Another month, another Cloud Chamber. At least I've been doing a tiny bit of literary stuff in the last week ... finalizing the Necronomicon Press publication of a little book of three Langford horror stories. This involved much desultory argument about the title. Novel titles are bad enough, but how does one pick the right label for a collection?
The whole thing happened by accident, really. I wrote a 'Lovecraftian' piece for Steve Jones's HPL centenary anthology Shadows over Innsmouth a few years ago; Steve brilliantly failed to sell this sure-fire concept and eventually instructed his contributors to flog their pieces elsewhere. Brian Stableford took his to Necronomicon Press (The Innsmouth Heritage, 1992) and, encouraged by the example, I tried the same wheeze. They liked it all right – rather to my surprise – but tactfully pointed out that Brian had done an entire novelette, while my 2,200 words would look a bit thin. Nothing daunted, I wrote another and longer story, and filled out the proposed collection with a reprint of my Weerde 2 piece 'The Lions in the Desert' (of which Karl Edward Wagner had helpfully written, 'I still can't work out how the geezer found a lion in his dessert when the best I can manage is the odd roach.').
Now I rather dislike the standard Lovecraftian props, the lists of dread names, unspeakable books, gibbering hordes of eldritch, blasphemous adjectives ... and instead, scientific themes kept creeping in. The original story was mostly about computers (the cursed port of Innsmouth having of course become a vibrant centre of the software industry during the 80s); 'Lions' was a sort of meta-mathematical locked room puzzle; the third piece has an amateur occult investigator setting out in search of Great Cthulhu (or whatever) but finding something worse, and fatally misunderstanding it through ignorance of physics. Any title, I supposed, should hint at this common thread of science.
Since dear old HPL was always banging on about the Elder Gods (not to be confused with the Great Old Ones), my first suggestion was The Newer Gods. This was received with lukewarm enthusiasm from Nec Press's chief shoggoth Stefan Dziemianowicz, whose name I have never yet typed correctly. Next in line was Instruments of Darkness (pro: a favourite line from Macbeth. Con: someone had already used the title far more wittily for a book on radar). Dismal Sciences – a near-miss, poisoned by the fact that the dismal science in the Carlyle quotation is actually economics, a bit outside my scope.
'Er,' they said dampeningly, 'we're sure you can come up with something witty and irresistible.' Witty? Intravenous Ichor sprang (or oozed) to mind, but not for long. The Call of Chrononhotonthologos was discarded even more instantly. But I began to develop a sneaking fondness for A Second Cartographic Survey of Yuggoth (this being HPL's cheery name for the planet Pluto, as in his exquisitely titled sonnet sequence Fungi from Yuggoth).
No, declared Necronomicon Press with considerable emphasis, and offered their own bright idea: Three-Odd. 'It tells the readers how many stories they're getting, and even evokes the mathematics subtext....'
Ugh, I wittily responded, and offered two much better 'three-ish' titles: The Unnatural Science Tripos or, straight from the physics texts, Three Body Problems.
H'mm, they said....
After compromises all round, I think it's going to appear as Irrational Numbers.
(They'd better get a move on, because the original story 'Deepnet' will be 'reprinted' in the miraculously revived Steve Jones anthology this autumn, while 'Lions' is already slated for Karl Edward Wagner's Year's Best Horror XXII. 'This is a very silly premise,' he complained, 'as anyone knows you just sneak up on lions in the desert, lob a few hand grenades into their burrows, then work over the rest with chainsaws. You can use cruise missiles, but where's the sport in that?')
As for the perfect and inarguable title which will supersede all the above, it can be relied upon to come to me shortly after publication day.
Mailing comments Benedict – I would not base any judgement about M.John Harrison on The Committed Men, a first novel which the author has, I think, since repudiated. (Along with The Centauri Device, which is a lot more fun – I love the fleet of art-nouveau spaceships with names like The Melencolia That Transcends All Wit.) Catie – argh, abridged editions! I still rage at the discovery a couple of years ago that my old copy of Gerald Durrell's funny My Family and Other Animals was (when you looked at the tiny print on the contents page) 'Edited for Schools by W.G.Bebbington, MA'. At one stage the entire Durrell family moves house in order not to have room for Great-aunt Hermione, 'that evil old camel, smelling of mothballs and singing hymns in the lavatory' – and that whole quoted phrase is one of the many, many censored bits, presumably to avoid either disrespect to aunts or juvenile sniggering over the dread word 'lavatory'? Mark – I too was very impressed indeed by The Iron Dragon's Daughter. Very much a 'Bloody hell, I'll have to read that again' experience. (Yes, Catie, and then I review it for Vector....) Zy – Nick Lowe's 'The Well-Tempered Plot Device' is, I think, to be reprinted in Vector when Catie can find room. I'd gladly run it here, but Nick has not yet responded to my requests for permission and clarification of something I mistyped in Ansible 46 all those years ago. (Speaking of which, there is now an Ansible archive on Internet! Crazed volunteers are even now retyping musty old pre-word-processor Ansibles. Back issues soon available on IBM disk for anyone who wants them.) Vikki – the Harrison/Holm title The Hammer and the Cross gives me a mild and perhaps irrational feeling of annoyance, it having already been used for Mike Scott Rohan's and Allan Scott's 1980 nonfiction book on the conversion of the Vikings. By the way, I didn't know until Peter Weston told me that Holm is actually a pseudonym of Tom Shippey – who according to Peter did most of the actual writing. Jane/Sue – that 'conversation' about Le Guin is full of nice insights. Thanks. Lynne – please, please, thicker paper! My giant brain can't cope with reading p1 and a highly visible mirror image of p2 at the same time.... Ian – all thanks for the 'turkey' data. (Paul Barnett and I are collecting awful sf lines – not ones quoted in Ghastly Beyond Belief, please – for the 'Thog Masterclass' in Sou'Wester's daily newsletter.)