It doesn't feel possible that Robert Holdstock can have died. He always seemed the fittest, most energetic person at any SF convention or writers' workshop. "Larger than life" is a cliché but he genuinely was. Flabbier authors struggled, panting, to keep up with Rob's huge strides on his favourite any-weather woodland walks: as he once said, "The slap of a wet oak leaf is one of the things I love most." Traditional frisbee sessions at Milford workshops often ended with a mighty Holdstock throw that defied Olympic records to land deep in some impenetrable bramble-thicket. Laughs all round, from Rob most of all ...
Impenetrable thickets and secret heartwoods became his great theme. I was there at Milford in 1980 when he shyly offered his breakthrough story to the massed critics: the first part of Mythago Wood, which as a novel won multiple awards and had its 25th-anniversary edition in 2009. Even the novella version was compulsive, with mythic archetypes haunting an ancient wood infinitely larger inside than out, sucking in twentieth-century investigators until they too become part of myth. Jungian psychology meets the Matter of Britain! The revelation of Ryhope Wood's primal monster is still breathtaking – one of the most shiver-inducing moments in modern fantasy.
I could write far more about Rob's novels, and indeed I already have at vast length for a US reference book: Supernatural Fiction Writers ed. Richard Bleiler. To my relief, Rob liked that essay and quoted a little bit on his website. What I couldn't say there, and what doesn't show in high-fantasy writing, was how exuberant, funny and lovable he was in person.
Early in his career, like so many other authors, Rob dashed off potboilers to pay the rent, and his sense of humour would sneak into these – often by sending up fellow-writers. As Robert Black he produced the film novelization Legend of the Werewolf, set in a Paris where wolf casualties are rushed to the Sacre Bleu Hospital; one victim, an unspeakably filthy sewer-scavenger who collects cigarette-ends from the slurry to dry and enjoy, was named for the unamused author Michael Scott Rohan. As Steven Eisler, Rob did the SF art book Space Wars: Worlds and Weapons and gave the painted hardware unlikely captions – such as, commemorating two hearing-challenged contemporaries, "The Rohan-Langford 'Deaf Ear' Subspace Jamming System."
Among the funniest things Rob ever wrote was a fanzine piece on another dire book-of-the-film assignment, The Satanists. Eight days to write 180 pages, with the script dialogue only a tiny fraction of the required wordage! Delirium soon set in:
"Story flags a bit as Black Mass proceeds, so flip to priest slumped in a corner and have Satanist come over and kick him a few times. 'Vomit rose to his lips as the foot thudded into his groin, then smashed into his mouth.' This sounds familiar so I check back and find I've used exactly the same expression twice in the same chapter. How many times can one be kicked in the mouth and lose the same teeth? I am reminded [...] that last year in three consecutive sf stories I wrote 'The screams of the time travellers were terrible to behold.' Just for the hell of it I write 'Simon's screams were terrible to behold.'"
The Satanists was duly published as the book of the Tyburn Films movie, which was to star Peter Cushing (with Telly Savalas as the bad guy) but never in fact got made. Hoots of laughter from our author ...
Tall, bouncy and enthusiastic, Rob had a reputation for social gaffes – or at least for worrying obsessively about having made them. Cronies think he knew exactly what he was saying at the long-ago pub meeting where an attractive lady editor, Jo Fletcher, presented him with his first World Fantasy Award. The trophy was a sinister-looking head of H.P. Lovecraft, sculpted by cartoonist Gahan Wilson. "Gosh," Rob babbled, "This is going to be an amazing day in my diary! Got up – went to the pub – had a great time – was given head by Jo Fletcher ..." The screams of the audience were terrible to behold.
Rob died on 29 November 2009 after a short, unexpected illness. His non-religious funeral was hugely crowded, with both moving and comic speeches from family and friends – too many to list. Malcolm Edwards of Orion/Gollancz did a fine job as MC. There were photos of Rob everywhere, generally wearing a huge smile. Most appropriately, he had a holly-shrouded wicker coffin.
One of the shining lights of British fantasy has gone out. It's still hard to believe.
David Langford once invented an alternate physics of oscillating time for Rob's novel Earthwind.
For further reminiscences of Rob Holdstock by many friends, see his official website and the Ansible memorial page.