Tom Holt: Man or Myth?

Spies tell me that Tom Holt has made my name infamous in filk-singing circles. It all began when our next-door neighbours' teenage son moved out, and they dumped his discarded SF/fantasy paperbacks on me. Most of these were by John Norman, and I hastily offered them to the British SF Foundation library, whose administrator would only make tactful but deeply realistic puking noises.

So for years these books lurked amid piles of unread review copies in our front hallway, until – it is alleged – Mr Holt learned of their presence from a mutual friend and wrote his wretched song. So far (he said in tones of deepening menace) I still haven't heard the full lyrics of "The Gor Books In Dave Langford's Hall", but I think Tom should be required to sing them at Boskone. Serve him right.

Meanwhile, what can one say about a comic fantasy author whom one somehow expects to be taller, and who is so notably timorous when the subject of Beowulf comes up? In the words of SFX, Britain's bestselling and most relentlessly downmarket SF-related magazine, "When Tom Holt's on form, the world seems a cheerier place."

Come to think of it, I was that SFX reviewer. It's very possible that I had been influenced by the orbital mind control lasers of the sinister body behind Tom's best-documented conspiracy theory, the British Milk Marketing Board. But as a jaded freelance reviewer who covers far too many books for that on-line store even more sinister than the Milk Marketing Board (and which I dare refer to only via the code phrase HugeSouthAmericanRiver), I have to confess that I still look forward to a new Tom Holt. His books are pretty good, too.

At this point, let's quote some illuminating questions and answers from when I interviewed Tom about his comic fantasy Only Human:

Me: I'll confess that unlike many interviewers I have actually read your novel ...

Tom: "... The love that asks no question, the love that pays the price, The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice."

Me: And I enjoyed it – though Chris Priest always says one isn't supposed to enjoy a Priest novel but be purged with pity and terror, stirred to the very roots of one's being, and the like.

Tom: But of course. Usually, I spend the next six days hiding under the stairs with a hessian sack over my head, making hamster noises. Isn't that the whole point?

Me: [...] Does Only Human feel like a change in direction or Classic Holt?

Tom (rumbling me at once): Dave, Dave, this is a sneaky way of saying, "This time, does it have a plot?" Well, yes, it does. A theme, even. You could almost say, a message. (Just write out the first letter on each facing page on a clean sheet of paper and rearrange them to spell out the message of your choice.)

... But when I did, picking a start point entirely at random, the message began "DO NOT MEDDLE WITH THE AFFAIRS OF WIZARDS LANGFORD YOU BASTARD," and I became too nervous to continue.

Tom Holt's writing always makes me chuckle, and – in the great tradition of critics who steal all a book's best gags to adorn their carping review – I'd like to list a few favourite moments which have stuck in that arid crevice which I call my mind.

• The incrutable game of Goblin's Teeth, as played by two chthonic elementals throughout Who's Afraid of Beowulf? "Four ... Double Rune Score. I think I'll have another longhouse on Uppsala." Its complexities make grandmaster chess look like Mornington Crescent, or maybe the other way around.

• The blinding insight that the Flying Dutchman and his crew have to stay far away from land and civilization (in Flying Dutch) because the price of immortality is terrible, terrible body odour.

• The birth control clinic of Storyland as briefly glimpsed in Open Sesame, with desperate men deploying shotguns against the aerial menace of incoming storks.

• The same novel's sinister Fairy Godfather, a mafioso who offers you three wishes you can't refuse.

• The heart-rending sufferings of the damned soul amid hell's flames in Only Human, whiling out eternity with endless rereadings (75 million to date) of an unnamed novel in which, early on, a tourist meets a wizard. Terry Pratchett subsequently declined to comment.

• The mere title Snow White and the Seven Samurai, all by itself evidence of a mind that goes clear off the torque-meter scale. Here, convolutions of story eventually make it seem logical that one of the Three Little Pigs should find himself saying: "I am not a number. I am a free pig."

• Odin's special afterlife briefing for Americans, in Valhalla: "Skyfather, his message: You in Kansas any more are not."

• The North Welsh cult (in Nothing But Blue Skies) which touchingly believes "that when we die, we'll be reunited on the other side with all the used paper hankies we've discarded over the years."

I haven't space to quote "The Wild Canadian Boy", Tom's song about the encyclopedic John Clute, which I was delighted to publish in a special issue of my own SF newsletter Ansible. You can find it in our man's lacerating songbook Bitter Lemmings. (Lemmings are the favoured Holt role-model for humanity. Don't take him near any cliffs.)

Tom Holt is a fine funny man – and a serious historical writer too, as evidenced by The Walled Orchard and Alexander at the World's End. British fandom is glad to lend him to Boskone, but you must understand that he is to be returned. We need our regular Holt fix. And I still want a private word with him about "The Gor Books In Dave Langford's Hall".