Column 1, November 1987
"THE FIRST HORROR NOVEL I DON'T EVEN DARE TO READ!"
This was the blurb quotation good old Ramsey Campbell supplied for Guts! A successor to the fabulously obscure Earthdoom!, Guts! is my and Paul "John Grant" Barnett's assault on the soft decaying underbelly of the horror exploitation genre. Of course we spared Ramsey the agony of actually having to read this tale of rogue digestive systems rising up (as it were) in protest against decades of fast food and Coke, tearing themselves loose from their exploitative owners, and ravaging the country. Indeed, nobody has read Guts! except for Nick Austin at Grafton Books, and even he fortunately stopped and authorized the payment of our advance before coming to the bladder-imploding, syntax-rending scenes involving the gory fates of editorial staff at an outfit called Gastron Books.
Nobody has read Guts!, but one man wants to. It had to be a hoax, though, this letter on "Amicus Productions Limited" notepaper, reading in full: "Dear Dave, If you think there is a possible film in your and John Grant's forthcoming novel GUTS, please send me an advance copy to read. Cordially, Milton Subotsky."
I knew it was a hoax because I recognized the typewriter from countless Chuck Harris letters. I knew it was a hoax because the famous producer/screenwriter of Dr Who and the Daleks and At the Earth's Core (works universally hailed by obscure critics like Dave Wingrove and Clive James as "mediocre") couldn't possibly be writing to self-effacing me. "Ha ha," I remarked a week later, "I wasn't going to be fooled by a gag like this."
Chris Priest looked at the letter. "Oh yes, that's him. I know the signature. He nearly filmed a story of mine once, but it all fell through."
My innards lurched this way and that like a particularly bad scene from Guts! itself, and I made plans to tear up the derisive letter I hadn't yet posted to Chuch Harris. It would appear that Milton Subotsky uses the same brand of typewriter, the cunning fiend.
"Don't get too excited," said laid-back Mr Priest. "I got £500 for an option on 'The Head and the Hand' and wasted six months of my life while they cocked the whole thing up. Anyway, what's Amicus actually produced in the last ten years?"
But I was already gibbering down the phone to Paul Barnett, who took the bull between his teeth and rang Amicus. "Bloody hell," he reported shortly afterwards. "This is incredible. He actually managed to get hold of a copy of Earthdoom!"
(Grafton's eldritch marketing department had enormous success in stifling any possible sales of this novel. Their 1987 Worldcon publicity campaign was a masterful Conspiracy of silence, with no mention of the book, no delivery of copies to Worldcon dealers who'd ordered it, and refusal to admit its existence when Lisa Tuttle rang on behalf of The Bookseller to ask what novels by Worldcon guests of honour Grafton had recently published. "It's on the humour list," whined the marketing manager after hours of pitiless questioning, "we can't promote it at science fiction events." No reply ever came to our next query, "Who put it on the bleeding humour list?")
"He liked it," Paul continued in awe. "He'd have wanted to film it if it hadn't required the violent destruction of about two hundred and fifty highly expensive special-effects sets. So when he heard about Guts!...."
"I suppose that would be cheaper. All you need is a lot of plastic tubing plus a few thousand gallons of synthetic Props Department blood, slime and vomit. And other fluids."
"And runny cheese."
"Yes, Dave. How quick can you print out another copy?"
As I write this, long coils of Guts! are oozing repulsively from a tortured printer. I hope Milton S. likes the result, especially my favourite chapter titles "The Chyme of Midnight" and "The Lights Are Going Out".
Only Hazel is still dubious, and keeps saying darkly: "I don't really trust him. He sounds too much like a pseudonym of Maxim Jakubowski."
AS I PLEASE
That heading is pinched from the best fragmentary fan column of all time, one I've always wanted to emulate. I promise not to be as good as George Orwell's regular spot in the Hugo-losing Tribune (1943-45); but I liked his way of seizing on some point too tiny to fill an article, and giving it its due length before moving on. Pedantic examples follow.
To begin with: Do you see anything wrong in this sentence? A couple of years ago I started noticing the odd habit of putting a capital letter after a colon, and assumed it was some American grammatical variant. (Many US professionals do it, including Dick Geis, John Sladek and the irretrievably Americanized Charles Platt.) Conversely, Americans in this country assure me that it's just a mistake. Does anyone have an authoritative opinion?
"One of the better books of 1987." This laid-back use of a mere comparative rather than a superlative is definitely creeping eastward across the Atlantic. "One of the best books" sounds like a definite opinion. "One of the better books" seems faint praise indeed, placing the work either somewhere non-committally above the lousiest novel of the year, or perhaps just nebulously to the right of the dead-average median line on an imaginary bell-shaped curve of literary excellence. "Vince Clarke is one of the nicer members of the human race." Nicer than Joe Average? Nicer than Vlad the Impaler? Aha.
IT WAS ALL MY FAULT
... that Peter Weston had a nasty moment at Novacon 17, and went spung!
The scene was a panel about fantasy, at which Peter had decided to defend the old, true ways in a last-ditch stand for real science fiction with real rivets, as opposed to that horrid fantasy stuff. He was first to speak, and he began with the fabled Peter Weston Venn Diagram.
Fortunately there was this big flip-chart pad left over from the previous programme item. (Yes, there were two programme items that day! Novacon gets more exciting each year.) Seizing a felt pen, Peter dramatically drew a big circle. "This," he said ringingly, "is Literature. And this – " a smaller circle within, a tone of voice modulating to bitter contempt – "is Fantasy." Within that he put a solid red blot to represent beleaguered SF, ringed in by the forces of darkness but bravely holding on to its belief that every question can be scientifically answered (I don't think Peter has quite got the hang of Gödel's Theorem), and working within the strict but rewarding limits of conformity to scientific law as we know it (e.g. faster-than-light drives, time travel, antigravity, etc.).
My mind had wandered to the previous item, momentarily glimpsed through a doorway: Fangorn and Colin Langeveldt playing pictorial charades. Suddenly Peter's nippled Venn diagram looked irresistibly like a pictorial charade. I whispered to Marcus Rowland from the corner of my mouth: "I think the word he's trying to mime is spung!"
For a man with Marcus's long training in Judge Dredd scenarios, to think is to act. When Peter's finger next fondled the suggestive red blot, Marcus cried very loudly, "Spung!"
Hysterical collapse of entire audience. Collapse of Peter's increasingly evangelistic argument. As tides of fantasy giggling swept over the beleaguered island, Peter could be faintly heard saying, "The trouble is that fantasy fans have all got dirty minds...."
I suppose it was all my fault.
ALL KNOWLEDGE IS IN FANZINES
We keep being told how L.Ron Hubbard (you didn't expect me to avoid King Charles's head for a whole column?) was staggeringly universally popular as a pulp SF writer, until his reputation was tainted by the malice of bourgeois revisionist Scientology-haters. But here is a back cover quote from Hyphen 5, dated November 1953, when my own critical faculties had only had seven months to develop:
MY CHIEF GRIPE AGAINST DIANETICS IS THAT THERE HAVE BEEN NO NEW VAN VOGT STORIES FOR THREE YEARS. ITS CHIEF BLESSING IS THAT THERE HAVE BEEN NO NEW HUBBARD STORIES FOR THREE YEARS.
After nearly thirty years of delightful silence, L.Ron spoilt it all.
THE TITLE IS THE HARDEST PART
Chris Priest stared at me ashen-faced. He is good at this. "Oh my God," he said, "it sounds like the name of a strip-o-gram delivery firm."
Our little software outfit had had trouble with one of the biggies. (It is not fun when pompous lawyers threaten you with completely misguided fraud actions funded by the profits of the world's best-selling word processor ... but that, Best Beloved, is another story.) In nervous haste, Chris and I became a limited company to prevent future litigious bastards distraining on our houses and fanzine collections: Ansible Information Ltd, no less. Except that for a few fatal weeks, during which our accountant held numerous convincing directors' meetings without requiring the presence of either director, we were stuck with the previous name of the second-hand company we'd been flogged.
"The trouble is," said Chris, "it's exactly the sort of naff name these grubby little companies have. Look at Whatsisname."
Whatsisname had just incorporated himself as Whizzdom Ltd.
We (it can no longer be concealed) were Jetbuff Ltd.
"Well," I mused, "if Ansible is going to become a company, I'll steal Jetbuff for a fanzine some day...." And some day has just happened.
Column 2, April 1988
This one was accidentally erased and didn't originally feature here, but I just (May 1997) bought a scanner with bundled OCR software....
BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN
The ultimate riddle of the cosmos can dangle strangely close to you in the small hours, when you're not quite asleep or awake. William James suddenly realized the secret of existence to be that the universe was permeated with the smell of turpentine, an insight which didn't hold up too well over the cornflakes next morning. W.H.Auden or Louis MacNeice, in one of the camp bits of their fannish trip report Letters from Iceland, had the same numinous feeling of midnight triumph and ended up with the mildly surreal lines: "We write no ethics down the cabin walls. / There are ethics at home at all." Not quite Oxford Dictionary of Quotations material. And depending on the legend you hear, it was Virginia Woolf or Someone Else who sleepily jotted down the master-couplet which formed a poetic summation of all human psychology, to find in the morning that it read: "Higamus hogamus, men are monogamous; / Hogamus higamus, women polygamous." (Or maybe the other way round.)
My own literary efforts in that awkward half-light seem to consist of trying to write a really perfect witty sentence so brilliant that it will sum up and justify the whole laborious build-up required. (I promise you I don't do this when awake.) The last scenario I actually remember involved a mediaeval castle in one of whose smaller turrets an intensely patriotic craftsman was immured. At this point the narrative got stuck for several hundred thousand years between 3am and 4am, until by a mighty effort of semiconsciousness I dragged in John Carter of Mars and provided him with a Japanese sidekick. The sidekick, doubtless inspired by the cute brat in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was allowed to deliver the clinching line just as our Burroughs hero was about to attack the fortifications.
"Carter-san, there's a partisan artisan in the bartizan!"
Would it sell to Interzone, I wonder?
MICROCON: "THE ABSOLUTE CON"
Conventions don't come much smaller than university-run affairs in Exeter. Microcon happened in late February and may have set same kind of record by attracting, when you leave out students, locals and the plethora of guests, exactly one fan: Dave Wood.
Nevertheless, the student populace was heavily outnumbered. Iain Banks turned up all despicably hungover from a 2am session with the Edinburgh SF Group. Paul "John Grant" Barnett read out the parodic "Sex in Space" tale which Alex Stewart's anthology (originally thought up by Paul) didn't for legal reasons dare publish, even though the only people who were particularly libelled were Bruce Sterling (not present) and Alex himself. John Brunner flitted urbanely through. Neil Gaiman explained all the excellent reasons why he's going to be a comix megastar whose towering reputation will leave Alan Moore shadowed and obscure. Colin Greenland left before the concluding awards ceremony, meaning that the "Colin Greenland Serious and Literary Hogo Award", consisting of a milk bottle and some Letraset, was presented to me instead. Diana Wynne Jones gave an extremely energetic speech with simultaneous sign-language translation and subtitles. Ian Pemble of Knave fame, together with the numerous ex-Knave authors present, agreed that Knave had gone downhill something rotten since the jokes were thrown out and the more tradtional "men's" prose style restored ("Gosh," she whispered in husky awe, "I've never seen one as big as that!"). And I'm sure the various other professionals did some pretty memorable things too.
Only Terry Pratchett, still struggling to establish a new record for the most GoH appearances in a single year (and taking his life in his hands by giving the same speech every time), had anticipated the difficulties of the university venue: his briefcase was crammed with the raw materials for endless gins-and-tonic, including lemons and a kitchen knife. Unwilling ever actually to open the bar, the college's supposed bar staff devoted their time to seeking out and confiscating the booze which every guest except Alex "Isn't there any orange juice?" Stewart eventually contrived to smuggle in. Our heroic student committee established a beer pipeline of their own, the letter of the law being complied with by sipping drinks on draughty lawns and trying to follow the programme through the double-glazing.
I realized I must be getting old and tired when the need for solid food kept taking precedence. On the first night, the committee wafted us off to a far pub where the most amazingly strong beers like the dreaded Owd Roger flowed freely, but where there was no actual food. On Sunday we listened in fascination as organizers rushed around saying panicky things like "All the pizzas are locked up in the bar!" and "The baked potatoes have all vanished!" before organizing a lunchtime trek to yet another pub which had decided it was a nice day not to serve food.
Yes, there's a sense of cosy beleaguerment and camaraderie which you don't get at those posh conventions in hotels. The feeling wore a bit thin on the way home when on our second train (the first having broken down) I ravenously decided to stoop to a British Rail sandwlch, only for the four people ahead of me in the queue to very nearly start a fight over the last one.
Alex must be persuaded to edit a collection of Great SF Stories About Food. Printed on flavoursome rice-paper, it could become a staple item at conventions like Microcon....
NATURE'S WAY OF TELLING YOU
It was near the end of one of those fifteen-hour working days which provoke massive retaliatory tooth-grinding when someone with a "real job" (my mother's favourite phrase) goes on about the idle bliss of the freelance life. I swear I'd been virtuous and kind to my eyes, giving myself a few minutes away from the little green screen every hour or so, and switching periodically to a little amber screen on one of the other computers, just for restful variety. I'd moved to the typewriter (another soothing change of scenery) to bash out a quick letter, and suddenly it occurred to me that I couldn't see the paper very well. It was flickering. In different colours.
This was not a cheering discovery.
With insane determination I typed a few more lines, sweating slightly, while bit by bit the notepaper vanished behind a pulsating stained-glass light show.
To cut the suspense short, I was saved from panic by science fiction – specifically, by memories of Bob Shaw's The Two-Timers, with its painstaking descriptions of classical migraine symptoms and their use in time travel. All knowledge is in skiffy. I luckily missed out on the headache, nausea and time travel aspects, but Bob's word-pictures of the light show were unmistakable. It went away in a quarter of an hour, leaving me scratching my head over the fact that I never get migraine. Can you suddenly catch it in your thirties, from draughty toilet seats or badly positioned video screens?
Worries about the latter point have helped prolong the mysterious absence of Ansible. Readers are thanked for their patience. (Advt.)
SECRETS OF FANDOM REVEALED
You might well wonder which convention is being reported in the following deeply fascinating and archetypal prose extract:
"It was ace. Some of the fans discussed superheroes. Before going for a curry Ken Slater sat through this wanky, incredibly creepy presentation. This was rather ideological: I was totally smashed. No one could find Peter Weston. I introduced Roz Kaveney's stupid auction whose theme was samizdat in the space programme. Some of us argued about Rob Holdstock. I tried to fondle Anne McCaffrey. It must have been weirdly shitty. We don't need masquerades. Late that night Vince Clarke asked questions at this slide show with the theme of the role of whales and conceptual breakthroughs. It felt slightly nostalgic. The soft-toy APA tried to fondle John Jarrold. Lots of us argued about Hitcherfans. It got distinctly vomitous. Then I looked into a weird breakfast chat all about the role of Blog in gafiation. D.West threw curry all over Rog Peyton. When Joe Nicholas had sobered up I threw up in the middle of Gwyneth Jones's filk session. That was distinctly ace. No one could out-talk Rob Hansen. I nodded through a silly game based on Trekkies and fanzine reviews.. Weirdly ideological. Walt Willis was nostalgic. Lots of the fans argued about Dave Langford. I went to the tedious presentation. Incredibly dislocated. Around then, Greg Pickersgill stayed in the bar. Terry Pratchett was stupid. After that, Bob Shaw's con badge got stolen. It felt fannish. Lots of the smashed fans dressed up as nukes. I checked out a bidding-party. Some of the fans dressed up as superstring theories. In the small hours Malcolm Edwards drunkenly saw part of an awards ceremony. This wasn't entirely predictable. Around then I visited a chat to raise funds for remainders. This was disgustingly triffic. I saw part of the event. I think James White and Brian Aldiss are quantum mechanics. Then, the Beccon comnittee overslept. Around then I heard about Atom's panel with the theme of AIDS victims. Garry Kilworth threw up curry all over Chris Evans. We don't need opening ceremonies. Ramsey Campbell saw part of this bar argument sponsored by the role of publishers and gophers in encyclopaedias. Goshwow. I checked out Bob Shaw's dislocated, staggeringly brill dance featuring the role of fen. Idiotically riveting. Gerry Webb ignored me. Vince Clarke introduced this drunk, riveting game to raise funds for the role of anthologies. I heckled an over-the-top closing ceremony. Truly ideological. Goshwowoboyoboy. I helped with this stupid presentation with the theme of remainders and mathematics in alternate timelines. John Brunner must have been disgustingly ideological. I think Brian Aldiss and Judith Hanna are elves. I got tedious. Then, Greg Pickersgill's con badge got lost. Avedon Carol felt unspeakably entropic. Lisa Tuttle dropped into Terry Pratchett's gabfest. At some time, Brian Aldiss threw beer all over John Harvey. Fred Harris was horny...."
All right, you've all guessed by now. This is a random extract from several thousand lines of all-purpose con report generated by computer. (The program and data files may be inspected by appointment. Would Critical Wave like to rent a copy?) Though it doesn't have quite enough emphasis on bowel movements, the output seems sufficiently symptomatic of a reporting tradition which happily we don't see so much these days.
Mind you, I still had to edit out a few sentences. From time to time, the random factors kept producing observations which seemed extremely and disgustingly libellous and/or very probably true. You can't trust these machines.
THE REVIEW OF REVIEWS OF REVIEWS
The following passage is also deeply unauthentic, but this time perverted of malice aforethought since its appearance in Pulp 7.
"Ken Cheslin on Langford on Heinlein – every word and implication he writes may be perfectly true, on the other hand I see no valid reason for any critic to write about anything a particular reader thinks is worthy, or in a style, or at a level, which any particular reader thinks that critic, or any critic should write...."
In other words, Ken's reproach of me for my reactions to The Number of the Beast becomes, with trivial cosmetic changes, a sweeping defence of what I wrote. Do I detect a double standard here? Authors can write what the hell they like, no matter how controversial or wrong-headed, but critics should preserve a respectful moderation?
This reminds me that I always get an itchy feeling when in the wonderful world of fanzines, C denounces B for making negative remarks about A, and does so in such terms as to suggest that no one should ever publish a negative reaction to anything in fanzines ... yet C remains apparently oblivious to the fact that his or her reproof of B is itself a published negative reaction of the sort that C feels should never see print. Perhaps this is why I never get very far into debates about fanzine criticism. I don't have a strong enough head for paradoxes.
Column 3, July 1988
THE FANZINE THAT TALKS TO ITSELF
I dreamed I was walking through that particularly unpleasant hell devised by the late Robert Heinlein for the vilest dregs of erstwhile humanity, i.e. literary critics. This hell is said to be inescapable because based on the principle of a Klein bottle: RAH probably meant to write "hypersphere", the great thing about a Klein bottle being that it's incurably leaky.... Nevertheless, the place looked more chilling than any number of circles of punishment surrounding an eternal sea of ice; it hideously resembled an open-plan office. Here I found ace dead critic Edmund Wilson laboriously sealing up a thick pile of envelopes, and groaning.
"I am repenting my sins," he explained. "I have just read this editorial by Vincent Clarke, in the literary review Pulp 8 provided for our instruction and torment. The essay in question points out the vainglory of writing [fanzine] criticism for publication, and gently notes that the pure in soul would merely send the author a constructive letter."
He groaned again, long and loud.
"I was convinced. After years of astral toil I've managed to arrange for the burning, pulping, remaindering or transference to the BSFA Fanzine Library of every single copy ever printed of The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies in Literature, nineteen forty-one. And here instead are the letters I should have written in the first place, to Dickens, Kipling, Casanova, Edith Wharton, Hemingway, Joyce and – " a sob racked him – "Sophocles."
"Gosh, I hope they all publish them," I said brightly. "I really enjoy reading a good critic in any field, seriously tackling the problem of how and why some piece of writing works. Or, of course, doesn't."
It would have been nice to cheer him up with the anodyne words Well, You've Finished Now, but of course he still had ever so many more pieces of literary journalism to unpublish and recast as letters. All of a sudden, this didn't seem a good time to mention flatteringly that I had two and a half feet of his works, with a hundred-odd litcrit essays in The Shores of Light alone. Sternly I told myself that it would be wicked to regret losing the deplorable pleasure of Wilson laying into H.P.Lovecraft ("The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art") or, even though I didn't entirely agree, J.R.R.Tolkien: "The answer is, I believe, that certain people – especially, perhaps, in Britain – have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash." Would he have specified the same country in his parenthesis today? What lavish praise would he have heaped on Piers Anthony? It seemed indelicate to ask.
"There is one small consolation for all this weary effort," he muttered, and told me what it was.
As I passed through the ranks of the damned whose works lay on my treasured shelves, all convicted perpetrators of published criticism, all conscientiously working at the task of recantation, I kept hearing his words again. James Agate (who like the other theatrical critics was having to copy out each review up to forty times, so that every actor and extra could receive a properly personal comment), W.H.Auden, Max Beerbohm, Cyril Connolly, T.S.Eliot, William Empson, Bernard Shaw, Kenneth Tynan, Virginia Woolf, D.West and many more shared the same feeble solace:
"At least this way, there won't be any essays evaluating our published critical oeuvre and written by bloody Clive James."
At length, in the "Fairly New Arrivals" section of literary hell, I found one large-bodied writer who seemed to be working furiously at something different. In front of him was a peculiar keyboard with extra function keys having labels like THE and AND and TAKE THAT ALIEN SCUM and WITH ONE BOUND HE WAS FREE. His face was oddly familiar. I made polite enquiries and, chain-smoking, he replied....
"Now I'm free of my Body Thetan, I can get down to some serious writing. At last. The Org is ready to publish it worldwide. They've got a word processor, E-meter and ouija board all wired together. Ready for dictation. My idea, of course. My first new non-fiction best-seller will be a critical commentary. In twenty volumes. Placed free of charge in every hotel room. An examination of the most significant work of world literature to emerge since 10,000,000 BC. The Mission Earth dekalogy."
After an instinctive cringe, I thought quick as greased treacle. "Er, well, before you start, or rather before you go on," (he had written some six and a half thousand words during our conversation so far), "I think you should read this very wise and significant editorial in Pulp 8."
The famous ex-author scanned it, frowning and then beginning to nod very slowly; and I thought I could detect the murmured words, "Personal letter? Of course it would be over the head of anyone else...."
Such was the happy ending. This has been the story of how our own Vin¢ Clarke saved the world from a terrible fate. But, although not madly keen on chainsaw massacres in print, I still like reading criticism.