The Edge: by Charles Beaumont

Charles Beaumont's name is fairly well-known amongst weird fiction and horror fans, perhaps because his books are irritatingly hard to track down and so remain on some infernal, unfulfilled wish-list. He was a chief writer on the original Twilight Zone series and penned the low-budget William Shatner film The Intruder, as well as a number of short stories which appeared in a variety of pulp magazines and were later collected in volumes like The Howling Man and The Edge.

The New People takes the well-worn theme of jaded suburbia and adds a reasonable (for the time) twist, but not a twist that could be used now. And perhaps not even then - because the story trades one suburban myth for another in a very effective way. Hank and Anne Prentice, and their adopted son Davey, take possession of their new home - rather uneasily, as the previous resident committed suicide. But they settle into a neighbourhood that appears otherwise respectable and modest. In fact, they themselves appear to be the only oddities: "He wondered what it would be like to sleep with her. Probably it would be very nice." She is, of course, his wife. Because Hank is impotent and Ann is a virgin. Here you can locate the twist in the story, the point being that suburbanites have a way of finding the one fatal weakness/strength in a stranger, usually to diabolical ends...

I'm sure The Howling Man has been anthologised by Pan or Fontana at some point. I have encountered it outside of the pages of The Edge, somewhere. Or maybe it's just that the atmosphere of the story is so immediately a classic that it provides its own afterlife. An American student, touring Europe before he takes a job with his family's legal practice, falls ill with pneumonia and wakes to find he has been nursed back to health by an order of monks in a timeless abbey. But the student is not their only guest - there is also the mysterious howling man of the title, of whom the monks decry all knowledge, refusing not only to hear his cries, but also to acknowledge his existence. The student resolves to help the man escape...  The Howling Man makes effective use of the New World meets Old World setup; its descriptions of the German landscape are almost medieval, treating Europe as an ancient forest that requires regime change.

Of the remainder, there is some energy and verve in Mother's Day, the story of an Irishman forced to mate with a stick-like Martian; The New Sound is the engaging story of the world's first (and last) practicing necroaudiophile; Song For a Lady is an atypical deathship story (depressingly this story reminded me that I'm one of the vanishingly small number of human beings who can put a face to the name C. Aubrey Smith); and in The Magic Man, a travelling magician in the Old West gives a little too much of his act away to strangers...

For the most part Beaumont's stories are very well-developed. They go where they need to go with minimum fuss and maximum gain. There is a good deal of attention to detail, and he has a talent for an apt phrase. As an author he makes no attempt to outsmart his reader; his conceits are such that we are delighted in short order, and spend the remainder of the story co-writing their conclusions. Sadly, Beaumont suffered a fairly odd and premature death in his late 30s from something called pre-senile dementia; perhaps he believed his own stories, which now resemble the grisly output of a cantankerous O'Henry gone impeccably to seed.

To Die in Italbar: by Roger Zelazny

The crime is life, the sentence is death...

To Die in Italbar has been somewhere described as the story of the walker in the valley of the shadow, an epithet which for once does justice to its subject. HvH (an interesting set of initials, almost a formula) is host to a deity named Aram-O-Myra (Miriam, also a formula), a Goddess whose powers encompass the microscopic world of germs, viruses and virulence of all kinds. Her presence inside HvH renders him literally both carrier and cure. When he achieves balance, and this seems to be related to the dynamics of his relationship with Miriam, he can cure; out of balance he is a world-killer. On a mission of mercy to one particular planet he is unable to leave a habitat before his balance tilts and he inadvertently starts an epidemic, resulting in his being stoned and beaten. This seems to be the vulnerable moment that Miriam has been waiting for, as she transforms from deity to devil and encourages HvH to commit revenge fantasy. They are a good match.

Zelazny then gets to work by introducing a host of characters, some old, some new, often dropped into the text mid-point with no previous introductions, but so well-drawn that it hardly matters. Because Zelazny's plots are organised over such swathes of time and distance, economies of scale are sought only in motivations: Malacar Miles, for example, wants HvH so that he can be used as a weapon in his own revenge fantasy to do justice by a destroyed Earth; Larmon Pels, suspended perpetually on the point of death, wants access to HvH for insight into his own condition; and Francis Sandow, late of Isle of the Dead, seems to be a point of continuity between both books and provides a story arc wherein life doesn't so much foreshadow death as stalk it across a universe that is poorly-lit by dissenting suns.

Italbar is not particularly well-regarded amongst Zelazny readers, mainly because the climax of the novel is related at some remove from the action; the confrontation between Sandow and Miriam is a piece of exposition by telepathy, something I first happened across in The Silent Speakers by Arthur Sellings, and which I regard as inventive enough to serve here; in fact, it couldn't be any other way. Also, the last chapter, a brief half-page, may contain a hidden denouement which is easily missed - Give it that much.

I came late to Zelazny, perhaps having been discouraged by his Amber series. But for a long time I had in my possession a copy of The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth, and one day on a whim I sat down to read it. And it wasn't very long before I was enthralled. In fact, I was so moved I resolved not to read any more Zelazny for fear of spoiling the experience, a reaction I had also had to Lucius Shepherd. Thankfully, those days have passed. These writers don't spoil with a paucity of good work. Quite the opposite. They are prolific by their excellence. And while I'm still not much enamoured of Amber, the remainder of Zelazny's work is... well, it's not earthly literature - really it's the dark matter of the universe, which the mainstream has yet to detect.

Requiem for a Wren: by Nevil Shute

When things like this happen, there's just nothing to be done about it. Even suffering itself is a mere waste of time...

It is widely held (among those who still care) that Nevil Shute never wrote a horror novel during his long and famous career. Yet Shute's bibliography includes a fair few departures from the norm. An Old Captivity, for example, details an overworked and exhausted pilot who slips into a Norse coma;  In the Wet features a risible alternate history set in a socialist Britain during the 1980s and detailing the "plight" of the Royal family and attendant parasites; his (brilliant) first novel, Stephen Morris welds two early novellas together as an engineering fantasy - this is a recurrent theme in Shute's work: that the application of mechanical and technical principles to human problems can solve them, or at least nurse them home. And that, of course, is pertaining to science fiction. Which leads us to On the Beach, perhaps his most famous novel, an apocalypse tale that adds nothing very new to the genre but provides a reasonable point of entry. It was successfully filmed, as were Pied Piper, No Highway and A Town Like Alice. For me, Shute's best work is Requiem for a Wren, and to my mind this is his horror novel. It is also the saddest book I have ever read, perhaps the only one that I have ever wept over, so much so that I doubt I will ever be able to read it again. It is a one sitting book, and the sitting resembles a wake. The desolation the book imparts is quite beyond description; but if you've ever felt compelled to make a promise to a fictional character, then the promise you make to Leading Wren Janet Prentice is one you will never break.

On a military training exercise Janet Prentice makes a terrible mistake - she shoots down a German plane, as she has been told it is her duty to do; but in this instance the plane is not full of bombs but instead is filled with political refugees who have somehow stolen the airplane and escaped Nazi-occupied Europe. An inquiry finds she acted in haste and she is punished accordingly. Soon afterwards her fiance is killed while on a commando raid in France. She is left with her memories, both of her career in the Wrens, and his affections. She also has his dog to care for, which she does, as lovingly as his memory deserves; until one day while walking the dog on the beach she blunders into some army exercises and the dog is crushed to death by a half-track. It seems to Janet by now that she is operating under a curse - and she looks back on the fateful incident of shooting down the plane as the moment her life turned against her. She is entirely lost, but the worst is yet to come...

All of this is contained within a flashback narrative told around two brothers, both of whom are in love with Janet at various points in her life; it is their intersection with her tragedy that gives the novel its bitter and bittersweet qualities. In the end the reader must take a personal stake and berate the brothers for their inability to save this woman, first from the war and then from herself. But even then it is not that she cannot be saved; it is that she will not be saved, and the final tragedy is a senseless race against time performed in a future tense.

In a strange way Requiem for a Wren has suffered the same fate at the hands of readers as L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between - the demonic aspect has been overlooked in favour of the drama resulting in powerful tales diminished by the attribution of coincidence or passion play or common spite. The truth is that these novels are fundamentally esoteric - and in the case of Requiem for a Wren, it goes only to confirm the calculation that if war is hell, then hell is other people.

RPG Gatehouse, Falls Rd

Perhaps my favourite closed house in West Belfast, this appears to have been the one-time gatehouse of St Rose's School, or St Mary's Training College, on Beechmount (RPG) Ave. Judging by the brickwork, the house looks as though it was closed not long after it was built.

And that ball has been on the extension roof for as long as I can remember.

The Bury Line: by Stephen Hargadon

Stephen Hargadon's The Bury Line brings new and terrible meaning to the networking skills required in the modern workplace. Though it displays a sure, light touch in tone, the humour is black throughout, in the manner of Gogol. In grand fact, the story is highly reminiscent of recurrent themes in much 19th century Russian literature, particular those of soul-destroying time-serving in the Imperial Civil Service. And if you think of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground as a sort of tube tale, then The Bury Line is the surface equivalent. Add to this Hargadon's marked talent for writing sympathetic characters and the story gains a good deal of its power to affect by way of shared disillusion. The characters are not laconic: they are laconics; a manifestation of progress reports and performance related pay. As they appear and disappear the reader becomes almost a nine-to-five familiar; and the story exists as a consultant meta-narrative to the daily grind.

Martin goes through a succession of line managers. Watching them come and go at the discretion of upper management, he notes each one's foibles, and how these prove to be fatal to much-fabled efficiencies. Martin understands that another job is often another life, an afterlife perhaps. At first he watches his colleagues despatched to this afterlife; then he begins to experience them in other incarnations, on other networks; perhaps as symptoms of his own burgeoning disillusionment. In turn this affects his own performance and his work begins to suffer. It does not go unnoticed...

And this perhaps is how the story most startled me - it is not that the work suffers: it is that the worker suffers it.

The Bury Line is published in Black Static Issue 42. Well worth reading.

I, Mengele: by Philip Challinor

Following on from the author's Foundations of the Twenty-First Century, Philip Challinor's I, Mengele is a rare look into the academic and culture wars of an alternative history. F21C created a world in which Britain had fallen to the Nazi's during World War 2 - it succeeded by sidestepping the gaming mechanics of most alternative histories, instead concentrating on a curiously deft fit of Nazi politics and philosophy into daily English life. The book avoided epiphanies, deliberately so, except perhaps the resolution of duty into horror by means of a narrative that I would describe as speak into memory; by that I mean again that history is written by the winner. 

I, Mengele is drawn from the same alternative history. It is a critical study of an epic film, conceived in Germany, financed in Hollywood, made in Britain. In our history Mengele is famous, or rather infamous. In that history Mengele is neither; victory has rendered him an almost anonymous functionary as the Holocaust has been overlooked by historians of the Reich for obvious reasons. All this is about to change as the cultural custodians of F21C take ownership of some of the less daring yet equally important actions of the war years. But how can mass-murder be reimagined as heroic service to the Reich?

Mengele's life and exploits are presented as epic fantasy, filmed in the manner of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Herein lies the power of the author's imagination: Mengele's victims are become CGI monsters. They are recreated as writhing hordes and dark inhuman masses. Jews, Russians, Gypsies... all are thrown into the CGI melting pot to emerge as the villains of epic fantasy as we know them - the faceless armies of Mordor, or the boundless hordes of Mallorea. As someone who has always found much fantasy to be faintly distasteful, this came as something of a revelation for me as it pinpointed my distress. Perhaps the most striking comparison to be made is with Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. It hadn't occurred to me until I read I, Mengele that Spinrad's novel can be read similarly - as an attack on the dehumanising East/West divide in fantasy fiction.

The book also provides fascinating background detail, including Churchill's cribbing of Hiro Hito in his surrender speech; and the timetable for the invasion of Russia being moved forward by three crucial weeks to June 1st, just time enough to get the Wermacht to Moscow before Christmas, 1941. It is interesting to compare such details with David Downing's The Moscow Option, another front rank World War 2 alternate.

Ultimately I, Mengele demonstrates that a commentariat can make almost anything acceptable if its cultural context is engineered to reflect the prevailing political consensus.

You can buy a copy of I Mengele here, and its companion volume The Foundations of the 21st Century here.

The Sculptor's Hand: by Nicholas Royle

 The first assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

On the week that Hilary Mantel publishes her story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher to a degree of controversy in our largely Tory press, it is interesting to go back to Nicholas Royle's assassination of same. In The Sculptor's Hand Thatcher is not named, but the story was written while she was serving as Prime Minister, and the Premier is throughout referred to as "she".

The narrator is a sculptor in the classical style. While on a business trip to Glasgow he is involved in a minor train crash and escapes with a knock on the head. Upon leaving hospital he notes the arrival of the Premier, her entourage, and a media scrum. He pauses only to express relief that he escaped meeting her. A month later, by a bizarre coincidence, perhaps, he is involved in another train crash, this one rather more serious. He loses his arm, a disaster for a man of his occupation. Almost as bad, he is unable to avoid being consoled by the Premier in hospital and, to his horror, these images are widely televised. The media, of course, are much taken with the coincidence of his having been involved in both accidents, but when they seek his opinion his answers are not what they want to hear - rather than look to his own luck as cause, he blames cuts in spending on public transport infrastructure. This opinion is widely derided by a media which would rather believe that the narrator is labouring under a personal curse. After all, there is no such thing as society; only individual men and women, and their luck. If their luck is bad, well, personal responsibility is everything.

By this point the narrator is reeling. His art and business have begun to suffer - a slew of lost orders and canceled shows take their toll. He becomes convinced that he is being punished for speaking out, convinced also that the Premier has struck a vendetta against him - almost a Mafia-style contract by means of public sector cuts. He takes a plane to Belfast to attend the opening of his new exhibition. The plane crashes on the runway. This time he loses a leg. In hospital he is again confronted by his nemesis - the Premier. The public notes that if he is at the scene of every disaster, so is she - but, as Premier, she has every right to be there, while he has no right to be the victim of every accident. Upon release from hospital, complete with false leg, he attends his show in Belfast and smashes every figure, breaking their arms and legs to reflect his own loss - the media take this as yet more evidence of his refusal to shoulder personal responsibility.

Finally, in order to restore faith in Britain's crumbling infrastructure, the Premier issues the narrator with a challenge - she will fly with him and by her good grace he will be safe. She will make him her personal responsibility. This is too much for the narrator, who makes quite deliberate arrangements to ensure neither of them will survive his next journey...

It is a matter of regret that this vivid and inventive story is not more widely known. Royle confronts Thatcherism by giving its every victim the same face, thereby dismissing the notion that accidents are mere accidents - if the victims are the same every time, then they are the targets. They could be teachers, nurses, coal-miners, in this case they are commuters. Because, in Thatcher's own words, "Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 30 can count himself a failure in life".

Like A Life of Matter and Death below, The Sculptor's Hand can be found in the Fifth Interzone Anthology. And you can read more about Thatcher's disastrous public transport policies here.