Monday, August 23, 2021

Rural Gothic: Cult

Obviously this Covid world of people dying and travel and events being curtailed is pretty rubbish but there are some consolations, like being able to attend online events from the comfort of your home. Particularly interesting to me have been the various Rural Gothic events organised by Howard Ingham of Room 207 Press, Mark Norman of the Folklore Podcast, and Icy Sedgwick of the Fabulous Folklore with Icy podcast. These events feature people giving presentation on things broadly related to dark folklore and the less shit end of horror, often serving up things that might broadly fit under the folk horror rubric. They can also feature theatrical and musical performances.

The most recent Rural Gothic event took place on the 24th and 25th of July. Its theme was cults, both the ones you get in real life and their representation in fiction. The weekend was book-ended by two presentations on the music of cults, one by Helen Hawa-Diggle on a particularly notorious cult and then Kirby Kellogg talking about cults' music more generally. In both cases the focus was on music made by and for the cults themselves, not on music made by cult members and leaders in their previous lives (so nothing on David Koresh's rock & roll years). Generally these musical offerings were made by the cults to recruit people, so they are attempting to put their best face forward. There was a real variance in style and quality with the music on offer, but I think my interest in weirdo music generally might have made me more sympathetic to the sounds than would be the case with normal people. It was just as well there was no cult recruiter calling by Panda Mansions as I was listening to these cultish sounds.

Nevertheless, when you know the reality of the cults behind the music there can be considerable disjoint between the appealing music and the unsavoury reality of the people producing it. Hawa-Diggle played one video of a woman singing the Earth, Wind and Fire song "That's the Way of the World", accompanied by a full band. The music is genuinely beautiful and the audience (mostly black and of all ages, including many children) are clearly enjoying themselves as they dance or clap along. But it's a recording made in Jonestown on 17 November 1978. Less than 24 hours later everyone in the video (the singer, the musicians, the happy members of the People's Temple, the children, the NBC cameraman who shot the video, the dark haired white guy in sunglasses seen briefly at the video's start) were dead. The juxtaposition of the appealing music and happy people with their terrible fate is indescribably sad. Kellogg meanwhile played the opening track of a record released by another cult, the kinderchor vocals a charming evocation of the Langley Schools Music Project. But the record was made by the Children of God, a group notorious for the sexual exploitation of minors and the use of teenage girls and young women as sexual lures to attract men into the organisation.

Hawa-Diggle also looked at the way the People's Temple lives on in music. Some of this is a bit kitsch (bands giving themselves names that evoke the cult's horrific end but in a way that is meant to be ironic, as well as throwaway references to "drinking the kool-aid", etc.) but she focussed on something a bit more interesting. First she played us a short recording of a speech by Jim Jones, which made me realise that I had never heard his voice before, at least not knowingly (his voice is very sampleable). He sounds oddly like a white guy impersonating an in-your-face black preacher, except that he is not talking about God's message of love and turning the other cheek but of his willingness to fight his enemies and a listing of all the weapons he has ready to use against them. Then she played us the opening of the Alabama 3 track "Mao Tse Tung Said", which puts the Jim Jones speech over a dance beat, and then for the full effect the song being played live, with the crowd going mental as they chant along with Jim Jones. It's odd and strange, definitely a powerful moment though what it signifies is mysterious. Kellog meanwhile brought us through a cavalcade of weirdo music from a variety of sinister cults: Aum Shinrikyo (music disturbingly like theme tunes to Japanese kids TV programmes), Heaven's Gate, the Manson Family, and so on. For a bit of contrast she also discussed the music of the Source Family. Compared to the others, these come across as a relatively harmless bunch: they weren't a death cult and while their leader, Father Yod, was a bit manipulative and had fourteen wives, he seems to have been neither rapey, a kiddie fiddler, nor a murderer (other cult leaders have set the bar very low here). And the music is different too. For the other groups, music was a recruitment tool, but with the Source Family it seems more like they just liked making music. Fortunately the music they liked making was improvised psychedelic freak-out music. Ya Ho Wha 13 (the Source Family house band) have retained a certain cult popularity, helped by the appearance of their music in a documentary on their movement. That film reputedly led to such an upsurge in interest that they reformed to play concerts and record some more albums, long outliving the Source Family itself (which dissolved after Father Yod died in a bizarre hang-gliding accident). The dramatic element to this Rural Gothic event was April, by the Hermetic Arts theatre company (who comprise writer/performer Carrie Thompson and director Chris Lincé). At previous Rural Gothic events Hermetic Arts did live drama pieces presented as though they were some kind of live internet broadcast of an occult spooky nature. This time they gave us a pre-recorded work that saw Thompson playing the popular internet influencer and life-style guru April, beginning with her singing a song about the importance of positive thinking. Although they said afterward that the character was based on a real influencer whose name escapes me, the person most called to mind was would-be pop star Poppy. The bananas trippiness of April's videos was very reminiscent of the strange content on Poppy's YouTube channel and the comparison also drew comparison with fevered rumours that Poppy is herself in a cult (which kind of became ironically true when Poppy (or the woman playing Poppy) broke with her manager and collaborator, accusing him of manipulative behaviour and glamourising suicide; since then she has concentrated on the music, always the weak link of the Poppy enterprise). I digress. April starts off with April singing about positivity, then she plays some of her own weird videos, then she solves some of her followers' problems (or rather she "solves" them), and then she gets ready for the Big Event she has planned for everyone watching. But it all goes wrong and in a huge leap for Hermetic Arts everything gets a bit metafictional and starts bringing in events from Thompson's own life, or at least has April, or the person who became April, experience extreme things that Thompson herself went through. For me this started off weird and trippy and then ended up being oddly moving.

Other presentations that impressed me included Sam Hirst's talk on sects of the 17th and 18th century, focussing mainly on the period of the English Civil War and the Interregnum (basically one of the most fascinating of historical periods) but also stretching a bit onwards. Such old favourites as the Levellers, Diggers, Muggletonians and Fifth Monarchists got a look-in here, but also such less celebrated outfits as the French Prophets (who I think received some airplay on John Peel back in the day). I liked the discussion of the Ranters, who supposedly were always having song and dance parties in the nip but may have been a phantom movement existing only in the imaginations of respectable people concerned as to where complete religious freedom would lead. Another presentation by David Whitworth looked at the use and representation of cults in roleplaying games, and perhaps the presence of that on the bill had put TTRPGs in my head, but by the end of Hirst's talk I was thinking that England in the1640s and 1650s would be a great setting for Call of Cthulhu. One thing I did find myself wondering was how it was that the political turmoil of the 1640s and 1650s saw an eruption of new religions in England while there was nothing similar in France of the 1790s. One for the social and intellectual historians I think.

John Mullis meanwhile talked about how Margaret Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe had influenced H. P. Lovecraft's writing, both in the way it sometimes features shadowy witch cults surviving in New England backwoods and in the way the Cthulhu cult itself is modelled on the idea of an ancient cult with its origins in pre-history. Although The Witch-Cult has been much-criticised and its conclusions debunked, Murray herself was a serious scholar and her work the product of diligent research, even if the conclusions she reached are a bit eccentric. Mullis did give the impression that Murray's findings became increasingly odd as she went on. Particularly outlandish I think is her claim that the witch cult has been continuously in existence for longer than the entirety of human history, having supposedly been founded by non-humans (I'm guessing she meant Neanderthals or other higher hominids, not pixies or demons). But this kind of outlandish thinking is fertile ground for the writers of weird fiction, which is why the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and even M. R. James (with the likes of "Casting the Runes") were so keen to recycle her ideas.

Mullis did not talk so much about how Murray's dubious conclusions were an inspiration to the modern Wicca movement, as it allowed Wiccans to claim an ancient lineage for their religion. It is also easy to see the practitioners of Murray's witch cult in a favourable light, what with the attempts of the patriarchal mainstream to exterminate them. Mullis pointed out however that there are limits to the cuddliness of Murray's witches, given that she sees them as practitioners of human sacrifice. That Wiccans are still willing to associate themselves with them is reminiscent of the way many viewers of The Wicker Man see Lord Summerisle and the islanders as the good guys, notwithstanding their being practitioners of human sacrifice and the sexual exploitation of women and minors.

I also enjoyed Howard Ingham's comparison of real-life brainwashing versus how it appears in films, drawing on their own experiences as a former member of the evangelical Christian community. The focus was on films dealing with cults rather than other kinds of brainwashing, which meant that the likes of The Ipcress File or The Manchurian Candidate did not feature (though Ingham did reference the real-life Korean War incident that inspired the latter film). I had seen relatively few of the films Ingham mentioned but the fact that the brilliant Martha Marcy May Marlene was mentioned so favourably inspired confidence in the other recommendations. Ingham has written the book on cinematic cults, so he knows what he is talking about.

I would have got more from a presentation on cults and sects in The Magnus Archives if I had more familiarity with the popular podcast. Although it has been recommended to me as something I would like, I have very little sense of the popular podcast's actual format. An account of a psychogeographic pilgrimage inspired by the works of Georges Bataille for me suffered from a disjoint between the initial exposition of Bataille's funny theories and practices and then the art flummery of the pilgrimage. And Howard Ingham's recored interview with Neil Edwards on his documentary film about the Process Church had me itching to find out more about this odd group (and indeed see the film).

One curious absence over the weekend was the lack of any major attempt to define cults and to delineate where the boundaries between cults and mainstream religions lie. Are all new religions cults or can sects pop into being without operating in a cultish manner? Is even the term cult and the way in which we imagine cults a deliberate attempt to demonise new religions in an attempt to keep people in established churches or atomised non-religion? In response to a question (from me), Howard Ingham suggested that the difference between cults and mainstream religions is essentially one of time: given a couple of centuries to expand and settle down a new religion will gradually shed its cultish aspects and became something far less threatening. And yet I wonder about this. There are long-established religions that continued to exhibit cultish aspects, wielding an array of punishments against apostates or anyone questioning official doctrine. And on the other side, I'm not convinced that all new religions work in a cultish manner. Western Buddhism in particular seems like one that has been quite successful in attracting adherents while remaining something that people can drift out of if it stops working for them (though I appreciate that I am now leaving myself open to being informed of the secret domination shame of the Buddhist sex masters). And my limited interactions with members of the Hare Krishnas reveals them to be far more normal and less cult-like than might be imagined.

But I think the mark of a good event is that it leaves you with something to think about, and this Rural Gothic event did that in spades. If you want to explore the world of Rural Gothic events yourself then you can actually buy access to recordings of the Cult event here. And also, Harvest, the next Rural Gothic live event takes place on the 28th of August, and you can buy tickets for that here.


The Ranters (The Adventures of a Feigned Hero: The Ranters Ranting)

April images are screen captures.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Quick reviews of three Bandcamp purchases: Cornershop, Damon and Naomi, and Gwenno

Cornershop England Is A Garden (2020)

Damon & Naomi More Sad Hits (1992)

Gwenno Le Kov (2018)

Like many people I have been buying music from Bandcamp. Firstly here we have England Is A Garden this year's new album from Cornershop, who have been one of my favourite bands for almost the last 30 years. The opening track ('St Marie Under Canon') was a great feelgood hit of the summer, with few things being more fun than walking around in the sun blasting it out on headphones. The rest of the album has the kind of refreshing familiarity one associates with the Shop, featuring their patented Cornershop stoner groove combined with occasional flurries of sonic waywardness.

More Sad Hits meanwhile was the debut album from the two members of Galaxie 500 who aren't Dean Wareham. People had warned me away from their music, saying that it basically isn't that good, but this record is a delight, one that has given me far more enjoyment than This Is Our Music, the third Galaxie 500 record; the peaks are not as high but the overall effect of the record is much more appealing, with songs of a consistently decent quality. Despite the title, the music stays away from miserablism, with Kramer's production keeping things reminiscent but not derivative of the Galaxie 500 sound. I am looking forward to exploring more of their music and would welcome pointers in that regard as by now they have a considerable back catalogue.

And then to Ms Gwenno, who used to be in another band but is now solo. I saw her at Liverpool Psychfest a couple of years ago (possibly 2016 but man it's so hard to remember). She lives in Wales but sings in Cornish, which would be kind of like if Black Sabbath sang in West Frisian. I don't really have a problem with lyrics I can't understand and must report that this is a very appealing record. Writers from the Astral Weeks school of music journalism compare it to the likes of Broadcast, Stereolab and that lot generally, so if you like them you'll probably like this too. My only real regret here is that when I bought it they were not offering CDs but now they are, so I fear I may have to buy it again to be able to play this on my proper stereo as it is worth it. images, all from Bandcamp:

England Is A Garden

More Sad Hits

Le Kov

Monday, February 08, 2021

v/a "Old Tunes, Fresh Takes: season #01 // mixtape" (2020)

By an odd coincidence, within a few days of being asked to review the Late Bloøm and Rosa Anschütz albums I was also asked to review this. But what is it? Well, it is a compilation of tunes recorded for the Old Tunes, Fresh Takes podcast, which is run by Jack Sibley and Tim Woodson. For the podcast, people recorded new versions of folk tunes, with these people often being people from outside the purist folk tradition, recording the songs with whatever instruments they have to hand (the podcast started during lockdown) and not necessarily in a reverential folkie manner. Looking at the track listing I can see that the album features several versions of the same songs, notably 'Brisk Lad', 'My Son David', & 'Cruel Mother', and listening to it reveals that some of the songs with different titles are in fact also versions of some of the others. The people playing on the record are not names familiar to me but I am remarkably ignorant so they are probably all household names; I did at least notice the musical alter-egos of the two guys who run the podcast, Hevelwood and Jack The Robot.

But is it any good? Now, if I had never heard this record and you were to describe the basic concept to me, I would say "That sounds terrible", my thinking being that folk music is one form that does not profit from updating or incursions from new instrumentation or later forms of music. And you may recall the extreme hostility with which I reviewed music by The Imagined Village, another lot who combined electronic stuff with folky stuff. However, for me this record works. Although it is I think coming from a different direction, it ends up reaching a similar aesthetic position to some of the Ghost Box records, with the vocals (often the most folkie part of these tracks) seeming to haunt the electronic or electric musical accompaniment. Also the tracks somehow feel like they are still true to the essence of their folk origins even while emerging from a radically different mode of instrumentation. It helps I think that a fair few of the songs are of the edgy and sinister folk tradition, as opposed to the more bland hey nonny nonny school.

I should point out also that this compilation is being made available on a pay-what-you-like basis on Bandcamp, with the money raised going to Help Musicians UK and Music in Detention. The first of these helps musicians throughout their careers and into retirement, while the second uses music to help people being held in British immigration detention centres.

Check out the compilation on Bandcamp or the podcast on Soundcloud.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Two records: Rosa Anschütz "Votive" (2020) and Late Bloøm "Along a Continuum" (2020)

As you know, I am a very important influencer whose word can sway many people in all kinds of directions. This is starting to be recognised, as recently I was offered review copies of these two records, which are from different labels but share PR. And I think there is an overlap to the aesthetic, so it makes sense to review them together.

Rosa Anschütz is a multimedia artist based in Berlin and Vienna. An intriguing detail in the press release for her record is that each track on the Votive album has an accompanying ceramic sculpture (some of which can be seen on her Bandcamp page). The record is meant to be the product of incantations and ritualistic behaviour; as the title suggests, they are meant to be votive offerings, albeit of a not entirely religious nature. This might not be entirely obvious if you didn't have the press release in front of you, but I think it would sound a bit spooky and mysterious. The nine tracks on the album combine Anschütz's voice with an electronic accompaniment, apparently based on her home-made modular synthesiser. There is also a separate version of the album with no vocals, should you find the human voice distracting. My overall verdict is that this is very much the kind of thing I like. I've already listened to this a lot and will do so more.

Listen for yourself on Bandcamp.

Late Bloøm meanwhile is the nom de guerre of one Simon Spiess, who has played with a number of other outfits who are unfamiliar to me because I live under a stone. I'm not sure where Mr Spiess is from, but the album was recorded in Denmark and Switzerland. Or rather albums - Along a Continuum is conceptually two separate but linked albums, Symphony Of Blooming Fields & Pulsing Planets and One Who Knows; these are available as separate cassettes or as digital items figured separately. Unlike Votive, there are no vocals here, but Late Bloøm also makes use of modular synths, as well as clarinet and saxophone, both I think played by Mr Spiess and both also subjected to a fair bit of treatment. The Late Bloøm records are not so goth-adjacent, but they are also offering ritualistic electronica, good if you are planning some meditative contemplation or entering a relaxed state.

The two sub-albums of Along a Continuum are available separately on Bandcamp:

Symphony Of Blooming Fields & Pulsing Planets

One Who Knows

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Possible nominations for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form Hugo Award

And now for some items that could be nominated in the best dramatic presentation, long form category in this year's Hugo Awards. These are dramatic presentations that are more than 90 minutes long and which first appeared in 2020.

Possessor - Brandon Cronenberg's second feature deals with a body-swapping assassin whose sense of self is starting to break down. It is grim fare but an impressive piece of work.

Tenet - Directed by Christopher Nolan, this was meant to be the big budget film that would bring people back to the cinema after Covid lockdowns. Its time-travel plot might not bear too much analysis but it looks great and features some stunning action set pieces.

Bill & Ted Face The Music - This however may have been the time travel film we actually needed in 2020. The amiable twosome from the previous films find themselves tasked with writing the song that will unite the world and thereby save it from destruction. Along the way they travel forwards in time meeting possible future versions of themselves while their equally amiable daughters go into the past to recruit the greatest musicians of all time. It's a very likeable film and for me was the perfect antidote to 2020's year of grimness.

Children of the Stones - This audio drama adapts the classic 1970s TV series about a spooky English village set within a stone circle. A strong cast and great sound design make this a worthy updating of the much-loved original. It can be downloaded or streamed from the BBC website.

The Shadow Over Innsmouth - Another audio drama, this is the third of the Lovecraft Investigations directed and written by Julian Simpson for Sweet Talk Productions and the BBC. The story bears a loose relationship to the H. P. Lovecraft story of the same name and like previous series it is presented as though it was a true crime podcast. Aside from the spookiness, part of the fun in this one comes from how it incorporates real events of 2020 into the narrative. It and the previous series also be downloaded or streamed from the BBC website.

I will probably nominate all of the above. My prediction is that only Tenet and Bill & Ted make it onto the ballot.


Children of the Stones (BBC)

The Shadow Over Innsmouth (BBC)

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Possible nominations for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form Hugo Award

Yesterday I grumbled about how the Hugo nomination rules work against non-mainstream cinema and highlighted some films that would have been great nominees for the 2021 Hugos if 2019 festival screenings had not invalidated them. Now for some dramatic presentations that are actually eligible, starting with ones shorter than 90 minutes, which compete in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category.

Last and First Men - This is Jóhann Jóhannsson's adaptation of Olaf Stapledon's classic novel of future history, featuring Tilda Swinton as the voice of our descendants from the unimaginably far future. This austere work is not for everyone but I think the film would be a worthy Hugo award flag-bearer for cerebral science fiction. It is available to view on the kind of streaming services that offer up weirdo art house films.

I Am Not Legend - This is an edited version of George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead. The film-makers overdub new dialogue and replace the zombies with white blobs, apparently after printing off every frame from the original and manually altering them. I'm not sure the end result is that essential but it would make a great eligibility head scratcher for this year's Hugo administration team if a load of people tried to nominate it. However, I am not sure how one could go about seeing this (I saw it as part of the online Bram Stoker Festival).

Eternal - All kinds of items can be nominated in the Hugo dramatic presentation categories, not just films and TV programmes. Eternal, from Darkfield Radio, is an audio drama, designed so that you listen to it while lying in bed alone in a darkened room. I heard it as part of the Bram Stoker Festival, so you may be correctly guessing that it features vampires. UK-based readers can pay money to stream it from the Darkfield Radio website.

A Spell At Home, With Hester - This was a piece of live-streamed theatre by the Hermetic Arts theatre company, in which Carrie Thompson played the eponymous Hester. It was set up as though we were taking part in a Zoom magick ritual during which flaky Hester reveals the dark side of the quaint village she lives in. It is a companion piece to Carbury Gifts, which I have not yet seen. Both of these were performed at Rural Gothic events organised by the Folklore Podcast and Room 207 Press. I'm not sure how you could go about seeing either of these and I may be the only Hugo nominator who has actually seen A Spell At Home, With Hester.

I will probably nominate at least three of the above, though I suspect that Last and First Men is the only one with a chance of making it onto the final ballot, and even that is a long shot.


Last and First Men (Observations on Film Art - Vancouver: First sightings)

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Hear me moan about the eligibility rules for the dramatic presentation Hugo Awards

Nominations will soon be open for the 2021 Hugo Awards, which will be awarded at this year's World Science Fiction Convention, DisCon III (the third Worldcon to take place in Washington DC). Something tells me you would like me to list the 2020 dramatic presentations I have seen. I will do so.

But first a gripe. One thing that increasingly irks me about the dramatic presentation categories in the Hugo Awards is their structural bias against non-mainstream cinema. By this I do not mean the way big budget films and TV programmes are more widely distributed and marketed, making it more likely that people will have seen them and so be able to nominate them. Nor do I mean the sad fact that for many people superhero punch-ups and Trek-Wars are the limit of their engagement with dramatic science fiction. What I am actually grumbling about is the way the nomination rules effectively render many non-mainstream films ineligible for the Hugos.

What do I mean here? Well, to be eligible for the Hugos, a dramatic presentation has to have been publicly presented for the first time in the previous calendar year. That's an easy condition to meet for mainstream cinema and TV works, which tend to be released to great fanfare more or less simultaneously all over the world. Non-mainstream cinema works differently, with films often being shown first at a film festival or two (often the Toronto film festival, which takes place in September) before receiving a proper release in the following year. This means that in the year these works are first publicly presented, hardly anyone will have seen them, and then by the time they have been shown more widely they are no longer eligible for the Hugos.

I know there is a procedure whereby the WSFS business meeting at Worldcon can extend the eligibility of a work that has only received a limited release. However, that can only be availed of if a work has champions who like going to WSFS business meetings. And it can only be done on a case by case basis. All this means that non-mainstream dramatic presentations often have an extra hoop to jump through before they even stand a chance of being nominated.

I don't know what can be done about this. It's hard to see how to re-write the Hugo rules to allow for items to be eligible when they are widely released without getting into horrendous arguments about what we mean by widely released. So I'm not blaming anyone for this sad state of affairs or even advocating for a change but rather I am raging against the cruel fates that have brought this situation into being.

This is all by way of bringing us to three films that were released in 2020 and would be well worth nominating for the 2021 Hugos if they were not ineligible because they were shown at film festivals in 2019. And here they are.

The Lighthouse - Robert Eggers' film of two lighthouse keepers going mad and resorting to onanism deals with themes of isolation that made it very relevant in our year of social distancing. It also features strong performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. I think the presence of a mermaid and the general warping of reality would have otherwise made it eligible for the Hugos. The Color Out of Space - No one ever talks about it but apparently H. P. Lovecraft was a bit of a racist, so maybe no one other than me would have wanted to nominate this adaptation of his classic short story of cosmic horror. Which is a shame, as aside from giving us director Richard Stanley's return to directing features it also boasts some strong performances by Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur and the rest of the cast, while the casting of black British actor as HPL analogue Ward Phillips would also irk Lovecraft's racist fans. Sea Fever - Neasa Hardiman has directed a lot of TV but this was her accomplished feature film debut. It's a pity the pandemic meant that it did not receive a wide release, but its theme of contagion and isolation made it apposite to the times we are living in. A lazy person might describe this as The Thing meets Alien on a boat, but it is a considerably more interesting film than that makes it sounds, also subtly engaging with issues of neuro-divergence, human displacement, and global migration patterns. Come back tomorrow when I will discuss some items that are actually eligible for this year's Hugo Awards.


The meteorite (Basement Rejects: Color Out of Space (2019))

Monday, December 14, 2020

The novels of John le Carré: a partial ranking

The passing of popular novelist John le Carré has led many people to write things about him and his works, which mostly dealt with spies working for the British intelligence services. If you've never read his work, then I say dive in as his books are very impressive, somehow turning his stories about people perusing files and going to meetings (plus occasionally flying off to do mysterious things in strange places) into dramas of high import that seemed to say something about the world we live in. A good starting point is The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the book that made his name. From there I recommend progressing to the Karla trilogy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People) and then reading whatever ones of his books you come across.

I have enjoyed all the books by le Carré I have read, though I have not read them all. And I have enjoyed some of them more than others. So here is my ranking of the nine novels I have read, from least to most liked.

9. Absolute Friends (2003)

This is about an English and a German guy who become friends in the 1960s and then find themselves being used by intelligence services in the decades that follow. It's OK but it became less interesting to me as it went along, with the ending a bit outlandish.

8. The Secret Pilgrim (1990)

This is really a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel in which an old retired spy reminisces about his career. This is probably one to read after the others as you'll get more mileage out of cameo appearances by some of le Carré's star characters that way.

7. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)

This is the middle book in the Karla trilogy, with much of the action shifting to South East Asia. It might be the closest to a James Bond story of anything le Carré wrote, for all that it retains his grubby cynicism. One of the big problems with le Carré's writing is that he struggles to write convincing women characters, an issue that is not usually a problem in the male-dominated world his characters inhabit but one that is more salient in this book.

6. A Murder of Quality (1962)

George Smiley is le Carré's most famous recurring character. In this early book Smiley has been retired from spy work and finds himself drawn into investigating a murder mystery in a quiet English country town. Aside from the charms of following Smiley's investigations, the book is also a window into a past where it matters whether someone is Anglican or non-conformist.

5. Call for the Dead (1961)

Le Carré's first novel introduced George Smiley, whose routine vetting of a civil servant opens a dangerous can of worms. As well as introducing Smiley's bureaucratic approach to spy work and his nose for suspicious activity, le Carré also begins as he means to go on here by establishing the largely miserable nature of Smiley's marriage.

4. The Looking Glass War (1965)

Le Carré said this was the most realistic of his spy novels, which he said explained its relative lack of popularity. This is gritty tale of rivalry between British intelligence agencies and a disastrous attempt to infiltrate an agent into East Germany.

3. Smiley’s People (1979)

In this, the third of the Karla trilogy, Smiley stumbles onto a secret that allows him to strike back against Karla, the fearsome head of the Soviet intelligence services. Sometimes I think le Carré's writing career should have ended with this book - the closing scene both brings the Karla story to a close but also hearkens back to the conclusion of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. And the book highlights the dirty compromises required to successfully prosecute intelligence work.

2. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963)

Le Carré's first two novels attracted relatively little attention but this caused a sensation, with its tale of a washed-up former spy allowing himself to be used in a fiendishly complicated disinformation operation. Spy fiction is always set in the shadows, but this brings us into a morally compromised world where Western intelligence services find themselves using deeply problematic methods to combat their Eastern counterparts. Like some of le Carré's earlier book, this is also a window into a time somewhat different to our own, and modern readers may recoil from the casual homophobia of the early 1960s.

1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)

In the first of the Karla trilogy le Carré presents us with a Smiley who has been forced into early retirement, but who starts to suspect that Karla, the Soviet spymaster, is running an agent at the heart of the British intelligence service. The book follows his investigations, which range backwards over past intelligence operations and include a fateful but enigmatic meeting between Smiley and Karla himself, when the latter was a field agent. The book gains much of its power from parallels with the real-life penetration of the British intelligence services by Soviet spies, with Smiley investigating analogues of actual Soviet moles. It is very evocative of a country struggling to find its way after losing its empire, its elite gripped by malaise as they face the fact that their country is now just a camp follower of the United States.

Many of these have been adapted for the screen or radio; I particularly recommend the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from the 1970s, with Alec Guinness as Smiley and Patrick Stewart appearing momentarily as Karla.

See also the fascinating obituary in the Guardian, which both runs through the story of his life and provides a useful guide to his works.


John le Carré in 1965 (Guardian - John le Carré: a life in pictures)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, first UK edition (Wikipedia)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Join Our Book Club

For my considerable sins I have this year found myself serving on the programme team of Octocon, the Irish science fiction and fantasy convention. This will be Octocon's 30th year and, because of the unpleasantness, its first as an online rather than in-person event. There will be the usual panel discussions, author readings, and fan chats, all accessible from the comfort of your own home. And this year Octocon is free to virtually attend. Octocon always runs a book club, but this year we are going mad and running two. The first book is the Hugo-award nominated novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers. Taking its title from the opening speech by the UN Secretary General on the Voyager probe's golden record, the novel deals with space exploration by a team of astronauts searching for new planets for humanity to live on. I have not read anything by Chambers myself but I understand her to be good on human relationships and a writer who generally presents an optimistic vision of the future and our place in it, which could be something of a tonic in these troubled times of ours.

The other book is the anthology In A Glass Darkly by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (with the suggestion that if people are are stuck for time they just read "Carmilla"). In A Glass Darkly was first published in 1872 and presents a series of macabre stories loosely linked together as coming from the papers of one Dr. Hesselius. Octocon is running a number of Gothic-themed panels this year and having a bookclub for In A Glass Darkly allows us to look back at a classic foundational text of the genre. I have read these before and aside from "Carmilla" (a key influence on Bram Stoker's Dracula) I also recommend "Green Tea" (a warning against over-consumption of that stimulating beverage) and "The Familiar" (evocative of Le Fanu's native Dublin in the late 18th century), but all of them are good.

Both of these books are readily available in bookshops. In A Glass Darkly can also be found on Project Gutenberg.

For more on the Octocon bookclub, click here.


To Be Taught, If Fortunate cover (Goodreads)

David Henry Friston "Carmilla" illustration (1872) (Wikipedia)

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Where to find the 1945 Retro Hugo Awards finalists

Popular blog File 770 has a post by JJ on Where To Find The 2020 Hugo Award Finalists For Free Online, a useful resource for anyone wanting to start reading before the Hugo Voter Packet becomes available. But what of the 1945 Retro Hugo Awards finalists? There is unlikely to be a Voter Packet for these, so how are Hugo Awards voters to go about making an informed choice here? Fortunately, many of the works that will be on the ballot are available online, either on the Internet Archive or elsewhere. Below I have compiled links to as many of these as I could find, and provided information about whether items are in print or otherwise. If any of the links do not work, please let me know in the comments.

Best Novel
  • The Golden Fleece, by Robert Graves (Cassell & Company). Also known as Hercules, My Shipmate, this retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts story is in print and available from book stores and online retailers.
  • Land of Terror, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.). Ebook versions of this can be purchased online. It is also out of copyright in Australia, so can be read on that country's Project Gutenberg.
  • "Shadow Over Mars", by Leigh Brackett (Startling Stories, Fall 1944). Subsequently published as the standalone novel The Nemesis from Terra, which appears to be out of print, but the magazine it first appeared in can be read or downloaded on the Internet Archive.
  • Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord, by Olaf Stapledon (Secker & Warberg). In print and readily obtainable.
  • The Wind on the Moon, by Eric Linklater (Macmillan and Co.). In print and readily obtainable.
  • "The Winged Man", by A. E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull (Astounding Science Fiction, May-June 1944). Originally serialised in Astounding, this was subsequently published as a complete novel but appears to now be out of print. It can be read in the May and June 1944 issues of Astounding Science Fiction on the Internet Archive.

Best Novella

Best Novelette

Best Short Story
  • "And the Gods Laughed", by Fredric Brown (Planet Stories, Spring 1944). This also appears in anthologies of Brown's work.
  • "Desertion", by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding Science Fiction, November 1944). This also appears as a chapter in the novel City. If you want to read the nominated stories from City in publication order, read this third.
  • "Far Centaurus", by A. E. van Vogt (Astounding Science Fiction, January 1944). This can also be found in general anthologies and ones of van Vogt's work. For further details see its ISFDB entry.
  • "Huddling Place", by Clifford D. Simak (Astounding Science Fiction, July 1944). This also appears as another chapter in the novel City. If you want to read the nominated stories from City in publication order, read this second.
  • "I, Rocket", by Ray Bradbury (Amazing Stories, May 1944). A replica edition of this issue of Amazing Stories can be purchased online.
  • "The Wedge", by Isaac Asimov (Astounding Science Fiction, October 1944). This also appears as "The Traders" in the novel Foundation. If you want to read the two stories from Foundation in publication order, read this first.

Best Series

Captain Future, by Edmond Hamilton
Written by Edmond Hamilton (sometimes using the pseudonym Brett Sterling), the Captain Future stories appeared in the magazine of the same name. Wikipedia has an overview of the series, while the ISFDB has a listing of Captain Future stories. A selection of these are available on the Internet Archive:

The Cthulhu Mythos, by H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, and others
The deity Cthulhu first made its monstrous appearance in H. P. Lovecraft's 1928 short story "The Call of Cthulhu". Subsequently much of Lovecraft's and his associates' work has been grouped together under the Cthulhu Mythos label. Like many of the horrors Lovecraft deals with, the Cthulhu Mythos is somewhat amorphous and it can be difficult to fix its exact boundaries. Not all of Lovecraft's own stories are unambiguously part of the Mythos, while one can argue as to whether some of the works by his admirers are truly part of the Mythos or deviations from the true path. Wikipedia attempts a rough overview of the Mythos, while the ISFDB attempts a bibliography. Note that the Mythos remains a living tradition, with stories continuing to be published, but only those that had appeared by the end of 1944 should be considered by Retro Hugo Awards voters.

There are numerous in-print anthologies of Lovecraft's own fiction. The Internet Archive also has scans of the magazines in which some of these originally appeared, including "The Call of Cthulhu" (Weird Tales, February 1928), "The Dunwich Horror" (Weird Tales, April 1929), "The Whisperer in Darkness" (Weird Tales, August 1931), "The Music of Erich Zann" (Weird Tales, November 1934), "The Haunter of the Dark" (Weird Tales, December 1936), "The Shadow out of Time" (Astounding Stories, June 1936), "The Thing on the Doorstep" (Weird Tales, January 1937), "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" (Weird Tales, May 1941 & Weird Tales July 1941), "The Colour Out of Space" (Famous Fantastic Mysteries, October 1941), and "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (Weird Tales, January 1942).

The Cthulhu Mythos was developed and expanded by writers associated with and inspired by Lovecraft. August Derleth co-founded Arkham House to keep Lovecraft's fiction in print; he also wrote Lovecraftian fiction of his own, including "The Thing That Walked on the Wind" (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, January 1933), "Beyond the Threshold" (Weird Tales, September 1941), "The Dweller in Darkness" (Weird Tales, November 1944), and "The Trail of Cthulhu" (Weird Tales, March 1944). Frank Belknap Long gave us "The Space-Eaters" (Weird Tales, July 1928) and "The Hounds of Tindalos" (Weird Tales, March 1929). Robert Bloch wrote "The Shambler from the Stars" (Weird Tales, September 1935). Robert E. Howard gave us "The Black Stone" (Weird Tales, November 1931), "The Children of the Night" (Weird Tales, April-May 1931), "The Thing on the Roof" (Weird Tales, February 1932), and "Dig Me No Grave" (Weird Tales, February 1937).

Doc Savage, by Kenneth Robeson/Lester Dent
Published under the pseudonym Kenneth Robeson, the Doc Savage stories were mostly but not entirely written by Lester Dent. Doc Savage novels appeared at a phenomenal rate, starting in 1933, with 142 having been published by the end of 1944. The ISFDB has a terrifyingly vast entry on the series, while Wikipedia has summaries of the novels. The Shadow's Sanctum is currently publishing reprints of the Doc Savage novels.

Jules de Grandin, by Seabury Quinn
Seabury Quinn wrote a lot of stories featuring his occult detective Jules de Grandin. Wikipedia has a short overview of the series, while the ISFDB entry could be cross-referenced with the Internet Archive to source scans of the issues of Weird Tales in which the stories first appeared. Here is a somewhat random selection of stories in the series, including the first one published and the only one from 1944: "The Horror on the Links" (Weird Tales, October 1925), "The House of Horror" (Weird Tales, July 1926), "Restless Souls" (Weird Tales, October 1928), "The Corpse-Master" (Weird Tales, July 1929), "The Wolf of St. Bonnot" (Weird Tales, December 1930), "The Curse of the House of Phipps" (Weird Tales, January 1930), "The Mansion of Unholy Magic" (Weird Tales, October 1933), "Suicide Chapel" (Weird Tales, June 1938), and "Death's Bookkeeper" (Weird Tales, July 1944).

Pellucidar, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Pellucidar stories are set inside the Earth, which in the first instalment is revealed to be hollow. At the Earth's Core, the first Pellucidar novel, appeared in 1914, while Land of Terror, the 6th,was published in 1944. Wikipedia's entry for the series links off to plot-summarising entries for the individual books. These are beginning to slip out of copyright, though the later ones are still not in the public domain everywhere. Readers can access the Pellucidar at these links:

If a whole novel of hollow earth adventure is too much, there were also three pieces of short Pellucidar fiction published in 1942: "Return to Pellucidar" (Amazing Stories, February 1942), "Men of the Bronze Age" (Amazing Stories, March 1942), and "Tiger Girl" (Amazing Stories, April 1942).

The Shadow, by Maxwell Grant (Walter B. Gibson)
Tales of this proto-superhero appeared from 1931 onwards under the pseudonym Maxwell Grant but were mostly written by Walter B. Gibson. By the end of 1944 a vast number of Shadow novels had appeared (286 if Wikipedia is to be believed). The Shadow's Sanctum is currently publishing reprints of books in The Shadow series.

Best Related Work
  • Fancyclopedia, by Jack Speer (Forrest J. Ackerman). The FANAC Fan History Project has scans of this encyclopaedia of 1944 fandom, as well as a hypertext version.
  • '42 To '44: A Contemporary Memoir Upon Human Behaviour During the Crisis of the World Revolution, by H. G. Wells (Secker & Warburg). This does not seem to be in print but readers may be able to source copies from libraries or second hand book dealers.
  • Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom, by George Gamow (Cambridge University Press). No longer in print as a standalone book, this is available as part of Mr Tompkins in Paperback, which can be obtained from Cambridge University Press or online resellers. An edition combining the book with Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom with Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, another book by George Gamow, can be accessed on the Internet Archive.
  • Rockets: The Future of Travel Beyond the Stratosphere, by Willy Ley (Viking Press). This appears to be out of print, but readers may be able to source copies from libraries or second hand book dealers. It can also be borrowed from the Internet Archive.
  • "The Science-Fiction Field", by Leigh Brackett (Writer's Digest, July 1944). This was recently reprinted in Windy City Pulp Stories no. 13, which is readily available from online sellers.
  • "The Works of H. P. Lovecraft: Suggestions for a Critical Appraisal", by Fritz Leiber (The Acolyte, Fall 1944). This can be accessed on FANAC.

Best Graphic Story or Comic
  • Buck Rogers: "Hollow Planetoid", by Dick Calkins (National Newspaper Service). Originally appearing as a daily newspaper strip, this story appears not to be in print. Art Lortie has however made it available to Retro Hugo voters here.
  • Donald Duck: "The Mad Chemist", by Carl Barks (Dell Comics). Originally appearing in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories #44, this story has been reprinted but not obviously recently (see entry in Grand Comics Database). It can be read on YouTube or as uploaded by Art Lortie.
  • Flash Gordon: "Battle for Tropica", by Don Moore & Alex Raymond (King Features Syndicate). Originally a syndicated newspaper strip, this was reprinted by Kitchen Sink in Flash Gordon: Volume 6 1943-1945 - Triumph in Tropica, copies of which can be obtained relatively cheaply from online sellers. You can read William Patrick Raymond's review and summary here and the strip itself here (courtesy of Art Lortie).
  • Flash Gordon: "Triumph in Tropica", by Don Moore & Alex Raymond (King Features Syndicate). This also appears in Flash Gordon: Volume 6 1943-1945 - Triumph in Tropica and William Patrick Raymond's write-up is here. Art Lortie has again made the comic available here.
  • The Spirit: "For the Love of Clara Defoe", by Manly Wade Wellman, Lou Fine and Don Komisarow (Register and Tribune Syndicate). This story was reprinted in Volume 9 of Will Eisner's The Spirit Archives, which is available from online booksellers. Art Lortie has made it available here.
  • Superman: "The Mysterious Mr. Mxyztplk", by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (Detective Comics, Inc.). Originally appearing in Superman #30, this story has often been reprinted (see the DC Comics Database), most recently in The Superman Archives Vol. 8 (which appears to be in print in expensive hardback). It also appears in Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 2, second hand copies of which can more cheaply be obtained. The amazing Art Lortie has posted it here.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
  • The Canterville Ghost, screenplay by Edwin Harvey Blum from a story by Oscar Wilde, directed by Jules Dassin (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)). This is available in two parts on Dailymotion, with the image inexplicably inverted from left to right. Part 1 and Part 2. It can also be watched uninverted on or as uploaded by Art Lortie.
  • The Curse of the Cat People, written by DeWitt Bodeen, directed by Gunther V. Fritsch and Robert Wise (RKO Radio Pictures). This film can also be seen on Art Lortie has made it available here.
  • Donovan's Brain, adapted by Robert L. Richards from a story by Curt Siodmak, producer, director and editor William Spier (CBS Radio Network). This radio drama can be downloaded or streamed from the Internet Archive. Art Lortie has uploaded it in two parts, here and here.
  • House of Frankenstein, screenplay by Edward T. Lowe, Jr. from a story by Curt Siodmak, directed by Erle C. Kenton (Universal Pictures). This can be viewed on or, courtesy of Art Lortie, here.
  • The Invisible Man's Revenge, written by Bertram Millhauser, directed by Ford Beebe (Universal Pictures). The Internet Archive has this available to stream or download. Art Lortie has posted it here.
  • It Happened Tomorrow, screenplay and adaptation by Dudley Nichols and René Clair, directed by René Clair (Arnold Pressburger Films). This can be viewed on YouTube.

Best Editor, Short Form
  • John W. Campbell, Jr. was the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, of which in 1944 12 issues appeared, which can be seen here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December.
  • Oscar J. Friend edited Captain Future, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. The Spring issue of Captain Future is available on the Internet Archive. The Spring, Summer, and Fall issues of Startling Stories can also be seen there, as can the Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
  • Mary Gnaedinger edited Famous Fantastic Mysteries, whose March, June, September, and December 1944 issues can be read on the Internet Archive.
  • Dorothy McIlwraith was in 1944 the editor of Weird Tales, whose January, March, May, July, September, and November 1944 issues can be seen on the Internet Archive.
  • Raymond A. Palmer edited Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures in 1944. On the Internet Archive one can see the January, March, May, September, and December issues of Amazing Stories and the February, April, June, and October issues of Fantastic Adventures.
  • W. Scott Peacock edited Jungle Stories and Planet Stories in 1944. No issues of Jungle Stories are available on the Internet Archive, which may be just as well, but the site does have the Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter issues of Planet Stories.

Best Professional Artist
  • Earle K. Bergey in 1944 provided cover art for Captain Future, Startling Stories, and Thrilling Wonder Stories. His ISFDB has links to the entries for the issues he provided covers for, where his art can be seen.
  • Margaret Brundage provided the cover art for the May 1944 issue of Weird Tales and to the story "Iron Mask" within that issue. If her ISFDB entry is to be believed then that is all she did in 1944.
  • Boris Dolgov did the cover for the March 1944 of Weird Tales. He also provided interior art for every 1944 issue of the magazine, so if you browse through the links given with Dorothy McIlwraith above you will see more examples of his work.
  • Matt Fox did the cover for the November 1944 issue of Weird Tales. He also provided interior art for the poem "The Path Through the Marsh" and story "The Weirds of the Woodcarver" in the September issue of the magazine.
  • Paul Orban appears not to have done any cover art in 1944, but he did interior art in every issue of Astounding Science Fiction that year, so check out the links given with John W. Campbell above for examples of his work, which are typically credited simply to "Orban".
  • William Timmins did all the 1944 covers for Astounding Science Fiction, apart from the July issue, so follow the links given above in Best Editor for John W. Campbell to see examples of his work.

Best Fanzine
Joe Siclari and Edie Stern of the Fanac Fan History Project have put together a Retro Hugo Awards page for Fan Hugo Materials for Work Published in 1944, with links to scanned copies of the finalist fanzines from 1944: The Acolyte (edited by Francis T. Laney and Samuel D. Russell), Diablerie (edited by Bill Watson), Futurian War Digest (edited by J. Michael Rosenblum), Shangri L’Affaires (edited by Charles Burbee), Voice of the Imagi-Nation (edited by Forrest J. Ackerman and Myrtle R. Douglas), and Le Zombie (edited by Bob Tucker and E.E. Evans).

Best Fan Writer
The FANAC Retro Hugo Awards page for Fan Hugo Materials for Work Published in 1944 also links to examples of writing in 1944 by the fan writer finalists, who are Fritz Leiber, Morojo (Myrtle R. Douglas), J. Michael Rosenblum, Jack Speer, Bob Tucker, and Harry Warner, Jr.

And that's it. I hope readers find this useful. Have fun reading and voting in the Hugo Awards.
Hugo Award Cat