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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (oculus oculorum)

Alan Has Visions

One Saturday early in December 2010 I went to bed so as to sleep the sleep of the just returned home from a party. When I awoke the next morning, my whole world was subtly changed.

Wherever I looked spider webs, blobs and suggestive silhouettes drifted across my field of view. Even closing my eyes didn't help much. I could still see the shapes glowing in the darkness against my eyelids. Funny, I thought; somehow that doesn't seem quite right.

The dark shapes are called floaters. Everyone has them at some time or other and generally they are of no great significance. But now I seemed to have rather more of them than I had ever had before. They were all concentrated in my left eye. My right eye was quite free of them. Nevertheless my whole field of vision was covered with them as my brain tried hard to reconcile the two quite different views of the world that it was receiving. Perhaps I had inadvertently picked up somebody else's floaters at last night's party and brought them home with me? But wherever they had come from, they were singularly annoying. It is very distracting to sit and read a book only to have something the size and shape of Queen Victoria's profile drift across the words and obliterate them completely. Neither she nor I found it at all amusing.

I checked my symptoms at various medical sites on that there interwebby thing that turns up on my computer every so often. The conclusion was inescapable. Clearly I was pregnant.

Perhaps I should consult an ophthalmologist? But first I had to learn how to pronounce ophthalmologist. It turned out to be surprisingly difficult, even for a man with a degree in chemistry who had never had any trouble at all with the tongue twisting consonants embedded in that curious chemical phenolphthalein, the part time laxative and titration end point indicator. Perhaps the problem lay in the extra syllable lurking in ophthalmologist. Maybe practice would make me perfect.

I checked the intertubes again. Alarming suggestions of leprosy sent me scurrying to the telephone. On the whole, pregnancy seemed a more preferable diagnosis. Though there remained the small, but distinct, possibility of housemaid's foot, athlete's elbow or maybe even tennis knee.

"8.30 tomorrow morning," said the ophthalmologist's receptionist.

I arrived in plenty of time.

"Please fill in this form," said the receptionist. I took the form, and a pen and tried hard to squint through the girders of the Eiffel Tower as it slid across the paper.


Hmmm. The hard questions first. I struggled through that and moved on to the next.


Today was a good day. I could manage that.

"Height, weight, inside leg measurement. Do you dress to the right or the left?"

I scribbled some figures and ticked the box marked 'Not In These Trousers'.

"You can go through now," said the receptionist. So I went through.

"Just sit here," said a nice nurse. "First of all we'll give you a little eye test." She held a black piece of plastic across my right eye, the one without floaters. Everything went much darker.

"Can you read what's on the chart pinned to that wall, please?" she asked.

I concentrated hard.

"Marilyn Monroe, Mount Fuji, the Titanic and something that might be a bunny rabbit."

"Good," she said and transferred the dark plastic to my left eye, thus exposing my severely short sighted right eye.

"Can you read what's on the chart pinned to that wall, please?" she asked.

"What wall?"

"Excellent," she said, and made a note. "Now I need to give you some drops that will make you dilate."

"I thought I only needed those in the last stages of labour." I was puzzled. Surely my pregnancy wasn't that far advanced?

"No, silly," she said. "It dilates your pupils so that we can see inside your eyes. Open wide!"

Anything to oblige. I stretched my mouth to twice the diameter that I usually present to my dental hygienist.

"No," said the nurse. "Your eyes, you idiot. Here -- let me do it." With thumb and forefinger she held my eyelids open and squirted half the Pacific Ocean onto each eyeball. I felt a momentary pang of conscience about all the sharks left to drown in the thin air of the Mariana Trench.

"The doctor will see you now."

Charlaine Harris became rich and famous when she tapped into the fashion for supernatural romance and began to write the Sookie Stackhouse novels that were eventually adapted into the television series True Blood. But long before she discovered how to soak up all the spare cash of impressionable teenagers, she was a writer of very Agatha Christie-like crime novels involving one Aurora Teagarden. There are eight novels (so far) in the series and all are great fun. I highly recommend them.

Aurora is a librarian in a small town in America's deep south (the usual stamping ground for Charlaine Harris characters; Charlaine is from that part of the world herself and she has carefully learned the writer's first lesson -- always write about what you know). Aurora keeps stumbling over dead bodies and, of course, just has to find out how they got that way.

To the extent that these novels are conventional crime dramas, they are terribly formulaic, but their saving grace is Charlaine Harris' blithely witty and gossipy prose style and the fact that Aurora herself grows and changes during the course of the novels (I don't think Miss Marple aged a day in more than fifty years).

I love Charlaine Harris' sense of humour. Her books are delightfully understated. Despite the fact that she is American through and through, there is something very English-like about her view of the world and it comes across quite clearly in her carefully crafted sentences. Aurora Teagarden is a joy and a delight to read about and I earnestly urge you to buy The Aurora Teagarden Mysteries Omnibus Volume 1. It contains the first four novels in the series. I'm afraid you'll have to wait until some time in 2011 for Volume 2 and the next four novels.

Bateman (the man who no longer calls himself Colin) has written a new novel about Mystery Man, the neurotic obsessive compulsive owner of a bookshop called "No Alibis" which specialises in crime fiction. When he's not selling books, he solves real life mysteries. He seldom sells any books because he's a crap businessman who holds his customers in contempt. They don't deserve the privilege of buying books from him. Consequently he has a lot of time on his hands in which to indulge his hobbies.

This time Mystery Man has his sights set on the eponymous Dr Yes, a plastic surgeon who specialises in beautifying the rich. Unfortunately one of his clients appears to have died in strange circumstances. Or possibly she's gone to Brazil. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the two. Of course it doesn't help that she is (was?) the ex-wife of Augustine Wogan, the obscure but (in Mystery Man's opinion) brilliant local crime writer who has just committed suicide in Mystery Man's house. Or was he murdered? A cigar, a phone call call to Las Vegas and an encounter with a lady called Pearl Knecklass (don't ask, you don't want to know. Or maybe you do? If so, read the book), all serve to convince Mystery Man that the game's afoot. Everyone thinks he's mad. Well of course he's mad; that's the whole point. Sane people don't have neuroses like he has neuroses. He has a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass which he keeps under the counter, but he's too ashamed to use it. People might laugh at him. Sounds quite sane and sensible to me, but what do I know?

The humour is black and sometimes sick; it tastes bad and the jokes are stale. It's hilarious in a very over-the-top, morbidly perverse way. And when Mystery Man gathers everyone together in his bookshop to unmask the killer the cliche is complete.

Kim Newman has a new collection of stories about the Diogenes Club. Mysteries Of The Diogenes Club is the third in a loosely connected sequence of stories about the eponymous Club which was founded by Sherlock Holmes' brother Mycroft in the dark days of the nineteenth century. Its charter and its purpose is to protect England and the Empire from the machinations of evil supernatural villains and entities from beyond time and space.

The stories about the club are all delightfully tongue in cheek and almost every sentence is stuffed full of references to obscure English history and literature, so much so in fact that Newman has helpfully provided a glossary in the back of the book wherein some of the more arcane references are explained. Presumably this is for the benefit of his American readers, but doubtless his British (and New Zealand) readers will also learn much from these notes because sometimes Newman gets very, very obscure indeed. Consequently the game of 'spot the reference' occasions a certain small pedantic frisson of pleasure when you notice something that you are sure nobody else will ever spot. Of course, they will all notice at least twenty things that go whoosh right over the top of your head, thus puncturing your smug intellectual balloon. Perhaps it would be best not to discuss these stories with friends...

Henry Kuttner was a very influential writer during the so-called Golden Age of science fiction. Sometimes alone and sometimes in collaboration with his wife C. L. Moore, he produced story after story after story. Few of them are remembered nowadays, which is rather a shame because when he was firing on all cylinders, he was unbeatable. He died of a heart attack in 1958 and his reputation languished. However the critic Alexei Panshin has claimed, with some justification, that Kuttner's work had a profound influence on the whole field and that much of what came after his death would not have been possible without his pioneering writing.

A small press called Haffner has embarked on a project to republish many of Henry Kuttner's stories. Two very handsome hardback volumes are currently available with more due over the next several months.

Terror In The House: The Early Kuttner Volume One is a collection of juvenilia. These tales are very pulpish indeed and in many respects they will appeal only to the collector or completist. They date from the days before Kuttner found his distinctive voice and they exhibit none of the extremely clever plotting and witty dialogue that characterised his mature work. They are quite straightforward horror and fantasy stories; very predictable and (dare I say it) rather dull. At the time, Kuttner was heavily under the influence of H. P. Lovecraft and his stories tend to reflect both the master's somewhat tortured prose style and his strange supernatural obsessions. The first story in the collection is The Graveyard Rats which was published in Weird Tales in 1936. Countless historians of the field cite this story as one of the most terrifying tales ever written. I can only assume that they are relying on their memories of reading it when they were ten years old rather than forming a mature judgement by re-reading it with more sophisticated eyes. This collection was my first encounter with the famous story and I was really looking forward to reading it. However, much to my disappointment, I found it wasn't even a story; it was more of a vignette or anecdote, and a particularly dull one at that. Kuttner's plotting and execution does get a little better as the book progresses, but none of the stories manage to transcend their pulp origins and none of them are really worth preserving.

On the other hand, Detour To Otherness is a collection of stories of sheer genius and it should have pride of place on everybody's shelves. Stories like these are the real reason why Kuttner was such an influential writer. Every single story in this collection is a flawless gem.

A bit of history is in order here. In 1961, three years after Kuttner's death, Ballantine Books published Bypass to Otherness, a collection of some of his best short stories. The book was announced to be the first of series of three Kuttner collections. The second volume, Return to Otherness appeared in 1962. But the third of the Otherness series was never published, presumably because of Kuttner's fading reputation.

Detour To Otherness republishes all the stories from the first two Otherness volumes and adds 8 additional stories to complete (finally) the Otherness trilogy. I devoured it avidly. The stories from the first two collections were very familiar. I don't have the original Otherness collections, but I do have the stories from them in other, now rather faded and flimsy paperbacks. It was an unalloyed pleasure to meet the Hogbens again -- those otherworldly hillbillies possessed of strange, supernatural powers. And who could ever forget Galloway Gallagher, a rather average scientist who turns into a genius and invents technical marvels when thoroughly drunk. And of course there are the telepathic Baldies whose stories were eventually combined into the fix-up novel Mutant.

And the 8 additional stories that complete the book were just as good as the ones I already knew, and all were completely unfamiliar to me. It makes me wonder just how many other hidden gems may be mouldering away in rotting piles of old pulp magazines.

Meanwhile we have Detour To Otherness. Buy it immediately.

Deadman's Road collects together all of Joe Lansdale's stories about the Reverend Jedediah Mercer, scourge of the supernatural in the old west. He first appeared in the novella Dead In The West and this is the lead in story in the book which also includes the title story Deadman's Road that I reviewed briefly last month as part of a generally undistinguished collection called Zombies: The Recent Dead. Amusingly in the latter volume the character is called Jebediah Rains because, as Lansdale admits in the introduction to this book, he got mixed up between this character and a similar one in a pseudonymous western he wrote years ago called Texas Night Riders. Now the names have been changed back in order to protect the guilty and Jedediah Mercer rides again, seeking out and destroying the zombies, ghouls and Lovecraftian monsters which haunt the trails that criss-cross the wild, wild west. Lovely stuff; full of humour, gore and grue. Only Joe Lansdale writes them like this.

The nurse took me into a small, dark room where a man sat waiting behind a complex machine full of dials, lights, mirrors and lenses.

"Hello," he said. "I'm the Doctor."

"Who?" I asked.

"Mackey," he answered, and we shook hands.

"Just rest your chin on this chin rest," said Doctor Mackey.

I did so, and he adjusted some levers that raised my head slightly and tilted it back. A brilliant white light shone dazzlingly into my eyeball and Doctor Mackey peered at me through a magnifying lens.

"Look up. Now down. Look right. Look left. Look right again."

"Can I cross the road now?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "It's all clear. You've had an acute posterior vitreous detachment. We usually call it a PVD for short. Doctor's jargon."

"Just as I thought," I said. "What's a PVD?"

He produced a cross sectional model of an eyeball and began to point at bits of it. "The jelly in your left eye has detached itself from the retina at the back. It's also ruptured a small blood vessel which has leaked into your eyeball. The floaters you are seeing are blood clots. Fortunately there seems to be no sign of any damage to the retina. Sometimes, when the jelly is particularly firmly attached, it leaves small rips in the retina and the fluid in the eyeball leaks in behind the retina and starts to detach that as well. If the retina detaches and you don't have treatment, you'll go blind within a very short time. But you seem to have escaped that. Lucky you."

"What causes a PVD?" I asked.

"Old age and decrepitude, mainly," he said. "Debauchery and unclean living. Most of the seven deadly sins in fact. Short sighted people like you are particularly prone to PVD. I imagine the other eye will do it at some time or other as well."

"Oh," I said. "When?"

He shrugged. "Next week, next year, ten years time. Who knows?"

"What can we do about it?"

"Nothing much," he said. "You're making a good recovery. Your immune system will take care of the floaters all by itself over the next six or seven weeks. You might want to consider wearing sunglasses for a few weeks; the darker field of view will help your brain to cancel out the more annoying effects of the floaters. There's less contrast for it to cope with so it doesn't have to work quite so hard. Just watch out for people who mistake you for a film star and ask for your autograph."

"Oh I'm quite used to that," I said. "It happens to me all the time. Is there anything else I need to be careful of?"

"Well," he said thoughtfully, "your eye is in quite a delicate state at the moment. While it fixes itself you need to avoid doing anything that will put any stress or strain on it. You'll have to give up bungee jumping for a few months and don't have any arguments with your wife. If she hits you in the eye I won't answer for the consequences."

"Do you need to see me again?"

"No, not unless the symptoms get worse. If you start getting more floaters or if you see flashes of light it might be a sign that more detachment is occurring. That needs to be checked immediately in case there is any retinal damage left behind. But other than that, have a good Christmas."

"Eye, Eye, doctor," I said, saluting smartly.

Charlaine Harris The Aurora Teagarden Mysteries Omnibus Volume 1 Gollancz
Bateman Dr Yes Headline
Kim Newman Mysteries Of The Diogenes Club Monkey Brain
Henry Kuttner Terror In The House: The Early Kuttner Volume One Haffner
Henry Kuttner Detour To Otherness Haffner
Joe R. Lansdale Deadman's Road Subterranean Press
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