Friday, 21 October 2011

Only Lovers Left Alive by Dave Wallis: Book Review, First Edition (Anthony Blond, 1964), Bruce Fleming Cover Photo

After a Violent World of Parker/Existential Ennui Westlake Score cross-post, it's back to the post-apocalyptic prose. And this next novel concerns a very different kind of apocalypse, one which is somewhat simpatico with the name of this very blog, and has gained an added significance in recent months...

Only Lovers Left Alive by Dave Wallis was first published in hardback by Anthony Blond in the UK in 1964, under a dustjacket (designed by T. O. Elmes) boasting a terrific wraparound picture by made-to-order reportage photographer Bruce Fleming:

As with the Pan paperback of Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, I actually saw this particular edition of the novel in the British Library's science fiction-themed "Out of this World" exhibition over the summer, and was inspired to track down a copy. And there aren't too many copies of the Blond first edition around: AbeBooks has just three listed at the moment, and just seventeen copies in total of any edition, the majority being either the 1964 US E. P. Dutton hardback or the 1965 US Bantam paperback (the book's been out of print for years).

(UPDATE 31/1/12: Ah, the awesome power and influence of Existential Ennui; the total number of copies on AbeBooks is now down to seven, and there are no longer any copies of the Blond first available...)

The covers to both those edition are worth a quick look – the Dutton edition because of its similarity to the Blond first, and the Bantam paperback because... well, take a gander:

How's that for hyperbole on the Bantam cover? And there's one other edition that's especially interesting, too (at least to me)... but that'll have to wait for (hopefully) the next post. For now, let's deal with the novel itself. And Only Lovers Left Alive is certainly a unique take on an end-of-the-world scenario; the apocalyptic event in this instance is something of a slow-burner, a creeping existential ennui (hence my comment at the start of this post) which gradually infects the adult population of the planet.

This sense of the pointlessness of existence is made plain right from the get go: the novel begins with a schoolteacher (which, I believe, was Dave Wallis's other occupation) finishing his lesson and then listlessly throwing himself from his fifth floor classroom window. As hopelessness and despair spreads inexorably among the adults, suicide becomes endemic, eventually assisted by "Easiway" pills, until, by the close of Book One (titled "Everybody's Doing It"), one by one, the kids' parents and guardians have all topped themselves, leaving the young – personified by Ernie, Kathy and the Seely Street gang – to fend for themselves. Book Two ("I'm the King of the Castle") follows the Seely St. mob as they at first revel in their newfound freedom, and then, in Book Three ("Northern Spring"), do their best to adjust to a savage new world order.

Wallis's low key, unfussy prose helps to ground what is, at root, an extraordinary scenario. The mundane, humdrum manner of the adults' surrender to despondency is all the more affecting because of the matter-of-fact way Wallis describes it. One of the more memorable episodes in Book One concerns Kathy's mum, who, having previously told her daughter she wouldn't commit suicide ("Not likely"), leaves a note explaining why she has, after all, killed herself. It's the practical parts of the note that are the most heartbreaking – "I've been saving up tinned stuff... I'm going away to do it so you won't have the fuss, dear" – but her last line is as pithy a summary of the "why" as you'll find in the novel: "I wouldn't do it, really, if I wasn't just so sick and tired of it all".

With the recent riots in Britain there's been much talk in this country of "feral youth", and Only Lovers Left Alive certainly chimes with that. But Wallis goes further, detailing the establishment of a new feudal way of life for the kids and the beginnings of a new society. There are obvious parallels here with William Golding's 1954 classic Lord of the Flies, which was for many years – may well still be – a set text in British schools; it's even possible that Wallis himself taught it and consequently drew inspiration from it. But Only Lovers Left Alive is no pale imitation: it's a powerful novel in its own right, and one which deserves to be rescued from semi-obscurity.

I've got more I want to write about Only Lovers Left Alive, but seeing as this post is in danger of becoming unwieldy, and since, as I hinted earlier, I've got another edition of the novel winging its way to me, let's leave that for the next post-apocalyptic post, in which I'll be exploring some other aspects of the book and delving into the mystery of Dave Wallis. And if the edition I'm waiting for fails to arrive in time, well: we'll just have to make do with a Violent World of Parker post instead...


  1. Look forward to reading more. I really enjoyed this book and have read some of DWs other work. He's sadly forgotten these days. Did you know there was a plan for the book to be filmed, starring the Rolling Stones, weirdly? As anyone who's read the book will agree, they don't really fit the model of what the kids in the story should be like. The film was never made, anyway. But I believe that Alan Klein bought the rights to the book, which may explain its more or less total disappearance since. I tried to find out via agents and publishers who owns this one, but no-one seems to know. There was an unauthorised comic book adaptation published in the mid 70s called Kids Rule OK!

  2. Ooops. I see you already dealt with the Stones non-film. Will try to dig out the other Wallis books to get the biographical info. From what I recall, he seems to have led an adventurous life, working his passage to Canada on board a ship etc.

  3. That would be ace, Pete. Please do leave a comment with any further details about Wallis, either on this post or the other one.

    I'd forgotten about Kids Rule OK! I remember reading that in Action years ago. Just before I left Titan Books three or so years ago I set up a deal for Titan to republish some of that Action material, but I still don't think a collection's been published. Bit of a shame that.

  4. Thank you for this article, this book looks really strong. all these people who give up their lives ... and these Easyway pills, what a concept ! it only needs packaging...
    In fact I came here because I was looking for information on the new film from Jim Jarmusch, did you hear about it? It has the same title as this book, but it will be a vampire story. I have not read the novel of Wallis and I wonder : what do you think about this "coincidence"?
    about it here

  5. Yep, I learned about the Jarmusch movie when this and my other Only Lovers post both started getting hits again recently. Is that vampire thing confirmed, Del? I know there was a line to that effect in Variety (I think), but those advance teases can be inaccurate... You never know: maybe it is Wallis's book Jarmusch is adapting...

  6. My wife bought me this after we also saw it at the Sci Fi exhibition. Mine is a hardback reissue from 1979 and has a different cover. I've scanned it here if you're interested:

  7. Thanks for that, Adrian. Interesting to read Wallis's thoughts on the reception of the book on the back cover – how he was "pilloried for slandering young persons" – and that he was living in Walton on the Naze in 1979. So that's a tiny bit more info on the mysterious and elusive Mr. Wallis.

  8. Interesting indeed. Never seen this edition before. Wonder how legit it is/was?? A year or so ago, when I tried to find out who owned the rights to this book, it seemed to be in some sort of limbo with none of the previous publishers wanting to admit to anything. There was some feeling that the Alan Klein organisation might have bought all rights when they were planing the Stones movie. I believe the screenplay for the film was written by Gillian Freeman (of The Leather Boys, The Undergrowth of Literature etc etc); wouldn't that be somethign to read??

    Have finally scanned the cover of Tram Stop that I mentioned in earlier posting. Some inteetsing details on Wallis's early life.

    btw - the Jarmusch film is NOT in any way based on DW's book. They just nicked the title. I know you can't copyright titles, but to steal something so original and iconic (which means it can't now be used for any film actually based on the book) stinks.

  9. If the rights were bought by Alan Klein, they must have reverted by now. Surely some enterprising publisher can track down Dave Wallis (or his literary heirs) and bring Only Lovers Left Alive back into print. It's a crime to see such a great novel lie neglected.

    Thanks for the extra info, and for confirming that the Jarmusch film isn't based on the book. You're right though: what a shame the title wasn't put to its proper use!

  10. I think, when you buy screen rights, you generally buy them for the duration of copyright. But who knows? Haven't managed to track down any Wallis heirs yet. It's such a common name, which makes it tougher. If we could get a date of death, I suppose a fuller search on probate etc could be done.

  11. I think my wife got the book via Abe Books, and it was posted from South Africa, but it looks like a UK edition.

  12. bit late with this, but here's a link to an old interview with Dave Wallis. Some interesting stuff:

  13. Interesting indeed, thanks Pete. I don't know if you saw the update on the second Only Lovers post, but Steve Holland put a Wallis biography together over at Bear Alley; there's a link in the second post.

  14. Hi Nick. No, I hadn't seen that, but have now checked it and very interesting it is indeed. Great work from Steve. I also found an online copy of Jim (Dave's brother) Wallis's autobiography and that filled in a few gaps too. Seems that he came from a fairly wealthy background. Or moneyed middle class at least. Which I hadn't expected. Now hoping to track down the Gillian Freeman's screenplay to Only Lovers..., which was apparently written for Nick Ray to direct. What a film that would have been!