Nightshade and Damnations: by Gerald Kersh

Gerald Kersh's 1969 collection Nightshade and Damnations gathers in one volume some of his best stories, many of which appeared originally in such unpromising publications as Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post. The '69 Coronet edition features an introduction by Harlan Ellison, who describes Kersh, accurately as it turns out, as a demon prince.

The stories are uniformly good. In The Queen of Pig Island a ship's captain finds on a remote atoll the remains of what he believes is an undiscovered race - but all he has found are the bones of a circus of freaks shipwrecked years before, and whose last brutal days of life are pieced together with moving apprehension. The Brighton Monster sees a strange creature captured by English fishermen in 1645 - it looks like a man, but is covered with strange tattoos and speaks an inexplicable tongue; over time the creature begins to degenerate, overcome by sores and a general lassitude that the reader is allowed to identify as radiation sickness. In Men Without Bones two jungle explorers find the remains of an ancient spacecraft and encounter the strange and revolting creatures living in and around it - but are they Martians or are they an undiscovered race of men? Men Without Bones is a fine example of how to restore a tired idea to vigour by powerful writing. The King Who Collected Clocks is another beautifully rendered fable in which a primitive automaton serves the interests of politicians as a clockwork regent. A Lucky Day for the Boar, with its Poe bookends, updates the 19th century master by borrowing his style to demonstrate the substance of 20th century techniques of mind-control and interrogation. And so on. Did I say they were good? They're often brilliant, and this volume culminates in one of Kersh's deservedly best-known stories, Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo?

There are often unfair comparisons with Joseph Conrad in any horror fiction that dares to undertake a travelogue of darkness; yet here the comparison is at its most warranted. Kersh's stories are filled with knowing local colour which he mortifies out of existence, so that instead of moral exactitude were are left exactly nowhere. His horrors are race memories drawn from the past and the future and played out in the present as a collision of science, magic and folklore; hence his scientific natives are as unprepared as his bushmen for the peculiarly bespoke fates which overtake them. There is nothing here that is very surprising or new, but there is much to admire in the way Kersh draws new life from old forms and then mercilessly extinguishes it - and it is the accompanying cruelty that turns his reader's heart to darkness.

New Canute: by Martin I. Ricketts

Tucked like a stoic castaway inside 1974's New Writings in SF 24 is this rather engaging time travel story by Martin I. Ricketts. The planet Cirene has at some point in its life acquired an extragalactic wanderer as a moon. This moon has gathered a pocket of "unreality" during its travels and the subsequent gravitational anomaly has a marked effect on Cirene's oceans and tides - they become pools of past time through which it is possible to travel. Cirene's only business is time-travel, in an unsatisfactory and dangerous form, and its only customers are those desperate enough to take a chance on plunging into its oceans to revisit some person or moment.

Boat-master Paul Vernon is hired by aristocrat Charles Bamfield-Taylor to help him to revisit a very specific moment in time, just two months past. As the journey proceeds, Vernon becomes increasingly uneasy about Bamford-Taylor's motives, largely because the aristocrat's behaviour is eerily reminiscent of his own when he arrived on Cirene some fifteen years previously - that of withdrawn and silent grief, supplemented by the determined smile of the desperate. Vernon recognises his own lost love in Bamford-Taylor's contradictions, but also that there is a difference between inhabiting the past and attempting to turn it back.

If it is true that time has a deep end, Ricketts succeeds in drawing the reader gently into its depths by the poetry of his conceit and the confidence in his prose. This is an accomplished story which falters only at its denouement; and even then perhaps only for those readers whose past is a drowning pool anyway.

Hunter, Come Home: by Richard McKenna

On that planet the damned trees were immortal...

Richard McKenna was not particularly known as a genre author. His name rests largely on his war novel, The Sand Pebbles; however, he did contribute at least one classic to science fiction with his novella Hunter, Come Home. The influence of this story, I think, can now be found everywhere and in everything, perhaps most recently in James Cameron's Avatar, and it doesn't really get its due recognition.

On the human colony planet Mordin a rite of passage tradition has grown out of the struggle to tame the habitat - young Mordinmen must fight and kill a beast known as the Great Russel before progressing to full manhood. As times passes the number of human males far surpasses the number of surviving Great Russels and a social and cultural bottleneck threatens the colony's viability. To remedy this the Mordin Hunt Council takes possession of a neighbouring planet which it intends to terraform and seed with Great Russels, so that the stock may be replenished for hunt purposes. There is only the matter of that planet's indigenous species, which are judged to be non-sentient plant life and safe to exterminate. The terraforming party's instructions are to poison the entire planet with a toxin known as Thanasis. But the planet, which remains unnamed, refuses to die.

Among the Mordinmen is Craig - a "blankie" - who has not yet killed his Great Russel. He shares, more than most, the Mordinmen's frustration at the planet's resistance. Yet he feels strangely akin to the planet's most visible inhabitant, the Phytos - these are luminous and gentle spores whose migrations seem almost to be only intelligent sign of a response to the Thanasis toxin. As each new toxin infestation is released they develop livid wheals and inner lights, as though the dawning comprehension of hostilities has of itself conferred sentience. The power of the story lies in its slow-burning narrative of a planet becoming aware of danger and rousing itself to anger. Craig realises this, eventually, and changes sides, but by then it is too late for them all.

I was transfixed by this story throughout. Its subtexts are timeless - it is an early Gaia rendering, and an ecological warning; it is also a story of men in the jungle whose war becomes insensible with death. The prose is strikingly beautiful and the characterisation is superb; much of the plotting retains classical elements, particularly in the fate of Craig and his nominal love interest (who walks away with the human prize). It could be a story of human arrogance and alien frailty, except that these must inevitably be reversed, perhaps because human arrogance is frailty. The Phytos understand this; which is why their revenge is commuted to tragedy.

First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963, Hunter, Come Home was later collected in Casey Agonistes, a welcome volume of the various short fictions McKenna contributed to magazines during his early years. Happily this was issued by Gollancz in hardcover and by Pan in paperback, and copies of both are fairly easy to come by.

The Deep of Winter: by Chris Butler

Chris Butler's striking story The Deep of Winter, featured in the current issue of Interzone (259) and illustrated by Martin Hanford, reads in summary like a classic piece of fantasy: a white witch steals into an alternate dimension to conduct an experiment in telepathy; but she succeeds only in transmitting her own legend to the natives, thereby allowing her people to track and return her for trial.

Broken into consecutive characters streams which read like crossed thoughts, the dual narrative belies the fantasy and presents the witch, Aluna, as a student working towards a thesis; her efforts are rejected by her society as juvenile and dangerous and she is forbidden from further study in the matter. Not to be deterred, she picks her dimension and proceeds. The alternate narrative thread follows Sebastian, leader of an explorative party, working its way through an abandoned underground city towards her legend, or rather her legerdemain. These narratives meet ungently, and the witnessed extraction of Aluna from her experiment enhances her legend.

And so, for all Aluna's careless witchery, perhaps her experiment succeeds, as Sebastian suddenly finds himself more alert than ever to his wife and children, and to his place in a society that he now sees through fresh and perhaps questioning eyes. Butler's part premise is that telepathy is undoubtedly a form of enhanced empathy; more, that motifs of folklore give voice to a common flora and fauna which can be intuited - that is: shared to be understood. And these are the beginnings of empathy.

It's always a pleasure to read Chris Butler's stories in Interzone - my first experience of his work there was The Festival of Tethselem, a story I would thoroughly recommend if you can find the back issue (224).

The Deep of Winter is a story that erupts beyond its wordage and inhabits the mind of the reader as stream of discourse.

The Concrete Horizon: by Dan Morgan

It is the twenty-first century and the social order is in crisis. The great urban experiment, the monad cities, is in the process of collapse beneath the weight of its own organisation, and under the increasing pressures from the agricultural complexes Outside. In a last endeavour to restore the situation, SARA, a computerised project with a human personality, is developed. This is the Sociopathic Anomaly Re-Adjustment project, and its first trial run is scheduled for Middlesex Two. Unfortunately SARA is all too human, and 'she' falls in love with her controller... the result is catastrophic. Set in the form of a historical montage looking into the disaster at Middlesex Two, The Concrete Horizon is a grim parable of megalopolis gone mad. It is also a sad and touching love story, a compassionate story of ordinary people driven in bewilderment and panic into actions of extraordinary savagery and heroism.

The above paragraph is the jacket blurb from The Concrete Horizon - I have quoted it in full as it is a useful backup summary: In late 21st Century Britain life has polarised into two distinct factions - there are the Monads, clusters of high-rise blocks which are self-declared corporate cities and which house huge populations of a million people each; and then there are the Outsiders, which are small rural and agricultural communities, run by the Unions. These two factions co-exist on uneasy, often hostile terms; the Outsiders claim the Monads take too much in the way of duty from their communities; the Monads claim the Outsiders are starving their populations - both parties are bound together by antiquated notions of nationhood and patriotism which belong to a nation-state no longer extant; but in reality the Monads exist to pillage the Outsiders of resources and wealth, while offering only the prospect of cannibalism and euthanasia to their inhabitants. The corporate city of Middlesex Two is no exception in this regard. Perhaps aware that it is approaching the end of its useful life, the city's administration has sunk into nepotism and corruption. Mindful of this, the Sociopathic Anomaly Re-Adjustment computer, SARA, recruits a number of assassins, known as proxies, to remove anti-social and sociopathic elements among the population. However, as she proceeds, she becomes more and more unstable, turning her proxies into murderous psychopaths and ultimately threatening the very existence of the city. Meanwhile Charles Gaillard (a wonderfully drawn character) has his own problems as head of the Department of Genetics - his ambitious assistant, Swearinger, has written a new white paper offering extended lifespans to the city's aging administrators, at the expense of the longevity of others - horrified by this betrayal of the social contract, Gaillard commits himself to an assassination of his own...

Morgan takes a number of very familiar sf concepts - the high-rise dystopia, the rogue computer, hate weeks - and deftly works them into a very human narrative; each of his characters' dilemmas are wholly organic in that they transcend plotting and are instead embedded into each other as cause and effect - regardless of however tired the reader finds the premise, there is always concern for those caught within its shadows. And there are many, many shadows here, as Morgan seeks to frame socialism gone wrong in stark terms of mindless, bureaucratic care from cradle to mass grave. There are, of course, many problems with extrapolating this kind of future from the state of 1970s Britain - one of which is how so many authors, in seeking to critique social democracy, got it so wrong, considering Britain's direction of travel since 1979. Or perhaps these works were part of concerted attempt at propaganda to destroy socialism in Britain, by portraying its likely futures as almost certainly dystopian (though it is always useful for authors to critique the prevailing orthodoxy of their times). There can be no doubt that some of the most high profile public works of post-war Britain - for example, the wholesale demolition of the country's Victorian housing infrastructure and its subsequent replacement by high-rise monstrosities - lend themselves very easily to satire because they play on genuine grievances; and the tower block is an easy target. However, none of this detracts from the achievement of The Concrete Horizon - it is an excellent piece of fiction which holds the attention while pinching the nerves - leaving aside the dystopian elements, it is, in effect, an old-fashioned apocalypse thriller and the conclusion, when it escapes from the timing errors of the plot, does not disappoint; particularly as the author appears to booby-trap his characters near the end, to great effect.

Published in 1976 by Millington, The Concrete Horizon seems to have been Dan Morgan's last novel. As a science fiction author he had been active in the genre since the early 50s, penning many short stories for the usual pulps and also a number of series in collaboration with John Kippax. His 1971 novel Inside garnered a good deal of acclaim and, perhaps encouraged by this, he went on to pen two further solo novels, High Destiny and The Concrete Horizon. His sudden silence thereafter is something of a mystery and, as the author died in 2011, will probably remain so. A further thought is that The Concrete Horizon has a good deal of authorial heart, even if it is broken by the end.

A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem: by Philip Challinor

In this strange and alternate Jerusalem, history flits back and forth along a timeline that seems almost obsolete or abandoned, its robots and computers junked by considerations of what might have been, could have been... And it is quite a coup to restore to Pontius Pilate his soldierly sensibilities, to hone them with political considerations to the point where he resembles the undiplomatic warrior of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. In A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem, it is very much a soldier who makes reconnaissance of the politics of occupation and corruption, and who finds in their prisons the same man who is locked inside the gulag of the Gospels.

Jerusalem draws on the instinctive similarity between these two men - one a soldier, the other a being with an almost militant capacity for pain, which the former recognises as the kind of self-abnegating battle fatigue that often leads to the heroic sacrifice or the death march or the hunger strike. Pilate identifies the nightmare in which Jesus is caught by recourse to his own - he has navigated the stations of his own cross through the course of a day of meetings; and it is here that the author's invention becomes apparent - a wholly original piece of exposition by interrogation. Each meeting seems to complicate Pilate's mood and to simplify his resolve; yet just as the action remains locked, the technology has moved on and, apart from Pilate, the only curiosity is displayed by Jesus, whose touching upgrade of a robot suggests that in another life he might have been a software engineer. But he cannot affect sentient parties - prejudices and attitudes remain fixed, even as technology marks the world around them. He and Pilate are cognisant of a change; the others are lost to glitch and cognitive lag.

The book has a remarkably dry and acrid wit, disturbed only by the metallic tang of blood which seems to suffuse with the prose, rendering it brittle and bitter. The dialogue is absolutely gripping, as each station, Centurion, High Priest, or Judge, fumbles a way to excuses taken from a book which is lived but unread. Rising above these, as touching and as brutal as any act of mercy, is Pilate's final encounter with Jesus, a genuinely affecting moment, the power of which cannot be diminished, and which begs the question - just who is being released, and from what? In the end we can't help but draw the impression that this timeline is ended.

To my mind there is no modern author who work is so consistently anti-visionary - here it is not that men and women are trapped inside systems; rather they are caught inside the mixed emotions which serve to preserve systems. And that makes all the difference. As it has been remarked that reading Mr Challinor's novels is like being stalked by a cat, it only remains for me to say - true, so long as you remember this cat has serious claws.

A Place Calling Itself Jerusalem can be purchased as a paperback here, or an ebook here.

Sole Survivor (1970)

Originally broadcast as a TV movie in 1970, Sole Survivor became one of those legendary, unavailable titles about which people would talk obsessively over the years, recounting the plot from distant memory so that everyone recalled a different version. Some people remember it as a straight World War Two thriller about the rescue of a stranded flight crew; others posit alternative endings; still more swap the actors into different roles, remembering performances that simply do not exist. This fascinating process is almost a thematic extension of the film, a pleasing serendipity that is perhaps more interesting than the production itself. That's not to denigrate the film, which is a remarkable piece of work.

In the Libyan desert the ghosts of an American flight crew are earthbound to the wreckage of their crashed bomber. They cannot leave the wreck and so idly await discovery, which they presume will mean release. After 17 long years their bomber is indeed discovered, and the US Air Force dispatches Vince Edwards and William Shatner as a panel to investigate the crash, collect the dog-tags, and close the books on the incident. Accompanying them is Richard Basehart, the sole surviving crew member from the crashed bomber, whose account of the flight, and of his own survival, is now called into question - he claims the Captain gave the order to bail out, and he obeyed this order. He has stuck with this story for 17 years, and it appears to be backed up by the fact that no bodies are found at the site of the crash - but if the crew bailed out with Basehart, how did the bomber coast for 600 miles inland? And just what did happen to the rest of the crew, none of whom were recovered? What follows could be described as trial by sunlight and shadow, as the scorching desert heat has Basehart turn to liquor, giving the ghosts a maudlin presence which is entered into evidence against him.

Sole Survivor is often remembered as a Movie of the Week, though I think it came slightly before that franchise took hold. It is possible that the high quality of the film partly inspired the TV movie phenomenon of the 1970s, and though not many matched its artistry, a few - Murder by Natural Causes, Fear on Trial, Red Alert, and others - were powerful enough to create their own living, and dying, memory.