"Always Prepared. Always Ready." BOOKS! Sometimes You Get What You're Given And Just Make Do

Okay, let's stop pointing fingers, dry our eyes and just accept it’s a BONUS SKIP WEEK! (Bonus Booo!). Caught me on the hop a bit, I’ll admit. Unfortunately I haven’t anything in my head about comics but there are a couple of books I’ve been thinking about. Why not, eh? You never know your luck in a raffle. So, it’ll be a bit rough and ready this time out (yeah; no change there then) but I’ll probably find my flow after a couple of dozen words. Anyway, this…  photo SkySleepRedB_zpse518c49a.jpg

THE WIDE, CARNIVOROUS SKY AND OTHER MONSTROUS GEOGRAPHIES By John Langan Hippocampus Press, 2013 £15.00 (Kindle: £4.02)

 photo skyB_zps68c3ea0b.jpg

It’s refreshing to find an author who not only knows the difference between Sabretooth and Wolverine but also mentions John Byrne’s Alpha Flight. He mentions the latter in the back matter which he provides for each story. And I know you comics lot like your back matter. It’s in the back matter that he chattily unpacks each of the short stories herein so that you know exactly what he was up to. Turns out what he’s up to is reinvigorating all the old horror tropes; the ones as familiar as that dream where someone makes you eat your own face. Yes, my little chubby cheeked chums, all the old favourites are exhumed once more; zombies, vampires, ghouls, werewolves, Lovecraft, Poe and so on and so forth, yea until the stars come right again and the Old Ones rise.

Which would be worthy of little remark were it not for the stylistic panache with which Langan executes each of his macabre modernisations. You know, speaking plainly, this was by the far the best book of (modern; no one beats Aickman) horror stories I read this year. And I read a lot of short horror stories; you didn’t know that did you? Mysterious creature that I am. Anyway, it was the best book of horror stories I read because John Langan writes like a real son of a lady and no mistake. He’s a bit of a stylist is John Langan; a bit of a shit hot stylist as it turns out. He’ll keep you on your toes and wide awake with his magnificent ability to inventively riff on concepts which looked dead only seconds before. Langan playfully pressgangs Thonrton Wilder’s Our Town into imbuing the listless zombie trope with a real sense of horror again. He beautifully uses the backdrop of a Cthullu scoured Earth to play out an emotionally flensing one hander concerning how it feels when your child moves on and away. There’s even a post-mod lyric to lycanthropy that loses none of its savagery amongst the stylistic trickery. Somewhere in there he also throws in the weight of autobiography, although probably not in the one about the Iraq War vets up against a very different vampire indeed. It’s a clever book, it’s a moving book, it’s an entertaining book which, all in all, I guess, makes it a VERY GOOD! book.

RED OR DEAD By David Peace Faber & Faber, 2013 £20.00 (Kindle: £7.79)

 photo RedB_zps81be45d7.jpg

Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.” Those are the first three words of David Peace’s new book and they are both a statement of intent and a warning. Those three words are the book. The entirety of the book is encapsulated in those three words; no, that one word. Repetition. (Repetition. Repetition.) Because Red or Dead is a book about Bill Shankly and how Bill Shankly took Liverpool Football Club to success. Peace takes the brave and unfashionable tack of shunning mythologising and renders down the story of Bill Shankly’s success to its essence. To its basics. This is the portrait of a man. Bill Shankly had insight and Bill Shankly had talent but mostly Bill Shankly had the guts for the long haul. Tedium and slog. Slog and tedium. These are the things that got Bill Shankly results. That got Bill Shankly’s team the results. The results for their supporters. Results for the people of Liverpool. For the people. Always, always for the people. Working for the greater good. Toiling for the larger whole. And as the pages pass, as the years die Peace’s subtle subtext shimmies into view. For as the pages pass, as the years die Bill Shankly’s world slips into the past. The England of people like Bill Shankly. And a new England is born. An England not about the people but about the person. An England not about society but about the self. An England in which people begin to ask what have I got and why have they got more than me? An England in which people end by asking what have I got and why have they got anything? England: before the match, after the match. England: before The Thatcher, after The Thatcher. This book is work. This book is hard work. No, no, no. This isn’t working. This isn’t working at all. Half time whistle. Oranges and a re-think…

…Okay. Look, that’s all very well and good, all that up there; it’s nice I get to pretend to write all proper like in my little half-arsed way, but I’ve read the reviews. A lot of people seem unhappy about this book. So let me speak plainly for a change; this book is a fucker. It could not give less of a shit what you want from it. Huge swathes of it are repeated. (Repeated. Repeated.) It will bore you. You will be bored. To get through this thing boredom is something to be mastered. Or befriended at least. This is not a mistake. It is not an accident. David Peace is not a numbskull. It is a device. A literary device. To understand Bill Shankly, to understand Bill Shankly’s achievements, Peace puts you in the same position as Bill Shankly. Tedium and slog. Slog and tedium. These are the things that will get you results. And at first the results are small (the simple switch from players’ surnames to forenames is weighted with emotional import). Then after the slog, after the tedium come the real results. The last third of the book portrays Shankly after success, after retirement. The last third of the book is where your heart gets a work out. The last third of the book is where the results come in. The last third of the book is the pay off. But to get to the pay off, to get to the result you have to put the hours in. You have to put your back into it. You have to work for it. Look, I’m not fussed in the slightest about football and I was a near blank about Bill Shankly but it still paid off. Red or Dead is not for everyone. But if it’s for you it’s VERY GOOD!

DOCTOR SLEEP By Stephen King Hodder & Stoughton, 2013 £19.99 (Kindle: £5.70)

 photo SleepB_zps9d406f7b.jpg I like the total uselessness of the quote on the front of the book: "Hugely anticipated”. Yeah, and…? My dinner is hugely anticipated; getting in out of the rain is hugely anticipated; the next episode of The Spoils Of Babylon is...the gist you are getting, yes? I’d have thought Stephen King writing a sequel to The Shining would merit a bit more, I dunno, oomph in the blurb department. Maybe they didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up too high. Because this is no way the equal of The Shining. Now, I’ve not looked so I don’t know what the consensus is on this one is but I’d guess it’s mixed? Doctor Sleep’s got a strong start and a solid finish but the bit in-between lacks conviction, and there’s a lot of in-between here. The Danny Torrance bits which start, finish and weave through the book are great (and we’ll swing back round to that later), but they’re sandwiched around an idea more suited to a short story than the length of this brick. I mean, having old people in RVs being evil kid killers and eating schadenfreude is a droll and smart way of talking about the sick way we (“we” as a society; not me and you, we’re awesome. It’s everyone else; It’s always everyone else.) process tragedies these days together with the dangers of assumptions. But it isn’t smart enough or droll enough to carry something this hefty.

Unfortunately because the bulk of the book is less than gripping King’s late period tics stick out quite a bit. There’s the momentum sapping return to an earlier already documented event but in even more deadening detail (as though excessive attention to tedious minutiae as will effectively balance the fact we’re talking about psychic vampire eldsters); the failure to invest the mundane with menace (“She had a top hat which sounds stupid but really it was proper spooky, honest.”); the kind of attempt at a quick descriptive pop that misfires into flatness (“She had a single yellow tooth like a tusk” Annnnnd?); the interminably dull reporting of a character’s internal decision not to say something (“Chad decided not to tell Betty-May about how the world had cooled and fish had left the seas to become people and how those people had built cities and societies, and how all those cities and societies fell but history and humanity never stopped moving until here they were, today, next to the roto-rooter section in Target.”) And just like all the stuff in brackets prevented that sentence from flowing smoothly through your mind all those aspects constantly scupper King’s momentum.

But Doctor Sleep is still worth reading; it’s still worth your time, and that’s mostly because of how well King deals with addiction. There’s no horseshit here about dancing through the fire and being a better man for it; King knows that if you’re an addict you’re never through the fire and you don’t dance through it you trudge; King knows that most of the time the only reward for not drinking is that you didn’t have a drink. And eventually you don’t want to drink anymore because eventually you’re dead. You know, there’s probably a reason people talk about recovering addicts but no one ever talks about recovered addicts. The fact that a man who has been there and bought the t-shirt but is now a multi-millionaire and who lives behind a wall can still understand all this so well and, better, can communicate it so directly and sympathetically is an impressive feat of empathetic writing. Due to his mind beggaring popularity King is often given short shrift as a writer, which is a tad unfair. Because somewhere along the way Stephen King became a writer good enough to handle the horrors of reality head-on without the ghoulish gee-gaws of plastic fangs and rubber bats and it’s when he trusts himself to do so that Doctor Sleep is at its best. It is then that Doctor Sleep is better than GOOD!

Next time on Words From My Head: COMICS!!!

"Choke!", "Gasp!" Not A Podcast! BOOKS! Like Television But In Your Head!

I hear tell Gentle Jeff’s taken his hard drive into the bath again or something. Sigh, that boy! For once I’ve got something to plug that Skip Week Gap. As ever on these occasions I write about whatever I want knowing you won’t mind because you are all so lovely! And you are aren’t you? Weesss ooo arrrr! This time out I write about a British author who is in no danger of being called “Chuckles” anytime soon. One David Peace whose new novel, Red or Dead (VERY GOOD!) came out recently so I didn’t actually read anything else until it was done. It took some reading as well. He’s not the easiest read in the library, this David Peace guy. I was going to go on about that new one but I’m still cogitating. In the meantime let’s take Kylie’s tiny hand and step back in time to the books that made his name. Or not. Free Will, right? Anyway, this... photo NAME_zps1c01f891.jpg

 photo COVERSB_zps1a89c733.jpg

I say, did I ever tell you that David Peace once had the pleasure of meeting me. Oh wait, that’s later. For now let’s begin at the beginning. Traditional and shit, innit.

In the year of Our Lord 1967 a child was born of human love. This child, this future author, this David Peace, grew up in Ossett which is in West Yorkshire, Great Britain. Until 1974 West Yorkshire traded under the name of The West Riding of Yorkshire. Don’t worry about why; I just looked it up and unless you’re having trouble sleeping I wouldn’t stress over shifts in regional demarcation or naming. No, the important things to take away this far in are ‘1974’ and ‘West Riding’. Now, for our International viewers tuning in let me just explain that while Great Britain may well be smaller than the great state of Texas it is rich in regional divisions and distinctions. And, Boy Howdy, are folk proud of those. Particularly Yorkshire people, or ‘puddings’ as they prefer to be known. Yorkshire folk have a weird kind of self-deprecating arrogance; we’re better than everyone else but that’s no great shakes because everyone else is a bit shit to start off with. A bit like that. Now, I can’t prove it but I understand Keith Waterhouse (1929 – 1999; wrote Billy Liar etc.) used to tell a joke about a Yorkshireman who died and upon approaching The Pearly Gates was greeted by St Peter with the words; “Welcome to Heaven. You won’t like it.” That’s Yorkshire folk right there. And it might explain why David Peace’s books are so driven to refute the stance of noted philosopher Belinda Carlisle and posit that, rather than Heaven, it is in fact Hell which is a place on earth. And David Peace’s Hell is a Hell built by men. (And Margaret Thatcher.)

Peace got right on men’s case with his debut novel Nineteen Seventy Four (1999). Nineteen Seventy Four (as well as being painful to type out) is set in 2036 A.D. on the planet Bagwash. No, Nineteen Seventy Four is set in 1974 A.D. and is set mostly in The West Riding of Yorkshire and is all about the Evil that men do. Nineteen Seventy Four would prove to be the first in a four book cycle later termed The Red Riding Quartet, in much the same way as James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia (1987; VERY GOOD!) would mark the start of the L.A. Quartet. And, yes, of course The Demon Dog is here snuffling at our collective crotches already because Nineteen Seventy Four is pretty much the work of Yorkshire’s James Ellroy. Of course James Ellroy had already been happening for some years so Peace gets to cut the shit and his style starts at White Jazz (1992; EXCELLENT!). Nineteen Seventy Four is a pitch perfect balancing act of genre thrills and literary skills. That’s proper reviewing shit that last sentence is.

Nineteen Seventy Seven (2000) seems like a bit of a step backwards. This is where, I think, David Peace decided he aspired to be more than Yorkshire’s James Ellroy. Unfortunately he seems to have decided this after writing Nineteen Seventy Seven which reads like the work of someone stepping fully into the shadow of James Ellroy. Everything after Nineteen Seventy Seven reads like someone trying to shake off James Ellroy’s shadow. While Nineteen Seventy Seven is essential to the Quartet in that it continues and develops the themes and introduces a couple of characters of pivotal importance, it’s a bit trad, Dad. There’s a reason the 2009 TV adaptation of The Red Riding Quartet skipped Nineteen Seventy Seven is what I’m saying. However, if there’s a reason that same adaptation has an egregiously uplifting ending I am not party to it. In its defence it does have Sean Bean clad in a nasty sweater shouting about shopping centres so it’s not all bad. With Nineteen Seventy Seven it looked like David Peace had struck lucky with Nineteen Seventy Four and was just(!) going to be a pretty good genre author.

With the twin triumphs of Nineteen Eighty (2001) and Nineteen Eighty Three (2002) David Peace dragged this assumption into an abandoned lock up garage and danced on its head until his boots looked covered in jam. With Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three David Peace swiftly sidled into Serious Fiction and there he sullenly squats still. Because with Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty Three it became apparent that Peace was lifting the carpet of British History, clawing past the soiled and stained underlay, rooting down through the foundations and finally shattering the sewer pipe that ran beneath everything all along. This is England, says The Red Riding Quartet and this, this is how England fell. When misogyny, racism and homophobia are institutionalised, when misogyny, racism and homophobia are unquestioned, when misogyny, racism and homophobia are acceptable what, then, is unacceptable? And at the end of all this, at the end of four tubby books touted as serial killer thrillers, as police procedurals, as crime fiction the answer comes back. At the end of four fat bricks of almost unremitting foulness conveyed in repetitious and emaciated prose pressed into literary frameworks of increasing subtlety and complexity the answer comes back. And the answer is, nothing. Nothing is unacceptable. As long as there’s money in it for someone.

Fair warning for sweet souls; these are hard books to read. No, they are not easy books to read. From their unforgiving (relentless in its repetition) prose style to the draining focus on the sordid (relentless in its denial of light), no, these are not easy books to read. But they are worth reading. They are worth the effort. They will, I think, reward you if you make it out the other end. Start at the beginning. Start at Nineteen Seventy Four and see how it goes. The Red Riding Quartet is not easy because it is a portrait of a land insane. My land. And here my land is like an ulcerous cur tearing out its own stomach to bite the pain away. All of which flowery guff is just to say David Peace is EXCELLENT!

Welcome to David Peace. Welcome to Hell. You’ll like it.

BONUS: When David Met James!

Postscript: In Which I Light Up David Peace’s Life

It would have been 2007, I guess, as Tokyo Year Zero was the book David Peace was promoting at the time. I read in The Guardian (it has a good book section on Saturdays) that his promotional duties were to bring him to Sheffield. Having just relocated Sheffield was now practically on my doorstep. So it would have been rude not to go. As it turned out it was rude to go, but still. Perhaps our lives had merely been prelude as fickle Fate moved us both , the talented and modest writer and also David Peace, towards this ultimate showdown, this fateful face-off, conducted near the “New This Week” shelf in Waterstones, Sheffield. It was towards the end of dinner time creeping into the afternoon, I remember that. So I barged into the Sheffield branch of Waterstones my mind aflame with excitement at the prospect of exchanging words with a man whose words I had spent so much money on. Perhaps I would lean in just a little bit too closely and gather his scent in my nostrils to savour later at my leisure. I was expecting crowds; I was expecting bedlam; I was expecting droves; I was not expecting the shop to be practically empty. Wrong-footed and discombobulated I cast my gaze around the place; all the people I could see were a smartly dressed lady stood by a man sat at a table. So, I asked the lady if she knew where David Peace was and the lady inclined her hand to indicate the man at her side. I had not recognised him because he was wearing glasses and all I had to go on was a close cropped author photo that made him look like something off the cover of GQ.

 photo FACESB_zps7095f133.jpg

So, now I’m flummoxed by the lack of crowds and, on top of that, I’ve just failed to recognise the very man I came to meet. Also, I was expecting some time to get my head in order, compose my silly self, practice my lines and all that. But, no, it’s clear that any second now David Peace (DAVID PEACE!) is going to politely raise himself up from his chair and extend his hand and I’ll have to say something and ohgodineedtimetoprepareitsalltoosuddentootoosuddennnurrrhhhh

“Hi!”, said David Peace, politely raising himself up from his chair and extending his hand. Was it the very hand that had written all those words, all those words I had read, those very words I had come to thank him for? Perhaps it was that hand. That very hand indeed.

“O!”, I said.

“O! I thought there’d be LOADS of people!”, I said.

And we all stood there.

In the silence.

The silence of loads of people not being there.

The silence suddenly as loud as thunder.

And we all stood there.

In the silence.

The silence of loads of people still not being there.

The silence that ended only when, with a face as red as a freshly smacked arse, I passed him my book. I muttered a quick thanks for all the books and for signing that book right there and fled. Out. Out into the street. Out onto the street where I leaned against a supporting pillar and swore like a sailor under my breath. And scant seconds later I saw David Peace emerge with his shoulder bag swinging and literary minder in tow. And that was the last time I ever did see David Peace. Scampering towards Sheffield city centre, receding into the distance and approaching the future in which he would write Occupied City (2009) and Red or Dead (2013) and I would go on to write a load of old crap; sometimes about whatever caught my fancy but mostly about - COMICS!!!!

David Peace – A Bibliography

Nineteen Seventy-Four (1999) VERY GOOD!

Nineteen Seventy-Seven (2000) GOOD!

Nineteen Eighty (2001) EXCELLENT!

Nineteen Eighty-Three (2002) EXCELLENT!

GB84 (2004) EXCELLENT!

The Damned Utd (2006) VERY GOOD!

Tokyo Year Zero (2007) VERY GOOD!

Occupied City (2009) GOOD!

Red or Dead (2013) VERY GOOD!