Friday 20 May 2011

The Golden Brick by P. M. Hubbard; Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Vol. IV, No. 6, May 1963 (British Edition)

It's the final post in this run on British suspense fiction writer P. M. Hubbard – although not, I should point out, the final Hubbard post altogether; I'll have more on him at a future date. For the latecomers among us, this week I've been blogging about books from either end of Hubbard's sixteen-year career; I began with an introduction to his work here, then posted a review of his 1965 intense crazed-collector novel, A Hive of Glass, here, followed that up with a look at his final novel, 1979's Kill Claudio, here, and then blogged about what might just be his debut novel, 1963's Anna Highbury, here.

For our grand finale, we stay in the year 1963 for a review of one of the author's short stories. Hubbard didn't have that many short stories published in his lifetime – just fourteen have been identified, nearly half of which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1950s and '60s. And it's from F&SF that this story comes, nestling alongside tales from L. Sprague de Camp and Fritz Leiber.

This is the Vol. IV, No. 6, May 1963 British edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, published by Atlas Publishing. As you can see from the contents page, Hubbard's story, "The Golden Brick", was the lead tale in that issue. Now, if you were to check the most authoritative Hubbard source on the internet, Mystery*File's compilation of pieces by Tom Jenkins and Wyatt James, you would note that in their bibliography at the bottom of that post, "The Golden Brick" – which was Hubbard's fourth published short – is listed as being in the January 1963 issue of F&SF rather than the May issue. But their information isn't incorrect. Y'see, British editions of the US genre mags around this time tended to reprint stories a few months after their debuts in the American editions. Which means that, for those of us in the UK attempting to tracks down particular stories from SF magazines (which I have been doing recently – more on that in a moment), it's never as straightforward a task as that might seem, as the numbers and dates don't correspond to whatever online sources there are.

Anyway, I did, obviously, manage to get hold of this issue, and Hubbard's story is an unsettling piece of short fiction. An unnamed narrator is holidaying with his family in the Cornish fishing village of Penharrow. While his brood are off exploring inland, our protagonist decides to take a dinghy out "to potter round into a neighboring cove and, if the sun was hot enough, risk a quick swim". But as he heads out of the harbour, a ketch – a medium-size sailing boat with two masts – hoves into view and pulls alongside. Its captain is a curiously colourless man dressed in black, who enquires, "Do you want to buy a golden brick?" At first our hero is disbelieving, but then the man goes down below and reappears holding a gold bar, which he suggests could be taken ashore and sold, and the profits split between them.

After asking why the man can't simply go ashore and sell it himself – "Can't leave the ship, not just at present" – the two agree to meet on Monday to split the proceeds, and go their separate ways. Once the golden brick is sold, our narrator returns to the agreed meeting point out at sea... and there events take a nightmarish turn, as it becomes clear the man in black is keeping something hideous in his hold...

Although there's more of a supernatural element to the ten-page story than in Hubbard's long-form fare, "The Golden Brick" is still recognizably the work of the same writer responsible for A Hive of Glass. Its narrator is on the surface an average family man, but there are hints of Hubbard's standard self-centred antihero within him; at one point he dispenses this pearl of wisdom to us: "in my experience marriage, like other restrictive practices, is a great breeding-ground of untruth". Even so, our unnamed narrator pales in comparison to what lurks in the hold of the ketch, an ancient, dry, scuttling horror which finally escapes as the doomed black-clad captain and his boat meet their fate. It's a ghoulish ending to an effective little chiller that lingers long in the memory.

As it happens, there's something of a tale behind my acquisition of this copy of F&SF too. Over the past month or so I've been hoovering up '60s science fiction magazines off eBay (and elsewhere), many of them from the same seller – one SoggyPee, alias Mick, whose eBay shop can be found here. I'd had this May issue of F&SF on my watch list, but then completely forgot to bid on it before the auction ended. Buggeration. Luckily no one else had bid on it either, and having bought a fair few other items from Mick, I emailed him and asked if he might be relisting it at some point. I heard nothing back, but a couple of days later a package turned up in the post, inside which was the magazine, along with a note saying "please accept this magazine with my compliments". Which was a thoroughly decent thing to do. So thank you, Mick. You're a scholar and a gent.

Anyway, that's all from P. M. Hubbard for the moment... but what were the other SF mags I mentioned I'd bought? Ah, well some of those will form the basis of the next run of posts, because I'll be staying with the '60s SF mags for a wee while yet. Hopefully over the weekend I'll be posting something on a 1962 issue of Amazing Fact and Science Fiction, which boasts stories by three towering names in the SF field. (If the Lewes Book Fair, which takes place on Saturday, turns up anything vitally interesting, that may change. But I'll be writing about that for local magazine Viva Lewes anyway, so probably not.) And then after that I'll be reviewing stories from a range of early-'60s SF periodicals, all of them written by that firm favourite of Existential Ennui's, Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake, many of which have never been reprinted since. Oh, and if all goes according to plan, there'll be at least one other post from me next week on a blog other than this one, again on Westlake/Stark. Should be an interesting week...

Thursday 19 May 2011

P. M. Hubbard's First Novel? Anna Highbury (Cassell First Edition, 1963); Illustrations by Graham Byfield

Continuing this week's worth of posts on crime/suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard – during which I've been looking at books from either end of his sixteen-year career – we move on from his final novel, 1979's Kill Claudio, to his first. Now, if you know your Hubbard – and if you read that previous post on Kill Claudio, with its sly pun at the end – you might have been thinking this post would be on 1963's Flush as May, which is widely regarded as the author's debut novel. But Hubbard actually had two novels published that year – and I have reason to believe this might in fact be his true debut:

Anna Highbury was published in hardback in the UK in 1963 by Cassell, and it's the first of Hubbard's two novels for younger readers (the second being 1964's Rat Trap Island). It's the story of the eponymous heroine, the oldest of three children, all of whom live with their parents in the small southern English town of Moulton. Anna's father is a local solicitor whose clients include the owner of Spillikins, a deserted old house just outside the village. One day Mr. Highbury's offices are burgled, and papers related to Spillikins are stolen. Soon after, a mysterious visitor from New Zealand arrives, and a tale of missing rubies, believed buried somewhere in the grounds of Spillikins, begins to unfold...

If all of that sounds like your typical period children's story, then that's because, essentially, it is. There's little in the novel along the lines of Hubbard's more unnerving and psychologically tortured suspense works, although in the kids' adventures in and around the overgrown grounds of Spillikins there are hints of the author's abiding concern with environment, and in the search-for-an-elusive-treasure plot there are parallels with others of Hubbard's storylines. But Hubbard displays a sureness of touch with the characters, especially the kids, who come across well as individuals (especially the youngest, James, forever getting distracted by shiny things), and though the tone is light, there are moments of tension, as Anna and Bill Maynard, the owner of Spillikins (and the visiting New Zealander) attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery.

The dustjacket and interior illustrations – some of which you can see throughout this post – are by Graham Byfield, who, like Barbara Lofthouse, the painter responsible for the cover of yesterday's first edition of Kill Claudio, is represented by illustration agency Artist Partners (about whom I've blogged before, in relation to photographer Adrian Flowers in this post on Len Deighton). Byfield is probably best known for his various Sketchbook titles – Oxford Sketchbook, London Sketchbook, etc. – but his distinctive and delightfully scratchy and scruffy illustrations have also appeared on some classic Penguin editions of famous novels, including Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.

Anna Highbury is a real rarity, quite possibly P. M. Hubbard's scarcest novel – in any edition. At time of writing there are only two copies available on AbeBooks worldwide, and none on Amazon Marketplace UK. (The cheaper of those AbeBooks listings is repeated on Amazon Marketplace US, so for any American readers, if you're quick, you can nab one of the two copies for sale online at a bargain price.) Seemingly – and unlike Hubbard's other kids' title, Rat Trap Island – there was only ever this one Cassell edition. But the question I posed at the start of this post still remains – namely: is Anna Highbury, rather than Flush as May, Hubbard's debut novel?

There's a clue inside the book which suggests it might be. Copyright pages in books – which can usually be found just after the title page – vary from publisher to publisher, but some publishers include codes in their indicia which denote which month a book was published in addition to the more prominent year. Around the time Anna Highbury was published Cassell were apparently one of those publishers, and right at the bottom of the copyright page there's a code: "F.763". That stands for "first published July 1963". I don't have a first edition of Flush as May to check against, but it's reasonable to suppose that Anna Highbury was published, if not before, then at least concurrently with Flush as May – publishers tending to plump for latter-half of the year/autumn release dates (for that all-important sales run-up to Christmas).

My guess is that Anna Highbury sneaked in just ahead of Flush as May, but if anyone reading this happens to own a first edition of the latter, perhaps they can check their copy and see if it has a similar code anywhere in the indicia...

Anyway, on to the final post in this series on P. M. Hubbard (although there will be much more on him down the line, don't you worry). And we're staying in 1963, for a look at another of Hubbard's stories from that year – an unnerving little tale of a boat trip that takes a turn for the horrific...

Wednesday 18 May 2011

P. M. Hubbard's Final Novel: Kill Claudio (Macmillan First Edition, 1979)

If you've just joined us, this week's posts are all on largely overlooked British suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard, whose intense, psychological mysteries and crime stories draw on an unusual feel for the rural and feature deeply flawed antiheroes as their protagonists. In this run of posts I'm focussing on stories from either end of his career; yesterday I reviewed one of his earliest and very best novels, 1965's A Hive of Glass, and today I'm looking at a UK first edition of his eighteenth and final novel:

Kill Claudio was published in hardback by Macmillan in 1979, seven months prior to Hubbard's death in March 1980. It's the first-person account of one Ben Selby, who, whilst out shooting one day discovers the body of a man in the heather. The corpse is identified by the police as a Mr. Mowbray, but on reflection Selby realises it is, in fact, Peter Gaston, a former colleague of his from the Establishment, an informal network of spies-cum-thieves. Visiting Mowbray/Gaston's widow, Lisa, Selby determines the intended victim may actually have been he himself. After asking Selby to kill Gaston's murderer – whom Selby names Claudio, alluding to a similar request in Much Ado About Nothing – Lisa hands him a letter from the dead man, concerning his and Ben's and a "C.T."'s final mission with the Establishment twenty years ago – a job which ended with a shipwreck and the burying by Gaston of a box containing something very valuable indeed...

It's curious that both Hubbard's final novel and his first (or at least, what's reckoned to be his first – more on that in a bit), 1963's Flush as May, seemingly both begin with the discovery of a body during a walk – an unintended symmetry there. And though there were no more books to come from Hubbard, at least he ended on a high: critic and Hubbard aficionado Wyatt James described Kill Claudio as "a fine example of the British hunter-and-hunted-theme", while in 2000 H. R. F. Keating and Mike Ripley picked the novel as one of their 101 crime novels of the twentieth century – Hubbard's only entry on that list.

In common with all of Hubbard's books, there isn't a plentiful supply of good condition UK first editions of Kill Claudio online, despite it being his most recent novel; at time of writing AbeBooks has just three listed from British booksellers, all of which are ex-library, and only eleven copies worldwide. Mine was a lucky eBay find, and is in fine condition. The splendid illustration of crashing waves on a rugged coastline (very Hubbard) on the front of the dustjacket is by Barbara Lofthouse, whose painterly work can generally be seen on and in children's and fantasy titles; she created the covers for the second and third volumes of Chaz Brenchley's The Books of Outremer, for example.

And from Hubbard's final novel, we turn to his first – or rather, what may be his first – pun intended...

Tuesday 17 May 2011

The Curse of the Collector: A Hive of Glass (1965) by P. M. Hubbard – Novel Review

This week I'm blogging about British novelist P. M. Hubbard, whose strange, evocative suspense novels – almost all of which are out of print – draw on a very particular sense of place – chiefly an unnerving, oppressive and remote rural Britain. Yesterday I posted a brief overview of his oeuvre and a bibliography, and for the rest of the week I'll be focussing on books and stories from either end of his sixteen-year career – although not necessarily the books and stories a Hubbard fan might expect. Today it's the turn of his fifth novel (counting his two children's novels): A Hive of Glass.

A Hive of Glass was first published in Britain by Michael Joseph in 1965 (1966 Panther paperback edition seen on the right there – unfortunately I wasn't able to find a first edition), when Hubbard was, I believe, fifty-four (he came to novel-writing quite late). The narrator is Johnnie Slade, a collector of fine glass who gets wind of a Verzelini Tazza, a sixteenth-century glass dish standing on a central stem, crafted by the Venetian Giacomo Verzelini. This priceless piece is featured in an article by noted glass scholar Levinson in the latest issue of Old Glass, a quarterly periodical edited and financed by Peter Sarrett, but Sarrett is unable to furnish Slade with either the name of the owner of the tazza or its location. Desperate to discover more about it, Slade visits Levinson, only to find him dead of a heart attack. But there is one clue in Levinson's desk diary – a single word: "Dunstreet".

Determining that the Dunstreet in question is a (fictional) country town 150 miles outside of London, near the south coast of England, Slade sets off in pursuit of the tazza. As he explores the town's verdant surroundings, there's an early hint of the environment as an entity in and of itself – something which is common in Hubbard's work: 

The whole countryside was dark and green and crouched a bit... the trees filled all the valley bottoms as if they had been poured into them – as indeed, in embryo, they probably had – and the valleys ran together in a network always pointing southwards to the place where their combined streams met salt water almost between the oak roots. The air was so soft and wet you could squeeze it out. It smelt of dead wood and land-locked brine.

This sense of an enveloping, decaying, stifling landscape intensifies throughout the novel, until the rural environs become almost an active participant in events (quite violently in one scene where a stag and a hellish hound cause a car accident). As Slade inveigles himself into Dunstreet's affairs and becomes involved with a young woman, Claudia, he learns of Claudia's Aunt Elizabeth, who lives in a remote house on an outcrop of densely wooded land near the sea, which becomes cut off at high tide. It's a gloomy, forbidding, eerie terrain, all loamy ground and tangled roots and deep creeks, heavy with foreboding and symbolizing the isolated existence of the blind Aunt Elizabeth and her deaf servant, Coster. Claudia is at the beck and call of her aunt: it transpires that when Elizabeth eventually dies, Claudia stands to inherit her aunt's possessions – which might just include the tazza...

The environmental aspects of Hubbard's novels have been much remarked upon, but it was another aspect of A Hive of Glass which particularly struck me, one which Book Glutton identified in his original comment drawing my attention to the author. This strand manifests itself right at the outset, when Johnnie visits an antique shop in the Midlands and spies an eighteenth-century glass at the back of a cabinet. Knowing what it's worth, and knowing the proprietor doesn't, he manages to buy the glass at a knock-down price; realising his mistake, the dealer relents, but sees something in Slade's eyes that causes him to back off. What he glimpses is the madness of the collector.

This unhinged zeal is one I'm more than familiar with (as regular readers of this blog might have noticed). It's a compulsion to possess objects – glass, antiques, books, whatever – a need which clearly speaks to an absence elsewhere in one's life (although I hesitate to explore what exactly that might be). The collecting impulse is, for the most part, fairly benign – Johnnie's evident delight at his newly bought glass as he gingerly washes it in a nearby stream is a joyous moment. But it does have its dark side, and that unpleasant facet of collecting rears its head throughout the novel.

The first instance comes in a Dunstreet auction room, where Johnnie pinpoints the dealers in the room and remarks upon the way they bid up pieces so that regular punters don't buy them for less than the market price. But the impulse becomes more personal as the novel progresses: Slade begins to suspect someone else is on the trail of the tazza, and in time events conspire to bring him to a place where it becomes unlikely he will be able to secure it for himself. It's at this point that Slade verbalizes the dark side of collecting: "So long as nobody else gets it."

This is the collector's curse: the desire to own, but also the desire to ensure that no one else is able to own that which one desires. Here, then, we reach the crux of the novel: Johnnie's romantic entanglement with Claudia proves an agreeable distraction (as does a brief liaison with a friend's wife – Slade is a randy bugger), but it's only a diversion; the hunt for the elusive tazza is all. It's never far from Slade's mind, even when he maintains it is; his statement at the close of one chapter – "I had not given the tazza a thought since six" – only serves to make a lie of his professed disinterest. The glass is the thing, and the pursuit of it takes Slade to ever murkier climes, ever greater extremes, eventually leading to a dark denouement at the bottom of an old mineshaft.

A Hive of Glass is a terrific book, perhaps Hubbard's first out-and-out classic (there's another recent and glowing review of it on the Pretty Sinister Books blog). But he was to write many more over the next fourteen years – and it's to his final novel that we turn next, a fine example of the hunter-and-hunted subgenre that weaves through British fiction: 1979's Kill Claudio.

Monday 16 May 2011

P. M. Hubbard: An Introduction to the Author and a Bibliography

This week, as promised, Existential Ennui will be concentrating on a British suspense novelist who, while not completely forgotten, is perhaps only recalled now by a very select few. As is often the case with authors from days gone by, his novels were recommended to me by a friend of Existential Ennui – Book Glutton in this instance, who in a comment in March outlined why he thought I might be interested in this writer. And as BG had been so spectacularly spot on with his Ross Thomas recommendation last year, well, how I could not investigate?

The author in question is P. M. Hubbard – full name Philip Maitland Hubbard – who published eighteen novels over a sixteen year period from 1963 to 1979 (he died in 1980). Almost all are now out of print, and most fall roughly within the sphere of the crime/mystery/suspense genres – although two of the books, it should be noted, are children's novels. Often the stories feature only a handful of characters – including an amoral antihero – and are usually set partly in remote, rural locations. Indeed the settings are as much a focus of the novels as the plots or the characters – more so, even. Hubbard himself noted that "the place is generally, in fact, the central character of the book". Though rural and British, these environments are eerie and unwelcoming – overgrown, rotting, hostile, possibly reflecting the psychologies of the novels' narrators or lead characters. A slow-building sense of dread and escalating paranoia pervades the novels, evoked by the oppressive surroundings, leading inexorably to violence and death.

There are a few bits and bobs about Hubbard online; Book Glutton included a couple of links in his original comment. But the best source on the internet for Hubbard info is this Mystery*File round-up of articles by Tom Jenkins and Wyatt James, which boasts a book-by-book appraisal of Hubbard's work, an overview, a full bibliography and more besides. It's very thorough, so much so that it's debatable what more can be added. I'm determined to give it a go, though: I've got at least a couple of runs of posts planned on Hubbard, which if nothing else will showcase some of the little-seen covers to the author's British first editions.

So then: let's begin. And in this first week of posts I'll be looking at some of Hubbard's novels and stories from either end of his career, as well as reviewing what's widely regarded as one of his best books – one which has a particular relevance to my preoccupations. That's 1965's A Hive of Glass, coming right up... 

NB: a second run of P. M. Hubbard posts can be found beginning here, including a never-before seen letter from the author; another letter – or rather memo – relating to Hubbard can be found here.

P. M. Hubbard Bibliography

Flush as May (Michael Joseph, 1963)
Anna Highbury (Cassell, 1963)
Picture of Millie (Michael Joseph, 1964)
Rat Trap Island (Cassell, 1964)
A Hive of Glass (Michael Joseph, 1965)
The Holm Oaks (Michael Joseph, 1965)
The Tower (Geoffrey Bles, 1968)
The Custom of the Country (Geoffrey Bles, 1969)
Cold Waters (Geoffrey Bles, 1970)
High Tide (Macmillan, 1971)
The Dancing Man (Macmillan, 1971)
The Whisper in the Glen (Macmillan, 1972)
A Rooted Sorrow (Macmillan, 1973)
A Thirsty Evil (Macmillan, 1974)
The Graveyard (Macmillan, 1975)
The Causeway (Macmillan, 1976)
The Quiet River (Macmillan, 1978)
Kill Claudio (Macmillan, 1979)