Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (currus magnificus)

Guarding The Garage

A year ago our garage was broken into and our car was stolen and trashed. Ever since then the Robson rituals for entering the garage and driving the new car to exotic destinations like the corner shop to buy a loaf of bread have become more than a little complex.

The first stage involves approaching the garage clutching a key whose size and shape suggests that it is best suited for unlocking a medieval portcullis. However that suggestion is very far from the truth. The key actually operates a primitive and rather rusty mortice lock on the side door of the garage. Once this door is unlocked and opened, the burglar alarm sensors detect the motion and the alarm begins a shrill whistle of warning. I now have about 30 seconds to remember my secret code and punch it into the keypad that is just to the left of the door. If I fail to remember the code in time, hideous klaxons split the welkin and drone missiles armed with atomic warheads take off from a secret base in Antarctica and zero in on the malefactors who stand paralysed with horror beneath the fearsome forces of my automated Jedi mind control rays.

Once I have turned the alarm off without releasing Armageddon onto an unsuspecting world I usually discover that I am in possession of the magic gadget for unlocking the car (because it is attached to my key ring and is therefore hard to forget), but I don't have the magic gadget for opening the garage door (because it isn't attached to my key ring and is therefore extremely easy to forget). So I head back to the house to get it.

"Don't worry," I yell to Robin as I re-enter the house. "I just forgot my thingy again." A year ago, Robin went out to the garage and came back into the house a few seconds later to tell me that the garage had been broken into and the car was missing. Ever since then, we've made a point of reassuring each other if we have to come back to the house shortly after leaving it. Some traumatic events leave permanent scars on the psyche.

"Grmmhufflmmpphhhh," says Robin in acknowledgement as she burrows back down into the warm, dark nest she's created in the bed.

"Grmmhufflmmpphhhh," I call cheerfully to her as I retrieve the magic gadget and head back out to the garage. I now have two magic gadgets, one in each hand. When I press the appropriate buttons, the one in my right hand will open the car door and the one in my left hand will open the garage door. I begin to quiver with existential dread as dark choices fan out before me.

Making a decision, I press the button on my right hand magic gadget. The car doors unlock with a heavy thunk. The car flashes its indicators a couple of time to say hello. I open the driver side door and get in. I strap on my seat belt, adjust the mirror, turn on the engine and then press the green button on the left hand magic thingy I retrieved from the house. In my rear view mirror I watch the garage door rise majestically. When I judge that it is high enough, I reverse the car out into the road.

This is a procedure fraught with peril. To my right the road curves away from me out of sight and therefore I have absolutely no idea whether or not the local hoon is barrelling down it at his usual 100kph on the wrong side of the road. If he is, he will undoubtedly smash into my car before either of us even realises that I am in his way. The reason that he drives on the wrong side of the road is because he always takes the corner far too fast. Driving on the wrong side straightens his path a little and allows him to get round the bendy bit without losing control. I once saw him drive round the corner on the proper side of the road. Inexorable centrifugal forces pulled him off the tarmac and smashed him into the grassy knoll that lurks in wait for such foolishness. He scratched his paintwork and dented a wing. Doubtless that was very painful and he has no wish to repeat it. So he has hit upon the simple solution of using the wrong side of the road instead. From his point of view, it works extremely well. Other road users are less convinced of the brilliance of his strategy.

Assuming that I get my car safely into the road, I now have a synchronisation problem to attend to. With one hand I have to change from reverse into drive, with another hand I have to steer the car and with my gripping hand I have to press the green button on the gadget again so that the garage door will close itself. Usually I manage to get all this right, but sometimes my concentration slips and I end up in neutral which means that the engine revs a lot but no forward motion is achieved. Of course this gives me even more time to check that the garage door is closing properly, so on balance it is probably a win-win situation. If it happens, I always pretend that I meant to do it. Then I lick myself very carefully, and rub my moist paws behind my ears. I purr a lot as well.

Once I feel that the world is convinced by my pretence, I find the proper gear and set off into the wild blue yonder, heading out on the highway, looking for adventure, for whatever comes my way. I am the steppenwolf driving to the magic theatre. Actually, I'm just going to the supermarket to do the weekly shop, but I'm a romantic at heart...

Returning home reverses the ritual. I drive up the street, slowing down as I get closer to my house. Once I pass the last turn off, I signal left, much to the puzzlement of the man who is tailgating me because he knows there are no more side streets to turn into. I go slower and slower and he goes slower and slower. The slower we go, the more angry he gets. I can see gestures in my rear view mirror. They are not friendly ones.

As soon as I have a clear line of sight to the garage, I pick up the magic gadget and press the green button. The garage door begins to open. Speedy reactions are now of the essence. I put down the gadget and turn the steering wheel hard left. The car swings towards the garage. With luck the door will be high enough not to impede my dramatic entrance and hopefully I won't have misjudged the angle and started heading for the edge of the door instead of the centre. This last is very embarrassing – it requires much reversal and re-alignment of the car together with a lot more washing behind my ears and possibly even a good licking of my bottom.

As I leave the road, my tailgater hoots his horn and accelerates wildly round the bend. I hope he'll meet the hoon coming the other way but that has never happened. Perhaps he is the hoon.

I get out of the car, close the garage door and watch the burglar alarm flash angry red lights at me. It dearly wants to tear me limb from limb, but it isn't turned on yet, so it can't. I lock the car and stand patiently by the small side door, portcullis key in hand. Eventually the red lights stop flashing and a green tick mark illuminates on the control panel. Moving slowly so as not to invoke the sensors again, I punch in the secret code. Sinister beeps start to sound as the atomic weapons arm themselves and the Jedi mind control rays begin creeping from their cabinets. I have thirty seconds to leave the garage and lock the door behind me. Usually I make it in plenty of time.

I go back into the house.

"Good news!" I call to Robin.

"Grmmhufflmmpphhhh?" she asks. Fortunately I speak Robin fluently. This time she is saying, "What's the good news?"

"I'm home!"

Horror: The 100 Best Books, which is edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, is a collection of essays by a hundred different writers each of whom discusses the horror stories that have influenced their own career. Some of the essays are by modern writers who were obviously commissioned to produce work for the collection. But many of the essays are by writers who are no longer with us, so I presume that the editors culled these pieces from previous collections or perhaps even from papers preserved in the literary estates.

But however the essays were gathered together, the sum is definitely greater than the whole of the parts for together they add up to a very nice overview of more than a century of horror writing.

Given the mass market success of contemporary horror authors such as Stephen King and Peter Straub, the casual reader might easily be forgiven for thinking that the taste for horror is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are all aware, I think, of famous early examples of the genre such as Dracula and Frankenstein but they are not the sports or outliers that some might think them to be. There is a very firm tradition of horror writing that stretches from at least the eighteenth century all the way up to today.

Of course, the argument goes, those ancient books are surely far too old to have any modern resonance. After all, the horrors that real life unleashed in the twentieth (and even the twenty-first) century must render anything those older writers might have had to say irrelevant. And anyway, we all know that vampires, werewolves and ghosts don't exist.

Again, that superficial judgement is deeply flawed. I defy anyone to read Sheridan le Fanu's Carmilla and not be affected by it. I first read it in my teens and it gave me nightmares. Even today it makes my flesh crawl. It's a powerful and timeless piece of writing that can hold its head up proudly in any company.

Yes – there is much to admire in the current writing in the horror genre. But the works of authors who sadly have now sunk from view should not be overlooked.

The essays in this book range over the whole timespan of the horror novel. This collection is truly a definitive guide to horror both ancient and modern. If you are at all interested in the genre you owe it to yourself to read this book and to note down the titles you are missing. Many of the older works are out of copyright and can easily be obtained from places such as Project Gutenberg. And most of the more modern works that are cited will still be found on the shelves of your favourite bookshop. Horror: The 100 Best Books does exactly what the title says it will do. Perhaps there really is truth in advertising after all.

Lev Grossman's novel The Magicians has been described by many critics as "Harry Potter for grown ups" and it's a description that I cannot fault. The first two thirds of the novel describe the magical education of a group of contemporary American students. By various twisted paths they find their way not to Harvard or to MIT, but to a college that offers an education in the mystical arts. Their college career is closely described and the structure of the college, their interactions with it and their magical education is portrayed in fascinating detail. What differentiates this book from the Potter novels is that Harry Potter and his friends start off as very young children (with the degree of innocence that implies) and as they grow up and mature, the world that is revealed to them is so far removed from our own that any sense of realism simply vanishes, never to return. By comparison, Grossman's students are in their late teens and possibly even in their twenties when their magical education begins and their world is much harder, much grittier, much more realistic (if that word actually means anything in this context) than the Harry Potter books ever were. Also there's lots of sex, lots of smoking and lots of drinking...

However once their education is complete and they go off into the wide world to make a living, the book falls apart. I found the story of their college career utterly engrossing, but the last third of the book was almost unreadable.

One of the unifying threads of the novel is that when the students were young children they were all fascinated by a series of books that described lots of adventures that took place in the magical land of Fillory. The parallels between Fillory and C. S. Lewis's Narnia are obvious and are very pointedly referred to in the text. When the students leave college they discover (Surprise! Surprise!) that Fillory is not just a place in a series of books, it really does exist! They learn how to travel to Fillory and they have lots of gnarly adventures. And this is where the wheels completely fall off the story.

Partly it's the clichéd and very predictable nature of their adventures in Fillory and partly it's the fact that as they grow up they become less and less likeable as people. Character flaws predominate and the major viewpoint character becomes so obnoxious and stubbornly pig-headed that I just wanted to thump him. The last hundred pages of the book were so extremely painful to read that they retrospectively destroyed the whole spell that the novel had cast up to that point.

And I think that's a pity, because it really was superbly good until then.

The Spiral Tattoo is a not very successful attempt to graft a murder mystery onto a fantasy novel. Such a feat is not impossible (Terry Pratchett did it brilliantly), but it is very difficult to do well.

On the surface the book is a hard-boiled police procedural novel. A waitress is found murdered. She is naked, but there is an intricate tattoo that spiralling around her body. Aha! A clue!

Elanore, an eight foot tall troll, and Gurt, a six inch Eleinu – that's a fairy to you and me – are the guardsmen investigating the case. It takes them all around the city of Delvenport, a city that is a kind of bastard offspring of Lankhmar and Ankh-Morepork. (I kept mis-reading the name of the city as Devonport, a place I used to visit a lot when I lived in Auckland. Perhaps the name of the city has been unfortunately chosen...).

The plot is actually not at all bad and considered as simply a police procedural story, it works quite well. Unfortunately the fantasy setting that the plot has been shoe-horned into doesn't work nearly so well. I cannot understand why the author has bothered to fill his city with trolls and elves and dwarves and all the rest of the usual suspects because he does little or nothing with them. Everybody, irrespective of race, appears to share common motives, common attitudes and even common morals (and therefore, of course, common vices). They seem to gain little or nothing from their (presumably) different cultural backgrounds. Only their physical appearances differentiate them one from another. Their characteristics and even their speech patterns are all fairly uniform – so much so that at times I was quite at a loss to know who was speaking.

This is a brave attempt, but as an experiment in genre fusion, it simply didn't work for me.

Pati Nagle is a new writer to me and Pet Noir is the first of her books that I have read. It will definitely not be the last. She tells an excellent story!

Pet Noir concerns the adventures of Leon, a genetically modified cat who has opposable thumbs and the ability to talk to people. He has been seconded to the Security department of Gamma Station and his duties there will help to offset the enormous cost of his creation. Unfortunately until these debts are repaid in full, Leon has little control over where he is sent or what jobs he is asked to do. Luckily he has a natural aptitude for security work and, because he is a cat, people tend to overlook him as they plot their nefarious schemes, which gives him a big advantage of course.

And so Leon has a fine old time teasing his human partner Devin, fighting a never ending stream of sleazy criminals and flirting with Leila, an exotic and extremely sexy Burmese who lives in the snobby levels of Gamma Station. Will he win her heart? Will he pay off the costs of his upbringing and win his freedom? Read the book and find out.

I suspect that Pet Noir was probably intended for a Young Adult audience. The plots are quite straightforward and unsubtle. And that's no bad thing – it's a long, long time since I last felt I could call myself young (I remain uncertain about adult) but nevertheless I had an absolute ball reading this book. Leon himself comes magnificently to life on the page and anyone who has ever been owned by a cat will recognise him straight away.

I bought Pet Noir from the Book View Cafe. You will find them on the web at:

They sell very reasonably priced ebooks which are not encumbered with DRM. I have bought several books from them and I have thoroughly enjoyed them all. I have every intention of returning and buying more books. Quite a lot of authors are selling their books via Book View Cafe. Some of the writers there are quite big names in the field, others perhaps are less well known at the moment. But all the books look interesting, the production values are very high (nice layouts, no proofing errors or typos) and it is obvious that a lot of care has gone into publishing them. If you are contemplating making a collection of ebooks I strongly urge you to visit Book View Cafe – I promise you will not be disappointed.

Jo Brand is an English stand up comic who has made a name for herself largely from the crudity of her stand up routines. She's one of the bawdiest comics it has ever been my privilege to listen to and I admire her hugely for that.

Look Back In Hunger and Can't Stand Up for Sitting Down are the two volumes that make up her autobiography. If anything, reading these made me admire her even more. It would be all too easy to listen to her comic routines and dismiss her as shallow. After all, there generally isn't a lot of intellectual depth in a dirty joke. But that would be a mistake. There's a lot more to her than that.

Long before she was a stand up comic, she was a psychiatric nurse. I can't imagine a more soul destroying career. The dedication that it requires and the pressure it puts on its practitioners must be immense. By all accounts Jo Brand was an extremely good nurse and I'm sure she was missed when she gave it all away to follow her muse.

She makes light of it and, in a typically British way, describes both of her careers in a very self-deprecating manner. That's probably to be expected, given her heritage. But she's no intellectual slouch and neither is she as unfeeling as her extraordinarily crude stage presence makes her appear to be. I thoroughly enjoyed the very personal insights that these books gave into the life and career of Jo Brand. She came across as a warm and sympathetic person and I'm absolutely certain that if we ever met I'd get on with her like a house on fire. She's definitely my kind of people.

Merde Happens is the third and latest book in a series by Stephen Clarke. All of them have the word Merde in the title. If you are curious, that's French for Shit.

Despite the fact that I've now read all three of his books I still have absolutely no idea whether or not they are novels. They read like autobiographies and for a long time that's exactly what I thought they were. It's only recently, when I stumbled across a review of one of them which mentioned in passing that it was a novel, that It even occurred to me that I might be reading fiction.

I still don't know what the truth really is, and that's an ambiguity that I'm coming to enjoy more and more. But whatever these books are, they are very good and very funny.

In Merde Happens, the first person narrator and his French girlfriend take a trip across America. They have been hired by the British Council to drive a mini with a British flag painted on the roof to various important places in America. The idea is to promote Britain and British culture to the benighted Yanks.

The book is a road trip (in the grand American tradition) and it gives the author a perfect opportunity to poke a lot of fun at the cultural characteristics of the British, the French and the Americans. The uneasy juxtaposition of cultures lends itself quite naturally to this kind of thing, and the humour is barbed and sometimes extraordinarily cruel. Nobody escapes unscathed. It's a jolly (and at times very squirmy) romp and I enjoyed it a lot. Novel or fact? Frankly I neither know nor care. Whatever this extremely odd and extremely clever book is, it is undeniably insightful and an absolute hoot. What more could you possibly want?

And so things stood until the curious events which took place on one particular Sunday not so very long ago...Eerie music and wavy lines...Wavy music and eerie lines...

We were just sitting down to dinner. In our house sitting down to dinner means sitting in the lounge with our plates on our knees so that we can watch the television while we eat. That means we don't have to talk to each other – that's very important. Eating and talking at the same time is not polite. But we don't want embarrassing silences either, so we watch the television to fill in the gaps. Some conversation does occasionally take place of course. Groans of pleasure as the food is chewed and swallowed are always allowed as is yelling at any cat who takes a sudden sly interest in the knee that balances the plate.

Suddenly there was a banging on the front door. Rather resentfully, I put down my dinner plate and went to answer it. There was my next door neighbour Paul dressed in plate armour and brandishing a huge sword.

"Let me at the bastards!" he yelled.

In the background I could hear the burglar alarm in the garage howling away and in the distance was the faint sound of ballistic missiles on their way from the south pole.

"Oh," I said. "the burglar alarm in the garage is going off. I hadn't realised. I think the TV must be on too loud."

"I'm surprised you didn't notice," said Paul. "I heard it loud and clear and so I came dashing round immediately to see if you were OK. Your garage door is wide open. That's what must have set it off."

"Oh no!" I was horrified. "Is the car still there?"

"Yes," said Paul. "Whoever broke in must have got scared and probably ran away as soon as the alarm went off."

We went down to the garage and I turned the alarm off. Sure enough, the door was wide open but the car was still sitting safely inside. I closed the garage door and Paul and I examined it carefully. There was no sign of damage to the door or to the car. Whoever had broken in appeared to have done it without effort.

"I wonder if someone has a door opener that works on the same frequency as mine?" I said.

Paul was dubious. "I suppose it's possible," be said, "but the odds against it are astronomical. That's why these things are considered to be so safe."

I rechecked the door one last time, set the burglar alarm and went back to my dinner. I was just swallowing the last mouthful when Paul banged on the door again.

"Something's going on," he said. "The rat bastards have come back."

Sure enough, the garage door was wide open and the alarm was howling. I closed the door and reset the alarm. As before, there was no sign of damage.

"This is all very puzzling," I said. "Did you notice anyone running away as you came over?"

"Not a soul," he said.

We went back to our respective houses and I went into the bedroom to put the garage door opener back into my sock drawer, which is where it normally lives. As I put it away, I noticed that the spare garage door opener was sitting in plain view on the top of my dressing table. Oh...

Light bulbs went on in my head. It was time for an experiment. Without moving the door opener from its position on the dressing table, I reached over and pressed its green button. Sure enough the garage door opened and the burglar alarm started to howl.

I raced out to the garage just as Paul arrived.

"Where are they?" he yelled. "Let me at them. I need to kill somebody!"

I turned the alarm off and closed the door.

"I've got it sussed," I said. "The spare opener is lying on top of the dressing table. I just pushed the button on it and despite the fact that the gadget was deep inside the house and also pointing directly away from the garage, the garage door still managed to pick up the signal and open wide."

"Wow!" said Paul, impressed. "That's one heck of a strong signal. I didn't know those things worked backwards and through walls."

"Well it seems that they do," I said. "It took me by surprise as well."

"But how did the button get pressed in the first place. Weren't you and Robin both in the lounge?"

"Yes we were," I told him. "But there's a very innocent looking cat fast asleep on the bed at the moment. I suspect that he must have walked over the garage door opener on his way to his nap."

"Ah yes," said Paul. "That sounds exactly like the sort of thing that a cat would do."

"From now on I'm going to keep the spare opener out of sight in my sock drawer along with the usual one." I told him.

"Sounds like a good idea," said Paul.

So that's what I did, and the garage door has behaved perfectly ever since.

Stephen Jones & Kim Newman Horror: The 100 Best Books NEL
Lev Grossman The Magicians Arrow
Michael J. Parry The Spiral Tattoo Sky Warrior Books
Pati Nagle Pet Noir Book View Cafe
Jo Brand Look Back In Hunger Headline
Jo Brand Can't Stand Up For Sitting Down Headline
Stephen Clarke Merde Happens Black Swan
Previous Contents Next