Friday 7 December 2012

Friday's Forgotten Books: The Stories of Ray Bradbury, Volumes 1 and 2 (Granada, 1983)

If you've been paying attention at the back, you might have noticed that over the past five or six months I've been participating in Patti Nase Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books initiative, whereby each Friday, Patti rounds up links to posts on obscure or overlooked books from like-minded books blogs – Pretty Sinister Books, say, or Bill Crider's Pop Culture Magazine, or Tipping My Fedora, or indeed Existential Ennui itself. To keep things interesting, every now and then Patti selects a particular author for FFB bloggers to write about, and this week she's picked Ray Bradbury.

When Patti originally suggested Bradbury back in October, I was initially thrilled: after all, he's one of my favourite writers, as evidenced by this post on The Martian Chronicles and this one on The Illustrated Man. But I quickly realised that, despite having read many, many of his short stories – not to mention novels like Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes – having already written about The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, I didn't have any other Bradbury books I could blog about.

Until I remembered these:

The Stories of Ray Bradbury, Volumes 1 and 2. Now, to you, I expect they don't look like much beyond what they seemingly are: ordinary, cheap, uniform cover collections of Bradbury's short stories, published in the UK in paperback – which ties them nicely into my ongoing series of posts on softcovers – by Granada in 1983 (and originally published in hardback in a single volume in the US by Knopf in 1980). I've owned them for years, ever since I originally bought them in, I think, WH Smiths in Beckenham, south London (the town in which I grew up), probably around the time they were published – which would make me thirteen years old (then, not now, obviously).

But here's the thing: they're the only books I've kept from my childhood. Admittedly I didn't own that many books back then; I read a lot, but most of what I read, besides comics, was borrowed from Beckenham Library – see this post on Doctor Who novelisations for more. I did own some books, although what most of them were I can't for the life of me think now, or recall what happened to them – they're all long gone. But these; these battered Ray Bradbury anthologies: they've stayed with me, through various moves, relocations, re-relocations, attendant clear-outs and stints in lofts – which is where I retrieved them from for this post.

To be honest, I'm not sure I'd put too much stock in this; if I'd actually owned some Doctor Who novels or whatever the hell else I was reading back then, I'm sure I would have kept some of them, so the fact that these two volumes of The Stories of Ray Bradbury have remained in my possession is more a mixture of happenstance and serendipity than anything more significant. But part of the reason I've kept them is undoubtedly the stories themselves. All Bradbury life is here, from a selection of Martian Chronicles – including the horrifying gut-punch classics "Mars is Heaven" and "The Earth Men" – to nursery nightmare "The Veldt", time travel twister "A Sound of Thunder", touching fable "All Summer in a Day", and the elegiac "There Will Come Soft Rains", as well as stories whose titles have become perhaps more famous than the actual tales ("Dark They Were, and Golden Eyed"; "I Sing the Body Electric!").

Across the two volumes there are 100 stories in total, with each book running to around 700 pages – which, with the awesome power of my maths skills, I have calculated comes to 1,400 pages in total. Two great big blocks of Ray Bradbury, marking the first time such a huge selection of his stories had been brought together in paperback, all of them chosen by Bradbury himself.

Not such ordinary books after all, then.

Next in these paperback posts: Patricia Highsmith.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

The Sound of His Horn by Sarban (Sphere, 1970, orig. 1952), feat. Introduction by Kingsley Amis: Book Review

Our next novel in this, the SF segment of a longer series of posts on paperbacks, is a cult work of alternate future fiction originally published in 1952 and largely set roughly 100 years on from then, in a Europe where the Nazis triumphed in World War II:

It's the second Sphere printing of Sarban's The Sound of His Horn, published in paperback in the UK in 1970. I bought this copy for a quid at last year's London Paperback and Pulp Bookfair, the novel – or rather novella; it's quite short – having entered my consciousness as a result of reading Len Deighton's fine alternate history thriller SS-GB. It's one of only three books that Sarban – alias British diplomat John William Wall – published in his lifetime, the others being Ringstones and Other Curious Tales and The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny, which were issued by Peter Davies in the years either side of the original Davies edition of The Sound of His Horn. It took until thirteen years after Wall's death in 1989 for further fictions to emerge – two previously unpublished novellas, collected in the limited edition The Sacrifice and Other Stories by Tartarus Press in 2002, followed eight years later by additional bits and bobs in another limited Tartarus edition, Discovery of Heretics.

In the UK, there was quite a gap between the 1952 hardback edition of The Sound of His Horn and the first paperback edition, too: seventeen years to be precise, the first Sphere printing appearing in 1969. That edition can be seen over on The Groovy Age of Horror; it sports a different cover to the 1970 second printing – photographic, as here, but even more graphic, showing the metal-clawed glove of one of the surgically altered cat women – more on them in a moment – raking across a female stomach. Personally, I find the cover of the 1970 printing, which looks to me like the work of Beverley le Barrow maybe, or Chris Yates, more effective: it's evidently meant to be titillating, but I find it a rather disturbing and queasy affair.

As is sometimes the case with paperbacks, the text in the Sphere edition isn't taken from the Davies first edition; it's taken from this:

The Ballantine paperback edition, published in the US in 1960. There's a copyright line to that effect in the Sphere paperback, but the real giveaway is that the Sphere paperback contains the introduction that Ballantine commissioned especially for the novel, written by none other than Kingsley Amis. Amis's long-held enthusiasm for science fiction was becoming common knowledge around this time: that same year, Ballantine also published in paperback New Maps of Hell, a collection of his lectures on SF, while in 1961 Gollancz in the UK issued both New Maps of Hell and the first volume of Spectrum, an anthology of SF stories selected and edited by Amis and his friend Robert Conquest. 

The Sound of His Horn merits little more than an, admittedly glowing, paragraph in New Maps of Hell, but Amis's introduction to the novel itself stretches to eight pages. Amis identifies Sarban's tale as fantasy rather than science fiction, pointing to its rural setting and the "sexual fantasy" that "gives it its irresistible energy and conviction". This takes various forms: the sadomasochistic garb worn by many of the characters; the aforementioned cat girls, turned into savage killers by the hulking Count Hans von Hackelnberg, Master of the Reich's Forests; an orgiastic feast – all aspects of the brutal regime the Nazis have established in northern Europe fifty years hence, a kind of feudal amusement park where flabby Obersts hunt game – both animal and human – and indulge their every pleasurable whim. All this is described by Alan Querdilion, an escapee from a wartime German prison camp who finds himself inexplicably flung into the far future.

Kingsley Amis, whose opinion in such matters I greatly respect, quite rightly hailed the "literary qualities" of The Sound of His Horn, qualities it shares, I'd suggest, with the work of Geoffrey Household. For the books that The Sound of His Horn most readily brought to my mind were Household's: Rogue Male (1939), A Rough Shoot (1951), Dance of the Dwarfs (1968) and others. Not so much the sexuality, although that is certainly evident in at least Dance of the Dwarfs; more the rural locale and the theme of hunting. Like Household, John Wall had a passion for the countryside and for hunting, and seemingly shared with Household the belief that hunting should be for the pot, not for sport. Querdilion's plight in The Sound of His Horn, pursued by cat girls and dog boys, recalls that of Raymond Ingelram in Rogue Male, and even Wall's elegant first person style is very similar to Household's. That said, The Sound of His Horn is a thing all its own – a brief but haunting novel, a "strange combination of daydream and nightmare", as Amis puts it in his introduction, adding: "So compelling is it that I shall always feel a slight twinge whenever I am reminded of the innocent English hunting song from which the title is taken."

Next: Ray Bradbury.

Sunday 2 December 2012

True Blood: The Vampire in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (Corgi, 1960) and Justin Cronin's The Passage and The Twelve (Orion, 2010/2012)

Thus far in this series of posts on paperbacks, the books under discussion – if my incoherent keyboard-clattering claptrap could be characterised as such – have all been of a crime or spy bent: Edward S. Aarons's Assignment to Disaster; Richard Stark's The Green Eagle Score; Elmore Leonard's The Big Bounce. To mix things up a bit, then, I thought we could look at some science fiction and fantasy paperbacks next, beginning with this:

A 1960 British Corgi paperback printing of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. This is actually the second Corgi edition (Corgi #SS854), following the 1956 first printing (Corgi #T197, which in turn followed the 1954 US Fawcett Gold Medal original), which sported a different treatment and illustration on the cover – a head-and-shoulders illustration of the novel's protagonist, Robert Neville, the last man alive, set against a staked vampire in a barren landscape (presumably an interpretation of the book's burning vampire pit). Corgi were evidently happier with the artwork on the 1960 edition, however – which depicts Neville looming over his staked wife, Virginia – as for their next edition, in 1962 (Corgi #SS1213), they went with this:

Now, on first inspection, that appears to be the same painting as on the previous edition. Look closer, however – click on the picture to zoom in – and you can see that the artwork has either been painted over, or painted afresh. The brush marks are smoother; the areas of contrast on Virginia not so stark; and the underpainting is less visible, in particular on the hillock, where in the previous version, the pink "ground" can be clearly seen.

To be honest, I'm not sure which one I prefer; they both have their merits, as does the type treatment on both covers. Frankly, early Corgi editions of I Am Legend are so scarce – certainly moreso than Gold Medal editions, and those are pretty uncommon as it is – I may well keep them both.

I'd already seen two of the three movie adaptations of I Am Legend – the Charlton Heston classic The Omega Man (1971) and the eponymous 2007 Will Smith version (which I watched as a slightly unfestive pre-Christmas treat that year, and rather enjoyed) – before reading the book, but neither of those films really captures the essence of the novel. For one thing, in the book, the cause of mankind's downfall is unequivocally vampirism, not mutants or whatever the hell those creatures in the I Am Legend movie are; Matheson's interpretation of it, sure, but explicitly named as such. For another, the way the vampires verbally taunt Neville – barricaded in his brownstone – especially his neighbour, Ben Cortman, brings an added layer of cruelty and torture to proceedings. And where both adaptations pull back from the brink of outright nihilism, Matheson doesn't blink: the horror and despair is unrelenting, with every glimmer of hope quickly extinguished, right down to the final twist in the tale, which upends both ours and Neville's perception of his plight.

One thing Matheson does in I Am Legend is strive to establish a scientific background for vampirism – and it just so happens I've recently finished reading another novel which attempts a similar thing:

Justin Cronin's splendidly sprawling epic The Twelve (Orion, 2012) – which, I think, is the best "new" book I've read this year – the sequel to this:

The Passage (Orion, 2010). Obviously there are differences between Cronin and Matheson, not least being that the former's magnum opus is by this point well over a thousand pages long and still only two-thirds done, whereas the latter's novel barely troubles 150 pages. Even so, they both offer explanations for the vampire – except that they approach their explanations from different directions. In I Am Legend, Neville tries to determine the scientific basis of each symptom of the, on the surface, seemingly supernatural disease of vampirism – living death, fear of garlic, etc. – in order to arrive at a cure. But in The Passage and The Twelve, right from the outset Cronin painstakingly establishes the scientific basis for each vampiric manifestation – from an encounter with Amazonian vampire bats and consequent US military experimentation to, in The Twelve, the appearance of "familiars" – and builds a supernatural mythology from there. Interestingly, this sense of opposites meeting in the middle extends even to the root cause: in I Am Legend it's bacteriological, while in The Passage and The Twelve it's viral.

Anyway: onwards. And next, two paperback editions of a key work of dystopian science fiction, featuring an introduction by Kingsley Amis...