Transformation Scene: by Claude Houghton




Against a backdrop of war-time Britain, with Hitler's V-weapons raining death and destruction upon the streets of London and the Allied invasion of mainland Europe underway, Houghton's murder-mystery could easily be mistaken for a telegram, were it not that its contents are much too esoteric to be an official communication. Rather than a next of kin informed of their loved one's death, a dream informs an artist of his model's death. The artist, prone to sleep-walking, and with some very repressed childhood memories, suspects himself of her murder and determines truth will out, whether it destroys him or not.

There follows an odd mix of Crime and Punishment and The Picture of Dorian Gray, as the artist self-interrogates in the company of a series of bohemians who constitute a sort of home guard: in fact, Houghton specialises in this kind of character; for example, the ex-public schoolboy who finds himself the sole survivor of generations of aristocrats, and whose attempts to preserve the line in fact doom it to extinction; or the distressed gentlewoman whose mind gives way when the pressures brought to bear upon it are outside of her class experience; or the spiv whose spats are louder than bombs. Their war is not fought on the front line; rather it is fought for and against social and political change on the home front.

In the middle of all this is the model herself - Carol, also known as The Enigma, which is the title of her most famous sitting for the artist. The image is the pin-up of choice for many a soldier; and so it must be a tragedy for soldiers to return from the front to find their sweetheart dead - murdered by a home guard of loafers and ex-aristocrats. To this end, Transformation Scene is an angry novel and one that anticipates great social change, hence the title. It concerns itself with the casualties of this change - the hitherto untold statistics identified only as other.


Reclamation Yard: by Paul Meloy



The boy Elliot sees monsters. They are not of his own imagining. Rather they are the creations of his father, escaped from a children's book he had published years before. Now Elliot's father has dementia and the monsters he imagined for his book visit Elliot like the visible symptoms of his father's declining mental state. They troll the countryside and invade Elliot's home. Eventually his father is institutionalised, but it makes little difference - the power of monsters is drawn from an imagination gone to the bad. But just as that imagination gives up monsters, so Elliot is able to recruit help from its pages, in the form of a girl and her hot-air balloon who rescues Elliot's father from the institution and returns him for a final confrontation - in the Reclamation Yard of the title, which is, beautifully, locked with a robot's heart.

There's not a great deal that I can add. A summary of Meloy's story is its best possible review, so striking is it in conception. For anyone who has had to deal at close quarters with dementia in a loved one, there is a great deal of consolation to be had here, right out of the marvellous.

You can read Reclamation Yard in Issue 40 of Black Static wherein it is stunningly illustrated by Ben Baldwin.

A Wild Justice: by Francis Clifford



Sometimes the purpose of our cultural custodians is to award posterity to their darlings; we are given a steady stream of articles, reprints and documentaries about, say, Le Carre, or Graham Greene, etc; however, those authors not read by our custodians are designated forgotten and hence their cultural impact is nil. This, of course, is a vicious circle, because if books go out of print and living memory is finite, then the works of certain authors might as well not exist at all. Despite this widespread cultural censorship, ghosts do appear, but our custodians do not have the sensibilities to see them; rather it is left to genre readers to communicate with the out of print.

Francis Clifford was the author of many excellent thrillers which sold well over three decades. Two were adapted into films; one (The Naked Runner) starring Frank Sinatra, no less, was passably good; the other, Act of Mercy, was filmed as Guns of Darkness, quite ineffectively, as the recent Network DVD release allowed me to discover. For the most part Clifford's cold war thrillers are his best; these are always complicated by a unique form of suspense in which the act of page-turning is almost a victimless crime. There are also several Nazi-hunting thrillers, and a wonderful little book called The Third Side of the Coin, in which a desk clerk at a British airport steals a suitcase full of money and flies to Spain, where he is apprehended by an earthquake. There are three war novels, the best of which, Honour the Shrine, is probably the most moving war story out of the Far East that I have ever read.

Clifford had several Irish connections in his personal life which led him to write two Irish-themed books. Drummer in the Dark and A Wild Justice. The former is poor by his usual standards, but the latter, with a little tweaking, is a remarkable book altogether. The action of A Wild Justice takes place in the ruins of an Irish city; the city is unnamed, as is the battle by which it has been destroyed - we are left simply to assume there has been another rising, though which rising and by whom are not specified. The survivors seek a means of escape through a maze of half-collapsed houses, factories and shops, while the army routinely bomb the ruins to prevent any escape. Within these once lived-in shells another kind of life takes place, a desperate struggle for survival that encompasses the full range of human cruelty, from murder to rape; and beyond this is the ultimate Irish crime - betrayal, the advent of which turns freedom fighters to terrorists. It is sometimes remarked that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but when both share a cellar with only one exit the distinction is most brutal. Of course there is no real resolution except tragedy; the surviving rebels are doomed, and as their cause is broken down to emotional rubble, so they seek to play dead therein.

The troubles did not throw up many successful Irish thrillers; most were a mix of propaganda and/or special pleading. To my mind the best of them was probably Benedict Kiely's Proxopera. A Wild Justice matches Kiely's novel in power and brevity and is greatly helped along by its anonymity of venue, an idea I would have taken a lot further. Because the sheer scale of destruction wrought in Clifford's novel goes well beyond anything experienced during the troubles - rather the book reads like an alternate history in which a civil war is fought and lost by those who wargamed it to death.


Ossian's Ride: by Fred Hoyle



One time Astronomer Royal Fred Hoyle had a long career as a science fiction novelist; his early books are undoubted classics - A for Andromeda, for example, is perhaps the finest message from space novel written, despite beginning life as a BBC television series, now sadly lost. The Black Cloud is deservedly Hoyle's most famous novel, in which a sentient gas cloud interposes itself between the Earth and the sun, leading first to a scientific coup d'etat and then near apocalypse. Later in his career Hoyle began co-writing with his son, Geoffrey; the result was a serious reduction in quality, if not in imagination, as Geoffrey's main purpose appeared to be spicing his father's ideas with then fashionable ideas about sex and violence - these books are dated by their social aspect, while their science remains as sure-footed as Hoyle's prose. The one exception is The Fifth Planet, their first collaboration, a splendid novel by any standards.

Between The Black Cloud and Andromeda Hoyle penned one of the few science fiction stories with an Irish setting, Ossian's Ride. The novel is set in the near future, 1970, though later editions bump the date to 1980, no doubt to accommodate reprints. Ireland has become an industrial powerhouse; it has sealed itself behind an "Erin Curtain" of security and innovation and is governed by a mysterious and paranoid entity - the Industrial Corporation of Eire (ICE). The origins and aims of this corporation are obscure, and despite attempts by foreign agents to penetrate the curtain, remain so; invariably the agents are all killed or disappear or defect. The little information that makes its way to the outside world speaks of burgeoning nuclear prowess and contraceptive pills made from turf. The British Foreign Office is particularly chagrined by its failure to plant an agent inside ICE. In desperation the British recruit a newly graduated scientist and, after the briefest of briefings, send him to Ireland with no more mission than he can keep in his coat pockets. The thinking appears to be that an amateur with no mission may fare better than a professional. And, at first, they appear to be correct. Thomas Sherwood blunders into Ireland like no kind of spy; his lack of technique wrong-foots both ICE and agents of other powers, who develop an uncanny knack of taking each other out while allowing Sherwood to escape unscathed. Eventually his luck runs out and he is captured by ICE, or rather, he arranges his own capture. It is at this point Sherwood departs a thriller and enters an sf novel; he wakes with his memory wiped (though his personality is intact) in the new and sealed city of Caragh, the description of which seems rather pertinent to the modern corporate architecture of steel and glass. He is ostensibly a worker drone, but he is asked to do no work and finds that he is under heavy surveillance. Slowly regaining his memory, Sherwood escapes, but now his blundering seems guided; his mission appears to have been co-opted, curiously accounted for, and as he draws closer to the secret at the heart of the corporation, danger recedes to make way for a quaint sense of wonder.

I love this book, I do surely, struck as I am by an image of the world's combined agents tramping across Irish bogs to infiltrate a shining new city with industrial espionage in mind. It has been called Buchanesque, with some justification, but the book of which I'm most reminded is Eric Ambler's The Dark Frontier. In that novel a scientist who believes himself to be a super-hero embarks on a similar mission in a Ruritanian state; and this is somewhat to the point of Ossian's Ride. Ireland, while a British isle, is off the map. You can't really look to the mythology of the title to give it context; rather, Ossian's Ride re-partitions Ireland; where there was once north and south, there is now human and inhuman.

The Voivode: by Philip Challinor



There is cosmic horror; and then there is cosmic holocaust.The former is the sensibility of human frailty in an unknowable universe; the latter is the insanity that ensues from it.

In Philip Challinor's extraordinary novella, The Voivode, vampirism is in league with the pre-Galilean universe, and its enemy, the Church, is mired in the dark ages. The spacecraft Persephone, lifted into the void by the burning of ten thousand or so heretics, attempts to venture beyond Earth's furthest satellite, Sol. Instead it finds evidence of the Gililean universe in the form of a new planet that appears to orbit Sol; and it finds itself under siege from within, as a stowaway vampire lays waste to the crew with the help of the ship's doctor. Sangruel the vampire and the doctor change the Persephone's course to land on this new planet and claim it... but it claims them in the most curious and horrifying manner.

At the heart of The Voivode is a bloody transfusion; that is, a protectionist exchange of knowledge and of power. Earth's enlightenment is to be more of the same, on an industrial scale, as Challinor reveals the newly discovered planet to have been asset-stripped of its only resource, blood, which is, after all, the currency of vampires. Blood cells converted to coin.

The Voivode, like most of Challinor's work, is precisely rendered. There are touches of Ligotti and Lucius Shephard (The Golden comes to mind); in fact, the prose is better than the former and the conceit fully matches the latter. It is a major work of strange and vivid imagination, and in subjecting cosmic horror to economic rationalism, Challinor has found a wholly unique voice.

You can buy a copy of The Voivode here - I absolutely recommend that you do.

PSI High & Others: by Alan E. Nourse




I first happened across Alan E. Nourse about 15 years ago, when I was reading anthologies at the rate of two a day; as a result his work must have passed me by. I had opportunity to revisit him when I discovered that some of his stories are out of copyright and can be found in readings of variable quality at librivox (and youtube). PSI High & Others is a trilogy of novellas published by Faber in the UK in 1967, the stories originally appearing in pulps in the late 50s/early 60s. Nourse's future America is depressingly corporate, though not very dystopian - for the most part its heroes are Presidents, Senators, Congressmen, Industrialists, and so on. They are the villains too, if that's any consolation. His future US also features a fifth column of PSI capable humans (PSI is ESP+ to us post-Campbellians), which comes gradually to challenge the established order.

The first story, Martyr, has tough as nails Sen. Dan Fowler launch his campaign to have a longevity treatment, currently restricted to a small elite of rich and famous, extended to the general population. He arranges for his brother to have the treatment, and report to the Capitol on its details; but his brother refuses. When quizzed as to why, Paul Fowler tells Dan to look at the life work of those whose lives have been extended. And, sure enough, Dan visits his favourite childhood composer to find the man has been working on the same symphony for 77 years. Fowler writes and presents his own report - that by making human life open-ended, the urgency goes out of endeavour, and nothing ever gets done. Martyr is a deftly arranged story, written up as thriller because the macguffin is near-immortality, which of itself necessitates intrigue. But the only real intrigue in the story belongs to Dan Fowler, because he is dying...

In the title story, PSI High, an alien with powerful mental abilities lands alone on Earth to seek out the fledgling PSI movement and destroy it as a prelude to invasion. The PSI-ers track the alien as it cuts a swathe across America, leaving a trail of mental destruction in its wake. Nothing the PSI movement throws at the alien slows or affects its progress towards its prize - frail and beautiful Jean Sanders, PSI High's most gifted. As the alien gets closer, the PSI-ers form ranks about Jean, and a sort of mental siege takes places, with Nourse ratcheting up the tension by having the government and populace turn against the PSI-ers - they suspect the alien is in league with PSI High; and as it turns out...  The denouement of the story is a twist tied as a noose; but I'm not sure that the weight is correct. The set-up is overly-elaborate and the pay-off rests entirely with the fate of the alien which, while certainly plausible, has rather a touch of Chekhov about it - permitting your raygun to be seen and not used is a delicate narrative choice. Put bluntly (spoiler ahead), the alien dies quietly at its first human encounter - at the hands of a farmer whose dog it has killed. The "alien" they've been tracking turns out to be a human, the next step in PSI development, who used the alien's arrival (and disappearance) as cover to announce his existence. As you would. The story is also a gothic romance of sorts, as a being perceived throughout to be monstrous pursues the mind of a girl. PSI High is a complex tale which probably would have worked better at greater length. Its mood is dark and ambitious, but Nourse's prose is simply not precise enough to allow it to take hold. There are too many competing elements; however, as flawed as it is, PSI High is the best story in the volume, and evidence that Nourse's work is a cut above the norm.

The last story, Mirror Mirror, is a rather grim study of the psychological aspects of war. An alien fleet blunders into the solar system; it violently repels attempts at contact from Earth, destroys a base on Titan, and flees to forbidding Saturn, where it hides in the atmosphere. Earth, always keen to press a disadvantage, builds a space station to orbit Saturn and carries the war to the aliens through "analogues" (shades of Poul Anderson's Call Me Joe and, fwiw, James Cameron's Avatar). The minds of soldiers are encased in electronic drones and fired into the atmosphere of Saturn to harrass the aliens. Upon returning they are given Relief (as opposed to leave), which is the only thing that keeps them sane. One such soldier is John Provost. He has formed a deep bond with one of his Relief pleasures, or "that Turner girl," as she is referred to throughout the text. On returning from a particularly arduous mission he finds "that Turner girl" mouthing suspiciously alien thoughts - she is promptly and brutally killed by the station staff, and the entire garrison goes into meltdown, believing the aliens have somehow infiltrated them. Of course, what Provost might well have been hearing from "that Turner girl" were his own thoughts at remove; his psychological breakdown due to the ravages of war; echoes of combat. The rest of the story is neither here nor there, except to say that in the best tradition of human folly, the cure for pain is more pain.

Nourse is probably best known for the term Blade Runner, which was the title of one of his novels and which was borrowed by Ridley Scott for the director's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He had a fairly active career in the pulps and was lucky enough to see his work collected and issued in hardcover by Faber & Faber in the UK. Why this should be the case, I'm not sure. His novellas are, for the most part, his best work; the novels are weaker in subject matter and it seems obvious (to me) that he made some odd choices as to the possibilities of his ideas. Still, there's no denying that his best work is well-worth reading.

And, thankfully, one of the surviving episodes of the fabled Out of the Unknown is an adaptation of Nourse's The Counterfeit Man, which you can watch here: