Kamtellar: by R. Chetwynd-Hayes

Be happy in the place of horseless carriages...

R. Chetwynd-Hayes is perhaps better known as a horror anthologist than for his own stories; yet in a productive career he published several well-received novels and collections, all of which are thankfully unabused by cult status. Kamtellar is the title story of his 1980 collection, and while it is billed as a novella, at 40,000 words it feels like rather more than that. There is much to admire in its deceptively simple premise, wherein it seems as though the characters of a Hammer movie have got behind the set to find it is, after all, painted on both sides. Inspired by one of Ambrose Bierce's anecdotes, and perhaps by the fate of Bierce himself, it pulls an Englishman out of the sedate Hampshire countryside and into a hellishly familiar colony, where social and spiritual arrangements are no more than a tax that the devil levies on the landscape.

Paul Sinclair's departure from our world is occasioned by a bicycle crash. He finds himself on the outskirts of a small village, the skyline of which is dominated by a huge black house that does not cast a shadow - being somehow its own shadow. He is taken in by one of the villagers whose beautiful daughter, Movita, does not escape his eye. Sinclair is immediately drawn into a struggle: every night doors and windows are barricaded as defence against the creatures which issue forth from the black house and lay siege to the village. Sinclair finds that these villagers inhabit a curious hell - they believe that the flying machines and horseless carriages of his own world are the heaven promised them for their endurance in the land of Kamtellar, and its capital, Hadelton. Sinclair persuades Movita to flee the village in the hope of reaching the capital. But in a hunt organised by the Great Satan, they are chased across the countryside by all manner of nightmare creatures; until Sinclair finds that in the land of the supernatural, rationalism is afforded its own distinct power. But, of course, it is possible to rationalise almost anything away, and Sinclair's found power proves his undoing, even at the very moment of relief. For as went the hunt, there goes Movita... like the Great Satan, he simply cannot help himself.

While it is possible to identify the moment when Chetwynd-Hayes realised he did not have on his hands the novel he wished for, and the accompanying note of disappointment, Kamtellar is still a wildly enjoyable story which often reads like Rogue Male rewritten by H.P. Lovecraft. True, there are few inventions of evil within its pages - rather its qualities are to be found in the extraordinary, stoic routines of the villagers; in the breathless chase of its climax; and in the shiftless angel Movita, whose presence in this world is a greater mystery than its existence.

Like the black house, this story is always its own shadow.

The Animal Women: by Alix E. Harrow

“Something beautiful and wild and red-toothed woke up in us. And we were not nothing anymore.”

As a young man I only ever identified years by their accompanying pop culture tags - 1968 was the year of the Beatles' White Album and Where Eagles Dare and Disch's Camp Concentration; later and older with it, I gleaned a little of history and politics and 1968 became the year of the Paris uprising, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the founding of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland. The year changed from one of pop culture tags to body bags. Lately I had the pleasure to read Alix Harrow's story, The Animal Women, and 1968 changed again.

Young Candis falls into the company of a group of women living in a cabin on the edge of the woods. While the locals see only their colour, she sees their shapes, shapes which she attempts to capture on camera, but which are declined even by her light meter. The women register on the townsfolk only in relation to the racial strife which continues to creep across America as the year progresses. We are privy to it as a school year, and Candis is made extra-curricular by events beyond her control as she learns that the wounds these women bear have healed as more than themselves, as though they have fashioned the weals and welts into weapons of a feral kind. In a text which transforms adjectives into body doubles, Candis is placed in danger by her association wth the animal women, and learns herself how to fashion her wounds thus.

The Animal Women can be read at the Strange Horizons website in two parts, here and here.

The Zilov Bombs: by D.G. Barron

D.G. Barron's novel of Soviet-occupied Britain was first published by Andre Deutsch in 1962 and then by Pan in paperback in 1965. It has never been subsequently reprinted, perhaps because it falls into an uneasy territory between genre and literary fiction. The book demonstrably fails at both, but its charm is that it never really tries to be either - it is pure headturning pulp, and it is most amusing that the book's cover reviews are quotes from such quaint periodicals as Woman's Journal, Topic and The Listener. Of course, these are the good reviews - I have no idea what the Times Literary Supplement had to say about it, or Analog. If anything.

Following the ban the bomb demonstrations of the late 1950s, governments across Europe opt for nuclear disarmament, hoping the Soviets will reciprocate and withdraw their nuclear deterrent from their satellite states. Instead the Soviets simply roll across Europe, conquering former NATO countries and transforming them into People's Republics. In subjugated Britain, Guy Elliot, former writer and ex-peace campaigner, is now an agricultural commissar, slowly forcing the new rules of collectivisation on reluctant farmers in Norfolk. Guy is also involved with the resistance in a small way, much to the chagrin of his wife, who would rather he did not place them or their two children in danger. One night, while doing his rounds on a country road, Guy is witness to the theft a Soviet lorry and the murder of its driver - he then discovers the lorry carried several limited nuclear weapons, and that these have been hidden on a nearby farm. Guy informs the resistance and is then drafted into securing these bombs for use by the resistance in a country-wide rebellion. The bombs are secured, at great cost; so great, in fact, that Guy wants out. But it is too late - the Soviets have identified him as a key figure, rather than the minor player he so reluctantly allowed himself to become. He turns back to the resistance for help, but they simply make him their prisoner - because he is in possession of valuable information. A sensible enough precaution as it turns out - Elliott is well-remembered as one of those ban the bomb "traitors" who forced Britain to relinquish its deterrent in the first place. Now in a position to hear the plans of the resistance for a rebellion, he is horrified at the prospective loss of life. Sadly, at this point, the book degenerates into a straight will he/won't he thriller, with an unsatisfactory denouement.

Despite its faults The Zilov Bombs is a better than expected novel. It is obviously an anti-peacenik tract and the moral choices set up throughout the novel illustrate the author's intent, all the way to Elliott's final, explosive moments. Still, the characters are often well-drawn, the arguments both for and against are allowed to be made, and the Americans are kept out of it. So too, curiously, are the Russians - it is an all-English affair. And this perhaps is how the novel is so affecting - everyone resists in their own way, from Elliott's boss, who wants to sabotage collective farms by slowing their introduction, to the senior civil servants who find the ultimate use for the Zilov Bombs. It is not a novel about invasion - it is rather a peon to tradition, to the implacable management of British society, which can ameliorate the shock of ideology by simply absorbing it into a class system that looks and feels as solid as landscape.

The cover price states 2/6 - I'm not sure how much that is in roubles, or in new money.

The Darkest of Nights: by Charles Eric Maine

Although now sadly forgotten, Charles Eric Maine was one of the most successful British sf novelists of his time. Several of his books were filmed, most famously The Mind of Mr Soames in 1970, an attempt perhaps to cash in on the success of Charly. Unfortunately, Soames stars the insufferably 60s Terence Stamp, so I doubt I will ever get around to watching it.

Between 1958 and 1962 Maine turned out two major apocalypse novels - The Tide Went Out and The Darkest of Nights. The former is a rather quaint disaster novel in which nuclear tests cause the earth's oceans to drain away into Atlantic and Pacific fissures, leading to ecological disaster and societal collapse. It is a book that retains many excellent pulp credentials despite, or perhaps because of, its premise. The Darkest of Nights is an outstanding apocalypse novel and, to my mind, the definitive plague novel. While it shares many characteristics with the apocalypse works of John Wyndham and John Christopher - it is more artful than The Day of the Triffids, and more cruel than The Death of Grass - it is a true original in the sense that its characters act out the functions of pathogens, rather than simply being victims or not, as the case may be.

The Hueste virus, a possible side-effect of nuclear testing, begins work in China, killing millions of people. The outside world looks on, not entirely aghast as China is remote and the casualties there make splendid statistics with which to sell newspapers. The plague soon spreads to Japan where Pauline Brant, attached to the International Virus Research Institute, deals with the first of the casualties. She returns quickly to Britain to deliver samples and also meet with her estranged husband, Clive, Foreign Editor of the Daily Monitor, who solicits information on the plague and also a divorce. As the plague spreads across the Far East, the Brants part, Pauline to a virus research group, Clive to his newspaper and a frustrating round of new secrecy laws - why are massive incinerators being built in public parks? why are underground bunkers under construction in all major cities? The answer is, of course, obvious, but now routine censorship means that the population cannot really conceive of the scale of the Hueste virus - fully half the world's population will die, and the British establishment is keen to keep this a secret until it can secure the means for its own survival. Clive resigns his newspaper post and takes a job with an American television company. As the full force of the virus hits Britain, Clive and his American crew film much of the ensuing chaos and disorder for posterity, as it becomes open rebellion and then revolution. However, there is little for the population to rebel against as, in a piece of plotting later borrowed by Peter Van Greenaway for his novel Graffiti, the heads of government, business, industry and finance, and their extended families, are safely placed in the newly-built bunkers, complete with air filters, medical supplies and staff, while the rest of the nation is left to take its chances with the virus. As in Graffiti, these bunkers are set upon by an insurrectionist army, led more by outrage than by the prospect of imminent death, and the ensuing civil war is repeated across the globe. Pauline is detailed to serve in a bunker in Liverpool which manages to resist attack; Clive fares less well - his film crew is killed and he is captured by the rebel army. By now the situation is chaotic - there are not only revolutions and counter-revolutions, but medical advances mean there is virus and anti-virus; sadly, perhaps deliberately, the anti-virus is as lethal as the original virus, so those who survived Hueste are vulnerable to its cure; these too die in their millions, until victory for either side becomes a simple matter of attrition. Eventually, Clive and Pauline are reunited, but only so that one might cancel out the other.

In the end The Darkest of Nights resorts to Clive as a measure of civilised behaviour - somehow his character, presented as vain, scheming and ambitious at the beginning of the novel, is redeemed, not by a personal change in the man, but by the deterioration of his fellows. Clive becomes a civilised outpost, resorting only to outrages which have some semblance of moral continuity - some sensible looting; a revenge killing or two - and this contunuity helps him revert to the status quo when it comes to a final choice as to whether to side with the insurrectionists or the government, no doubt taking many a reader with him. Maine's strength as a writer is that he makes us aware of this choice. Maine also has a happily informative prose style - he is able to impart huge amounts of information in just a few lines. This is not info-dumping on his part; rather he is interested in how things work, and he makes them interesting for the reader by infusing them with every detail of craft.

Maine's work was published in hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton throughout most of his career, and these 1st editions are well worth picking up, especially The Darkest of Nights with its fantastic cell as a petrie dish cover illustration by John Woodcock. My copy has the added attraction of an internal stamp reading RAF Leconfield.

The Gold at the Starbow's End: by Frederik Pohl

It was perhaps inevitable that it fell to an old-timer like Pohl to chart the decline of America following the assassinations of the 1960s and the supreme folly of Vietnam. No other sf story so effectively captures the death of hope at that time, or the subsequent exploitation of conspiracies to fragment and dispel opposition. The latter is a phenomenon which Noam Chomsky has commented upon repeatedly, viewing conspiracy theory as the most ineffective form of political dissent. But where does that leave Pohl, whose story quite perfectly poses a generational conflict which is suddenly thrown into context by a space mission made futile by conspiracy.

In an America wracked by riots and social unrest, the President and his scientific adviser, Dr Knefhausen, announce a mission to Planet Aleph in Alpha Centauri, crewed by the very bravest and best, the cream of the nation's youth. Besides the announced objectives of the mission, they hope the country will rally to the cause, as it did briefly for the moon landings, and that a shared sense of purpose and hope might renew the social contract, or at least consolidate the status quo. The young are duly dispatched into space, and the President collects his kudos. Mission accomplished. Except perhaps for the astronauts. At first they send back regular mission reports which contain personal messages as well as data relating to onboard experiments. They make a number of startling scientific breakthroughs, for which the President is delighted to accept credit. Later the messages become bitter as the astronauts realise the mission is a dupe - they will never reach Alpha Centauri and were never intended to; in disgust they turn to the I Ching and the Tarot and various exotic philosophies for comfort. They practice tantric sex. They start families. One of them dies and is somehow brought back to life. They invent a faster than light drive, but refuse to share the secret because it would be irresponsible. And it is now that the astronauts have turned into space-faring hippies that the President quickly passes blame for the mission onto Knefhausen, who laments the conspiracy of hippies above and hippies below. His execution is not enough to save the President, or even to save the country from civil war. And at any rate it does not matter - nothing matters, because the astronauts are now returning home, armed by their mission rather than for it, and their revenge threatens more than a smoking gun.

There are a lot of rather clever blanks in Starbow's End. Like many a conspiracy we are left to fill in these blanks from imagination; Pohl's only stipulation is that our imaginings must be the most cynical for the story to proceed. The rule of thumb is to assume the worst and then watch the astronauts evolve beyond opposable thumbs. And then assume another worst and watch them evolve beyond that, etc, until evolution is complete, which, ironically enough, may have been Knefhausen's purpose - he was, after all, an ex-Nazi. And this I think is the point - we suspect; we suspect everything, but we can prove nothing.

Pohl later expanded Starbow's End into the novel Lifeburst, a process sometimes known as a fixup.

Shades of Darkness: by Richard Cowper

Richard Cowper's post-colonial ghost story Shades of Darkness was something of a departure for a science fiction author who spent much of his working life labouring under the shadow of his more famous father, the critic, John Middleton Murry. By all accounts the father was not much taken with the son's choice of genre, a point of view easily dismissed by casting an eye over Cowper's achievements; over a dozen books in twenty years, amongst them three undoubted classics (one novel, two collections). Thankfully Cowper Senior is entirely forgotten, whereas his son remains a solid presence in British sf, despite the fact that he is long dead and largely out of print.

Cowper's best novel is perhaps The Twilight of Briareus. This strange fusion of The Midwich Cuckoos and the Nativity is easily his most accessible novel and certainly the best he produced for Gollancz; sadly Cowper's other novels for that publisher largely failed to match his early work at Dobson, where two striking books, Breakthrough and Phoenix, established him as an outstanding mainstream interpreter of the New Wave. The only fault of these early novels is a certain flippancy in tone, as though Cowper were determined to be deprecating about his subject matter. Gollancz excised this fault, but the author's work became variable, ranging mostly between interesting (Profundis) and absurd (Worlds Apart). Where Cowper really excelled was in the field of novellas and long short stories. During the 70s and 80s he issued three splendid collections - The Custodians, The Web of the Magi, and The Tithonian Factor. These last two collections are among the best ever assembled by a British author. The title story The Web of the Magi is a winning combination of H. Rider Haggard's She and James Hilton's Lost Horizon, wherein a 19th century British engineer scouting a remote area of Tibet discovers a forgotten civilisation which dupes him into engineering time itself. Aside from its beautiful title story, The Tithonian Factor contains the environmental apocalypse story, A Message to the King of Brobdingnag, and the very English science fantasy of What Did the Deazies Do? These two volumes were never issued in paperback so far as I'm aware, but some of the stories were reprinted in a US marketed collection, Out Where the Big Ships Go. Sadly the best stories are missed from that volume. I should say that Cowper's White Bird of Kinship trilogy of books has been much praised, but I found that it didn't do much for me.

Shades of Darkness appears to have been Cowper's final novel. It was issued in 1986 by Kerosino books in a limited print run of 1000 copies. A further collector's edition ran to several hundred signed copies and contained a supplementary pamphlet of short stories. It is a ghost story with an African twist. Journalist Jim Fuller is deported from Uganda while uncovering a story of genocide there. Upon return to England he is sacked by his newspaper, which is now undergoing radical change as a Murdoch vehicle. He is persuaded by friends to turn his material into a crusading novel and rents a cottage called "Myrtles" on the coast near Colchester for the purpose of writing a first draft. He soon finds that the cottage is more haunted by Africa than he is - specifically by the conscience of a previous owner who had been very publicly caught up in the Mau-Mau horrors of the 1950s. Cowper makes use of a number of old tropes to move this story along at a fair pace - the remote cottage, the ancient, folded dress found hidden inside a trunk in the attic, the convenient cache of newspaper clippings, mysterious messages on the typewriter, and so on. But he inserts these so deftly that they do not feel like devices; rather they feel like secondary characters - we know them, we know their ways, and it is a surprise when they do not behave as anticipated. The cottage becomes an African bungalow; the dress is never worn by the plot; the newspaper clippings are reduced to ephemera, and the typewriter messages are neither threats nor gibberish but are rather an inspiration for Fuller to complete his book. He finds ultimately that he himself may be the tool of exorcism, under the guidance of a local witch, but he is so convinced by his African experience that he allows one more horror to complete his inspiration. It becomes a question of whether his imagination can survive its encounters with source material.

Shades of Darkness is a personably written novel. It features Cowper's trademark relaxed prose which tenses unexpectedly before slowly unraveling into anti-climax.  For the reader these multiple shocks are turned into a vivid, page-turning experience, and the book dictates a read of one or two sittings. Recommended.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

If you're a certain age you'll remember The Flight of the Phoenix as one of those TV staples which would screen regularly on BBC2 at six o'clock on weeknights, along with Viva Max and Five Fingers and any number of other films which are classics by wistful association. In some alternate universe FOTP might have inspired me to become an engineer, but in the universe that was a secondary modern in West Belfast, such trades were reserved for those who routinely failed at all academic subjects. Sadly I was one of those schoolboys who made a habit of scraping a pass and so was deemed academically inclined and therefore doomed to an arts degree (Politics & English) and a lifetime of penury. This was not my choice. I can't watch the film now without a compelling sense of regret.

Flight of the Phoenix was adapted from a novel by Elleston Trevor. I came to the novel after seeing the film, and it proved to be a disappointing and trying read. I think this is one instance where the film is a marked improvement over the original source material. The plot is almost the same: Almost. Having crashed their plane in the middle of the Sahara desert, pilot, navigator and passengers are driven to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old by a German engineer, who it turns out knows nothing very much about real aeroplanes. Along the way their party is whittled down by tragedy and violence to as many as their fledgling craft will carry. The cast is an international one - a mixed bag of American stars at the tail-end of their careers (James Stewart, Dan Duryea and Ernest Borgnine), British stalwarts (Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ronald Fraser), and Hardy Kruger as the German. The difference between book and film is that Kruger's character is missing from the book; there is no officious German winning the war after the event; no German economic miracle in the desert. So the book does not have the ironies which make the film work so well in the hands of Hardy Kruger, who is something of a revelation in the role of Dorfmann. As thirst overtakes the party his reflective spectacles and jerky, mechanical gait seem to be redolent of a determinism not to be found on a film set but rather in a school-room. Which is no doubt why I found his performance so winning. I was duped too - and the final reveal of his qualifications did not have me laugh maniacally like Attenborough, but frown gently into the past at what might not have been.

The film still screens on British TV to this day, most recently on Film Four. This should be neither here nor there as I have long since bought the DVD, but there is something about a broadcast version of Flight of the Phoenix (no matter how badly edited) that makes me sit down to watch it again and again: it's one of those real-time events which is always for the first time. And I admit to having fallen for the love theme from the film, a mid-60s song that returns me to the mid-80s, which is perhaps typical of a plane that goes down in the desert. I never did get to where I was going.