Cloud Chamber 58
April 1995

The story of my life since the last CC has involved a mass of reviewing and column-writing for this new magazine SFX (whose editors some of you may well already have met at Confabulation). Also a tussle with Gollancz which ... well, let no one rush to identify the editorial voice quoted at the beginning of Ansible 93 as VG's Faith Brooker. Not in public, anyway.

Mailing 27.Yvonne ... remember, also, that Michael Innes took us into a highly imaginative version of the Bodleian library stacks in Operation Pax (1951). I dote on Flann O'Brien too – once again thanks to fandom, since it was the constant O'Brien homage of Australian fan superstar John Bangsund that persuaded me to buy The Best of Myles and continue from there. Looking back, one is hugely grateful for fan advice: Paul Skelton convincing me of the necessity of reading John D.MacDonald's Travis McGee novels, Chris Priest pointing out all manner of good stuff, etc. Now Paul Barnett has strongly plugged Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin: Internet came in handy here, since within days of my asking in the CIX sf/sales+wants area if anyone had a copy, that fine man John Dallman had bagged me one at Picocon and put it in the post.... Your mention of Marlowe reminds me of the one line in the dire The Eighty-Minute Hour which did make me laugh (and is commended to Paul in his search for Great Funny Aldiss Bits): '"Wuh-uh ..." said Zoomer, low in his throat. It was his personal way of saying "See, see where Christ's blood streams in the firmament."' • Tanya ... your guess at 'contubernal' is very close. The Shorter OED (the big dictionary is in another room) defines it as 'One who occupies the same tent.' • Cherith ... I don't know The Secret Diary of a Horse-Holder, but I believe there is a story by Gerald Kersh (another top-notch 'forgotten' author) in which Shakespeare confesses the degradation and hackwork to which he's descended – reduced to writing the essays of Francis Bacon. • Jilly ... though my reaction to the threat of any musical performance is to vanish howling into the eldritch night, you do nicely evoke the macabre dread of Mrs Etheredge's Keyboard with the Samba Beat. Took me straight back to primary school and the terror of our very own musical prodigy. She played, of all things, the piano accordion. The entire school would be herded into the assembly hall to marvel at this endless wailing threnody while, subjectively, civilization withered and died, mountain ranges crumbled, the sun grew dim and red, and wouldn't it ever be bleeding lunchtime? ... Aha, a Jessica Mitford fan: I think I have more or less the complete works, ho ho. • Tony ... 'Was I wrong not to persist with Phil Janes's The Galaxy Game?' Well, I persisted and wished I hadn't. But somehow it does seem morally wrong to abandon a book halfway: I feel excessively guilty over my slim pile of literatus interruptus specimens, currently including Malcolm Muggeridge's The Thirties (God knows why), Amanda and the Eleven Million Mile High Dancer and (although I generally find Dickens unputdownable) Dombey and Son. Like you, apparently, I do boggle when people inform me that Little, Big is 'difficult', or even 'boring': the most bizarrely alien response I've encountered was from Bruce Gillespie, who reckoned it was somehow fascist. • Chris ... I thought I was joking when I invented a Wodehouse/Lovecraft novel opening for Dave Wood's silly collaborations competition. The Inimitable Cthulhu, of course:

'In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.'

'So I have been informed, sir.'

'Right ho! Then bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I'm going into the Park to do nameless, blasphemous rites descended from a shuddering and unhallowed tradition, amid shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgurous sky ... forests of monstrous overnourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnameable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils ... insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and demon arcades choked with fungous vegetation ... and then a snifter at the Drones, what?'

'I fancy not, sir. The Dark Priestess of the Esoteric Order of Dagon is in the sitting-room and desires to speak to you.'

'Iä! Iä! Aunt Agatha!'

... but little did I know that an erudite American, Peter Cannon, was busily writing Scream for Jeeves (New York, Wodecraft Press, 1994), a slim collection which really does re-run Lovecraft staples like 'The Rats in the Walls' and 'Cool Air' as Jeeves/Wooster larks – the latter story acquiring the well-judged Wodehousian title 'Something Foetid'. (By the way, my own favourite entry for that collaboration game began 'He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.' – yes, it's the Bester/Milne Tigger! Tigger! – US edition titled The Stairs My Destination) • Pat ... the Society of Authors mag did not see fit to print my (or any other) protest about that uncritical promotion of graphology. Bah.... Flecker was one of the poets I hunted out since so many favourite writers ranging from Saki to Bob Shaw alluded to him. Esoterica alert: did you know that the famous 'Golden Road to Samarkand' caravan song that ends Hassan has a crossed-out verse which can be read in the original MS (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)? A new character called the Chief Humanist mentions further exotic trade goods: 'And we have boys and girls of special kinds, / White, brown and black, fragile or fair or strong; / Their bosoms shame the roses: their behinds / Impel the astonished nightingales to song.'

An Abandoned Review

To Build Jerusalem, by John Whitbourn; VGSF, 311pp, £5.99.

This fantasy returns to the England of John Whitbourn's award-winning A Dangerous Energy, where history took a different course. Magic works with horrible effectiveness, science is retarded, and both Crown and Parliament are firmly under the thumb of the Vatican. It's a dark world, but with witty touches – like the historical vignette of Winston Churchill unveiling a statue to the martyred hero whose successful action shaped this history, Saint Guy Fawkes. 'Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed, by so many, to so few....'

Something is rotten in the other England of 1995, though. A major demon is loose, one who isn't in the magical operating manuals, and besides alarming sexual tastes she has a nasty sense of humour. King Charles IV himself has been diabolically abducted. So has an entire castle. The workers, in the shape of the Levellers, are revolting against church and state.

Into the picture steps papal investigator Adam, a one-man Spanish Inquisition who demonstrates interesting martial arts on anyone failing to answer his questions fast enough. The first step is a demonic summoning in Westminster, which turns into a spectacular disaster; the trail leads through a Guildford clothier's store-cupboard into a private universe run by the she-demon, where an assault with troops and cannon would clearly be futile but must still be tried.

In keeping with the highly moral conclusion of A Dangerous Energy, there proves to be Something which sets a limit to the demon's excesses ... but the real rottenness of England lies elsewhere, in a dispossession of farmers and peasants which ironically echoes the Thatcherite feeding frenzy of our own world. The fate of the rescued King is a neat stroke of ultra-black humour; the fate of Adam is best not thought about.

To Build Jerusalem is a worthy if slightly less strong successor to A Dangerous Energy: tough, witty, uncompromising, and not for those who prefer their fantasy worlds to be cosy.

Footnote. So I got that far and was thinking the review needed some smoothing over and lengthier discussion of Whitbourn's peculiar moral viewpoint, which should bring it nicely to the required 400 words. And then the blasted magazine sent e-mail to say that book review lengths were being cut to 200 words to make room for some really truly exciting Star Trek and Dr Who novelizations they'd been sent ... special exceptions being made only for Really Important Stuff, consisting of the paperback Soul Music and Everville. Meanwhile I am trying to educate the SFX editors into an understanding that books do not 'go off' and vanish from the shelves a week or two after publication. They began with a blanket ban on mention of any pre-May titles in their launch issue (deadline 10 April): I managed to extend this backwards to allow April publication dates, but they drew the line at the antediluvian era of 31 March, making Jeff Noon's Pollen totally unacceptable....

Also read. Graham Joyce, Requiem; Ian Watson, The Coming of Vertumnus; Julian Barnes, Letters from London; whatsisname, Soul Music (again).... Let's talk about Everville by Clive Barker, whose sprawling bulk and – in several of the too many plot lines – inconclusiveness seems a long way from those knife-edged short stories that made our man's name. For example, here are four notable evil forces in the book, at least three of them left over from Barker's earlier The Great and Secret Show: a semi-supernatural killer subtly called Death-Boy, the highly powerful and unpleasant mage Kissoon, a multi-named demon which prior to Everville has left a horrifically indelible impression on the mind of psychic investigator Harry D'Amour, and an ultimate irresistible abomination called the Iad Uroboros which is making its steady way from the 'metacosm' to wreck our whole world. (That's Iad with a capital I. The name seems a serious miscalculation – even after hundreds of pages I was still occasionally reading it as 'lad' with an L, especially in the frequent cases where the 'Uroboros' is omitted.) So what happens? The first of these nasties lurks off-stage for several hundred pages, being the personal nemesis of a couple of minor characters who have no real part in this novel but are apparently loose ends from book 1: eventually Death-Boy comes into view, does a number of violent things, and soon fades out of the plot again. So, after being extremely repellent in numerous yucky episodes, does Kissoon. The demon finally puts in its appearance near the end of the book and is very rapidly destroyed by D'Amour – this bit seems to have no connection with the story of Everville. Lastly, for no very good reason, the all-destroying Iad Uroboros eventually reaches Earth as a feeble shadow of its continent-smashing self and achieves nothing creative or destructive at all: like Death-Boy and its pal Kissoon, it merely drops inconsequentially out of sight. The whole thing reeks of soap opera plotting, with a few unwanted loose ends from book 1 being tied off, a lot of Brief Appearances As A Nod To Continuity, and all too much being held over for an assumed book 3. To be fair, Everville's 640 pages do manage to bring a couple of its plotlines to some sort of decently rounded closure: but not enough to satisfy. Or am I being excessively picky?

Footnote. Well, at least I've gained another member for my team of Found Comix Superheroes. This includes the tough guy of a certain book title, Stand Alone Stan; and Fred Saberhagen's Tory-hating purveyor of EC currency reform, Ekuman from Empire of the East; and his gaseous sidekick the Mexican-food-powered Tacoman (merely, alas, the generic term used for locals in the newspapers of Tacoma, WA). To these we can now add a younger costumed hero with amazing hyper-athletic powers of biting his own bum: Lad Uroboros. Further suggestions from you lot are, I fear, not merely welcome but hideously inevitable.•