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In one sense, writing 50,000 words is quite easy. You write a word. Then you write another word. And then you do the same again and again, another forty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety eight times. Nothing could be simpler.

So why, then, did I so signally fail to complete NaNoWriMo in 2012 and 2013? For the underinitiated: this is the challenge where one undertakes to write 50,000 words of sequential fiction in a thirty-day period (technical it’s supposed to be a novel, but I think this is veering dangerously close to delusions of grandeur). I’m not sure, but I think clues may be found in the manner in which I managed to actually finish the damn thing this year, for the first time since 2010.

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

Perhaps the nature of that 2010 win was also significant. As I was (ahem) resting from paid employment at the time, I was able to devote all my time to the project and ended up with a 115,000 word manuscript, which – when run past a professional author for comment – transpired to be irredeemable tripe with no discernable structure. This was a blow to my confidence as a writer of long fiction which it took me a long time to get over.

I blame Stephen King, and especially his book On Writing. This is an inspirational tome and no mistake, but it also promotes Mr King’s potentially lethal strategy for novel-writing, which is basically ‘have an idea, start writing about it, do 3,000 words a day until you reach the end and then stop’. In other words, don’t bother planning what you’re doing. Just trust to the creative winds.

It took me a long while to figure out that what may work for an intuitively gifted storyteller like Mr King is not necessarily going to work for the average garret-dwelling spod. I have come to the conclusion that this sort of behaviour is not going to end well for most of us. It’s like going on a 300 mile drive without bothering to check the atlas, and no real sense of where you’re actually heading to in the first place. You may cover some ground, but you’re unlikely to end up anywhere it’s worth being.

Reluctantly parting company with the King Doctrine was probably the first step towards having a chance of concluding a NaNo with a story that actually has some kind of narrative merit. Realising the importance of structure, I invested in a number of other pieces of advice which I must confess I found to be of varying usefulness.

Near the bottom of the heap, although this may be a user-friendliness issue, is the near-mythical Plotto, by William Wallace Cook. This is not so much a writer’s guide as a plot generation tool, but not one I actually found any use. Perhaps it’s just that the Kindle edition is somewhat clunky to navigate through.

More interesting than genuinely useful was 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them, by Ronald Tobias, which is strong on general information but weak on actual mechanics and detail. A step up from this, despite being somewhat disingenuously titled, was Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters, which has some useful stuff on many archetypal characters and the two main types of character arc. It’s one of the few writing handbooks I’ve read which comes close to being actually generative (i.e. giving you proper ideas).

Lani Diane Rich (aka Lucy March), professional author and writing tutor, weighs in with what she considers to be the seven crucial anchor points of essential narrative. I was rather dubious about this when I first heard about it – it seemed rather too formulaic at the time, and also that many great stories didn’t seem to stick to the scheme – but am prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is largely because of the single biggest factor in getting me across the NaNo finishing line with something I’m reasonably pleased with: to wit, Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, a meticulous guide to the core competencies of storytelling in general, and structure in particular. Brooks breaks the story down into four chunks, assigns key plot moments and responsibilities to all of them, and then goes through what the essential plot beats are, where they need to fall and how they inter-relate. His book is perhaps a bit too strongly aimed at the aspiring professional – I have no real ambitions in that direction, as I already have a job I love and which I suspect is better for me than full-time writing would be, even if I had the talent and perseverance to think about taking it more seriously – but sitting down on November 1st with the first 37 scenes of a 50-scene novel already planned out was an enormous advantage, and without Brooks I would not have had this map to start with.

What I wrote is, in all likelihood, not very good. Ray Bradbury said that the first 500,000 words you write are inevitably going to be rubbish, and as far as long-form fiction goes I suspect I still have several hundred thousand to go before I hit the good stuff. But, whatever the problems with the characterisation, exposition, theme, description, and – yes – the structure, it does at least hang together on one level.

And, more importantly, I feel like I have fiction writing back. After the great disaster of 2010, apart from the abortive NaNos of 2012 and 2013, I’ve barely written a word of fiction. Plenty of reviews and other nonsense, as you can see, but nothing else. And I always missed it. I couldn’t figure out what my blind spot was in terms of long-form fiction, but now perhaps I have. It feels good to have this option back – the process of writing the NaNo 14 project has been a very satisfying one and I suspect it will be well before November 2015 that I have a go at something else. But not yet. Now is the time all-consuming and wholly unjustified smugness, which is something else I’ve always had a talent for.

 

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A brief glance at the stats for this blog tells me that, as of this writing, there are somewhere in the region of 650 film reviews hereabouts. I have been writing these on and off since 2001, and fairly solidly since 2010 (sometimes at the rate of three or four a week). At a conservative estimate, I must have written about 600,000 words about films, all told (the last two novel-length stories I managed to finish, in comparison, amounted to only 230,000 words between them). I have never really thought very deeply about the nature of film writing in all this time: or at least I hadn’t until I read Hatchet Job, the latest movie-related tome by Mark Kermode.

Kermode’s first book was the story of his life in film; his last one was an extended series of moans about the things he finds particularly irksome about modern films and the contemporary movie-going experience. I liked it, even if I found it a bit on the negative side. Hatchet Job, despite the title, is a bit more balanced.

kermodeHJ

Kermode opens by celebrating the most memorable result of the film critics’ art: the devastating negative review, kicking off with ‘Forest Gump on a tractor’ (The Straight Story) and taking in ‘Miss’ (Battleship), ‘an explosion in a stupidity factory’ (A Good Day to Die Hard) and some of Kermode’s own most vitriolic utterances, such as ‘An orgy of dripping wealth which made me want to vomit’ (Sex and the City 2), before going on to question, if not the value of film criticism in the modern world, then certainly the need for professional film critics as a species.

This is the core theme of Hatchet Job, which Kermode comes at from a number of angles: the decline in the respect in which critics are held, the sometimes strained relationship between critics and film-makers, the current crisis in the lot of old-school print critics in an increasingly digital age, and so on. Along the way Kermode gets to indulge himself on many topics which will be familiar to long-term followers, such as the plight of the skilled projectionist, the careers of Ken Russell (Dr K like) and John Boorman (Dr K very no like), and how lovely Silent Running is, as well as some which may be new, such as the unreliability of the automatically-moderated reviewing system on Amazon.com and the pernicious influence of test screenings on film storytelling.

He is, as you’d expect, very good company throughout, even when dealing with unpromising material without a great deal of interest to anyone not specifically interested in the lot of film critics (he is touchingly eloquent when paying tribute to two deceased giants of the field, Alexander Walker and Roger Ebert, even though it is clear he is rather more simpatico with one than the other). If you know much about films, you are unlikely to learn a lot, but at least you will hear things for the second or third time in a highly entertaining way.

You might expect Kermode to be precious and possessive about his status as someone who’s paid to watch and talk about new films for a living, and perhaps he does come across as slightly self-mythologising when he expresses his belief that ‘[f]or a critic’s opinion to have value beyond the mere joy of the savage put-down or the well-constructed defence, I believe they must have something personal at stake, something about which they care, and which they are in danger of forfeiting.’ (He’s talking about the bubble reputation, by the way, not an actual job.) Yet his argument does sort of hang together. I rarely make much use of critics myself, especially since I stopped listening to Kermode’s own radio show (sorry Doc), but this is largely because I just found myself writing my own reviews as a response to theirs rather than to the film itself, but on an instinctive level I know that I’d rather read a review from someone with a track-record and a real name than by some anonymous username on the internet.

On the other hand, though, doesn’t this just make me a massive hypocrite? My own name isn’t on this book review, after all: why should you give a damn what I think? Why should my opinion have any special value? Well, you might well say, in the case of a cruddy little blog like this one, which on average is read by no-one at all, what does it matter? Speak or stay silent, it doesn’t make any difference.

And yet, and yet. All other things being equal, I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t think there was at least some chance of getting read (to do otherwise would be, to quote Stephen King, ‘quacking into the void’). And yet Kermode himself argues that ‘writing for free in an arena where someone else is getting paid eventually undermines the possibility of anyone being properly remunerated’. This sounds a little protectionist, I suppose, but there is a grain of truth here, surely – if the reviews on the blog are any good, then I may be taking bread from the mouths of film critics’ children – if they’re not, what’s the bloody point in them anyway?

I don’t know. I suppose the brutally honest response would be to say that if a professional critic with the resources of a national paper behind them can’t come up with something more useful and entertaining than an amateur nobody sitting behind a laptop in a garret, they don’t deserve to be in the profession anyway. And perhaps this is true. It has still made me question exactly why I am so rigorous about writing up every new film I watch, even the really boring ones.

As I’ve said in the past, I have a pronounced OCD tendency, and I think doing the reviews helps control this – also, feeding the OCD helps fend off the depressive tendency I also possess. So perhaps there is a therapeutic aspect to all this. Thinking about this has also made me realise that starting writing this blog regular coincided fairly closely with my stopping writing ‘substantial’ fiction suspiciously closely. I said in an ‘interview’ (it was a webzine feature where completely obscure individuals took it in turns to ask each other silly questions every week) a few years ago that writing is just about the only thing in the world, other than watching the 1970s Doctor Who title sequence, guaranteed to make me happy, and so perhaps obsessively writing endless film reviews has taken the place of producing fiction.

In which case it looks like that the main purpose of this blog is not to actually share opinions and judgements on films, but to shore up my mental equilibrium. If I actually ever say something worthwhile and useful about a film it is a fortuitous fringe benefit and nothing else. I’m not really sure how to process this little nugget of increased self-knowledge, but then that has largely been the story of 2014 so far for me. If you are the starving child of a professional film critic, I apologise, but I fear it may be pathological on my part. And if you are not, but you are at all interested in films and serious film writing, you will probably find Hatchet Job to be an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

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It seems to me that now, before we get too bogged down in 2014, would be a good time to carry out the threatened review of my list of resolutions from this time last year. Anyone expecting a similar list this time round is probably going to be in for a disappointment, by the way. Why should this be? Well…

navelgazer

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, 2013 proved to be a bit of a big year for me in some respects, and I’ve no expectation that this year can match it, certainly not in terms of major events. Anyone anticipating a brave declaration that this year I’m going to buy my own place, start my own business, learn to drive, or become emotionally intimate with someone new is going to be disappointed. Sorry.

I think consolidation is the word I’m looking for; consolidation and balance (in terms of the different elements of my life). The only thing that did occur to me happened back in April, or whenever it was that Margaret Thatcher finally departed this world. It seemed to me that it’s all very well to make big noises about the state of society and poisonous political legacies, but unless you actually pull up your boots and wade into actual political activism all you’re doing is just mouthing off and indulging yourself. God knows there are enough things wrong in the world today, and enough ways of getting involved should you so wish. But can I actually see myself making that kind of serious, probably thankless commitment? In all honesty, no.

Anyway, moving on to last year’s resolutions and how they worked out:

1. Move Career On. This actually happened, which was probably inevitable, but what’s slightly surprising is that it’s happened in a very positive way. At one point this year I was seriously considering going off to Chile or Argentina and the life of a peripatetic TEFL grunt, but I found I could generate very little enthusiasm for this. That I eventually wound up – more by luck than anything else – working at the very place I would have chosen to, given the option, is obviously a real bonus.

The downside is that, one way or another, I am going to have knock my association with summer schools on the head. This is a cause of some sadness, as I always enjoyed the challenge of the work and it realistically means losing a few good friends who I never see at any other time. But I need to start thinking longer term.

2. Play Some WFB. Er, well. I don’t think half a demo game really qualifies. Partly this is because I went through a real period of engagement with my Blood Angel army near the beginning of the year, and partly because I took six months out of the hobby after having my Eldar army effortlessly tabled by some Space Marines in June. My misgivings with the current 40K metagame are considerable, but on the other hand no-one seems to be playing WFB at the venue I go to. Then again, we are surely due a new edition this year, which may stir things up a bit. Anyway – I would like to play some proper WFB, but a competitive 40K army I am happy with would also be satisfactory.

3. Write More and with More Variety. This didn’t really happen. I blew NaNo again this year, but then again i suppose this is like someone who never goes jogging entering a marathon and complaining they couldn’t finish it.

In the year to come I think I will revise this to ‘Be More Creatively Productive’, whether this means through writing, painting, or practising musically (someone gave me a guitar in November, rather to my surprise).

4. Waste Less Time Playing Computer Games. An indubitably spectacular fail here, given the epic sessions of Civilisation, Total War, and The Sims I have been clocking up of late. But are games as intricate and engrossing as these honestly a waste of time, any more than going to the cinema or reading a book, passive activities I indulge in without feeling the slightest regret? Perhaps the key is to make my sessions a bit less epic – balance, like I say.

5. More Radio and Less TV in the Background: Well, this was never really a big deal, though things have got to the point where I can join in with the voice-over on certain repeats of Top Gear.

6. Sleep More: Marginal. The new job means I don’t have to go to bed quite so ridiculously early, but the effort of will involved in stopping whatever I’m doing and going to bed is sometimes demanding. I am, as ever, reminded of Somerset Maugham’s declaration that he did two things against his will every day: getting up in the morning and going to bed at night.

7. Write About Different Old Films: Does gorging on Toho monster movies qualify? I suspect not. I find it hard to feel too guilty about this one, as all the films I write about are ones I enjoy (on some level). I think one can be too aspirational when setting resolutions.

8. Write Proper Doctor Who Reviews: Well, this one definitely happened, and will continue to happen, I think. I predict a touch of seventh Doctor bias in the early part of the year, as McCoy was the guy who I hardly saw anything of this year.

This would be an opportune moment to mention again that 2013 was the year I got my name on the back of a book, Outside In (a collection of Doctor Who reviews, inevitably) – my own contribution being one of least accomplished pieces in it. 2014 promises Outside In 2, featuring a piece written specifically for publication (not to mention, I understand, the second pressing of Who’s 50 with my acknowledgement added). A third similar volume is also on the cards but I am reluctant to say more ahead of the official announcement.

Not too bad a year, then, as I look back on it – certainly not too many regrets. Hopefully 2014 will be more or less the same, but we will inevitably see.

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Once again November has come and gone and I find myself not having written a novel in any real sense of the expression. So what, you may say, this is no different to the previous ten months of 2013 in which novel-writing did not really feature on the list of things I did. This is a fair point, and yet…

navelgazer

As you may or may not know, November is the time of NaNoWriMo, the popular – if, it must be said, very badly named – international creative writing event. National Novel Writing Month is an annual event where people from all over the world sit down and undertake to produce 50,000 words of continuous fiction over a thirty day period. This is the fourth year in which I have set my sights on the NaNo prize, and the second in a row in which I haven’t actually come anywhere close to achieving it.

I say ‘fourth’, but the first year I sort of did NaNo without even being aware of it, sitting down to write a novel in the space of about a month and only later becoming aware of the fact that thousands of other people were doing the same thing at the same time. Nevertheless I knocked out 116,000 words of a story which had been kicking about my head for over sixteen years.

Finding myself at a loose end I did NaNo properly in 2010, this time turning up 115,000 words (needless to say I had no other real commitments). It seems rather incredible to me now, but I had genuine hopes that one or other of these productions had enough merit to potentially be publishable in some form, given a bit of rewriting and polishing. My experience of a ‘re-edit your MS’ course from a pro author showed me otherwise, mainly because the first one would have been unmarketable and didn’t have a proper ending, while the second was essentially the beginning and end of two different genre novels (both favourites of mine) inelegantly welded together: the structure was irretrievably busted in both cases.

I was doing a Diploma course in 2011 and so skipped doing NaNo, but decided to have another crack last year: getting the structure right was my main concern. After getting 5,000 words into a post-apocalyptic quest story which I never felt completely happy writing, I made the elementary NaNo aspirant’s mistake and switched to new story: a fantastical sex-comedy-satire with a contemporary setting – I got 12,000 words into that, but then illness and a real-life emotional situation got in the way of my finishing it (or so I told myself, anyway).

17,000 words is only about a third of the way there. At least, I’m telling myself, this year I got to 23,000, which is a slightly better showing: and given I dropped out after less than three weeks it’s fairly respectable. Why, you may be wondering, did I stop so early? Well, to be honest, once again I wasn’t exactly feeling the story, and it had also become apparent than even if by some miracle I hit 50,000 before the month’s end I still wouldn’t be anywhere close to the end of the story – at 23,000 I was still some way from the point I had pegged as the end of the first act of the story. (See? Thinking about the structure.) Without the pressure of the NaNo deadline I knew the thing was never going to get properly finished.

(Just to put this in perspective: an acquaintance who was also doing NaNo suffered a close family bereavement, gave birth, and still managed to hit the 50,000 words mark. Given my own main distractions were conquering ancient France in lengthy games of Rome: Total War and enjoying the golden anniversary celebrations of my favourite TV show, I really have no excuse.)

A fairly sad chronicle of failure, I think you’ll agree (I haven’t even mentioned this year’s Camp NaNo fiasco, or ScriptFrenzy in 2011). Why am I going on about it? Why not just forget about the idea and spare everyone the stress and the breast-beating?

A fair question. While I have one (very, very minor) published credit to my name, with a couple more hopefully on the way, I have no serious ambitions to become a professional writer. I have a career which I find very fulfilling – and which, truth be told, is probably healthier when it comes to my mental state than just beating my head against a blank page for hours every day. Yet the compulsion remains, at NaNo time, during similar events, whenever: unless I’m much mistaken ‘write more fiction’ was on my New Year list last January. Has it happened? Nope.

Given I clearly feel some desire to write more fiction, and I’m not lumbered with any of those things which eat the time of most people – full-time jobs, dependent family members, especially active social lives – why this litany of failure? I’m horribly afraid I may just be lazy. Writing fiction is hard work if you want to do it properly – I believe Ray Bradbury said the first half-million words he wrote were all rubbish, but a necessary apprenticeship in the craft. Beating up the Gauls or reflecting on the positive social impact of Doctor Who are both much easier.

Writing a film review is a piece of cake compared to producing a piece of fiction of comparable length – your topic is pre-selected for you, and the structure is usually fairly standardised. You know what you’re going to say, too. Fiction is tough – I was going to say everything comes from within, but of course that’s not true. Let’s just say a much higher proportion of it does.

Okay, so it’s difficult, you may be saying. Nobody’s forcing you. Either do it or don’t, but don’t waste our time going on about how hard it is, and how useless you are. Don’t you realise that what you’re doing is displacement activity? You could actually be doing some writing now instead of bleating about how you’re not doing any writing.

You know, that hadn’t actually occurred to me until I sat down and typed it. Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps I am just attempting to name and shame myself in the hope that this may motivate me to actually produce something. I don’t know. The itch remains, but it seems that I’m not sure whether I genuinely want to scratch it. It’s a little confusing.

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A Question of Attribution

[Am keeping a revised version of this post up for the sake of coherency and out of respect for the people who commented on it. Apologies if it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but then it doesn’t really have to any more. The issue in question has been amicably resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned!

Okay, going to keep this brief. (It’s ironic that this should happen only a couple of days after I was taking a few minor pops at Stef Coburn for issuing nuisance writs over copyright issues, but that’s life.)

Hey ho. Look, basically I’m going to present for your reading illumination two reviews of the 1970 Doctor Who story Spearhead from Space. One of them was written in 2001, the other much more recently. I am certain the writer of the more recent piece was aware of the existence of the earlier one and read it at least twice prior to writing their own review.

Basically, the question is: is it a no-brainer that the second piece clearly owes a debt to the first in terms of approach to the subject matter?

Without further ado, from 2001:

[My review of Spearhead from Space, hosted on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide, woz ‘ere. Check out the DWRG if you want to read it, it’s terribly good. The DWRG, I mean – well, I think the review’s very good, too…]

Auton-solo

Okay, and now from much more recently:

[Robert Smith?’s review of Spearhead from Space, from Who’s 50 (Burk and Smith?, ECW), woz ‘ere. Buy the book if you want to see it (although it was inspired by mine, as all concerned would happily acknowledge). The book itself is an interesting read – although what Nonsense of the Daleks is doing in there, I’ve no idea…]

I am going to remain vague as to the origins of these two pieces and my own particular stake in this matter, but if you’ve taken the time to read this far I would really appreciate your thoughts in the matter, whoever you are and whatever they are. I promise to elucidate more at a future point when I have decided what, if anything, to do.

Update: basically, I was going to be credited in the acknowledgements section of the book, but due to the exigencies of the production process this bit accidentally got left out. From what I know of publishing I can readily believe it. Nothing dubious was intended, this was simply a cock-up. Robert has apologised and I’m happy to get back to enjoying the anniversary celebrations…

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I know, it’s probably a little bit late for the whole New Year resolution thing – but I’ve only got back to my own place today after spending time with family for the holidays, so now feels like the logical time to think about what (if anything) I want to change for 2013.

I did a lot of thinking about this on the train home today – partly, if we’re honest, because my inimitable father drove over my foot while dropping me off at the station, and this helped to take my mind off the discomfort in my toes. I’ve gone back and forth over whether or not to share some of these ideas via the blog, to be honest, because there are obviously pros and cons involved. To wit:

PROs:

  • It would add a bit of colour to a blog which usually goes on and on and on about the same three or four topics.
  • Having gone public (well, sort of) I will feel more incentivised to actually stick to my guns and do the things I talk about.

CONs:

  • Some of these ideas are really stupid and/or petty and I would look foolish for making such a fuss about them.
  • When I fail to stick to my guns and all my good intentions lapse after a week I would feel even more reproachful towards myself than I would’ve done anyway.

Ah, what the hell, I decided to go with it anyway, because every bit of motivation is useful, after all.

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And so: in no particular order, what I am hoping to do, or do differently, in 2013, on the blog and elsewhere.

1. Look at moving my career on. I always thought that after getting the DELTA I would be happy to coast along for a year or so and not worry about professional stuff. However, six months later I find I am restive, and increasingly aware that my long-term ambitions are not really achieveable with the company I currently do most of my work for. Also, it would be nice to get all my books, etc, out of storage (it’ll be five years this summer) and I can’t do that until I’m making enough to be able to have my own place.

2. Actually play some WFB. I bought the 8th Edition rulebook on the day of release in 2010 but haven’t played a single game – my last WFB outing was, I think, in February or March 2006. I suppose I want a change from 40K as much as anything. This will, of course, involve finishing a WFB army, so this is what I’m going to look at doing in the short term.

3. Write more, and with more variety. Whether this means aiming for a thousand words a day of any kind, or something else, I don’t know. In all honesty I’m really talking about fiction as opposed to endless Doctor Who waffle and film reviews. Not sure how this will work – although I’d like to have another crack at ScriptFrenzy in April. In a proper spirit of working on something which will never, ever get made I think I will have a go at writing the movie version of Flesh (an obscure 1970s SF-horror comic strip to which I don’t have the rights).

4. Waste less time playing games over the internet. This is fairly self-explanatory.

5. Not always have the TV on as a source of background noise. Use Radio 3 instead. Being the solitary individual that I am, it’s nice not to live in dead silence when I’m at home, but at the same time there’s something to be said for not being a passive consumer of TV (or anything else – at least Radio 3 is likely to be more intellectually challenging).

6. Sleep more.  One thing I’ve noticed over the last 18 months is that if I have to work the 9am slot at work for more than a month straight I tend to get sick from sheer exhaustion, because going to bed at 10.30 simply doesn’t suit the way my brain is wired: I end up shaving five or ten minutes off my eight hours every night which ultimately leaves me tired out and prey to any passing bug. More self-discipline required when it comes to bedtimes.

7. Write about different kinds of old film. I have nearly a dozen Kurosawas on DVD, none of which I’ve touched yet. There’s a pile of other movies next to the TV I’ve had for over a year, none of which I’ve written about – LoveFilm is really to blame for this. (I have suspended my subscription for the time being.) I watched a bunch more 50s B-movies last summer, which I was mostly too busy to properly review, and there are still lots of Hammer movies I’ve not properly looked at.

You know, normally I’m not one of those people who finishes every single post with a ‘how about you? What’s your strongest memory of [insert topic here]? Do you have any tips on how to [insert challenging activity here]?’ Maybe this is why I only have 35 followers after two and a bit years of operation. Hey ho. Yet I am almost moved to enquire – reader (yes, this means you), you are probably here for the film reviews (that, or morbid fascination) – exactly what lured you in? The new stuff? The backlog from the 2000s? The 50s SF? The Hammer horror? The Jason Statham? What do you like to read about?

Then again, for me the pleasure of this undertaking has always been in the writing, not actually being read – although without the possibility of the latter, I’ve always found it hard to justify the former – Stephen King’s comment on ‘quacking into the void’ comes to mind. If the massed (ha) ranks of NCJG followers rise up and cry ‘For God’s sake lay off the Babylon 5 retrospective, and we don’t like Japanese movies either’ I think it is highly unlikely I will pay any attention to this. Sorry.

8. Actually write some proper Doctor Who reviews. (As opposed to gut reactions to new episodes, lengthy analyses of aspects of the whole show, or trots through the fictional universe.) I’ve kind of been dancing around this idea – in 2001 and 2002 I spent virtually a whole year watching as much of the series as I could lay my hands on, in chronological order, writing about the stories as I went along (one such piece eventually made it into Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers from ATB Publishing (ISBN 9780988221000), available to buy now, folks – at least I assume it is, my comp copy hasn’t turned up yet).

That was a major undertaking – a very rewarding one, nevertheless – and I’m wary of just repeating myself. However, this is the golden anniversary year, so if not now, then when? So I am working on a way of writing about Doctor Who stories in proper detail that will hopefully be fulfilling for me and rewarding for readers. Look for them around the 23rd of each month.

Eight not-quite-resolutions is enough for one year, I would say. Pop back in December, when I will feel obliged to see how well I did (or more likely just pretend this post never happened).

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Not long ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Michel Houellebecq’s H.P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. I would say I’m interested in Lovecraft more than an actual fan of his work – while the so-called Great Texts are brilliant achievements (though in quite what field I’m not entirely sure), also owning the recent releases of Necronomicon and Eldritch Tales means I am aware that a lot of HPL’s output is repetitive, peculiar and arguably quite wearisome.

Anyway, the Houellebecq book is interesting, though I would just say this should you also come across a copy – it looks substantial enough, but once you take out Stephen King’s rather lovely introduction and the reprints of two classic HPL tales, you’re left with an essay rather less than a hundred pages long. If you were a complete HPL newbie then I can’t imagine this being much of an issue, given you get two of the Great Texts in the same volume: I, on the other hand, am now the owner of four different copies of The Call of Cthulhu in different collections and formats, and three of The Whisperer in Darkness (not even a particular favourite of mine, it has to be said).

Houellebecq writes cogently and interestingly about HPL’s style and preoccupations, suggesting that the lack of certain subject matter in his work (basically, there’s no sex) is not necessarily as psychologically illuminating as people often assume, but perhaps instead the result of a conscious choice. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with this, but it is at least thought-provoking.

Most interesting is a section on Lovecraft’s soujourn in New York City in 1924, which is actually quite touching as it depicts his inability to engage with the modern world and opens up the intriguing possibility of how his life might have gone differently had he managed to find a job, preserve his marriage, and so on. Never to be, I suspect, and it’s only after this traumatic period that the Great Texts were written (Houellebecq throws up the engaging notion that the blasphemous city of R’lyeh, along with all the other nightmarish metropolii which crop up in his later work, are in fact depictions of New York as HPL perceived it).

Houellebecq also touches upon the issue of HPL’s racism and does so with a commendable lack of squeamishness. Even a cursory skim through HPL reveals some very nasty stuff going on – blacks explicitly likened to chimpanzees, the demonisation of anyone who isn’t Caucasian in The Call of Cthulhu itself – but to read extracts of HPL’s own letters on this topic is to take it to another level. The delirious, hyperbolic, almost glossolalic outpouring of words which characterises HPL’s most characteristic moments is put to the service of some appalling notions, such as when he describes New York’s immigrant population:

The organic things – Italo-Semitic-Mongoloid – inhabiting that awful cesspool could not by any stretch of the imagination be call’d human. They were monstrous and nebulous adumbrations of the pithecanthropoid and amoebal; vaguely moulded from some stinking viscous slime of earth’s corruption, and slithering and oozing in and on the filthy streets or in and out of windows and doorways in a fashion suggestive of nothing but infesting worms or deep sea unnamabilities.

Damn it, Howard, don’t mince words – tell us what you really think! Of course, here we’re touching upon one of the age-old issues, as to how much one should let the nature of the artist influence one’s opinion of the art – the same thing applies to a lesser or greater degree to everyone from Wagner to Damon Albarn, not forgetting Charlton Heston along the way. With HPL it’s possibly slightly different in that his prejudices are so clearly fundamental to his work. Houellebecq doesn’t attempt to excuse them, but instead attempts to put them in context and explain their origin (maybe this in itself constitutes an apologia of sorts).

HPL’s racism is one of things that makes reading his work a slightly awkward experience sometimes, but Houellebecq is also very clear about why it is his work has endured and thrived – it is unique in style, and in its startling effect upon the receptive reader.

I nibble around the edges of HPL’s works quite often, not often having the time and energy to tackle the longer, lesser stories, but I think about him and influence relatively frequently, quite simply because he seems to me to be the single most influential figure in the horror genre as we understand it today.

I’ve said this before but I think it bears repeating – HPL was writing in the early years of the 20th century, when our whole conception of the world was shifting onto a new basis following various developments in the sciences. Influential, largely mechanistic philosophies were entering the mass consciousness for the first time, and there was a transition in process between a spiritual age and a materialistic one. And this transition, to me, is what drives HPL’s best writing.

The Great Texts, and many of the other stories, seem to me to be the products of a writer appalled by the philosophical basis of the new age and seeking to articulate this revulsion in any way he can. With the old Judaeo-Christian anthropocentric worldview looking increasingly archaic, the materialistic Darwinian one replacing it offered rather less comfort. I use the word Darwinian intentionally, because HPL clearly seems to have found the notion of evolution as repulsive as any fundamentalist Christian today. And this disgust finds its way into the stories – the central horror of Arthur Jermyn is of a man discovering he is descended from apes, while that of The Shadow Over Innsmouth is of another character discovering his ultimately marine ancestry.

HPL’s rejection of the modern scientific worldview also finds an expression in his praise of ignorance and rejection of the quest for knowledge in several stories. The famous opening sentence of The Call of Cthulhu expresses relief at human inability to make sense of the contents of our own heads, while At the Mountains of Madness features the narrator desperately hoping his account will dissuade anyone from following in his footsteps and acquiring more sanity-blasting knowledge. This is the intellectual and moral equivalent of sticking your head under the duvet and refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable truths even exist, a rejection of reason and curiosity at a fundamental level.

Perhaps this explains some of HPL’s appeal, but then there is also his unique (and that’s putting it mildly) prose style. It is customary to point out that HPL’s plotting is usually somewhat pedestrian, his characters thin and interchangeable, and his dialogue frequently rather embarrassing (his fondness for meticulously-rendered dialect speech particularly so). Was HPL even bothered about these things? How much of his style is the result of conscious decisions?

Hard to say. But show any reader savvy with SFF literature a paragraph rattling on breathlessly and stuffed with words like Cyclopean, paleogean, chromaticism and unnameable and they will instantly identify the author. Restrained and subtle HPL is not, but he is still a notable stylist, especially since all this overwrought prose at the same time manages to be usefully vague about most of what he’s writing about.

Again, this can be controversial – Michael Moorcock, in Starship Stormtroopers, describes HPL’s writing as ‘offensively awful’ with a ‘resultant inability to describe his own horrors’ (‘leaving us to do the work – the secret of his success – we’re all better writers than he is!’). Given the rather forensic descriptions occurring in several places in the HPL canon, I think this is a bit unfair – and, in any case, suggested horror is more to my personal taste than the no-holds-barred explicit kind.

Which brings me to another HPL-themed book I looked at recently, a collected edition of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon. Now, this isn’t a book I can properly review or write about in great detail, but even the fairly cursory glance I gave it has left it lodged in my head ever since (I think I may partly be writing this piece in an attempt to exorcise it).

Some people have suggested that Neonomicon is an oblique rant by Moore against the state of the current comics industry and the style of storytelling in widespread use within it. Well, maybe, but Moore himself has said in an interview that one of the notions motivating this story was (I paraphrase) to dig into the texture of the Mythos and actually explore what it is that HPL was writing about so obscurely – to take the unnameable and unspeakable, and to name it and talk about it.

The result is a book which, to be honest, I am surprised is on sale in high street bookshops – certainly without a sealed wrapper, anyway. On one level the plot is quite straightforward, concerning FBI agents investigating what appears to be a cult of Lovecraft-influenced fetishists, but – this being Alan Moore – there is inevitably a level of metatextuality going on here. The story is set in a world where Lovecraft was a penurious writer, and the Mythos stories are cult fiction, and this allows Moore to slip in various jokes and observations along the way. But then someone notices that the fetish cult has been in existence since before HPL wrote his stories, which means they can’t be copying him – could he in fact have been writing about something he really encountered?

All this is clever enough, but really by the by: the core of the story concerns an attempt by the main characters to infiltrate the cult and what happens afterwards. All goes well to begin with, but then they are discovered: the male agent is killed and his female partner is gang raped at considerable length as part of a ceremony to summon a Deep One (which duly shows up at the end of the second issue). The rape is depicted over many pages and in great detail, and – to my mind at least – it’s utterly vile and repulsive. If the same images were shown in a movie, that film would only be on sale in specialist adult shops.

The next issue is arguably just as bad, concerning the female agent being locked in a cellar with the Deep One, who proceeds to violate her repeatedly over a period of days. Again, nothing is left to the imagination and it is really quite appalling. I can see why some are suggesting that Moore is making a point here about the mindset of a certain kind of comics reader, and the way female characters are routinely treated, but – Jesus. This stuff is really horrible, surely much more than was required to make the point and easily enough to alienate and disgust people who would agree with Moore on this issue.

The final issue is a bit more palatable and has an interesting new take on certain aspects of the Mythos, but it’s hard to escape the notion that for the writer this book is primarily about the graphic sex and sexual violence that comprise most of the middle two chapters.

Lovecraft himself would surely have execrated Neonomicon as gutter filth of the lowest kind, for all that it is clearly an intelligent piece of work, thoughtfully-produced, and written by someone very familiar with the HPL canon. Is Moore in fact challenging readers of HPL’s prose in this book, as if to say ‘This is what really powers these stories – these are the unspeakable rites you’re so used to reading about’? If so, then Neonomicon is a typically brilliant piece of work from Moore, delivering a typically incisive and plausible critique of HPL and the Mythos while simultaneously being a credible addition to the Mythos itself.

That said, HPL’s words, at their best, leave me with a nebulous sense of wonderment and an equally vague kind of existential dread. Moore and Burrows’ pictures, on the other hand, just overwhelm me with a visceral disgust. Which of these is the more honest and realistic response to HPL’s ideas is surely debateable, but I think it would be wrong to suggest that Neonomicon is what Lovecraft’s work is ‘really’ about. There may be an element of truth there, but to reduce the Great Texts to being nothing more than camouflage for such squalid and limited obsessions is to do both them and their creator a great disservice.

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