Monday 12 July 2010

The Mysterious Vanishing of Michael Vyse

How many authors have one book published, maybe two, and then are never heard from again? Thousands upon thousands I'd guess. Perhaps they only have one (or two) books in them. Perhaps their initial efforts don't sell enough for a publisher to publish a follow-up. Sometimes, as in the case of Adam Diment, an author's disappearance is noted and puzzled over for years. More often, as with, say, Robert H. Kelston, an author simply disappears into obscurity, the only evidence they existed being the online listings for their books.

Which is the case with Michael Vyse. Vyse was a science fiction writer who had two books published, both by Faber, both in 1980: The Outer Reaches, a collection of short stories; and Overworld. I came across a copy of the latter when I moved to Lewes a couple of years ago, in one of the many second hand bookshops here. It was the cover that attracted me: a stark, black, white and green affair, featuring a human figure tangled in brambles, actually designed by Vyse himself. As for the novel, here's how it's described on the front flap:

The Hive is the ultimate megalopolis where gluttony is a virtue and the gratification of desire a moral obligation for its teeming millions. Teenage gangs roam the lowest levels, their murderous confrontations televised to excite the jaded palates of those above. Clinging precariously to land not yet ravaged by the Hive's inexorable growth, the Newearths live on memories, cherishing within their Garden the last remnants of beauty. War exists between the two cultures until wearied by suicide missions of Newearth warriors, the Hive embarks upon a programme of total extermination. Yet when the Final Answer is unleashed it is Earth which enjoys an unprecedented revenge, a glittering renaissance. Overworld is an excursion into a future less distant than might be imagined. It is a warning, an indictment, one despairing cry to a world seemingly intent on self-destruction. It is, too, a brilliant successor to The Outer Reaches, the collection of short stories with which Michael Vyse made his debut.

So it's a futuristic eco tale, mixed in with a commentary on consumerist culture. As you can probably tell, I haven't read it yet; I filed it away to read another time, but for some reason I couldn't get the book out of my head, or rather I couldn't get Michael Vyse out of my head. I looked him up online, but all I could find were listings for Overworld and The Outer Reaches. I even started writing a story about him, about what I imagined happened to him (it involved a man with a similar name, the Great Storm of 1987 and Chanctonbury Ring; maybe I'll finish it one day).

And then at the weekend I was in Brighton and in one of the bookshops there I came across his short story collection, mistakenly shelved with the crime fiction. Here's what the jacket flap says about The Outer Reaches:

A man who tires of Paradise and wishes to know what lies beyond its boundaries. An old couple offered the chance to be sole survivors when the Earth explodes. A motorist whose motorway journey becomes the eery exploration of another planet. An office lift which plummets into successive levels of nightmare. The man who betrays his own kind and is rewarded with a dreadful gift of beauty. A woman searches the Universe for a duplicate lover. The capture of a vast starship containing sleeping superbrings and the dilemma of whether or not to wake them. A stage magician whose tricks accidentally conjure a terrifying glimpse of the future. These and other stories represent 'extensions of the possible', exploring the outer reaches of imagination and experience. With them Michael Vyse, a new British writer, makes a brilliant debut.

Neither The Outer Reaches nor Otherworld offer any information at all on Vyse, apart from that he designed the jacket of the latter. And as I say, there's no information about him online as far as I can see. What happened to him, why he only had these two books published, we may never know.

But here's the thing: because I happened to move to Lewes; because I have an interest in first editions; because a bookshop here had a copy of Overworld on its shelves; because I was attracted by the jacket that Vyse himself devised; because his name lodged in my brain; because I became intrigued by his 'disappearance'; because a copy of his short story collection, The Outer Reaches, was wrongly placed in another bookshop in Brighton; because I was in Brighton that day; because I like crime fictiion and so looked in that section; because I was already aware of Vyse and so bought the book; because I have a fairly well-read blog about books...

Because of all that (and probably more besides), there is now some scant information about Michael Vyse online, right here – even if it's only the jacket copy from his books. But it's something. If enough people click on this post, it'll pop up if someone else ever decides to investigate Michael Vyse. Perhaps, if he's still around, Mr. Vyse himself will Google his name and stumble across it. And if that does happen, perhaps the mystery of Michael Vyse's vanishing will be solved...


  1. I used to read you just to follow your Stark collecting but you are coming up with great new things to write about.

    Such a good description of how we get hooked on these things. For a long time I tried to find out what happened to Irish novelist Patrick McGinley. I scoured the internet the same way and could never learn what happened to him. It wasn't until I asked a great Irish bookseller about him that I learned McGinley was still alive - I was told he was old now, not in the best of health, living in the UK and didn't write anymore. Not at all what I imagined.

    Vyse's story? After producing two slim books concerning the decline/collapse of England, he realized he got greater enjoyment from the art and design work on the books than writing the books and gave up writing to pursue an interest in fine arts. After retiring from teaching (which is where many aspiring writers seem to start and from where he saw first hand the terrible things kids were doing to the culture) he left the UK for France to escape all that and trade it for a place that values art and culture and history and all that. He lives there still and has a small studio. A quiet and happy life.

    (I don't have any good evidence for this. Just a couple of Google search results. Not a proper basis for speculating about a man's life. But you have him perishing in a storm - at least I've given him a happy ending.)

  2. Your powers of Google are truly awesome. I think there might be a dedication in one of the books, possibly to Margaret, although I might be imagining that. I'll have to check tonight.