Thursday, 28 October 2010

There are no stories by women in the next TQF...

Peter Tennant, having read literally thousands of anthologies for the latest review column in Black Static, has produced a fascinating analysis of the gender balance in them: see Women in Horror Anthologies.

Peter asked Best New Horror editor Stephen Jones about this issue in an interview for the most recent Black Static, and coincidentally I asked Catastrophia editor Allen Ashley about it too, in an interview for the last issue of Dark Horizons, and both gave pretty much the same reply: I choose stories by quality, I don't have a quota system, etc.

This stuff is on my mind at the moment: there are no female contributors to the next issue of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction. And both books by women reviewed in this issue get a bit of a pasting.

I'm a bit unhappy about how that looks, but I do think our ratio of acceptances of stories by women is pretty much in proportion with our ratio of submissions by women.

When larger magazines make that point, the answer is usually that they should reach out to female writers and encourage them to submit, but that's not really an option for a non-paying zine like ours.

And even with bigger magazines that can be awkward: asking someone to submit puts you in a difficult position if the story they submit – the one they have written especially for you! – is not their best work.

On the website of Mslexia there's a thought-provoking article on women in writing, one which I think anyone working in the field should at least read: Three Cures for Mslexia.

One thing in particular caught my eye, in the context of discussing lower submission rates from women:
"The only exception we found was for writing competitions, where for some reason women seemed less inhibited: perhaps because competitions seem more of a lottery, and so less personally threatening; perhaps because it’s easier for them to find the time to complete a single poem or short story for a competition."
My experience with the BFS bears out the idea that women submit in greater proportions to short story competitions. 43% of the entries to the BFS short story competition this year were from women, while only 15% of submissions to Dark Horizons in the same period were.

(The competition and the magazine were both open to all fantastical genres. The same person was in charge of both, and both received roughly 150 submissions in that period.)

I don't want to go very far in speculating why the difference is so huge, but I think the perception that a competition is fairer must be a factor. The short story competition rules get disseminated further, through competition magazines and websites, so that might be another. Is losing en masse more appealing than being personally rejected? Does the prize make a difference? Are men just more willing to give their work away to non-paying markets?

Trying to answer some of those questions could very quickly lead the unwary onto dodgy ground. But it does seem to me that from examining the differences in submission rates, and the reasons for those differences, a way might be found to encourage more submissions from women, and hence publish more stories by women – which would be brilliant.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Paperback Fanatic #16, and news of future issues

Issue 16 of the The Paperback Fanatic arrived a few weeks ago. It's one of my favourite magazines, and this is another excellent issue, full of (a) fascinating information and (b) saucy covers. The only things that would improve it are clearer issue numbers on the front and a contents page…

Articles this time include:

  • Commander Amanda and Corporal Punishment
  • Action, Romance and Mutants - the Doomsday Warrior and his pals.
  • Strange Temptation: the Story of Stephen D. Frances
  • ...From Acme Publishing! - The Magazine of Horror
  • The Devil's Riders

There's also a huge letter from Crab-master Guy N. Smith.

Editor Justin Marriott has announced tentative plans for issues 17 and 18, both of which have articles pencilled in about overproductive heroes of mine and their adventures in publishing: Michael Moorcock and New Worlds in the former, Lionel Fanthorpe and Badger Books in the latter.

If anyone wants to relaunch Badger Books, give me a bell and I'll be your Bron Fane!

Subscriptions are ridiculously cheap, so it's always a good time to subscribe.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Occult Files of Albert Taylor, Derek Muk

Professor Albert Taylor leads an informal team of paranormal investigators. "Granted," he says, "there's been a lot of hoaxes, but then there are the cases that just can't be explained by science and mediums. That are just too bizarre." And that's where Albert, a professor of anthropology and the paranormal in his early fifties, steps in. This book contains eleven of his investigations, taking in ghosts, aliens, vampires, psychics, cults and much, much more.

Taylor is a funny kind of hero, motivated less by the desire for truth than in hope of making a solid discovery that will "put him in the limelight regarding ghost research". During one moment of reverie, "He imagined himself being interviewed by countless talk shows ... I could be rich! he thought." He runs a magazine (The Occult Files) and thinks nothing of whisking his team off to Hawaii to look for vampires. He has little interest in his students, and seemingly no understanding of the scientific method.

This isn't a good book, though it's clear the author has made an effort with it. Reading it wasn't unbearable – it had at least been proofread – but it wasn't very exciting. The stories are generally dull and uninspired, with the worst, a stupefying plod through the mountains following a bigfoot, being dull, uninspired and twenty pages too long. The stories work their way through a checklist of bog standard creatures, the denouements uniformly anticlimactic.

Part of the problem is that there are very few surprises, since Taylor and everyone he encounters has the Sherlockian ability to guess exactly what's going on from the barest of clues. A guy thinks his girlfriend has been killed by Jack the Ripper? Mum thinks her daughter summoned a demon from another dimension with a ouija board? A UFO cult waits for their alien gods to visit? No spoilers, but Taylor very rarely discovers that anyone is wrong in their beliefs, however outlandish.

The other big problem is a complete lack of atmosphere. There's no real tension here, supernatural occurrences being too often followed by bathetic utterances such as "That was freaky!" or "Whew! I've never had so many goose bumps in my life"  or (hilariously) "I don't swallow ... everything that's shoved into my face." The dialogue is dominated by half-hearted banter and chitchat.

When members of the team die in what would surely appear to the police to be suspicious circumstances, there seems to be little consequence. The conclusions of "Dear Boss" and "The Sun Disc" would have had profound effects on American society, but again, no consequences. And despite Taylor's dreams of fame and fortune, he doesn't hesitate to utterly destroy any supernatural beings he encounters.

It's a book that's inordinately respectful of other people's beliefs, which was rather sweet, and I liked the way that each story ended with a Case Closed stamp, although the final twists often had the effect of making those stamps rather ironic. I thought of Taylor as a Will Ferrell character, declaring "Case Closed, Case Closed!" even as ghosts jeered at him from the shadows! Overall, not a book I'd really recommend, but it did have a kind of goofy charm, and I enjoyed it a bit more than I expected.

The Occult Files of Albert Taylor, Derek Muk, Impact Books, pb, 204pp.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Why aren't I reading my print books any more?

Yesterday I blogged about my realisation of how few of my print books I've been reading lately. The last time I read a print novel that I bought was in January of this year; the time before that was in 2008. I've got about 1100 unread books on my shelf – at the current rate I'd be lucky to read 50 of those before dying!

So naturally that got me to wondering why I've stopped reading them.

Getting lots of books for review

This is clearly a big factor. I'm getting lots of brand new books to review all the time. Nowhere near as many as Book Chick City, but enough to keep me ticking over. The novelty of a brand new book makes it more attractive, while the deadline for a review gives the reading a bit of urgency. Reading new books for review obviously leaves less time for digging into my collection.

But looking at my list of books read over the last couple of years, when I have had a break from reviewing, I haven't gone to my print books. I've bought books for the Kindle (Best Served Cold, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, The Third Man, UR), and before that the Sony Reader (The Eyre Affair, Elder Scrolls: The Infernal City) or grabbed them for free from Feedbooks (The Pirates of Zan), Project Gutenberg (Stand by for Mars!) or the Baen Library (The Sea Hag).

So this can't be the only factor.

The chain effect

If I finish reading a book on the Kindle, chances are I just open up the next book I fancy on the Kindle and start reading that. My tolerance for hunting through my bookcases for particular books has withered away to nothing, for one thing! But also, when I finish a book I'm rarely sitting in my study surrounded by my print books. I'm usually lying in bed. Sometimes I'm on a bus or a train, or at the in-laws, or at a friend's house. If print books aren't handy during that crucial handover from one book to another, they're locked out until the next time I finish a book; my ebooks are always close to hand.

The way I buy books has changed

In the past, I would see a book I wanted and buy it right away, because it would probably be gone the next day. Even now, with Amazon, new books can go out of print very quickly. With ebooks it's a bit different. The publisher may eventually withdraw the book from sale, but they're not going to run out of copies, or dither over whether to reprint. I don't need to hoard books any more. So instead of buying everything I see, I download a Kindle preview, and once I've actually started reading the book – and if I like it – I buy it.

My bookshelves, on the other hand, are full of stuff that I thought I might want to read at some point. Graham Greene, Carl Hiaasen, James Ellroy, Marion Zimmer Bradley, C.J. Cherryh, Emile Zola, William Shatner. Great writers all, and I've read a novel or two by each of them. But I've anything up to a dozen more by each on my shelves, and I'm not desperate to read any of them right now.

The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 22Then there are the anthologies, the Best New Horrors, the Best New SFs, Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, the Black Books of Horror, the Humdrumming Books of Horror, the Derleth, Haining and Greenberg anthologies – nothing wrong with any of them, but they've been sitting on my shelves for years waiting for me to feel like reading them, and as Shatner himself sang, it hasn't happened yet.

Now, I tend to only buy books on the day I'm going to read them. All those books on the shelves? I still might read them – someday – but probably not many of them.

Reading is nicer on the Kindle

Here's the nub of it. Paper books are not as much fun to read.

I'm not a booksniffer. Booksniffers are those people who, at the mention of ebooks, say things like "Ah, but you can't beat a real book", and accompany those words by opening out their hands as if they were the pages of a book, and for bonus points lift up the imaginary book to their noses for a sniff. They often close their eyes while doing this, which is an odd way to approach reading.

The strange thing is that, too often, they don't just express this idea as a personal preference, but hold it to be a universal truth, and are frequently shocked – and even angry – to hear people disagree. They honestly believe that people who buy ebooks do it under protest, or through aesthetic weakness, or in the dazzle of novel technology (pun intended), and so on. Some will even say that people using ebooks are deluding themselves.

But nope, for me, reading books on a Kindle is a much better experience than reading in print.

Of course, I accept that some people will always prefer print books. Maybe they really couldn't live without the smell of book mould. Many seem to expect an imminent apocalypse, given how worried they are about not being able to recharge a Kindle every three weeks. Most haven't even seen a Kindle, but know for certain that it's just like reading on a computer screen. They shouldn't worry: there will always be publishers and booksellers to cater to their fetish for paper.

The Penguin Concise English Dictionary (Penguin Reference Books)But it is a fetish. From the Penguin Concise English Dictionary, a couple of relevant definitions. Fetish: "an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion" – check! And fetishism? "The displacement of erotic interest and satisfaction to a fetish." Exactly: the object of a reader's interest should in theory be the text of a novel, not the paper it is printed on. Displacing the interest from the novel to the paper is fetishism.

I'm still reading a few paper books every month for review, and my goodness they're annoying. Not in any big ways, but in lots of little ways that add up to an inferior experience overall.

Here are a few of the ways paper books annoy me:
  • You have to transcribe any passages you want to quote – you can't just copy them across.
  • You have to choose between using a bookmark to keep your place, or folding back the book's corners.
  • The only way to search the text for a phrase is by re-reading the book.
  • You can't read them in the rain.
  • Lots of them are heavy.
  • And bulky.
  • Reading them in bed on your side is a nightmare.
  • The text often disappears into the spine.
  • Reading the book damages it.
  • You can't change the size of the font when your eyes get tired, or when you get older and short sighted. If you need to read a print book in large print you have to hope someone publishes a large print edition.
  • You need to buy – and build! – bookcases to store them on. They take up most of your house, if you let them. (And boy have I let them!)
  • All those books are a huge fire risk.
  • And once you've got them on those shelves, the only way to put them in order is to do it manually, one book at a time.
  • And if you sort them by author, but then say want to see them sorted by publisher, date bought, date read, title or genre, it takes more than just a single click. They need to be re-sorted one by one, a process that could take days if you have as many printed books as I do. In practice, you will probably never sort your books in this way.
  • When you buy a bunch of new books? You have to shuffle all the books on all the shelves along to make room. And probably buy a new bookcase. And build it. Or throw some books away.
  • They are incredibly wasteful. Do you know how many books Oxfam pulps every year? How many are destroyed by bookshops who rip off the front covers to claim returns?
  • No built-in dictionary. You need an extra book for that.
  • No built-in encyclopedia either. Again, you need an extra book for that.
  • No built-in highlighter. You can highlight with a pen, but it permanently defaces the book.
  • If you do make notes in your print book, or highlights, you can't just export them to your computer. You have to type them all up.
  • If you want to buy a new book, you have to either wait a few days for it to be delivered, or go and collect it from a shop.
  • People look at you funny if you stand in a shop and read the first thirty pages of a book before buying it.
  • If you leave the house with a new book and it turns out to be a lemon, you're stuck with it. You can't just switch to one of your other books.
  • Paper books don't read themselves to you while you're cooking!
  • If you go on holiday or travel for more than a day there's a limit on how many paper books you can take with you, and on how many you can bring back with you (I brought a suitcase full of books back from my honeymoon in Paris, and wished I could have carried twice as many.)
  • If you buy a new paper book, only one person in the family can read it at once. You can snuggle up with the spouse and read together, but that only works as long as you're on the same page.
  • When you've read a book, you can either keep it forever, in which case it'll take up space in your house until the day you die, or you can sell it or give it away to charity, in which case it will be gone.
  • You can't carry all your books with you wherever you go. If a paper book makes an allusion to another book you've read, you can't check it till you get home. When reading Tony Blair's A Journey (perhaps unsurprisingly the only Kindle purchase so far that I didn't manage to finish!) there was a reference to the rewriting of clause 4. Did it agree with Mandelson's account in The Third Man? I wasn't sure, so, despite being in a pub, I switched to that book, searched for clause 4, and re-read Mandelson's version.
    A militant booksniffer will have a counter-argument for all of these. They don't read in bed, so it doesn't matter if books are hard to read lying on your side. Their shelves are all in perfect order. Their eyes never get tired. Or they have a magnifying glass. They don't need bookmarks, because they remember what page they were on. Wanting to copy quotes instead of transcribing is lazy.

    A lot of booksniffer arguments come down to laziness. Yes, they seem to say, paper books are a bit inconvenient, but if you weren't so lazy, you'd put up with it. The implicit argument is that print books are worth making the effort, that we're not working hard enough to keep them alive. But why should we? I care about novels being published, but I couldn't care less whether they're printed on paper or not. I spend hours every day reading, and so I want to make that time as pleasant as possible. For me, reading print books is like putting my TV on its side: I could still watch all the programs, if I made a bit of an effort and tipped my head, but why put myself to that trouble?

    Kindle Wireless Reading Device, Wi-Fi, 6" Display, Graphite - Latest GenerationFor some readers, each and every one of those counter-arguments will hold true, and the Kindle really would be no benefit at all to them. For example, Quentin S. Crisp has pulled a few examples out from the above list here with the intention of showing that none of them are particularly significant, but that's kind of the point. They're all very small things, but small things add up. The result, for me, has been that when I've come to choose what book to read next, the paper books have been at a disadvantage. The reading experience on the Kindle is a little bit better in every way, which in sum makes it quite a bit better overall.

    It's like Hobnobs: I love the originals, but I very rarely buy them any more, because Chocolate Hobnobs are just that little bit tastier!


    So I think those are the reasons I'm not reading my collection of print books any more. No big revelation, no great insight: they're just getting squeezed out by books for review, by books on the Kindle, by their own general awkwardness and inaccessibility. When I read a paper book now I find myself having to develop workarounds to do the things a Kindle would let me do without any trouble!

    That's not to say I don't still love the paper books I own, or that if I lost my Kindle or Sony Reader I wouldn't go back to them, but they're second best now. Not by much – maybe just by a fraction – but by just enough that I never seem to pick them up any more, and I think the rate at which they are being shipped off to charity shops is only going to increase.

    Saturday, 16 October 2010

    Is there any point in buying print books if I'm not going to read them?

    I was thinking this morning about buying the new collection of short stories by Johnny Mains, With Deepest Sympathy, from Obverse Books. It looks interesting, and I liked the last book I read from that publisher.

    But it's not out on Kindle, which made me think: am I ever going to read this? When was the last time I bought and read a book in print? I couldn't actually remember. So I went to look at my list of books read on Goodreads.

    Leaving aside the Penguin 60s I used to read when collecting the children from school, I found that during 2009 and 2010 I read just one novel or short story collection that I bought in print format.

    It was Mass Effect: Revelations, by Drew Karpyshyn, back in January of this year, when I was in the full throes of a Mass Effect obsession.

    The one before that was all the way back in December 2008, when I read Derai, a fine book in E.C. Tubb's Dumarest series, and then October 2008, for Deb Olin Unferth's interesting novel from McSweeney's, Vacation.
    VacationI read books in print when they're submitted for review, of course, and I have bought the odd book in print this year, most recently The Seventh Black Book of Horror – I was keen to read the infamous "Bernard Bought the Farm"!

    But buying print books – and filling up my house with them – starts to seem a bit pointless if I'm only going to read one or two of them a year – or none at all in 2009.

    In fact, when I do fancy reading one of the paper books I own, especially the hardbacks, my first thought is to look it up in the Kindle store. I'd rather pay a few extra quid and read it on Kindle...

    Thursday, 14 October 2010

    The Terror and the Tortoiseshell, John Travis

    During the Terror, animals became human-sized and gained the power of speech – not to mention the intelligence to make that power useful. Having seen his gumshoe owner set upon by lions, Benji Spriteman (the tortoiseshell cat of the title) inherits his office, apartment and patter. There are few humans left, and Benji is dragged into the case of a serial killer preying on them, teaming up with scruffy Lieutenant Dingus, a tenacious basset hound who always has just one more question to ask...

    Though the Terror doesn't seem to make a great deal of scientific sense, the world it's created is an interesting one, providing a very colourful backdrop for a detective novel. And as a detective novel, this works well. The murder mystery is a good one. There are plenty of clues, suspects, snitches and motives, and a series of intriguing plot developments. Benji rarely moves beyond a default private eye characterisation, and celebrity animal cameos – though entertaining – break the mood a bit, but the novel grips throughout.

    The premise sounds cuddly (serial killer aside), but the Terror of the title is aptly named, leading to scenes of human abuse that, while provoking reflection upon the way humans treat animals, are often painful to read. For example, at the zoo Benji sees "a big striped Cat with a chair in one paw and a whip in the other" snarling "at something small in the corner of a filth-filled cage". These sequences, and those where Benji encounters animals unchanged by the Terror, show the novel at its most powerful and affecting.

    Ironically in a book that has a lot of fun with the poor spelling of the rats who run the city's newspaper, The Terror and the Tortoiseshell is marred by shocking errors, including a wide selection of grocer's apostrophes. It's one thing to not know how to spell (lobster) thermidor or (chicken) coop, another to not know that the sentence "The diner's applauded" does not require an apostrophe. As an author I'd be embarrassed to have this published under my name; as a publisher I'd be begging the author's forgiveness for letting it slip through.

    While I applaud the publisher's enthusiasm for ebooks and other modern forms of book distribution, and it is a very good book, I can't quite bring myself to recommend a book containing errors I'd be embarrassed to see in my six year old daughter's schoolwork. As an ebook, also, it's flawed, with the chapters not set up properly. But if a corrected edition is released, and you enjoy crime novels, it's worth a look. The end leaves the greater mystery of the Terror itself unanswered, and I'll certainly be looking out for future books in the series.

    NB: the publisher has advised that a corrected Kindle edition will indeed be forthcoming, and that the current Kindle edition contains errors that do not appear in the printed editions.

    The Terror and the Tortoiseshell, John Travis, Atomic Fez, Kindle, 4094ll.

    Tuesday, 12 October 2010

    Doctor Who: City of Spires

    City of Spires (Doctor Who)The Doctor is reunited with a much older Jamie McCrimmon, who has forgotten all their previous adventures together – which is strange, since he should at least remember the events of The Highlanders – and is fighting against the Highland clearances in the guise of Black Donald. But English soldiers are not the only dangers to the Scots. History is being changed. The sparking iron boots of the mythical Redcap terrorise the land. The Overlord has turned Grangemouth into a City of Spires, and he's sucking the very lifeblood of Scotland from its earth – but to what purpose?

    There's plenty here for the Doctor to be outraged about, and Colin Baker's Doctor does outrage very well. The new-old relationship between the Doctor and Jamie is the story's main attraction, of course, and doesn't disappoint, although there's an irony in that if anything Frazer Hines sounds too young for the part. Each episode ends with a good cliffhanger, and if overall this adventure didn't surpass the best the series has to offer, it did entertain, for example with well-judged call-backs to stories like The Moonbase, and one very nice moment when Major Heywood pulls the Doctor up on one of his frequent – and usually ignored – allusions to being a time traveller.

    Doctor Who 133: City of Spires, by Simon Bovey, Big Finish, 2xCD.

    Sunday, 10 October 2010

    The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, Steven Erikson

    The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach: Three Short Novels of the Malazan EmpireThis is a collection of three novellas concerning two supporting characters from Steven Erikson's set of fantasy bricks, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, which I haven't read, though on this evidence I really should. Crack'd Pot Trail, a later book in this series, was so superb that I preordered this collection the moment I saw it was coming out on Kindle. Originally published by PS Publishing, this edition goes so far as to include the introductions to the individual hardbacks.

    The first novella, "Blood Follows", is set in Lamentable Moll and introduces our terrible heroes to their faithful manservant, Emancipor Reese, amid a plague of nightly murders. "The Lees of Laughter's End" takes place upon a ship in transit, the Suncurl. A crew made nervous by the presence of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach finds that the two sorcerors are only barely the most unpleasant beings aboard. "The Healthy Dead" travels to the city of Quaint, where the king has forbidden all unhealthy behaviour. The Well Knights enforce his edicts by the sword, and demonic sins in the back alleys await a return to power. Bauchelain is tempted by the challenge – and the opportunity – this presents.

    Although for me the third dropped off ever so slightly, straying from the bitterly ironic tone of the first two into outright humour, all three novellas were excellent. All were thoroughly unpleasant, the prose beautifully composed, the characters many-layered and ripe with mystery. As James Barclay notes in his introduction to "The Lees of Laughter's End", these novellas show that fantasy can work in shorter forms – and work brilliantly.

    The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, Steven Erikson, Bantam Press, Kindle, 5193ll.

    Lulu introduces discounts

    Interesting news from our friends at Lulu: publishers may now set a discount on books sold there.

    It seems like a small thing, but it goes to the heart of a long-standing problem.

    For books distributed via Lulu to other booksellers, such as Amazon, you would have to set a price sufficient for the book to not lose money after Amazon took its cut. The price needed to make a profit via Lulu, however, was much lower.

    Once upon a time, users were able to set one price for Lulu, and another for distribution, but under pressure from other booksellers Lulu removed that feature.

    The result was that books on Lulu ended up being more expensive than they needed to be, just so that they wouldn't make a loss on Amazon.

    To put figures on it, a 160pp paperback would only need to be about £4 to make a profit on Lulu (like TQF), but would need to be closer to £6 or £7 if being sold on Amazon as well (like our books).

    Some people got around this by creating two editions of their books, one for Lulu and one for distribution, but this is much better and should make people really happy.

    The Space Horrors of Glynn Barrass and friends!

    Space Horrors: Full-Throttle Space Tales #4Glynn Barrass, who contributed "Nu-Topia: Before the Fall" to Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #31, has a story appearing in Space Horrors, a new anthology published this week. Edited by David Lee Summers, it's the fourth in a series of Full Throttle Space Tales anthologies from Flying Pen Press.

    We have a copy for review, so we'll let you know what we think in due course!

    Free Warhammer from the Black Library!

    First and Only (Gaunt's Ghosts)
    To launch their line of ebooks, the Black Library is offering free ebooks every Friday for five weeks. They're available in mobi and epub format (Kindle and Sony compatible, respectively, though obviously lots of other devices can read those formats).

    The first book available is First and Only by Dan Abnett, from the well-regarded Gaunt's Ghosts series.

    The files are zipped, which means Kindle users will have to download them to a computer first, rather than installing the book straight from the Kindle browser – but that's a small price to pay for a free visit to the year 40,000.

    The Black Library isn't planning to sell its books via the Kindle Store on Amazon, so don't look for them there. They'll be sold direct from the Black Library website.

    Wednesday, 6 October 2010

    Quartet and Triptych, by Matthew Hughes

    "Long, long ago, near the very beginning of the present Aeon, it was a custom of Old Earth's elite to preserve the animating essences of its members as they approached the inevitable end of existence." On special occasions the essences would be "placed into a device that projected a simulacrum of the deceased". This superb novella records the consequences of one such device, that containing the remnant of socialite Waltraut Voillute, falling into the hands of Luff Imbry, gentleman thief. With her reluctant assistance he attempts to recover the treasures concealed by her cruel father Lord Syce in a mutable maze under the Summer Pavillion on the estate of Grand Minthereyon.

    The only thing I've read by Matthew Hughes before this was "Grolion of Almery", his wonderful contribution to Songs of the Dying Earth, and though this novella (not a collection of seven stories, despite the title) is not an outright tribute, Jack Vance's influence looms just as large, in its delicious language, dry humour, casual cruelty and elegant flourishes. But it's much more than a pastiche, and if you were to suggest that it surpasses Vance I would struggle to find counter-arguments. I loved every word of it, and if this is typical of Hughes' work I expect I'll read every novel he ever writes. It's brimming with lovely ideas and spirited language, and never settles for the obvious when it can offer the superb. Marvellous.

    Quartet and Triptych, Matthew Hughes, PS Publishing, hb, 90pp.

    Tuesday, 5 October 2010

    The House of Canted Steps, by Gary Fry

    Mark Cookson is an estate agent with an odd, instant connection to a house he's been asked to sell, one whose stairs are not straight, one that "looks as if it's got something to hide". When his pregnant ex-wife Gayle and son Lewis move in with her new husband, a handsome fellow who doesn't even need to check with the bank before signing the contract, Mark becomes obsessed and angry. But is it him, or is it the house? Can he work out what's going on inside the house, and what's going on inside his own head, before it's too late?

    This short novel is very carefully written, but would perhaps have benefitted from a little more roughness. The sentences are too often circumlocutory, buried under unnecessary words, too anxious to avoid any possible misunderstandings. It felt at times more like a piece of literary criticism about a novel than the novel itself. We are not just told what happens and what is said, but also exactly what to make of it, and what part it plays in the big picture.

    Sometimes, of course, a bit of circumlocution and rumination can be a wonderful way for a writer to create an atmosphere, but here it works too often against the attempts to create tension. For example, a potentially terrifying scene, which sees Mark trapped by the social embarrassment of being somewhere he shouldn't while the Blood Boy creeps up on him, is squandered by having him listen in on a lengthy, quite banal conversation.

    The novel echoes Thieving Fear by Ramsey Campbell (to whom the novel is dedicated) in that the evil at the heart of the novel plays with perception, but it's in a much less subtle way. Campbell's characters talk awkwardly at cross purposes, while Mark simply misses the blatantly obvious point of conversations; it's frustrating rather than frightening. And the result is that while there are mysteries for Mark, there are none for the reader – other than why he's being so obtuse.

    A typical passage, from the beginning of chapter 19, illustrates the main problems with the novel: "The fact that something about this whole explanation simply didn't ring true, proved to be insufficient to prevent Mark's brain from turning back at once to the central preoccupation in his life at the moment." His ignorance is unconvincing, the prose awkward.

    Still, this is a novel written with serious intent, and it has interesting, insightful things to say about stepfamily relationships. The characters are rounded and believable, and certain images – particularly those of children in danger – were unpleasantly memorable. The idea of the canted stairs creating a threshold between the apparent safety of downstairs and the nightmare of upstairs is well used, and by gum I would not like to live in that house.

    The House of Canted Steps, Gary Fry, PS Publishing, hb, 228pp.

    Friday, 1 October 2010

    The sun sets on Dark Horizons...

    Or at least my version of it!

    I didn't know it at the time, but number 57 was my final issue of Dark Horizons for the British Fantasy Society – and the final issue of Dark Horizons in its current format. A new hardback journal is planned to replace all the current BFS publications, effective immediately, and although I was offered a contributory role in that, editing a Dark Horizons section, it wouldn't have been the same.

    It's been a nice little run, though, and I was planning to hang up my boots at the end of the season, so I can't complain.

    So thanks to all the contributors who made issue 57 such a good one to bow out on. If I'd known it was my last issue I'd have said goodbye in the editorial, but otherwise I wouldn't have changed a thing. Thanks also to everyone who contributed to previous issues, and for that matter to every single person who submitted a story. I'm sorry I had to reject any of them!

    I've had a brilliant time as Dark Horizons editor. I've made lots of new friends, gained lots of experience, and gained a bit of confidence. Thanks to Marie O'Regan and the 2007–8 committee for giving me the post, to Peter Coleborn (one of the preceding editors) for getting me off on the right foot with a very useful handover email, and to everyone since then who has offered advice and support. Ian Hunter gets my thanks both for his expertise as poetry editor and for his excellent contributions.

    I must also thank frequent contributors like Jim Steel, Douglas Thompson, Rafe McGregor and Andrew Knighton for some of my favourite stories; Mike Barrett for a series of fascinating articles; wonderful, generous artists like John Shanks, Inna Hansen, Martin Hanford, David Bezzina, and Alf Klosterman, to name just a few; and Jan Edwards, Louise Morgan and Jenny Barber for some excellent interviews. Finally, thanks to Bob Loader and his team at Good News Digital Printing for delivering all five issues in good time and well under budget. Thanks to everyone!

    It also seems at the moment that reviews for the BFS will no longer appear in print, which is a bit of a shame. I've really enjoyed contributing to Prism's review section over the last couple of years – it's been a real apprenticeship for me – and it was an excellent way for new members to contribute to the society. But no worries: maybe it will prompt more people to figure out how to work the BFS website!

    The benefit of course is that I can now give Theaker's Quarterly and our books the attention they deserve. I really have neglected you guys!