Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, coverMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore starts with Clay, one-time web designer for a hip and trendy bagel store, being laid off as NewBagel, trying to survive in a harsher economic climate, rebrands itself as the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company, and don’t see a flashy website and chatty Twitter account as part of their new, old-time image. So Clay retreats down the ladder of technological evolution by landing a job at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, whose upper technological limit is a ‘decrepit beige Mac Plus’ and a series of old, handwritten sales ledgers.

The store has some odd rules and odder customers, some of whom belong to a sort of subscription service which allows them to come in at any hour, often in a state of frenzy or distress, return an odd-named volume (KRESIMIR or CLOVTIER) and take another odd-named volume out in its place — always from the ‘Waybacklist’, whose books are not for sale, and whose contents (when Clay ventures to look inside) are strings of apparently random letters. Everything has to be logged in the sales ledgers, from the customer’s card number, to any random details of their appearance and demeanour.

Bored by his long night shifts, Clay brings in his laptop and idly starts building a 3D map of the shop. Spurred on by his new girlfriend, Kat Potente (who works at Google, and is thoroughly immersed in the techno-optimisim of Silicon Valley), he starts to log customers’ withdrawals — and comes up with a surprising pattern that ultimately leads him to the cult of the Unbroken Spine, an organisation devoted to decoding the final great work of Aldus Manutius, ‘one of the first publishers… right after Gutenberg’.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book with a foot planted in each of two worlds. There’s the world of new-tech, as represented by e-readers, digital books and Google (whose vast computing power is, at one point, entirely harnessed to try to decode Manutius’ work: ‘on a sunny Friday morning, for three seconds, you can’t search for anything…’), and there’s the other world of old-style print books, a world known to Googlers as ‘OK’:

“Old knowledge, OK. Did you know that ninety-five percent of the internet was only created in the last five years? But we know that when it comes to all human knowledge, the ratio is just the opposite—in fact, OK accounts for most things that most people know, and have ever known.”

But it’s not a novel that comes down entirely on the side of new tech or old knowledge. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about coexistence, working together, friendship — among people and technologies. For, as Clay points out, today’s ‘OK’ is yesterday’s new tech:

“Printing… was basically the internet of its day; it was exciting. And just like the internet today, printing in the fifteenth century was all problems, all the time: How do you store the ink? How do you mix the metal? How do you mold the type? The answers changed every six months. In every great city of Europe, there were a dozen printing houses all trying to figure it out first. In Venice, the greatest of those printing houses belonged to Aldus Manutius…”

It’s a fun read, driven by an inventive mystery-quest plot and some easy-paced, zingy writing, my favourite example being this description of Kat Potente:

“She’s wearing the same red and yellow BAM! T-shirt from before, which means (a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical T-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.”

I suppose it falls into the same category as Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, a favourite novel of mine that I reviewed on this blog back in 2007. But Flicker takes its narrator on a quest through the history of film, and ultimately leads to him discovering a secret society on the verge of unleashing worldwide destruction. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about books — printed books and ebooks — and its secret cult, The Unbroken Spine, is no way near as dangerous as Roszak’s Oculus Dei.

Another thing that added to the book’s charm was its being set in San Francisco, a city I only visited once, briefly, for a few hours (Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park), but which has somehow come to be a far more real imaginative presence thanks to novels such as Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, and, perhaps more than any of these, Alfred Hitchcock’s films The Birds (which starts in San Francisco) and Vertigo.

Skallagrigg by William Horwood

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

I first read William Horwood’s Skallagrigg twelve years ago, on a word-of-mouth recommendation — actually, less than that, an overheard snippet of a recommendation to someone else — which is a particularly appropriate way to come to a novel that’s about a quest to find the source of a cycle of stories spread among the disabled residents of Britain’s hospitals, institutions and places of care, always by word of mouth, never written down. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, writing about Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, how much I like this sort of quest-for-the-artist kind of tale (I also included Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark in the same category; his Ancient Images would be another, as would Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). Skallagrigg follows a similar labyrinthine path, and although it does so without straying into the supernatural or conspiracy territories of Campbell’s or Roszak’s, it provides a very satisfying and moving conclusion to the quest on all levels, and is, I’d say, one of the most powerful novels I’ve read — and a damned good read, too.

The “Skallagrigg” stories centre around Arthur, brought as a boy at the beginning of the 20th century to a “towering place of dirty yellow brick and sunless, barred windows”, because his cerebral palsy has branded him, in the all too ready-to-label eye of the era’s establishment, an idiot. Arthur is, in fact, highly intelligent, and through a fellow patient who can understand his difficult speech tells stories of a figure he calls “the Skallagrigg”, who will one day come and take him from the hell that is the ward ruled over by a violent, or at best indifferent, staff of supposed carers, and one particular demon with a hooked window-stick known as Dilke. Arthur’s stories spread among the disabled, never the able-bodied, and become a sort of myth, hinting at a promise of hope, of escape, of freedom, perhaps even of cure, until it’s difficult to tell if this “Skallagrigg” is an actual person or a saviour figure — for how else could he or she or it possibly live up to all that Arthur, and the others that hear the stories, hope for?

Skallagrigg (paperback)The novel’s main story follows Esther Marquand, who is, like Arthur, born with cerebral palsy, though into a far more enlightened age. This does not, however, make her journey through life at all easy. On the way there are difficulties to face, both physical and emotional — Esther’s condition, and the circumstances of her birth (born via Caesarian after her mother was killed in a car accident), have torn apart her family. But just as the “quest” strand of Skallagrigg is about bringing together disparate clues to find a lost truth, so Esther’s story is about reconciliation, about facing difficult emotional truths and overcoming them to heal what does not seem can be healed. Skallagrigg is a long book (572 pages in hardback, 736 in paperback), but necessarily long, to properly convey the considerable struggle Esther faces at every stage of both her life and her quest for the source of the “Skallagrigg” stories. As someone who generally doesn’t like long books, I have to say this is one that thoroughly justifies its length. (Which is why the 1994 TV adaptation of the novel by the BBC, though a good film in its own right, can only ever be a whistle-stop tour of the novel’s highlights, a compression of its very full story, and probably best watched after you’ve read the book, otherwise it might wrongfoot you on a few plot-strands. Still, highly recommended as a sort of dessert to the novel itself. Richard Briers never fails to surprise!)

One of the things I love about this book is that it’s also about the early days of home computers (it was published in 1987). Esther’s quest for the Skallagrigg informs her growing ability as a creator of computer games, leading her to make a game that takes the player through as much of an analogue of her own difficult journey as it can — both through life, and in search of the Skallagrigg:

“She must already have made the key decision for ‘Skallagrigg’ [the game she creates] that the journeyer — the player — would have to become successively more severely handicapped if he or she was to reach the end of the quest. The game was becoming a journey into nightmare, of terrible self-acceptance, and the options the successful player would have to make would be ones towards self-abasement, humiliation, weakness and physical destruction in order to gain a spiritual victory.”

Horwood tells of how he came to write Skallagrigg in a lecture given in the 1990s, “The novel and the safe journey of healing”, (later published in The Novel, Spirituality and Modern Culture):

“I picked up a pocket tape-recorder one day and posed myself a challenge. Was there anything, I asked myself, that I could not speak into it. Some secret perhaps. Some unadmitted truth, something, anything…”

By taking up such a challenging and essentially unanswerable subject as the blind injustice of being born so physically powerless as Esther or Arthur, Horwood plunges his reader into a confrontation with the limits we all face. Ultimately the Skallagrigg stories, like the truest stories and mythologies, are about finding a way to deal with the dark areas, the difficult and impossible areas, of life — not by “solving” them, not by having the difficulties magically taken away or made “normal”, but by finding meaning in the face of them, by accepting and then transcending them.

I recently re-read Skallagrigg and found it just as compelling as my first read. (I had in fact forgotten what the ultimate solution to Esther’s quest was, and when it came round again, found it just as spot-on, just as fulfilling of all its hints and puzzles, right down to origin of the word “Skallagrigg” itself.)

A wonderful book.

Flicker by Theodore Roszak

flickerI still haven’t come up with a name for that genre of books/films I like so much, where the main character is researching the life of some obscure, forgotten artist (or writer, or filmmaker), or is tracking down some legendary-but-now-lost film (or book, or artwork), and whose quest leads them into dark, often supernaturally horrific territory — previous examples covered in this blog being John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, and Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark — but Theodore Roszak’s Flicker was the one that, for me, came first, back sometime in 1992 I think it was, when I found it listed in the Andromeda Bookshop catalogue.

(…Brief pause to reminisce about those Andromeda Bookshop catalogues. It’s another thing the internet has done away with — both the need to browse through catalogues and the pleasure of doing so. But those A5 zine-sized little booklets, packed with listings of new books, classic re-releases, rarities and oddities in the sf, fantasy and horror world, complete with intriguing little plot synopses and recommendations, were such a joy to read, simply because of the surprises and treasures they always had in store. I never kept any of them, which is a pity, as they could well have formed, by themselves, a mini-history of late 20th century fantasy publishing. One book catalogue I haven’t been able to bring myself to throw away, though, is from Mick Lyons’ Kadath Press, at the time one of the few (if not the only) UK distributors of Arkham House, Necronomicon Press, and other US publishers of classic weird fiction reprints and associated marginalia. Looking through that catalogue at times felt like leafing through the Necronomicon itself — full as it was of dark secrets and macabre promises of eldritch enlightenments… Okay, so-called “brief pause” over, and back to the book…)

In Flicker, Roszak’s hero Jonathan Gates becomes fascinated by the films of Max Castle, an initially promising exponent of German Expressionism back in the silent days, who later moved to Hollywood and, after a disastrous attempt at a Biblical epic (The Martyr) that went hugely over budget and was never finished, lapsed into pulpy shockers with titles like The Ripper Strikes, The Ripper Returns, Revenge of the Zombie and Kiss of the Vampire. But Castle’s films turn out to have a peculiar dark power that goes beyond their tawdry imagery, something Gates soon learns is all down to “the Flicker” — a way of manipulating the very fundamentals of film itself to hide a second, secret film within the shadows and lights of the first. But Castle didn’t just use these visual tricks to add a little frisson to his films’ chills — for he was born into a secretive religious order known as the Orphans of the Storm, and once Jonathan Gates discovers them, we start to enter Da Vinci Code territory (though, as the novel was written well before Dan Brown’s, perhaps I should say Holy Blood and the Holy Grail territory); we’re soon in the all-too familiar company of Templars, Cathars, a secret order of Catholics (“Oculus Dei”), and the Gnostic gospels of the worshippers of the god Abraxas. H P Lovecraft even gets a mention.

The great thing about this sort of plot is the way it tangles its inventions up with the real history of the culture it’s dealing with — Max Castle, like a dark Zelig or Forrest Gump, pops up behind the scenes of a few key classics, such as Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, as well giving Louise Brooks her first, uncredited, silver screen appearance. Just as Lovecraft would drop the odd real book title into his lists of forbidden tomes (Margaret Murray’s The Witch Cult in Western Europe, for instance), this all adds to the authenticity of the invented films. Flicker was pretty much responsible for starting my interest in going back and watching the film world’s great classics, as well as convincing me to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (in a neat, filmic twist, a book I never really understood till I saw it adapted in Apocalypse Now).

And it seems Flicker is going to be made into a film itself in 2008.

John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns

First Amazon rental of the month is John Carpenter’s entry in the Masters of Horror series, Cigarette Burns. I really only included it in my rental list because I was adding Stuart Gordon’s entry, an adaptation of The Dreams in the Witch House (I can’t resist the promise of Lovecraft on film, even though the results are so often disappointments — notable exceptions being Stuart Gordon’s Dagon and the HPLHS’s silent Call of Cthulhu), and I caught a glimpse of Cigarette Burns’ plot synopsis, which was enough to get me intrigued: Years ago the first showing of an obscure European director’s film La Fin Absolue de Monde resulted in a spontaneous bloodbath in the audience. The film’s single print was supposedly destroyed, but a rich collector has information to the contrary, and he hires our hero Kirby Sweetman to find it.

I love this sort of plot, where someone embarks on a quest to track down some obscure book or film (as in Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, or Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). And John Carpenter directed one of my all-time favourite films, The Thing, which is also one of the most Lovecraftian-without-actually-being-Lovecraft movies I’ve seen. (He also created some brilliantly moody-but-minimal soundtrack scores — a recent purchase was The Essential John Carpenter CD.) However, Carpenter also directed They Live!, a film whose great genre premise (an alien race enslaves mankind through the use of subliminal advertising) is totally ruined by its being turned into a crass action movie. (Not that I’ve got anything against action movies, it’s just that you want a film founded on an idea to reach some sort of idea-based solution, not one involving nothing but big guns and grenades.)

So, I was prepared to be disappointed by Cigarette Burns. Thankfully I wasn’t. The Masters of Horror series was originally made for TV. Thirteen notable horror filmmakers each directed an hour-long self-contained episode, and perhaps it’s the fact that Cigarette Burns is only an hour long that makes it work, as the need for brevity keeps the story on track.

Of course, the thing with a film like this — a film about a film — is that at some point the hero has to find the film he’s searching for and watch it. Whereupon we, the audience, will have to see it too, otherwise we’ll feel cheated. And how can any filmmaker deliver, after all the build-up about it being a work of undeniable though diabolic genius and power? Flicker and The Book of Illusions could dodge this issue because they were books about films, so their authors could describe the films without having to realise them in full. A film about a film doesn’t have that option.

The Japanese version of Ring (another favourite, though the US remake isn’t), really delivers on this promise, by making the content of its cursed videotape both short and extremely surreal. In Cigarette Burns we see glimpses of La Fin Absolue de Monde, but only after we’ve been told the reason why it has the effect it has. (As I want to try to keep this a spoiler-free zone, I won’t reveal it here.) So the mythical film retains its glamour by relegating all but those few glimpses to the viewer’s imagination, which is the right thing to do.

On the subject of books and films about (invented) films, there are of course many books about (invented) books. I read Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind earlier this year (it was recommended by Richard and Judy, for heaven’s sake!), and though it was quite readable, I really only read it to the end because I couldn’t believe such a critically acclaimed book boiled down to nothing but an awful quasi-gothic melodrama, but it did. The Invisible Library website aims to list all invented books, of which there is a surprisingly large crop.