Filler content with grandchildren

A review that originally appeared in Dream #29:-

CLIFFORD D. SIMAK – Our Children’s Children (Mandarin pb, 186pp, £3.99)

With a unique blend of rustic simplicity, human warmth, and genuine compassion, Clifford D. Simak carved out his own special niche within science fiction. In a career that spanned nearly sixty years Simak produced over forty books and won every major award the field had to offer. Some of those books, such as “City”, “Ring Around the Sun”, and “Way Station” are deservedly acknowledged as classics of their kind. To many Simak stood for human values and optimism in a genre increasingly devoid of either. His death deprived science fiction of one of its more reasonable voices. Mandarin are to be applauded for their efforts to keep his work in print, though it must be admitted that the very comprehensiveness of their list could undermine his reputation as, like most prolific writers, Simak produced plenty of duds along with the gems.

“Our Children’s Children” was written in 1974, by which time Simak was past his best but still producing good work. The concept at the heart of this slim novel is one of his most staggering. Five hundred years in the future mankind faces extinction at the hands of a ferocious alien predator. To escape they utilise their technology to build time tunnels and transport their entire population back to the last quarter of the twentieth century. With the world reeling at the sudden influx of nearly two billion refugees the unthinkable happens; an alien breaks through to the present day and eludes the military. A biological killing machine, supremely adaptable and capable of reproducing parthenogenetically the monster represents the greatest threat mankind has ever faced.

This is a small book but it manages to cover a lot of ground, with Simak’s seemingly effortless prose keeping you turning the pages at a rapid rate. It has something for everyone, from ferocious monsters to romantic human beings, from military action to the give and take of international diplomacy, from scientific and philosophical speculation to social commentary.

What distinguishes the book from so many other potboilers though is the Simak angle on human nature. The hero is Steve Wilson, White House press agent, and several other major characters are journalists, though you won’t recognise them as such if your expectations have been shaped by the antics of the less creditable tabloids. Simak, once a journalist himself, sees the fourth estate as one of the bastions of freedom and that’s how he tells it. It’s par for the course. When the refugees first arrive, before the government step in, shelter and food is provided by ordinary American citizens taking them into their homes. Industry and trade unions rally round to help. Of course this is only part of the story. There are those – politicians, businessmen, evangelists – who try to profit from the emergency. Simak isn’t naïve about human nature. It’s simply that, whenever possible, he likes to give our finer feelings the benefit of the doubt.

Reading Simak makes me think of that other journalist turned author, P. G. Wodehouse. Simak’s books bear the same relationship to science fiction in general as the latter’s do to the novel of social realism. They are not great literature and they are not strictly accurate about many things, but more often than not they are highly readable and great fun. That sums up “Our Children’s Children” to a T, so if you’ve got £3.99 to spare and want a few hours of undemanding entertainment in a science fictional mode go out and buy the book.


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Trailer Trash – Ready Player One

Cinema celebrates the medium that will replace it, and so I suspect that there is an agenda and things will end badly.

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Filler content with Toynbee

A review that originally appeared in Dream #27, one that it pained me to write and more so to read now (I doubt I’d be so sniffy if I read the book again, but it’s not something I’m willing to put to the test):-

BRADBURY, RAY – The Toynbee Convector (Grafton pb, 277pp, £3.50)

Ray Bradbury is a giant in the related fields of science fiction and fantasy, with books to his name that are deservedly regarded as classics of their kind. For his legions of admiring fans the eighties have been famine years, with only “Death is a Lonely Business”, a not entirely successful and regrettably soft boiled detective novel, to slake their thirst for new gems from the master’s pen. Now as the decade turns we have a collection of twenty two new stories, plus “The Tombstone”, which originally appeared in his 1947 volume “Dark Carnival”. But is “The Toynbee Convector” worth the long wait?

At first blush it appears to be authentic Bradbury. The prose is recognisably his, if perhaps slightly diluted or on occasion overworked compared to former days. Many of the locations are instantly recognisable, from idyllic Green Town, Illinois where nothing ever really changes to the arid and beautiful landscape of Mars. Most of the characters are familiar; idealistic young men full of naïve optimism and rising zap; crusty octogenarians with a mischievous twinkle in their eyes, who feed you fanciful tales as panacea for the careworn soul; precocious children redeemed by their angelic innocence and human gullibility.

Underlying nearly all Bradbury’s work is a poet’s faith in imagination as the catalyst to transform reality. Believe in the miraculous and you can make it happen. Conversely, if all that you can see is the ordinary, humdrum, everyday world of cause and effect then that is all you deserve of life, and poor you. Dullness will out.

In “The Toynbee Convector” all the world’s problems have been solved, simply because one man went into the future and returned to tell people that it would be so. Whether he lied or not is irrelevant. What matters is that he was believed and people acted on that belief, which might seem ingenuous to many readers and ingenious to others. In “On the Orient, North” a ghost is saved from dissolution by being transplanted from his increasingly agnostic homeland to an atmosphere more conducive to belief in hauntings. Clara Peck, the protagonist of the tautly written “Trapdoor”, is so literal minded that she cannot bring herself to believe the dragging sounds she hears in the attic at night are anything more sinister than rodent infestation. A failure to believe in the possibility of happiness dooms “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair” from outset.

These four stories, along with “The Tombstone” and a couple of others with trick endings, are the best in the book. They don’t measure up to Bradbury’s best work.

“Promises, Promises” is terribly earnest and will probably seem ludicrous to anyone without religious faith. “One for His Lordship, and One for the Road!” features a group of Irish scoundrels seen in earlier work, but lacks charm and has an ending that is predictable and reeks of seaside postcard vulgarity. “At Midnight, in the Month of June” takes a near perfect incident from Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” and tells it from another viewpoint, undermining the former work while adding nothing new. Worst of all though is “Junior”, which I found embarrassing to read. An elderly man wakes up with an erection after many years’ abstinence and calls three old flames round to witness the miraculous revival. Thankfully we’re spared an orgy. This must be the literary equivalent of incontinence in old age, and it’s sad to see Bradbury reduced to writing such execrable nonsense.

These four stories are the worst in the book and offhand I can’t recall him ever before producing anything so bad. The remaining twelve stories are indifferent, rehashes of ideas he’s used before. Bradbury’s invention is flagging and his prose no longer reaches the lyrical heights it used to scale, I loved his earlier work and would probably buy anything new by Bradbury, but can’t honestly recommend “The Toynbee Convector”.

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Song for a Saturday – The Ghost of Tom Joad

Title track of the 11th album.

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Filler content with dead dreamers

Final review of the three that appeared in Dream #26 back in 1990:-

LIGOTTI, THOMAS – Songs of a Dead Dreamer (Robinson tpb, 275pp, £5.99)

For a number of years now the work of Thomas Ligotti has been appearing in such Small Press magazines as Dagon and Dark Horizons, garnering the author a reputation entirely inconsistent with public awareness of his work. Robinson’s publication of Songs of a Dead Dreamer, consisting of twenty one stories and an introduction by Ramsey Campbell, will hopefully gain Ligotti the much wider audience that he deserves.

Ligotti is unusual, even by the standards of a genre in which the unusual and the everyday are often seen as interchangeable, facets of the same reality. He writes like no-one else. The nearest equivalent I can think of is the Argentinean fabulist and poet Jorge Luis Borges, alas now deceased. But although Ligotti’s concerns may be the same and his methods similar, the vision that impels his work is infinitely darker and uniquely his own. A lineal descendant of Poe, Ligotti is a master of quasi-surreal fables that disturb and unsettle the reader, while at the same time delighting with an elegantly rendered image or turn of phrase. Not for Ligotti the lashings of gore and chainsaw writhing that seem almost de rigueur in splatterpunk circles. Ligotti’s appeal is intellectual rather than visceral, and ultimately far more alarming. He writes in the first person, adopting a quirky and often beautiful prose style to lure the unsuspecting reader in to the nightmare that is his tormented narrator’s only reality. These stories are at right angles to the world we know, using startling ideas and images to heart stopping effect.

‘Flowers sent out today in the early a.m.’ The story “Les Fleurs” opens with this deceptively innocent phrase, which by the story’s end has gained new and terrible significance, typifying Ligotti’s gift for transforming the commonplace into something strange and unreal. In the beautifully titled “Drink to Me Only with Labyrinthine Eyes” a master hypnotist entertains the idle rich at a country house party. But during the course of the narrative there are subtle indications that all is not quite what it seems, and these culminate in a devastating denouement. The fiendishly clever “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” tells its story by means of a lecture on the art itself, illustrating the various approaches a budding author might take with his material, and using this as a device to explore the murky depths of the writer’s subconscious. “Dr Locrian’s Asylum” has an entire town tormented and driven to destruction by the ghosts of its evil past. In “The Frolic” a criminal psychologist confronts a child molester with abilities that undermine his belief in the laws of cause and effect, offering new insight into the random nature of creation. A clinical analyst is the victim of paranoia in “The Dream of a Mannikin”. Or is he? Ligotti, as always, leaves us room to doubt.

These are only the most remarkable stories in a wholly remarkable collection, a publication that Ramsey Campbell lauds as ‘one of the most important horror books of the decade’. Ligotti’s work is not without flaw. He is still learning his craft, as the occasionally painful choice of words or plot obscurity reveals. Nor will it be to everyone’s taste. He lacks the accessibility of Stephen King’s prose and the raw power found in Clive Barker’s better work. But for those who prize the unusual and value beautiful writing, these stories will open up endless new vistas to the mind’s eye.



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Trailer Trash – Unsane

Is she being stalked or is she ‘unsane’?

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Filler content with blood and grit

Another of the reviews that appeared in Dream Magazine #26 back in 1990:-

CLARK, SIMON – BLOOD & GRIT (BBR Books pb, 103pp, £3.99)

Those familiar with a magazine called Back Brain Recluse, like Dream a member of the New SF Alliance, will know that editor Chris Reed’s production values are second to none. That commitment to quality is certainly evident with this foray into the larger world of paperback publishing.

Simon Clark is a young writer who looks to be going places. His work has already appeared in Fear, Dark Dreams and Back Brain Recluse itself, as well as in numerous other magazines. Stories by him have featured in DAW’s prestigious anthology The Year’s Best Horror Stories. This is his first collection and it comes with a recommendation from Ian Watson.

There are six stories in this slim volume. “Skinner Lane” is about child abuse and a young boy whose worst nightmare turns out to be not so bad after all. In the alternate reality of “Out From Under” the dead are vacuum packed instead of being buried or cremated, though relatives are understandably reluctant to collect them from the mortuary. “Over Run” is that rare thing, a zombie story with an intelligent rationale. To say more would give the plot away. In “Bite Back” Joe Slatter, the archetypal hard case with a heart of gold, is pursued all over the north of England by a giant shadow that likes to step on things. “Revelling in Brick”, my personal favourite, has an unhappy man granted a look at the strange existences that other people lead. “Sex, Savagery and Blood, Blood, Blood” rounds out the collection on a slyly humorous note, albeit comedy as it might have been written by the Marquis De Sade.

Clark has been compared to Clive Barker, which is unfair as he isn’t that good yet. Like Barker though, and many other new writers in the genre, he seems to be redefining what we understand by horror. At the root of his work is a serious dissatisfaction with the everyday. The horror when it erupts is not necessarily a bad thing. It can represent a liberation from the thrall of the mundane. The monster of “Skinner Lane” is kindly compared to Michael, the story’s sadistic child tormentor. Joe Slatter is redeemed by his encounter with horror. Through the weird events that permeate “Revelling in Brick” Mark Stainforth learns acceptance of a kind.

Clark writes in short, sharp paragraphs that infuse his plots with considerable momentum. The impression is of boundless energy held in check and, admittedly, at times threatening to run away with itself. He has a gift for characterisation and an ear for dialogue, bringing people to life with a few well chosen words. He produces haunting and surreal images with the ease of a magician lifting rabbits from a hat. And if the ultimate horror in his stories doesn’t always live up to our fearful expectations, then perhaps we should be grateful.

Blood & Grit has a foreword by Andy Darlington and six black and white illustrations by Dallas Goffin, an artist who is every bit as good as the more famous Dave Carson. Chris Reed is to be thanked for making this volume available to us.

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