Friday 14 October 2011

On the Beach by Nevil Shute: First Edition (Heinemann, 1957), Review, and Cover Artist John Rowland, feat. Elleston Trevor's The Killing-Ground (Heinemann, 1956); a Lewes Bookshop Bargain

Let's round off this first week of post-apocalyptic prose posts (will I tire of that alliterative description anytime soon? probably not) – see here, here and here for previous entries – with an undisputed end-of-the-world classic:

Nevil Shute's On the Beach was first published in hardback in the UK by Heinemann in 1957, and as with the first edition of Ray Bradbury's The Silver Locusts I blogged about on Tuesday, the Armageddon in question this time out is of the nuclear variety... except without the additional Martian element. It's 1963, and atomic war has come to the northern hemisphere, destroying all civilisation and leaving the denizens of the southern hemisphere awaiting the arrival of the nuclear fallout being carried on global air currents. In Australia, Lieutenant-Commander Peter Holmes joins the crew of one of the few remaining American nuclear submarines, the U.S.S. Scorpion – now under the command of the Royal Australian Navy – for its final voyage to look for survivors in the north...

Safe to say, On the Beach isn't the cheeriest of reads. Shute is admirably clear-eyed about the aftereffects of nuclear conflict: with radioactive particles drifting ever-closer to Australia, we're left in little doubt that the situation is hopeless and humanity's days are numbered. But in common with other end-of-the-world novels of the era, Shute's characters exhibit a stoic resolve in the face of annihilation, a stiff-upper-lipped Britishness – or, more accurately, Australianness – not dissimilar to that displayed in, say John Wyndham's more SF-leaning stories. Nevil Shute was a phenomenally popular novelist in his day, but in recent years has been a bit overlooked, although, as Robert McCrum mentions in this recent Guardian piece, that's starting to change. But On the Beach is a powerful and convincing piece of fiction; on the strength of this novel, I'll certainly be trying a few more Shute books – and considering I've recently bought a couple of other Shute first editions in Lewes bookshops, I can do just that very thing.

I found this first edition/first impression of On the Beach in Kim's Bookshop in Chichester during my summer holidays, and it's in pretty good nick for its age – a bit of foxing on the page edges, but the dustjacket, aside from a blemish at the top, is bright and, best of all, complete (jackets on these Heinemann firsts are notoriously fragile and prone to chipping on the spine). It was designed by John Rowland, who created a number of other Heinemann jackets around this period, among them another Shute novel, Stephen Morris (1961), and a handful of Anthony Burgess novels: Beds in the East, 1959; The Doctor is Sick, 1960; Devil of a State, 1961; and The Worm and the Ring, also 1961, copies of which are very scarce due to it being pulped following the threat of libel action.

He also designed the jacket for a novel by an author who I've blogged about more than once on Existential Ennui, except under one of his many aliases: Adam Hall, a.k.a. Elleston Trevor. And it just so happens that I can show that jacket too, because whilst researching John Rowland for this post, I came across a listing on AbeBooks for a very cheap first edition of the novel in question, which was being sold by military specialists the Lewes Book Centre down on Cliffe High Street. A quick stroll down the road later, and I had the book in my hands:

Published by Heinemann in 1956, Elleston Trevor's The Killing Ground is a World War II-set tale centring on the August 1944 battle of the Falaise Pocket, the climactic encounter of the D-Day invasion. John Rowland's dustjacket for this one isn't quite so colourful as his On the Beach wrapper, but in its restricted palette, subdued hues and use of chiaroscuro, it typifies a certain style of jacket illustration of the period.

The 1950s and '60s were, to my mind, the preeminent era for British book cover design, combining bold, hand-crafted typography with beautiful illustration, and Rowland's work is a prime example of this. I'll be exploring that notion further in the next couple of post-apocalyptic posts, with two British editions of an American novel that, like On the Beach, has become a stone cold (war) end-of-the-world nuclear conflict classic...

Thursday 13 October 2011

Day of Misjudgment by Bernard MacLaren (Gollancz, 1956): Lewes Bookshop Bargain

After a Westlake (Double) Score detour, it's back to the post-apocalyptic prose. And of all the books I'm featuring in this series of posts, this one might be the most obscure...

Day of Misjudgment by Bernard MacLaren was first published in hardback in the UK in 1956 by Victor Gollancz, under one of those vivid yellow dustjackets Gollancz were known for. And indeed, this Gollancz first edition was destined to be the only printing of the book; I bought this copy in the Bow Windows Bookshop on Lewes High Street, but AbeBooks currently has just five copies of the novel listed for sale worldwide, all of them Gollancz firsts. Not only that, but it was MacLaren's only published novel, after which he seemingly vanished into the ether: I've yet to find any information about him online, although I did turn up one review of Day of Misjudgment, reproduced from the May 1957 number of Nebula. (The formatting is a bit buggered in that link; scroll down to a third of the way through the third paragraph to find the start of the relevant passage.)

There's no author bio on the jacket of Day of Misjudgment either, chiefly because the blurb takes up almost all available space. And that blurb really has to be seen to be believed: it starts on the dustjacket front flap, carries on on the back flap, and then continues over onto the back cover! Take a look:

I particularly like the line on the back, "...but it is time to break off, before we find ourselves disclosing the explanatory upshot". Er, well, that's about all there is left to "disclose"! Evidently that Gollancz copywriter was getting paid by the word. Mind you, said copywriter does effectively capture the tone of the novel, which is exceedingly jaunty (and very British), although rather more exclamatory than the blurb suggests: barely a sentence goes by without an exclamation mark being stuck on the end, which, in truth, becomes a little wearisome.

The apocalyptic MacGuffin which propels the story is the atrophication of mankind due to explosion of ultimate weapon the XYB bomb, with the additional consequence that the dead have also risen. All parties are now converging on the Vale of Jehoshaphat to await Judgement Day, as foretold by a super-computer called The Oracle.

It's an interesting novel, a bit dated but generally amusing, stuffed with daft notions and reminiscent in a way of a hyperactive Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (although not as funny as Douglas Adams's meisterwerk). Ken Slater in his Nebula review called it "witty in places, serious and moral in others; exciting, thoughtful, and above all entertaining", which is a reasonable assessment I reckon.

The words "amusing" or "witty" couldn't really be applied to our next post-apocalyptic novel, however: a much more downbeat 1957 work which has been correctly hailed as a Cold War classic, and which boasts a beautiful illustrated dustjacket...

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Westlake Double Score: Killtown and The Score by Richard Stark (Parker #5, Berkley, 1973 / Avon, 1984)

(NB: a version of this post also appears on The Violent World of Parker blog.)

Taking a slight detour from the irradiated wasteland that is my continuing series on post-apocalyptic fiction, let's have a look at a recent Westlake Score – or, more accurately, and as the title of this post suggests, Double Score. And I should probably apologise in advance for the essentially pointless nature of this post, but if nothing else it'll afford a glimpse into my diseased, obsessive psyche...

These two Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake books are, in fact, two different editions of the same novel, namely the fifth Parker outing, The Score, which was originally published in the States in 1964. Up top is the 1973 US Berkley Medallion paperback printing – retitled Killtown – and underneath it is the 1984 US Avon printing. They came from two separate eBay UK sellers who coincidentally listed them on the same day, in auctions that ended within an hour of each other. Naturally, inveterate – not to mention unhinged – collector that I am – and since American paperbacks of the Stark novels don't come up that often on eBay in this country – and despite my already owning an Allison & Busby hardback of The Score – I snapped 'em both up. But I did also have a (marginally) saner ulterior motive for bidding on them. Well, one of them, anyway.

See, for a while now, I've been wondering who the cover artist was on the 1970s Berkley Medallion softcover editions of the Parker novels (from whence The Violent World of Parker website takes its name). There are no art credits either on the covers or in the interiors, and I've spent hours searching online for information to no avail. So when I saw the Berkley edition of Killtown on eBay, I figured I'd nab it and see if I could locate a signature on the artwork. Sadly, I was thwarted once again; there's what looks to be a partial signature on the bottom right edge of the artwork, but it's cut off. Violent World of Parker supremo Trent left a comment on the version of this post on the VWoP blog, offering a small clue: there are two initials on the Berkley paperback of Deadly Edge (Parker #13) – "LF". However, despite additional Googling on my part, I've still come up short.


Unexpectedly, the 1984 Avon edition of The Score turned out to be rather more intriguing. I'd never really examined the covers of the Avon editions too closely, figuring they were photographic and therefore of less interest to me than illustrated or painted covers (which I tend to prefer). But on closer inspection of the Avon softcover of The Score, I realised that it's only partly photographic: the top half is a photo, but the bottom half actually appears to be a very skilled, highly rendered, photorealistic painting, of the type seen on film posters or in advertising:

A handful of others of the Avon printings deploy this split-media technique too, including The Mourner, The Seventh and Slayground. However, as with Killtown, there's no cover credit inside The Score, and there's also no signature on the artwork. Which means the net result of my twin eBay scores is I now have two mysteries to solve instead of one. Brilliant. Really, then, this post is a plea more than anything: if anyone can identify the artists on either the Berkley or Avon editions of the Parker novels, please do leave a comment and put me out of my – now multiplied – misery.

And with that, let's return to the post-apocalyptic fiction, with a very obscure 1956 novel which I bought in a Lewes bookshop...

Tuesday 11 October 2011

The Silver Locusts (The Martian Chronicles) by Ray Bradbury: British First Edition (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1951); Review

This next book in my still-pubescent series of posts on post-apocalyptic prose rarely features in "best end-of-the-world books" lists, but by my reckoning it qualifies as such on three counts: not only is it brilliant, and not only does it depict the demise of the Earth, but it also details the downfall of an ancient extraterrestrial civilisation...

Ray Bradbury's The Silver Locusts was first published in hardback in the UK by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1951, under a magnificent dustjacket designed by Roy Sanford, who, among other jacket designs, also created the similarly splendid cover for the 1954 British edition of The Night of the Hunter I blogged about back in June. It's a collection of short stories originally published in various American science fiction magazines in the 1940s – with additional linking vignettes – and it is, of course, rather better known by its more prosaic US title: The Martian Chronicles, as first published in the States by Doubleday in 1950. Although personally I prefer the allusive British title, which was inspired by one of the stories in the collection, "The Locusts".

I've mentioned Ray Bradbury's short stories a couple of times before, most recently in this post on a Donald E. Westlake short SF tale; quite simply I'm of the firm belief that Bradbury was one of the most important and original short storytellers of the twentieth century, a supreme craftsman of poetic prose, vivid imagery and memorable payoffs, and The Silver Locusts/The Martian Chronicles is to my mind his crowning achievement. The initial four stories proper in the collection are mini-masterpieces of science fiction horror, each telling of the arrival on Mars of a rocket ship from Earth, the fate that befalls the crew of each ship, and the effect the Earthmen's arrival has on the native Martians; the third story in particular, "The Third Expedition" (originally titled "Mars is Heaven"), still sends a shiver down my spine every time I read it.

Thereafter the tales take a turn for the increasingly philosophical, as the colonisation of Mars gathers pace and the Martians head inexorably towards extinction. But the gradual elimination of Mars' original inhabitants is matched by the rumblings of war back on Earth, which are referenced in some of the later stories. These reach their inevitable crescendo in "The Off Season", in which Sam Parkhill, one of the astronauts from the fourth mission to Mars ("—And the Moon Be Still As Bright"), who has since set up a hot dog concession in anticipation of a deluge of visitors from Earth, encounters a group of Martians who grant him a surprising boon. The sting in the tail comes at the end of the story, as Sam and his wife witness from afar the devastation of their homeworld, the ramifications of which subsequently play out both on Mars and, in the mournful "There Will Come Soft Rains", back on Earth, until we reach the moving, circle-closing climax, "The Million-Year Picnic".

The Chronicles have been through umpteen editions over the years under both their US title and their British one, and many editions are subtly different. The first edition of The Silver Locusts, for example, drops the story "Usher II" – which appears instead in the 1952 Hart-Davis edition of The Illustrated Man – and includes in its place "The Fire Balloons", which did not appear in the 1950 Doubleday edition of The Martian Chronicles. That actually works in the favour of The Silver Locusts, because Father Peregrine, who features in "The Fire Balloons", later reappears in "The Luggage Store". (Handily, the Wikipedia entry for The Martian Chronicles exhaustively details the changes from edition to edition.) As for my particular prized first edition/first printing of The Silver Locusts, that was a fairly recent eBay win, but generally you'd be looking at anything from £70–£200 for a decent jacketed copy.

Next in this post-apocalyptic series, I have an incredibly obscure novel which postulates a world where mankind has atrophied and both the dead and the living – or rather, the living dead – are assembling at the Vale of Jehoshaphat to herald the arrival of Judgment Day. Ahead of that, though, I should have a Westlake Double Score for you...

UPDATE 6/6/12: Sadly, Ray Bradbury died last night, and though there will doubtless be more eloquent eulogies in the days and weeks ahead, I hope this post goes some small way towards expressing how much his extraordinary stories mean to me, and, perhaps, helps to introduce a new reader or two to his wonderful writing.

Monday 10 October 2011

It's the End of the World as We Know It: The Cataclysm (The Hopkins Manuscript) by R. C. Sherriff (Pan Books, 1958)

For nigh on two thousand years, post-apocalyptic fiction has exerted a strange but powerful and profound pull on the popular imagination. From Noah's Ark in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the New to Mary Shelley's The Last Man and, latterly, Lars von Trier's Melancholia, tales of the destruction of mankind, the Earth, or both, have terrified, tantalised and astounded in equal measure. Some of these stories deal with the apocalypse itself, some with the aftermath – and some with both – but all tap into a deep-rooted, near-primal fear of, and fascination with, the End of Everything.

I'm as partial as anyone to spot of post-apocalyptic fiction; perhaps my favourite novel of all time is a classic of the genre, while the name I chose for this very blog could be seen as evidence of my preoccupation with existential doom and gloom (er... possibly). So, over the next few weeks here on Existential Ennui, it's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine), as we embark on a series of posts on post-apocalyptic prose. There'll be death and destruction – both paranormal and horrifyingly mundane – on an awe-inspiring, industrial scale, as the human race is brought to the brink of extinction over and over again by, variously, disease, drugs, suicide, infertility, vampirism and good old fashioned nuclear annihilation. Some of the books I'll be featuring will be familiar, others rather less so, while others still might surprise at their inclusion; but a good many boast fantastic cover art, and all are intriguing in their own way. And if all this nihilism gets a bit too much, I'll be throwing the odd Donald E. Westlake/Violent World of Parker cross-post into the mix to lighten the mood.

So, let's sally forth and get set to meet our maker, with a triple-whammy opening salvo in the form of, consecutively, celestial collision, Biblical-scale flooding and geopolitical resource conflict!

The Cataclysm by R. C. Sherriff was first published in paperback in the UK by Pan Books in 1958 – at least, under that title. In fact it's a revised version of Sherriff's 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript:

which was republished in 2005 under its original title by Persephone Books, with a new preface by Michael Moorcock, and which Fay Weldon called "spectacular, skilled and moving and supremely and alarmingly relevant to our life today". That irresistible Pan cover showing a flooded London – artist unknown, I'm afraid – is a trifle misleading, too, because although the novel begins and ends with its narrator, retired schoolmaster Hopkins, eking out a degraded existence in the devastated capital, much of the story takes place in the (fictional, I believe) backwater village of Beadle.

The "cataclysm" of the title refers to the Moon crashing – or, more accurately, splashing – into the Atlantic, causing mass flooding and leading to the disintegration of society, as recounted in the surprising final stages of the novel. Sherriff didn't pen many books – he's best known as a playwright – but The Hopkins Manuscript/The Cataclysm is an effectively chilling tale – a little hokey in places, sure, but well written and with a bleak and unexpectedly sweeping climax.

While the Persephone edition of The Hopkins Manuscript is readily available, the Pan paperback of The Cataclysm isn't quite so common; I picked up my copy at the Ardingly Antiques Fair over the summer, but AbeBooks currently has just ten copies listed worldwide. And having only (partially) read the Pan edition, I'm unsure as to how heavily Sherriff revised The Hopkins Manuscript for the retitled version... but the next book I'll be blogging about is also a retitled edition, and with that one I do know how it differs not only from the original, but from subsequent editions as well. It's not the most obvious of post-apocalyptic tales – or rather, collection of tales – but it definitely depicts the end of the world, although in this instance as more of a backdrop to its chronicling of the colonisation of a certain red planet...