Cloud Chamber 71
January 1997

The trouble about regular magazine column-writing is that it sucks up all the little anecdotes of one's life. I meant to go on about the weird day just before Christmas which began at 5am with a plumbing emergency next door: this left me with some desolate extra hours to get through, which triggered an actual start on a short story I'd been invited to write but had found uninspiring ... amazingly, this got finished by noon and was promptly e-mailed to the US editor, whose likewise e-mailed acceptance arrived circa 6pm with a cheering footnote about probably making my piece the anthology's lead story. Whoopee! The above is mercilessly condensed, because the next urgent thing I had to write was a twenty-third SFX column, and the story of writing the story was (at the time) the only thing I could think of. Scraping the barrel, I know. Now I'm wondering whether some material left over from SFX could be rearranged for Fortean Times ... since the anthology had a fortune-telling theme and I ran riot among the divinatory 'mancies': did you know that sideromancy is divination by studying the movement of straws placed on a hot iron? Nor did I until that peculiar morning.

What about the plumbing emergency, you fail to ask? Although it all pales into puny insignificance when compared with Maureen's and Paul's tales of domestic horror, 96 London Road does provide a reliable flow of small disasters. The owners are away being Eurocrats in Geneva, and Hazel has volunteered to watch over the motley lodgers currently in residence. Over Xmas and the New Year we enjoyed (a) being woken at 5am because the gibbering Russians in the downstairs front room had water pouring through their ceiling, which led to a long search through all the upper rooms for the leak; (b) a vast tale of woe from the owners' son, whose car had died on the motorway, whose fiancée was in hospital after being concussed by a falling fluorescent light at her workplace, and who imminently had to be in Geneva for parental reasons; (c) further Russian anguish when a heavy object was chucked through their window in the small hours of Xmas morning – the third such occurrence in 18 months; (d) desperate fun trying to find a glazier on Boxing Day; (e) evicting a non-rent-paying lodger and packing his vile soiled clothing into bin-liners, an incidental side discovery being that half the crockery missing from the communal kitchen was noisomely stowed away in his dressing table ... plates coated with decaying food remnants, mugs all half-full of cigarette butts in defiance of the no-smoking rule; (f) having the front-door lock changed, partly because of (e) and partly because yet another lodger's girl-friend had had her handbag stolen, containing a key clearly tagged 'Front Door, 96 London Rd' and probably also 'PS: the Russians in the front room have an expensive new computer!'; (g) tracking the villain of (e) to his employer (this filthy liver, dwelling amid indescribable sordidness, is a young chef in a semi-posh restaurant ... which causes one to Think, and also to remember passages from George Orwell) and looking up the small-claims court procedures which lead to a judgement summons followed by attachment of earnings, since he claims inability to pay despite earning £250 a week, which is a damned sight more than I do....

As I typed the above, Hazel came in with the glad news that the new front-door lock at 96 is jammed and won't lock. This is a welcome change from the previous lock crisis, when it wouldn't open. Two hours later, one of the Russians popped round to explain apologetically that the communal washing machine has broken down and flooded the kitchen. Who needs TV soap opera?

Misc. There is an old pub a mile down London Road which for centuries was known as The Turk's Head. Now it has been taken over by that brewery and, so help me, has become The Fez And Firkin. • Hazel's favourite sequence in Frank Key's calendar consists of the rubrics for successive days in March: '28 OSTRICH IN FRONT GARDEN. 29 OSTRICH IN HOUSE. 30 OSTRICH IN BACK GARDEN.' • Another tale of banks: NatWest, whom I told in 1995 to cancel a BSFA subscription standing order, took £13.50 from my account as 'Brit Science Fict' on 2 Dec. My cries of rage at reading the statement were quelled by a credit of £13.50 on 10 Dec: 'Bankers Payment', meaning presumably 'Oops, after only a year we remembered your cancel order.' • Acne as 'Invitation Only': I understood the objection was to the APA being Maureen's toy alone. What's wrong with people proposing new members and having the membership as a whole extend the invitation – or not, if there's serious dissent? • Acnecon, alas, clashes all too effectively with Microcon in Exeter (1-2 March), where Chris and Leigh Priest are joint guests. Sorry!

Mailing 47Paul ... it was with great triumph that, at the Xmas Welly, I showed Maureen the copy of Martin Rowson's Tristram Shandy graphic novel which I'd just bought for my little brother (after bagging the last copy in Reading for myself). It was with a sense of great inevitability that I saw her unveil what she'd just bought for you. • Dop ... the lure of a flatbed scanner keeps tempting me too, but the ads are extremely bloody confusing. One is told that a scan resolution of 300 dots per inch is barely adequate; an advertised 4800 dpi sounds splendid, but then you see the dread word '(interpolated)', meaning that the thing scans at (probably) 300 dpi and fakes up the 4800 dpi image by software guesswork – or am I too cynical? • Steve ... as everyone will presumably say, Lisa Tuttle's first novel (in collaboration with George R.R.Martin) was Windhaven. Tuf Voyaging is a solo collection of linked GRRM stories with no LT involvement; quite fun. • Ian ... I noticed your puzzlement that according to the British edition of Lost Dorsai, the original US book had a story by Sandra Miesel (for which an inferior Dickson was substituted). My guess is that the Brit editor got it wrong and that the SM piece was one of those glutinous little afterwords which she occasionally contributes. Those in The Final Encyclopedia and in Saberhagen's The First Book of Swords both survived into the UK edition. I liked Sandra when I met her, but these puffs are a shade embarrassing, working as they do on the principle that if (e.g.) Dickson alludes to King Arthur this demonstrates him to be on a par with Malory and T.H.White. Thus the bad guy in The Final Encyclopedia is enthusiastically compared to the Biblical Serpent, the Beasts of Revelation, the various Satans of Job, Milton and Islam, the Buddhist deathlord Mara, the bringer of Fimbulwinter, and the assorted Darknesses of Persian, Old Chinese, Taoist and Indian myth. Actually he is a plain old-fashioned pulp villain, and I don't know how Dickson can read this stuff without entering terminal cringe mode. • Jilly ... you proleptically mentioned Michael Innes as a binge candidate: yes indeed, my Xmas relaxation reading included the Innes favourites Hamlet Revenge!, Lament for a Maker (with its splendidly creepy use of the Dunbar poem), The Weight of the Evidence and – perhaps the best of them all – Stop Press. • Elizabeth ... if you want to read 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge', look among the huge remaindered heaps of Penguin 60s for a mini Bierce collection with this title. • Cherith ... I'm doing The Tempest for Mike Ashley's collection of Shakespeare whodunnits, and have already (ha ha) flogged him my version of 'the repulsive story of the red leech' for The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes. Paul Barnett's 'Holmes's Last Case' was, alas, deemed Too Silly, featuring as it did a very aged Holmes investigating the mysterious death of Sir Clifford Chatterley while the principal suspects seem to have been inexplicably absent in the shrubbery. • Tony ... regarding those long-lived Feynman first editions, I remember being surprised at Oxford in 1971 to find that Blackwell's still had new copies of the 1956 second impression (same month as the first) of C.S.Lewis's Till We Have Faces, priced at something like four and sixpence. The cashier didn't believe it either, for a long while. • Tanya ... overwhelmed by the rave endorsements from you and Chuck Harris, I promise to sample Patrick O'Brian real soon now. • Everyone ... Happy New Year!

Something Extra

David Pringle always has some vast reference-book project (right now I should be doing more essays for his St James Guide to Horror and Gothic Writers). Seemingly in limbo is another of those 100 Best Books collections of mini-appreciations, this time with a Hollywood theme. After the usual drawing of straws, I ended up writing about Ellery Queen's The Four of Hearts, Terry Pratchett's Moving Pictures and Richard Condon's The Ecstasy Business. Here's the latter piece:

Perhaps because he notoriously spent 22 years as a film publicist ('on productions which ranged from the innocence of Otto Preminger to the sophisticated terror of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'), Richard Condon has always been able to infuse his novels with that charismatic, cinematic sense of being more real than reality. His American icons are screened at monstrous size and glitter with black humour – one example of many being the appalling fictionalization of the Kennedy family in Winter Kills.

Condon's movie novel The Ecstasy Business is a relatively light-hearted romp, but with the usual bitter dazzle. His world of international film-making is entirely protected from everyday concerns: if you have trouble choosing a meal, someone across the Atlantic will order for you by phone – and Frederic X.Goldberg, owner of practically the entire industry, runs his own airline so his stars will never need to wait for a plane.

The book is, of course, not in the slightest about Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor or Alfred Hitchcock. Instead it concerns the Welsh-born superstar Tynan Bryson (naive, sexually incontinent, unable to conceive of the world except in terms of his ego and script: 'He was an unzipped fly caught in forever amber'); his equally famous co-star of many movies, three marriages and three divorces, Caterina Largo (stunningly attractive, gluttonous, unspeakably mercenary); and the yet more famed 'Master of Suspense' Albert McCobb – auteur of countless blockbusters including Murder, Dope, Horror, Ghastly and Hopeless, and idolized by the French in works of scholarly homage like La Danse McCobb.

McCobb's technique for coaxing performances (and publicity) from the appallingly self-centred Bryson is to make him harried, confused and insecure, usually by stage-managing public confrontations with tempestuous Largo. 'If we can drive him again to the verge of insanity with humiliation and frustration, he may win another Oscar.' Actors in McCobb's hands are not told the plot, or which movie is being made ... nothing that will distract their tiny minds from saying and doing exactly what he tells them.

But in the new production, record-breaking from its inception since Bryson is to get 100% of the gross (a tax loss for the moguls), there is a problem. Someone is plaguing Bryson with death threats – the first memorably carved in six-inch letters on a huge gravestone smuggled into his bedroom – and trying to carry them out in very cinematic ways, such as a spring-loaded diving board arranged to hurl him through a 163-foot arc to a touchdown on solid stone. Every threat ends with the same Yeats quotation: 'The visible world is no longer a reality, and the unseen world is no longer a dream.' This is the whole story of Bryson and of Hollywood.

Indeed the physical and movie worlds prove to be inextricably mixed. Each murder attempt, including the bathtub of vipers and the asp in the bedpan, echoes a Bryson/Largo film. (He: 'The asp got you in Nile, and it was brought to you in what certainly looked like an Italian bedpan.' She: 'My God, was that an asp?') Next, Bryson suffers a life-threatening car chase closely imitating the one he's just watched himself play through at the premiere of Ghastly. Meanwhile in the brand-new McCobb script, 'a cleated, triple-bulb bomb comes rolling into the room': our hero is fascinated to learn from the script that one can neutralize such threats by dropping them in the bath, so when an identical bomb rolls sputtering into his own room he knows exactly what to do. The triple explosion takes out three levels of hotel bathrooms and Bryson survives by sheer luck.

Complications increase when a further death threat, cunningly printed in place of the ingredient list on a ketchup bottle, is traced by fingerprints to Nazi war criminal Carl Waldenfon. Under an unlikely form of hypnosis, Largo dazedly reveals a terrifying story of abuse at Waldenfon's hands when only fourteen ... but this 'memory' is merely a bad synopsis of the plot of McCobb's third picture, Horror. The latest change to the current production script adds a purple romantic sequence about a banal Test of True Love, a blush-making embarrassment which happens to be the exact story of how Bryson and Largo first got married. The visible world is no longer a reality....

After many false trails have been pursued through a thickening haze of wisecracks and delirium, the real Waldenfon declares himself and his melodramatic motives for hating both superstars – and consigns them to hell, locked in a blazing auditorium with simultaneous showings of three special movies. One is a compilation of Largo's acts of meanness and greed, one shows Bryson's countless sexual lapses with 'elderly, nude wardrobe mistresses' and worse; but most dreadful of all (He: 'No!' She: 'Kill us ... but not that!') is Jefferson, Bryson's greatest movie disaster, in which he was persuaded to play Thomas Jefferson as Richard Nixon might have done it and to focus on his activities as an importer of spaghetti. Lifelong admirers of Jefferson and democracy, it is made clear, have watched the movie and become neo-fascists out of sheer revulsion. This is hell.

But of course there is a daring, last-minute escape. One suspects Bryson was never seriously worried, knowing from the outset that 'according to the laws of being a hero of an American motion picture he must always win'. And by similar laws the storyline can end in only one way, no matter how repeatedly he and Largo have been screaming, vituperative enemies: 'They went into a deep clinch and slowly the whole scene faded away.'

Condon's wild, absurdist flow of wit and invention makes for a wonderfully silly read ... whose faintly sour aftertaste may be a necessary antidote to the excesses of megastar hype. •