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).

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...

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Westlake Score: Point Blank! (Formerly The Hunter) by Richard Stark; US Fawcett Gold Medal Paperback, 1967, Robert McGinnis Cover Art

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

Interrupting the post-apocalyptic books posts briefly, here's a Westlake Score which has been the cause of a certain amount of consternation and confusion over the years, due to it being misidentified as an earlier edition of Donald "Richard Stark" Westlake's debut Parker outing:

What it actually is, in fact, is the 1967 Fawcett Gold Medal printing of The Hunter – which was originally published by Pocket Books in 1962 – retitled Point Blank! But it's frequently – and mistakenly – pinpointed as being printed simultaneously with The Hunter, i.e. in 1962; take a gander at its listing on AbeBooks if you don't believe me. (The edition's listing on The Violent World of Parker is, needless to say, correct.) I was always curious as to why this was the case, so when I spied a fairly cheap copy lurking on Amazon Marketplace UK, I snapped it up, determined to get to the bottom of this minor mystery. (This is what passes for entertainment chez Jones.)

I'll reveal all in a moment, and also explore some other intriguing aspects of this Gold Medal edition. But first, a bit of background: from 1962 to 1966, Richard Stark's Parker novels were published in the States by Pocket Books – that's the Parkers from The Hunter to The Handle. Thereafter, the rights were picked up by Gold Medal, who published the four Parkers from The Rare Coin Score (1967) to The Sour Lemon Score (1969), all with glorious Robert McGinnis covers. But Gold Medal also reissued a couple of earlier Parkers, again with McGinnis cover art: they published an edition of 1966's The Seventh in 1968, retitling it as The Split, presumably to tie in with the 1969 movie adaptation; and in 1967 they published The Hunter as Point Blank! (I've blogged about the McGinnis/Gold Medal editions before on Existential Ennui, chiefly in this meandering post on the search for the perfect Parker.)

The retitling of The Hunter as Point Blank! was again inspired by a movie adaptation, in this instance John Boorman's brilliant 1967 Lee Marvin-starring film (as with the 1967 UK Coronet printing of the novel). And if you look closely at Gold Medal's paperback of Point Blank!, there's evidence to suggest the retitling was done rather late in the day. On the back cover, the movie blurb at the bottom seems hastily stuck-on:

While inside, on the first page, there's what could almost be a hand-stamped additional movie blurb at the end of the book's blurb:

Finally, the text on the title page itself is kind of skewiff (it's a bit hard to tell from my rubbish photo, but take my word for it):

Given all this, I suspect Gold Medal only found out about Boorman's movie shortly before they printed the book, and had to quickly amend it accordingly. That might also explain the aspect of the book which has caused all the confusion over its publication date: the copyright info on page four. Take a look at that:

And you can see the only date there is the 1962 copyright line. There's no mention at all of this particular edition's pub date – hence the muddle on AbeBooks and other online booksellers.

There's one other thing I want to bring up before drawing a line under this post: my copy of Point Blank! came with a curious piece of paraphernalia inside it...

A cutting of a Rupert the Bear picture story. Of all the strange bits of ephemera I've found in secondhand books – letters, more letters, a postcard – that surely has to rank as the most incongruous...

And with that, let's return to the post-apocalyptic fiction, with a novel in which the kids are very far from all right...

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank: UK Pan Paperback (1961), David Tayler Cover Art, feat. Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (Pan, 1960)

Continuing this series on post-apocalyptic fiction, we move from a British hardback first edition of Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon... to the first British paperback edition of the same novel:

Published by Pan Books in 1961, this edition of Alas, Babylon typifies the style of cover art seen on paperbacks around this period, namely the more illustrative approach I alluded to in the previous post. For while the likes of Donald Green, John Rowland, Roy Sanford, Peter Probyn and Denis McLoughlin were deploying dramatic chiaroscuro, restricted palettes and abstract elements on British dustjackets of the period, Pan artists such as Sam Peffer, Rex Archer and, as seen on this edition of Alas, Babylon, David Tayler were opting for more literal interpretations of books' subject matter on paperback covers.

And you can't get much more literal than a mushroom cloud rising over a cityscape for Alas, Babylon – or, as the Pan front cover title has it, Alas Babylon – no comma. Curiously, the 1959 UK Constable hardcover edition also omits the comma on the front, although in both editions the comma does appear on the interior title pages. As for David Tayler, there is, as I've outlined before, virtually no information about him online: mostly what you get when you Google him are Existential Ennui hits. But I can tell you his Pan work included covers for C. S. Forester's Lieutenant Hornblower (Pan, 1957); Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice (Pan, 1961) and Lonely Road (Pan, 1962); two Pan covers for Ian Fleming's The Diamond Smugglers (1961 and, I think, 1964); and, of course, this:

The 1960 Pan edition of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley. I've shown this one before, but as it's one of my most prized books, I'd hate to pass up an opportunity to show it off again.

I mentioned in the previous post that, while the Constable edition of Alas, Babylon is quite scarce, this Pan edition is even scarcer: at present AbeBooks has just three copies listed for sale worldwide. I was actually inspired to track down the Pan paperback – eventually finding one on eBay – having seen it on display at the British Library's recent "Out of This World" exhibition, one of the sections in which was about post-apocalyptic novels. And such was the case with the next end-of-the-world book I'll be blogging about, too: a 1964 novel which has gained an added significance in light of recent riotous events.

But before that, let's see if I can squeeze in a Westlake Score...

Monday 17 October 2011

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank; British First Edition (Constable, 1959), Review, Cover Artist Donald Green, Anthony Price, P. M. Hubbard's The Tower (Bles, 1967) and Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana (Heinemann, 1958)

Let's begin this second week of end-of-the-world fiction with a novel that, like Nevil Shute's On the Beach, has been hailed as both a classic post-apocalyptic tale and, in this British edition, boasts a dustjacket which exemplifies a certain style of British jacket design...

Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon was first published in hardback in the UK by Constable and Company in 1959, the same year as the American Lippincott first edition. The copy seen here was a very lucky online find; while there are, at present, around sixteen copies of the US first edition listed for sale on AbeBooks, ranging from about forty quid for a jacket-less or ex-library copy to about £600 for a fine first edition, there are only five copies of the UK first, and only one of those from a UK seller (for £50). After enquiring after an AbeBooks copy which turned out to be a second printing, I eventually took a punt on an Amazon Marketplace copy for less than a tenner, and turned up trumps with a first edition/first impression in very good nick and with a bright, unclipped dustjacket.

Like the aforementioned On the Beach, which preceded it by a couple of years, Alas, Babylon is one of the earliest attempts at a realistic depiction of a post-nuclear-conflict world. In his foreword to the novel, Pat Frank – real name Harry Hart Frank – explains that he wrote the book in response to a question from an acquaintance: "What do you think would happen if the Russkies hit us when we weren't looking—you know, like Pearl Harbor?" Frank replied, "Oh, I think they'd kill fifty or sixty million Americans—but I think we'd win the war." To which his acquaintance responded, "Wow! Fifty or sixty million dead! What a depression that would make!"

Frank determined to write a novel that would make explicit "the exact nature and extent of the depression", and Alas, Babylon was the result. Set largely in the Florida town of Fort Repose, the novel details the gradual disintegration of society following a nuclear exchange with Soviet Russia: radiation sickness, suicide, food shortages and so forth. Frank deals with all this in a matter-of-fact fashion, avoiding sensationalism in favour of a straightforward account of the effects of nuclear war both on Fort Repose – which escapes a direct strike but whose denizens are nevertheless deeply affected – and on the wider world. Despite being published over fifty years ago, Alas, Babylon remains a powerful and influential piece of fiction – David Brin for one has identified it as an influence on his 1985 post-apocalyptic novel The Postman, and wrote a foreword for a 2005 edition of Alas, Babylon.

There's no cover credit on the 1959 Constable edition's dustjacket flaps – which, you'll note if you click on the image above, sport an excerpt from a review by none other than then-future spy thriller novelist Anthony Price, who talks about his reviewing career in parts one and two of my interview with him – although there is a signature at bottom right on the front: "Green". But the style of the jacket illustration looked familiar to me, so, as is my wont when confronted with a dustjacket design mystery, I stared at my bookshelves for a while to see if anything rang a bell. I thought at first it might be the same artist who designed the jackets for the 1951/1954 British first editions of Ray Bradbury's The Silver Locusts and David Grubb's The Night of the Hunter, but that was Roy Sanford. Then I wondered if it might be the artist responsible for the 1962 British first of Francis Clifford's Time is an Ambush, but that was actually Peter Probyn.

Finally, my eyes alighted on a book I've yet to blog about:

A first edition of The Tower, by British suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard, published by Geoffrey Bles in 1967. And there, at bottom right on the front cover, was the same signature, identified on the jacket flap as Donald Green. Mystery solved.

But as splendid as Green's jackets for Alas, Babylon and The Tower are, there's another, slightly earlier wrapper he designed which is perhaps more familiar:

The UK first edition of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana, published by Heinemann in 1958. Here again, Donald Green deploys what looks to be either a linocut or screenprint technique in a manner which is typical of wrapper design of the period. Indeed, British designers such as Green, Roy Sanford, Peter Probyn – and others like John Rowland and Denis McLoughlin – created, to my mind, some of the most beautiful dustjackets ever wrapped around a book, combining hand-cut typography, a dramatic sense of chiaroscuro and wonderfully vivid yet restricted-palette colour schemes with an abstract or allusive approach to each book's subject matter. For my money, the 1950s and 1960s were a golden age for British book jacket design, and Donald Green was one of the finest artists of the era.

However, there is another notable style of cover design of this period: a more literal, illustrative approach which graced the covers of paperbacks published by the likes of Pan and Corgi. And in the very next post, I'll be showcasing a prime example of that style, with an even scarcer edition of Alas, Babylon...

Click here to visit Existential Ennui's Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page.