuristic concepts, once the province of a few fiction writers, became commonplace and extremely boring, and were then used in advertising." Surreal moments abound.
Despite the incidental goodies, though, there's not much narrative drive until around halfway – when the subplot about Regina's horrible neighbours, forever verbally abusing their very odd child Lucy, escalates to murder. Is death by carnivorous mouse a fictional first? In the end it all goes apocalypse-shaped, bringing a quirky book to a science-fictionally conventional close, not unlike Hollywood's short cut of zapping spare plot problems with one last colossal explosion.
What's famous, trendy, cool Jeff Noon doing away from his usual publishers with Cobralingus (122pp £9.95; Codex again)? Maybe it's the poetry ghetto effect; his "remixed" prose in Needle in the Groove hovered at the edge of verse, and Cobralingus goes a lot further. The conceit is that various text inputs are being processed by the software Cobralingus Engine, actually Noon in a clever digital disguise, to produce the intermediate stages and finished "outlets" printed here.
Sources include Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Herrick, Zane Grey, the Bible, the shipping forecast, and lists of towns, streets, Tarot trumps, lunar features, and things Jeff Noon did that day. Processing involves mixing, injections of language drugs like "etymol" or "anagramethane", stylistic makeovers, alleged randomization, shaping into concrete-poetry form, "ghost edit" deconstruction into scattered residues of letters, and a dollop of pretentiousness. The unfolding results are ... strange. People who like books like this will like this book. I didn't much, myself.
Horror fiction has been sagging in commercial popularity, except for the lucky few with names like Stephen King. By contrast, its small press scene is hyperactive and must be the last haven of old-fashioned ghost stories. Paul Finch's By the Gas Flame Flickering (76pp, £4.00; BJM Press, 95 Compass Crescent, Chesterfield, S41 9LX) comprises four specimens with nineteenth-century settings, commended in the introduction as "chilling, moving and downright petrifying."
Well, no. This subgenre is a literature of comfort, whose fans must feel a cosy glow when (as here) a rustic describes a ghostly carriage or "spectral trap", almost as familiar as the "blunt instrument" of golden-age detection. Hauntings, madness, retro firearms, mildly agreeable grue. An author who really wanted to chill would omit the italics, the exclamation marks and probably the whole second sentence in: "Then he noticed a figure gliding up out of the fog behind him! He knew it was gliding, because from the corner of his eye he could see no motion of legs!" You know my methods, Watson.
Also from BJM, Alone in the Dark by Paul Kane (99pp, £4.00) had its pages pre-stuck together with gobs of blasphemous ichor, or possibly glue from the binding. Its twelve stories cover a fair range, from visceral horror (with occasionally predictable punchlines) through edgy urban nightmares to offbeat notions like a man taking conscious control of his autonomic body functions, or a tour through the image-filled House of Memory of the artist Magritte. Kane is best when taking risks with these bizarre flights of imagination, and least interesting with riffs on too-familiar themes like the deal with the devil. Promising, but he hasn't yet arrived.
Somehow a nonfantastic novel slipped in: The Horizontal Split by Paul Pinn (171pp, no price; Time Bomb Publishing, PO Box 3061, South Croydon, CR2 7ZT). This sometimes woundingly intense borderline-horror thriller has three female leads, all literally insane. Sarah sinks into clinical schizophrenia, hears scary voices and runs off on a lunatic quest to India. Pursuing mother Janet is a psychopath who's also gunning for her rich husband Bill. Janet ropes in Melissa, whose lunatic fixation on psychologist Alan has wrecked his career, despite which Bill recruits Alan to help track Sarah amid temples, burning ghats and snake-charmers ...
Against a background hot with local colour and rancid with local smells, these obsessives and a gaggle of local hirelings bounce off one another in frenetic pinball-machine action. Clearly the only possible closure is to kill most of them off, which duly happens. Effective writing and a nasty final twist, but these people seem so awful and/or hopeless that one doesn't much care about their fates.
Pinn grips us better in The Pariah (278pp £6.00; Time Bomb again), featuring the evil superpsychic Paymer who can read minds and inflict agonizingly painful death at any distance. Besides persecuting individuals, he openly takes on British society, phoning the police and even Downing Street to gloat over what nastiness he plans next. The horrors are many and explicit; the story's kept taut by the driving need for this monster to be hunted down and the seeming impossibility of doing it. But wouldn't you know it, one emotionally scarred victim of Paymer's godgames has a touch of the same talent ... Powerful, violent and occasionally emetic.
Still more terrifyingly puke-making is D.J. Conway's Magickal Mystical Creatures (259pp $14.95; Llewellyn, PO Box 64383, St Paul, MN 55164-0383, USA). At first glance this looks like a fantasy bestiary, but the telltale K in "magick" is a warning that Conway believes in the whole lot – unicorns, centaurs, gargoyles, you name it – as living occult presences ripe for ritual invocation. She reports finding a baby troll under her kitchen sink; one shudders to think what might be at the bottom of her garden. Leafing though, I sensed the very real presence of those proverbial astral entities the Kobblers and the Bollocs.
Exit Langford at magickal, mystical speed, before the hitmen from several small presses track him down ...
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