Saturday, 17 March 2018

New books by me

"Two new books, Dave? What a splendid chap you are, well done!"

"Gosh, yes, you're so prolific."

"Please have all our money."

Factually speaking, these books are about: changelings, 'the Good Folk', a haunted mansion, unwise ghost-hunting TV production methods, monsters, a town near the Welsh border called Machen, and other things.

'The Scarlet Door' and 'Vain Shadows Flee'

The next two stories in The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things were both published by me in ST, and are therefore brilliant. Well, okay, they're very good. 'The Scarlet Door' sees Mark Valentine in familiar territory - the world of niche collectors. In this case the narrator haunts small, cluttered bookshops in search of rare volumes. Not valuable books per se, you understand, but ones so obscure that they have never been catalogued or shelved in a library. In the eponymous scarlet volume he finds more than he bargained for. Or does he? All we can be sure of is that books are portals to strange worlds, and almost unknown books can offer routes to the strangest realms of all.

'Vain Shadows Flee' is a tribute to the late Joel Lane. Not a horror tale as such, it is a meditation on loss. In this case the loss is of Bide-y, a tramp who lived by a canal and sang 'Abide With Me', then vanished. From this apparently thin seam the author weaves a compelling picture of the margins of our increasingly shabby, callous society.

There is beauty even in decline, of course. Thus on a morning in early February: 'The stalks of grass were like white daggers, and each paving stone was an atlas of frosted glass.' One of the pleasures of this book is the high standard of the writing, which is often wryly humorous but sometimes, as in this story, sombre and elegiac in tone.

More from this running review very soon.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

'Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore'

Best title I've read in a good while, and a good story too. Mark Valentine's collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things has a few recurring themes. One is the torment that sensitive, thoughtful individuals must suffer in a world that is crass and indifferent. Another is loneliness, the yearning for a connection, a sense of order and belonging.

“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)

'Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore' tackles these themes by the roundabout route of imagined  low-budget sci-fi. In the obscure film Venus Invades Us the eponymous commander was played by an actor rejoicing in the screen name of Triton. Triton put in one of those compelling performances that can raise a film to cult status. Fans materialise, while work remains sparse.

And then, as sometimes happens, Triton began to identify with his one significant role so much that he believed himself to be in touch with aliens. The only problem is that the Venusians are in fact peaceful. It's those warlike Martians you've got to watch. And so the commodore, promoting himself to admiral, envisaged a follow-up in which he leads an interplanetary armada to bring peace to the solar system. But death claims him before his project can be realised.

This could be presented as broad tragi-comedy, but instead the narrator makes it clear that Triton, deluded or not, is admirable in his devotion to peace. The envisaged sequel All Against Mars is an allegory about the struggle on Earth between love and hate, creation and destruction. Triton is in some ways the archetypal English eccentric, but his mission is not absurd. 

More from this running review soon. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Ghost - Review

Antispoiler alert - Ghost by Helen Grant is not a supernatural tale. It is, however, a modern Gothic novel that anyone who likes Helen's other work will enjoy. So, having said that, what's it about?

The setting is a big, isolated house in the Scottish countryside. There live Ghost, real name Augusta, and her grandmother. Ghost knows that, beyond the dense forest that fringes the estate, World War 2 is raging. Bombs fall onto terrified civilians, war machines clash by land, sea, and air, and while the men are away fighting women are drafted into factories to make munitions.

Grandmother is protecting Ghost from a world in chaos. Grandmother sometimes goes into town for supplies, but ghost - who is seventeen - never ventures as far as the road. It is not safe.
But the great house is crumbling, and a winter storm brings down a section of roof. Grandmother calls in a builder to repair the damage, and the builder brings his teenage son, Tom. Ghost, as usual, has to hide in the attic. Nobody knows of her existence. If she is glimpsed peering out of a window she might well be a ghost. But when she sees Tom she is fascinated and, helped by chance, she establishes an indirect connection.

Then Ghost's world changes. Grandmother goes to the town, but does not return. As in many Gothic novels the secluded life of the sensitive young woman, who has never had a playmate and knows the world only from books, must end. Ghost, with Tom's help, begins to make sense of her small world, and learns more of the world beyond it. There are a series of revelations and twists, right to the end, with just about every Gothic trope deployed to good effect. And I have to admit that the ending surprised me, yet made perfect sense in the context of the novel.

Ghost has, rightly I think, been compared to the stand-alone novels of Ruth Rendell. While Helen Grant is not so coldly clinical in her treatment of her characters, she does not flinch from making hard but logical decisions about their fates. This is a compelling read, one for fans of Helen Grant's work, and a good place for new readers to start.