Monday, January 31, 2005


I just sent in my answers to Farah's questionnaire (see the previous blog entry), and thought I'd post them here as well. However, I think I probably didn't provide much help to Farah, since most of my recollected reading of note was either outside of SF or was fantasy. And because I didn't read the instructions well at all! And I also have difficulty dividing out SF from F sometimes...


1. Name

Jeff VanderMeer

2. Current Age

3. Country or Countries in which you spent your first eighteen years. (give breakdown if appropriate)
USA, Fiji, and various short stays around the world

4. Mother tongue.

The following three questions are *not* for statistical purposes. If you wish to answer them, they provide interesting insights for me or they may not. No truenames will be revealed. Elaborate as you see fit.

5. Sex at birth

6. Sex now.

7. Sexuality.


To the books. Comics count. Fantasy does not (if it's borderline, that's up to you).
Fill in as much as you can. Don't worry if the answer is "don't remember".

8. When did you start reading science fiction?
At around age 10.

9. Did you read sf written specifically for children? (ie. age 0-16yrs)
No, except for the Tom Swift series. Unless you count things like the Narnia series and The Hobbit. But most of the children’s books I read were things like the Black Stallion series, not SF or F. And other than that, I was a voracious reader of Asterix, Tintin, and Indian comic books (which were invariably simplifications of the Ramayana and other epics).

10. Name up to five authors of sf for children you liked.
I can’t recall any that were specifically for children—unless as stated in the answer to question 9.

11. Name up to five authors of sf for children you did not like.
I can’t recall any

12. Name up to five authors of sf for children with the same nationality as the country in which you experienced the bulk of your reading childhood.
I can’t recall any. All I recall is reading Fijian myths and folktales and devouring Indian comic books, which were my favorite along with Asterix.

13. If you started reading sf meant for the adult audience before the age of 16, who were your favourite sf writers at that time? (Name up to five).
The answer to this question isn’t a pat one, so forgive the length. I discovered the Galaxy Magazine hardcover book collections in the public library in Gainesville, Florida, around age 11. We went on a field trip there from school and I wandered into the adult section and then the SF section from there. All of the books I checked out were collected SF story anthology series to begin with. I didn’t take any notice of the authors. I know now that the authors I was reading were Robert Heinlein, Merrill, Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance (I have vivid memories of “Dragon Masters”), Fritz Leiber, etc. I did then seek out Leiber’s Fafhred and the Grey Mouser series, which I adored. And I also remember reading a couple of Moorcock’s Elric novels but being confused by them. I did then seek out Cordwainer Smith’s collected short fiction and loved it. If I had to pick 5 SF/F authors it would be difficult because my reading changed very dramatically from about 13 or 14 on.

Age 11 to 14
Cordwainer Smith
Fritz Leiber
H.P. Lovecraft
J.R.R. Tolkien
Isaac Asimov

Age 14 to 16

Edward Whittemore
Frank Herbert
Glen Cook
Cordwainer Smith
Harlan Ellison

14. List up to five qualities that you think you looked for in science fiction when you read it as a child (under 13).
A—A good imagination
B—A good, compelling story
C—A sense of humor
D—A sense of mystery

15. List up to five qualities that you think you looked for in science fiction when you read it as a teenager (13 and over).
A—A complex imagination
B—Good characters
C—A good prose style
D—A good, compelling story
E—A sense of humor

16. List up to five qualities that you look for in science fiction now.

A—A complex and unique imagination
B—A unique or uniquely told story
C—Depth of characterization
D—A beautiful prose style (“beautiful” as appropriate for the narrative)
E—A sense of experimentation or daring

(NB: these can be negative qualities in the sense of what sf doesn't do, that other forms of fiction do).

17. Do you define yourself as a genre reader?


18. What proportion of your reading as a teenager was outside of the genre?

19. What proportion of your reading as a teenager was non-fiction? (what subjects or genres?)
50%--all kinds of history; psychology; true crime; true mysteries

20. How much of your reading outside of the genre was set by others? (and who were they?).
The only people who set my reading outside of or inside of genre were school teachers. Thus I experienced the pathos of A Tale of Two Cities when I most certainly wouldn’t have tried otherwise, and also John Barth’s The Sotweed Factor, which probably influenced me later in subtle ways. While my parents gave me books, most notably Lord of the Rings at an age when I was too young to understand it all (which fact delighted me greatly for some reason), mostly they let me run rampant in bookstores and libraries.

21. Did science fiction influence your political views? In what ways? What books were most important to you?
No. With the possible exception of Dune, if you consider a Green Party stance toward the environment a political view. Otherwise, my political views were influenced by newspapers, television, and nonfiction books.

22. Did science fiction influence your religious views? In what ways? What books were most important to you?

No. It was more a case of science fiction often not expressing conventional Christian views, at least not overtly, which was fine by me, the little budding agnostic/atheist.

23. Taking no more than 100 words, describe briefly how you chose books between the ages of 13 and 18, and how those books were acquired (ie libraries, friends, second hand books, new books).
Mostly the books I chose were from libraries, and then from second hand bookstores. It wasn’t until I got out in the world and held down a job that I began my nearly 20-year blitzkrieg of acquiring new books. I would choose books based on all kinds of terrible criteria—the cover, the dust jacket or back cover description, etc. As I grew older, I began to be more discerning and began looking for those books that were not obviously traditional SF or F, since those books had begun to bore me. I would do a lot of hunting through second-hand bookstores in the general fiction section, looking for mainstream literary books of interest, but also looking for fantasy “disguised” as literary mainstream. This is how I discovered Edward Whittemore, Italo Calvino, and Borges, among others.

Sunday, January 30, 2005


Farah Mendlesohn, the noted critic, editor, and reviewer, now has a blog, devoted to children's literature, especially children's SF. She has already posted several thought-provoking entries. I see her blog as a kind of ongoing investigation/conversation--clearly a blog is less formal a forum than the books and essays Farah is working on, but the blog format allows her to do short analyses of books, put forth ideas, and just generally test things out. I find it very thought-provoking.

She's also floating a questionnaire about SF reading habits to help "provide material for a book called (provisionally), The Inter-Galactic Playground of Children's Science Fiction to be published by McFarland Press. The research is supported by the Eileen Wallace Children's Library (University of New Brunswick), Middlesex University (London) and the British Academy." It doesn't take much time to answer the questions--I urge you to take the time to respond to it, to make Farah's sample as large as possible.


Friday, January 28, 2005

LEENA KROHN'S TAINARON--Brilliant Work: Buy Immediately

I recently read Leena Krohn's Tainaron, a brilliant short novel in the form of a series of letters home from an anonymous narrator visiting a city populated by intelligent, human-sized insects. It's Kafkaesque territory, although Krohn's vision is somehow more emotional and evocative than most of Kafka. The understated quality of the letters, coupled with the ingenious evocation of insect life and the symbolic, resonant nature of the images in the novel makes for a mind-altering experience. I've re-read Tainaron four times now, and have taken something different from it each time. I just flat-out love this novel.

Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say about it in a starred review:

Handsomely embellished with Finnish State Prize winner Inari Krohn's provocative etchings and xylographies, this brief, lyrical epistolary meditation on life, love and death, nominated for the prestigious Finlandia Prize, is the first of modern fabulist Krohn's works published in the U.S. The "woman" whose 30 letters make up the novel has recently come on a white ship to Tainaron, an insect-city within a volcanic cone, but she's forgotten why. The "lover" she addresses over the sea never replies, and she eventually abandons hope of answers, instead ranging the city with arthropodic "friend" Longhorn, who provides unsettling insights into the cycle of birth, change and absorption into new life. As summer fades to autumn and implacable winter nears, the narrator falls half in love with sleep and its easeful twin, death. The spiral-nautilus emblem of Tainaron's flag reminds its letter-writing guest, smitten by the realization of mortality, of the sweet anguish in the unavoidable alliance between birth and death, a recollection of "the dead [and] the gods." The author suggests no line divides language and music; her elegiac linguistic melodies enthrall the mind's ear, evoking as well bittersweet intimations of immortality more lovely, dangerous and disturbing than any realistic voice might utter.

You can order it from Amazon and pay what I would consider a fair price for the book, which otherwise retails for a somewhat ridiculous $29.95 direct from the publisher (it isn't more than 150 pages, if that).

I'm going to seek out the rest of Krohn's work in English and do my bit to see that more of it makes it into English. This is an important author who should be more widely known in the United States.



I continue to make steady progress on the secret lives project. For those of you waiting for yours through the Ziesing book catalog, thanks for your patience. They're getting longer and more convoluted, and stranger, and more beautiful. It's good for the project, but bad for my deadlines. The book probably won't be out until June. Until then, here's a secret life I finished last month.

The book can be ordered from the Prime Web site. Only 4 of the 26 signed, lettered limited-limited editions are still available.

A couple of advance blurbs have come in, based on the manuscript in progress.

"Awesomely bizarre, hilarious to the point of inducing injury - Jeff VanderMeer's strange and hair-raising histories will make anyone who reads them want a secret life of their very own...." – Liz Williams

"Whimsical, funny, touching, magical - Jeff VanderMeer lifts the lid on the rich eccentric worlds below the surface of ordinary life. These are the secret lives we all live - perhaps, for a few of us, in the real world; for the rest, in our imaginations; but few have imaginations to equal VanderMeer's. I wonder what his secret life is like?" – K.J. Bishop



Rick works as a commercial credit officer at a bank and has an obsession with H.P. Lovecraft. This might be why he refers to the bank’s managers as “The Old Ones” and believes that at night they creep into the vault and shed their human disguises, shuggothing and writhing about, bathing in the money that carries the secret Masonic Old Ones symbol on it. In his secret life, unknown even to his good friend Peggy, Rick is a 24-7 Lovecraft apologist. In a secret bungalow outside of the city, Rick keeps sophisticated tracking equipment so that he can monitor the media day and night. Whenever he comes across a negative reference to Lovecraft, he fires off a missive via snail or e-mail, using one of his many aliases. He considers this his holy duty. For example, when in the summer of 2004 the writer Jeff VanderMeer scoffed at the hideous effectiveness of the giant penguins in Lovecraft’s In the Mountains of Madness for a Locus Online article, Rick immediately sent a letter to the editor under the name “Gerald Rebarb” that stated in part, “Clearly VanderMeer has never set foot in the Mountains of Madness.” It is a little-known fact that 90 percent of all letters and emails to the editor concerning Lovecraft originate with Rick.

Meanwhile, his friend Peggy ostensibly works as a stylist, making drab products look beautiful for advertisements. In truth, her main job is protecting Rick from the Old Ones that work at the bank. As the great-great-great granddaughter of Dexter Ward, and privy to all of the secrets of the Mad Arab, Peggy has considerable experience in this area. Using as her latest cover the search for a new house, Peggy spends a lot of time saving Rick’s ass from various plots by the Old Ones. For it is Rick’s fate to be an unknowing nexus, or portal, into the Old Ones’ universe, which is the real reason he obsesses over Lovecraft. He cannot escape his fate yet has no inkling of it. He certainly doesn’t understand Peggy’s worries about his belly button. “Keep it clean of lint,” she repeatedly tells him. “Make sure your pants or shirt covers it at all times,” she says. “Who knows what might come out of it?!” Rick’s fairly sure nothing is coming out of it, but Peggy knows better. One day, an entire universe might devour our own.

Sometimes Peggy is even behind the bank building, battling the green tentacular strength of the Old Ones, while oblivious Rick works in the front, attending to clients. Naturally, this takes a lot of energy and physical prowess on Peggy’s part, so it’s only understandable that she might from time to time get irritated. When Rick asks how her house search is going, Peggy says between gritted teeth, “It’s going fine.”

It’d be going much better, she thinks, if the Old Ones didn’t gravitate toward you like bears to honey pots. It’d be going much better if you weren’t such a portal!

Still, she’s his friend for the long haul, and it could be worse. At least he’s not writing missives day and night in support of Lovecraft or something nuts like that, she thinks. Unlike the crackpots Rick’s always pointing out to her in the letters-to-the-editor columns of various respected periodicals.


Congratulations to our good friend Dan Read. His website is up for a Jolt award, along with such low-key players as IBM and Java!!!! Here's the official news item.


THE WILD PIGS OF ST. MARKS: Fantasy Author Flirts With Death and Profanity

Well, I'm back. Thanks again to Neddal Ayad and my most recent guest blogger, Iain Rowan, who just posted, coincidentally, about one of my favorite movies of all time: Don't Look Now. Just a brilliant film, and a great post from Iain.

For those who would like to catch with with Iain after having read his wonderful blog entries here, I recommend you add his blog at his website to your favorites list. Iain is a gifted writer, with recent work in Postscripts. Next month, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine will feature one of his best stories. In addition, he has finished a novel and is working on a short story about the shortwave radio numbers stations "and the obsessives trying to derive meaning from them." Watch this space for updates on work from Neddal and Iain throughout the year.

As for Ann and I, we had a relatively quiet holiday season, eating and drinking too much at too many parties, but now back in the gym and sober again, and gearing up for a year of adventure. I did have an interesting experience hiking on the day after New Year's, though, that livened things up a bit. It happened out at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. I have already told of the events below in my monthly VanderWorld Report, but because this account falls into the same surreal how-the-heck-could-this-have happened-in-real-life gray area as my Odd Job blogs, I've decided to post it to this blog as well. (To sign up for the VanderWorld report, visit my website and click on the list to the lower left. The next one will include subscribers accounts of their own encounters with wild pigs--silly, dangerous, and sublime...)

Enjoy. Upcoming, blog entries about Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and much else.


PS The story below contains much profanity, so be forewarned.

So I was out at St. Marks hiking with a friend named Moshe. Moshe is a fascinating guy--he grew up running with gangs in Los Angeles, converted to Judaism, got a law degree and worked for former California governor Pete Wilson for awhile, then moved to Israel, joined the Israeli army, wrote a book about his life (a truly interesting account, which he's currently shopping around), and then moved to tranquil Tallahassee.

We were on mile three of a thirteen-mile hike when I saw something dark and large to the left side of the trail, way up ahead.

I stopped and looked at it with my binoculars.

"What is it?" Moshe asked.

"I thought it might be an animal, but it looks like it's just a large bush."

I put the binoculars down, and that's when the bush turned sideways and the dark blob, even from so far away, clearly became an animal of some kind. At first, a chill went down my spine, because it was so far away that it looked like it was something human but deformed traveling on all fours. Only when I looked at it again through my binoculars could I confirm that it was a pig.

"It's a pig," I said to Moshe. "A very large pig."

"Yes," Moshe replied. "It looks a lot like a very large pig."

"I've never seen a pig out here before," I said to Moshe. "I didn't even know St. Marks had wild pigs."

"Well, that's definitely a pig," Moshe said.

We stood there as the beast scented the air. Then, it began, from more than one hundred yards away, to run toward us.

"It's running toward us, Moshe," I said.

"Give me your walking stick. I need protection," Moshe said. Earlier, he'd told me this was one of the first times he'd gone out walking on a hike without a weapon, since all of his previous hikes had been in the Israeli army. So he must have felt somewhat naked.

So I gave him my walking stick, while I pulled out my blade--a wicked serrated-edged four-inch buck knife that was really the biggest weapon I felt comfortable carrying out there, but which gave me some sense of security.

And then we stood there, watching this thing charge toward us. It had started its charge from so far away that I had a chance to take a couple of blurry photos (they look creepy--a little like stills from a piggy Blair Witch Project; if you scroll down on this thread, you can see them.).

Moshe and I also had the opportunity to discuss strategy. It occurred to me that perhaps we should do something other than stand there armed with a walking stick and a four-inch blade.

"Moshe," I said, "I know what to do if attacked by a bear, but not a wild pig. Have you ever seen a wild pig before? What should we do?"

To which Moshe replied, "Oh, I've come across wild pigs several times."

Which temporarily made me feel a little better about the situation, until he followed up with: "I was in the Golan Heights in a tank, though, so I never had to figure out how to defend myself against one..."


The beast came rapidly closer, and now it was making a noise like some kind of demon-spawn --a banshee growling that didn't sound like a pig at all and kind of freaked me out. Now I could see that it was almost the height of a large German Shepard, although twice as wide.

It never occurred to us to try to wade into the swamp to either side of the trail and climb a tree. It never occurred to us to run, I think because we didn't feel we could outrun the thing.

So instead we braced ourselves for impact, so to speak, and the pig charged closer, still making that god-awful sound. I could see its teats swinging by then, and later we figured it might have had piglets nearby. It was a dirty gray with that bristle-pad hair some hogs have. It looked like it had just come up from the seventh level of Hell.

Closer and closer came the pig. Fifty feet. Forty feet. Thirty feet. I swear, there was nothing survivalist about the instincts that let us stand there. It was just not knowing what else to do. Twenty feet, fifteen, and the something cracked in the pig, some mental loop that had sustained it during its long charge became uncoiled, it came to its senses, and with a mighty howl (I can only describe it as a howl--a most unpiglike sound) it aborted its charge and sped off into the swampy underbrush to our right, now making a gravelly wailing sound like a hundred banshees. Then it ran back down the trail and off to the left, out of sight.

Moshe and I just stood there, kind of wondering if it had really happened.

"Well, now we know that a pig's ass can look a lot like a big bush," I said.

"I wonder if those pigs are edible," Moshe said, brandishing his walking stick in triumph as if he were a ninja. "I wonder if they'd be good to eat."

"I'd rather not find out," I said.

But it was not over yet. First of all, we had to either turn back or hazard walking by the spot at which the pig had disappeared into the underbrush on our left.

The situation still seemed so unreal that we didn't even really think about the possible danger in continuing, and so, still brandishing our walking stick and our knife, we walked forward, alert for further sounds of wild piggery. Once we had passed the spot the pig had disappeared at, we relaxed a little bit. Moshe seemed more laid back about it than me, but, then, he hadn't had the experience of encountering either a jagarundi or Florida panther out there, as I had the year before. Still, I don't think it had really hit either one of us that we might've been in danger.

We continued on in our hike through the pine forest and swamp, successfully getting through the part of the hike I call "Southern Gothic" for its black water and cypress knees and sense of quiet foreboding. We then looped around to the area that's a precursor to the lakes and salt marsh, with its shimmering marsh grass (my favorite part of the hike--in the right light, especially in the winter, the plains of marsh grass, broken up by little islands of palmetto trees, look luminous and unreal, the quality of light unearthly--like something Turner might have painted had he come to Florida). In this precursor area, which is half-marsh, half pine forest, the trail curls around on itself.

So when I first saw movement on the trail ahead, it was with the relief that it looked like whatever the hell this new thing was, it was on the *other* side of the canal of water that lay on the right side of the trail.

I stopped and looked through my binoculars.

"What is it?" Moshe asked.

"I don't know."

And I really didn't. It could've been a deer, but it looked a little shorter than a deer.

"Is it a...pig?" Moshe asked.

"I'm not sure. But whatever it is, it's on the other side of the water."

Walking forward, with the path looping back to the right, it quickly became apparent that the animal was actually on *our* side of the water. It stood underneath a palmetto tree, and after another quick look, I could now tell it was a pig. A big pig with little tusks.

It just stood there, staring at us from about thirty feet away. Under the palmetto tree. It wasn't moving, and we had to get past it to continue the hike. At this point, it would have taken longer to hike back than to go forward, since we were in mile eight.

While deciding what to do, I took a quick photo that wound up looking like a tree with something that looked a little like pig hide wrapped around its trunk.

"Give me that," Moshe said.

"My camera?"

"No--your binoculars."

"It's definitely a pig."

"I know, but I need something else to defend myself. I feel vulnerable."

And so now Moshe stood there brandishing the walking stick and swinging the binoculars like bolos or a slingshot. I hurriedly put my camera back in my knapsack and got my knife out again.

The pig just stood there, sizing us up. This one wasn't making any god-awful noises, which somehow seemed more ominous.

The longer the damn pig stood there, the angrier I got, for totally irrational reasons. Certainly, the pig had more right to be there than I did. But Moshe had never gone on a hike in Florida before. I'd promised him alligators aplenty, and yet we hadn't seen one yet, even though we should have seen twenty or thirty by then. Instead, we just kept seeing goddamn wild pigs. I felt, in an odd way, like a rude host. Wild pigs were no substitute for that staple of natural Florida, the alligator.

"I can't believe it's another fucking pig," I said, my attempts at suppressing my usual sailor's diction shot to hell. "Another goddamn motherfucking pig. Never seen a pig out here in twelve years and now all we see are these goddamn fucking pigs. This sucks. Dumbass pigs." (Although, to be honest, this second pig was a beautiful russet color.)

"I think we should go forward," Moshe said. "Or maybe not."

"I think we should charge the fucking thing," I said, and, seeing a three-pronged huge branch lying on the trail beside me, proceeded to pick up this wooden trident-lance. It was heavy as hell, but carrying a small tree in front of me made me feel a lot better. My clothes and hands were smeared with ash; the branch had been the victim of one of the rangers' controlled fire burns. I had my knapsack on, was clutching the branch awkwardly, and still had my knife out, as like to cut myself now, with that hand also helping hold the friggin branch, as do the pig-beast any harm.

Then we heard a rustling down below us, near the water, and saw another couple of pigs, rooting through the underbrush. Fuck. It was *gang* of pigs.

"So let's do it," Moshe said. "Let's do it."

The beautiful deadly russet wild pig stood oblivious under the palmetto tree watching us with its little black marble eyes. The other pigs had scattered when they noticed us. But not this one.

So this was it.

"Yeah, let's charge this motherfucking pig," I said, and so saying, we ran toward the pig, yelling and making as much noise as possible, Moshe swinging the binoculars over his head and brandishing the walking stick while I hauled the Impossible Weapon like some kind of cut-rate lumberjack, confident that the pig would have to crash through four feet of sharp branches before he could get to me.

The pig stood its ground, and for a long moment, we thought it might charge us, but instead, when we were within ten feet, it let out a little squeak, and turned and fled, running down the dirt embankment, and into the water.

Once it was in the water, Moshe stopped brandishing his binoculars and I put down the small tree.

There was something about the pig in the water that made our efforts seem somewhat of an overreaction, perhaps even ridiculous. What was it exactly? What quality? I think it had to do with the way a pig swims--or, at least, the way this pig swam. Its whole body was underwater except for its ridiculously large, burro-like ears, and its huge electrical outlet nostrils.

I watched it swim away and thought that perhaps we had been driven to our Lord of the Flies moment too rapidly. Perhaps all of the wild pigs at St. Marks were cowards, bluffers, and buffoons, bad at poker and pool--full of bluster but not much else.

At the far side, the pig seemed to hesitate in its flight long enough to moon us with the shrubbery of its ass before disappearing into the long grass.

"Fucking pigs," I said. "Stupid fucking pigs."

"You are good at defending yourself," Moshe said. "You know how to defend yourself."

Yeah, I thought, it's always a good idea to pick up a small tree, even if it half wrenches your shoulder out of its socket.

The rest of the hike was anti-climax. We saw an otter and, scarred by our experiences thus far, I almost expected it to climb out of the water and come at us with a revolver or something. We also finally saw our alligators before, tired and sweaty, we made it back to the car.

Later, several friends who had had experiences with wild boar said we'd been lucky. And, certainly, when my friend Forrest Aguirre pointed out the deer-eating wild pigs of Wisconsin, it felt like maybe we had been lucky. But I'm more of the opinion that the goddamn motherfucking pigs of St. Marks are just cowards. And it's a good thing, too, because "eaten by wild pigs" is not a dignified thing to have etched on one's tombstone.

Beyond the fragile geometry of space

Oh, I'm a happy boy today.


Nic Roeg's "Don't Look Now" is my favourite film of all time. I must have seen it six or seven times. But each time, it's been on TV, on video, and most recently, on DVD.

But after about five years of no cinema in town, one opened up at the end of last year. It's your usual multiplex affair, but over the last two weeks it's also hosted a film festival. Today was the last day. And this afternoon I got to see my favourite film on a big screen for the first time.

It's hard to say why I love "Don't Look Now" so much.

The bleak, decaying beauty of Venice in winter, a universe away from the usual tourist postcard. The hallucinogenic dreamworld of the peeling distempered houses and bridges, the spaces between them inhabited only by pigeons and cats. The scene in which the two main characters get lost in the gloomy labyrinthine alleyways, and the only sounds they hear seem to come from another world.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, giving one of the best portrayals I've seen in a film of what it means to be a *real* couple, much of it unspoken, in little glances and small gestures, a look, a hand placed for a moment on an arm. And the famous sex scene, one that unlike most actually adds to the film, and the most moving parts of which are the intercut scenes of them dressing after, pausing, thinking back, glancing at each other as they walk past.

(A digression: When I was a kid I thought two men were possibly the coolest people on earth. One of them was Donald Sutherland. I have absolutely no idea why that was. The other one was David McCallum aka Illya Kuryakin)

The increasingly disturbing shots of water, of broken, fractured glass and mirrors distorting sight. And everywhere, red, reminding them of the past and predicting the future. The sense of menace and unease that grows and grows with every scene. The simple, understated score by Pino Donaggio. The bizarre minor characters, and the touch of humour they bring to a film that is so full of grief and poignancy.

I'm sure you can argue that it's not the best film ever made. But I don't care, it's the film that I love the most.

So, if I could sum up my time blogging here, it would be three things: if you haven't read Rupert Thomson, read him. If you haven't seen Don't Look Now, watch it. And if you hear scuttling sounds in your house at night, its the automata, and they're coming for you.

And that's about it from me. Thanks Jeff, for the opportunity, I've really enjoyed it. Thanks to Neddal for all the great posts in your half, and to those of you who have have commented on the posts - and to all of you who have had the patience to read them. If you want to go on doing so, my blog is here.

Now it's back to the man himself.




I'm going to interrupt Rowan Programming for just a sec to let everyone know about the Clarion auction going on right now. A lot of unique items on offer from Neil Gaiman and other luminaries. There are also several items I've put forward for the auction, including an advance galley of Shriek, the new novel, the Finnish edition of The Exchange, and a signed rough draft manuscript of my unfinished Zamilon File novel/la.

The auction closes tomorrow. The cause is a good one--to keep Clarion East going.

Thus endeth the interruption...


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Helmeted bird monsters

Just seen on boingboing:

Hieronymous Bosch action figures.


Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Swan Song Of The Octopus

One of the links I posted a few days ago was to a collection of essays, editorials and letters by George Orwell. There's one in particular that I think is as relevant now as on the day that it was written.

If you haven't read Politics and the English Language, then you can find it here. It's not very long, and it's well worth reading if you're a writer. Or a reader. Or a voter.

Because what concerns us as writers and readers? The words. The words, and the power that they have, the power to move us and the power to make us laugh, cry, shout, fling the book across the room - and the power that they have to change the way we think. Or the power that they have to make us not think, to bedazzle and hypnotise and redefine the redefinitions until all meaning is bleached from the language. To make us ignore what lies behind the words.

"Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

So the bloody deaths of families in cars are referred to as 'incidents', as if they are nothing more than a drunken scuffle in a queue for a taxi, cities are sanitised and smart bombs fall with precision, children are killed in the name of various gods, hands are wrung over collateral damage, and everyone, on every side, tell us that they're doing whatever they are doing in the name of freedom, because we all know that freedom is good - how could it not be - and therefore if we're doing things in the name of freedom they must be...good things.

Doubleplus good.

So torture becomes officially defined as only an act that leads to death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function. Which gives men of imagination and no soul plenty of scope for hours and lifetimes to be spent inside their rooms with bare walls and wires and buckets and chains.

The murderous oligarchs of China rule a People's Republic which is neither and which means that anyone who opposes them is an enemy of the people by definition, and if you call legislation the Patriot Act then what does that make anyone who argues against it? Exactly. Expect the Loving Family Act and the Honesty Act and perhaps the Kind To Fluffy Animals Act to follow.

"A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

Use the right words, often enough, and you've got a bait and switch that means that people can even confuse entire countries with one another and go to war with one for revenge for the actions of others. You've got people in boxes who can't be treated as prisoners because they're prisoners of war and can't be treated as prisoners of war because they're not that either, just unprisoners.

So words are debased and degraded to serve these ends, and Orwell's essay shows how language is a canary, slowly sliding off its perch as we walk step by step deeper into the coal mine.

"One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs."


Monday, January 24, 2005

How do you know the gender of a blowfly?

One of the perks of running your own blog rather than a hosted one is that you can see your referrer logs. Here, from random dips into the log every so often, are some of the google searches that have brought people to my website over the last year. I suspect that most of these people have been rather disappointed. I just hope the lack of information my site offers on any of these subjects hasn't led to any moments with blowflies that should have been exquisitely tender, but which instead turned out to be profoundly embarrassing in the morning.

How do you know the gender of a blowfly?
I want wack nick beard
Luminous ink for cheating
David Busst broken leg video
Wack a prime minister with ham
Here's to you Mrs Robinson
Japanese automaton kits
Quentin Crips
Ron Atkinson curly finger

Anyway, after the rather prolix last few posts, here's an assortment of interesting, stupid, useful, useless, and bizarre places to go. Readers of my blog or the Nightshade Books bulletin board might recognise some of these as environmentally friendly recycled links.

George Orwell's political writing - some essays, newspaper columns, letters and editorials. More of one of these later on in the week, I hope.

I love this. It's Trafficlight Wars.

Beautiful Quicktime virtual panoramas at Panoramas and at Ecliptique.

The sounds of the sea: hydrophone recordings of seabed earthquakes, whales talking to each other, and what the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration describes as 'an unidentified sound', but which is patently Cthulhu stirring in his sleep

Hear famous people singing your lyrics.

A Guardian profile of the very wonderful Alan Garner.

The mysterious life of the Strandbeests.

The Fantastic In Art and Fiction from the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University.

These photos are of the G-Cans Project, a cavernous network of huge chambers and tunnels underneath Tokyo. This photo is particularly stunning.

Words Without Borders, translations of "some of the best writing from around the world."

Fantastic, Mysterious and Adventurous Victoriana

The Paris Review begin to put online their interviews with writers from the last fifty years.

Santa left you a few quid? Well, look no further - buy your own zeppelin. Or perhaps you need a new mobile phone.

See the miniature beauty of the Bonsai Potato and the work of art that is the Origami Boulder. But if it's true art that you want - really great, moving art, then look no further than these album covers.


Friday, January 21, 2005

Polar express

OK, I promised Jeff I would post something about noir fiction, so here it is, a rambling discussion of some of my current favourites.

what do we mean when we talk about noir

I could spend a fair amount of time here giving definitions of what I mean when I say noir. But then I could spend an equal amount of time making an argument that those same definitions are completely wrong. Those of you reading this with a speculative fiction background, will know the ever-running arguments about it's fantasy, no it's slipstream, no it's interstitial, no it's a floor wax. Well, crime fiction is not different. The argument about where the lines between straight crime, procedurals, noir, hardboiled and the rest are drawn is just the same.

Is it just a marketing label that's slapped on everything now to give an edgy note of cool, labelling anything as noir if it has a shade more darkness than a 1930's cosy where a vicar investigates genteel crimes in a Cambridge college? Is it a style, a tone, a feeling, an unhealthy dose of isolation, alienation and loss of control, anything where the good guys get the shitty end of the stick, anything where there are no good guys? Answers on a postcard please.Some of what I'm talking about here might not meet every definition of noir, might not even meet my own definition (which is basically noir is whatever I point to and say that's noir), but it's all good stuff anyway, so in the end, who cares.

what we don't mean when we talk about noir

It's fairly safe though to say that none of the books mentioned here are big on talking cat detectives who solve crime out on the golf course (whose layout, naturally, reflects a hidden clue as to the age old secret of the Knights Templars who are of course behind EVERYTHING, from earwax to Kim Jong-Il). Or cookie cutter serial killers who have pointlessly baroque murder-rituals in the same way that chefs have signature dishes. Feh.

what I'm pointing to and saying noir about

There's a few things that I enjoy in a good novel.
... Characters that interest me
... .... Writing with passion
... .... ... A plot that makes me want to keep on reading
... .... ... .... A distinctive style.

And you'll find all of these in Ken Bruen's books. Bruen is the name to drop, at the moment, and at times it can seem like he has more evangelists than the Mormons. But it's with good reason: his books are fast and fierce and funny and bleak and powerful and there's nobody really quite like him. Something else I like about Bruen - he tells the story he has to tell and then he stops. No bloated epics here.

Where to start? Anywhere, really, I haven't read a duff one yet. The Jack Taylor books, starting with The Guards, is what really seemed to break through, but the White Trilogy (which I think is now up to six books...), and standalones like London Boulevard and Hackman Blues are equally worth reading.

James Ellroy's latest books like American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand haven't quite done it for me in the same way as some of his earlier stuff, although I do admire what he's trying to do with them. The LA Quartet of Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz are fantastic, though. Harsh, bleak, pared down and lean prose but a dazzling multilayered plot. Ellroy claims that his books "run antithetical to your standard crime fiction sensibility, which is usually a noble loner working against authority. I think my books are about bad men doing bad things in the name of authority." Of course, being dismissive of everything and everyone else is pretty much part of the Ellroy schtick (on James Lee Burke: 'Oh fuck. "The wind blew in from the bayou, it ruffled the trees..." Oh, fuck you.').

He also said " I like to lie in the dark and brood about things.".

You'd never guess.

There aren't a lot of crime writers whose books can move me the way that some of George Pelecanos's books do. The Big Blowdown is one of my favourite crime novels full stop, and some of his others aren't far behind. I'd recommend The Sweet Forever as nearly as good, and King Suckerman's well worth a read.

The musical name checking gets a little wearing at times, because when we hear what a character's listening to, it sounds like the author talking us through his CD collection. And I don't find the Strange and Quinn books do it for me as much as some of the earlier ones. But that's being harsh; at his best Pelecanos is a really powerful writer with a real strength for dialogue and a strong sense of place. And have I mentioned how good The Big Blowdown is?

Jason Starr is probably less known than some of the others mentioned here, but he's written some fantastic novels that, while in no way derivative, remind me of the great Jim Thompson (and if you like the sort of stuff I'm writing about here, and haven't read Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me then stop reading this now, because you've got a treat in store). Starr writes about ordinary people faced with an accummulation of events that make things start to go horribly wrong in a believable way. At which point everything then takes a turn for the worse. Cold Caller is a biting satire in which killing to get ahead in a telemarketing firm seems like a reasonable approach to career development. Nothing Personal is as black as hell, but funny too. That's one of Starr's great strengths: his novels are often bleak and unforgiving, but they're shot through with humour.

I've only recently read a couple of Daniel Woodrell's books but I'm going to read more. The Death of Sweet Mister is *fantastic*. Intense, compassionate, honest, heartbreaking. Can't recommend it highly enough. Under The Bright Lights wasn't quite as good, but still head and shoulders above much else out there. And Woodrell's not just a good crime writer, he's a good writer, whose control over voice is fantastic. Coined term country noir to describe his work.

The Ice Harvest was Scott Phillips's first novel, and it's one of the best-received debuts I can think of. It's dark, and bleak and shot through with humour and a great depiction of a frozen Midwest town and the assorted losers and lowlifes whose lives interact over just twenty-four hours. He writes with a spare mimimalism that doesn't waste a word. And oh, the ending. He followed this up with The Walkaway, a book that manages to be both prequel and sequel to the Ice Harvest, and like his first book, I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. Must stop doing the whole reading/gluing multitasking thing. His third book, Cottonwood, jumps back to the 1870s. I haven't read it yet, but it's been well reviewed and it sounds as if Phillips's bleak view of the milk of human kindness (in short:it's curdled) hasn't changed.

If I had to pick just a few books from here to recommend, I'd say: The Death of Sweet Mister, The Big Blowdown and The Guards. And Pop. 1280.

There's some newer writers who are really starting to build a reputation too. It's really good to see some of them coming from the UK, too. Don't get me wrong, there's always been decent crime fiction coming out of the UK, but we've got so much work to do to redress the whole Miss Marple cozy thing. Some non-American writing tries too hard to ape American noir, and ends up sounding hollow because it's forced. That's one of the reasons Bruen is so good - because although he wears his influences on his sleeve - and namechecks them in the books - he's found his own voice.

Al Guthrie's first novel Two Way Split has been very well reviewed. Al also runs the Noir Originals website, showcasing some new writing and interviews, articles and reviews.

Ray Banks's debut novel the Big Blind is getting some great press, and I'm looking forward to reading it. Ray's written some cracking short stories, honest and real, and I think that Love Will Tear Us Apart is a great example - and a great reminder that fiction can be about the little things of people's lives, and be much more effective as crime fiction than the nth novel in the series about the serial-killer who tattoos cryptic messages on his victims eyelids giving clues as to how he knows the age-old secret of the Knights Fucking Templars.

noir fiction, short and sweet

There aren't half as many markets for short crime fiction as there are for horror, fantasy or sf. It's also complicated by the fact that the biggest selling markets are a tough sell for any story that has more than a little violence, sex or swearing in it. Some great publications that have given many writers of short crime fiction their first break (including this one) are now no more: Blue Murder, Handheld Crime, and the recently deceased Plots With Guns. But there are others out there. In print, Crimewave (from Andy Cox's TTA Press stable alongside TTA and now Interzone) publishes some wonderful writing and plays fast and loose with its definition of what crime fiction *is*, with great results. Online, markets like Shred of Evidence and Hardluck Stories are flying the noir flag.



Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Through a broken window

Every day, I walk the same way to work.

And one day, one of the houses that I passed every day became abandoned. It may have been empty for a while, but the day it became abandoned was the day that one of the large windows downstairs got broken. A brick through the middle of it, probably thrown by kids in the local park. The cheap thin curtains flapped in and out of the window. The rain blew in. The loneliness drifted out. An empty room became an abandoned room. The house changed. The emptiness became the tenant, the absence became a presence in its own right.

And every day, I walked past, and I looked in. Couldn't resist.

And the house ended up in a story of mine called "Through the Window" that appeared in the Ideomancer Unbound anthology. And there's still something about the alone and the abandoned,the lost and the derelict that fascinates me.

There are some eerie and beautiful photos at the Mustard Gas Party, at Dark Passage, and at Ars Subterranea's Garden of Crumbling Delights. And there's some more great photos at Undercity, like those of the King's Park Psychiatric Center and the Ship's Graveyard. Or you can take a tour around the weird and wonderful world of The Hospital (requires Flash).

Paul Talling's put together a great collection of over 800 pictures of derelict London. There's not just photos here, it's peppered with history like the commentary on Tower House, Whitechapel:

"Writer Jack London called it the "Monster Doss House" in People of the Abyss, his 1902 journey through the poverty of London. He said it was packed with "life that is degrading and unwholesome". Joseph Stalin  spent a fortnight in a sixpence-a-night cubicle in Tower House in 1907, when he attended the Fifth Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party across the road in Whitechapel Road, which consolidated the supremacy of the Bolshevik Party. George Orwell, in Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, described it as the best of all common-lodging houses, with "excellent bathrooms". Orwell's only objections to the shilling-a-night rent were the "no cards, no cooking" rules and harsh discipline."

And this, which my grandad helped to build.

Urbex UK have more on similar sites in the UK. The Derelict Sensationis another UK site that is the home of artists, photographers, filmmakers, writers, academics and others who want to explore the different kinds of value 'derelict' buildings can have.

Far below the city streets of Paris, in the quiet, damp darkness, seven million Parisians lie motionless. Their skeletons, long since dis-interred from the churchyard graves their survivors left them in, are neatly stacked and aligned to form the walls of nearly one kilometer of walking passage. Welcome to the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary-- The Empire of the Dead, where you can go on a virtual tour.

The Berlin Underworlds Association is devoted to the cemetaries, secret air raid shelters, sewers and even an aircraft factory which have been built under the surface of Berlin.

You might see Christopher Lambert skulking around one of these. Or maybe Ezra Pound. They are the Closed stations on the Paris metro.The London Underground has its own ghost stations and ghost lines too. From Quatermass and the Pit to Neverwhere, from Donald Pleasance to Creep, it's been a source of inspiration. Did you know that an estimated half million mice live on the underground system, mostly running around the tracks, and that only two people have had their coffins transported on the tube: William Gladstone and Dr. Barnardo? Me neither.

If aliens did their pre-invasion research through Google, they'd probably conclude that there's no point in invading the US as there's simply nothing there but abandoned asylums and institutions. Heidi Johnson has produced a book about Northern Michigan Asylum (opened 1885, closed 1989) called "Angels in the Architecture: A Photographic Elegy to an American Asylum". You can see some of her photos here. There's a site devoted to the history, photos and legends of the Essex Mountain sanitorium. And there's many more at the motherlode of urban dereliction links: Modern Ruins and Urban Exploration.

Nökkvi Elíasson has photographed deserted farms across Iceland. Troy Paiva has a site devoted to night photography of the abandoned roadside west. Lost Destinations is photography of abandoned, unusual, wild and weird New Jersey, Texas and California. Rob Dobi photographs the ruins of New England, like the Repeating Arms Factory. Shaun O'Boyle has a series of photographic essays of Modern Ruins. The urban photography of Sleepy City takes in the tunnels, topside, cityscapes and cavities of urban Australia.

And then there's what lay underneath where I grew up. Which explains where all the Morlocks came from.


Klaatu Barada Niktó!

Best music system, ever.

And I for one welcome our new high fidelity overlords.


Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Awkward Dead

Imagine this.

You're a crime writer. The best known crime writer in your country.

You're happily writing your best-selling crime novels. And then one Sunday, there's a knock on your front door. You open it, and find a man there, who has brought you an envelope. Your name is on it. And the words 'for your eyes only'.

So you open the envelope and inside is a letter from a man who has been the most wanted man in your country, the man who is the leader of a long-running rebellion that has drawn international attention and proved a constant thorn in the side of your government.

And in the letter, he says that he'd really quite like to write a novel, and would you like to co-author it with him?

That's what happened to Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Mexico's most famous crime writer.

The letter was from the famous Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, the leader of the Zapatista group in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Taibo at first thought that the idea was ridiculous. But then, he thought to himself: "Paco, when have you ever shied away from something crazy?", and "It had the enormous attraction of insanity. For a writer like me who is always bordering on insanity, it was part of my, shall we say, greatest obsessions to do something like that."

So he went along with the idea, and after not very long the first chapter of Muertos Incomodos (The Awkward Dead) - this one written by Marcos - appeared in the Sunday edition of the national newspaper "La Jornada". Taibo contributed his first chapter a week later, and the novel was in progress. The hero of the Marcos chapters is a Zapatista called Elias Contreras, who is a detective under orders from a not even thinly-disguised character called Subcomandante Marcos. Taibo's chapters feature a character he has used before, Detective Héctor Belascoarán Shayne. Later on in the book, the two characters are going to meet. Marcos's chapters are written from a future perspective, looking back at events, whereas Taibo's chapters are in the present. Neither author knows how the book is going to end.

"It is a police novel with strong political content that obviously touches on contemporary issues in Mexican society," Taibo told La Jornada. "It is also a literary work and an adventure."

The proceeds from the novel will be donated to an non-governmental organisation that does work in Chiapas. Where somewhere, in the Zapatista dominated area, someone is wearing an Inter Milan number 4 shirt worn by the Inter captain, Javier Zanetti. After reports that the village of Zinacantán had been attacked by Mexican government forces early last year, Zanetti persuaded the Inter officals to allow him to collect the club's fines for late arrival for training, and donate them to the Zapatistas. Zanetti sent five thousand Euros, an ambulance, and his number 4 shirt. In response, Inter were invited to tour the jungle mountains of Chiapas. "We believe in a better world, in an unglobalised world, enriched by the cultural differences and customs of all the people. This is why we want to support you in this struggle to maintain your roots and fight for your ideals," Zanetti wrote in a note accompanying the donation.

Inter's great rivals, AC Milan, are owned by Silvio Berlusconi. I don't think he's likely to make a similar gesture.

Anyway, if you can read Spanish, you can read the first five chapters of Muertos Incomodos here: one, two,three,four,five


Friday, January 14, 2005

The automaton phenomenon

If you were rich, and inclined to be somewhat unhinged in a rather scary way, you would surely have a house full of automata.

They're the sort of thing that any wealthy but sinister person really ought to have. They're interesting, expensive to collect, and there's nothing like a room full of them to scare the living daylights out of anyone who comes to visit you. Plus, come on, they come alive when there's no-one around. You know they do.

you should be glad you have images turned off because you won't see the scary automaton here

There's a gallery of automata here at the linguistics department of New York University (as part of a course on 'the origins of the mind/body problem and on the mechanical analogies of mind').

The Lycette Brothers have a rather wonderful and beautifully designed Modern Compendium Of Miniature Automata. The site requires Flash, but it's worth a visit. Nothing to do with automata but I did like their Illustrated Alphabet of Unfortunate Chance (this one requires Shockwave).

The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre have two virtual exhibitions as well as lots of links, educational materials and projects, and kits to build your own automata (but don't, because they'll only come alive at night and scuttle around your house and into your dreams).

The very sceptical James Randi explains how the famous fabulous automaton chess player of the 1820s, a mechanical man who regularly defeated some highly-ranked players of the day, *really* worked. Although I don't actually believe James Randi exists; I think he's all done with mirrors. (Part two of his commentary is here.)

I've seen this one. It's a silver swan on a stream of twisted glass, that twists its head, preens its back, and then catches a fish. But according to the website it's all illusion (well, you might have got that from the whole made-of-metal thing) because get this: "In real life, swans do not eat fish". Which now has me wondering what swans do eat. Anyway, you can watch a video (needs Realplayer) of the fake swan spreading its heinously false ecological propaganda.

Karakuri are Japanese automata that do such things as serve tea, stand on their hands on pine branches, and have noble countenances.

The Faulty Optic Theatre of Animation say that they are world-renowned for their haunting visual theatre, automated sets, strange animated figures, cronked inventions and macabre humour. Some of the animated figures remind me of a puppet production I saw when I was little. It scared the blood out of my veins, and I can't remember much more than that. Single scariest thing of my childhood other than the scary drumming bus conductors who made me cry.

The website for the Modern Automata Museum is in Italian, but has links to lots of automata artists and places where you can buy their work.

Dug North is an artist making automata from wood. Dug says "There are resources on this site for people who would like to learn more about automaton-making, including book reviews,a list of tools, links to other sites, and helpful articles I've written."

Michael and Maria Stuart's Automatomania is full of all sorts of interesting bits and pieces on automata and mechanical singing birds. And if you think that automata are ever so slightly creepy, then you're not going to like the clown automaton in the Antique Automata category.

Flying Pig sell kits to make paper and card automata. They even have free downloads to print off on your printer at home.


Thursday, January 13, 2005

Ghosts of the shortwave

One was called The Woodpecker.

I'd heard it when I was a child. Its rhythmic electronic hammering would appear out of the static, and then I would turn the dial again and it was gone. It sounded mysterious, because it sounded like it had purpose, albeit one I could not understand. Others sounded like great engine rooms, as if on some huge ship, roaring and throbbing as they went about whatever it was they were doing, wherever it was they were. But were others too, and some of these spoke in voices rather than sounds, voices in a dozen different languages, chanting their way through their strange liturgy of numbers or phrases.

Turn any shortwave radio on and run through the waveband and you could hear them. No station identification, no songs, no comment or context, just sounds or numbers. Some of the stations are there all the time, some only once a day, some appeared for one time only, the dull, mechanical sounding male or female voice would count, "Seven oh four. Nine. Nine. Four oh six," over and over and then they would be gone, never to return. Some would sound live, others like they were tape loops, repeating over and over, the tape slowly wearing through. And behind it all was the hiss and crackle of atmospherics, the distortion and compression of the signal.

Some numbers stations would announce their appearance with a snatch of music, like the station which used the old folk tune The Lincolnshire Poacher, or with ascending or descending musical notes that sounded as if they were played on xylophones or glockenspiels, or early primitive synthesisers. Others just came from nowhere. And sounded like they came from nowhere. They became their own music, but it was music from a strange place.

I thought then, that they must have meant something, that there must have been some reason for the counting and the tones that was more than just some dreary test of a radio station before it went on the air playing middle of the road seventies rock, or the vaguely unhinged swing that many foreign stations seemed to play back then. But I forgot about them for a long time, and only remembered them recently, when I found out that I was right. They did mean something more.

They meant death. Betrayal to men who would come in the middle of the night. Acts of heroism, acts of betrayal, acts of revenge. And probably wheat export counts and machine tool production numbers, and other things less glamorous.

The shortwave numbers stations were, it turns out, governments and their agencies talking to their spies. Long coded messages from the mothership in London or Moscow or Virginia to agents in other countries who would listen to the strings of numbers or phrases and take some meaning from them, using one time pads or other prearranged codes. Communicating with intelligence agents was always fraught with difficulty, but the numbers stations had one advantage - anyone with a shortwave radio could pick them up. No need for any potentially incriminating Q-style radios hidden inside wooden legs. Just a radio that could pick up shortwave, and maybe a Bible to work out what words were being spelled out. Take the third chapter in John, for example. The first number read out might be the verse, the second number the word in the verse, the third number the next verse, and so on. Untracable. Non-incriminating.

"These (Numbers Stations) are what you suppose they are. People shouldn't be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption." (spokesman for the UK Department of Trade and Industry, quoted in the Daily Telegraph).

Before it became clear what the purpose of the stations was, a man called Akin Fernandez was fascinated enough by them to spend years listening to them, charting them, recording them, looking for patterns, a fascination that was to become the Conet Project.

Fernandez is the owner of Irdial Records, a record label which had long been releasing avant-garde music, and through Irdial he released The Conet Project, a four CD set with over 150 recordings of the music of the shortwave, accompanied by a eighty-page booklet. The set sold a remarkable 2000 copies before Irdial closed. It acquired something of a cult following, one San Francisco record shop even tracking it and asking everyone who bought a copy to pose for a photo.

Somewhere along the line, the band Wilco picked it up, as a sample from it was used on their song "Poor Places", and that sample gave the title to their album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Legal goings-on ensued, and it was settled out of court in Akin Fernandez's favour. Conet samples have also turned up in film - they were used in the Tom Cruise film Vanilla Sky - and the record label has been started up again. You can read more about the whole story here and more about numbers stations here.

Although Fernandez has defended his rights to control commercial use of his recordings, he has kindly made the whole project available for personal listening for free via the (now-revived) Irdial website, as well as the accompanying booklet. All the clips in this post are courtesy of Irdial and their free music policy.

The Conet Project CD set is also available through the Irdial website (although currently out of stock).

And despite the end of the Cold War, the numbers stations are still out there.

Somewhere on the shortwave.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Celebrate freedom of expression with us! (But not yours).

I was going to be posting about something else today, but I couldn't let this one pass.

Joe Gordon worked for Waterstone's in Edinburgh for eleven years. He doesn't any more, because he's just been sacked. His offence was posting on his personal blog (a newsletter he's been running since 1992, long before he worked for Waterstone's), in his own time, a few jokey references to his company. He called Waterstone's Bastardstone's. Oooh. He made reference to someone who left the company being on the 'Escape Committee'. Wow. Some of these references were two years old. And the audience for his blog? About 20 hits a day. Whoopee.

Now personally I think that if the management of Waterstone's have such a low opinion of their public standing that they can't tolerate a little bit of grousing from an employee, it's rather sad and very risible. But I guess they're entitled to be petty, and I don't think it would have been hugely unreasonable for his manager to call him in for a quick word, and say look, we're really not happy about this at all, and we'd like you to stop discussing your work life online, please. Gordon says on his blog that had they done so, he'd have stopped.

But they didn't. They held a disciplinary hearing, and then they sacked him. No warning, a straight dismissal, just as would happen if they caught you with your hand in the till. The company that a few years back ran a publicity campaign saying "What did Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot have in common? They feared the power of the written word. Celebrate Freedom of expression with us" sacked him.

There's a couple of things about this that I wanted to talk about, rather than simply ranting on about how petty and how petulant his sacking was. (And it was. It really was.)

Gordon made mild fun of his employer, in passing, on a public web page. Some people would argue that this is wrong. I'm interested in where they think the lines should be drawn.

If doing this on a webpage is a sackable offence, how about standing in a pub talking to a friend, saying the same things out loud that Gordon posted to his website? You get overheard, this is reported back to your employer. Fair enough to dismiss now? How about walking down the street, talking to your spouse on your mobile, saying the same things - sackable offence?

How far should corporate control over the lives of the people who sell them their labour and time for a contracted period each week extend? They buy your time, your work, your expertise. Do we now meekly agree that they buy *you* too?

Should we cower in our homes, talking in mumbled voices and desperately hoping that our nearest and dearest aren't really informers for our employers? Or should we never criticise, never poke fun, keep it all bottled in and hope that our own Bastardstone's don't wheel out the polygraphs and the Orgone Mind Reading Detector Ray Devices?

The second point is the sheer idiocy of what they have done.

Waterstone's sacked Gordon for bringing the company into disrepute. Since then, this story has been all over the web, people like Neil Gaiman and Richard Morgan are lending their support (Morgan's written a great letter to Waterstone's, which is reproduced on Gordon's blog), a number of national newspapers have picked it up, and so on.

So, who's brought the company into greater disrepute: Gordon, and his tiny-audience blog, or the management who sacked him and brought world-wide criticism down upon the company? Perhaps they should be summoning themselves into their offices right now to tell themselves to clear their desks.

I don't know Joe Gordon, have never corresponded with him even, but as a writer and a reader I object to what Waterstone's have done, and the way in which they have done it. I hope that some of you will feel the same way, especially as its evident that Joe has done a lot to promote authors of speculative fiction, and their work.

Charlie Stross has written an excellent blog entry about the whole affair, and in his comments he points out:

"I would advise Edinburgh natives that, in addition to there being numerous branches of Waterstone's and a Borders out at Kinnaird Park, there's also a very good specialist SF bookshop (Transreal, on the Grass Market), and another book chain: Ottakars bought out most of the former James Thin stores when Thin's went bankrupt a couple of years ago, and they seem to be doing well by them."

If you are annoyed enough by this to find your own local alternatives to Waterstone's then please do tell Waterstone's why you are doing so.

Waterstone's Booksellers Ltd
Capital Court
Capital Interchange Way

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Rupert Thomson

I can't let the opportunity of a wider audience go past without the chance to evangelise about one of my favourite writers. Jeff's already had the full-on proselytisation, so I'm sure he knew this would be coming.

Rupert Thomson has been successful and very well reviewed, without being as successful as he deserves to be. What puzzles me is that he rarely seems to be mentioned in discussions about the literary fantastic, when writers like Jonathan Carroll or Graham Joyce do. And I really don't know why - Thomson's a wonderful writer who creates some of the most beautiful prose that I've read, and his books wander with casual ease from the fantastic to darkness with a touch of Kafka, from the surreal to gothic grotesques that remind me Peake. Yet his writing is always rooted in the everyday, never losing the here and now of emotion and feeling for the sake of glamorous yet hollow at heart literary pyrotechnics.

He's a noir writer, according to some reviewers. No hang on, others think he's a fantasist. A magic realist. A crime writer gone a bit weird. A psychological novelist. A literary writer. I mean, look, this is just from the cover quotes from two of his novels:

...'finest exponent of the psychological thriller...blurred hinterland where fiction meets fantasy...echoing psychological confusion of Kafka's The Trial...David Lynch in print...chapters of great pathos alternated with gothic horrors reminiscent of Mervyn Peake...momentum of a thriller harnessed to the substance of a modern ingenious, sardonic and seductive roman noir...

All right (Well, maybe not the Lynch one, that's just lazy “all weird stuff looks the same to me” journalism). All wrong.

Thomson's had six novels published to date, and when I was digging about for this article, I was overjoyed to find out that there's a new one due in April. "Divided Kingdom" is apparently going to be a dystopian romance about a future Britain partitioned by temperament, and the life of a boy who is taken from his family to become the subject of a great experiment. That's what the advance publicity says, who knows, maybe it's really a western with robot alien serial killers. Out in April from Bloomsbury (and I think, in the US, Random House).

Dreams of Leaving is Thomson's first novel. New Egypt is a typical post-war English village - except for the fact that no-one is permitted to leave it ever, a rule enforced on pain of death by the local police, led by the brutal Inspector Peach. The police in New Egypt have a museum full of the junk and wreckage of escape attempts, which range from the comically pitiful to the tragic. One family though, find a way to set their child free. Most of the action of the novel takes place much later, in London in the fag-end of the post-punk late seventies, where Moses (now, can you guess how his parents set him free?) is living above a nightclub, doing speed and odd jobs, falling in and out of love, unaware of his real background. Peach, not long off retirement, discovers that decades earlier someone had managed the impossible and escaped from New Egypt. He breaks all the rules himself by leaving the village for London to track down Moses and end the escape bid, one way or another.

The Five Gates of Hell was the first book of Thomson's that I read. It's set in Moon Beach, a not quite American seaside resort (most of Thomson's books are set in not-quite places). Moon Beach is founded on a peculiar economy, the business of burial, a subject which obsesses the inhabitants of the place:

"There were very few land burials in Moon Beach any more. It was considered old-fashioned and unhealthy, it was something that only happened to the poor. Instead, the dead were buried in ocean ceremonies, twelve miles out. A special festival was held every year in their honour. Children loved it. Suddenly there were white chocolate bones everywhere and marzipan skulls and ice-cream coffins on a stick. There were costume parties too. You had to wear something blue because that was the colour people went when they were buried under the sea. You could paint your hands and face if you liked, or even dye your hair. That's what people did in Moon Beach. Turned blue once a year. And then, sooner or later, they turned blue for ever."

The profit to be made from the funeral business drives the story which is about the lives of Jed and Nathan, whose lives meet and diverge and meet again as they grow older. It's a novel of great invention and some beautiful prose.

Air and Fire maybe gives a nod to some of Thomson's influences in its South American setting. A French engineer and disciple of Gustav Eiffel, Theophile Valance, and his wife Suzanne travel to Mexico. Valance has been sent to this remote part of Mexico to oversee the building of a church pre-fabricated from over 2000 iron parts. Although Theophile's struggles with nature, the local bureaucracy, and his Indian workforce move the story on, Suzanne rather than her husband is the central character, and her relationships with Theo, with Captain Montoya, an officer of the Mexican Army, and most importantly with Wilson Pharoah, a down on his luck American prospector who "dreamed that all his veins were filled with gold; he only had to cut his wrists and he would be rich", are the real story, set in a hallucinatorily beautiful, strange and cruel world.

The Insult is my favourite of Thomson's novels. Set in another of Thomson's notquiteanyplace's (this time one with a vaguely Eastern European feel), the novel opens with the protagonist, Martin Blom, getting shot in the head by an apparently motiveless sniper. When Blom comes to, he finds that although he has survived he is blind, and will remain that way for the rest of his life. He convalesces in a clinic where he is coached on how to survive his new life, and on how to survive the depressions that it will bring - and the delusions of sight restored that he may encounter. But then, one night, in the moonlit clinic gardens, Blom discovers that when it is dark, he can see again. Or at least, he thinks he can see – his doctors tell him that that it is all delusion. He leaves the hospital for a life as a citizen of the night-world of the city, along with others who also choose to live in the dark. It's a world of sleazy hotels and strip clubs and a typically Thomson assortment of strange charcters. Blom, who keeps up the pretence that he cannot see, finds a lover, who it turns out maybe only wants him because she thinks he is the only man who cannot see her. When he confesses his secret to her she herself disappears and the police start to suspect that Blom is responsible - and still we do not know whether Blom really can see, or whether he is deluding us as well as himself. The story then spins off somewhere else entirely, into what appears to be a completely different story, before coming back round again. I love it.

Soft is a change of pace again. A new soft drink is being launched on the UK market, and a decision is made to use a powerful - if illegal - subliminal advertising campaign, a decision which doesn't go according to plan. The story comes from the perspective of three central characters whose lives are brought together by this: marketing exec Jimmmy Lyle who is behind the revolutionary new strategy, Glade Spencer, waitress and guinea pig, and Barker Dodds, reluctanct hardman trying to leave his past behind. Soft moves from the surreal to the suspenseful, and is the most pointedly satirical of Thomson's novels.

The Book Of Revelation changes the tone again. It's a much harder, more disturbing book than any of the predecessors.It tells the story of a dancer and choreographer, living in Amsterdam, who is kidnapped from the street one day by a group of anonymous women and subjected to days of torture and humiliation (most of the book is written in first person, but Thomson flips to third for the whole of this period). As unexpectedly as he was snatched, he is set free, but he finds the freedom that he had been wishing for hard to handle. No-one will believe his story, least of all his girlfriend, he finds himself unable to explain or talk about his disappearance and he finds himself reluctant to tell it:

"It was one of the ironies of my new existence that, despite my absolute and unprecedented freedom, I was more self-contained, more sealed off, than I had ever been before. I became a mystery to others".

After a year of travelling he returns to Amsterdam to try and find the women, taking lover after lover to see if he can spot the few physical features he ever saw and in finding them find himself, but his increasingly obsessive quest means that he runs the risk of losing himself altogether, or becoming just as much a user of others as he himself was used. It's a tough book, and not one I could re-read often, but a thoughtful one.

Regardless of any of the individual stories, Thomson's prose is the greatest delight (and source of envy) for me - there's a spare elegance and a bone-dry irony running through it. He's very fond of simile - but rather than the laboured 'hey wow, aren't I clever, nobody's ever compared falling in love to sneezing a breeze block out of your nose before' approach you see so often, Thomson uses it for what it's meant for; he paints familiar things in an entirely new light so that you see them as if you have never seen them before and in doing so you understand them better. I don’t think there is anyone around who does this as well as Thomson.

The covers and endpapers of his novels are littered with glowing praise from reviews, but my favourite is from a review by the New Statesman: "When someone writes as well as Thomson does, it makes you wonder why other people bother."

And indeed, it often does. If I'm in the middle of writing something, I don't read him.

If you haven't read him yet, do yourself a favour and give him a try. Because you know, if you don't, I'm only going to end up knocking on your door at some point when you're really busy with dinner or the family, politely hassling you to accept one of my pamplets or take a copy of my newsletter...

Monday, January 10, 2005


Thanks for the introduction, Jeff, and thanks to Neddal for some really great posts over the last couple of weeks. Great job, and a hard act to follow.

Hello everyone, I'm Iain and I'm going to be looking after this place for the next two or three weeks. I'm going to be posting about all manner of things, from new noir writers and the short crime fiction scene on the web, to how death and betrayal hide in the mysterious numbers of the shortwaves, from an article on an unsung great writer, to recordings of the ephemera of people's lives, the lost and the found and the overheard. I hope that somewhere in it all, you find something to interest you. Even if it is just the Neuticles.

I write crime fiction. Except when I write fantasy, or horror, or mainstream, or something that lies in between all of them. Which is much of the time. I keep wondering whether I should settle down to one but hey, butterfly mind, and scared of men with nets. It's been a quiet year for short fiction, as I've been working on finishing a novel (status report: yeah, nearly done with the revision. Honest). Recent publications have been my story 'Lilies' in issue 2 of Peter Crowther's great magazine Postscripts, a couple of pieces in the Lambshead Guide, and 'The Marsh' in All Hallows. Coming up early next year is 'One of Us' in Alfred Hitchcock's, and at some point next year 'The Turning Of The Tiles' in Black Gate 8, which is a sequel of sorts to the story 'Looking For Goats, Finding Monkeys' which appeared in Black Gate 6 (link goes to an excerpt).

If you want to see anything else about my writing, feel free to check out my website or email me. I have a blog at my website too, but while I'm blogging here at Jeff's I won't be posting anything that isn't appearing here. One is enough.

That's enough about me. I'll be back some time in the next twenty-four hours with a post (this is a euphemism for lengthy piece of evangelism) about one of my favourite writers, a writer of huge talent who I think is criminally under-appreciated in general, and in discussions about the literary fantastic in particular. See you soon.

Sunday, January 09, 2005


Thanks to Neddal for all of the great posts on noir, and on Nemonymous 4 (something I'd been planning to get around to myself at some point!). He did a great job and it was fun to learn something from my own blog!

Coming up next, Iain Rowan. Iain's fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Postscripts, Black Gate, Ellery Queen's, Alfred Hitchcock's, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, and others. He's currently working on revisions to his first novel. Still. Iain lives in the north-east of England, near the sea but not near enough. Yet.

Iain is one of the brightest up-and-coming writers of short fantastical fiction out there, and I think you'll be seeing even more of him in the years to come.

As for me, I'm working hard on secret lives and am about to do the latest VanderWorld Report, my monthly e-newsletter with news and reviews (movie/music/books). It will include the full details of being chased by wild pigs on January 1st in the wilds of Florida (not kidding!). If you're not signed up for the newsletter and want to be, just click here and then click on the link in the lower left.

I hope everyone had a good New Year's!

All the best,


Outta here / Peter Moore Smith's "Los Angeles"

Alright, this is my last post as blog-sitter. I'd like to thank Jeff for letting hang around the place. (I hope I didn't drive away too many of your readers, man.) Up next is Commander (No, really!) Iain Rowan, writer of fantastic (in every sense of the word) short stories and finder of much weirdness. I'm sure he'll keep us all entertained.

Before I go, I'd like to talk a little bit about Peter Moore Smith's new novel, "Los Angeles".

Ahem... Peter Moore Smith's second novel, "Los Angeles", published this month by Little, Brown, and Company, is a twisting, turning piece of neon-lit noir. Set in the titular city (where else?) the character follows a character named Angel Veroncheck as he mounts a desperate search for his neighbour and kinda, sorta, girlfriend Angela (no last name.)

The back-story is more than a little complicated. Angel, the son of a Hollywood mega-producer and faded actress is an albino, prone to debilitating migraines when exposed to bright light, especially bright sunlight. As one might imagine this makes life in Los Angeles, by day at least, somewhat difficult.

On top of this Angels has other issues; he is what some people might call "fragile" with a medicine cabinet full of tranquilizers, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and stimulants. He spends most of his time in a tiny apartment with the shades drawn working on a seemingly endless screenplay, his only company a DVD of Ridley Scott's adaptation of "Blade Runner" set to constant repeat - he keeps the sound off as he has memorized every line of dialogue in the film.

He meets Angela, and things start to look up. Then Angela disappears.

Smith pulls off the story with considerable style and restraint. His writing is very much of the "damaged characters in extraordinary situations" school (trust me, *everyone* in this novel is carrying some kind of damage) but he never lets things get too far out. He builds tension and sets an appropriately paranoid tone but keeping things just this side of plausible.

More importantly, he has created an engaging set of characters. The reader wants to stick with these people, we want to know what happens, and it keeps us turning pages.

That's not to say that there aren't problems. Light, the concept of light, and the physical manifestation of light plays a very large part in the novel. At times Smith rides the light metaphor a bit too heavily - yes, Angel is an albino, yes he is obsessed with light, we get it.

Also, and this isn't a problem unique to Smith, but something that seems to afflict all writers, no matter what their preferred genre: There is a band in the book. The band's name is "ImmanuelKantLern." This is awful. I realize that about ninety-nine percent of band names are absolutely ridiculous, but really, ImmanuelKantLern?

Another, more serious problem, is the first section of the multi-staged ending - some readers will find it entirely appropriate, others (myself included) will groan.

All that aside, there's a lot to like. Smith has crafted and intense and very enjoyable novel that should grab readers both in genre and at the more adventurous end of the mainstream.