Full Fathom Forty

The British Fantasy Society’s 40th anniversary anthology, Full Fathom Forty, edited by David J Howe, is out! I got my copy yesterday. And it’s a heavy tome. The picture on the right attempts to show just what a hefty book it is, at 496 pages. And I thought I’d mention it here because (ahem), I have a story in it, “Elven Brides”, which I’m thrilled about. There are forty authors represented in the book, in all, so if you have any liking for fantasy or horror fiction or poetry, you’re bound to find something to like here. I won’t mention them all, but I’m very, very happy to be in the same book as Ramsey Campbell, Kim Newman & Jonathan Carroll. I am looking forward to reading this book!

It can be bought direct from The British Fantasy Society, but also from Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com and The Book Despository!

Lovecraftian Doctor Who

It struck me recently how Lovecraftian my favourite period of Doctor Who (the first half of Tom Baker’s reign) was. I don’t know if there was ever an explicit influence, but the fact it was a science fiction show being made during a British horror boom (the early seventies), probably led to a certain amount of natural crossover.

Script editor Robert Holmes certainly brought in (or encouraged) all sorts of horror and sci-fi influences, mostly filmic ones — King Kong  in “Robot”, The Thing from Another World in “The Seeds of Doom”, The Beast With Five Fingers in “The Hand of Fear”, Frankenstein in “The Brain of Morbius”, for instance. He wanted to “darken things up a little”, saying “I don’t think it would be unfair to accuse us of aiming towards a slightly ‘gothic’ area. Tom always called it ‘Who-noir’.” (quoted in Classic Who: The Hinchcliffe Years by Adrian Rigelsford)

Another thing that led to a Lovecraftian feel could have been Holmes’s attempt to shrug off good/evil dichotomies. According to producer Philip Hinchcliffe, Holmes “had a theory that there’s no such thing as good or evil in the universe; it’s all just part of a process, and the side you fall into simply depends on how you’re made. He was fascinated by the notion of an organic life-form which lands on earth and causes havoc because it’s neither intentionally bad or good, it’s just that its ‘process’ conflicts with ours and appears evil by comparison.” (from Classic Who, again.) This is pretty much spelled out by Sutekh: “Your evil is my good, Doctor. I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread I leave nothing but dust and darkness. That, I find good.”

Of course, Doctor Who could never have addressed the underlying cosmic horror outlook of Lovecraft. The Doctor is a heroic figure, and it’s one of the tenets of Lovecraftian horror that people can never be heroic — cannot, in fact, ever be anything other than gnats and flies before the terrible forces that rule our universe. (“In my presence, you are an ant, a termite — abase yourself, you grovelling insect!” — the ever-quotable Sutekh.) Doctor Who, on the other hand, had a fundamentally optimistic nature (necessarily so, perhaps, being a kid’s show). When the Doctor defeats Sutekh, it’s with the feeling of things being returned to their rightful balance, rather than a brief avoidance of an eventually inevitable human defeat (which is how “The Call of Cthulhu” ends). And just consider how Lovecraft would have viewed the story of one of the Doctor’s human companions — more as the sort of alien abduction perpetrated in “The Whisperer in Darkness” or “The Shadow Out of Time” than a romp through space & time, with the Doctor, perhaps, as a sort of charlatan Nyarlathotep figure.

But it’s surprising how much of a similar feel the alien creatures had during these few seasons to Lovecraft’s creations:

insect-like creatures who can fly through the vacuum of space — the Mi-Go (Lovecraft), and the Wirrn (Doctor Who)…

a man transformed into a giant, lumbering, tentacled monster intent on wiping out all human life — the creature at the end of “The Dunwich Horror” (Lovecraft), and Keller transformed into a Krynoid at the end of “The Seeds of Doom” (Doctor Who)…

an alien entity who wants nothing more than to destroy all life in the universe, but who has been imprisoned in a tomb on Earth — Cthulhu (Lovecraft) and Sutekh (“The Pyramids of Mars”)…

a created lifeform, intended as a servant/soldier, destroys the race that created it — Shoggoths (At the Mountains of Madness) and the nascent Daleks (“Genesis of the Daleks”) who, in their naked form, are rather Lovecraftian sea-slug-like slimy blobs…

an ancient alien lifeform, buried for millions of years, is uncovered and comes to life again — At the Mountains of Madness, “The Hand of Fear”.

To me, the most Lovecraftian creatures are the Fendahleen — perhaps just because they spring from the same impulse to try and create a monster that doesn’t simply look like a man in a suit (in the case of Doctor Who) or which isn’t just a slight alteration of the human form, but is designed to be totally alien to everything we ever think of as human (in the case of Lovecraft’s monsters).

Of course, a more direct source of influence on “The Image of the Fendahl”, with its ancient, alien powers being released by scientists examining a 12 million year old skull, is Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. But the Lovecraftianism of Nigel Kneale’s output is a whole nother subject (the meteorites of Quatermass II — nicked virtually wholesale by Doctor Who in “Spearhead from Space” (another Robert Holmes story) — to me recalls Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space”, for instance.)

So, to recap: Sutekh is Nyarlathotep, Zygons are Deep Ones, and the Doctor ought to faint more often.

Strange Evil by Elizabeth Gaskell

Strange Evil was written in 1955, by the fourteen year old Jane Gaskell, and published in 1957. It belongs to that small class of genuinely unique sports of imaginative fiction from the time before fantasy was a commercial genre. In a sense, it was published in another age. As the publisher’s preface states (after basically apologising for the fact that the book was written by a “prodigy”), the manuscript was submitted in “eight little blue exercise books”, something which wouldn’t even get a cursory glance nowadays. But they published it “not because it is remarkable to have written a novel at all at fourteen, but because we think Strange Evil is, in itself, a strange, arresting and beautiful book.”

The question is, is it still worth reading today? In the preface, the publishers go on to say: “That it has faults and immaturities we know; revision has deliberately been kept to a minimum and has been carried out by the author herself, for we felt that the youthful sparkle of her writing should at all costs be preserved.” One of the things that makes the book still worth reading is its style. And the point about Strange Evil‘s style isn’t its maturity, or lack of it (though I don’t see much of the lack of it myself), but its originality.

As an example:

“Flowers thanked the blue sky with perfume. Perfume was wafted down to her — not only from the great beds on the sunlit terraces, but from those bright assemblages of flowers far away on the mountainside. At the top of the slope trees were massed in shades of jewel-green. White blossoms peered and peeped among them, blurry pearls in the midst of the hard vividity of the rest of the colours of the day. A blue sky rose above them and arched its back as though it, too, were alive and vital. It was certainly sun-soaked. It was blue as though it depended on its living for it.”

“It was certainly sun-soaked” might be immature, but you’d have to have no poetry in your soul not to immediately forgive it for the sentence that follows it, which is just one of the many little sparks of surprise dotted throughout the book. Here’s another:

“A red butterfly perched on her shoulder, and, frightened by the texture of her blouse, darted off again. She followed it until she lost it in its gay philanderage among the flowers.”

Has a butterfly’s flight ever been better described than as a “gay philanderage”? (Taking both words in the 1950s sense, of course!) But the poetry of Gaskell’s style isn’t only reserved for the beauties of her world — though it is far more colourful than most writers’ worlds — as this example from a long and bloody battle at the end shows:

“Once, as she fled and slipped again, it was upon five separate fingers in the pool — they were like five little sticks which clutched at her feet.”

The thing about these examples is they’re so vivid and unique. I’ve read enough fantasy novels by full-fledged adults to know that you don’t find images as arresting as those “five separate fingers” often, however violent things get. One thing you can say about Gaskell’s writing that sets it apart from the “immature” is that it is unclichéd. Most fourteen-year-old writers would simply be rehashing what they’d read before, and in a similar style. It takes a certain maturity to break free of other writers, and Gaskell certainly has that.

The basic plot of the book isn’t so original, as fantasies go, but is so full of weird invention that you either won’t notice it, or won’t care. Judith, our heroine, receives a last minute note telling her that a cousin she has never met is coming to stay. It turns out this cousin, Dorinda, and her fiancé Zameis, aren’t human, but are what could best be called fairies, as Judith realises when their golden antenna become visible in a particularly sunny London restaurant. For some reason, knowing their true nature means Judith can’t be left in our world, but must go with them to theirs, though this is something she seems happy enough to do. They travel to Paris, to jump off the roof of Notre Dames, which happens to be one of the places where our world touches theirs. Judith and her two companions find themselves on a moving silver road, which takes them across the many disparate regions of fairyland.

They are making for a mountain, which Dorinda, Zameis, and other “Internals” live inside. But before they can reach it, they’re kidnapped by “Externals” — a mix of exiled Internals and conscripted satyrs, who grow food for the Internals in exchange for brief returns to the inside of the mountain (which the Externals need to do regularly in order to survive). But it turns out that the Internals have finally denied the Externals any entry to the life-giving interior of the mountain, and the Externals, driven to desperation, are ready for war.

Judith, neither an Internal nor an External, at first finds herself free to move about, but soon comes to the attention of one of the Internal nobles, who thinks she is an agent of Death come to kill him. War breaks out. Judith, finding the decadence and pleasure-loving perversity of the Internals not to her taste, sides with the Externals, and finally confronts the Baby — a monstrous giant god in the shape of a vastly overgrown human baby who represents the selfish, sybaritic nature of the Internals’ religion, “just sheer, puffed-up, spoilt, colossal selfishness”. (This, I suppose, is what China Mieville was referring to when he said Strange Evil had “the most extraordinary baddy in fiction”.)

The book is sprinkled with weird moments that go way beyond the imaginations of most generic fantasists. At one point, heading for the final battle, Judith witnesses the passing of a “colossal black woman”, so big that:

“She stepped over the mountain as though it were flat grass on a plain, and Judith knew her to be one who cared nothing for the little ways of men. Truly there were dreadful things in this world.”

It’s a brief pause that adds nothing to the plot, but does everything to open up the sense of being in another, totally alien world, where potentially vast forces might at any moment come into play. (It may have been inspired by Goya’s “The Colossus“. The back flap of Strange Evil says Gaskell “derives the inspiration for some of her descriptive passages from studying paintings”.)

So, I think Strange Evil is still worth reading, not for the fact it was written by a fourteen-year-old, but because it is the product of a unique imagination. I’d even say there’s an air of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus in the home-grown, one-offness of its fantastic invention, and the authenticity of its intent. This is something that’s still rare today, when it’s so easy to fall into the wheel ruts of genre fiction and follow them through the usual standard plots, standard styles, and standard fantastic images, for the standard reasons.

Jane Gaskell went on to write the Atlan fantasy series, which I haven’t read, but I will certainly be on the look out for.