Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (lignum vermis mysteriis)


The stench in the back room had become quite unbearable. Opinion was divided as to which cat was peeing and pooing in the room. Was it one of ours, or was it next door’s cat? Undeniably next door’s cat has been sneaking in and stealing the food we put out for our cats; we’ve caught it in the act of eating several times. But we’ve never actually caught any of the cats in flagrante delicto in the back room. All we’ve ever found is the damp, brown very smelly evidence that they have indeed been in there.

We sprayed the carpet with perfumed oriental elixirs; we plugged in an electronic gadget that was guaranteed to fill the room with the scent of roses; all to no avail. The stench of cat urine triumphed over every weapon we could bring to bear against it. The carpet would have to go.

"Hmmm," said Robin once the carpet had been removed. "I wonder what that is?"

One of the floorboards looked decidedly odd. Sort of lumpy in spots and sunken in others. Robin poked it with a dubious finger. "It feels squishy."


She scratched at it. Great clods of sawdust accumulated beneath her fingernails. Hmmm…

I thumped it with a hammer that I happened to have handy. The board disintegrated. I looked through the hole down into the foundations of the house. Bits of builders rubble covered with a light coating of sawdust and small lumps of floorboard stared back at me.

"I don’t think that is normal behaviour for a healthy plank of wood," I remarked.

"No," said Robin. "I don’t think it is."

We examined the remnants of the suspicious floorboard closely. It showed distinct traces of having been chewed up by some ferociously large insect. Giant sawdust-clogged tunnels vanished deep into the interior. Small amounts of tunnelling were also visible in adjacent boards, though to nothing like the same extent. Perhaps this insect was a homebody and did not like moving out of the safety and comfort of its baseboard.

"I think," I said, "that I’d better ring a carpenter. This might be a rather large job."

Fortunately, just the day before, a junk mail leaflet had appeared in our mailbox. Speedy Sam the Handy Man was apparently only a phone call away. No job too small, said the leaflet. Twenty four hour, seven day a week service. Call this number.

I called the number, but Speedy Sam wasn’t at home. Doubtless he was racing to an appointment at 186,000 miles per second. His answering service responded to my phone call.

I explained my predicament. "I’ll get someone to call you," said the helpful answering service lady.

While I waited for Speedy Sam to ring me back, I examined the floor again. It was obvious that the badly chewed board would have to be removed completely. There was almost no wood left in it at all. It was mostly sawdust held together by inertia, will power, and insect spit. So I hacked and hammered for a while and got rid of it. Then I examined the adjacent boards. These were much more sturdy – the burrowing insect had barely begun its depredations here. However to make assurance doubly sure, I decided to remove these boards as well. I brought out my trusty saw and demolished them. During the course of this destruction I came across the grey corpse of a single beetle-like creature about a quarter of an inch long. Obviously this was the fanatical tunneller that had chewed its way through my floorboards. I consigned it to perdition. I was rather pleased to find only one – I had been dreading finding a whole colony of them, but there was no trace whatsoever of any other insect, alive or dead.

All this demolition took several days. During this time, the phone remained ominously silent. Speedy Sam was obviously moving at considerably less than the speed of light. Perhaps he could only manage the speed of sound. Or maybe he had failed to gain a dispensation from the Traffic Gods and was therefore restricted to 50kph in urban areas, on pain of having his picture taken and massive fines imposed. I found this quite disappointing. I was rather fond of my mental picture of a cartoon-like whirl of activity inside a tornado of dust as Speedy Sam raced between appointments, fixing things in an instant. Eventually, at long, long last, the phone rang.


"Ah, hello," said a slow, droning, incredibly laid back voice. "This is Speedy Sam. I understand you have a job you want doing?"

The last of my illusions was shattered. Speedy Sam was really Lazy Larry in a skin. I was bitterly disappointed; my view of the universe permanently soured. I sighed for the loss of such sweet innocence. Never again will I take a junk mail flyer at its word.

"Sorry," I said, "but I’ve made other arrangements."

It was definitely time to read a book.

Robin has a friend who we know as Occasional John. On the first of his rare visits to us, she showed him my library. He was mildly impressed, as people tend to be. But he was somewhat taken aback to find that my shelves were bare of any books by John Shirley.

"Who is this John Shirley of whom you speak?" I queried him.

"A brilliant writer of both horror and science fiction," said Occasional John.

The next day I chanced to be in a bookshop, as one does, and there on the shelves were two John Shirley books; a collection of short stories called Black Butterflies and a novel called Wetbones. I purchased them, and rather to my annoyance I enjoyed them immensely. More John Shirley books would have to be obtained. I went to Amazon.Com and purchased them, enduring much agony in the region of my credit card as I did so.

Black Butterflies is a collection consisting of both grittily realistic contemporary stories and grittily realistic supernatural stories. I must confess that I preferred the contemporary tales because they were easy to identify with and the feelings of horror they evoked were greatly amplified as a consequence. The supernatural tales felt lightweight by comparison – though nothing could in fact be further from the truth, for the supernatural tales are superb examples of their kind and by themselves would be deliciously creepy. It’s just that I don’t actually believe in ghoulies, ghoosties and long-leggedy beasties (though I love to read about them) and so they came a poor second to the more realistic stories. It became clear from this collection that Shirley has an enviable ability to portray low life. Prostitutes, drug addicts, and petty criminals spring wonderfully alive from the page and the queasy details of their often short, unhappy lives provide the grist to Shirley’s plot mill. All in all, it is a thoroughly depressing collection. I loved every perverse word of it.

I approached Wetbones with great anticipation. This novel is not quite about vampires (though that is arguable) and not quite about sex and drugs and Hollywood (though that too is arguable). What is not arguable is that "wetbones" is a perfect title, for the neologism exactly describes the state of the corpses that soon start to litter the pages. This book has everything – secret societies, immortality bought at great price, exploitation, telepathic slavery, greed, grue and grotesqueries. What more could anyone want?

Shirley’s best work, his magnum opus, is undoubtedly the trilogy of novels collectively known as A Song Called Youth. They are set in the near future (2029 to be precise) and the world is rent by war. The New Russians are reclaiming the Warsaw Pact countries and are testing the strength of their armies in Europe. Paris and Amsterdam are mostly rubble, victims of constant shelling. Pathetic columns of refugees clog the roads. Europe is a mess. America is largely uninvolved in the war, though an American organisation called the Second Alliance (SA) is being used by the NATO forces as a kind of multi-national police force as it desperately tries to maintain some kind of order in a shattered world. However the SA has a secret agenda. It was founded by a charismatic, fundamentalist preacher who is determined to bring his version of Christianity to the world. Unfortunately his version of Christianity involves exterminating the lesser races, the Jews, the Muslims, the Negroes. Religious and political decisions are made on ethnic grounds, and as the power of the SA grows it becomes a quasi-governmental organisation, the shadowy power behind the re-emerging European countries whose governments are now largely SA puppets. History repeats, and the genocide begins again.

Opposing the SA is the New Resistance (NR); a loose conglomeration made up of people from all over the political spectrum. The only thing they have in common is their detestation of the SA’s fascist agenda. These three novels are the story of the NR – its triumphs, and its tragedies. The SA is powerful and the NR is (relatively) weak. And their crusade is by no means easy and is definitely not free from casualties – many characters that we come to know and love are killed over the course of this very long novel (it isn’t really a trilogy, it is one continuous story published in three volumes).

It’s a cruel story (with obvious allegories) and by no means can it be described as a fun read – but it is brilliantly imagined and brilliantly evoked and very, very grim.

Seeking light relief, I turned to another Shirley collection Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories. Despite the title, I didn’t find the stories all that weird (or maybe my weirdness coefficient is higher than that of most other people). They comprise the usual mixture of fantasy, horror and SF material that I’ve come to associate with John Shirley and while I enjoyed them, none of them really pushed any great buttons for me. Perhaps that is the case with Shirley himself as well, for one of the stories in the collection (…And the Angel With Television Eyes) has since appeared in expanded form as a novel and I found the novel much funnier, much darker and considerably more weird than the short story.

In both incarnations, the story follows the life of Max Whitman, a fading soap opera actor who is starting to experience surrealistic moments. He auditions for a part in Richard III, but the rolling cadences of his Shakespearian delivery turn into a diatribe about Lord Redmark. He dreams of being attacked by vinyl-covered harpies and carried to a castle under siege. He awakens to find a griffin sitting on his bed. It greets him and eats his goldfish; though later it apologises for this antisocial act. He eventually comes to realise that all these things are being deliberately caused by the plasmagnomes. Well, of course they are!

It’s a strangely surreal concoction of mysticism, science, insanity and myth. It’s about the biggest of the big questions (what is reality?) and while the answer that it comes up with is rather mundane, that is perhaps not unexpected. The big questions are as big as they are precisely because they can’t be answered in any meaningful manner, and they do have a tendency to come apart at the seams when you look at them too hard. But along the way, the book is a glorious romp.

You know, Occasional John was quite right. I’m very grateful to him for filling the John Shirley shaped gap on my bookshelves.

By now I had a hole five planks wide in my floor. It was obviously time to purchase five planks of wood. I measured the planks and took a sample with me for matching purposes. The first place I visited failed to fill me with confidence.

"I wonder what kind of wood that is," said the man. "I haven’t got any of it here."

He took my sample and held it up against various pieces of pine. It didn’t match any of them. "Definitely not pine," he said.

I went to another purveyor of wood. This time things were a little better. "Rimu," said the man decisively. "It’s rimu."

"What about the tunnelling?" I asked. "What’s been chewing it up?"

"Looks like bush borer," he said with gloomy delight. "Nasty buggers. Much bigger than the usual house borer. Chew their way through an entire tree quick as a wink, those things can. Nothing left but a tube of bark filled with sawdust. Sneeze too hard and the whole forest falls down!"

He paused, entranced by his apocalyptic vision of devastation. "Little buggers," he said in heartfelt tones. "The milling process usually kills them, but sometimes an occasional one survives. There probably isn’t much of an infestation in your house though. I doubt it will have spread very far. You’ll be OK as long as you don’t sneeze."

"Have you got any rimu?" I asked.

"Oooh no, squire. No rimu. Not allowed to sell rimu any more. It’s a protected species you know. They don’t cut down rimu trees now – big trouble if you cut down a rimu tree. It’s been years since anyone used rimu. Years."

"What can I do?"

"Well there’s the demolition yards. They get a fair bit of rimu in when they pull down old houses. And there’s City Timber – they specialise in native wood. But whatever you do, it’s going to be very expensive. Hard to get hold of rimu these days."

He shook his head sadly in grim satisfaction at my plight and at the vast amounts of money he was sure that it would cost me.

"I know," said Robin. "Let’s tear up the whole floor, sell all the rimu for a fortune and replace it with pine."

There was a certain attractiveness in this idea – but the thought of the work involved made me shudder. "Let’s not," I said.

We drove to City Timber, but it was Sunday and they were shut. I would be unable to visit them now until the following Saturday (they are too far from my office for me to be able to get to them during my lunch hour). So the project screeched to a dead halt and I went home to stare at the hole in the floor.

Over the course of the next few days I related this sad tale to several friends. "Oh aren’t you lucky!" exclaimed one. "You’ve got rimu floors. Gosh I’m so jealous. My floors are all made out of weetbix board."

A friend recently loaned me a book by Robert Goddard (as if I didn’t have enough to read already!). Goddard is a new writer to me, but I was assured that I would enjoy his work.

"Right up your street, Alan."

So I started to read Set in Stone, and it grabbed hold of me right away and wouldn’t let go. Tony Sheriden’s wife has died in a tragic accident and he goes to stay for a time with her sister Lucy, and Lucy’s husband Matthew who is an old friend of Tony’s from university. They live in a curious circular house with a moat around it, the only surviving creation of a reclusive Portuguese architect. The house is called Otherways and while it isn’t exactly haunted, there is a definite air of strangeness about it. A murder was committed there in 1939 and the sister of the murdered lady still lives in the area. The murderer was hanged for his crimes. His brother was a nuclear physicist who worked on the A-Bomb during the war. After the war he defected to the Soviet Union.

Lucy and Tony embark on a passionate affair and Tony and Matthew are estranged for a time. But all is not as it seems, there are wheels within wheels and as the truth about Otherways slowly emerges, heroes turn into villains and the villains get a coat of whitewash. By the time the book comes to its enormously satisfying conclusion, just about everything has been turned on its head (and back again).

Novels like this can only work when two criteria are met – the reader must be able to identify strongly with the characters and the red herrings in the plot should not be too obvious. Goddard meets both these requirements brilliantly. The characters are fully realised right from the very beginning of the story and the plot is a magnificent, flawless and very complex gem. Goddard never loses control and the reader’s expectations are constantly turned topsy-turvy. The final plot twist is quite breathtaking.

Charles Stross is a young computer technician who is starting to make a reputation for himself as a short story writer. Many of his tales have been published in the influential British magazine Interzone. Toast is his first collection, and a mixed bag it is too. The fact that Stross works with computers is soon made abundantly clear. The stories are full of esoteric uber-geeky references and in-jokes which I would imagine could be very frustrating to those who can tell that some point is obviously being made, but who fail to understand what it is because they are not immersed in the technology. Furthermore, Stross is a great fan of Vernor Vinge, to my mind one of the woolliest, shallowest and least rigorous of thinkers. I’ve never understood why he has become such a contemporary guru. Many of Stross’ stories are an homage to ideas from Vinge, and sometimes they are thin gruel. Toast cannot be dismissed out of hand; Stross shows definite promise. But there’s nothing really outstanding about this collection.

Beggars Banquet is a collection of short stories which make it abundantly clear that Ian Rankin’s real strength is as a novelist. Even though several of these stories feature Inspector Rebus, about whom Rankin has written an enormous number of brilliant books, he still completely fails to bring the characters alive. The stories are gimmicky and shallow and while they are pleasant enough in their own way, they lack any staying power.

John Lawton writes historical novels, though the history he concerns himself with has often taken place within living memory. Riptide is a novel of World War II, Sweet Sunday is a novel of 1969, the summer of love when men went to the moon.

Riptide tells of Calvin M. Cormack, an American intelligence officer. He is in London in pursuit of Wolfgang Stahl who until recently had been an American secret agent who they had managed to place high up in the Nazi hierarchy. But then Stahl was unmasked and he had to flee. Cormack had been his case officer and he knows Stahl better than anybody else.

In London, Cormack teams up with Detective Inspector Stilton, a mildly eccentric bobby of the old school, much given to gleefully exclaiming "Wot larx!" as the game goes afoot. His daughter Kitty is a mildly nymphomaniacal distraction to Cormack’s main pursuit, but he sticks manfully to his task even when it all goes pear-shaped and comedy turns to tragedy in the twinkling of an eye.

Sweet Sunday is about Turner Raines, a New York private eye who specialises in tracking down teenagers on the run from the draft. Turner himself belongs to the fortunate generation that was too young for Korea and too old for Vietnam, but his sympathies are all with the disaffected youth. Indeed Turner regards himself as part of the movement – he is a contemporary and friend of both Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and participated in some of the yippies’ protests. He also worked in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s and was part of the passive action campaign aimed at implementing desegregation. He was thoroughly beaten up for his pains by a gang of Mississippi rednecks.

Turner hunts the teenagers down on behalf of their families. He won’t bring them back, but he will put the families back in touch again.

One of the trails he follows has unexpected ramifications. Turner stumbles across evidence of a scandal from Vietnam that the authorities are trying to suppress. (Those of us who remember My Lai will not be at all surprised by what he discovers).

Meanwhile 1969 takes place in the background. Apollo 11 lands on the moon (and Turner is beaten up in a bar because of his brother’s denigrating comments). The Woodstock festival takes place and Turner and his brother are there sliding in the mud.

Books like these can only be written by a writer with a profound sense of time and place. If you don’t make the times feel lived in, feel real, the books cannot possibly work, for too many people still remember those times (albeit at one remove as far as I am concerned for I was not alive during the war, though my parents were). And that very strong feeling of reality, of living deeply in the times in question, permeates every page of these remarkable books. If you want to know what it was REALLY like, simply read these John Lawton books.

I spent the week waging chemical warfare. I equipped myself with every evil borer control chemical known to man. I sprayed the area under the floor with three extremely copious sprays just in case there were any eggs in the sawdust and I painted the boards around the gaping hole with three coats of nastiness to discourage anything that might still be lurking in the wood.

Eventually Saturday morning arrived and it was time to visit City Timber. An extremely helpful man examined my sample board and listened to my tale of woe.

"It’s sap rimu," he said authoritatively. "I haven’t got any of that in stock but I have got some heart rimu which should be a pretty good match. Let’s have a look."

We went into the workshop and compared the sample to the stock. Heart rimu looked a good bet, but one more problem remained.

"Hmmm," said the man, "it looks like your floorboards have been cut to imperial measurements, and I only have metric boards."

I looked closely – all the boards he had in stock were fractionally wider than my sample board. This was obviously going to cause fitting problems.

"I can put them through the machine," he said, "and beat them a bit closer to size. That might help."

He took some of his planks down to the far end of the warehouse and fed them into an extraordinarily noisy machine. It clashed and clattered and clanged and the boards emerged from the far end marginally thinner than they had been when they went in. I bought five planks. It cost me $89 – which was far less than I’d been expecting to have to pay. Feeling pleased, I took them home and commenced repair work on my floor.

It was very easy to fit the first four planks. I just cut them to size and nailed them into place. But number five proved to be a problem. Despite all the planks having travelled through the noisy beating machine, they were still just that little smidgeon too wide. And by the time I came to fit the last one into place, the accumulation of errors meant that the plank was about 2mm wider than the gap it had to fit into.

The first rule of carpentry is "if it doesn’t fit, use a bigger hammer". I used my very biggest hammer, but to no avail. No matter how hard I thumped it, it wasn’t going to go. More subtle strategies were obviously required…

Working extremely slowly and carefully, I chiselled 2mm of wood from the edge of a floorboard on one side of the gap. This was extremely painstaking work for I had to be very careful not to chisel too much, and not to split the board. Fortunately I possess a very sharp chisel and I have not yet completely forgotten the chiselling skills that were hammered into me during month after tedious month of practice in long ago woodworking classes at school.

After several hours of closely concentrated chiselling I tried the last plank again. It slid neatly into its gap, fitting snugly up against its neighbours on both sides. A triumph of the chiseller’s art!

Now all that remained was to punch the nails so that they sunk slightly into the wood, fill all the nail holes with plastic rimu paste, sand it all down and then polyurethane the floor. Tedious but simple.

And now that I’ve finished writing this article, I’m going to go and put the third coat of polyurethane on to my newly solid floor…

John Shirley   Black Butterflies   Leisure
John Shirley   Wetbones   Leisure
John Shirley   Eclipse
(A Song Called Youth: Volume 1)  
Babbage Books
John Shirley   Eclipse Penumbra
(A Song Called Youth: Volume 2)  
Babbage Books
John Shirley   Eclipse Corona
(A Song Called Youth: Volume 3)  
Babbage Books
John Shirley   Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories    Nightshade Books
John Shirley   …And the Angel With Television Eyes    Nightshade Books
Robert Goddard   Set In Stone Corgi
Charles Stross   Toast   Wildside Press
Ian Rankin   Beggars Banquet   Orion
John Lawton   Riptide   Orion
John Lawton   Sweet Sunday   Weidenfeld & Nicholson

Previous Contents Next