Key Reading

'It appeared to have talismanic properties. Wolfgang had catalogued these properties, dividing them into seven main groupings: elemental, dishevelled, yellow, crimped, congruent, dismal and vagabond.' (Frank Key, 'The Churn in the Muck')

Any student of slipstream or surrealist writing will of course be well versed in the works of Frank Key. (Or perhaps not, unless your hobby is memorizing old issues of Factsheet Five. Just testing your alertness.) He has that peculiar quality of being the sort of author science-fiction people recommend, at least to me. The words 'acquired taste' hover with a dreadful inevitability.

Key's works – those tenuous few actually in print at any time – are published in London by the Malice Aforethought Press, which some researchers think may consist wholly of Frank Key. (Wrong: see below.) Most are small chapbooks. They are, to use a handful of his favourite words, crabbed, wizened, wretched, pernicious, curdled and frowsty, and have titles like 'Volleyball, Tar & Shuddering' or 'He Keeps His Gutta-Percha in a Gunny Sack' (both thought to be out of print).

The magnum opus is Twitching and Shattered, an actual 136pp paperback book (possibly no longer available) assembling seventeen of Key's stories along with his own illustrations, whose style puts huge strain on the word 'primitive'. One features a bit of stuck-on sandpaper.

Key likes long catalogues of eldritch nouns and adjectives (often alphabetically patterned), or even sentences. Forty-two successive questions follow the revelation in 'House of Turps' that the Arctic-explorer hero is trapped, beginning 'How on earth did Curpin escape?' and ending 'Could corncrakes take shape, shimmering in his fancy, blue and blurred, baleful, woozy, creaking?' Key's foray into hard science fiction, 'Crop Circles: the Crunlop Experiment', lists thirty plants sown by Professor Zoltan Crunlop as part of his awesome research (from water crowfoot and mollyblobs to pale toadflax and bastard balm) and then breaks into a drooling sentence of over 700 words describing the setup of the experimental machine ('... incorporated into the workings of the shiny magnesium tripod atop which lurked a uranium pill squashed underneath a varnished Icelandic pan containing noisome phosphorous hoops ...'). The results are startling yet inconclusive.

Key exudes a powerful whiff of industrial archaeology, a wistful air of crumbling nostalgia. Rusted and incomprehensible machinery abounds, sometimes gathered into museums as in 'Sidney the Bat is Awarded the Order of Lenin' ('A milestone in Stalinist children's books'). There is a recurring Key geography of placenames like Iceland and Hoon and Hooting Yard ... it seemed a logical culmination that in 1992 he should announce the 'Hooting Yard [Museum] Catalogue', an epic work to be published in countless instalments. After expounding on the first few exhibits (including 'Pulpy Remnant Eked from the Belly of a Hummingbird' and 'Capsule of Broth' – the latter having an exciting if irrelevant history) Key thought better of this 'damn fool project' and is instead sending all his subscribers a new series of fiction booklets, ultimately to be collected as a successor to T&S. An inkling of his popularity may be gleaned from the fact that the first of these, 'Testimony of a Tundist', comes in a limited edition of 25 copies.

Sometimes Key allows himself a bit of plot, usually with mystery/thriller/adventure genre overtones, but always seems keener to digress into drawing implausible inn-signs or listing unsavoury soup recipes – both endemic in his 'The Immense Duckpond Pamphlet'. (Meet me for a beer at the Treadmill and Cyclops.)

Comparisons? Frank Key's lumbering machinery is like nothing since Ralph 124C41+ and other pillars of sf's wooden age, only more decrepit. He may even conceivably be writing steampunk. One delirious 'scientific' lecture in 'Forty Visits to the Worm Farm' (which story was reprinted in a recent hardback collection of Best Surrealism) reminds me quite irrationally of bits of Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot. If Key wants a blurb saying 'If Samuel Beckett had had a sex change and made it with Hugo Gernsback, their mutant offspring would have written this dandy pamphlet', he has only to ask.

'[... Eyes become glazed with fanaticism. Arms gesticulate in enthused manner. Says things like:] The glands of the investing tissue secrete lime and deposit it always submerged. These arrest the spat at the moment of emission. They detach with a hook the piles covered with fascines and branches, if we can use the term, buried in the sands or mud, their polypiferous portion sallying into the water. The raches, roughened and furrowed down the middle with pointed spiculae ...' ('Forty Visits to the Worm Farm', in T&S)

In lighter mood, our man likes to dispense unlikely erudition – as for example his entirely hand-lettered treatise on 'Some Lesser-Known Editions of the Bible' (also in T&S):

'Bilgegrew's Bible ... The holy text is rendered almost incomprehensible, in that all references to wooden things, things with wings, fruit, four-legged animals, blunt instruments, states of misery, ointments, bandages, heroic baking, custard, rubbing alcohol, rainfall, holes, swimming, crocuses, pestilence, hailstorms, trees, crumbling, pastry, whisks, whisky, boric acid, imbecility, signposts, deafening noises and rotating things have been expunged.'

Most reviews of Key's works seem to dwell with cruel speculation on his possible intake of recreational chemicals (this one was intended to be an exception). A Malice Aforethought Press catalogue might well be obtainable in exchange for a few International Reply Coupons: the address is (updated 1996) 103 Cavendish Road, Highams Park, London, E4 9NG, England. Forthcoming titles are said to include 'The Big Metal Fence', 'Obsequies For Lars Talc Struck By Lightning' and 'Unspeakable Desolation Pouring Down From The Stars'.

It is all very British somehow.


Frank Key himself is not a Langford invention, and wrote (1993): 'I think you've got my measure: no tiresome speculations as to what it all means.... Comments: (1) Malice Aforethought Press consists also of Ellis Sharp (dedicatee of Iain Banks's new tome) and (possibly) Maxim Decharné. Maxim has decamped to become a drummer with a beat combo called Gallon Drunk. Other than pictures in Melody Maker, I haven't seen hide or hair of him for a year. (2) I am puzzled – as I think you indicate you are – by the recreational chemicals conjecture. The inference [in the American review I alluded to – DRL] seems to be that unless one ingests powerful hallucinogenics, one is doomed to write like Mrs Gaskell or Anthony Trollope.'

PS: obsessed with ruddy spelling-checkers, The New York Review of SF corrected Key's title 'House of Turps' to 'House of Turnips'. I duly sent them a salutary xerox of the title page, which for no apparent reason is in French – 'La Maison du Térébenthine'.

PPS: Sadly, Frank Key (whose real name was Paul Byrne) died in September 2019. For several years he had read out his stories as part of the regular Hooting Yard slot on the London-based Resonance FM radio, and published them as further collections.