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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (lignarius exactus)

You CAN Get the Wood, You Know

I live in a house with 12 rooms (including the toilet) and 57 cupboards. This design is more than mildly eccentric and I can’t help wondering what the fetishist who lived here before me kept in all his cupboards. Perhaps he had one can of Heinz produce in each – a different can for every cupboard of course. But not a baked bean remains; there is no trace of spaghetti, scarcely even a spoonful of soup.

Over the last few days I have been contributing to this eccentricity of design. Floor to ceiling shelves have appeared in one of the rooms and in the fullness of time, 6000 books will grace them. Fortunately the floor is solid concrete and the shelves are firmly fixed to the walls and ceiling beams. I think they will cope well with the strain of supporting all those books.

It all started just before Christmas when I went looking for a carpenter; preferably a local one. I let my fingers go for a walk through the yellow pages for a time while I read a book. When they came back from their trip, they reported no success. They were somewhat exhausted after their unaccustomed exercise and had to rest for a while to get their breath back.

Once my fingers were back to normal, I pondered another plan of attack. There had to be a carpenter somewhere in the suburb. As I cogitated, my letter box filled up with junk mail among which was the local freebie newspaper – well, several of them in fact. It seems to be my unalterable fate to choose houses that sit smugly where several boundaries fuzzily merge and since nobody can decide exactly where one ends and another begins, I always get every freebie newspaper going and my letterbox groans under the weight of the accumulated junk mail. On rare occasions, I actually find a letter in my letterbox, but these occurrences are few and far between.

Normally all my junk mail gets thrown away without being looked at, but this time I decided to browse through the newspapers in search of carpenters. I perused the small ads which, one and all, were set in much larger type than the rest of the paper and which were obviously its primary raison d’Ítre.

There, in the centre of the page, in eye-catching gothic type was an advert for a carpenter. No job too small; special offer – 20% discount on labour in January and February. Ring this number. So I did.

The Long Ones is a collection of some of Joe Lansdale’s favourite novellas. It is very hard to publish novellas – they are too long for short story collections and not long enough to make it as grown up novels. And yet they are the favourite form of many writers. They don’t suffer from the simplifications forced on you by the short story length; they give enough room to move but without requiring the complexities and convolutions that the greater length of the novel imposes. All in all they are ideal for exploring situations that won’t stretch to a whole book but which are nevertheless too complex for the constraints of shorter lengths. So what a shame that we see all too few of them. Publishers don’t like them for they do not know how to market them and it is generally only the small presses that are willing to take a punt. Necro Publications and also Subterranean Press have published several novellas by Lansdale and other writers – mostly in hideously expensive limited editions. Nevertheless they are still very welcome.

The Long Ones opens with a story called Bubba Ho-Tep, a decidedly odd story wherein Elvis becomes transformed into a kind of Egyptian deity. I suppose everyone, sooner or later, is going to write an Elvis story. This one is extremely weird. The Events Concerning a Nude Fold Out Found in a Harlequin Romance not only has a strange title, it also has a strange plot involving a bald woman with a moustache, several sex-mad poodles, and someone who might be a serial murderer. On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folk tells of a future time when bacteria that have been released from a research lab are animating the brains of the newly dead. These zombies are filled with a lustful desire to feed on human flesh (of course). A bounty hunter returning to Law Town with a captive is waylaid by a gang of zombies who turn out to be under the control of a strange religious order who are dedicated to screwing for Jesus. It all makes perfect sense while you are reading it.

The last story in the collection is The Steam Man of the Prairie and the Dark Rider Get Down: A Dime Novel and it is the least successful of bunch. In a strange alternate version of the American west, a vigilante in a steam powered humanoid vehicle is pursuing his nemesis, the vampire Dark Rider. The Rider was once known as the Time Traveller and was sent forth from the nineteenth century by a famous writer (just as an aside, did you know that they mine mercury in Hg Wells?) and he and his companion Weena, and a gang of Morlocks that he has brought back through time from the far future are now laying waste to the land and the people. The story doesn’t really work because (like most real dime novels) it is just an extended chase story with page after interminable page of descriptions of breathtaking cliff-hanging pursuits and battles. It goes on too long.

I’ve been catching up on several Lansdales this month. I also read his new novel about Hap Collins and Leonard Pine, Captains Outrageous. While it is definitely part of an ongoing series, there is no need to have read any of the others to enjoy this one (though enjoy might be the wrong word to use about a novel that consists mostly of very gruesome deaths). It opens with Hap about to make his way home from his job as security guard at a chicken factory. He is idly musing about the fact that a rival chicken factory has offered him a job in their chicken breeding programme. He will be (hopefully) increasing the production by masturbating the cock birds. Hap is not at all sure that chicken wanking will be a step up the career ladder. These musings are interrupted by a cry for help. Hap investigates and finds a man attacking a young girl. He goes to the rescue and manages to beat the man off. The girl is seriously injured but at least she is still alive.

She turns out to be the daughter of the owner of the chicken factory where Hap and Leonard work. He pays Hap a handsome reward and Hap and Leonard decide to take a long holiday – specifically they decide to take a cruise. However Leonard annoys the man in charge of the first class restaurant by refusing to wear a jacket and tie and by a devious stratagem, the man manages to leave them stranded in Mexico. Here they are mugged by a gang of off-duty policemen intent on mayhem and money, but they are rescued in the nick of time by a machete wielding old man who (of course) turns out to have a beautiful daughter who is in thrall to an evil money lender. Hap and Leonard have a chance to play knights in shining armour.

But it doesn’t work out. And Hap and Leonard are soon more deeply involved than they would like in very cruel deaths, hideous mutilations and desperate fear. And they learn that while revenge may be sweet, sometimes the cost of it is far more than it is worth by any sane reckoning.

Lansdale’s books are always more than a little gruesome. If you have a weak stomach or an over-active imagination you would do well to avoid them for he describes things that might perhaps be better off not described at all. He delves into the dark places of the soul, often amusingly as with the Elvis story I mentioned earlier, but sometimes much more seriously, and much more grimly. The Hap and Leonard novels are all extremely funny (in a very sick sort of way) but they are also decidedly disturbing and extremely chilling. Lansdale pulls no punches.

Since it was Christmas Eve when I rang, I was unperturbed to find that the carpenter was on holiday. The answerphone message explained this, but begged me to leave a message anyway, so I left one and rather to my surprise my call was returned later on the same day. I felt this was an extremely good omen. Far too often businesses ignore such cold calls. When you do finally get through to them, by dint of much phoning at eccentric hours, you say:

"Behold, here I am. I have lots of money that I am eager to give you."

And they say, "Sorry squire. Rushed off me feet. I don’t want any more money."

I have recently had variations of this conversation with untold lawn mowing companies, and a myriad or two house cleaning outfits. None of them wanted my money and all refused point blank to take on my business. I find this attitude impossible to understand. Why are they actively turning down work?

"I want a library," I explained to the carpenter. "I’ve just moved into the area and I have quite a lot of books that require shelving. I’ve got a room put aside for it so I wondered if you could come round and measure up and give me a quote."

"Oh yes, I can do that. But it won’t be until the new year now. How about the 11th?"

And so it was agreed and in due time he arrived to measure. We paced the room and I explained my requirements. We measured the room, we measured several books in order to figure out how far apart to space the shelves and to decide how deep they should be. Numbers were scribbled on the backs of envelopes and then crossed out and amended as sizes and shapes were argued about and mutually agreed. He appeared quite taken aback by both the oddity of the job and the enormous quantity of wood involved. He had obviously never seen or done anything like it before.

"All those boxes," he said, pointing at the quivering pile in the basement, "they’re all full of books?"

"Yes."

"That’s a lot of books," he said.

"Yes."

"I’ll take these figures away and work them up into a quote," he said. A couple of days later he rang back with a firm offer. It was just a little bit over $3000.

"That’s a lot of wood," I said.

"Yes."

Carl Hiaasen has a reputation for writing fast, furious and funny novels. Unfortunately Basket Case is none of these things.

Jack Taggert is a down and out reporter reduced to writing obituaries for a small town newspaper, doomed (he thinks) never to see his by-line on the front page again. And then he finds himself involved in the obituary of Jimmy Stoma, once the front man of a famous rock group known as Jimmy and he Slut Puppies. He seems to have drowned in a scuba diving accident in the Bahamas, but is his death as straight forward as it appears to be? His widow seems to be involved in some shady dealings and there are claims and counter claims over the rights to a song that Jimmy had been working on for many years.

The story has possibilities – the plot seems tailor made for Hiaasen’s quirky world view and there are lots of nice jokes with serious edges to make about rock and roll, but somehow it doesn’t quite work. His usual razor-sharp wit is missing and the windmills that he tilts at are far less imposing than in his other books. Like the lady who was only a little bit pregnant, this book is only a little bit worthy. It’s Hiaasen’s weakest novel; I suggest that you ignore it completely or at least wait for the paperback.

While he was alive, Avram Davidson’s novels and stories were hard to find and few and far between. They went out of print almost as soon as they appeared and they were seldom reprinted. He was loved by his fans, but they were few in number. He won prestigious awards, but you can’t eat certificates. He died confined to a wheelchair, in extreme poverty, and not a single one of his stories was in print on the day that he died.

Now, eight years after his death, the situation is completely reversed. Almost everything he ever wrote is back in print and freely available. How ironic that he missed out on all those royalties. Perhaps if he had had them, he might have lived longer, eaten better, written more of his wonderfully rambling, eccentric and erudite tales.

The Other Nineteenth Century is a collection of stories set largely in the nineteenth century, but it is a nineteenth century unknown to you and me, an alternate time of mystic influences and gothic science born of Davidson’s erudite delving into forgotten lore. It is a nineteenth century where an accident of history turns England into a colony of America, where a strange irradiodiffusion machine is used to talk across the continent, where prehistoric birds come under the scrutiny of Dr. Engelbert Esterhazy, the leading scientist of the Kingdom of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania.

As Henry Wessels remarks in one of his afterwords, Davidson’s tales were often wider and deeper than they were long. What a pleasure it is to swim through these stories, to plumb the depths of Davidson’s circumlocutions, to play the game of spot the reference and to delight in the witty, period dialogue with which he peppers his fabulations. This is a wonderful collection, long overdue.

In Fool Me Twice we meet again with Filidor Vesh, nephew of the Archon of Old Earth (we met him first in Fools Errant). One day the beautiful Emmlyn Podarke steals his insignia and departs for home. Filidor must pursue her, but on the way he falls foul of a grand design, a plot that threatens to oust his uncle from the Archonate and which may well kill Filidor himself. In the darkest corners of Old Earth, with only a miniature integrator embedded in his left ear for company, Filidor must contend with philosophical pirates, aliens who require nothing from him but his essences and a troupe of mummers dedicated to performing the dramatic shaggy dog stories of the Bard Obscure.

This is another Vance homage from Matthew Hughes. The style and tone and even the plot are so quintessentially Vancian that the book verges eerily close to plagiarism – and yet how can you plagiarise mannerisms? The details of the plot are entirely original, the prose is written by Hughes and Hughes alone and there can be no doubt about it; there is not one jot or tittle of plagiarism about the book, not a single one. But if I hadn’t seen the name Matthew Hughes on the cover I would have sworn on a stack of Hugos that this was a novel by Jack Vance.

Vance has the most original voice in the whole of SF – his prose is instantly identifiable, his plot devices uniquely his, his dialogue unlike any other ever written. He is extremely popular, his fans are vociferous and dedicated. It is very brave of Matthew Hughes to venture into such idiosyncratic territory and it is a measure of his enormous skill that he has succeeded brilliantly in what he has set out to do. No Vance fan could possibly be offended by this book – every Vance fan will enjoy it immensely simply because Hughes has captured the voice of the master so well.

In one sense, that is a very vulnerable position to be in. Hughes in is danger of disappearing entirely inside his Vance persona and never emerging as a person in his own right. I for one am glad that he is willing to take that risk for I can never get enough Jack Vance and with the appearance of Matthew Hughes, the Vancian universe has taken on a whole new lease of life. But I do wonder about his future as a writer. Will he ever be allowed to do anything else now that he has succeeded so brilliantly as an impressionist?

But whichever way it goes, you really do have to love a writer who has the bare faced cheek to name one of his characters Lord Magguffynne. I don’t think even Jack Vance would ever have dared to do that!

Geoffrey Landis first came to my attention with a first rate hard science fiction novel called Mars Crossing. However it would seem that for many years prior to that novel he had been appearing regularly in the magazines with a lot of very well received short stories. Since I don’t subscribe to any of the SF magazines, this had completely passed me by. However when a collection of his stories appeared (Impact Parameter) I leaped at the chance of seeing more of his work. On the basis of his novel I think I was expecting a collection of hard SF and I was pleasantly surprised to see him spread himself across the entire spectrum. There is a lot of hard SF of course, but also farce and fantasy as well. So now I have two Landis books in my collection and both are first rate. I am looking forward to having more.

Towards the end of the month the carpenter turned up to begin putting up the shelves. Unfortunately the company from whom he had ordered the wood failed to deliver it so he hung around for a while twiddling his thumbs and drinking coffee then he went away again. The next day the wood was delivered and he began work. However it very quickly became clear that that only a fraction of the wood that he had ordered had actually arrived. They had delivered all the shelves but only about a quarter of the uprights. He rang and complained.

"Oh sorry. We’ll send the balance round tomorrow."

The next day the wood delivery man turned up with more wood than I’d even seen in one place before. Close examination of the paperwork revealed that this wasn’t the balance of the order, it was the entirety of the original order. Again.

The wood man professed himself willing to take the whole lot back, an offer with which we were less than thrilled, but he refused point blank to split it and take back only the unrequired portion. We now had not quite twice as much wood as we needed for my library and the carpenter was spitting tacks, of which he had a more than adequate supply.

"Can’t trust anybody," he said. "If you want a job done properly you have to do it yourself. How do these morons remain in business? They can’t even manage to fulfil a simple order without stuffing it up completely! Hah!"

He sawed a plank in half and banged nails into it with unnecessary violence.

"Take that, you bastard!"

Even As We Speak is the latest collection of essays from Clive James. Actually "latest" is a bit of a misnomer, for some of these essays are quite old and their contemporary concerns are no longer quite as cogent as once they were which robs the prose of some of its sharpness. Also, when James is being serious, he tends towards pomposity and sometimes uses a tortured academic syntax (a fault that in his more light hearted works he accuses other writers of). And so this collection is a curate’s egg – the good parts are very, very good, but the bad parts are a little bit smelly.

There is an over long analysis of Orwell and an extended anti-nazi diatribe. There is a lachrymose piece on Princess Diana which has not worn well and two hagiographic essays on European film directors which made me squirm a bit.

But to balance these there is a priapic essay on Casanova, full of piercing insights. There is a moving obituary for Peter Cook and a delightful account of James’ own career as a pop lyricist. And there are a series of scurrilously funny pieces on the Sydney Olympics.

The good outweighs the bad, and Even As We Speak is a worthy addition to the James canon. Just watch out for the smelly bits.

Making the Alphabet Dance is subtitled Recreational Wordplay and that is exactly what it is. As long as we have had language we have been fascinated by its structure and by the things that we can make words do. This book is for everybody who loves the games that words play.

Consider, for example, the lipogram; a literary piece in which certain letters are forbidden to appear. Two whole novels (Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright and La Disparation by Georges Perec) were written without once using the letter ‘E’. By all accounts Gadsby is not a very good novel – but that has nothing to do with the missing letter; Wright was just a rotten author. La Disparation is considerably better, and even has the distinction of having appeared in two languages for it has been translated from its original French into English (as A Void) and it doesn’t use the letter ‘E’ in either language. An amazing tour de force.

Then there are palindromes – constructions that read the same both forwards and backwards. The most famous is probably Napoleon’s supposed utterance on his exile: Able was I ere I saw Elba, but my favourite is the nonsensical and hilarious: Satan oscillate my metallic sonatas.

There are self-descriptive sentences (This sentence no verb), and self-enumerating sentences (This sentence has five words). Reflexicons are word lists that describe their own letter counts. Apparently only two are known to exist in English. Here’s one of them:

    Fifteen e’s, seven f’s, four g’s, six h’s, eight i’s, four n’s, five
    o’s, six r’s eighteen s’s, eight t’s, four u’s, three v’s, two w’s,
    three x’s.

If you want to know what the other one is, read the book.

Anyone who has a feeling for language, anyone who has a fascination with words will love this book. It is purely wonderful.

Over the next few days my library began to take shape as the shelves slowly grew. As a job, I suspect that the carpenter found it rather boring since it was very repetitive work. When you’ve seen one bookshelf you’ve seen them all. Nonetheless he exhibited enormous enthusiasm, for it seemed that the final purpose to which the shelves would be put had really taken hold of his imagination.

"I’ve never built a library before," he confessed. "I’d love to see it again when all the books are up on the shelves; just so I know what it looks like."

"Of course," I said, flattered that he was taking so much interest. "Come round for coffee when its done. I’ll give you a ring. Mind you - it won’t be for a few weeks. It takes a long time to unpack and arrange books on the shelves."

"I can imagine," he said. "Do you have them in any particular order?"

"Alphabetic by author," I said. "If you don’t do that, you can never find anything when you’ve as many books as this."

He nodded, impressed. "Yes, that must be a problem."

I gave him a basement key so that he could come and go as he pleased. The room filled up with sawdust as he cut and sanded and every so often he brought in an industrial size vacuum cleaner and sucked it all up. We would lie in bed early on weekend mornings soothed by the rhythmic banging of nails, the occasional cries of "Ouch!" and the restful rumble of huge power tools wreaking havoc on the seemingly endless supply of wood.

And then one day it was done.

He has done a superb job. Every inch of available space (and a few inches of unavailable space) has been filled with shelves. The geography of the room and the geometry of oblong bits of wood that intersect each other means that some of the shelves are a little awkwardly placed, but I had expected this, and it didn’t worry me.

"You’ve done a brilliant job," I said. "It’s magnificent!"

He beamed. "Don’t forget to let me know when you’ve got the books up."

"You’ll be the first to know," I promised.

I still have far more wood than I know what to do with left in my garage, but the carpenter has promised to take it away and use it in other jobs. After all, if he doesn’t do that he will make a thumping loss on this job since the wood people are refusing to take it back (humph!) and I have paid only for the quoted volume that he needed to complete the library.

And now, at long last, I can unpack my books. Only then, I think, will I feel truly at home.


Joe R. Lansdale The Long Ones Necro Publications
Joe. R. Lansdale Captains Outrageous Mysterious Press
Carl Hiaasen Basket Case Knopf
Avram Davidson The Other Nineteenth Century Tor
Matthew Hughes Fool Me Twice Aspect
Geoffrey A. Landis Impact Parameter Golden Gryphon
Clive James Even As We Speak Picador
Ross Eckler Making the Alphabet Dance Macmillan

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