A Plague of Scanspellos

They’re not typos, they’s scanspellos — errors that come not from someone mistyping something and failing to check it, but from someone scanning something in, running a quick OCR and spellcheck, then thinking that’s enough work on that one and publishing the damn thing. And I’m not talking about people putting stuff up on the web, I’m talking about supposedly professionally produced books available through Amazon. And this plague of scanspellos is set to get a lot worse as ebooks gain in popularity.

It’s not an issue limited to ebooks. The old Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks had their fair share of typos, for instance — enough to make me want to replace them with a higher quality edition if I ever wanted to re-read them, but never so many that it made me give up reading them to start with. I first read A Voyage to Arcturus in its Ballantine edition, and although the typos were mildly annoying, they never got in the way of my understanding — and in fact being bowled over by — the book. It was always obvious they were typos. The trouble with scanspellos (a horrible word for a horrible phenomenon) is, because they involve a careless run through a spellchecker, they’re that much less obvious. The first book that really got my readerly goat as far as scanspellos are concerned was, in fact, another edition of A Voyage to Arcturus, in this case one produced by a university press — Bison Press, who are associated with the University of Nebraska. In a supposedly “commemmorative” edition (that’s one “m” too many, they even managed to introduce an error on the cover), the text was so garbled I actually fired an email off to the publisher (and never got a reply of course). Although it was full of silly little obvious errors, including number 1’s for letter l’s (hardly an important error, but irritating enough to act as a constant distraction from pure reading), some of the words, and therefore the meaning, had actually been changed. At one point, for instance, the text said, “The short stranger turned and comforted the party”. Any reader new to Arcturus would read that and take it at face value, but I, having read the novel a fair few times and knowing that the very essence of the “short stranger”, Krag, is discomfort — he is a supernatural being who has another name in our world, and it is Pain — checked that sentence in another edition and found it was supposed to read “The short stranger turned and confronted the party” — an entirely different meaning.

I’ve recently been reading Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural, a bumper volume of Algernon Blackwood stories. This is from House of Stratus, a publisher who has issued a lot of Blackwood in affordable paperback form. A while ago I bought their edition of his novel, The Human Chord, and it was a well-produced paperback. I thought Tales would be up to the same standard. In fact it was scanspelloed to the hilt. “Her” constantly replaced “for”, “ox” replaced “or”, “axe” replaced “are”, “lie” replaced “he”, among many, many others. Worst of all was its constant replacement of long dashes with hyphens. This might sound like a minor annoyance on a par with number 1’s for letter l’s, but it was actually the thing that most interrupted my reading. There’s a constantly disruptive effect in reading a sentence like:

“The Club-it crossed his tortured mind for a second-was impossible.”

The worst thing was, once I’d been reading the book for a while, I found myself looking at hyphenated words I came across elsewhere, wondering if they were supposed to have a dash or a hyphen between them, and tentatively re-reading them each way before continuing.

Neither of these examples are of ebooks. I recently read Treasure Island on my Kindle, in the free edition offered by Amazon. That actually had very few scanspellos, but had plenty of examples of the other fault that irritates me about ebooks — poor design. I hate books that use html-style paragraphing (a double line-space between paragraphs rather than a single line break and an indent). The free edition of Treasure Island didn’t do that, fortunately, but quite frequently had line breaks within paragraphs, though aside from that — and the poor formatting of chapter headings — it was generally readable. But bad enough to persuade me to pay for a book I want to read in future.

None of this is because of the rise of ebooks, or of print-on-demand technology (the House of Stratus book was POD, the Bison Press wasn’t), but it is an effect of the ease with which old, often out-of-print, books can be brought into production nowadays. On the one hand, I applaud publishers for bringing hard-to-find works back into print once more — particularly the Algernon Blackwood novels and stories. But the very thing that makes it viable for them to do so is that they can put so little effort into it — just scan them, OCR & spellcheck them, and release them to the public without a proper (human) proofread. And the trouble is that once these cheap editions are out there, it makes it so much less likely that a proper publisher — one who will actually check what they publish — will bring out a better edition to replace it, one which will necessarily be more expensive, and so sell less.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered a better way of reading out-of-print books. I download them as PDFs from archive.org. Kindles are generally pretty bad for reading PDFs because they either shrink them too small to read in order to fit on the screen, or you have to constantly pan right and left to read them; but books of a certain age are just the right size to fit on a Kindle screen and remain readable. And they’ve got a good selection of Algernon Blackwoods at archive.org.

Matt Fox’s Wendigo

I’ve been reading a bit of Algernon Blackwood recently, so I thought I’d post what is one of my favourite fantasy illustrations, Matt Fox’s two-page spread for Blackwood’s excellent weird story, “The Wendigo”:

It would have originally been divided by inner page margins, hence the fact that the two halves don’t fit together.

It originally appeared in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in June 1944 (Blackwood’s tale was first published in 1910), but the above scan comes courtesy of Peter Haining’s wonderful Terror! A History of Horror Illustrations from the Pulp Magazines, a 1976 book chock-full of classic (and not-so-classic) pictures from the pulps and penny dreadfuls.

When I first saw this illustration, I was initially put off by its unrealistic style, but I kept coming back to it, and eventually it won me over. Nowadays, I’ve come to prefer illustration which is as much design as realistic representation, and, particularly in fantastic art where an air of make-believe is so necessary, I always find art which is only realistic — however perfect — just doesn’t do it for me as much as stuff which is plainly artificial, and so obviously the product of a human imagination.

If you want some more Matt Fox, here’s a pretty thorough gallery of his Weird Tales covers, illustrations, and some comic work, over at Golden Age Comic Book Stories.

Star Trek

Borag Thung, Earthlets! Sometime in the early, early eighties, the BBC showed what seemed like an endless rerun of the original Star Trek series. I watched every episode (they seemed to be on each weekday, at an appropriately post-school hour), but if you’d asked me at the time whether I liked Star Trek, I’d have replied with a definite no.

Why? Because I was a Doctor Who fan, of course! In my near-teens, it was a question of Catholic/Protestant proportions. If nothing else, Star Trek was US, Doctor Who was Brit. (And there was a general US invasion of British TV at the time, most of it rubbish — probably slightly better rubbish than our rubbish, but that wasn’t the point.) On a more practical level, BBC2 were showing whole weekdays-worth of original Star Trek, but no Doctor Who! And this was at a time when, thanks to collecting the Target novelisations and faithfully buying every issue of Doctor Who Weekly (then Monthly), I was desperate to see some of the old Doctor Who’s that I’d read so much about, and seen so many tantalising photos of — actually, in those pre-video days, I’d have been just as happy to see repeats of stories I’d already seen. Anything for more Doctor Who! Instead, what I got was endless Star Trek.

But, really, I enjoyed them, and it only occurred to me a few weeks ago that I’d never seen any of the original Star Trek episodes since those early eighties repeats — and certainly I’d never watched any of them while actually allowing myself to like them. So I bought the first season on DVD, and have started watching it. (I never got into the spinoffs. They seemed a bit too self-conscious of the weight of the tradition they were following; they lacked the sheer wackiness and innocence of the original series. Perhaps TV SF will never be as free again, simply because it’s become successful.)

I was at first disappointed to find that, as well as being remastered, the original show had had as many effects shots as possible replaced by computer-generated digital sequences. I was prepared to be outraged. But, having watched a few — and though I do miss those endless shots of the Enterprise orbiting a different-coloured but otherwise identical swirly-atmosphered planet each episode — I have to admit the new effects don’t at all stand out like the fistful of sore thumbs I was expecting. They fit right in. (The important thing is that those studio-bound planet sets are still there — so much a part of the feel of the original series, just as the studio-bound alien landscapes of Doctor Who’s like “The Brain of Morbius” or “Planet of Evil” are. I don’t care about their lack of realism, I even quite like their obvious theatricality.)

It’s been strange seeing the show after a gap of — eek! — almost thirty years. No doubt because of the age I was when I first watched it, I remembered the show begin quite different. I thought it was all action and sci-fi fantasy, but now I’m seeing a lot more character stuff than I ever was aware of at ten or eleven. Also, genuine SF-style ideas! Not every episode, but the one I’ve just watched (“The Enemy Within”) does present its theory of what makes a hero a hero, a captain a captain, with its story of Kirk’s tussle with his darker side. (An episode written by Richard Matheson, I note. That’s one thing I was never aware of when I saw the series originally: the fact that there were some big SF names involved. But then again, I’d never heard of Harlan Ellison or Richard Matheson when I saw Star Trek the first time.)

One question I had to answer was what order to watch the episodes. There seem to be so many options — by stardate (internal chronology), by production date, or by original broadcast date. I went with original broadcast date, and my initial reaction, on watching the first, “The Man Trap”, was to wonder how anyone watching it could have understood it. There was no effort at introducing the characters, let alone the SF ideas — transporters, phasers — that the show relied on. But obviously it worked.

The next thing that struck me was how every one of the five episodes I’ve watched so far — the first five to be broadcast — were about some sort of enemy within, or an enemy masquerading as a human. The Enterprise may have had its mission to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilisations, but its first five stories are really all about the invasion of the Enterprise itself. (Well, as Nietzsche said, “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”.) We have a shape-changing alien, two lots of humans transformed into monsters by the acquisition of super powers, and then two lots of strange influences that cause the crew of the Enterprise to become a danger to itself. Just when I thought this had to end, episode five was entitled “The Enemy Within”! Was this all post-McCarthy communist witch-hunt aftershocks? Or pre-shocks of the coming flower-power revolution? (The show seems to have one foot planted in the fifties — in Forbidden Planet rocket-power and spaceward-ho optimism — and another in sixties introspection, self-exploration and far-out-ness. The episode “Charlie X”, for instance, gives us a teen very much in the bryl-haired fifties mould, still innocent enough at the age of 17 to have some respect for authority, while the crew’s women are, generally, very much of the hive-hairdoed, cone-bra’d fifties type; while “The Naked Time” seems almost explicitly to be about the coming drop-out generation’s “let it all hang out” philosophy — and its use of LSD — alongside fears of society’s fragmentation as a result. The Enterprise is on a five-year trip, man.)

One obvious difference between Star Trek and Doctor Who is that the main characters in Star Trek all wear uniforms. They’re integrated parts of an established (and admirably inclusive) society. The Doctor, on the other hand, is not just an individual, he’s an outcast, an outsider, one who has rejected his originating society. This isn’t by any means a criticism of Star Trek, but it is something that makes these “enemy within” style stories possible, perhaps even necessary. Doctor Who has done something similar (right near the beginning, with the TARDIS-bound paranoia-fest, “The Edge of Destruction”), but certainly not on the scale of Star Trek. Star Trek is about a society venturing into space, facing the unknown; Doctor Who is about an individual (or a small, disparate gang) bumming around, turning up at random, doing good on principle rather than by mandate. Star Trek, which really seems more rooted in Forbidden Planet than merely its use of Commander John J Adam and crew’s mission to other planets, is much more about facing “the Monster from the Id”, and that whole Freudian idea that man can never truly live as himself in a well-ordered society, but must suppress his wilder, weirder, more alien, impulses. Doctor Who (which, if it has a single story-seed, would of course be The Time Machine, with the Thals and Daleks as its Eloi and Morlocks), though it has of course battled with its own “Monsters from the Id” (in “Planet of Evil”, it’s own Forbidden Planet rip-off), is less Freudian and perhaps more Jungian, with the Doctor’s impulse to explore the universe more along the lines of the sort of quest for individuation Jung saw as the prime psychological motive for us doing what we do.

But enough amateur psychology, I’m off to enjoy another episode.

Live long and prosper!

(Oh, and talking of Forbidden Planet, I’m really looking forward to this coming out.)

“Zathotha” in Cyäegha issue 4

My Lovecraftian story, “Zathotha” has been published in Graeme Phillips’ Cyäegha issue four, out now. (For ordering details, see this page, on Stranger Aeons.) Cyäegha is produced in a limited run of 75 copies per issue, and has in the past reproduced some intriguing, rare Lovecraftiana, both fiction and art. Issue 3, for instance, was devoted to the Australian pulp writer Vol Molesworth. Issue 4 mixes old and new, including fiction, poetry, reviews and an interview with artist Paul Carrick. Anyway, I’m thrilled to be in its pages.

Arthur Machen’s The White People, Jo Walton’s Among Others

Arthur Machen’s “The White People” is one of the true masterpieces of short fantasy fiction, one that never fails to surprise me with its downright weirdness whenever I read it. Its main portion purports to be the journal of a young girl initiated by her one-time nanny into a strange world of rural magic and skewed faerie folklore. Its narrative veers from fragmentary dark fairy tales to the narrator’s exploration of the weirder, wilder regions of the surrounding countryside, all written in a breathless stream-of-consciousness style that predates the experiments of the Modernists by almost a decade.

Machen wrote the core part of “The White People” in the 1890s, but (quite understandably) didn’t know what to do with it, and it remained unpublished till 1904, when he packaged it up with an explanatory prologue and epilogue and submitted it to Horlick’s Magazine. Or was it Ovaltine Monthly? Either way, some magazine with far too cosy a title for such a twisted little tale. Perhaps because it was the only way it could be published, Machen’s prologue and epilogue try to turn the tale into a decadent horror story, with two gentlemen aesthetes discussing the young girl’s journal as an example of “sin”, and concluding with the information that the young girl was found dead, probably poisoned by an overdose of whatever had been giving her all these weird visions. This, perhaps a necessary defensive manoeuvre on Machen’s part to fend off the criticisms of literary conservatives, has always struck me as a false note. The narrator of “The White People” is just too full of vitality, and of magic, to be the mere victim of a horror story. “The White People” touches the genuine twilight world of early adolescent imagination gone weird, blurring the dividing line between childhood games and magic ritual, fairy tales and ecstatic religious vision.

This is a whole favourite sub-genre of mine: stories of the superheated twilight world of adolescent imagination, particularly where fantasy is used to make the distinctions all the more explicit. Examples include Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Steve Cockayne’s The Good People, (is Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory one? I can’t remember, now) and films such as Spirit of the Beehive and of course the superb Pan’s Labyrinth. The most obvious thing to do with this sort of story is to equate the fantasy/magical aspects with childhood imagination, and to have the adolescent narrator come to terms with the loss of their childhood by having them lose the magic. This is the Peter Pan approach, where the only way to retain the magic of childhood is to remain stuck as a “Lost Boy”, an eternal child, regressed and cut off from adulthood. But the best of these stories see through this rather obvious use of fantasy-as-metaphor for childhood, and do something different. The best of them take the magic through to the adult world. Doing this convincingly, and meaningfully, is difficult, which is why a good example can be hard to find.

Jo Walton’s Among Others does it marvellously. Like Machen, Walton is Welsh, as is her narrator, Morwenna. (I did my best to sound the story in a Welsh accent as I read it. It probably wouldn’t have convinced a native speaker, but what would a native Welsh speaker be doing in my head, anyway?) Written in the form of Mor’s diary when she is fifteen (and set quite specifically in 1979 and 1980), Among Others starts soon after a terrible event in its young heroine’s life. She was born with a twin, with whom she shared the intensely imaginative world of her childhood life. Like Machen’s heroine, the pair rambled the Welsh countryside, naming its ruins and hidden pockets with fantasy-tinged names (many of them lifted gleefully from The Lord of the Rings), and quite naturally interacting with the wonderfully imagined faerie folk they find there. But Morwenna and Morganna’s mother is a witch; she is also insane (the two may go together), and has dark plans. The girls go against their mother. The story of exactly what happens is spread out through the novel, so I won’t say any more on it, but by the time Among Others begins, Mor is living in the aftermath. Her twin is dead, she herself has a badly injured leg, she has run away from her mad mother, and her childhood is over forever.

The fantasy elements in Among Others are spot-on subtle. Mor spends a lot of time wondering about the fairies she sees and the magic she does, and how it is different from the way the world operates anyway. The book provides one of the best, most succinct, explanations of faerie nature when it says fairies are as they are because they’re “part of everything”. But for much of it, Among Others could be a non-fantastic novel, merely about an imaginative teenager. One of the best parts of the book is Mor’s passion for science fiction, which she consumes by the bookload. It’s amazing how fun it can be to read about a fictional character’s reaction to a book you yourself have read. It’s not essential to know a bit about late 70s SF, but it would certainly add to your appreciation of the book. (If not, anyway, the internet can provide all the footnotery you need. Not having read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, I had to look up “karass“, for instance, which is a key word in Among Others, referring as it does to a group of true friends who share your interests; one of the main threads of Mor’s story is her wish to find such a group, and what happens when she uses a little magic to do so.)

A wonderful book. I’m amazed it hasn’t yet found a UK publisher, as I think it could well be a mainstream, as well as an SF/fantasy, success over here. Still, perhaps in the current Amazonian age of bookselling, such things matter less. (Actually, now I come to think of it, I got mine through the Book Depository.) (And I should point out that I first heard about the book via the wonderful Notes from Coode Street podcast.)

But to return to “The White People”, Among Others reads more like how Machen’s tale should have ended, with its teen narrator not losing herself in the horrors of a dangerously un-Christian world of imagination, but finding the proper place for magic in a real, adult world. Among Others has a wonderfully affirmative ending. It’s one of those rare books that blends its fantastical and realistic elements seamlessly into a single vision, that manages to seem far more true, and far more insightful, of what it means to be a human being than a merely realistic novel ever could.