Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Memory Pool

The ghost story world has always had more than its fair share of unknown—or barely remembered—authors; writers whose work in the genre was scattered through various magazines, or whose one or two collections had fallen out of print and were difficult, or expensive, or both, to find. From the early 1970s onwards editors such as Hugh Lamb, Richard Dalby, Mike Ashley, Jack Adrian, and Michel Parry went some way towards resurrecting the names of many of these authors, either through anthologies or through single-author collections (notably the short lived Equation Chillers series), and in the 1990s small presses such as Ghost Story Press, Tartarus, Ash-Tree, and others began reprinting scarce collections, and putting together 'complete' editions of an author's scattered works.

There are, of course, authors who have yet to be reprinted, in some cases because their work isn't very good (there's a reason some of these people have been forgotten), or because the authors in question weren't very prolific within the ghost story field (no one will be doing a 'complete' weird tales of Perceval Landon, because three stories do not a book make). However, a few authors have fallen through the net, one of whom is Thomas St. John Bartlett (1875–1909), whose sole collection, the posthumously published The Memory Pool and Others (Chatto & Windus, 1917), saw almost its entire run destroyed when the warehouse holding the book was destroyed during the last German airship raid of London during World War One, in June 1917. Bartlett languished in obscurity until Hugh Lamb resurrected him in 1972, but the lack of a 'complete' edition of his ghost stories has meant that Bartlett's reputation, never high to begin with, has remained below the radar of all but the most devoted aficionados of the weird tale.

When Glen Hirshberg and Pete Atkins approached me, earlier this year, with the astounding news that the rest of Bartlett's 'The Memory Pool' (previously only existing in the form of a fragment) had been found, I was thrilled; when they asked me to write the introduction to the first complete publication of the story, I was honoured and delighted. The result is a handsome booklet published by Earthling Publications as The Rolling Darkness Revue 2009—Bartlett: A Centenary Symposium, containing not only Bartlett's complete story (and my introduction to it), and bio/bibliographical information by Mike Ashley, E. F. Bleiler, and Gary Hoppenstand, but two further stories ('Intricate Green Figurines' by Pete, and 'The Nimble Men' by Glen) which take their cue from Bartlett's writing. It's to be hoped that some enterprising small press is able to prevail on the Bartlett estate to make not only the stories contained in The Memory Pool available to a new generation, but to release any unpublished stories it may hold. In the meantime, anyone wanting to sample Bartlett's work, and who doesn't have one of the handful of anthologies containing one of his stories, has a treat in store in this complete version of 'The Memory Pool'. It's long been a minor mystery as to why the publisher chose to title Bartlett's one collection after a story fragment; but as I say in my introduction, the complete story shows the author breaking new, fresh ground, with a confidence and maturity that makes it all the more tragic that his life was cut short in so dramatic a fashion. The handsome chapbook is available through Glen Hirshberg's website, and it would make an excellent stocking stuffer for the ghost story enthusiast in your life.

Speaking of Christmas, I see that Turner Classic Movies has scheduled eighteen Sherlock Holmes films to run consecutively from 5.00 pm PDT on Christmas Day. 'Holmes for the Holidays' is doubtless running as a tie-in to the Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law film Sherlock Holmes, which opens on 25 December, but whatever the reason for the scheduling, it's nice to think that a new audience might be introduced to the classic Holmes films of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Their two period adventures for Twentieth Century-Fox—1939's Hound of the Baskervilles and Adventures of Sherlock Holmes—kick off the programming, and eleven of the twelve Universal films (the only missing one is The Woman in Green) follow over the course of Boxing Day. Anyone who's read some of my earlier blog posts will know of my great fondness for these films, and I think it's safe to say that TCM will be playing softly in the background throughout at least some parts of Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

And still on a holiday note, let me say that at this time of year I thank goodness for online shopping. I became enamoured of mail-order shopping in 1997, when I had a three-month-old son and was living in a small town with, shall we say, limited shopping options. Tim is now twelve, and I'm a bit more mobile than I was in 1997, but the shopping options of Ashcroft have not increased in any meaningful way in the intervening years, and I've become a whole-hearted enthusiast of shopping electronically. The whole world is, quite literally, at my fingertips; so if you'll excuse me, I have to go and do some shopping. And I don't have to worry about finding a parking spot close to the door.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

Yes, I know, I've been very quiet here lately, and that's not like me at all, but the truth is that there really hasn't been a lot to say apart from 'Northwest Passages comes out soon, I'm really excited.' Deciding - probably correctly - that a series of posts on this theme would soon grow tiring, I resolved to wait until I had something slightly more interesting to say, and now I do: 'Northwest Passages has been published, I'm really excited.'

Actually, that's not quite true. Excited? Heck, I'm thrilled beyond words. I saw it first at Borderlands Books in San Francisco on 28 October, when I took part in a mass signing at the store prior to the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose that weekend (many thanks to Alan Beatts and Jude Feldman for their kind invite). I walked in the door of Borderlands and there it was: my book, on a table with other books. Real books, by real writers. I picked up a copy and grinned, and Christopher snapped this picture, of me holding my collection for the first time. That's me in the red jacket, with Jude Feldman. Up to that point I'd seen an ARC of the book, but this was the first time I'd seen and held a copy of the collection, and it was a wonderful moment. Perhaps there are authors for whom the release of a book elicits little more than 'Ho hum, a book, how nice,' but I'm not amongst their number, and hope never to be.

Northwest Passages was available in the Dealers' Room at World Fantasy, and is now available through varied sources, including the Prime Books website (which also offers the deluxe, leatherbound edition, which comes with a chapbook featuring my first ghost story, 'Dead Man's Pears'), Amazon and its affiliates in Canada and the U.K., Barnes & Noble, and Chapters/Indigo. I'm hoping to have a signing at the Chapters branch in Kamloops sometime in the New Year. I should also mention that anyone who'd like a signed and/or inscribed copy can obtain one through me, as I have stocks available; feel free to contact me for details.

World Fantasy in San Jose was tremendous fun; it was wonderful to spend time with good friends, and to know that I'll see many of them again at the World Horror Convention in Brighton in March 2010. Ash-Tree Press will have six - count 'em, six - books debuting between now and then, by authors who will be at the convention: Larry Connolly, Steve Duffy, Paul Finch, Gary McMahon, Lisa Tuttle, and Simon Kurt Unsworth. We're planning a special launch/signing affair in Brighton, and look forward to a grand event. If you're going to be at WHC, set aside Friday 29 March from 2.00 to 3.00 pm!

I'm reminded that tomorrow - 23 November - marks the 46th anniversary of the broadcast of the first episode of Doctor Who ('An Unearthly Child'). I've come fairly recently to DW, thanks to Tim's devotion to the show, but even so, the sound of THAT theme song - in any of its iterations - makes me smile. Here's the opening ten minutes of that first show; hang in until 1.40 to catch a first glimpse of the TARDIS. All credit to composer Ron Grainer, and to Delia Derbyshire, who was responsible for the electronic realisation of Grainer's theme.

I've already blogged about my love of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films (fourteen in all, made between 1939 and 1946). I've seen them so many times that I know great chunks of the dialogue by heart, and as soon as the remastered films were made available on DVD I bought the set; but that doesn't diminish my pleasure at hearing the news that Turner Classic Movies will, on 25 and 26 December, be broadcasting eighteen Sherlock Holmes films back to back, including thirteen of the fourteen Rathbone/Bruce films. The missing one is The Woman in Green, and that's understandable, as it's one of the weaker films in the series. However, Pursuit to Algiers is widely held to be the nadir of the Universal series - a view with which I concur - and Woman in Green does boast the undoubted pleasure of Henry Daniell's Professor Moriarty. In his autobiography, Rathbone said that Daniell was the best of the three actors (George Zucco and Lionel Atwill being the other two) who played Moriarty to his Holmes, and if you watch this encounter between the two actors you'll find it hard to disagree. Not canonical, perhaps, but when the result is this fine it's hard to quibble. From where I sit typing these words, I can glance to my right and see, in the hallway, a framed original poster from this film, which I bought largely because it featured Daniell (second from the bottom on the left). I think it's safe to say that, come Boxing Day, TCM will be playing softly in the background, as the game is afoot once more.

Last but not least, I'm going to try to update this blog each week, every Sunday evening PST, writing about whatever strikes my fancy. Feel free to comment! And Steve - it's now Monday morning. Time for WURK. . . .

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Writing News

Things have been . . . busy here. Nothing unusual in that; but things are more than usually busy right now, and I'll be glad when the end of July comes and things stabilise. A bit. I hope. One of the July projects is working with a local teacher—the wonderful Debi Hamson—at a summer camp she's running; I'll be helping a group of children to write a book. I'm looking forward to it very much, and talked with Debi today about some of the details. We're both very excited about the possibilities. No, it won't be a ghost story. . . .

However, I have been able to do some writing, and am pleased to say that my story 'Flu Season' will be appearing in Subterranean Online, either late this year or early next. It's a subtly nasty story (I think), a bit different to what I usually write. Also appearing in Subterranean Online—in the Summer 2009 issue—is my review of John Harwood's The Séance. I thought that his first novel, 2005's The Ghost Writer, was excellent, and am pleased to say that his second novel more than fulfills the promise in his International Horror Guild Award-winning first book. I hope to have more reviews in SO; watch this space.

Another story, 'The Haunted House in Etobicoke', will be appearing in Exotic Gothic 3, edited by Danel Olson and published by Ash-Tree Press in fall 2009. It is, as the movies have it, 'based on a true story', a tale told me by my paternal grandmother about a reporter knocking on her door late in 1969, thinking that recent supernatural activities reported in the Toronto papers had taken place at my grandparents' house. They'd taken place—allegedly—at a house down the road, and when I visited my grandparents as a child I used to go and stand in front of the 'haunted' house, and wonder what secrets it concealed.

Yesterday—Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known in my youth)—I received the news that my story 'Of the Origin of the Hound of the Baskervilles' will be appearing in Gaslight Grotesque, the sequel to last year's very well-received Gaslight Grimoire. The story was a good deal of fun to write, and I'm looking forward to this second volume of 'Dark Tales of Sherlock Holmes'.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Carry On Round the Horne with Hancock

Last Christmas we gave Tim an iPod, and due to technical difficulties which, quite frankly, I don't understand, Tim couldn't upload anything to the device through his own computer. As I'd given Christopher an iPod the Christmas before, and he had quite a lot of music and audio files on his own computer, he simply uploaded it all to Tim's, which was fine with everyone. However, not long after the New Year, Tim was scrolling through his iPod library and discovered something called Round the Horne: specifically, dozens of episodes of the BBC radio series from the 1960s, which Christopher had transferred, by the miracle of modern technology, from a number of cassette tapes to his iPod.

We knew Tim had discovered the shows because he was going about the house convulsed with laughter, listening to them over and over and repeating huge chunks of dialogue to us at every opportunity. It's not hard to see what appealed; even forty years on the shows are fresh and funny, full of witty dialogue, wonderful recurring characters, memorable catchphrases, and the sort of skilled playing by veteran actors (in the picture above we have, from left to right, Hugh Paddick, Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Horne, Betty Marsden, and BBC announcer Douglas Smith) that one associates with classic British comedy. Before long Tim could pick out who was who, replicate accents and voices, even sing along with close harmony group the Fraser Hayes Four (who provided a serious musical interlude on each show; if you see Tim at World Fantasy in San Jose, ask him to do 'Alexander's Ragtime Band'). It wasn't long before Christopher pointed out that if Tim liked Round the Horne (which he obviously did), he'd probably also enjoy Hancock's Half Hour, a number of episodes of which were also on his iPod. . . .

And thus it was that Tim discovered Tony Hancock (l), ably supported by both Kenneth Williams and Sid James (r). Round the Horne maintained first place in his affections; but he enjoyed the Hancock episodes as well, and sought out a few of the television shows courtesy of YouTube. Kenneth Williams remained his favourite actor, and various of his Round the Horne creations - Gruntfuttock, Julian, Rambling Syd, Dr. Chou-En Ginsburg, M.A. (failed) - were heard about the house at all hours, and at the drop of a hat.

One night last week, while Christopher was a school board meeting, I thought that Tim would probably enjoy watching the 2000 movie Cor, Blimey!. Although the thrust (ooh, Matron!) of the film is the relationship between Sid James and Barbara Windsor, stars of the cheeky( and much loved) Carry On comedy films, Kenneth Williams (superbly played by Adam Godley) is one of the main supporting characters, and I wondered what Tim would make of seeing Williams (and James, to an extent) played by others in a film. The movie opens at Pinewood Studios in 1964, as a young dresser arrives for her first day on the job. In the studio she stops in front of framed pictures of the real Williams and James, which then change into photographs of the actors playing them in the film. 'The actor playing Sid James looks more like him than the actor playing Kenneth Williams does' said Tim critically; but as soon as the actors playing Williams and James appeared, he was transfixed (James is played in the film by Geoffrey Hutchings). 'He sounds just like Sid James!' said Tim approvingly, of Hutchings, and he said the same of Godley as Kenneth Williams. He hasn't yet seen any of the Carry On films, but I have a feeling it's only a matter of time.

Tonight we watched Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa!, a 2006 TV movie about Williams's life, largely drawn from his diaries (published posthumously). It stars Michael Sheen as Williams, and is by turns hilarious and horrifying, showing as does an immensely gifted but intensely conflicted man whose death (due to an overdose of barbituates) in 1988 was probably suicide (although a merciful coroner returned an open verdict). Perhaps the highlight of the movie, for Tim, was a scene which shows a recording of an episode of Round the Horne; the look on his face was priceless as he realised what it was, and saw Stephen Critchlow (as Kenneth Horne), Guy Henry (as Hugh Paddick), and Sheen launch into a 'Julian and Sandy' skit ('That's really from one of the episodes!' said Tim in a whisper; compare the picture of Sheen and Henry above with the picture of Paddick and Williams at the top of the piece). By the end of the film, though - which ends (apart from a brief coda) with the final words of the final entry of Williams's diary, written on the day he died: 'Oh, what's the bloody point?' - Tim was thoughtful. 'He was a lonely man, wasn't he?' he said after; then, 'If I had a time machine, I'd like to go back and meet Kenneth Williams.' I don't know whether Williams would be pleased or not to know that he has a fan in someone who was born in another country, eleven years after he (Williams) died; I'd like to think he would be. I expect we'll be hearing a lot more Round the Horne in these parts; I console myself with the thought that there are a lot worse things Tim could be listening to. . . .

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Got it Covered

After a bit of lull between turning in the stories for Northwest Passages and doing the proofing, there's been a fair bit of action on the book front in recent days. First and foremost was my first look at the cover image, and to say that I was knocked out by it would be an understatement. I didn't really think that the final treatment would be an embossed skull dripping blood, but when I got my first look at the cover it exceeded all my expectations. Credit where it's due: the cover is the work of Stephen H. Segal, and I also want to thank Sean Wallace for letting me have some input into it, which I gather isn't always the case with authors and their book covers. Since I can't draw a straight line, my input was pretty much limited to 'Could the cabin be a little more prominent?' - and lo and behold, in the version you see at right, it is. Frustrated artists of the world, unite! I think it's elegant, restrained, and yet arresting, and strikes the perfect note. Even Tim - who at eleven is at that hard to impress age - was taken with it. 'It looks just like a real book!' he said; then gave me a big hug and said 'I'm so proud of you.' Which is really the best critical response I could hope to get. The book will be published in October, in an edition of 3000 hardcover copies and a smaller leather-bound, limited run, and will be premiering at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, California.

In other writing news, I was exceedingly pleased to learn last week that Subterranean Online has purchased one of my stories: 'Flu Season', which will appear in late 2009 / early 2010 (which is of course flu season, although I can't help thinking it's fairly timely at the moment). I've got another story under consideration with an editor, three more stories to write pretty sharpish for other markets, and an invite to sub to another anthology. So I'll have to keep those plot ideas coming for a little while yet.

And finally: watched the Vancouver Canucks in the opening game of round two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs tonight, defeating the Chicago Black Hawks 5 - 3 (after squandering a three goal lead in the third period). Note to the 'Nucks: don't do that again, guys. My nerves won't take it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Another Week, Another Update

I've read my share of introductions and forewords over the years, but in the last few months have been a bit more intimately involved with them, as it were. First off there was the matter of being the subject of an introduction, which was odd, to say the least (still can't get used to seeing myself referred to as 'Roden'). Hard on the heels of that came the writing of my first introduction, for Peter Bell's collection The Light of the World, due out later this year from Ex Occidente Press. Now I'm set to write another one, for Simon Kurt Unsworth's first collection, Black Dogs and Lost Places, due out in September from Ghostwriter Publications. I'm looking forward to the new assignment, and to Simon's collection, which I'm sure will be the first of many.

Not much to report on the Northwest Passages front, except that everything appears to be ticking along, and now it's a lot of hurry up and wait (I expect). I've had a few writers express a willingness to provide a cover blurb for the book, and here's the first one, from World Fantasy Award-winner Zoran Zivkovic, who writes 'Barbara Roden's first collection was a voyage of fascinating discoveries for me. I thoroughly enjoyed every story in it, every new territory. She is indeed a master storyteller.' And here's a snippet from the introduction, by Michael Dirda: 'Northwest Passages is Barbara Roden’s first collection, all but one of the stories having been written during the last three or four years. Yet, as I’ve emphasized, the collection avoids even the least hint of sameyness. One looks forward to each successive story with eagerness, never quite sure what to expect. Yet they all fit unobtrusively together as ten facets of a single and singularly elegant imagination.'

A note about the pictures: the top one, showing the road through the trees, was taken many years ago on the road up to one of the two cabins I describe in my story 'No
rthwest Passage'. The other one, probably taken at around the same time (c. 1980), shows the cabin in which, in the story, the two boys are living. Known as 'the Bowes cabin' (after the prospector who built it sometime around the Second World War), it's where we generally stayed on our trips to the area: no electricity, no heat (beyond what the fireplace and wood stove provided), and only cold running water piped out of a nearby spring, it was basic living at its most, well, basic. And yes, that's a skull on the wall, to the right of the door and the small window.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

More Writing News

Hard on the heels of hearing that John Joseph Adams will be reprinting my story 'Endless Night' in his vampire anthology By Blood We Live, I've heard from John that he's taking my story 'The Things That Shall Come Upon Them'—originally published in Gaslight Grimoire—for his reprint anthology The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, due out from Night Shade later this year. There's information about it on the Night Shade site, but if you drop by you can get a look at the cover. I'm at work on two new Sherlock Holmes adventures; watch this space for further details.

I've had my first jacket blurb for Northwest Passages; World Fantasy Award-winner Zoran Zivkovic has written 'Barbara Roden's first collection was a voyage of fascinating discoveries for me. I thoroughly enjoyed every story in it, every new territory. She is indeed a master storyteller.'

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Rejections, I've Had a Few . . .

And so has any other writer who's sent his or her work off for consideration; one of the reasons why writing isn't for the thin-skinned. After all, you've slaved over your creation, made it the best you can, sent it off into the world convinced others will love it as much as you do, and the response is a letter informing you that your work does not meet the editor's requirements at this time (or something along those lines). On any list rating life's enjoyable experiences, getting a rejection letter would be nowhere near the top. The best you can do is learn from them: what was it about your work that didn't make it a fit for this particular editor or venue? Then you have to chalk it up to experience, file it away, and get on with something else.

I'm in the somewhat odd position of having to write rejection letters, something I discussed in a previous post here ('Editing Part One', March 2008). One thing I didn't touch on then was something I see fairly often in submissions, usually from beginner writers, or those not overly familiar with the genre. This is the dreaded Conveniently Discovered Missing Link, which ties up the loose ends and ambiguities of the tale with all the thoroughness and efficiency of a Boy Scout intent on getting his Knot-Tying badge. You'll know them when you see them: they usually come after a point where the story has naturally concluded, and take the form of a conveniently-discovered letter, or newspaper article, or diary, or written confession, which connects all the dots of the story in such a ruthlessly clinical manner that any sense of mystery or wonder shrivels and dies on the page before your very eyes. CDMLs are not, by the way, restricted to the ends of stories, although they grate more there; you often find them in the middle, at the point where the protagonist is trying to sort out what's going on, and makes a trip to the local library where—what do you know!—he or she discovers a wealth of old papers which explain all manner of previously inexplicable plot points. Another common CDML is the garrulous old neighbour who remembers the folks who used to live there, yes indeed, and a terrible story it was, too; got hushed up, didn't make it into the papers, but I recall every detail as if it were yesterday—come in and have a cup of tea and I'll tell you all about it. . . . For what it's worth, I was guilty of this myself in a story I completed recently, introducing a chatty neighbour who filled in a lot of blanks in the story for the somewhat clueless protagonist (thus ignoring my advice to others of 'trust the reader'). I liked the scene but wasn't entirely happy with it, and when a friend to whom I sent the story put his finger on what was wrong (thanks, Jim!) I knew what I had to do, and despatched the neighbour and her tale into that realm labelled 'seemed like a good idea at the time'.

Which brings me, rather neatly I think, to my recent writing. In addition to the story mentioned above (which is now complete), I've been working on another tale, this one set near Ashcroft, and involving a small piece of family history. It also tackles the idea of 'true' ghost stories, and what it is that makes so many of them unsatisfactory: it's all very well to read of someone being frightened in the night by a misty grey figure standing at the foot of the bed, but we want to know more than that. Who is the figure? Why does it return? What happens to it, and how? Think of how unsatisfactory a read Perceval Landon's 'Thurnley Abbey' would be if all we had of the story was the apparition showing up in the bedroom, without the buildup or any sort of explanation after. I'm trying to fill in enough background detail so that readers can make a stab at puzzling out what 'really' happened, while at the same time not over-explaining matters. Time will tell if I succeed in walking this fine line. On the cards after that are two more Holmes stories for different venues, and I'm looking forward to returning to that world where it is always 1895 (although someone needs to change the calendar, I think). First up, however, is a story for Exotic Gothic 3. After venturing to the Prairies and Antarctica for my first two EG stories, I'll be staying closer to home for the third one, which is set in British Columbia. It's a beautiful and mysterious part of the world, sadly underrepresented in weird fiction, and I'm trying to remedy that situation, one story at a time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Teachers Who Inspire

I'm sure we all have them: teachers who loom large in our memory, long after the classes are over, and we have made our ways in the world, and you'd think that the days of chalk boards and dreary afternoons and tests were a thing of the past. Yet every now and then I find myself thinking of teachers who made a difference, and four names come crowding to the forefront of my memory.

First off is Mrs. Martin, my grade one teacher at Harry Eburne Elementary (long since closed) in Richmond, B.C. Every student should have a grade one teacher as wise, warm, and kind as Mrs. Martin, who followed my progress through the school even after I left her class, and who must have seen something in me that wasn't apparent when I was six, because she presented me, before I left the school three years later, with a hardback copy of Madeline l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. It was, in retrospect, not necessarily a book you'd give to a nine-year-old, but it was a good choice, because I loved the book, and it opened up a whole new world of reading that wasn't even hinted at in the Nancy Drew titles I was then reading.

Next there is Mr. Hehn - first name Robert, I think, but I can't be sure - who was my grade five teacher at Hillcrest Elementary School in Victoria. He had a passion for English, and for language, and I will be forever in his debt because it was he who introduced me to Norton Juster's wondrous The Phantom Tollbooth, reading it to our class over a succession of afternoons, clearly delighting in the wordplay and the humour. He encouraged me to write a radio play for presentation to the class, the screenplay based on my then favourite TV show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The text of this play is now (perhaps mercifully) lost forever, but it was the first time a teacher had encouraged me to write something just because I wanted to, not because it was part of the class and would be marked. It was also Mr. Hehn who was responsible for our class doing a radio version of Conan Doyle's 'The Red-Headed League', and who promoted me to the part of Holmes when the girl originally cast in the part developed cold feet. Even though it was to be another two years before this particular seed took root, I trace my awareness of the Holmes stories back to my grade five year. When I moved to Ottawa the next year he wrote to me, several times, and while the letters are now lost, I well recall the delight of receiving them. Thank you.

Then there is Norm Claridge, my grade 9 and 10 Biology teacher at Hugh Boyd Junior Secondary School in Richmond. A less likely sciences student than me would be hard to find; but such was Mr. Claridge's passion for the subject, and his sense of humour, that he made even me fall in love with the subject matter, and understand it (the fact that he was wont to wander around the class with an iguana on his shoulder appealed to me; even then I appreciated the absurd). I spent many a happy lunch hour in his classroom, looking after the gerbils and snakes (not at the same time, of course), and to this day the smell of formaldehyde brings back happy memories. In addition to teaching the finer points of biology, he also instilled in his students the need for precision and detail, all of it conveyed with humour and passion. When I learned of his too-early death a few years ago I felt sorry for the students who would never have a chance to encounter his teaching, and was grateful that I'd known him.

Last - but certainly not least - is Mr. Harvey; Poona to those students brave enough to address him thus (he served in the British Army in Poona, India during World War II). He taught Literature at Steveston Senior Secondary School in Richmond during my grade 11 and 12 years, and I was more than happy to take the course, an elective: the students in it either had a burning passion for English Literature or were there because all the other courses for that block were full, and this was the only option. Poona introduced me to many of the delights of English literature, from the established classics (Shakespeare, the Cavalier poets, the Romantics) to less obvious highlights, such as the ghost fiction of A. J. Alan (he read us 'The Dream' and '17.45' during class; he was probably just about old enough to remember hearing them broadcast on the BBC in the late 1920s). He also encouraged me to go outside the box in my essays, cheerfully agreeing to let me write about, say, English detective/mystery fiction.

In 1981 I was able to go to England as part of a school trip, and Mr. Harvey was one of the guides. It was my first visit to England, and I was thrilled to be there; even more thrilled when, a few nights into the visit, Mr. Harvey took me and my friend Liz to see J. B. Priestley's play Dangerous Corners. In the interval he took us to the bar for drinks - I ordered a brandy, because I couldn't think what else to order (I was only 17, after all, and my knowledge of drinking came from movies and TV) - and then when the play was over he hailed a taxi outside the theatre and took us to Fortnum's Fountain for a late dinner: Welsh rarebit, tea, and chestnut meringues. It doesn't sound like much, but the surroundings, the elegance of the service, and the fact that it was so late in the evening all combined to make it a wonderful end to a truly magical night.

These days, I suppose, a male teacher taking two teenage female students to the theatre and then dinner - unchaperoned - would be little short of a scandal; at the very least, the teacher would be censured for lack of judgement. The record must state that Mr. Harvey was a perfect gentleman; if there was a hidden agenda to the evening then it remains so well and truly hidden that, almost thirty years later, I can't discern it. And I can't help feeling sorry for students who would be deprived of such a treat because - well, because it doesn't look right, or could be open to misinterpretation. That evening stands out as one of the best and most memorable in my life, and I thank Mr. Harvey for it.

Looking back over what I've written, I see that while all four of these individuals were fine teachers, so much of what I remember them for and what inspired me has little to do with the actual nuts and bolts of daily classroom life, and a good deal to do with them going above and beyond to identify my strengths, encourage me in my interests, and in so doing help me to become the person I am today. I was fortunate to have four such teachers, evenly spread throughout my school life; I can only hope that every student has at least one Mrs. Martin, Mr. Hehn, Mr. Claridge, or Poona, to inspire and guide them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Traditionally Built

I was a bit late coming to the international phenomenon which is Alexander McCall Smith's 'No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' series of novels; it began in 1998, with the publication of the eponymous novel, and I know that I registered the enthusiasm which greeted the first book and its two or three subsequent installments; so much so that when, on a trip to Vancouver, I saw that the first four titles were available at Book Warehouse on Granville Street I bought them. When I got home they disappeared onto my ever-increasing 'to be read' pile—which truth in advertising laws compel me to admit is really a bookcase—and there they stayed. Every now and then I would, in my quest for the next volume to read, allow my hand to hover over the first book; but then another title would clamour for attention, and I would pass on.

That changed in August 2006, when we took our usual trip to Nimpo Lake in the Chilcotin region of British Columbia. We've made the trek there every year for the last six or seven years, staying at Stewart's Lodge, a fishing resort on the shore of the lake. Most of the people who come to the area are serious fishermen, and the area is renowned for its fly-fishing; Nimpo Lake is said to be the float plane capital of the province, and every day there are dozens of flights in and out, ferrying people to outpost cabins on even more remote lakes that are only accessible by air. We do the odd bit of fishing, for the sake of appearance more than anything else, but for the most part we go there for peace and quiet, of which there is an abundance: no phone, no computer, no TV, no fax, just the cry of the loons, the crackle of the wood fire, and the chance to sit and read.

Every year Christopher and I each pack a box of books to Nimpo, taking far more than we can possibly read in the time allotted (typically ten days), but working on the basis that it's better to take too much than too little, especially when the lodge library offers little more than some Reader's Digest condensed novels and back issues of Field and Stream, and the nearest library or bookstore is several hours' drive away. In 2006 Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was in my box of books, and after reading Andrew Greig's autobiographical Preferred Lies and Patricia Carlon's intense thriller The Running Woman, I was in the mood for something lighter. And thus it was that my hand fell on Smith's book, and this time it stayed, and I settled down to make the acquaintance of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the No. 1—indeed only—Lady Detective in Botswana.

Three hours later I emerged from the book, blinking into the early afternoon sunlight, vaguely surprised to find myself in the heart of British Columbia's back country. Smith had plunged me so immediately, so deeply, into the Botswana setting that it took me a few moments to realise that I was not in Gaborone (pronounced, I later found, Ha-bore-oh-nay) or the surrounding countryside. His was a fully realised world; and he was able to convey effortlessly—or so it seemed—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the life of a country about which I had previously known nothing. Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe, but was then Rhodesia, and his love of Africa, and its people, rang true and clear on every page.

Nowhere is this more true than in the person of Mma Ramotswe herself (Mma—pronounced 'Mm-ah'—is a formal term of greeting or respect for a Batswana woman; for men the term is Rra, pronounced with a rolling 'r' and soft 'a'). Her father, Obed Ramotswe, has died (or is late, as a Batswana would say), and his daughter is now left to make her way in the world. Her father has left her a valuable herd of cattle—cows being a highly prized symbol of wealth and prosperity in Botswana—and Precious sells some of the cattle in order to start a new life in the capital city of Gaborone, where she decides to become the country's first, and only, lady detective. She takes Agatha Christie as an inspiration, sets up her shingle, hires a secretary (the formidable Mma Grace Makutsi, who is immensely proud of the fact that she graduated with 97%—the highest score ever—from the Botswana Secretarial College), and begins detecting.

As soon as I finished the book, I kicked myself that I hadn't brought the other titles that I had in the series with me, so impatient was I to read more about Mma Ramotswe and her world. Is there anything more frustrating to a book lover than knowing there are books you have and want to read, but can't get at? No matter; as soon as we got home I read the next three in quick succession, got myself up to date with the series at the first possible opportunity, and now buy each book as soon as it comes out. Yes, they're that addictive; and that good.

I should warn readers that anyone expecting traditional mysteries with lots of clues and red herrings, or action-packed adventures, may be disappointed. The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels are 'mysteries' in the same way that Jane Austen's books could be called 'romance novels'. Mysteries there are aplenty, but they are generally low-key affairs; Smith is more interested in his characters—what makes them tick, how they relate to others and to the world around them—and in the changing face of Botswana, a country that has, better than many other African nations, weathered the storm of independence and the modern world, but which faces problems of its own; the devastation wrought by AIDS is often referred to, with Smith depicting families torn apart by the disease, yet admiring the quiet courage and love of the many women who have taken in nieces, nephews, and grandchildren and raised them as their own. And in Mma Ramotswe he has created a truly wonderful character, someone who is wise and kind, knowing and just, but who has endured violence and heartache, anger and pain. She also has a sense of humour—and an appreciation of the ridiculous—which often comes to her rescue; a large woman, she prefers to describe herself as 'traditionally built', and frequently decries the tendency amongst young Batswana women to try to emulate Western fashion and starve themselves into an (in her eyes) unnatural, and un-African, thinness.

When I heard that the BBC was making a film of the first novel I was somewhat worried; but to my surprise and delight, the film of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was perfect in every way (the fact that the late Anthony Minghella co-wrote and directed the film should have told me that it would be good, if not great). Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose were perfectly cast as Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi respectively—I would never have guessed they were American, so good were their accents—and the supporting cast were uniformly excellent. Even better, in some ways, was to be able to see, at last, Botswana and its people, in all their colour and beauty. A six-part series, starring the same actors, has just premiered in Britain on the BBC, and debuts in North America on HBO starting on 29 March; I've seen the first episode, and it's every bit as good as the film. Lucian Msamati is excellent as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and Mma Ramotswe's good friend; I can only hope that another wonderful recurring character in the book, Mma Silvia Potokwane, head of the children's home outside Gaborone, appears in the series. The picture shows (left to right) Anika Noni Rose, Jill Scott, and Lucian Msamati in the film.

'What does this have to do with ghost stories, or writing?' I hear you cry. Absolutely nothing. But in a world where the trivial and the ephemeral are esteemed and celebrated, where loud and vulgar trumps quiet and thoughtful, I wanted to call attention to the quiet and thoughtful. We need more of that in the world; and Alexander McCall Smith has given it to us. Many thanks, Mr. Smith.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Catching Up

I've had a couple of people—who aren't even related to me—ask recently if I was going to be posting something to my blog soon, which is gratifying, even as it made me realise that I really didn't know what to write about, specifically ('Calls herself a writer,' I hear you grumble). The truth is that while I did manage to write a daily diary entry every day for more years than I care to remember, most of what goes into a diary isn't (be honest) what the world at large wants to read about ('Got up; v. cold this morning. Bertie brought me two cat toys and a napkin during the night. Cute. Five minutes scraping the ice off the van; why can't someone invent an ice scraper that actually works? Four more story submissions by e-mail today, one from someone who ignored the guidelines about sending an attachment, and pasted it into the e-mail. How does someone expect to be taken seriously as a writer when he can't follow a simple instruction? Coffee grinder seems to have packed it in; back to the old one. Thank goodness I didn't throw it away.' etc., etc.).

On the writing front, I've finished proofing my collection Northwest Passages, which is on target to be published this October by Prime Books. It was a rather odd experience, to sit down and read ten of my stories back to back; I noticed certain preoccupations and themes emerging in a way that they don't when you consider a story in isolation. However, I'm pleased with the diversity of the tales, and think that they hang together as a whole, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the two new stories—'Out and Back' and 'After'—stand up well with the others. 'Out and Back' was inspired by a website that was brought to my attention by my cousin Sean Lavery, who sends me links to weird and wonderful websites. One was to an abandoned amusement park—Chippewa Lake Park—in Ohio, and the pictures on the site immediately sparked my imagination. The park ran for a century, between 1878 and 1978; it was abandoned that year, and the midway rides were left in situ to rot away. Some time ago on this blog I wrote about the Pacific National Exhibition ('All the Fun of the Fair') and my annual trip there, as a child, with my father and brother. I loved the PNE, and to see a fun fair left the way Chippewa Park was left tore at my heart, and I knew I had to write about it somehow. Click here to see the pictures that inspired the story (scroll down for the pictures, and click on them to enlarge). Sadly, I saw on another site that some of the buildings—notably the Coaster station and the Bumper Cars building—have deteriorated even further, and the Bumper Cars building has now collapsed completely.

The other new story in the collection, 'After', is inspired by the Kent murder case of 1860, which shocked and fascinated Victorian England in equal measures: shocked because of the age of the victim and the ferocity of the crime (Francis Saville Kent, not quite four, was found dead with his throat cut, so viciously that the head was nearly severed from the body), and fascinated because the murder remained unsolved for five years, during which time the details of Kent household—which would be called dysfunctional today—were laid bare for all to see. I was familiar with the main facts of the Kent case because of the influence it had on Victorian detective fiction (Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all drew on details of the case in their fiction), but last summer read Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, a book-length study of the case (which subsequently won the prestigious Samuel Johnson Award for non-fiction). Summerscale quotes extensively from a number of contemporary documents, and two statements attributed to Francis's half-sister Constance, sixteen at the time of the murder, intrigued me, as did the character of Constance herself. It was, in many ways, a very enjoyable story to write, told as it is in very Victorian language, yet owing a tremendous debt to James Hogg's wonderful The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, a favourite novel of mine. I wrote it during two very hot weeks in July of 2008, and in the course of researching what the church service would have been the Sunday before the murder—these things are very carefully laid out in The Book of Common Prayer—I came across a fact which, to my mind, has tremendous bearing on the events of a week later, but which has not, so far as I know, been commented on before. It was a hot Saturday morning when I stumbled on this discovery, and I confess I shivered when the full implications of it sank in. If you want to know more, you shall have to read the story. . . .

I have a few irons in the fire, story-wise; the only other news to report is that my story 'Endless Night', which first appeared in Exotic Gothic 2 (and which will be in Northwest Passages), has been chosen for inclusion in By Blood We Live, a reprint anthology of vampire stories being published by Night Shade Books in August 2009. I sent the story off for consideration last July, and it was a very pleasant surprise to get the good news from John Joseph Adams yesterday.

I recently wrote an introduction to The Light of the World and Other Stories by Peter Bell, to be published later this year by Ex Occidente Press. We've been very pleased to publish several of Peter's fine tales over the years, and I was honoured when he asked me to write the introduction for his first collection. Anyone who enjoys suspenseful, elegant, and assured tales of the supernatural in which the tension builds gradually but inexorably will want to get a copy of Peter's book.

Last but not least, Christopher and I have finished our introduction to a new Barnes & Noble reprint of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. Tag team writing is an interesting sport; not for everyone, I suspect, but we've come up with a system that works for us, and it was enjoyable to be immersed once more in that world where it is always 1895, and the game is perpetually afoot. Would that our own world were so captivating.