Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Tower by P. M. Hubbard: First Edition (Geoffrey Bles, 1967), Book Review

NB: Linked in Friday's Forgotten Books, 29/5/15.

Do authors know when they've written a duff book? Kingsley Amis was in little doubt that he had with I Like it Here (1958), later calling it "a very slipshod, lopsided piece of work". Patricia Highsmith certainly knew she had with A Game for the Living (1958), describing it (in Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction) as "the one really dull book I have written". And of A Thirsty Evil (1974), P. M. Hubbard wrote (to the wife of his friend and fellow novelist Alan Kennington) "'s not one I'm very keen on myself".

I'm a lot keener on A Thirsty Evil than Hubbard was, but I'd be interested to find out what he thought of The Tower. Chances are he would have been as self-effacing about it as he was all his novels – "they are not very good books," he wrote in a letter to critic Tom Jenkins, although he did concede they were "beautifully written" – but in the case of The Tower, he would have had a point.

Published by Geoffrey Bles in 1967 under a stark, strident dust jacket designed by Donald Green (also to be found, naturally, in the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery), The Tower was Hubbard's fifth novel for adults, and the first of three to be issued by Bles (Hubbard's chief publisher to this point had been Michael Joseph). It's also, I think, Hubbard's weakest novel (at least of those that I've read, which is well over half). As one would expect of the author, it's nicely written in that detached, wry, almost arch manner of his, and additionally it boasts some divertingly off-piste word choices – a "bedizened" here, a "pargeted" there. But it lacks either the intensity of A Hive of Glass (1965) or The Holm Oaks (1965), or the charm and vigour of Flush as May (1963) or Picture of Millie (1964).

I wonder if it's the setting that lets the thing down – not in the sense that it's not an intriguing place in and of itself, because it is, at least mildly so: a fictional English village, Coyle, where one night a year the locals build a pyre and parade around with flaming torches held aloft (remind you of anywhere...?). No, it's more the lack of that main character in so many of Hubbard's novels, the British countryside, or rather a discombobulating rustic locale or unusual and unnerving feature of that countryside. For the most part Hubbard confines himself here to Coyle, and so that feeling of a somehow dangerous rurality is missing from the book, although Hubbard tries to counter that by making the eponymous bell tower of St. Udan's church the focus of such action as there is, and at least introduces a superficial sense of unease in the shape of the pyre atop the "tump" (shades of The Wicker Man there).

It doesn't help that Hubbard's lead, John Smith, who lands in Coyle as a result of car trouble, prosaically – and thus appositely – enough, is a rather less tortured soul than others of the author's protagonists. Certainly he's bewitched by a wayward woman, as is the wont of Hubbard's males, but only marginally so, and soon comes to his senses anyway, finding himself a more orthodox romantic interest instead. Hubbard admitted in a subsequent letter to Tom Jenkins that "places mean more to me than people", and it's true that in most of his novels the place is usually more memorable than any of the people; but even by that measure John Smith is an unengaging creation. Perhaps that's why Hubbard named him so: an ordinary name for an ordinary character – albeit one who prompts the odd amusing moniker-related line (for instance,  "...he felt an overpowering urge to tell her that he really was John Smith. Someone had to be") – leading an ordinary – but still readable – book.

An earlier review of The Tower can be found over at The Passing Tramp.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Holm Oaks by P. M. Hubbard: First Edition (Michael Joseph, 1965), Book Review

NB: Included in Friday's Forgotten Books, 22/5/15.

I haven't read every single one of the eighteen novels that British cult suspense novelist P. M. Hubbard published from 1963–1979, but I have read well over half of them by this point – enough, I reckon, and given everything I've learned about the writer since Book Glutton introduced me to his work four years ago, to venture that The Holm Oaks might be the quintessential Hubbard novel.

It's also one of the scarcest in first (although readily available in print-on-demand or ebook from the Langtail Press): I fortuitously chanced upon a copy of the 1965 Michael Joseph first edition in Tunbridge Wells only very recently, but I should imagine the odds of anyone making a similarly serendipitous discovery are pretty slim, and I don't believe there are any British firsts available online at present (although fellow Hubbard enthusiast Polecat reports that he nabbed one on eBay fairly recently, plus there are one or two extant listings for the US first, published by Atheneum in 1966). Still, scarcity in first is a characteristic of all four of the Hubbard novels published by Joseph, and increasingly so of those published by Geoffrey Bles and Macmillan as well; the number of Hubbard devotees may be small, but I'd hazard the number of Hubbard first editions available to buy is smaller yet.

Happily, since I first wrote about Hubbard in 2011, a further fifteen of his novels have been reissued as ebooks by Orion imprint The Murder Room, so it's now rather easier to read him, if not collect him. And anyone interested in doing so could do a lot worse than starting with The Holm Oaks, so characteristic is it of his oeuvre. There's the preoccupation with an unsettling feature of the British countryside, in this case the eponymous oak tree wood; there's the obsessive romance, with the male lead – Jake Haddon here, who inherits a remote coastal house adjacent to the aforementioned wood and moves in with his wife, Elizabeth, and her sister, Stella – "losing his shit", as Book Glutton once put it – over Carol, the wife of the owner of the wood, Dennis Wainwright; there's the increasingly pervasive but unspecified sense of doom; and there's the dry humour and wry one-liners.

There's also a short stretch where the narrative adopts the jauntier tone of Hubbard's earliest novels (for adults), Flush as May (1963) and Picture of Millie (1964), as Jake and Elizabeth assume the joint mantle of eco-warriors, dashing about the countryside enlisting the aid of councillors and subcommittees in a bid to save the wood from destruction at the hands of Dennis Wainwright; but this doesn't last long; for the most part the book has more in common with the gloomy – but superb – A Hive of Glass (1965) or A Thirsty Evil (1974). However, in regard to that aspect of the plot the novel could almost be seen as a prototypical eco thriller; ornithologist Elizabeth's case for rescuing the wood from Dennis's nefarious designs rests on it being the roosting ground for a night heron, and even Jake argues for the survival of the wood in its own right and not merely because of what he gets up to in it with Carol.

The dust jacket of the Michael Joseph edition was designed by the wonderfully – and strangely appositely – named H. Bridgeman Grimley, and I've added it to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page. The Holm Oaks was the last Hubbard novel to be published by Joseph; his next was published by Geoffrey Bles, and I shall be writing about that book very soon.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Jim Woodring's Frank, Fran, Congress of the Animals, Weathercraft and The Lute String

Earlier this year, on one of my now infrequent trips up to London (as in, central London; I still get up to south London fairly regularly to see my family... not that that has any bearing on proceedings), I picked up a hardback (first edition, naturally) of Jim Woodring's graphic novel Fran, published by Fantagraphics in 2013. As both a sequel and a prequel to Woodring's 2011 graphic novel Congress of the Animals – how it can be both things defies explanation, like much of Woodring's work – and the third such full-length graphic novel Woodring has published in the last five years – the other being 2010's Weathercraft – it made for a nice addition to my bijou Woodring collection, which I subsequently retrieved from the loft – see also this post – and which basically comprises those three hardback books plus a 1998 L'Association anthology of Frank stories – titled simply Frank – and The Lute String, a slim but splendid Japanese graphic novel starring Frank, Pupshaw and Pushpaw and published by Presspop Gallery Publications in 2005.

I've no idea where I got The Lute String, but it's pretty scarce; I can only see one copy online at present, offered by an American seller for about thirty quid. I do know where I got the L'Association Frank though – in Super Heros in Paris, sometime in the early 2000s. It's a first printing, dated September 1998, but more importantly it has a numbered bookplate affixed to the title page, signed by Woodring:

Which brings me back to Fran, my copy of which also sports a signed – initials only – and numbered bookplate – unaffixed in this instance – courtesy of Gosh!, which is where I bought the book:

With its circular illogic – best appreciated in conjunction with Congress of the Animals (although that book seems to be out of print at the moment) – and the queasy, unsettling hold it exerts, Fran is typical of Jim Woodring's Frank comics – a remarkable and remarkably consistent body of work. Indeed, one could compare Fran with the stories collected in Frank, most of which are around twenty years old, and discern no real difference in either quality or style, although I suppose that shouldn't really come as a surprise given the hermetically sealed nature of the universe in which Frank exists. Even so, I think I would still point the Woodring/Frank neophyte to the story "Gentleman Manhog" – or "Gentilhomme porc" as the L'Association edition of Frank has it – as being the Frank story par excellence: a savagely ironic tale of degradation and enlightenment, one which evidently inspired Woodring enough that he reprised and expanded on it for Weathercraft.