Friday, January 25, 2008

Fiction: The Appointed Time

In 2005 my short story 'The Appointed Time' appeared in Supernatural Tales 9. The tale was originally submitted to the anthology Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores, which was published by DreamHaven Books in 2002 for the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis. The story did not, ultimately, make the cut; undaunted, I sent it to David Longhorn, who immediately accepted it but confessed that it would be some time before it could see print. Knowing what wait times in the small press are like, and knowing the quality of Supernatural Tales, I was more than happy to have found a good home for my tale.

As all issues of Supernatural Tales are sold out, and the story has not appeared elsewhere, I've decided to publish it here. Enjoy!


The Appointed Time

It is night in Lincoln’s Inn—perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law, where suitors generally find but little day—and fat candles are snuffed out in offices, and clerks have rattled down the crazy wooden stairs, and dispersed. The bell that rings at nine o’clock, has ceased its doleful clangor about nothing; the gates are shut; and the night-porter, a solemn warder with a mighty power of sleep, keeps guard in his lodge.

Henry Anderson looked up from his book with a start. A noise had caught his ear; something outside the normal range of sounds that he had, after more than thirty years in the shop, come to know and expect and even, at times—especially lately—welcome. It was a thin, dusty sound, almost a sigh, and Henry glanced behind him, half-expecting to see a figure standing over his shoulder. Impossible; there had not been a customer in the shop for at least an hour, and he was all too aware that the apartment behind was painfully empty.

He kept his head up for another moment, listening. Around him stood row upon row of books, which seemed to be listening, too; holding their collective breath, watching, waiting, as if in anticipation of something which was hovering just outside Henry’s vision. As indeed it was, had Henry only known; had he, as he gazed about him, been able to see beyond the front wall, into the street, where a figure stood, wrapped in evening shadows, its whole attention fixed on the dim light spilling out of the door of the shop.

In the ordinary course of things, Henry would have had the shop closed and locked now, the lights extinguished; but he had become engrossed in his book, and lost track of time. This was by no means unusual with Henry, and on most evenings no harm would have come of it. But this was an evening unlike any other in his life, although he did not yet know it. And so, after assuring himself that all was well inside the shop, his head dipped irresistibly back down towards his book, and the light continued to shine out into the damp streets, a lone beacon in an otherwise dark stretch of shops. And outside the figure, after a moment of hesitation, drew nearer.

This was not the figure’s usual habitat; it was used to more garish surroundings, louder streets. Chance had taken it further afield than usual, and in this unaccustomed environment it was cautious, wary. But cold and hunger and other, darker needs spurred it on, drawing it inexorably, inevitably closer to Henry and his quiet, tidy world.

It is a close night, though the damp cold is searching too; and there is a laggard mist a little way up in the air. It is a fine steaming night to turn the slaughter-houses, the unwholesome trades, the sewerage, bad water, and burial grounds to account, and give the Registrar of Deaths some extra business.

The noise again, louder this time. Henry’s head jerked up, and he cocked it on one side, trying to determine what the sound was and where it came from. It had definitely sounded like a sigh; no mistaking it. It was followed by a silence which sounded expectant, as if awaiting some action on his part at which he could not guess.

Perhaps, thought Henry, it was time to start thinking about selling up and moving on. He had thought about it before; he and Mary had discussed it before she died, but lightly, as something that would not happen for a good many years yet. Then for some time he had not thought about very much of anything, selling the shop least of all. He had kept it going because not keeping it going had seemed unthinkable, another blow to the fabric of his life which would have been unbearable. Mary and the shop had been part of him for so long that to lose both would have been to lose every reason he had for getting up in the morning.

So he had clung to the shop, finding a kind of solace in the ordered rank of books in their neatly labelled sections. It had not always been thus. When he had first bought the shop, it had been little better than a junk-heap, a dispirited shambles of discarded, unwanted books, and he had had to spend a good deal of time patiently weeding out the multiple copies of battered paperbacks, their broken spines and chipped covers an affront to his notion of what books should be. Slowly he had built up a quietly successful bookstore, filled with the sorts of books he liked reading, all lovingly tended, neatly shelved, easily accessible. The shop itself attracted a loyal group of regular and semi-regular customers, who found a safe and companionable haven amongst the shelves and racks, a friendly and knowledgeable proprietor in Henry. ‘It’s Mary’s cookies people come for, really,’ he would say with a smile, and it was true that the plate of cookies put out every morning by the coffee machine had always been empty by day’s end, the crushed cushions on the comfortable armchairs bearing silent witness to those who had found a home there. The cookies were from a box now, but the customers still came.

Outside the rain continued to drizzle, stretching damp fingers along the sidewalk. The figure in the shadows shivered, and gazed greedily at the light from the shop. It drew nearer still, eyes fixed on the door. The sound of a car in a nearby street caused it to hesitate, and draw back from the light momentarily; and that pause bought Henry Anderson a few more moments of life.

‘It is a tainting sort of weather,’ says Mr Snagsby; ‘and I find it sinking to the spirits.’

‘By George! I find it gives me the horrors,’ returns Mr Weevle.

‘Then, you see, you live in a lonesome way, and in a lonesome room, with a black circumstance hanging over it,’ says Mr Snagsby, looking in past the other’s shoulder along the dark passage, and then falling back a step to look up at the house. ‘I couldn’t live in that room alone, as you do, sir. I should get so fidgetty and worried of an evening, sometimes, that I should be driven to come to the door, and stand here, sooner than sit there.’

The sound had become louder, as if uttered by someone—or something—that was gaining strength, rallying for one supreme effort. The cry—for it was a cry, no doubt of it—startled Henry so much that he pulled himself out of his chair with a suddenness that made the bones and joints in his legs and back protest at the effort. He walked around the desk and peered into the depths of the shop, while his mind tried and failed to analyse and define the exact nature of the sound. He was forced back to his first, instinctive thought: a cry, and of pain, too. No; not pain, exactly: the expectation of pain, as of someone who cried out in anticipation of a cruel blow.

He shook his head. Definitely time to start thinking seriously about selling up, moving out, going somewhere warmer and drier. He was getting too old to manage the shop on his own, and the trade was changing too fast for him to keep up. Every day, it seemed, people asked him when he was going to take his stock on-line, and he would shake his head and say ruefully, ‘Ah, well, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Now, standing in the familiar quiet of the shop, he shook his head again. ‘Old dog?’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Old dinosaur, more like. Hearing things, too. What would Mary say?’

And yet the thought of leaving the shop, turning it over to another person, closing the door behind him forever, was one that he persisted in putting off. There were too many memories bound up within the four walls, jostling for space on the shelves, surrounding every bookcase, each piece of furniture. The armchairs, now; they were not the height of fashion, never had been—‘But Mary, they’re comfortable,’ he had said when he brought them back, and she had surveyed them with a look, half-tolerant, half-exasperated. She had had the same look on her face every time Henry, faced with a need to create more space, had brought back another bookcase, discovered at a sale or in the dusty recesses of a used furniture shop. ‘If your goal was to not have any two bookcases in the shop matching, Henry,’ she had said once, ‘then you’ve certainly succeeded.’ But there was a smile on her face as she said it.

Henry smiled at the memory. Yes, the shop was full of memories, and he could smile at most of them. ‘If these walls—no, if these books could speak,’ he thought, ‘they could certainly tell a tale or two!’

He glanced out the front window, vaguely surprised to see how dark it was. Time to close up for the night; more than time, in fact. Lock the doors, turn out the lights, then go and make some dinner, listen to the news, read for a time. A night like any other. But this was not to be a night like any other.

Had he gone to the door even then, he might have been in time, for the figure outside was still hesitating in the shadows, and the sight of Henry at the door, pulling down the blinds, turning the lock, would have been enough to send it scuttling back into the darkness. But he paused, and stretched, trying to relieve the ache in his back; and he was lost.

‘Seems a Fate in it, don’t there?’ suggests the stationer.

‘There does.’

‘Just so,’ observes the stationer, with his confirmatory cough. ‘Quite a Fate in it. Quite a Fate.’

At the sound of the door opening and shutting, Henry turned so quickly that his back gave a more violent twinge than before, causing him to draw his breath in sharply. A swift glance took in the—no, not customer, this was no customer come late, this was Trouble with a capital T, right here in his shop. Be calm, think, think, think. . . .

‘Yes? What can I do for you?’ He tried to make his voice sound curt, no-nonsense, but Henry was not used to being curt, and his voice wavered slightly. The figure moved forward, and Henry could see it more clearly. A youngish man, unruly dark hair framing a sullen face, a cheap imitation leather jacket zipped up to his chin, one hand visible, the other balled up in a pocket, clutching—what? Henry realised he did not want to know.

‘What can you do for me? What can you do?’ said the other, as if seriously pondering the question. ‘I’ll tell you what you can do, old man—you can give me any money you’ve got, and quick, too, ’cause I don’t like having to ask for things more than once.’

Henry thought quickly, weighing his options. What options? said a voice in his head. Don’t try to be a hero. Give him what he wants and maybe he’ll leave. ‘All right, yes, money, by all means,’ he said, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. ‘I don’t have much, but you can take it all, yes . . .’ He moved to walk around the desk, and the other man stepped forward, closing the distance between them so suddenly that Henry pulled back.

‘No tricks, old man,’ whispered the intruder. ‘See? I don’t like tricks, and neither does my friend.’ He withdrew the hand that had been in his pocket, and Henry saw the gleam of a knife blade as it caught a ray of light from overhead. ‘Just move nice and slow.’

Henry nodded. ‘The cash—I keep it there.’ He gestured towards the desk.

‘Get it, then.’ The intruder’s eyes left Henry for a moment and swept around the shop. ‘Anyone else here?’

‘No. No one. I live by myself,’ said Henry, profoundly grateful—I’m sorry, Mary—that this was true.

‘Great. Get the money, then.’

‘Yes.’ Henry moved around behind the desk to the cash register and fumbled at the keys with fingers which seemed to have grown stiff and useless. How does this thing open . . . please, please . . . let it be all right, oh, let it be all right . . .

‘Come on, old man, stop jerking me around. I don’t have all day.’

‘No . . . yes, yes, I’m trying . . . just be a minute . . .’

‘I don’t have a minute!’ the other exploded, thrusting himself across the desk so that he was inches away from Henry’s trembling frame. ‘Aren’t you listening?’ He moved his hand so that the knife was between them. ‘I want that money now, old man, or I’ll use this!’ He grabbed Henry’s shirt, pulling him halfway across the desk; and Henry, feeling himself losing his balance, flailed his arms, trying to stop himself from falling. One of his hands caught the intruder’s arm; not a blow, not by any stretch, but unexpected, and feeling himself threatened the intruder lashed out, sending Henry reeling backwards, hands to his throat, staring uncomprehending at the redness which was covering them, covering his shirt, covering everything, even his eyes, which were straining into darkness, straining, trying to see, trying—and then there was silence, and Henry Anderson saw and heard no more.

Both sit silent, listening to the metal voices, near and distant, resounding from towers of various heights, in tones more various than their situations. When these at length cease, all seems more mysterious and quiet than before. One disagreeable result of whispering is, that it seems to evoke an atmosphere of silence, haunted by the ghosts of sound—strange cracks and tickings, the rustling of garments that have no substance in them, and the tread of dreadful feet, that would leave no mark on the sea-sand or the winter snow.

The intruder stood stock-still on his side of the desk, his chest heaving as with some great physical effort. He could see part of Henry’s body, lying on its side where it had fallen, and he watched it for any movement, any sign of life. But there was none. The job had been done well. The knife was still in his hand, and he gazed at it dispassionately. A box of tissues stood on a corner of the desk, and he took out a handful and wiped the blade off before placing the knife back in his pocket. He looked at the body again, his mind working as his breath came more easily and he found that he could think with something approaching clarity.

First he moved to the door, locking it and pulling down the blind, unconsciously carrying out the very actions which would have saved Henry’s life. Then he returned to the desk and stood looking round the shop thoughtfully. Various bays formed by the arrangement of bookshelves stretched down both walls, all neatly labelled with signs hanging above them describing the books to be found therein. In the middle of the shop were a few armchairs, surrounding a small table which contained a coffee maker and a plate of cookies. The intruder helped himself to a handful of cookies and made a more thorough survey of the shop.

A door at the back caught his eye, and he made his way towards it, alert and cautious. The old man had said there was no one else there, but you never knew . . . He opened the door carefully, and saw a short hallway leading to what appeared to be a kitchen. A staircase, its upper reaches in darkness, led to the next floor.

He remembered Henry’s words. I live by myself. The old man must have an apartment behind the shop, then! This was getting better and better. He’d be able to get the cash out of the register, have a good look round the apartment—there must be stuff worth taking from there, too—fix himself something to eat and drink, maybe even wait out the rain, before being on his way long before anyone discovered something wrong. What a stroke of luck!

A sound behind him in the shop made him jump, and he whirled around, knife at the ready.

Nothing.

He moved swiftly back towards the desk and looked at Henry. The body had not moved. The intruder turned his attention to the cash register, and in a matter of seconds had it open. He cleared out the contents, stuffing the money into his pockets, then looked to see if there was anything else worth having.

A book lay open on the desk. He flicked it shut and looked at the cover. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The old man wouldn’t be reading that again anytime soon.

Another noise disturbed him; this one came from the back of the shop, and for a moment he thought that someone had come through the door from the apartment, for a shadow seemed to pass lightly into one of the bays. He moved along the shop and peered between the shelves. There was no one there.

More sound; this time from the front of the shop. The intruder whirled around, and again thought he saw a shadow pass into one of the bays, this one near the window. He narrowed his eyes, peering through the dim shop. Was it his imagination, or were the lights getting dimmer?

‘As to dead men, Tony,’ proceeds Mr Guppy, evading this proposal, ‘there have been dead men in most rooms.’

‘I know there have; but in most rooms you let them alone, and—and they let you alone,’ Tony answers.

Of course there was no one there when he reached the front of the shop. The front door was locked tight, and no one could have come in through the door at the back without being seen. The intruder shrugged his shoulders and tried to laugh. Crazy. Imagining things. That’s what it was. All these books, lined up, watching him, waiting . . .

Waiting! That was good. Waiting for what? He shook his head, then went back to the plate of cookies for another handful, as if to prove that he wasn’t afraid, there was nothing to be afraid of, just a dead guy behind the desk and he wasn’t going anywhere, wasn’t going to be calling for any help, there wasn’t even anyone to call except a load of books, and what help could they be? As if to prove his point he moved to the desk (although he was careful not to look too closely at Henry’s body) and picked up the copy of Bleak House, gazing at it with contempt for a moment before flinging it to the back of the shop, where it fell with a flutter and crash.

And, mingled with these sounds, a cry, as of pain.

The intruder’s head swivelled round, trying to locate the source of the cry. It sounded as if—this was crazy—as if it had come from the book. He moved through the shop towards the book, which was lying, face up, on the floor. He moved closer, almost against his will, looking to see if perhaps the book had hit something—a pet of some kind, was there an animal in the shop?—and touched the book gingerly, almost delicately, with his foot. It was just a book.

Mr Guppy takes the light. They go down, more dead than alive, and holding one another, push open the door of the back shop. The cat has retreated close to it, and stands snarling—not at them; at something on the ground, before the fire.

Another sound, behind him. He whirled around, eyes trying to adjust to the dimness—there must be something wrong with the lights—as a figure moved in front of the door and disappeared behind a bookshelf in a curious gliding motion. The intruder stared, heart pounding. The old man had said he was alone. How could anyone else be there? It wasn’t possible. There was no one else in the shop; just him and a dead man, and a load of old books. No one else.

A murmur came from behind him, halfway along the shop, in a bay labelled—he could barely make out the sign, so dark had it become—Literature. There was an answering murmur—or so it seemed to the intruder—from a bay on the other side of the shop, this one labelled Children’s. A dim memory stirred within him, and he was reminded of a time, impossibly long ago in what seemed another life, when he had played hide-and-seek, and had tried to track down those hiding by listening for the tell-tale signs of giggles and whispers. He could almost imagine people hiding behind the bookshelves, breath held, trying not to give themselves away, watching him to see what he would do.

‘Who’s there?’ he called out roughly. ‘Come on out, where I can see you. Come on!’

No answer. But there was movement. He could sense it, rather than see it, as if shadows were massing behind the shelves, dark clouds of movement, full of purpose. His head swivelled from side to side, trying to pin down the danger, define it, attack it. His hand clenched the knife, poised in front of him, ready to strike.

A small sigh behind him, at the back of the shop. He twisted round, every nerve alert, ready to face whoever—whatever—had come in.

They advance slowly, looking at all these things. The cat remains where they found her, still snarling at the something on the ground, before the fire and between the two chairs. What is it? Hold up the light?

It was a boy. The intruder could see little of him, apart from the fact that he looked thin and pale. He was holding something; a funny sort of broom. The old man’s grandkid, come downstairs to see what’s up. A wave of relief flashed through the man. A kid with a broom: pathetic. He could deal with this, no problem. He put the hand with the knife behind his back and adopted a sickly, wheedling tone.

‘Hey, kid, sorry you were bothered, okay? Me and your granddad were just talking about business; you know, business—nothing for you to worry about, so why don’t you just . . .’

The boy wasn’t listening to him; wasn’t even looking at him. He was looking at something else, something behind him. The intruder turned around, and stared in disbelief at the figures moving towards him. It couldn’t be . . . it wasn’t possible . . . it was just him and a dead man and a load of old books, for Christ’s sake . . . nothing else . . .

There was something wrong with them; something which his brain tried to comprehend even as he moved backwards, unaware of the figures advancing towards him from the back of the shop, led by the child with the broom. The clothing—they looked like figures from old movies, or from pictures in books.

Help, help, help! come into this house, for Heaven’s sake!

Plenty will come in, but none can help.

'The Appointed Time'

Original illustration by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)

for chapter 32 of Bleak House by Charles Dickens



Sunday, January 20, 2008

Repeat Viewings: Sleuth (1972)

I'm sure everyone has them; films which he or she can watch over and over again, to the point where if you come across one of them on television while channel-surfing you will happily immerse yourself, no matter what stage the movie has got to. You simply can't resist. This can, of course, only happen with films you've seen so often that you find you know large chunks of dialogue off by heart; and much of the pleasure comes from this complete familiarity, allowing you to watch the corners of the screen, as it were, and revel in myriad details that will most likely escape the notice of anyone watching the film for the first time. Herewith the first in an irregular series discussing a few of my own repeat pleasures, in no particular order.

The first time I saw Sleuth (1972) it was on television, and I came in just before the halfway point. It didn't take me long to figure out that it's not a film that lends itself to this type of viewing, the first time you watch it; you need to be in your seat, paying attention, from the moment the lights go down. It manages to be several things at once: a clever murder mystery; a pastiche of a clever murder mystery; a 'twist' movie that has an endless supply of twists up its sleeve, none of which seem forced or contrived; and, underneath it all, a fairly serious look at the English class system, marriage, and the games we all play from day to day. No mean feat; and all credit to Anthony Shaffer, whose Edgar Award-winning play serves as the basis for the film (for which Shaffer wrote the screenplay). Indeed, Shaffer's Edgar Award managed to get itself cast in the film; you'll see it sitting on the mantelpiece in the stately home belonging to Andrew Wyke (Laurence Olivier), a writer of mystery novels featuring the detective St. John Lord Merridew, and who won the Edgar for a novel called The Jack Sprat Murders ('Ironically, for one who could eat no fat, he was murdered by an injection of concentrated cholesterol'.)

These words are spoken to Milo Tindle (Michael Caine), a much younger man who has been invited to Wyke's manor house deep in the Wiltshire countryside for reasons which are, at first, unclear, both to Tindle and the audience. Wyke is in the centre of a maze in the garden, dictating the denouement of his latest novel, Death by Double Fault, and it's with some difficulty that Tindle makes his way to the centre to join him: a taste of the games-playing which is to come. The pair make rather uneasy conversation, with the tweed-clad, avuncular, aristocratic Wyke clearly at an advantage over the rough around the edges Tindle, who appears nervous. The reason for this becomes clear when they enter the house, and Wyke says casually, 'I understand you wish to marry my wife.'

As conversation openers go, this one is hard to beat. Andrew's wife, Marguerite, has been having an affair with Milo; but it soon becomes clear that Wyke, far from being angry, appears rather relieved by this turn of events. Marguerite, it turns out, is an expensive woman to maintain, and Andrew has another iron in the fire ('Yes, Téa, the Finnish bird who runs the sauna in Salisbury,' says Milo, revealing that Andrew isn't the only one who's been keeping tabs). Andrew wants to be rid of Marguerite, but he needs to ensure that Milo—who runs two hairdressing shops—can afford to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed, so that she doesn't come running back to Andrew after a few months. To that end, Andrew proposes a plan, beautiful in its simplicity even if it is criminal in nature ('Of course it's criminal,' he tells Milo, 'all good money-making schemes in England have to be these days'). He and Milo will stage a break in at Andrew's house, during the course of which Milo will 'steal' jewellery worth several hundred thousand pounds, along with their receipts, and sell them to a fence whom Andrew knows. Andrew, in the meantime, will file a claim with his insurance company and receive compensation for the 'theft'; so everyone will live happily ever after.

The 'theft' is duly staged and carried out, and then . . . well, at this point things take an unexpected turn, the first of many such twists throughout the rest of the film, which it would be unfair to reveal to anyone who hasn't seen the movie. Suffice it to say that what started out as a rather jovial caper becomes something much darker and nastier, with Shaffer—ably abetted by his cast—ratcheting up the stakes, and the tension, to almost unbearable levels, culminating in a final scene that is as shocking as it is perfectly fitting ('Be sure . . . and tell them . . . it was just . . . a bloody game').

This spirit of game-playing pervades the whole film. The men play verbal games—guarded at first, more openly as the film goes on—and Andrew's mansion is filled with games and puzzles of all types, from complicated ancient Egyptian board games to a half-finished jigsaw puzzle consisting entirely of white pieces. The house is also filled with automata of all types, and these figures act as a sort of chorus to the action. Benign, even playful, at first, their faces look increasingly sinister and judgmental as the film goes on, none more so than the life-size Jovial Jack Tar, the sailor, who claps his hands together and laughs at the press of a button. 'We have a wonderful relationship,' says Andrew; 'I make the jokes, and he laughs at them.' 'Even when they're not funny?' enquires Milo. 'Especially then,' replies Andrew.

For most of its running length Sleuth is essentially a two-hander, which means there's nowhere for the actors playing Andrew and Milo to hide: if either one isn't up to snuff, it will be glaringly obvious, particularly given Shaffer's dialogue, which often says one thing on the surface but means something else underneath. A seemingly friendly series of questions from Andrew about Milo's background, for instance, reveals deep-seated issues of class and racism in Andrew: subtly, as when Milo reveals that his father was an Italian who changed his last name from Tindolini, and who wanted to become English, to which Andrew murmurs in disbelief mixed with contempt, subtle emphasis on the first word, 'Become English'; overtly, as when Andrew snarls at Milo, 'You're just a jumped-up pantry boy who doesn't know his place!' Elsewhere we get the following exchanges:

Milo (bristling): You were being rude about the woman I'm in love with.

Andrew (smoothly): On the contrary, I was reminiscing about my wife.

Milo: It amounts to the same thing.

Andrew: Things mostly do, you know.

And

Mile: I thought marriage was the game.

Andrew: No, sex is the game; marriage the penalty. Round and round we jog to each futile anniversary. Pass 'Go'; collect 200 rows, 200 silences, 200 scars in the deep places.

And

Andrew: It's a good thing I'm pretty much an Olympic sexual athlete.

Milo: I suppose these days you're concentrating more on the sprints than the long distance stuff.

Andrew: Not so, dear boy! I could copulate for England at any distance.

Milo: Well, as they say in the Olympics, it's not the winning, it's the taking part that counts.

In 1972 Laurence Olivier was one of the Grand Old Men of film and theatre, and appears to have been born to play Andrew, smoothness itself on the outside but with a deep well of hatred and sadism inside. Michael Caine was, at the time, still establishing himself as a serious actor, and there appear to have been fears that he wouldn't be able to match up to Olivier. The fears proved groundless; Caine proved himself more than able to hold his own against the older man, particularly in the early scenes, where Milo spends a good deal of time reacting to Andrew before coming into his own in the second half. For an idea of some of the verbal sparring, here's a link to the original trailer from the film.

One of the dangers of transferring a play from stage to screen is the temptation to 'open up' the action and sets, travelling well beyond the constraints of what can be achieved in a theatre in order to give viewers lots to look at. In the case of Sleuth the filmmakers wisely chose to retain, for the most part, a single set; apart from the opening scene and two short later ones, all the action takes place inside Andrew's house, although whereas the stage play makes use of one room, the movie allows us to venture further into the house. The bulk of the action, however, takes place in the great room of Andrew's manor, and production designer Ken Adam and set designer John Jarvis ensure there is always something interesting to look at, either directly or out of the corner of the eye, and Oswald Morris's cinematography does full justice to their work. John Addison's Oscar-nominated score is a perfect accompaniment to the film, light and witty at the start, but becoming increasingly dark as the movie proceeds.

In 2007 the film was remade, with an all-star pedigree: screenplay by Harold Pinter, direction by Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law as Milo, and Michael Caine as Andrew. Pinter apparently did not see the film version, choosing to work from the stage play instead, from which he apparently retained only one line ('It's just a game') ; he also chose to play up the homosexual angle Shaffer brings up towards the end of the play, where Andrew begs Milo to forget Marguerite and come live with him instead, so they can continue playing games (Shaffer dropped this line from the film). I haven't seen the remake, which received reviews that could politely be called 'mixed' at best; but the original remains one of my favourite films, and one that can be watched time and again without ever becoming tiring.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Farewell Flashman

I can't remember why, precisely, I picked up my first Flashman novel by George MacDonald Fraser, but the book is before me as I type: a Pan paperback from 1970, with a splendid cover illustration (one of several he did for this series) by John Rose. I suspect that I bought it in England in 1983, and memory suggests it was in a bookstore in Guildford, Surrey, for I remember starting to read it later in that trip, at a bed and breakfast in Penzance. Whatever the whys and wherefores, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as I sought out first the other Flashman books—of which, by 1983, there were several—and then everything else by Fraser that I could find: The Pyrates, Mr American, Black Ajax, the McAuslan stories (about 'the dirtiest soldier in the army'), Fraser's Hollywood History of the World (still one of my favourite film books), The Candlemass Road and The Steel Bonnets (fiction and non-fiction, respectively, about the Scottish border reivers), and Quartered Safe Out Here, Fraser's recollections of 'the forgotten war' in Burma during World War II.

Fraser—who died on 2 January—was a long-time journalist who, in 1969, conceived of the idea of carrying on the adventures—or misadventures—of Harry Flashman, a character in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) who relentlessly bullies the eponymous hero before being expelled for drunkenness. Flashman purported to be the first installment of 'The Flashman Papers', discovered in a sale room in 1965 and given to Fraser to 'edit' (to his delight, a number of American reviewers of Flashman mistook the volume for serious memoirs, as opposed to the fiction that it was). The first book starts at the point where, in Hughes's work, Flashy is expelled, and we are introduced to a swaggering, cocksure bully who has a generous streak of the cowardly running through him; indeed, one of the many delights of the Flashman books is the way in which Flashy's cowardice is so often mistaken for bravery, a misapprehension the much-decorated Flashman does nothing to contradict.

Over the course of the Flashman papers—twelve volumes in all—the eponymous 'hero' cut a swath through almost every war, crisis, or scandal of the mid- to late-nineteenth century, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Last Stand at Little Bighorn. One of the few major events of the period of which we do not have a complete record of Flashy's involvement is the American Civil War: we know, from hints in some of the other novels, that he worked, at various times, for both the Blue and the Gray, but the definitive account has, it appears, died with Flashman's creator. Throughout the books, Fraser displayed not only the sure touch of the fictioneer and comic writer, but the eye of a historian: the books are annotated with copious footnotes, and it's possible to pick up a solid grounding in genuine nineteenth century history by reading the Flashman chronicles.

While Flash Harry was, justly, Fraser's most celebrated creation, his other works are well worth seeking out, for he was far from a one book (or character) wonder. Flashy does crop up, briefly, in Mr American, a mostly serious novel about a mysterious American who arrives in late-Victorian London, and his father appears in Black Ajax, a fictionalised account of the life of American boxer Tom Molyneux, who was for a time the toast of Regency England. The McAuslan tales draw heavily from the author's time in the British army, post-WW II; The Candlemass Road is indebted to his researches into the Scottish border reivers; and The Pyrates is a warm-hearted, glorious romp through history as it should have been, the sort of adventure that Rafael Sabatini might well have dreamt of but never had the nerve to commit to paper, instantly recognisable to, and beloved by, anyone who has ever thrilled to the sight of Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone trading barbed quips in Captain Blood. Fraser's account of his time in Burma during World War II, Quartered Safe Out Here, has been praised as one of the finest memoirs to come out of the Second World War, while his lavishly illustrated Hollywood History of World sought to prove that the film capital of the world, so often reviled for getting history wrong on celluloid, very often got it right, a point not lost on the author, who was responsible for several screenplays, including the James Bond film Octopussy, Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, and Force Ten from Navarone.

Indeed, Fraser's memoirs of his encounters with Hollywood form the best part of The Light's On At Signpost (2002), a collection of essays which is half movie reminiscences (very amusing and illuminating) and half Angry Old Man rants (rather less so, at least to this reader, although I have to respect the force of Fraser's beliefs and the right he has, in light of what he's seen and done, to express them). All of this means that I have one non-fiction book of Fraser's (The Steel Bonnets) and one fiction book (his last novel, The Reavers, published in Britain and Canada in October 2007 and in the States in April 2008) left to read before the well runs dry.

I've alluded to Fraser's skills as a comic writer, and the Flashman stories are surely one of the funniest series of novels to appear: Flashy (and his creator) have a ready wit, which neither is afraid to display (check all thoughts of political correctness at the door, although it must be said that Flashman is an equal opportunity offender, skewering everyone, regardless of race, gender, or religion). Fraser's humour is apparent in all his works: the McAuslan stories are grittily, earthily funny, as befits their Army background; The Pyrates is a slapstick romp; his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here is filled with the gallows humour of someone who was never sure if he or his companions would live to see another day; and even more serious novels, such as Black Ajax and Mr American, contain laugh-out-loud moments. No wonder no less a comic master than P. G. Wodehouse hailed the appearance of Flashman, calling it 'the goods' and writing 'If ever there was a time when I felt that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new planet stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.'

Fraser and his wife worked, for a time, in Canada, and I lived in hope that we might, one day, find that Flash Harry was involved in the Great March West in 1873, when the Northwest Mounted Police (later the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) were established and sent into western Canada to bring a measure of law and order to the frontier. On 25 July 1995 Christopher wrote to Fraser, asking him if he would care to assume the position of President of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society, which Christopher founded, and whose first president, Julian
Symons, had recently died. Fraser's response, dated 28 July 1995, is thus:

'Dear Mr Roden,

'Thank you very much indeed for your kind letter, for the enclosures, especially that beautiful copy of "The Blood-Stone Tragedy", but most of all for the honour you do me inviting me to become president of the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. I am most grateful, believe me.

'If I decline, as I'm afraid I must, it is from no lack of sympathy with your views. Indeed, I share them. Recently I had the pleasure of writing an introduction to "The Lost World" for an anthology of adventure novels put out by my publishers, HarperCollins, and said what I have been saying for years: that Conan Doyle was far more than the author of Sherlock Holmes, and that Gerard, Challenger, and the historical novels are far superior to his detective stories. And I'm delighted that you are seeking out his lesser-known work; that is a splendid project.

'The trouble is, I am too enthusiastic a Doyle admirer to be, at the same time, a president in absentia. If I were to accept your generous invitation I should feel bound to try to do the job properly, and that would mean more writing, travelling, and general involvement with the Society than I could undertake. Also, I do believe that there must be other Doyle devotees who would make worthier presidents than I.

'Thank you again for thinking of me; that was most kind. May I wish you and the Society every success in all your projects to keep alive the works and memory of a great writer and a great man.'

Christopher replied on 8 August, and in this letter raised the question of Flashman's involvement in events of Canadian history, which received the following response:

'Flashman in Canada is a wonderful possibility. My wife and I worked as reporters in Regina, Saskatchewan, many years ago, and I had the good fortune to interview survivors of the famous Riel Rebellion, which might well make a good subject, but I'll have to look into it again.'

Alas, it was not to be; although Canadian humorist Eric Nicol gave us a partial solution in his Dickens of the Mounted, in which the titular hero (a real life son of Charles Dickens, who was shipped off to Canada and did become a Mountie, although with a somewhat less than lacklustre career) encounters Flashman, and comes to the conclusion that Sir Harry is a cad and a bounder.

When I heard that George MacDonald Fraser had died, I felt as if I had lost someone I knew: a favourite uncle, perhaps, whose moustaches tickled when he kissed you, and who told jokes that made you laugh, even as scandalised aunts and mothers made sounds of 'Hush!' His works will, I suspect, live on, particularly the Flashman chronicles; and perhaps it's just as well that he did not live to detail Flashy's participation in the Civil War. Sometimes less is more, and mysteries more satisfying than cold hard fact. Rest in peace, Mr Fraser; your literary legacy will assuredly live on.

The Literary Life

'Ah, so you're blogging again,' said my husband Christopher, peering over my shoulder at the computer screen. 'What are you blogging about?'

'My writing,' I replied.

'Ah,' he said in mock disappointment, 'I thought you were going to talk about something interesting.'

And therein lies the rub. Writing is an intensely interesting activity for the person who does it, who hopes, in turn, that readers will be interested in the end result. Talking or writing about writing, however, can be slightly less enthralling for those on the receiving end than watching grass grow. In Edward Gorey's The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel, the eponymous hero muses, at one point, on 'the unspeakable horrors of the literary life', a line which almost certainly resonates with anyone who has ever stared at a typewriter and a blank sheet of paper, or a cursor flicking relentlessly on an otherwise white screen, but probably leaves others muttering 'What horrors? Try having to work for a living.'

Writing is largely cerebral, and a fairly lonely activity, which is one of the reasons, I think, that movies about writers or writing often have trouble making the activity cinematic, that is to say exciting for the viewer. There are, after all, only so many times that one can show the frustrated writer ripping a sheet of paper out of a typewriter, crumpling it into a ball, and throwing it into a (usually full to overflowing) wastepaper basket, and of course no way of showing the equivalent where computers are concerned (although the sight of a keyboard, yanked out of a processor and launched across the room, would certainly make for a vivid shot). Someone sitting at a keyboard, alternately staring into space, typing furiously, deleting just as furiously, typing some more, then wandering into the kitchen to see if, by chance, there's one more cup of coffee left in the pot is not the stuff of which gripping cinema is made. The recent film Atonement managed it quite well, I think, by conveying a sense that young Briony, who grows up to become a writer, writes not because she wants to but because she has to: it's a compulsion, in the face of which she is helpless, and her set face and rigid stance indicate that she derives as much pain as pleasure from the process, but cannot stop herself.

Don't worry, this blog is not going to turn into one long post about the literary life (horrific or otherwise); but the truth is that a few people have been kind enough to express interest in my writing, and when I look back over the last ten months I find myself mildly surprised to realise that I have been, by my lights, fairly prolific. In 2007 I had three stories accepted and published, starting with 'The Palace' in At Ease With the Dead (Ash-Tree Press), which was set in the troubled Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and dealt with one man's attempt to make reparation for a terrible wrong done in the past. That was followed by 'The Wide Wide Sea' in Exotic Gothic (Ash-Tree Press), a story set in the Canadian prairie at the turn of the last century, and based on something I read some time ago in Maclean's magazine about pioneer women who literally ran mad with terror at the vastness of the brave new world in which they found themselves. The third of my 2007 stories was 'The Hiding Place' in Strange Tales II (Tartarus Press), the idea for which came out of absolutely nowhere and took me rather by surprise, although I was pleased with the end result.

Three more of my stories have been accepted for publication, and will be out within the next twelve months or so. 'Association Copy' will be in Bound for Evil: Curious Tales of Books Gone Bad (Dead Letter Press, March 2008), a mammoth volume containing sixty-four stories about—well, the subtitle really says it all. My own contribution features an R. L. Stine-like author of horror stories for young adults, who sends one of his books to a former classmate, with not entirely happy results. In the fall of 2008 comes 'The Things That Shall Come Upon Them' in Gaslit Grimoire from Edge Science Fiction, being published to tie in with the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary. The theme of this year's convention is 'Mystery in Fantasy and Horror', and to that end Gaslit Grimoire features new adventures of Sherlock Holmes with a supernatural component to them. On the basis that two detectives are better than one, I took the opportunity to pair Holmes the rationalist with a contemporary detective who was, shall we say, slightly more open-minded when it came to the supernatural: Flaxman Low, the first psychic detective, and the brainchild of Hesketh Prichard, friend of Conan Doyle's. Aficionados of the work of M. R. James will also, I hope, enjoy the references in the story to one of James's most famous tales.

Finally, while in New York last week I had the welcome news that my story 'The Brink of Eternity' has been accepted for Poe (note to JZ: no exclamation point), an anthology of stories inspired by Edgar Allan Poe being edited by Ellen Datlow for Solaris, to be published in early 2009 to mark Poe's bicentennial. I'll post further details about this book as they become available.

What's in the future? I'm working on four stories for various publications, and hope to add to that total before the year is out; I also plan to post more regularly to this blog, on the basis that any kind of writing is good practice. To that end, time to end this post and get back to staring at a flashing cursor; although first I think I'll just wander into the kitchen to see if there's any more coffee in the pot. Ah, the literary life. . . .

Tuesday, January 01, 2008