Lewis Shiner’s novelette “Love In Vain” first appeared in a 1988 anthology called Ripper! edited by Susan Casper & Gardner Dozois. That’s where I read it. It was the final story in that book and almost the only one I remember.
A few years later, increasingly familiar with Shiner’s fiction, I recognised a trend in some of his stories. Regularly, it appeared to me, Shiner was trying to portray and highlight aspects of male characters’ attitudes to women. It’s not all he does, but it seems significant in several stories. “Love In Vain” when I went back to it, was a prime example.
Dave McKenna is an assistant DA in Dallas, returning to his old town to interview a murderer who wants to confess to a few more crimes. Charlie opens up to a lot, admitting a string of murders of young women and details of his crimes. The thing is, he’s admitting to fake murders the authorities invented to test his confessions. The twist comes when he leads police to where he buried one of these non existent murder victims and they dig up her corpse.
What makes this story differ from other serial killer stories is the look it takes at men viewing women. The first thing we learn about Dave is that he has a 7 year old son Jeffrey who watches MTV. Dave admires the latest Heart video for the camera’s lingering shots on the guitarist’s cleavage.
Every time she moved her magnificent breasts seemed to hesitate before they went along, like they were proud, willful animals, just barely under her control.
In the next paragraph Dave notes that he and his wife “hadn’t made love in six weeks. And counting.” Things about Alice that bug him flow into macho driving attitudes and back to Charlie’s murder spree.
Then Dave’s law school friend Jack takes him out at night to a strip bar, where one of the dancers is Dave’s high school ex- Kristi. “It had been an ugly day and there was something in me that was comforted by the sight of young, good looking women with their clothes off.” But “I could hear Charlie’s voice telling me about her titties.” as he admires the waitress.
Charlie tells Dave all the details of his crimes, though Dave says “I don’t want to hear it.” Later after Dave and Kristi make love he thinks about Charlie earnestly confessing “It was just to have sex, that’s all.” Jack though crudely wants details of Kristi.
Throughout “Love In Vain” Shiner repeatedly correlates Charlie’s literal violence against women with Dave’s and Jack’s view of them purely physically. Charlie’s ability to create real victims of imagined crimes links the two, thingifying the lawyers’ leering into his own actual assaults. As the prison guard tells Dave about Charlie: “he figures out what you want him to be, and he tries to be that for you.”
In the final paragraphs Dave says he needs to teach his son “I don’t want him growing up screwed up like the rest of us.” Jack isn’t listening though, he’s watching the same Heart video 7 year old Jeffrey was watching.
“Look at that,” Jack said. “Sweet suffering Jesus. Couldn’t you just fuck that to death?”
In that final line Shiner makes his stand. Charlie and Jack at least, are linked in their misogyny. Violent acts are directly related to violent language. Generations of men pass on their attitudes to their sons, unless, as Dave finally asserts, they do something.
Stu Hennigan works for Leeds City Libraries. When lockdown began he answered the Council’s call for volunteers delivering food parcels, medicines and other essentials around Leeds. GHOST SIGNS is his account of the first couple of months.
At first he is delivering to those affected by the pandemic, unable to get to shops etc. Quickly it becomes obvious that he’s delivering to some of society’s most impoverished, deprived, neglected families and individuals. He sees the most desperate cases, people trapped in the consequences not just of Covid 19 but of the vicious, brutal, dehumanising austerity policies of the previous decade. He sees open substance abuse, faces violence listens to the lonely and the angry and the confused.
Hennigan tells this with an open heart: how he is reluctant to deliver to the street he was threatened on the previous week; about his guilt coming home drained and struggling to give his wife enough help with the kids; about breaking the rules just to ensure something gets to people. He doesn’t hide frustration at services not linking up such as when he goes to collect a prescription only to find a charity volunteer has been there earlier.
These are the tragic details behind the figures, the horrific accounts that hide beneath reports of foodbank use, etc.
GHOST SIGNS is a hard book to recommend. It will make you very angry, make you cry too. You may need to read it in small doses, as I did.
But it might just be one of the most vital, important documents of our times, in bringing the intensely human horrors of our time to light in a personal, individual and very much not victim blaming manner.
And the worst bit? Hennigan writes about his city, a place he clearly loves, Leeds, but others could write similar stories around almost every town and city.
If I could, if it would make any difference at all, I’d buy a copy for every Tory MP in the country.
That person you see on the stage is often not that person you speak to after the gig, at the merch stall. Keeley Forsyth exemplifies this more dramatically than most singers I’ve seen over the last 4 decades.
As the band open she’s not visible, only gradually do we realise she is shuffling, staccato, silent, zombie-esque, down the aisle. Dressed in a black, masculine suit, black boots, her black hair obscures her face as she processes, hunched, bowed, to the chancel.
Against black drapes, minimally lit in purple she is almost invisible as she begins to sing. In a sculpted operatic manner her voice fills the church space, fills your head, supported by delicate, elegiacal drones of piano, synth, cello and harmonium. Her music is a minimal, even liminal, landscape in which her voice stands. A timeless menhir uncovered and weathered and rooted.
If it were just that, simply the voice, Keeley Forsyth would be a remarkable artist, an operatic Nico, a primeval Scott Walker circa Tilt, a glorious Sandy Dillon in flight. As she moves from shadow to shadow to patches of light there is something different. She is beyond singing, to performance.
At one point she lies face down, monstrous breathing, disturbing laughter and singing. Her face is still covered by her hair, and will remain so throughout. The suit, almost David Byrne-like, seems to change shape as she moves. Rising from prostrate she manipulates her body as though lifted like a marionette, perched en pointe boot toes, hulking, disjointed. At times only hands are clear in the dark light. At times the voice and the physicality come together with a unique intensity. She inhabits her songs.
This is a performance, there is no audience engagement breaking the fourth wall, but it is a deeply intimate thing. The trauma implied, and revealed, in Forsyth’s lyrics could be many of us in post-pandemic 2022. Her ability to create whole cloth from what seem like incomplete fragments is uncanny. Quotidian concerns anchor her songs but their loose ends flow freely. Her use of the whole space, of stage, of music, of body, of voice whilst having pure folk echoes also seems jazz like in dynamic. Like a gothic Mary Margaret O’Hara perhaps.
And then, with an arm stretched out, open handed, beckoning or grasping, she leaves the stage.
When she returns, it is with hair tied back, loose limbed again, to thank us. This is not who we were transfixed by for an hour. And yet…it is.
As ever I’m not up to date with a lot of 2021 published books. Just this week I acquired a couple of new titles I’d normally expect to be contenders. (The new Helen Oyeyemi novel Peaces, and Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, if you’re wondering.)
Before getting on to the new though, a belated 2020 title was possibly the most remarkable book I read all year A Ghost In The Throat
Ryka Aoki – Light from Uncommon Stars Demonic bargains, violin prodigies, alien refugees, doughnuts, tender, funny lesbian dating, trans teen trauma. Is that enough? There’s goldfish too.
Jenn Ashworth – Ghosted A Love Story a vanished partner and a woman’s unnerving traumatised response are the core, the flesh is how we negotiate relationships in the strangest of times.
Jeffrey Boakye – Musical Truth a YA targeted series of snapshots of records that shaped Black Britain.
P. Djéli Clark – A Master of Djinn anything Clark wants to write in this wondrous Djinn-inhabited steam punk adjacent detective series just take my money, OK.
Bernardine Evaristo – Manifesto Autobiographical essay sequence casting light on life as a mixed race woman in 60s London on.
Harry Josephine Giles – Deep Wheel Orcadia the prose poem space opera told in Orcadian dialect nobody knew we needed until it was there.
Selena Godden – Mrs Death Misses Death I’ve been pondering how to describe Godden’s debut novel. If you have heard her perform her poetry over the years you will hear this novel in that voice as you read. The most rhythmically brilliant book on here.
Sarah Hall – Burntcoat the post-pandemic nightmare novel only Sarah could write. As ever she tells us much more than we realise in less words. In my opinion the UK’s best author.
Philippa Harrison – Mountain Republic forcing its way onto the list despite not finishing it yet. An epic history of one Lske District parish that somehow stands for more. History, poetry, landscape, politics and a unique democracy combine in a densely referenced, but lightly readable volume.
Rónán Hession – Panenka NOVEL OF THE YEAR one man’s personal identification with his small town’s decline told with affection and resolve.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson – My Monticello another debut, another near future dystopia setting, but mainly a story of family memory, and survival in the aftermath of a resurgence of White Supremacy.
Juliet McKenna – The Green Man’s Challenge Book 4 in one of the most charming, fun fantasy series around. More please.
Kim Moore – All The Men I Never Married Full disclosure, I’ve known Kim about 15 years maybe? I heard her read some of these poems at different times. Detailing the different ways men have treated her (or in one case her twin) this is a vital (full of life) vital (important) collection.
Pat Nevin – The Accidental Footballer I loved this guy from the first time I saw him shimmy past two Newcastle defenders who are probably still wondering how 37 years later. I love this autobiography.
Gillian Polack – The Green Children Help Out one to reread. In a different universe Jews have settled after fleeing the Holocaust. In this universe their help is needed as superheroes. This too is a love story, by the way.
Olga Ravn – The Employees (trans. Martin Aiken) A workplace novel of the 22nd century, told in series of interviews as things fall apart aboard a generation ship. Darkly comic, and never quite revealing what is behind the curtain.
Richard Powers – Bewilderment to say this isn’t as good as The Overstory is like saying K2 isn’t as high as Everest. It’s Powers so it’s great.
Tade Thompson – Far From the Light of Heaven in which Thompson unfolds a classic locked room mystery but on a ship full of sleeping passengers jumping through hyperspace. Juggling multiple SF tropes with his own spin seems to be Tade Thompson’s forte.
Alan Warner – Kitchenly 434 Warner is an underrated author, perhaps because his debut was so spectacular. Lately he’s left the Highland Ballardian communities behind, and this time he offers an uncomfortable rock star hanger on/roadie tale that comes to a shocking conclusion.
Lorraine Wilson – This Is Our Undoing this gripping near future political SF thriller is a great debut combining the break up of nation states, ecological radicalism, family secrets with a tense plot about how we protect our loved ones.
There’s 20 of my favourites. Not a bad year. Several favourites didn’t have a book out, but some did. Several debuts stood ought, but authors continued to impress 10 books in.
Well, what a year of great music. Let me just put that out there. 2021 has been spectacular in the range and depth of new music. And old music updated in the case of Taylor Swift.
My initial scrawled longlist of reminders of 2021 albums went way over 100, but I whittled it down a bit. Then some more.
First then, in alphabetical order, numbers 50-21.
Chantal Acda – Saturday Moon
The Anchoress – The Art of Losing
Avawaves – Chrysalis
Black Country New Road – For the First Time
Carcass – Torn Arteries
Clark – Playground in A Lake
Theon Cross – Intra-I
Dal:um – Similar & Different
Chloë Foy – Where Shall We Begin
Dan Haywood – Country Dustbin
Idles – Crawler
Illuminati Hotties – Let Me Do One More (bonus award for band name of the year!)
The Jesus Bolt – The Kid Got Electric
King Woman – Celestial Blues
Cerys Matthew, Hidden Orchestra & 10 Poets – We Come From The Sun
Mega Bog – Life, And Another
Anna Phoebe – Sea Souls
Doug Pinnick – Joy Bomb
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raise the Roof
Scissorgun – Psychological Colouring Book
serpentwithfeet – Deacon
Snapped Ankles – Forest of Your Problems
Snowdrops – Inner Fires
Sons of Kemet – Black to the Future
Emma-Jean Thackray – Yellow
Tyler, The Creator – Call Me If You Get Lost
Hélène Vogelsinger – Reminiscence
Jane Weaver – Flock
Witch of the East – Savage Beauty
Sami Yaffa – The Innermost Journey to Your Outermost Mind
At this point I should say that several of the albums already listed came very close to the Top 20. How do you pick between death metal, ondes martenot and gospel hip hop?
So to the Top 20 (cue Whole Lotta Love, the CCS version, if you’re my age, Yellow Pearl if you’re younger.)
20 Spiritbox – Eternal Blue this genre fluid Canadian alternative metalcore debut has hooks galore.
19 Lost Girls – Menneskekollektivet OK I had to double check that title, but this Norwegian free-form art duo featuring Jenny Hval and Håvard Volden is easy to listen to.
18 Al’Tarba – Le Cabinet des Curiosités vol 1 it’s probably no surprise that Toulousian Al’Tarba’s gothic hip hop found a home on I.O.T. Records.
17 Yay Maria – Oyez affirmative queer pop from the artist previously heard as Grawl!x
16 Irreversible Entanglements – Open the Gates Camae Ayewa’s jazz group may end up ranked higher if I revisit this list with time to explore the complexity here.
15 The Hermes Experiment – Song Héloise Werner’s grinning soprano is the first thing you notice, but at times the witty double bass from Marianne Schofield is my favourite aspect of this contemporary classical quartet.
14 Nubya Garcia – Source # We Move remixes of sax star Garcia’s great 2020 album Source some of which create something really new.
13 The Weather Station – Ignorance Tamara Lindeman’s choice of Toronto jazz players to back her on this gives an obvious Joni Mitchell feel but she’s up to it.
12 Christine Ott – Time to Die prolific Ondes Martenot player Ott’s solo work isn’t vastly different to the album she made above as half of Snowdrops but this one cooked in my ears all year.
11 Haiku Salut – The Hill, the Light, the Ghost an album that sounds exactly like a Haiku Salut record until it doesn’t quite. Which is where the ghost comes in. And it starts with recorded birdsong so that’s me hooked.
This is difficult. Numbers 20-11 could almost have been a Top 10.
10 Hannah Peel – Fir Wave Peel had access to Delia Derbyshire tapes and uses them within her own work here. The result is haunting and timeless.
9 This Ship Argo – Always the Bees: Never the Honey another Northern Irish electronic artist, Aileen McKenna adds her folky voice to the mix
8 Albertine Sarges – The Sticky Fingers an album that begins quoting Sara Ahmed on Feminist Theory has to be good, right? That it is also a shape-shifting electro guitar pop mix of Viv Albertine and Tune-Yards is even better.
7 Afterlight self titled debut album for Afterlight who is Thea Gilmore in a new form, writing and singing about escaping a long, toxic and abusive marriage. As with poet Kim Moore (see my Books of the Year coming soon) she turns this trauma into art, to passion and ultimately positivity.
6 Self Esteem – Prioritise Pleasure the purest pop on my list, an unapologetic assertion of insecurity and intimacy full of wit and reflection equally.
5 Chris Eckman – Where the Spirit Rests the first solo album in 8 years from Chris picks up where he left off with Harney County and the final Walkabouts album Travels in the Dustland. Short stories, some less abstract than others, in song that find the heart of small-town working life and love.
4 Penelope Trappes – Three a post-techno 4AD record? Glib but the simplest way to describe this warm, bright but intimate album.
3 Veryan – Here an artist I discovered through the remarkable Cue Dot Series and fell in love with. When instrumental music is described as being about something tangible it often feels arbitrary. In her work Veryan vividly conveys a sense of landscape and place within. At times evoking hints of an electronic version of Mark Knopler’s wide-open 80s soundtracks for Local Hero and Cal but very much in the now.
2 Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders & the LSO – Promises turn down the lights, turn up the volume and close your eyes, then follow this in your mind. People expressed surprise at this collaboration but in hindsight it seems the spiritual, emotional musical links are obvious.
1 Divide and Dissolve – Gas Lit the most visceral, yet controlled, urgent heavy record of the year. Global, political, anti-colonial doom metal tinged drone rock (and is that Angela Davis on one track?).
As I said, what a great year. An arbitrary list in some ways. You could juggle the Top dozen or so and I wouldn’t have an argument against that order. I think in the end the top albums were ones I saturated in through the year. The others I loved interstitially.
Some years ago now, I found myself employed in a country hotel a few miles north of here. It was an establishment of, shall we say, former repute. A combination of village hostelry and charming restaurant and residential accommodation.
At the time of which I am writing, my role was of a night porter, a new idea intended to restore a certain standard. After attending to any late drinks, and closing down the bar, which was seldom late midweek, I had various duties preparing for the morning. Many of these I could accomplish quickly sat at a table in the kitchens.
On occasion however I would take a walk around the building, ensuring security and completing minor tasks. It was at this time that the curious character of the hotel was most apparent.
Let me tell you the history of the building. At the Eastern end, it ran approximately East-west, had been a vicarage built in the mid 17th century to support the church which now sat across a main road built between the wars. The Western end, and parts hidden from the main prospect, were of a predominantly 60s design. On my rounds I would ensure the dining room was set for breakfast, including the small conservatory referred to as the aviary. This room was a Victorian extension where the two unwed ladies who took on the house when a new vicarage was built, would sit listening to birdsong.
From there I took the wide old staircase to one of multiple landings. As is often the case with such an old building the corridors were uneven, with single steps up or down at various points. The walls, those that seemed original or at least of significant age, were not the flat, matt of a Travelodge but warped and distorted. Some previous owners had laid carpet along the centre of the corridors, with varnished wood each side. A fleur de lys pattern was worn and faded but still visible bordered by a darker band lining it.
I was surprised nobody ever commented that a straight line on an uneven floor, with uneven walls, is not ideal for the brain to interpret and coordinate. When I was walking these floors at 1 or 2 a.m. with minimal emergency lighting the effect was, unusual I might say. The visuals were added to, as I walked, by the creaks of certain older boards. In one old section each step cracked and wheezed, followed a second or two later by it creaking back into place. The resulting sounds conjured a persistent sense of being followed close behind.
Step creak … creak.
Back in the warm comfort of the kitchen everything was chrome and laminate and crisply modern bar the floor. This was stone tiled, with one exception: a glass tile over what had once been a well. Why it was there, I couldn’t say. Being a foot or so from the service area it was hard to ignore and as if I sat one side of the table it was resolutely in my eyeline.
Each night chef left me a meal in the hotplate so, duties attended to, I sat down for a meal in the coldest part of the night. With the heat of the hotplate beside me I could be comfortable with a book for an uninterrupted couple of hours. All being well nothing should disturb me until the papers were delivered some time after 6.
All being well. On the night I now recount I sat, not wholly concentrating on my book, when I saw movement. At the end of the kitchen were double doors, an in out arrangement to the restaurant, each with a glass panel at face height. Once through the doors to the right was a wall, a partition behind which sat the restaurant reception desk. To the left, steps to the dining area itself.
From the corner of my eye I saw a non-descript vaguely outlined figure pass from left to right beyond the doors. Nobody could have been in the restaurant. I had locked up myself hours before, once I completed setting the aviary for breakfast. Nobody could have walked from left to right without hitting the partition wall. And with the lights off nobody should have had that faintly illuminated glow.
Nevertheless, I picked up the keys to check. The doors were locked. The lights were off. There was no draught to blow a stray napkin. And of course, there was nobody there.
Working nights has recognised effects on those who do so long term. Around 4 a.m. the normal body metabolism has slowed as you sleep, but on a night shift you feel the cold, you tire most at this point, your focus drifts. A flicker in a tired eye becomes a spectral figure in a tired brain. There’s a logical explanation for everything. So when it happened a second night, and a third, I was sure I’d imagined it the first time and that memory resurfaced on subsequent occasions. I wasn’t worried, though I admit I glanced over my shoulder as I walked the creaking corridor and moved my chair further from the glass well top.
These events took place around 25 years ago, and I’d almost forgotten them. I only worked nights for a few weeks. That job and the people I worked with are long in my past. Life is good these days. I sleep well at night.
But recently I ran into an old customer from the hotel days. We reminisced about people from those days and he told me the building had been renovated. “They restored a lot of the old vicarage part,” he said. “I had a look around while it was being done.”
What he told me reminded me of those nights, and made me shiver.
They had found a passage, a tunnel, from beneath that restaurant lobby area towards the old churchyard across the main road on the hill. It was blocked by the new road but the vicarage end remained untouched for centuries.
Sarah Hall’s sixth novel is inevitably defined elsewhere as a pandemic novel. An account of after and before a brutal virus AG3 or Nova kills millions brutally, of lockdown and societal near-collapse seems almost too soon, superficially. But as Hall’s narrator, sculptor Edith, says at the end:
It cannot possibly comfort, or reparate.
This is not a comforting novel, nor requiem for the victims of our own pandemic. By setting Burntcoat in a significantly distant future, maybe a decade or more hence, Hall avoids such platitudes. Burntcoat is brutal, sensuous, a novel for which the obvious adjective is visceral. It is tragic, erotic, political, subtly caustic and not always so subtle about it. As previously with Hall, it is defiantly northern feminist too.
When Edith is eight years old, her novelist mother has a catastrophic brain haemorrhage requiring emergency surgery. She recovers changed, she has become Naomi and her dysphasic symptoms have changed her. After divorce Naomi takes Edith to live in a remote cottage in the fells. Think of the cottage in Withnail and I perhaps.
When older Edith becomes an artist, eventually a sculptor working partly in the Japanese technique of shou sugi ban where heat and flame decorate and protect wood. After winning a major award she buys Burntcoat, a near derelict former riverside warehouse to live and work in. It is here that much of the second half of the novel occurs, and this cavernous, shadow-filled edifice could tempt the Gothic label onto the novel. I’m hesitant though.
In a couple of older works Sarah Hall has used a faux second person technique where she writes “You” but it becomes clear that it is an absent character being addressed rather than the reader. In Burntcoat it is Halit, Edith’s Turkish lover, who is spoken to thus. The effect is a distancing even as Edith describes sex and sickness in unsettlingly intimate detail. There is a lot of sex but Hall, who edited an anthology called Sex & Death, writes a non-voyeuristic, urgent eroticism.
Almost from the start we learn that Edith survived the virus but many years later it has resurfaced inside her. So her descriptions of a truncated childhood with Naomi, of studies cut short, of a career stalled by abrupt success, all prefigure what is to come.
But Hall isn’t melancholy or even Romantic, her gaze is sharp, steely and determined. This is a novel only Sarah Hall could have written, with its themes of much of her earlier work. At times I thought of several of her short stories, ‘Evie’, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, and of course ‘Orton’, and settings and subject matter in some scenes echo at least three of her other novels. There are sections of Burntcoat that bear the feel of braided short stories, though the whole is just about cohesive. These echoes are, I think, deliberate as Edith’s latter days show similarities to the last book Naomi wrote, and whose words Halit painted on the walls of Burntcoat.
It is also a science fiction novel, again not for the first time in Hall’s oeuvre. This is not our pandemic, not our timeline, possibly not quite our landscape. There is a female Prime Minister, struggling to contain the crisis, described as visibly ageing over the weeks (“Don’t you think she looks tired?” came to mind.) The virus itself is not Covid, the effects more grotesque in Hall’s detail, and the latent decades delayed relapse which ultimately drives the novel is, we hope, fiction. The landscape is real, the childhood home I could drive you to as I could Carhullan before. Yet where is Burntcoat, the edifice on the riverbank of an unnamed northern city? Where is the market where Edith orders her trees, it feels foreign and yet cannot be.
Planning Edith’s award winning statue, a giant carved and burnt wooden sheela na gig witch figure above Scotch Corner (no angel!) Edith’s engineering collaborator Sean
“even factored the measurements of the Helm Wind, reversed, which never blew from the west.
Nice bit of science fiction, I’m sure it’ll help.”
When Naomi’s work comes back into fashion Edith tells us bluntly:
They’ve reassessed her writing, the label of Gothic stripped off like cheap varnish. Karolina once said to me the term is used for women whose work the establishment enjoys but doesn’t respect. Men are the existentialists.
The pandemic, our pandemic not Hall’s, has raised challenges to established orders. Hall with Burntcoat has picked up and amplified them. The battles of the single mother, the woman artist, the strong northern woman. This is not so much a novel about our pandemic but a novel where her pandemic is a device that strips the veneer, that burns the coat of the wood, to reveal the guts beneath. It does not comfort or reparate.
83 years ago today the great American novelist Thomas Wolfe died in a Baltimore Hospital, so that means today is Howard Waldrop’s 75th birthday. (Wild Cards! fans will know 15th September 1946 for Jetboy’s doomed attempt to defeat Dr. Tachyon in ‘Thirty Minutes Over Broadway’. It was a Sunday not a Tuesday.)
Howard Waldrop is usually described as a writer whose work (almost entirely shorter fiction) is indefinable. I disagree. John Clute uses the term desiderium to describe Waldrop’s Science Fiction. I disagree, in part. It is said, including by Waldrop himself, that he never writes the same story twice. This I almost agree with.
The stories of Howard Waldrop are predominantly characterised by their use of historical figures, settings and events; and by literary and mass media figures, settings and events; and the combination of the two. They become a curious riff on the alternate history as most often attempted. It is in this respect that Clute proposes that:
Waldrop’s “nostalgia” for the icons and lifestyles of the 1940s or 1950s is not nostalgia at all. A better word to describe this complex emotion, one which deeply characterises his work, is desiderium — a term which may be defined as a state of intense longing for something that never literally existed, but should have. (Pardon This Intrusion, 2011, p220)
This works until we look at exactly who those figures Waldrop adopts are. With very few exceptions they are writers, actors, musicians, performers of every kind. Those who aren’t, are filtered through the lens of old movies and TV series. People who adopt a persona or have it imposed upon them.
In his first notable solo publication, ‘Der Untergang des Abendlandesmenschen’ (1976) silent movie era cowboy actors William S Hart and Bronco Billy Anderson fight nosferatu in 1920s Bremen. The vampire is ultimately defeated using a an armband ripped from a German corporal. “On its red cloth was a white circle with a twisted black cross.” The Germans adorn the dead vampire with a Star of David like the one Hart wore ‘when he played Ben-Hur on Broadway.’ The alternate timelines of a Waldrop story are not usually better worlds, despite the title of his collected stories Other Worlds, Better Lives, but different and individual.
ISFDB tells me Waldrop has published around 80 stories to date, but if you haven’t yet had the thrill of a Howard Waldrop story where do you begin? There’s an obvious choice, one I have thrust on many a friend in the past, but I’ll come to that shortly. Here are ten a dozen (it was a tough job choosing) of my personal favourites, in chronological order of publication.
1. Mary Margaret Road Grader. (1976) A feminist love story of sorts set in a post-automotive future where Native American-esque groups celebrate and compete in tractor pull events. There is a nostalgic final line, but the story is about the little things we do, and the strength of our myths. ‘Changes in history come easy, you know?’ feels like the most significant line in Waldrop’s early oeuvre.
2. The Ugly Chickens (1980) The obvious one. The dodo story. If you know Waldrop you know this one. A researcher uncovers evidence that dodos survived until Depression-era Mississippi. Obviously it’s nostalgic, who wouldn’t want to believe the dodo wasn’t extinct, but that’s not what the story is about. As with so many other Waldrop stories here he writes with compassion about the little people that big History forgets.
3. Ike At the Mike (1982) Possibly the archetype for people who try to write a fun Waldrop-like story. (Trust me I’ve done that.) Jazz legends Eisenhower and Patton, Senator Presley, Ambassador Pratt… Waldrop sometimes looks like he’s taken a lucky dip approach to history, but the details tell otherwise. The details are about how we got here. The details reveal multiple jonbar points, global and personal, and close reading shows that they’re not what we might wish for.
4. Flying Saucer Rock’n’Roll (1985) When Rock critic Charles Shaar Murray once said that if he edited a rock’n’roll anthology half of it would be by Howard Waldrop he probably had this story foremost in mind. A doo wop singing competition over territorial rights in 1965 New York, tied in with the UFO craze of the time, and, no spoilers, a major historical event.
5. Heirs Of the Perisphere (1985) Almost all Waldrop stories are set in a version of the past, ‘Mary Margaret Road Grader’ being the notable exception. This one is set 1500 plus years from now but is about the 1939 World’s Fair, Disney world and the permanence of cultural icons beyond the apocalypse. And about friendship.
6. French Scenes. (1985) Arguably this story, like ‘Der Untergang des Abendlandesmenschen’ earlier, takes place within a movie. Waldrop loves movies for what they tell us about what we are. This is small town Texan nouvelle vague.
7. Night of the Cooters. (1987) Two things, Bill Hicks observed how UFO sightings always happened to “small groups of rednecks in Southern towns” and I always wondered why major SF events only happened in one place. Howard Waldrop’s Martians didn’t just land on Horsell Common but some landed in rural Texas.
8. A Dozen Tough Jobs (1988) Oh Brother, where is the movie of this novella? The Labours of Hercules transposed to 1930s Mississippi. Houlka Lee is a convict sentenced to work for Boss Eustis for a year. Told by fellow servant I.O.Lace the Labours are secondary, barely on the page in some cases, because the subject is how people treated each other in the Depression and why things happened. See also ‘The Ugly Chickens’
9. Fin de Cyclé (1989). J.G.Ballard wrote ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’ in the 60s. Waldrop writes about the Dreyfuss Affair as a velocipede race. And again it is about the impact on the individual rather than the global.
10. You Could Go Home Again (1993) This is why Thomas Wolfe’s death in 1938 was my opening line. It’s the story that Clute cites as example of desiderium and the one I consider exemplar of Waldrop’s Romanticism. There is much to say about this story of Wolfe recuperating from the surgery he died during in our timeline. He is travelling by airship home from the 1940 Tokyo Olympics when he meets two British military men, Ross and Norway, and is entertained by pianist Fats Waller. Aside from being packed with typical Waldrop obscure references and touchstones, this story shows me what all those other actors and characters are doing in his work. Yes, there’s a poignancy about Wolfe not remaining his former personality which could be desiderium but more importantly I think, there’s a demonstration in the choice of the five characters of how imagination works, how the individual works, of almost Coleridgean thingifying. It’s a masterpiece.
11. The Sawing Boys (1994) Fairytale retellings became popular in the 90s. Waldrop used The Musicians of Brementon to pastiche Damon Runyon in a tale about the non-linear spread of mass communications. Or so he says.
13. Heart of Whitenesse. (1997) The road trip (or airship) is another Waldrop device for scenery settings. On this occasion an ice ship up the frozen Thames with Christopher Marlowe channeling Philip Marlow and as the title implies, Conrad’s Marlow too. Such are the layers and recycling of history that fascinate and inspire Waldrop. Not what could have been but why it was how it was.
14. US (1998) Three views of the same event. The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr in 1932 where the baby lives and grows up. Three views therefore of the US in the 40s, 50s and 60s. None of which are nostalgic.
So that’s Waldrop. Writing not simply about what could have been, not with a longing, but about why it didn’t happen with compassion and tenderness. As the author himself said his reason for writing ‘The Effects Of Alienation’ was ‘to find out what effect Hitler winning World War II would have had on Peter Lorre.’ Not how the world would have changed. Using the mythologies of public figures to decode the mythology of our times without regret, without the wishful thinking of nostalgia. Instead tying the threads of history together.
In his most recent published story ‘Till the Cows Come Home to Roost’ (2018) Waldrop links the frontier feuds of the Lincoln County War with 50s Hollywood and a famous literary feud of the 70s. Threads that pull together to show how and why, not simply could have been. This is the thread that makes Waldrop definable. An alternate approach to history.
In bold capitals Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost In The Throat lays down a statement of identity in the very first line.
THIS IS A FEMALE TEXT.
A Ghost In The Throat, which has just won the 2021 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, is in fact a book with multiple identities all of which sit beneath that initial statement. The final sentence of the book is a repeat of the first, holding all else that passes these pages within that identity.
It is a memoir, a biography, a description of historical detection, a lament, literary criticism, perhaps a prose poem and more. Doireann Ní Ghríofa first came across the 18th century Irish poem An Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire at school, but it was a few years later that she began first to feel it resonate with her, then to obsess her. The Lament for Art O’Leary as it usually translated, was composed by Art’s widow Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill after his murder in 1773. The poet and Oxford professor Peter Levi called it the greatest poem written in the British Isles in the 18th century, and it has been described as one of the greatest love poems in the Irish language.
For Ní Ghríofa though, it is more. It became the mystery of who really was Eibhlín Dubh, what happened to her? A Ghost In The Throat is her account of researching the older poet’s life, alongside creating her own deeply personal translation. She doesn’t name names, but Ní Ghríofa makes it clear that all the earlier translations lacked a certain life-force for her. Though already a poet with several volumes, and awards, to her name, this a bold claim considering earlier versions bore the names of Thomas Kinsella, Frank O’Connor, Paul Muldoon and, just a few years prior to Ní Ghríofa, Vona Groarke. A bold claim, “brazen audacity” in her own words, but indicative of how deeply Ní Ghríofa bonded with Eibhlín Dubh.
Quite early Ní Ghríofa shows her cards. Noting that Dubh is remembered, if at all, as wife or aunt to famous men. (Her nephew was Daniel O’Connell.)
“How swiftly the academic gaze places her in a masculine shadow, as though she could only be of interest as a satellite to male lives.”
She explains that as a Caoineadh the original was in oral form, passed down by women, and for this reason it is often suggested that Dubh was not the sole author. A not unusual accusation aimed at women authors. Drily, and almost in passing, Ní Ghríofa records that Art’s father was credited with part of the poem, despite predeceasing Art by several years.
In 2012 Ghriofa notes,
“This is a female text, written in the twenty-first century. How late it is. How much has changed. How little.”
The investigation into the lives of Eibhlín, her sister, mother, her sons is in itself an intriguing mystery. Finding letters between Eibhlín’s estranged brothers gives hints, rarely more, about her.
Ní Ghríofa is forced by dead ends and blank spaces again and again to try new routes. At one point she finds a list of marriages including that of a descendent of Eibhlín Dubh’s family. It shows date, husband’s name and family origin, wife’s name and family origin in each case except the one of interest where no bride is actually named. Of such blank spaces are women’s histories formed.
But as much as this is a lament for Eibhlín Dubh and her due place in history, this is a personal memoir of Doireann Ní Ghríofa. She begins her self-appointed task whilst pregnant with her third child. As Eibhlín Dubh was that day she rushed to the site of her husband’s murder. We know already that Art O’Leary left his wife doing household tasks and child care never to return. Are we meant to anticipate some parallel tragedy when Doireann begins by waving her man off to work? Gladly it doesn’t come to that, but we are drawn into identifying the two poets, the two mothers, as linked.
Doireann Ní Ghríofa describes how she snatches moments to work on her translation whilst feeding baby the third; how she hopes the children will stay quiet for even 10 minutes in the library archive; how she is drawn into imagining Eibhlín Dubh’s daily life in 1773 Cork as she sits in 2014 outside her son’s nursery.
This is a female text. Doireann breastfeeds each child at her right breast until well into their third year. Her left determines within months to cease production. She tells us this both matter of factly but also in a poetic oral rhythm. Beyond her own children she milks herself to be distributed to premature babies, to those in need. Here I learn the marvellous new to me word Galactagogue – foods which aid and promote lactation.
And Doireann becomes pregnant a fourth time, whilst her eldest is only five years old. This too echoes the women of the Ní Chonaill branch, Eibhlín’s mother Maíre bore 22 and buried 10 children.
In a section I defy any reader not to fret and fear through, this baby struggles, may not be developing enough in the womb, may be dead. In frantic trips the elder children are taken to an aunt, a message sent to her husband who is not allowed a phone at work, and a rush to the hospital. Don’t worry about reception and security, she is advised, they will see your face and know the emergency.
A community of women congregate as their babies struggle and grow in incubators, carefully monitored at every point. The devoted breastfeeding Doireann is angered when the doctor says they need to use formula. She feels rejected, dismissed, a failure. But it is for sound, monitoring reasons to investigate what the baby is, or isn’t absorbing. Doireann’s breast cannot be measured that way. (Instead she notes the E cup right and B cup left, humour in tension.)
These are female texts. Texts rarely linked to the rareified academic literary histories. These are rebel texts written in the bodies of women, the oral keeners.
Art O’Leary was flash, handsome and generous, owner of the finest horse in an age where his sort, Catholics, were prevented from this by the harsh, discriminatory Penal Law. Only if they kept quiet were they tolerated. Under the Penal Law a Catholic was forbidden any horse worth over 5/- but Art won many races on her. For this he fell foul of a local official, and for his refusal to surrender his horse, an excuse was conjured which led to the fatal shooting.
In the Lament, the horse leaves dead Art and flies home. Eibhlín sees the bloodied saddle and allows the horse to carry her to her husband. In a powerful, vivid scene she weeps over his body, ultimately drinking great gulps of his still flowing blood. This symbolic, catholic act, is mentioned without judgment throughout the book. It is the ultimate expression of her desire.
In 21st century Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s desire is her strength and her vulnerability. And she asserts her presence, talking of things normally suppressed, female texts. The need to be pregnant, to feed, the desire for her husband even as post-partum sex hurts. The tolerance of pain so she can please him, and the guilt of misleading him.
It is a carnal text. Written on the body, as Ni Ghríofa says more than once metaphorically, and literally as she chooses lines for a tattoo to be read after her death as medical students dissect her donated cadaver. And I haven’t mentioned those funny scenes as young Doireann studies anatomy.
A Ghost In The Throat is a slender volume containing multitudes. History, poetry, maternity, rage, lust, tragedy and hope, fear and strength. At different moments I wanted to draw different friends’ attention to it, as I saw deep resonances and direct parallels. This, I think, is fitting as Doireann Ní Ghríofa finds echoes of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill in her life almost 250 years on. And fitting perhaps that it is female writers I think of. Writers on the body. Female texts. Texts passed through history by women unnoticed by men.
Pacific Edge (1990) is generally considered to be the utopian aspect of Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Three Californias‘ or Orange County sequence, following the dystopian post-apocalypse The Wild Shore (1984) and the near-future extrapolation of The Gold Coast (1988). However, in Robinson’s typical approach to these things, it is not possible to make such simple judgements. As part of a loose trilogy, or perhaps more correctly of a triptych, Pacific Edge does depict the most idyllic of the three societies. Taken on its own, there are two sides to the novel – ‘Pacific’ and ‘Edge’ – which suggest alternative explanations.
It is possible to consider Pacific Edge alone because, whilst the three books consider a common setting – Orange
County, California – and one common character – Tom Barnard – they are in no sense contiguous. For a start, the
nature of the setting varies: the near-survivalist The Wild Shore, the industrial greed of The Gold Coast and the social harmony of Pacific Edge. Robinson uses Tom as a link with
something approaching our society, and he is the closest Robinson comes to a Heinleinian Wise Old Man figure,
particularly in Pacific Edge. In each book he is effectively the same character; Robinson has said: ‘he shares the same genetic make-up'”(NOVA Express # 7, interview), but his role
varies considerably, and in Pacific Edge he is a reluctant participant for much of the time.
The most important way in which Pacific Edge differs from its predecessors, however, is in a structural device which creates the duality between ‘Pacific’ and ‘Edge’. The ‘Orange County’ side of the story is interspersed with brief scenes from elsewhere, notes from the diary of a man interned in holding camp for those testing HIV+, in a world which is far from utopian. Although comprising just twelve pages of the two-hundred-and-eighty page total, these episodes bear a significance which entirely changes the tone of the novel. It is in these diary scenes that the question of Pacific Edge-as-utopia is raised. (In conversation in 2018 at the UK Eastercon, Robinson told me there were originally more of these scenes but his editor felt they were too dark.)
The narrator of the prison sequences is a lawyer deported from Switzerland in a general clampdown on foreigners by that country, and he is arrested immediately on his return to the USA. The first of these journal entries is dated 2 March 2012, just over fifty years prior to the events in the main body of the novel (p. 30). Scattered clues throughout these sections reveal the identity of the author as a younger Tom Barnard, and this is confirmed on page 257. As Sherry Coldsmith wrote in her review of Pacific Edge. ‘Tom’s journal entries, written during his youth, tell of a period when it seemed that the postmodern fascism described in The Gold Coast was the only possible future‘ (SF Eye #9, pp. 93-4). Throughout Pacific Edge, when the hero Kevin Claiborne encounters political and/or personal difficulties, ‘It is Tom who provides a counterpoint to Kevin’s frustrations and sorrows‘ (SF Eye # 9, p. 94).
However, there is an element to these journal entries which raises important questions about how the rest of the novel should be perceived. Tom is writing a book, which turns out to be a utopia: “a stab at succeeding where my realwork has failed” (p. 30). “Now I’ll change the world in my mind” he writes (p. 31). So, is the story of Kevin and his friends’ ecological campaign and opposition to political corruption Tom’s real future? Or is it the future of Tom’s book an imaginary expression of Tom’s socialist principles, in Tom’s own words: “at least an attempt to clarify my my beliefs, my desires?” Or an attempt to clarify Robinson’s beliefs?
Surely then the existence of Tom’s
journal belies the view that the world of 2012 is the only possible future?
Ultimately, of course, Pacific Edge is all fiction, and the relative reality of one section or another is meaningless
except where it offers clues to the aims of the author.
There are aspects of Tom Barnard in this novel which closely match aspects of Kim Stanley Robinson at the time he was writing Pacific Edge. Like Tom’s, Robinson’s wife was engaged in
scientific research in Switzerland and he lived there for two years. Robinson has no qualms about proclaiming himself a socialist; he did so in an interview for Vector 176:
“I really do what I can in an attempt to salvage what is left of the socialist approach….There are some obvious
principles of fair play and justice that are expressed in the socialist utopian dream that are being trampled badly by the looting and pillage of capitalism… We’re living in the shambles of a bad century here, and you just have to keep making those little attempts to reconnect.” (pp. 7-8).
It seems clear then that Robinson is attempting in Pacific Edge to do exactly what Tom Barnard is doing in his book, but with the typical Robinson sense of the duality inherent in every situation. The opening line of the novel, part of Kevin’s narrative, offers an example of this: ‘Despair could never touch a morning like this’ (p. 1). If this morning is so beautiful, why introduce even the thought of despair? Is it significant that Tom’s journal begins in hope on a day of bad weather? Robinson had a practice in several stories and novels of beginning and ending on antonyms, a device that was both personal quirk and clue to his use of opposing concepts to build his work.
Consider Tom’s thoughts as he begins to write: “I’m writing a utopia in a country that runs as smoothly as Zuri’s little blue trams … Conflicts that tear the rest of the world apart are here solved with the coolest kind of rationality – I write in a kind of pocket utopia, a little island of calm in a maddened world Perhaps it will help make my future seem more plausible to me – perhaps it will even seem possible.” (p. 31). Consider the town of El Modena, where Kevin Claiborne and his friends discuss their problems rationally during public council meetings. Several times references are made to other towns where such things are less amicable, and where ecological or social concerns are secondary to profits. Kevin receives irregular messages from his sister working in Bangladesh, which highlight the fact that so much work still needs to be done. As Tom concludes in his first journal note: ‘There’s no such thing as a pocket utopia“(p. 31). So Tom’s model, Switzerland, is recreated on a small scale in Orange County, but with global problems continuing, this is not enough.
He goes on to consider what he means by utopia: “What a cheat utopias are … Engineer some fresh start, an island, a new continent. So they don’t have to deal with our history. So the utopias in books are pocket utopias too …They don’t speak to us trapped in this world .. We have to deal with history as it stands. Must redefine utopia” (p. 81).
If Pacific Edge is Robinson’s attempt to re-assess and redefine utopia, then the voice he uses must be that of Tom Barnard, and hence Kevin’s story is in fact Tom’s book. Robinson gives us at least one hint that he is working this way. Tom’s journal quotes from the author’s journal section of Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein lntersection: “I decide to change Kid Death’s hair from black to red” which leads to Tom wondering ‘How come when I consider revisions it’s not ‘change Kid Death’s hair from black to red’ but ‘throw out the first draft and start the whole thing over’?” (p. 81). Such an overt reference to another openly mctafictive work can only be an explicit confirmation of Pacific Edge’s similar status.
Later, Tom tells his wife: “I’m thinking of alternating the chapters of fiction with essay chapters which discuss thepolitical and economic problems we need to solve”(p. 103) and goes on to discuss Wells’s utopian essays. In which case, Pacific Edge can be viewed as layers of reality, with Tom’s Journal depicting the outer, primary reality, and hence the world of the novel, far from being utopian, is instead a dystopia. Nevertheless, the novel is about utopia. It is about the practical realities of achieving utopia. Hence all the small details about ecologically sound and aesthetically pleasing housing design, about land reclamation, and the legal mechanisms being developed to steer this work.
Hence too, Tom’s consideration, and rejection, of a range of conventional SF routes to utopia -alternate history, the Great Man theory – as ‘not useful” (p. 126). He quotes Marcuse: “one of the worst signs of our danger is we can’t imagine the route from here to utopia” (p. 127). For Tom, that point comes when he is imprisoned in the internment camp, and he sees the most truly debilitating effects of his world, and he tears up his notebooks. One of his fellow inmates challenges him and brings paper and pens: “You got to tell what happens here. If you don’t tell it, then who will?” (p. 237). And so Tom discovers something new about utopia:
‘There is a refusal of despair … There is a courage that should shame the rest of us. There is a place where people on the edge of death make jokes, they help each other, they share what they have, they endure. In this hell they make their own ‘utopia’ ” (p. 237).
This brings things back to Tom’s earlier remarks on redefining utopia: ‘Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous agonizing process, with no end” (p. 82). Applying this back on to Pacific Edge, Kevin’s battles with Alfredo over a planning issue demonstrate that even this intellectual idyll has its flaws. Robinson uses discussions of this issue, which might seem trivial as far as fiction’s concerns go, to postulate some of the ways that society canbe changed Pacific Edge is Kim Stanley Robinson’s attempt to show both where we might be headed, and an example of the sort of place we could achieve.
It is utopian by the definition Tom adopts, even though Kevin’s personal story ends with things going tragically ‘Wrong in an Oresteian sense” (Vector 176, p. 8), because there is hope and there is a a mechanism for social change towards a more perfect world free from discord.
The original version of this piece appeared in the British Science Fiction Association journal Vector 189 in 1996. Page references are to the 1992 UK Grafton paperback.