___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

rendezvous with arthur

The first Arthur C. Clarke novel I read was The City and the Stars. I was possibly 9 or 10 at the time. I remember to this day the young protagonist Alvin gazing out across the desert from the high, abandoned towers of Diaspar, the simple grace of Clarke's concise, clear-as-glass prose, and the wonder of discovery upon discovery as the the plot progressed; especially the flight to the stars and the loss I felt as Clarke showed me a universe abandoned by alien races, with only poor humanity, shuttered from the stars, remaining. For the first time in my life I had encountered someone who knew and loved the mysteries of the night as much as I did. I was lost, heart and soul, in this book. I had discovered Arthur C. Clarke, and nothing was going to be the same again.

I wasn't new to science fiction. Stan Lee had pretty much taught me the rudiments of reading before I started going to school, thanks to his Fantastic Four comics, and one of my earliest memories is of Jon Pertwee turning into Tom Baker at the end of his run on Doctor Who. A year or two before I made first contact with Clarke I'd discovered Clifford D. Simak, E.C. Tubb, James Blish and James Hamilton-Paterson - among others - in the pages of Richard Davies's anthology of SF tales SPACE-1.

This was a 1973 collection of short stories now reissused in paperback and aimed at the youth market (the term YA had not been invented in the late 1970s) and it had made its way into the school bookclub catalogue. The book was in the section for "older young readers", and when I requested the book - a rare treat, as we didn't have much money; but I knew I wouldn't be refused a title from the school book club - my teacher Miss Etherington tried to steer me away from it. She said it was too advanced for someone my age. I was a shy boy, not at all confrontational, bookish and prone to losing myself in daydreams as I gazed out the window during class, but I dug my heels in and insisted that Space-1 was the title I was going to have. A week or two later the book duly arrived, and I received it in class, as all the other kids received theirs, waiting for my name to be called, and walked to the teacher's desk to pick the book up (it was wrapped in a receipt held around the cover with an elastic band), and I was perfectly delighted with it.

As it happened, Mrs Etherington was half right - although I loved gentle Clifford Simak's story, for instance, I was too young to appreciate the importance of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity in Hamilton-Paterson's tale "The Teddysaurs" (more about that in another blog post, I think), but all the same, I read every word and the book still holds a special place in my heart.

But it didn't do to me what the magnificent vision of Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars did. I sought more of Clarke's work out, and found a short story collection with an introduction by J.B. Priestley - Of Time and Stars. Then I found The Deep Range, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Fall of Moondust, and Expedition to Earth (his first short story collection, and to this day an object lesson in the art of writing short fiction), and Rendezvous With Rama . . . and each and every one of them was the best book I had ever read as I read them for the first, and then second and then third times, and I couldn't have picked a favourite but for the one that was in my hands . . .

Over the years, I continued to collect and read Clarke. The first non-fiction book I voluntarily chose to read outside of school, and which was not about dinosaurs and full of illustrations, was Clarke's The View from Serendip. As far as novels went, Childhood's End became my favourite for a while. There was a return to the world of 2001 - nine years on - with 2010: Odyssey 2 (for my money, one of the great haunted house stories of science fiction) as well as a chance to see the what-might-have-beens in The Lost Worlds of 2001. I got to see the films and caught the occasional TV adaptation (I remember a nice New Twilight Zone episode dramatising "The Star"), and there was of course Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, famously parodied by The Goodies, a sure sign of major cultural impact. Clarke was probably as close to a hero as I had and his very name was enough to send excitement and awe through me.

And then I read The Songs of Distant Earth.

A quiet, lyrical book that has become almost lost in the cannon - possibly due to its release between the bestselling series novels 2010 and 2061 and the Rama sequels - Songs was the book that most profoundly affected me as a youth. It solidified my feelings about who I was and my place in the universe, reflected the poetry of my heart and reinforced my views on religion, humanism, love, and loss. It's the Clarke book I return to most often. I read it once every two or three years.

After Songs, Clarke's ill health began to show in his fiction - though he continued to produce books till the year he passed away. 2061 was the weakest book in his Odyssey series. His collaborations with other authors sounded nothing like him and held little of the wonder his solo works contained. In my opinion, the best of them were Garden of Rama (with/by Gentry Lee), and the Time Odyssey trilogy (with/by Stephen Baxter). Less said of the others, the better. There were a few solo books of interest though, following Songs, each shorter than the one before. The Ghost from the Grand Banks, The Hammer of God, and 3001: The Final Odyssey, of which I'd say Hammer is the best and still well worth the reader's time. Even at his weakest, though, awe and wonder are never far from Clarke's pages.

He wrote plenty of books that I treasure to this day - and I've barely touched on his short stories, surely the finest science fiction has ever seen - and he is the only writer that I read as a child who I can still read today. I think he'd have liked that. I know I do.

Happy birthday, Arthur C. Clarke. You were and are our brightest star. We'd sing you happy birthday, but this might be more fun, "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World", by the Divine Comedy.

after jerusalem . . . again

This is just a short heads-up to let you know - in case you missed the tweet - that my short story After Jerusalem is now available to read for free on the Sci Phi Journal website.

Click here if you want to read.

Blessings be upon you. 

driftwood and the wyrd

Autumn. Season to bring the poets out  . . . and writers of weird fiction.

Speaking of which . . .
I have a short story in the first issue of The Wyrd Magazine.  Clue's in the name. But all the same, here’s what they say about themselves:

The Wyrd is an online magazine for speculative, weird and slipstream prose. We publish stories that delve into the spaces between genres, that are steeped in the uncanny, and stay with you long after you’ve read them. The Wyrd is published quarterly and will feature established and new authors who like pushing genre boundaries. Reading The Wyrd should be like going for a long ride down a forgotten country road. You never know where you’ll end up, but it’s bound to be interesting. 

Issue one contains tales by Steve Passey, Joanna Roye, Mark Patrick Lynch (that’ll be me), O.S. Delgado, Henry Szabranski, Douglas Ford and Catherine Edmunds.

Sound good to you? You can download issue one for free in PDF by going here. Steve’s story is available to read online here, saving you the fuss of downloading the PDF (even though you should – oh yes, you really should). If you fancy helping to keep the magazine going and paying the writers, then maybe donate the price of a coffee to them through patreon. Click here if you are able to and want to learn more.

My piece is called “Driftwood” and is one of the short-shorts I’ve been writing when all else – sanity and health, the novel I laughingly call “the work in progress”, longer short stories – breaks down into tiny pieces that look like they are impossible to stick back together. It’s not one of my Horatio tales but it has a similar vibe.

So . . . you know . . . just . . . head on over to the Wyrd and grab the PDF.

tickety boo

two carved pumpkin heads glow in the dark
Photo by Beth Teutschmann
If there's one thing I've had no luck with - or frankly just aren't very good at - then it's competitions. I did win one once, when I was but a pale youth with long hair and flares. That was in a colouring competition run by the local paper, and the prize was an Evel Knievel stunt cycle. It was, to be fair, a great prize back then and Evel was every boy's hero. But when it's come to writing competitions, I have had about as much luck as Evel did when he was trying to jump across the Grand Canyon.

To illustrate why, and because it is October and Hallowe'en is due, here's a short short story that was written for a Yorkshire magazine's local haunted stories competition. I don't think it's any worse than the stories that were selected as the winners - but then I wouldn't, would I?

It's called "Tickety Boo!" and it's about 1,000 words long.



TICKETY BOO!


The man sent to photograph ghosts arrived just as evening stole in on the last day of October.
          After a long whining hum that seemed to chime in the air, the railway-line rattled with his coming. Gusts of leaves turned and lifted, falling like a shroud or a sigh, and for a moment there was a sound that might have been an old steam locomotive piping out a trill whistle in the autumn air. But surely that was just the phantom echo of a past age.
           I’d been assigned as the photographer’s tour guide and told to be sure that he went away with what he most wanted. Among my kind – which is to say those of us who still have some influence on this particular night – I wasn’t considered too distracting to play the part.
           If the photographer didn’t match my own preconceived notions when he stepped from his train, then I’m certain that I, sombre and funereal, fitted none of his as I stepped off mine. A short sturdy man who squinted behind his eyeglasses, he wore his hair short and was dressed in corduroy trousers and an open-collared Oxford shirt beneath a v-necked jumper. His jacket was grey and understated and wouldn’t, I thought, offer much insulation for the time of year. A digital camera was looped over his shoulder and he carried hand luggage in the event of an overnight stay. He looked distinctly harried as he left his carriage.
             When the other commuters had faded away, the trains had left, and he stood alone on the platform, I called out to him.
          “Mister James?”
          Startled, he spun around. He had a small nose, but his glasses slid to its curled end as he peered over their frames in my direction.
          “You surprised me,” he confessed, holding up a hand. “I didn’t see you there.”
          I glided from the smoky shadows and presented my card. “Han Duet.”
          He studied the card and then looked me over. “It says here you’re a watch repairer, Mister Deut.”
          “Who better to guide you around the town? It means you won’t be late getting back for your train. Have you been here before? John Betjeman says the station’s architecture is the most splendid in the country. Just tickety.”
          “I’m here to take pictures of Huddersfield’s supposed haunted byways, Mister Deut. And I don’t have a lot of time. This is my last stop in Yorkshire and so far I haven’t captured so much as the suggestion of an apparition on camera. It’s late in the day and you’ll understand if architecture’s not high on my list of priorities.”
          “Of course, of course. That’s tickety.” When I reached for my old pocket-watch and flipped the lid, he lifted his eyebrows in surprise. I tapped the dial and said, “Let’s be on with the tour, shall we?”
          As the thick burn of sunset spread across the sky, we passed beneath the Corinthian pillars of the portico, into St George’s Square, and walked beyond the statue of the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The streetlights glowed to life as we proceeded toward Kirkgate. Of course, the stores and restaurants had been decorated for the ghoulish festivities, and already children were to be seen in garish make-up and plastic fangs. The more adventurous had opted for face paintings and the wicked fakeries of terrible scars, as indeed had more than a few adults. The presiding colour-coordination was black and red – the bloodier the red the better. As the night progressed, Mr James the photographer seemed to be the one whose clothing was inappropriate and not my own.
          “The town hall is reputedly haunted,” I told him after we’d exhausted the more famous examples of the town’s supernatural history and had been left wanting for a ghostly materialisation. I delivered a slow, knowing wink. “But the real spirits are only said to come out when the council meets.”
          “Right,” Mr James said disconsolately. “Maybe I’ll just take some shots of these people dressed up for the night. It’s probably the best I’m going to get.”
          “Why, yes, that’d be a tickety idea.” I made sure to stand beyond the reach of his lens and not to get in anyone’s way.
          Mr James photographed some youths who were dressed as Dracula, the Frankenstein monster (complete with neck bolts), and an unravelling Egyptian Mummy. “Say cheese,” he told a woman partygoer next. She pouted rouge lips through the mouth-hole cut in her simple white sheet costume, and an unseemly length of bare leg was revealed as a furry-faced wolfman embraced her. She squealed with delighted laughter as the wolfman howled and the camera flashed.
          But before long even the Hallowe’en revellers were heading home or weaving uncertainly from one pub to another. They were friendly enough but decidedly not in the mood to be captured for immortality’s sake after imbibing a couple too many light ales.
          I led the photographer back to the station. The frontage was lighted to spectacular effect at this hour. It was still a little while to midnight by my watch. As we waited on the platform, Mr James grumbled that his time in the county had been a waste. “Whitby was all wind and rain from the sea. York was stuffed with too many tourists. Harrogate too posh, and Leeds full of students. You’re the only person I’ve met who looks genuinely spooky. You dressed for tonight, I’ll give you that.”
          “Then the least I can offer you is a picture,” I said, mindful of my instructions to see he got what he wanted.
          As he angled his lens to take my portrait, I thought about how puzzled he would be the next morning, when Hallowe’en had ended, to find my profile faded and gone from his picture. We spirits have but our single night a year, and our images do not last beyond it; alas, poor Mr James would be left with nothing more than the backdrop of the railway lines on his camera tomorrow and a host of questions that would never be answered.
          “Say cheese,” he instructed.
          “Oh, I’m not really much of a one for cheese. I’m not a big eater these days.”
          “Then say something else, just be sure to smile. And look … kind of … dead.”
          “Now that’s easy,” I said, perfectly truthfully.
          “Ready?”
          “Tickety,” I said. And then posed. “Boo!”

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