Weird Words 2

The second in a series of posts looking at words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Myriad

This is a word I tend to avoid because I’ve always been a little confused about its correct usage. Is it:

—there are a myriad of ways to use it

—there are myriads of ways to use it

—there are myriad ways to use it

or some other way?

Many years ago, I read that using it as a noun (as in the first two examples) is frowned upon and I therefore shied away from using it at all. But, on further investigation, it seems that all three examples are correct. It can be a noun or an adjective. According to Merriam-Webster:

Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective.… [H]owever, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.

So there. Use it pretty much in any way you want.

Supersede

—to displace, to force out of use as inferior, to cause to be set aside, to take the place or position of.

If ever there’s a word that you’d think would be spelt differently, it must be this one. How on earth isn’t it ‘supercede’? Apparently, some think it is. Here’s Merriam-Webster again:

Supercede has occurred as a spelling variant of supersede since the 17th century, and it is common in current published writing. It continues, however, to be widely regarded as an error.

Safer, then, to stick to the generally accepted spelling. Unless you’re feeling contrary…

Gubbins

I love this word. It seems mainly to be a word used in Britain, usually meaning the workings of some machinery, or bits and pieces that go into making something. I used it with glee in The Elevator, where two characters, one British, the other American, have just ventured out of an elevator, not into the office space they were expecting, but into a sun-drenched land inhabited by strange creatures.

“That’s the elevator shaft, right?’ said Kim from behind me.

“I guess so. Look how high it is. The gubbins must be inside it.’

“Gubbins?’

“Er, you know, the workings. Whatever makes it go up and down.’

“Ah. Sure. Okay.’ She gave a high-pitched, feverish giggle.

Like ‘discombobulate’ in Part 1, it’s one of those words that simply sounds perfect for its meaning.

 

That’s all for Part 2. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

In the Durrells’ Footsteps

One of the books set for study for my English Literature O Level* was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. At that time—around 1979-80—I must confess to not having heard of the book, its author or his brother Larry, also a writer. Back then, I was reading horror novels by James Herbert and Stephen King, or fantasy by David Gemmell and Tolkien.

As a young teenager I had read and fallen in love with Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee. There was something about Lee’s writing and his reminiscences about life in rural Gloucestershire in the period after the Great War that called to me.


Cider With Rosie

My Family had the same effect. I was instantly captivated by Durrell’s writing—it’s been many years since I last read the book, but I can still recall the wonderfully evocative way he described the cold from which he was suffering (and which partly prompted his mother to uproot the family and transport them almost two thousand miles to Greece). He wrote that the British summer had brought cattarh, ‘pouring it into my skull like cement’.

In case you haven’t read it (or seen one of the TV adaptations), the book and its two sequels are about the family’s sojourn to Corfu in 1935 when Gerry (Gerald) was aged ten. A keen student of natural history at even such a young age, he recounts his many and varied adventures with the Greek wildlife. But the real joy, for me, lies in the anecdotes about his family and the locals they encounter during their four-year stay on the island before war forces them back to Britain. There are also the eccentric guests Gerry’s eldest brother, Larry, invites to stay with them, usually at short to no notice, much to his long-suffering mother’s despair.


My Family and Other Animals

Larry (Lawrence) became an accomplished novelist, best known for The Alexandria Quartet. He provides the impetus for most of the funniest escapades, although Gerry’s bullish older brother Leslie and his flighty sister Margo, as well as their mother, have their share of comic moments.

As soon as we started reading the book in class, I was hooked and there was no way I could wait to read the book at the pace set by our English teacher. I continued reading it at home that evening and had finished it long before the deadline set by the teacher. Re-reading the book two or three times in preparation for the exam was no hardship.

That’s a long-winded way to explain why the island of Corfu has held a fascination for me since my mid-teens. Over the years, I have visited the island four or five times and have just come back from a fortnight in Glyfada on its west coast. The landscape, despite the paucity of summer rain, is surprisingly verdant, the sea is molten aquamarine and wonderfully cooling in the heat of the day, the sunsets are spectacular, and the locals are amongst the friendliest people I have ever encountered.

Although this holiday was intended as a total chill-out, recharge-the-batteries laze around the beach and pool—and was—we did take a couple of trips into the baking heat of the island’s capital, Corfu Town. They have a cricket pitch near the castle and harbour; on a previous trip, I’ve drunk a beer and watched a match taking place. Not far away, is a park dedicated to Lawrence and Gerald Durrell.

In My Family, the Durrells live in three villas during their stay on the island: apparently, two of the three still stand and they’re not far away from Corfu Town. Next time I visit Corfu (there will definitely be a next time), I want to find a trip that takes tourists to view the villas. Sure, they and the surroundings in which they stand probably bear little resemblance to the 1930s versions, but it’s still something I’d love to do. Short of time travel, I can’t imagine a better way of bringing one of my favourite books to life.

( * for those who don’t know, O Levels are the qualifications that teenagers used to sit in the UK at around the age of sixteen. They’ve since been supplanted by GCSEs.)

Utter Bunkum and the Suspension of Disbelief – Part 2


In Part 1, I said I’d take a look at some of my favourite works of utter bunkum. You’ll need to read Part 1 ( utter-bunkum-part-1 ) to know what I mean by ‘utter bunkum’, but it’s worth repeating: this is not in any way meant to be serious. I am not intending to be disrespectful or disparaging about any of the works mentioned—as I said, these are some of my favourite works of speculative fiction. I love these books; I wish I’d written them.

It might be a little more fun to present the books in the form of a lighthearted quiz. What follows are the plots of twenty novels stripped back to their bare bones—to the utter-bunkum level. See how many you can get without peeking at the answers which follow. (The links—some of which partially obscure the answer numbers, which I can’t do much about—lead to Amazon UK in case anyone wants to check out any of the books mentioned.)

Warning: by their very nature, some of these may be spoilers if you haven’t read the books, so proceed with caution.

  1. Shapeshifting alien terrorizes small American town every twenty-seven years.
  2. Six-foot-plus man who thinks he’s a dwarf joins city police force and helps thwart a dragon.
  3. Children play computer games in preparation for alien invasion.
  4. Man from Mars preaches free love.
  5. Boy speaks pidgen English and worships a Punch puppet in post-apocalyptic Kent.
  6. Made-up creature and faithful companion infiltrate the heart of deadly enemy territory to destroy magical artefact.
  7. Old aristocrat takes voyage to Yorkshire for the hot young women.
  8. Man tries to open path to hidden worlds, convinced he’s finishing the work begun by Jesus.
  9. Man and boy wander along and hide a lot.
  10. A strange cloud turns people into murdering psychopaths.
  11. Intrepid young woman tries to prevent the plot of a much-loved classic being ruined.
  12. Everyone, kill Zack!
  13. Bury them and they come back, but you’ll wish they hadn’t.
  14. Boy meets girl in midnight trysts; boy watches girl die of old age.
  15. Lots of intrigue and spicy worms.
  16. Man in dressing gown sets off on amazing adventures after his home is demolished.
  17. Evacuees from war-torn London free land of icy dictator; native fauna say, “thank you.”
  18. Sculptor shockingly brings life to his work.
  19. Love story that jumps about because he can’t stay still.
  20. 101 reasons to be paranoid.

 

Answers
1.

IT

2.

Guards! Guards!

3.

Ender’s Game

4.

Stranger in a Strange Land

5.

Riddley Walker

6.

The Lord of the Rings

7.

Dracula

8.

Imajica

9.

The Road

10.

The Fog

11.

The Eyre Affair

12.

World War Z

13.

Pet Sematary

14.

Tom’s Midnight Garden

15.

Dune

16.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

17.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

18.

Frankenstein

19.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

20.

1984

Right, next week I’m off to chill out in the sunshine, drink lots of beer and grow plumper on a Greek island, so the post due on 6th September isn’t going to happen. See you instead on the 20th. Yia mas!

Utter Bunkum and the Suspension of Disbelief – Part 1

I’ve posted a few serious pieces in recent months—marketing, editing, etc.—so thought it was time for a bit of light relief; something more frivolous, a little tongue in cheek. What follows are my random musings on the believability, or not, of the stories I enjoy reading, watching and writing.

Most of the stories I write are utter bunkum. Complete tosh. They are, at best, highly unfeasible. If readers took me to task and claimed that some of the scenarios in my tales are totally impossible, quoting scientific evidence to support their position, I’m not going to argue with them. Why would I? They’re right.

But then, we don’t expect horror or fantasy tales to be necessarily possible, though there are still unspoken rules to do with internal consistency and logic. On the other hand, many readers of science fiction expect stories labelled as such to at least be possible if feasible technological advances were made, or if certain conditions pertained that don’t exist here but that might exist in a solar system or galaxy outside our own.

The human brain is marvellously complex. It operates on many levels. (That’s got me thinking about Shrek, insisting to a sceptical Donkey that ogres have layers, like onions.) When we settle down to read a horror novel, or to watch The Walking Dead or a Harry Potter film, we do so in full knowledge that what we are about to read or watch is, from a rational viewpoint, a load of nonsense. Utter bunkum. Yet we lap it up and go back for more.

Yes, it’s known as suspending our disbelief. Although on some level we are fully aware that the storyline or plot device is far-fetched, that it ought to make us pull a face like the cat in the photo above, we’re willing and able to believe in it for the purposes of being entertained. Or, at least, we’re willing to not so vehemently disbelieve it that it would prevent us from continuing to watch or read.

I think there’s a line, the placement of which will vary from person to person, beyond which our willingness to suspend disbelief becomes stretched to breaking point. At that moment, what we are being asked as readers or viewers to swallow becomes too much, it becomes too ridiculous, and we’re no longer willing to play along. The best fiction writers and screenwriters, the best TV and film directors, are those with the ability to embroil their audience in the work so completely that the line is pushed farther and farther away. Perhaps so far away some of us may never reach it.

And there’s this: no matter how incredible something may be, it can be exciting to allow yourself to imagine it’s possible. We all realise that dolls can’t be possessed by evil spirits, that immortal humanoids living off blood don’t exist, that aliens don’t live among us waiting for a signal to trigger our extinction. We know that people who have died don’t get up and walk around—the thrill lies in supposing, but what if they did?

Not sure what you’d call that level which allows us to be enthralled by fantastical stories. Fanciful? Imaginative? Whatever you want to call it, it’s the part of me I most cherish. It’s the part that takes over when I pick up a Stephen King novel or turn on the TV for Game of Thrones. It’s also firmly in control when I sit at the computer to write.

When I allow my imagination free rein, I picture my rational side shuffling off to a corner to sit with arms folded, pretending to sulk. But really he’s watching what I’m up to, ready to leap to his feet like a lawyer in an American courtroom drama and yell, “Objection! That’s too ludicrous even for you!” When that happens, I usually take notice. Usually.

That’s one of the good things about being a writer. Particularly a writer of the sort of speculative fiction usually pigeon-holed as horror or fantasy or science fiction. It’s make-believe taken to the extreme. If I want to have my characters able to travel beyond the speed of light, or journey through time and space in an elevator, or encounter ghosts or zombies or a vampire masquerading as Father Christmas, I can. It’s fiction. It’s made up. It’s utter bunkum.

The aim for us writers is to spin the yarn in such a way that the reader is willing to come along for the ride and is able to overlook the bunkumness (is that even a word?) of the story. It’s what makes successful authors successful. Especially in the speculative fields I mentioned earlier: horror, fantasy, etc. I mean, when you strip them back to the bare bones, many celebrated novels of those genres are, at their core, utter bunkum. Yet, they’re massively popular, and rightly so because they’re so well written and entertaining.

In Part 2, I’ll take a look, for a bit of fun, at some of my favourite works of utter bunkum.

Till then…

Thrills and Spills

Although my reading (and writing) tastes tend towards science fiction, dark fantasy and horror, I do occasionally enjoy curling up with a thriller. By ‘thriller’ I mean the sort of fast-moving tale that’s heavy on intrigue and excitement, but that doesn’t fall primarily into some other genre like murder-mystery.

Here’s a quick look at some of my favourites, together with one or two that I felt were a bit meh. As always, these are purely my personal preferences; if I enjoyed one you didn’t, or disliked one of your favourites, that’s okay—varied tastes make life more interesting.

The first out-and-out thriller I can recall reading was Run For Your Life (also mentioned in the post about children’s books, When I was Three, I Ate Mud). I guess I must have been around nine or ten when I first read David Line’s tale about two boys who go on the run across the wintry Norfolk countryside after witnessing a murder. It captivated me to the extent that I read the book over and over again during the next four or five years until it was falling apart.

If I had to name one thriller author as my favourite, I’d have to plump for Frederick Forsyth. Every novel of his I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I’ll mention two as being superb examples of thriller writing. First, The Odessa File, the gripping tale of a journalist trying to uncover the whereabouts of a former SS concentration camp commander. Second, The Day of the Jackal, a white-knuckle ride about an attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Both novels were adapted into darned good films, starring respectively Jon Voigt and Edward Fox.


The Day of the Jackal

There’s one author of whose writing on a technical level I’m not the biggest fan, yet I’ve read most of his books. It’s very much a case of story trumping writing style. (Not, I hasten to add, that I’m criticising his writing, and not that he’d give two hoots if I was—he’s sold millions of books and stellar actors like Tom Hanks star in adaptations of his works.) I refer, of course, to Dan Brown.

When I read The Da Vinci Code, I didn’t know the theory about the Holy Grail (being careful here not to introduce spoilers) that Brown drew upon—and which subsequently led to allegations of plagiarism and a law suit, but that’s another story—and it blew me away. It resulted in a trip to my local library to borrow a book on art so I could study Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. (This was in the days before the internet was routinely used by pretty much everyone to look up pretty much anything, and it wasn’t that long ago.)


The Da Vinci Code

I also enjoyed one or two of his earlier novels, such as Deception Point, and another featuring Robert Langdon, Angels and Demons. The latter is set in Rome, a city with which I’m familiar after trips to watch Wales play Italy in the Six Nations. Brown uses many locations, such as the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, which I have visited many times. It doesn’t hurt to make a scene come alive in the imagination when you know the setting, and I enjoyed the novel in spite of the most far-fetched escape from a stricken helicopter you’re ever likely to encounter. I’m not so keen on the more recent Robert Langdon novels—in them, I feel that Brown’s tendency towards melodrama and contrived, cliffhanger chapter endings become distracting. Not enough, mind, to stop me reading each one he brings out.

Some thrillers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed but almost instantly forgotten, which hasn’t led me to rush to find other works by their authors. These include novels by Robert Ludlum, James Patterson, Harlan Coben and Clive Cussler.

Then there are many celebrated thriller authors whose books I’ve never read. Tom Clancy and Lee Child, for instance, though I have one or two of their books sitting in my tottering TBR pile. As usual, it’s a case of too many books, too little time.

There are some well-known thrillers that left me cold. The Girl on the Train I found irritating and I saw the ending coming long before the main characters did. The Firm was meh enough that I never bothered with John Grisham again. And I Am Pilgrim was filled with improbable escapes from seemingly hopeless situations and began to drag around halfway so that I was relieved to finish it. (I’m not trying to put you off reading any of these books—you might love them.)


I Am Pilgrim

I’m going to finish on a high with a few more thrillers I felt were top-class. Before I Go to Sleep is the tale of a woman whose memory resets every night when she goes to bed so that she cannot remember who she is when she awakes the next morning. How she deals with this I’ll leave you to find out—it’s an intriguing journey. The only novel of John Le Carre’s I’ve read is The Little Drummer Girl, but I hope it won’t be the last. It’s an edgy story of a young actress recruited by Mossad to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell, and it gripped me to the end. The BBC recently made a damned fine job of adapting the novel for television. Finally, a mention of the best psychological thriller I’ve ever read. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris isn’t as celebrated as the author’s better-known The Silence of the Lambs, but is far superior in my view. Difficult to imagine a darker, more disturbing study of human depravation, at least when it comes to fiction.


Red Dragon

Thrilling reading, folks!

Stephen King Books

I’ve mentioned it before: I am one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers. Ever since discovering his books as a young teenager, I’ve devoured them. At least, his horror and science fiction and fantasy books—not so much the crime thrillers that he’s taken to writing of late.

Despite counting him amongst my favourite authors, I don’t love everything about his stories. For instance, the endings are sometimes a bit of a let-down. Yet this doesn’t detract much from my enjoyment. The pleasure with King is in going along for the ride—if the destination occasionally disappoints, the journey is nearly always a blast.

Here are some of my favourites among his books, along with a few not-so-favourites.

Let’s start with two novellas from the collection Different Seasons, published in 1982, the year I turned eighteen. Both are a little unusual in that they resulted in that rarest of things—a superb screen adaptation of a Stephen King story. The Body is a small-town tale (like so many of King’s) about a trio of friends who go off in search of a dead body they’ve heard is lying alongside a set of rail tracks. It’s a joy (as is the film version, called Stand By Me and starring the tragic River Phoenix), a perfect slice of childhood, something that King does so well. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (the Rita Hayworth part of the title was dropped for the film version) is a tale set in a prison with an unforeseen and wholly satisfying ending.

Different Seasons

Next, Insomnia, which King describes as a ‘stiff, trying-too-hard’ novel. It’s where we first encounter The Crimson King, who would feature in other King works, most notably The Dark Tower series. More on that later. Also good reads are The Green Mile, the tale of death row inmate John Coffey (whose initials are probably not coincidental), and 11/22/63. I’ve long been fascinated with the Kennedy assassination and time travel—this was a great way to combine the two.

The Green Mile

Here’s a selection of what I call Meh books—they were okay, but lacked something that might have made them appeal more to my tastes. (As always, my tastes are likely to be different from yours so it’s perfectly fine to disagree with me.) Cujo, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Christine, Needful Things and Sleeping Beauties all had something going for them that made them enjoyable to a point, but that ultimately left me feeling a little dissatisfied, a little meh. I was enjoying Revival, when the most interesting character in the story fades out of sight. When we encounter him again much later, he has changed in ways that feel unrealistic. And the ending—hugely disappointing and nowhere near as scary as I’d been hoping. Finally for the Meh books, Under the Dome. Loved the concept and the opening. No spoilers, but after such a promising start, it descends into a bit of a mess—it’s probably been eight or nine years since I read it and I couldn’t even tell you how it ends. If not for the concept and intriguing opening, this one is unlikely to have even made it onto my list of Meh books.

Some of his earliest books are amongst my favourites. The following three were published in the 1970s. Salem’s Lot is a tale of vampire infestation of a small town and presses all the right buttons. I’ve long been fascinated with the blood-sucking fiends since first reading Dracula as a young teenager—the recent trend for sparkly, prance-about-in-full-sunlight lotharios (my younger daughter made me watch a certain series of films with her; by the end of the first one, I was pleading, “Bite her, already.” It took another two or three angst-ridden films before he did) hasn’t put me off—and King’s tale resonated as strongly with me as its classic predecessor. The Stand is an apocalyptic tale that I’ve spoken about in other posts. Suffice to say here, it’s a ripping yarn about good versus evil in a world that’s gone to hell. The Long Walk was published (among others) under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It’s a dystopian tale about an annual contest involving one hundred teenage boys. The contest is simple enough—they all set off together walking southwards from Maine and the winner will be the last boy standing. However, any boy whose walking pace drops below 4 mph receives a warning; three warnings and, well, let’s just say that nobody is allowed to retire alive from this contest.

Salem’s Lot

Another of the ‘Bachman books’ is The Running Man. (It was made into a film starring Arnie, which bears only a passing resemblance to the novel and is far inferior.) This is also set in a dystopian futuristic America and is a tale that doesn’t let up. King apparently wrote it in a week and I think it shows in that it doesn’t pause for breath. I doubt my next pick will make it onto everyone’s favourite list, but there’s something about The Tommyknockers that I love. Maybe it’s the concept of someone tripping over a tiny protruding piece of metal in the woods that turns out to be the tip of a spacecraft a mile wide, or the 50s B-movie feel of the second half of the book, but it’s a novel I’ve returned to more than once. The most recent book on my favourite list is Cell, published in 2006. It’s another tale carried by a great concept and a fun journey that makes up for a lukewarm ending.

The Tommyknockers

How about one or two that I positively disliked? The first is Gerald’s Game. I can say, without having to think about it much, that this is my least favourite of any King book I’ve read. There’s one genuinely creepy moment, but it couldn’t make up for the drudgery of trying to get through the rest of it—the only time I’ve been relieved to reach the end of one of his books, shove it back onto the shelf and forget about it. The other is the seventh novel in The Dark Tower series. I’d worked my way through the preceding six instalments with varying degrees of pleasure and I was keen to see how the series would play out—to find out, at last, after more than a million words, what Roland would discover at the end of his mission… quest… thing. (Sorry—can’t resist a LOTR reference when the opportunity arises.) Well, before reaching that point, Mr King engages in a moment of such self-indulgent author intrusion that it completely threw me out of the story and made me hesitate about continuing. I don’t want to be critical of someone whom I hold in such high regard, but I felt it was a mistake. I imagine he must have deliberated hard before deciding to do it, but I wonder whether he’s ever regretted it. Anyway, I pressed on and eventually Roland reaches the top of the Dark Tower where awaits a door with his name on it. I won’t say what happens next but it was enough to make me swear in disbelief and want to throw the book at the wall.

I’ll finish on a positive note with a mention of three more favourites. The Talisman, co-authored with another writer I admire, Peter Straub, is a fantasy tale about a boy’s search for a magical amulet that will save his dying mother. Flitting between this world and ‘the Territories’, it’s a fun-filled, dark ride. Pet Sematary contains a scene that scared me more than any other King book. It has made me go back and read it again more than once, and I don’t think I’ve finished with it yet. And, finally, the book if pressed I’d name as my favourite of all Stephen King books. IT takes place in two timelines—late-1950s and mid-1980s—because the eponymous monster feeds on a 27-year cycle. The 50s sequences, when the group of heroes and heroine are aged around eleven or twelve, once again display King’s talents at evoking childhood; downtrodden childhoods, at that, for each of our children is at some disadvantage, perhaps from an abusive parent or speech impediment or obesity. They call themselves the Losers. The 80s sequences take place when the Losers are all grown up, though not all have shaken the self-appointed loser tag. Despite a scene that many readers find, to put it mildly, disconcerting, and an ending that disappoints a little, IT is a nostalgic, horror-filled feast. There are nods to classic villains like Frankenstein’s monster and the werewolf, and it’s a book, despite its brick-like size, I’ve returned to again and again.

The Talisman

I recently did an interview (for another author’s blog) where I was asked to name one person, dead or alive, I’d like to meet. Almost impossible to pick only one from our entire history. In the end, I plumped for Stephen King. Well, I would love to sit and discuss books and writing and films with him over a beer or coffee. Since that’s never likely to happen, at least I still have his books.

Till next time… 

This is the Way the World Ends

If pushed to name a favourite genre, post-apocalyptic would come close. Depending on my mood, it would often be top. That’s the thing with naming your favourite anything, from food to film to song to book: it depends how you are feeling when deliberating. I’ve talked in a previous post about my love for this genre and how I first became attracted to it by watching the film The Omega Man when I was a child, and I’m not going to rehash that. Instead, I want to mention some of my favourite apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels. (I’m not going to discuss dystopian books where there hasn’t been an apocalyptic event, or there has but it isn’t key to the story—dystopia has its own post.)

This is a category crammed with excellent novels. Harder to know what to leave out than include, but what follows is a mention of many of my favourites (which, of course, on another day might have included one or more of the books I’ve today omitted).

Let’s start with one of my favourite authors. If you know me, you’ll realise I refer to Stephen King. Can’t recall how old I was when I first read The Stand, but I’m guessing I was around seventeen. The tale of civilisation coming to an end through the accidental release of a lab-engineered strain of influenza blew me away and cemented SK as my go-to author. (As an aside, one or two reviewers of my own apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing, commented that it reminded them of The Stand. True, my tale also involves a manufactured virus which virtually wipes out humankind, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Tenuous though the comparison is, I usually shrug and take it as a compliment, even where it’s clear it’s not intended as one.)

Another PA novel I read in my teens was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, it tells of the last days of humanity while the survivors wait for the fallout to reach them. It was published in 1957, which perhaps explains why I felt in some ways it was a little unrealistic. I mean, for people awaiting certain death, they behave in an awfully civilised manner—stiff upper lip and all that. Still, it’s a sombre evocation of how the world might end (‘not with a bang but a whimper’*), with the government doling out suicide capsules so the people might be spared the slow, lingering end of radiation poisoning, and entire families popping them together.


On The Beach

Another favourite of my younger days was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The apocalyptic event doesn’t take place until towards the end of the tale, but when it does, it’s about as life-ending as it’s possible to imagine. And that’s all life, not only human.

A couple of books I’d describe as curious, both disturbing in their own ways. The Death of Grass by John Christopher presents a grim (grim? It’s PA—of course it’s bloody grim) look at how humankind might react in the event suggested by the title, with the British government responding to the crisis in a dramatic and overly drastic way, and what is left of society descending almost instantly into mob rule. And Night Work by Thomas Glavinic. It’s not giving anything away to say that it’s about a man who wakes up one day to find that he appears to be the only person left alive on the entire planet. Can’t say more because spoilers, but it’s a dark and intriguing read.


Night Work

The next two books have something in common: they both involve a form of vampirism. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, we see the event unfold. The story continues in two sequels and it’s a fine trilogy indeed. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the book upon which the film The Omega Man is loosely based), the event has already taken place and we witness the aftermath. Unlike the film versions, the book’s ending is deliciously dark; pity the film makers didn’t have the courage to stick with it.


I Am Legend

Next, a Marmite novel: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp (that’s the book, not Marmite). It’s unremittingly bleak and utterly gripping. They didn’t do a bad job with the film version, either.

A few more crackers (most of the books included in this post are crackers). Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.  Both captivated me for different reasons: Atwood’s for its sense of lyricism and surrealism mixed with a scenario all too realistic, Mandel’s due mainly to the intrigue I felt as to how the present would tie-in with the back story, though this is beautifully written as well. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is a classic PA novel, though it reads more like three long short stories, which is how they were originally written.


Oryx And Crake

For someone who’s a huge fan of TV’s The Walking Dead, strange that I’m not really one for novels about zombies. They simply don’t interest me. The exception is World War Z by Max Brooks. I bought it as one of my books to take on holiday to Greece a few years ago. It took me a while to grow used to the style of the novel—it has no central narrative, as such, but is told after the event through a series of interviews with characters who played a central role in the ‘war’—but once I had, Wow! A rip-roaring read that I didn’t want to end.


World War Z

To finish, a novel that haunted me for weeks after I’d finished it and one that I want to read again: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. The story is set in the south-east of England, far into the future, hundreds of years after the apocalyptic event. I’m hazy on the details because it’s been more than five years since I read it, but I still recall how the tale resonated with me. The author developed a form of pidgin English in which his characters speak and, due mainly to that, it’s a difficult book to get into. But, boy, was it worth persevering. If you enjoy works of apocalyptic fiction, I’d strongly recommend this, and every other book mentioned in this post.


Riddley Walker

Happy reading!

* this is a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, the same poem from which Shute took the title of his novel, and I took the title of this piece.

We’re Doomed, Captain Mainwaring, Doomed

Dystopia – an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. (Oxford Dictionaries)

There are times, and they seem to becoming more and more frequent, when I wonder whether the world we inhabit today might be described as dystopian. War, terrorism, genocide, famine, epidemics, climate change… No, I’m not going to get all political, but it’s difficult sometimes to watch footage of the latest bombing or gun massacre and not wonder what sort of world we live in.

This isn’t about doom and gloom of the actual sort; it’s about fictional doom and gloom, though it’s often impossible, without being deliberately obtuse, not to comment on how one mimics the other.

Yet dystopia doesn’t need to be gloomy; at least, not all of the time. Take Ready Player One. I consider myself a seventies child, but I was still in my teens during the early eighties and loved spotting the references in the novel to eighties pop culture. It’s very much a dystopian world that our hero inhabits, caused by an energy crisis – people living in on-the-cheap apartment blocks made from trailers stacked one on top of another due to rocketing overpopulation; terrorism; food shortages. Gloom aplenty, but it’s how people escape their otherwise drab existence where the fun comes in. And it’s a lot of fun. An almost limitless virtual universe, a vast interactive game, that sounds so appealing that we might, if given the opportunity, seriously consider sharing their deprivations if we can also join in their means of escape.


Ready Player One

Of course, most fictional dystopian worlds aren’t places we’d want to live. That’s kind of the point. One of the first dystopian novels I can remember reading was when I was a teenager. It was finished in 1948 and the author simply reversed the last two digits of that year to come up with a title. Aspects of the novel seem eerily prescient today. Take a walk around any city or town centre and you’ll be recorded by any number of CCTV cameras; records exist of your phone calls and texts, of your online browsing habits. Big Brotheris watching you. And what about ‘Doublethink’ and ‘Newspeak’? Orwell’s terms have morphed into today’s Doublespeak. Again, I don’t want to get political, but Doublespeak is as prevalent today as wannabe celebrities. Alternative facts, anyone?


1984

Since you’re visiting a site devoted to writing and reading, there’s a fair chance that you feel the same way about books that I do. If I had to give up every form of entertainment except one, I’d heave a heavy sigh of regret at losing films, sport and music, but I’d keep my books. It’s because of this deep love of the written word that I found myself squirming at times while reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For anyone who doesn’t know, the title comes from the temperature at which books burn. No spoilers, but this presents as grim a future as any other book mentioned here and is, for me, up there with Something Wicked This Way Comes as my favourite Bradbury work.


Fahrenheit 451

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood tells of a future USA, or a part of it, taken over by a new order under which women are subjugated. The eponymous handmaid’s role is to breed, and nothing much else. The novel reminded me of 1984 in generating that brooding sense of menace, of being constantly watched. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagines a future where breeding programmes eliminate disease and deformity. It is quite a long time since I read either of them, but in my memory they are the sorts of story that make you think shit, this could really happen and hoping fervently it never does.


The Handmaid’s Tale

It was also a long time ago that I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, the book upon which the film Blade Runner was based. My memories of the film are stronger, but I do recall enjoying the book and feeling that the film took all that was good of the novel and built upon it.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is set in a world filled with poverty and malnourishment and overpopulation. Global warming is making matters considerably worse and, on top of all that, there is war between various superpowers. Once more, it is impossible not to see parallels with today’s world; while we haven’t quite reached the levels of despair experienced by the characters in Le Guin’s novel, are we really that far from it? I would dearly like to think not – or that we will somehow turn aside from the path of self-destruction we seem hell-bent on pursuing – but the more pessimistic part of me doubts it.

I’m going to finish with two novels by that famous author Richard Bachman. Although set in grim, dystopian worlds, they both tell tales that enthralled and thrilled me in my late teens.

The Running Man is a rollercoaster of a story about a desperate man driven to enter a futuristic game show in an effort to raise funds for something that I’ve forgotten (medicine for his wife or child?). If you’ve seen the film version starring Arnie, don’t be put off – the book is by far superior.

The Long Walk is about an annual event where a hundred teenage boys set off on a walk. It’s not a race, as such. They will keep walking until there is only one left standing and he’s the winner. Doesn’t sound that bad until the reader realises what happens if the competitors’ walking pace falls below 4mph. It’s a gripping and, in its way, horrific tale, and I find it compelling. It’s long overdue a film adaptation.


The Bachman Books

Those are some of my favourite dystopian novels. I haven’t included post-apocalyptic books, which will get their own post. I know, I know, virtually all post-apocalytpic tales arguably also qualify as dystopian, but I don’t think the reverse is as often true.

(A quick note about the title – it’s a nod to Private Frazer, one of my favourite characters in the old BBC sitcom, Dad’s Army.)

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

‘Two nations separated by a common language’. That quote, or something very like it, is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw and refers, of course, to the differences between English as spoken and written in the UK, and the version spoken and written in the USA. (I am aware that the term ‘America’ includes a heck of a lot of countries, but for the purposes of this piece I am going to use ‘American English’ as shorthand for the spoken and written word pertaining to the USA only.)

Everyone—and we’re talking about adults, not children—knows there are differences between British and American English, right? It surprised me to discover that there are people who don’t. It came to my notice a few years ago through a review of one of my books. The reviewer said that the book was ‘littered’ with spelling mistakes. (Note: this is not about having a pop at reviewers. I’m incredibly grateful for each and every review my books receive, even the less-than-stellar ones of which I have my fair share. I mention it only because that’s how I became aware of this issue.)

The review puzzled me. Whilst I aim to have my books completely error-free, I accept they may contain the odd error that was missed during the editing and proofreading stages. But littered with spelling mistakes? I knew that couldn’t be right (and read the book again to be sure). It took me days to realise that the reviewer clearly wasn’t aware of the differences between British and American English, and the mistakes ‘littered’ throughout the novel were actually words spelt in British English.

I want to talk a little about those differences, but I don’t intend to list every one I’m aware of—there are plenty of places where you can find such lists, if you’re interested (e.g. here). I’d rather mention a few that amused (and sometimes continue to amuse) or surprised me when I discovered them.

Take the word ‘fanny’—a fairly innocuous word in the States, but with quite a different meaning here. The first time I came across the American usage was, I think, in a Stephen King novel many years ago. When a male character patted a female character on her fanny, I almost dropped the book in shock. I mean, he’s noted for his horror, not his erotica. It took me a while to work out that in American English the word refers to the backside. I still can’t see the expression ‘fanny pack’ without it causing a juvenile snigger.

Then there’s the word ‘pissed’. To us Brits that means drunk, intoxicated, inebriated, sozzled. In American English, it means annoyed. We also use it to mean annoyed, but only when adding the word ‘off’: I was so pissed off, I felt like getting pissed. It was probably in a SK novel (since he was the American writer I mostly read as a teenager) that I first came across the American usage. When he described a character as being ‘pissed’, I understood him to mean that the character had been drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Strange that he’d failed to explicitly mention the drinking; even stranger that the character was behaving normally (in an annoyed sort of way), without slurring or stumbling about or trying to hold conversations with the furniture. The penny has long dropped, but I still have to sometimes pause when I come across the word in a novel and remind myself whether the author is American before deciding if the character is annoyed or drunk. It’s not always obvious from context.

There are some words in American English whose variation from British English is minuscule and yet they always give me pause while my mind adjusts. Take the simple little word ‘spit’. In American English, it doesn’t appear to have a past tense. In British English, it’s obvious in which tense I’m writing: ‘The boxers spit out blood’ versus ‘The boxers spat out blood’. In American English, they’d both read exactly the same and, unless obvious from context, ‘The boxers spit out blood’ could mean that they’re doing it now or did it yesterday.

I can’t read the American English words ‘math’ and ‘aluminum’ without wondering what they’ve done with the ‘s’ or the ‘i’; the first time I saw the latter, I thought it must be a new kind of metal that I hadn’t heard of. I had to rely on context to realise that a ‘bullhorn’ is what we call a ‘loudhailer’; a ‘cell phone’ is what we call a ‘mobile phone’ (easy if the word ‘phone’ is included, otherwise I’m relying on context); a ‘pacifier’ is what we call a baby’s ‘dummy’, not some sort of cattle prod as I first thought.

Some American English words I prefer to their British equivalents. There’s something far more colourful to my ears about a stroller than a pushchair. When I first read the name ‘tic-tac-toe’, I thought it sounded like a delightful new game to discover; I was disappointed to learn that it’s merely noughts and crosses, with a less literal but more fun-sounding name. And what about the American English ‘fender’, as opposed to the British ‘wing’? No contest, unless someone, employing ‘wing’, can think of a better phrase for a minor road traffic accident than a ‘fender bender’.

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

‘Bangs’ is another American English word that confounded me when I first came across it. I suspect that everyone these days knows that the word refers to the humble fringe but, seriously—bangs? If it wasn’t clear from context, how the deuce was a British reader in the pre-internet days (and, yes, if you’re of a certain youthfulness, there is such a thing as ‘pre-internet’ and it wasn’t that long ago) supposed to work out what that meant?

On one of the online forums I frequent, where writers from the US are the majority representatives, I happened to use the word ‘fortnight’ that we Brits use without even thinking about it to mean a period of two weeks. This was quite recently and I was taken aback when some folk from the US didn’t know what I was talking about. Not all of them, by any means, but enough to show that the word I assumed was in common usage throughout the English-speaking world isn’t even widely used in one chunk of it (a big chunk, granted).

Another great source of confusion, at least to me, is the American way of referring to the ground floor of a building as the first floor, although there is a lot of sense in their method. So a lift (elevator) in a six-storey (that’s ‘story’ in American English, which mkes a lot less sense) building in the States has buttons marked 1 to 6, whereas a British one has buttons marked 1-5 and another marked G. I prefer the American way in this instance.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Knowing that these differences in usage and spelling and grammar exist is vital for any writer, either side of the Atlantic; at least, for any writer who is looking to sell his or her books internationally. It may also be a good idea, for the benefit of readers who aren’t aware that the differences exist, to somehow make them aware. Some authors insert a note in the front matter stating that the book is written in British or Canadian or whatever English, which varies in some aspects of usage, spelling, etc from American English.

I haven’t done that (yet), preferring where possible to employ a subtler approach, such as have the characters in the novel mention the variations; this is much easier where the book includes both British and American characters. It is an issue that I now keep in mind in all my writing, even going so far as to name a novel The Elevator. There is actually a good reason for calling it that, which has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but I’d be lying if I said that the possibility of there being some (a tiny minority, I’m sure) American readers who’d think a book called The Lift is about ice skating didn’t feature in my reasoning.

It’s Only Make Believe

So, fantasy novels. As suggested in the title, by ‘fantasy’ I mean speculative fiction that has no basis in technology, no matter how far-fetched the technology might be, and doesn’t fall firmly within another genre, such as horror. That’s still a huge range of sub-genres and I’ll barely be scratching the surface. Incidentally, I don’t know if you’re like me—some people seem to obsess about this stuff—but I try not to stress about into which sub-genre a particular novel belongs. In truth, the only time I pay much attention to these subtleties is when uploading a book to Amazon and having to choose the categories in which it’s to be published and which keywords are to be linked to the book. Otherwise, the broader genres such as fantasy and science fiction will do me, although even then there are stories which do not sit comfortably within just the one category.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I came to fantasy at an early age through the works for young children written by Enid Blyton. She was later supplanted by books like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. But I want to mention others I’ve enjoyed from my teens onwards. They include two books that would comfortably make it into my top ten of all-time favourite books in any genre.

Let’s begin with the book that many readers list as their favourite: The Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to say much about this because it will already be so familiar to most, either through the book or the films. Suffice to say, I discovered it in my teens and have read it every few years since. One of my favourite books ever—a re-read is overdue.

At around the same time that I first read LOTR, I discovered another fantasy writer: David Gemmel. I read (over and over) his Legend series, although this was in the dim and distant past and I don’t clearly recall a great deal about them now except how they made me feel: thrilled about escaping to a fantastic and dangerous world, cheering on Druss (I think that was the hero’s name) and fighting his battles alongside him (as if he needed my help).


Legend

Another series I enjoyed was Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. At least, I enjoyed them to a point. I can’t remember how many sequels I read, but think it was at least three, before I moved on to something new.

In my early twenties I read a book called Shadowland by Peter Straub. It was dark, involved magic and entranced me. It contains a line I can still recall today: Once upon a time, when we all lived in the forest… I was already one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers so when he and Peter Straub teamed up for The Talisman, I had to read it. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel that came out years later, but return to the original every five years or so. Another one that’s overdue a re-read. Sigh. Too many new books to read first…


The Talisman

When I was a child I hated sprouts and loved a fizzy drink called Dandelion & Burdock. Now, in my fifties, I love sprouts and one whiff of Dandelion & Burdock makes me want to projectile vomit. Our tastes change over time and that includes our reading tastes. As years have rolled by, I’ve moved away from the more traditional high fantasy of wizards and elves and the like and sought out darker or humorous tales.

They don’t come much darker than The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Without wishing to spoil anything, the main character does something dreadful early in the first book which made me loathe him. And he never through the ensuing books endears himself. Yep, he’s a man with issues, and comes across as one of the most unlikeable people you’d never want to meet. Despite all that, I enjoyed the first three books. There is something intriguing about the land which Covenant visits, something compelling about the characters he encounters and the predicaments they find themselves in. And there’s a scene—don’t ask me in which book because I can’t remember—involving the fate of the giants which was so heart-rending it made me want to cry.


The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

I read the second trilogy—with diminishing enjoyment, it has to be said. When I found out there was a final trilogy, I hesitated, but I’m a glutton for punishment. The final three books in the series are as heavy as bricks and focus on a character who is possibly, though it hardly seems possible, less endearing than Covenant himself. I have the ninth book in the series sitting in my bookcase taunting me to read it. I’ll have to psych myself up to do so and will get to it eventually. But I don’t care how many more instalments Stephen Donaldson might write, this will be the last I’ll endure. (Oh, bugger. Thought I’d better check there are no more books before finalising this piece. You’ve guessed it: there’s a tenth book. I know I said that I’m not interested in reading any more, but I shall have to see how much of a struggle I find the ninth book before deciding whether to get the tenth. I mean, I’ve put this much effort in already and if the tenth is really the last one…)

As for the humorous, they don’t get much better than the Discworld series. In my late twenties when I discovered them, I have since read and re-read them. They are my go-to books when I want to escape into a wacky and endearing place where, if everything is not possible, it feels like it is. When Sir Terry passed on, it felt like losing an old friend. Here’s a link to one of my many favourites in the series.


Guards! Guards!

Another enjoyable, light-hearted series involves the adventures of Thursday Next, literary detective, by Jasper Fforde. It begins with The Eyre Affair. Wonderfully imaginative and a great deal of fun.


The Eyre Affair

I still keep my hand in with the more traditional type of fantasy. I’m slowly working my way through Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea quartet. Read two so far and enjoyed them both, but probably won’t be embarking on the third for a while.

Another novel I feel worthy of mention is Audrey Niffenegger’s (try saying that after a few beers) The Time Traveler’s Wife. Although, as the title suggests, this is about time travel, it belongs within my definition of fantasy because there is no technology involved. I found it to be an incredibly moving tale, a love story doomed by the man’s tendency to disappear into another time period, often at the most inopportune moments.


The Time Traveler’s Wife

The final series I want to mention is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Before I get to the negatives, I enjoyed the early part of the series, probably the first four or five books. By the sixth, I felt a little jaded. By the seventh—the original final book (there has since been another published, which I haven’t read)—I was feeling a little dark-towered-out, but girded my loins and embarked willingly enough along the home straight.


The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger

What of the negatives? I’m not in any position to offer advice to Mr King as to how he writes his books, but he indulges in such an outrageous piece of author intrusion in the seventh book that it threw me completely out of the story and left me feeling reluctant to continue. I’m guessing he knew he was risking such a reaction amongst his readers and made a conscious decision to take that risk. Well, for me, it backfired. Nevertheless, I pressed on to the end. When I got there, I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’ve mentioned before that I think endings are his weakness. Well, everyone has to have at least one weakness, right? His novels are more about the journey than the arrival and I love most of them, even those where I think the ending could be stronger. But the end of the seventh Dark Tower book? Made me want to throw the bloody thing at the wall. I won’t say any more—if you haven’t read them and you enjoy fantasy, you’ll probably enjoy this series. You may even like the seventh book. We all have different tastes and different levels of tolerance, thank goodness. The world of books would be a dull, sanitised place otherwise.

To my final book; the second one that would, along with LOTR, comfortably make it into my all-time top ten favourite books of any genre. I read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and enjoyed it enough to seek out another of his books, Imajica. Oh, wow! What a breathtaking work of mind-blowing imagination. I don’t want to say too much because, spoilers, so will merely say that if you haven’t read it, hurry and do so. You’re in for a treat. (Unless, of course, your tastes differ from mine…)


Imajica