Friday, September 07, 2012

The Matter of the Dead

So I've just put together and published in a Kindle package two more short stories from my back list.  Both feature Mr Carlyle, an eccentric freelance investigator who knows, as he would put it, a great deal about the matter of the dead.  In the first, 'Dr Pretorius and the Lost Temple', he has just arrived in London, meets Isambard Kingdom Brunel at a seance, and in short order becomes involved in the plot of a necromancer, Dr Pretorius, and a curse as old as the city itself.  In the second, 'Bone Orchards', he's still working in London more than 150 years later, and a chance encounter at Abney Park cemetery leads him into an investigation into a tragic murder that occurred during World War 2.

Although I'm best known as a science-fiction writer, I'm a long-time fan of horror films and fiction, especially ghost stories (one of the first stories I published, 'Inheritance', is an homage to the M.R. James school of  ghost stories).  I've written five stories about Mr Carlyle, and the psychogeography of London.  Preparing these two stories for republication reminded me all over again of how much fun they are to write, and that so far I've neglected his adventures through Queen Victoria's reign, and most of the Twentieth Century - his role in bringing Cleopatra's Needle to London, the affair of the Zeppelin spy, his involvement with the Secret Intelligence Service and the Special Operations Executive . . .  I really should do something about that.

Meanwhile, perhaps you would like to buy the UK or US Kindle editions, or to sample this little story, told by one of Mr Carlyle's old enemies.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012


Fans of the late Robert Altman's films - I'm one of them - must contend with the uneveness of his career. He made some truly great films - McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, The Player, Short Cuts - some interesting failures - The Wedding, Popeye - and a few real dogs - Prêt-à-Porter, Beyond Therapy, and Quintet.  I've been somewhat obsessed with tracking down the latter: like The Keep, it's a genre film by a major director that has more or less disappeared from view, possibly the least-watched of all of Altman's films.  There was a video, but no American or UK DVD release; I finally got hold of it on an Italian DVD.  And I really wanted to like it, if only because its freight of bad reviews were catnip to my contrarianism.  But, oh dear.

It's Altman's second science-fiction effort.  His first, Countdown (1968), is a technothriller about a desperate race to beat the Russians to the Moon that went out of date (or became alternate history) a year after it was released.  Quintet (1979), set in a frozen city in a world overcome by a new ice age, is the real far-future post-apocalyptic deal.  And while it really isn't a good film - laborious and pretentious, devoid of any real passion or suspense - it is interesting.

Essex (Paul Newman), a seal hunter who's run out of seals to hunt, returns to the city of his birth, where the last human survivors pass what's left of their time play endless tournaments of the eponymous board game while dogs gnaw at disregarded frozen corpses.  Essex is accompanied by a young pregnant woman, Vivia (Brigitte Fossey), who is carrying the first human child in a generation, but Quintet isn't in any way as hopeful as Children of Men.  Shortly after Essex is reunited with his brother, Vivia and everyone else in the brother's apartment is killed by a bomb, and Essex becomes embroiled in a murderous conspiracy of players who are acting out quintet's killing strategies for real.  Although this is almost immediately apparent to the audience, Essex takes a very long time to catch on, clumping glumly through half-ruined rooms and corridors while a fine international cast of visibly chilled actors (Fernando Rey, Bibi Andersson, Vittorio Gassman) spout philosophical cliches about the meaning of life and death.

Mostly filmed in the site of Montreal's 1967 World's Fair, in midwinter, it is authentically frozen, and despite a vaseline effect presumably meant to suggest that the lens is iced up, there are some lovely passages: a tracking shot that follows Essex and Vivia slogging across the white page of the tundra, past a train half-buried in snow drifts; an overhead shot showing Essex launching Vivia's corpse on a river choked with ice floes.  The medieval furs and caps of the costumes hint at the genre paintings of Bruegel the Elder; the set-dressing nicely suggests a technologically-advanced future regressing to barbarism (although the whole canine corpse-eating thing is more than a bit overplayed; pretty soon, predicting when the five Rottweillers will next turn up becomes risibly easy). The problem is that nothing much happens, and much of what does happen is either not very interesting; like the game of quintet, whose five-sided gaming tables represent stages in life from birth to death, the slight story is overburdened with symbology and fatalistic nihilism.

If Altman intended to make a pseudo-philosophical mashup of Zardoz and Last Year in Marienbad, then he definitely succeeded.  What he failed to do was avoid the principle weakness of weak or bad science fiction: explaining idea and themes in lumpy As-you-know-Bob monologues rather than scattering hints throughout the development of narrative and story.  Altman's strength was making the films he wanted to make - films only he could have made - rather than pandering to commercial concerns.  But it also led him, on occasion, into making films than almost no one else wanted to watch.  If nothing else, Quintet is a useful lesson in the perils of artistic indulgence.
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