Friday, 29 October 2010

Hallowe'en Horrors

Hallowe'en encroaches. Lists are made. I thought I would put up a list (which, by pure chance, happens to consist of thirteen books) of the tomes which frightened me the most since I first began to read. Of course, I can't remember all of them: there are one or two which left a lasting impression on me, but which I don't think I'll ever find again: there was a book where a girl went on a journey with a gnome from her mantlepiece (it came alive); she went to a mountain covered in multicoloured snow, some of which was poisonous, and fought with a witch. And there was another, where a girl looked through the wrong end of a telescope and ended up on a strange, savage planet... But they will remain fragments of my memory, alas. So here is the list, in no particular order.

1. The Scarecrows by Robert Westall

This uses suspense to terrifying effect, as inanimate scarecrows encroach upon a house, perhaps possessed by the ghosts of some sinister people. It is also a brilliant psychodrama, and unsparing in its details of adolescent pain. I remember being absolutely gripped by it as a twelve year old; I gave it to a friend; he didn't like it; I thought less of the friend.

2. A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans

A recent novel, this tale of possession I was not able to read alone. It sent me scurrying into the drawing room in the house where I was staying, panting with fright. In particular I found the idea of a 'beacon' - a soul that stood out from the others because of its propensity for possession - extremely disturbing.

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

What can I say: pig's head. Flies. The Beast.

4. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

A very successful pastiche, and yet also remarkably original. All the more creepy for its ambivalence.

5 & 6. The Seance by John Harwood, and The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Australian writer Harwood is a master of the ghost story. The first, from different viewpoints, tells a Gothic story of ghostly monks, haunted suits of armour and decaying houses that has much more to it than meets the eye; the second tells of bitter family rivalries and secrets. Heavenly for winter's nights.

7. Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley

Blackly broiling with psychological and actual fear, these tales, told from the viewpoint of snobby, cruel Edwardian children, are works of near genius.

8. A short story by Elizabeth Bowen (whose name I cannot remember)

In this tale a man on a bicycle happens upon a house, in which a woman weeps and the sound of a tennis match can be heard. But when he gets back to his friends, everything is thrown into confusion. Not so much terrifying as deeply affecting - and plausible.

9. Chocky by John Wyndham

As a child I found the idea of an alien intelligence infiltrating my head immensely scary - and yet, at the same time, I sort of wanted to be suddenly able to do maths, and paint alien landscapes, as the child in this story does.

10. Metamorphoses by Kafka

When his family throw an apple at the morphed K and it sticks under his carapace I was stiff with terror for weeks.

11. The Vampyre by Tom Holland

Read in one sitting, as a thirteen year old on a ferry from France to England. Pure escapism, and brilliant.

12. Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

The Doppelganger is also one of the more skin-crawling ideas to have come out of folklore, and Hogg uses it with sinister panache.

13. Albion’s Dream by Roger Norman

A bit of a recherche choice: this was a children's book, a first novel, which was in my school library. I at the time was at an old-fashioned prep school; this was set in a similar place. In it the hero finds himself up against a truly sinister doctor: there's a moment at the end which is almost heart-stopping. Sadly out of print.

*LATE ADDITION* - and thank you to Suzi Feay of the Financial Times for reminding me of this:

14. The Ghost of Thomas Kemp by Penelope Lively

An incredibly eerie tale of a haunting: a ghost who can be capricious, mean and genuinely dangerous. Totally marvellous.

Oh, and while I'm here:

15. The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo

I think this gave me nightmares for years...

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

When I Was Ivo: Keren David on The Liberators

Keren David, author of two heart-stopping, gimlety thrillers, When I Was Joe and Almost True, which follow the adventures of a teenager called Ty who becomes involved in a stabbing, has written about The Liberators. I am glad that she likes Strawbones - my own favourite. I think that Ivo and Ty would get on very well together. We should arrange a meeting. Here's what she said:

'On the surface, it's a fast-moving, exciting adventure, with well-drawn characters that you care about - and intriguing sinister baddies,whose seductive charm is irresistible. It would make a wonderful film - the riot on Oxford Street, and the final scenes in the National Gallery make great use of London as a setting.
But it goes so much deeper. I was extremely impressed by the way you conveyed Dionysian ecstasy in a way that a young audience would understand - particularly the sexual undertones, which were suitably subtle but definitely there - and the conflict between Dionysian and Apollonian philiosophies. So often nowadays we see mythology raided for storylines, but stripped of its essential meaning.
I also loved the way that Ivo, Felix and Miranda were unapologetically posh and privileged - learning Greek, going to boarding school and living with servants. I wrote a post on Norm Geras's blog recently about the importance of boarding school books for those of us who did not go to a school where Greek and Latin were taught. I learned a great deal from reading books about boarding school children - not only about poetry and the classics, but about how the upper classes lived - extremely useful information in later life!
I only have tiny criticisms - much as I loved the image of Charles and Camilla at the party, I did wonder about the security arrangements. And at the beginning I was a little bewildered by all the characters and had to go back and check who was who a few times. But once I'd got everyone straight in my head, and particularly when Strawbones appeared, I was completely hooked.

Now I must get hold of The Other Book (great title).


Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Chilean Miners

What is it that the Chilean miners represent? A paradox: we send these men into the depths of the earth, into the underworld itself, where lurk thin, hungry ghosts (and worse) in order for them to bring us things that will give us light. They sought the fire of gold in the heart of the earth, and brought fear into all our hearts. It is Promethean. It is hubristic: they went too far - they overreached - or rather, not the individuals, but the overarching system which constantly seeks to expand itself, went too far. The individuals themselves were innocent - hence our fear for them, as there is nothing, to the human mind, more terrifying than the incarceration of an innocent soul. And these were several innocent souls. They tunnelled into the bowels of the earth, like dwarves into the mines of Moria. They didn't find a Balrog, but they did unleash the monstrous media machine. When they came out, they had to wear sunglasses: again, paradoxically, to protect them from the light; and to keep from their eyes the glare of the world.

There are parallels with the BP oil spill – into the abysses of our planet we plough, seeking fuel to light our way, and what we bring up instead is gluey darkness. Beneath the crust of the earth the miners languished. Above them melodramas played themselves out. We, as distant readers, could sense the coming arc of the story: but would it end in chaos, or in order? Luckily the Phoenix was on hand, to bring them out (one by painstaking one) to rebirth. Like Fawkes rescuing Harry Potter from the Basilisk.

It was a grand narrative, exotic, far away, and yet it reminded us of our global relationships. It played on our most primal fears. Fire makes us civilised; seeking it makes us savages. Like Aeneas, Achilles, Ulysses, like all the great heroes, they went into the land of the dead: but they have come out stronger, and wiser. Already they are treated as heroes: perhaps soon they will have stranger stories to tell. In the meantime the golden flames of the phoenix light up the world, and the shadows have retreated. For now. And I - I wanted one of the miners to say, 'No. I don't want to come up. I like it too much down here, in the dark.' Maybe one of them will go back into the womb of the world. Let's wait and see.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Scribble, Scribble, Scribble

Last week, in honour of a new work by Alan Ayckbourn and an old (republished) novel by Barbara Cartland, I was asked to write a piece about prolific authors for the Telegraph. I worked out that Cartland must have written a novel every forty days: which is the same time Jesus was in the wilderness. I wonder if the two are connected? Anyway, here is a link to the article: click HERE.

The picture, by the way, is of Edward Gibbon. The Duke of Gloucester, on being presented with a pristine volume of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is said to have uttered the immortal words: 'Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon?' Which, as a reviewer, I slightly feel quite a lot of the time; though, of course, this is an entirely contrary sentiment to my feelings as a writer.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Mysteries of Auster

Auster means the south wind in Latin; it's also the surname of a very popular author. I was asked to review his new novel, Sunset Park, for The Daily Telegraph: click HERE to read it to find out which way the wind is blowing.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Liberators Makes it to Vienna

A friend of mine has sent me this photograph, taken in a bookshop in Vienna. The other authors you probably won't have heard of: some chap called Dan Brown, and another called Terry Pratchett, and a book about a woman who goes on some sort of mystical life-trip called Eat, Pray Love.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Booker Prize: An Omission

I'd been meaning to write about the Booker (or the Man Booker as one is meant to call it), but other things have slipped in the way: miners, the onset of winter, bills, and a children's round-up that I am in the thick of, (and Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, which I am currently obsessing about.) This year's Booker choice, Howard Jacobson, was a solid decision from an otherwise slightly odd shortlist: Galgut's In A Strange Room, a marvellous piece of work, being rather too slight; I don't think, however, that Jacobson's book has the broader appeal or heft of something like Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. It seems that this year the judges have based their opinions entirely on enjoyment of a novel: which all seems a bit book club to me. And the one book which should have been on the short list, and a strong contender for the title, was Paul Murray's enchanting, weird, brilliant Skippy Dies. Its omission was a huge mistake.

I went to the Booker party for Andrea Levy for about five minutes: it was in the Century club, and there were mounds and mounds of toothsome canapes; after a long chat with an editor about a misery memoir I ought to write about psychic pandas who can see angels, we slipped off quite soon to the Cape party. There I spent many an hour deep in conversation with an up and coming novelist, Leo Benedictus, about the pros and cons of electronic books; Tom McCarthy made an appearance, as did the elegant Chloe Aridjis, and Adam Foulds, whose beautiful book The Quickening Maze was shortlisted last year. The canape quality was excellent, I might add.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Stray Sod Country by Patrick McCabe: review

Here too is a link to my review in The Daily Telegraph, of Patrick McCabe's new novel, The Stray Sod Country
. It reminded me, in a weird, intertextual way, of Browning's 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came': that sense of being in a place unknown, heading to a destination equally mysterious. In a way, I suppose, James A Reilly, a maddened teacher in the novel, could be a type of Poor Tom in King Lear, or even of Lear himself: raving and alone on the blasted heath. Click HERE

Gaudeamus Igitur: Oriel Gaudy

Having attended Oriel College, Oxford, between the years of 2000 and 2003, I was asked back to a Gaudy dinner a couple of weekends ago. The College asked me to write a short piece about it: click HERE to read it.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: review

Here is a link to my review in the Financial Times of Salman Rushdie's new children's book, Luka and the Fire of Life. I think it fails on almost every level as a children's book. Click HERE