Transition: by Algernon Blackwood

A few short years ago a certain film took a hoary old twist ending and gave it a new lease of life by selling it to a generation of illiterates as something new. The writer/director, one M Night Shyamalan, was then given a blank cheque to inflict on us a series of twists so predictable as to reveal that his first film was more fluke than assimilated reading. The dead-all-the-while gambit was a staple of pulp shockers for many years, and so badly abused that it fell out of use for generations. My first encounter with it is even more unfortunate for Mr Shyamalan - it was in a short, short story by the masterful Algernon Blackwood, published about 1916.

In Transition a clerk is knocked down by a trolley-bus while carrying home Christmas presents for his wife and children. He completes the journey as a ghost, but of course no-one can see him, or his gifts. Except, that is, for his youngest child, whose much-anticipated desire for the shiny, wrapped parcels under his arms allows her to see him. So much so, in fact, that his parcels drop at her feet, while he is escorted elsewhere by Minturn, who had gone down with the Titanic.

The difference between Shyamalan and Blackwood is that the latter attempts no deception. He doesn't litter his narrative with misdirection and false clues to distract from the single idea by which his story may succeed or fail - he invites the reader to share a dead man's poignant desire to play Father Christmas from beyond the grave so that he might personally deliver the tempting fortitude of consolation to his children.

Blackwood is perhaps my favourite writer of supernatural and weird fiction, and I tend to revisit his work at Christmas, a habit most probably programmed into me by the BBC. Transition is not even one of his better stories, but it is a useful example of an almost lost art of ghosts who cannot be auto-written by the living.

Harrison Bergeron (1995)

You haven't made everybody equal, you've made them all the same...

A flawed but interesting adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's short, short story, made for television in the 1990s, scripted by Arthur Crimm, directed by Bruce Pittman, and starring Christopher Plummer and a miscast Sean Astin in the title role.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War comes the great recession - called great because it is never-ending. The loss of defence expenditure to keep the world economy afloat, and ever increasing mechanisation in the workplace, leads to a second American revolution. The outcome of this revolution is the imposition of a curiously American form of "socialism" - or what they think or fear is socialism, which is something else altogether.

The film expands greatly on the original story and in doing so loses some of its satirical elements, though the fact that 2053 is presented as a nostalgia-driven 1950s, complete with retro-style cathode ray TVs and Oldsmobiles, goes some way towards amelioration if you retain the context of McCarthyism in mind: because this dystopia has much to do with America's perverse misunderstanding of socialism. In fact, Harrison Bergeron demonstrates that the US would do socialism in the same way it does capitalism - in a form so twisted as to be recognisable only by its omissions. To demonstrate: there are no free markets in America - there are only captive markets made available to corporations by government and regulated, or not, by same. Similarly, a socialist America would seek to entrench equality as a form of mediocrity which requires exceptions and exemptions to work, hence the ever present corporate elite. It quickly becomes apparent that if you choose intelligence to measure equality then eventually the society you create is only as smart as its biggest idiot: to this end the population is forced to wear electronic headbands which limit intelligence to the pre-determined average. But who determines the average?

The servicing of ideology requires a Commissar class and it is this class into which Harrison is recruited. He takes a job with the shadow government as a television executive, wherein he observes the true workings of the end of history. He is witness to the committees which decide the level at which the general run of life is to be pitched at the populace. But as he is gradually drawn into the elite's time and motion studies of eye-wash, a personal tragedy overtakes his training and he resolves to share his pain, and to show people how they are being duped and controlled at every turn. To go beyond this would be to spoil it, so I won't, except to say the film pulls none of its punches, none whatsoever - it even ends on a note of false optimism.

Harrison Bergeron came as a considerable surprise to me - I had long believed there were no 90s sf classics, as that particular decade was captured early by the awful X-Files. There is an excellent performance by Christopher Plummer as a sort of benevolent Big Brother, and much of the dialogue is witty and inventive. The film has a horribly corporate atmosphere which suits its subject matter very well. Lastly I'm reminded of L.P. Hartley's fantastic novel Facial Justice, the lost link between Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It's just a great pity that Harrison Bergeron remains so obscure - it deserves a much wider audience and greater reputation. It was apparently remade as 2081, a short film which I haven't seen, but I doubt very much it can better the original.

The Edge: by Charles Beaumont

Charles Beaumont's name is fairly well-known amongst weird fiction and horror fans, perhaps because his books are irritatingly hard to track down and so remain on some infernal, unfulfilled wish-list. He was a chief writer on the original Twilight Zone series and penned the low-budget William Shatner film The Intruder, as well as a number of short stories which appeared in a variety of pulp magazines and were later collected in volumes like The Howling Man and The Edge.

The New People takes the well-worn theme of jaded suburbia and adds a reasonable (for the time) twist, but not a twist that could be used now. And perhaps not even then - because the story trades one suburban myth for another in a very effective way. Hank and Anne Prentice, and their adopted son Davey, take possession of their new home - rather uneasily, as the previous resident committed suicide. But they settle into a neighbourhood that appears otherwise respectable and modest. In fact, they themselves appear to be the only oddities: "He wondered what it would be like to sleep with her. Probably it would be very nice." She is, of course, his wife. Because Hank is impotent and Ann is a virgin. Here you can locate the twist in the story, the point being that suburbanites have a way of finding the one fatal weakness/strength in a stranger, usually to diabolical ends...

I'm sure The Howling Man has been anthologised by Pan or Fontana at some point. I have encountered it outside of the pages of The Edge, somewhere. Or maybe it's just that the atmosphere of the story is so immediately a classic that it provides its own afterlife. An American student, touring Europe before he takes a job with his family's legal practice, falls ill with pneumonia and wakes to find he has been nursed back to health by an order of monks in a timeless abbey. But the student is not their only guest - there is also the mysterious howling man of the title, of whom the monks decry all knowledge, refusing not only to hear his cries, but also to acknowledge his existence. The student resolves to help the man escape...  The Howling Man makes effective use of the New World meets Old World setup; its descriptions of the German landscape are almost medieval, treating Europe as an ancient forest that requires regime change.

Of the remainder, there is some energy and verve in Mother's Day, the story of an Irishman forced to mate with a stick-like Martian; The New Sound is the engaging story of the world's first (and last) practicing necroaudiophile; Song For a Lady is an atypical deathship story (depressingly this story reminded me that I'm one of the vanishingly small number of human beings who can put a face to the name C. Aubrey Smith); and in The Magic Man, a travelling magician in the Old West gives a little too much of his act away to strangers...

For the most part Beaumont's stories are very well-developed. They go where they need to go with minimum fuss and maximum gain. There is a good deal of attention to detail, and he has a talent for an apt phrase. As an author he makes no attempt to outsmart his reader; his conceits are such that we are delighted in short order, and spend the remainder of the story co-writing their conclusions. Sadly, Beaumont suffered a fairly odd and premature death in his late 30s from something called pre-senile dementia; perhaps he believed his own stories, which now resemble the grisly output of a cantankerous O'Henry gone impeccably to seed.

To Die in Italbar: by Roger Zelazny

The crime is life, the sentence is death...

To Die in Italbar has been somewhere described as the story of the walker in the valley of the shadow, an epithet which for once does justice to its subject. HvH (an interesting set of initials, almost a formula) is host to a deity named Aram-O-Myra (Miriam, also a formula), a Goddess whose powers encompass the microscopic world of germs, viruses and virulence of all kinds. Her presence inside HvH renders him literally both carrier and cure. When he achieves balance, and this seems to be related to the dynamics of his relationship with Miriam, he can cure; out of balance he is a world-killer. On a mission of mercy to one particular planet he is unable to leave a habitat before his balance tilts and he inadvertently starts an epidemic, resulting in his being stoned and beaten. This seems to be the vulnerable moment that Miriam has been waiting for, as she transforms from deity to devil and encourages HvH to commit revenge fantasy. They are a good match.

Zelazny then gets to work by introducing a host of characters, some old, some new, often dropped into the text mid-point with no previous introductions, but so well-drawn that it hardly matters. Because Zelazny's plots are organised over such swathes of time and distance, economies of scale are sought only in motivations: Malacar Miles, for example, wants HvH so that he can be used as a weapon in his own revenge fantasy to do justice by a destroyed Earth; Larmon Pels, suspended perpetually on the point of death, wants access to HvH for insight into his own condition; and Francis Sandow, late of Isle of the Dead, seems to be a point of continuity between both books and provides a story arc wherein life doesn't so much foreshadow death as stalk it across a universe that is poorly-lit by dissenting suns.

Italbar is not particularly well-regarded amongst Zelazny readers, mainly because the climax of the novel is related at some remove from the action; the confrontation between Sandow and Miriam is a piece of exposition by telepathy, something I first happened across in The Silent Speakers by Arthur Sellings, and which I regard as inventive enough to serve here; in fact, it couldn't be any other way. Also, the last chapter, a brief half-page, may contain a hidden denouement which is easily missed - Give it that much.

I came late to Zelazny, perhaps having been discouraged by his Amber series. But for a long time I had in my possession a copy of The Doors of his Face, The Lamps of his Mouth, and one day on a whim I sat down to read it. And it wasn't very long before I was enthralled. In fact, I was so moved I resolved not to read any more Zelazny for fear of spoiling the experience, a reaction I had also had to Lucius Shepherd. Thankfully, those days have passed. These writers don't spoil with a paucity of good work. Quite the opposite. They are prolific by their excellence. And while I'm still not much enamoured of Amber, the remainder of Zelazny's work is... well, it's not earthly literature - really it's the dark matter of the universe, which the mainstream has yet to detect.

Requiem for a Wren: by Nevil Shute

When things like this happen, there's just nothing to be done about it. Even suffering itself is a mere waste of time...

It is widely held (among those who still care) that Nevil Shute never wrote a horror novel during his long and famous career. Yet Shute's bibliography includes a fair few departures from the norm. An Old Captivity, for example, details an overworked and exhausted pilot who slips into a Norse coma;  In the Wet features a risible alternate history set in a socialist Britain during the 1980s and detailing the "plight" of the Royal family and attendant parasites; his (brilliant) first novel, Stephen Morris welds two early novellas together as an engineering fantasy - this is a recurrent theme in Shute's work: that the application of mechanical and technical principles to human problems can solve them, or at least nurse them home. And that, of course, is pertaining to science fiction. Which leads us to On the Beach, perhaps his most famous novel, an apocalypse tale that adds nothing very new to the genre but provides a reasonable point of entry. It was successfully filmed, as were Pied Piper, No Highway and A Town Like Alice. For me, Shute's best work is Requiem for a Wren, and to my mind this is his horror novel. It is also the saddest book I have ever read, perhaps the only one that I have ever wept over, so much so that I doubt I will ever be able to read it again. It is a one sitting book, and the sitting resembles a wake. The desolation the book imparts is quite beyond description; but if you've ever felt compelled to make a promise to a fictional character, then the promise you make to Leading Wren Janet Prentice is one you will never break.

On a military training exercise Janet Prentice makes a terrible mistake - she shoots down a German plane, as she has been told it is her duty to do; but in this instance the plane is not full of bombs but instead is filled with political refugees who have somehow stolen the airplane and escaped Nazi-occupied Europe. An inquiry finds she acted in haste and she is punished accordingly. Soon afterwards her fiance is killed while on a commando raid in France. She is left with her memories, both of her career in the Wrens, and his affections. She also has his dog to care for, which she does, as lovingly as his memory deserves; until one day while walking the dog on the beach she blunders into some army exercises and the dog is crushed to death by a half-track. It seems to Janet by now that she is operating under a curse - and she looks back on the fateful incident of shooting down the plane as the moment her life turned against her. She is entirely lost, but the worst is yet to come...

All of this is contained within a flashback narrative told around two brothers, both of whom are in love with Janet at various points in her life; it is their intersection with her tragedy that gives the novel its bitter and bittersweet qualities. In the end the reader must take a personal stake and berate the brothers for their inability to save this woman, first from the war and then from herself. But even then it is not that she cannot be saved; it is that she will not be saved, and the final tragedy is a senseless race against time performed in a future tense.

In a strange way Requiem for a Wren has suffered the same fate at the hands of readers as L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between - the demonic aspect has been overlooked in favour of the drama resulting in powerful tales diminished by the attribution of coincidence or passion play or common spite. The truth is that these novels are fundamentally esoteric - and in the case of Requiem for a Wren, it goes only to confirm the calculation that if war is hell, then hell is other people.