Ancient Reviews

(Back around the turn of the century I had a semi-regular gig writing book reviews for the print-magazine, SFX. The conceit, for several of em, was a vague attempt to parody the author in question. This might make em of some interest in themselves, so I'll stuck em up.)

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett

‘Ah yes,’ said the reader, closing the book and setting it down with a contented sigh. ‘Another masterpiece from Pratchett, and well worth the wait.’

And a long six months it was, said the alternative point of view. The unkind might say that this production-line way of doing things is wearing the material rather thin. The renovated Witches-story machine hoves into view again, and it’s ticking and ratcheting away like clockwork by now - you can almost smell the elbow grease that’s gone into polishing and winding it up for yet another outing.

‘That’s hardly fair,’ said the reader. ‘If you read Pratchett, the Discworld, any particular subset of it, you come to it with certain expectations ...’

There’s a difference between expectation and total by-the-numbers predictability. Granny Weatherwax meets the vampires - what do you reckon to the odds? The dutiful trotting out and upending of the relevant genre clichés; a villain whose crime, in the narrative sense, is to refuse to see himself as such and to attempt to innovate. Granny tells him precisely what she thinks about that, and things promptly reset to the good ole status quo ... spoilers don’t come into it. We have heard, not to put too fine a point upon it, it all before.

‘I said that this was a story of a type’ said the reader, pointedly. ‘Do you criticise a Shakespearian comedy on the sole basis that there’s a lot of mistaken identity and people get married at the end? The interesting things are the themes he’s exploring within it, the aspects of his humanism particular to that situation and no other, the central theme of duality, of being in two minds ...’

And doesn’t he just hammer that into the ground and jump up and down on it to get out all the juice. And I’ve always found his much-vaunted humanism a bit didactic for my taste. It’s all very well to be completely and utterly Right, but, once you are, all you can do is keep on being it, over and over again ...

‘Well, okay - but it was great to see how everybody’s lives were getting on, if only to watch Magrat turn around and shock the socks off Nanny ...’

And the reprise of the snoring made me laugh out loud, I’ll admit.

‘And what about the George Wallace pictsies and their moothfuls of heedies?’

And that whole where-did-Granny-go thing. I just tore ahead wondering how that was going to turn out ...

‘The private life of Igor ...’

... and the extra items of anatomy ...

‘Not first-rate Pratchett, by any means.’

You just can’t get the parts these days. But even so, it’s still head and shoulders above almost anybody else working in a similar vein. Um ... can we read it all over again?

‘Yes, let’s.’ said the reader.

And so they did.

* * *

The Dance of the Voodoo Handbag by Robert Rankin

‘So tell me about the Voodoo Handbag,’ the psychiatrist said.

‘It contains multitudes,’ I told him. A movable feast with a world-snake and a pickled egg, constantly feeding off itself, constantly forming, shifting and reforming -’

‘Just stick to the facts.’

‘Like Lazlo Woodbine? You know he only works in four locations: the alley where he ... okay.’ Visions of Cecil the Male Nurse and his big needle hove into view. ‘Okay. I was sitting in the Rat and Pestle, nursing a smallish Irish Boilermaker, when I espied a grizzly, raggedy, comb-and-scissors bristly figure sink his Death by Cider, toss his now-legendary exercise book aside and rise up on his two good pins ...

‘The lad was by profession a teller of tall tales, and never one to let plausibility, mere external logic or an ear for scansion like a cheap tin tray get in the way of a good, knotty story - and what a towering, tottery, twisty heap of sheep-shank our boy told. Old favourites were sporadically in evidence: the joy of the Brentford gasometer, the majesty of Barry the Sprout ... flipped casually into the hot air amongst such cavalcades of grotesques as took his momentary fancy: the horrid mother of Billy Baines (ruler, as we know, of the entire world) and the granny in the suitcase; the nasty fate of a policeman and the even nastier fate of an estate agent; the unutterably evil Henry Doors and his Necrosoft that invades and befouls our very reality - that last, of course, quite frankly unbelievable.

‘The viewpoint and the narrative lurched and weaved like an scabrous tar on the way back to his scow. The unkind might say that we’ve heard it all before - but this is Rankin we’re taking about, here, and the joy of Rankin is in the performance ...

He’s like a clown as opposed to a comedian - and one of the basic attributes of a clown is a genuine and underlying sense of pain. A sense of how fragile our realities and sanities really are. Reading Rankin is to feel that breathless sense of when a juggler drops his balls, or an acrobat tumbles from the wire - and then the balls and wire are caught. It’s under control, all part of the act. The guy’s going to drop ‘em or fall off spectacularly one of these nights, naturally; it’s inevitable.

But it won’t be tonight.

The psychiatrist was looking at me; I realised that I had in some way slipped through the cracks of sense, tense and viewpoint - but that’s what Rankin tends to do to you. I suddenly wanted to blurt out just how I had really, really loved this book, before Cecil came in for yet another blatantly tricksy endi -


Review: The Jaws of Zardox

Well, there’s no secret now about the circumstances surrounding the fabled ‘lost’ Sixth Doctor story, The Jaws of Zardox. And indeed, no secret of how it came to be lost in the first place.

(Whovians will recall – if they use the mental deprogramming techniques outlined below – how the story was the culmination of a series that caused such outrage, amongst the general public, that the resulting riots laid waste to half the cities of Britain, caused the death of millions and threatened to topple Her Majesty’s Government itself!)

Much as they had after the Vociferous Slorg invasion of 1978, the British authorities were forced to blanket the survivors with pulse-pumped electromagnetic radiation from their TV-sets, convincing the population that towns and cities like Choatingly-by-Bow and Wimblehampton had never even existed, that their dead friends and relatives had merely popped out to the shops, and that the Doctor Who series in question had never actually appeared - the show itself being ‘on hiatus’.

Master-copies of The Jaws of Zardox were burnt, and the ashes sprinkled liberally over an unmarked grave under a gibbous moon. Special Branch operatives rounded up all illegal video-copies, commonly shooting the luckless owners of them in the head. Stringent censorship laws severely curtailed the five-thousand-channel BBBBBC TV-service and caused it to lose three of its B’s. A blow from which it is only now beginning to recover.

Of course, if you don’t remember all this, then you are no doubt still suffering from the effects of governmental pulse-pump radiation. There is a simple method by which this can be counteracted. Take a pair of nine-inch nails and a claw-hammer. Put them away neatly in the toolbox and go out. Find some hostelry or other of the roughest sort, and regale the worthy patrons with your opinion that their sainted mothers perform acts of depravity and frightfulness for a commensurate sum. When you wake up, you will remember all – and realise the true facts of why the country is such the miserable, raddled and desolate place that it is.

In any case, the last surviving copy of The Jaws of Zargox was found amongst the personal effects of a certain Mr Martin Bleen, of 57 Whiplock Drive, Chingford, Essex. The address is not strictly relevant, since Mr Bleen died in a freak pelmet accident in the People’s Republic of Guam. In his little satchel, however, was a VHS tape case labelled ‘The Wit and Wisdom of Jim Davidson.’

(We shall now pause for a moment, as a mark of respect for an old, old gag, and then reveal that there actually was something in the case.)

When I heard of this momentous discovery, personally, I immediately set out at once for the lead-lined bunker in which The Jaws of Zardox had been ensconced - to protect it from the attentions of such terrorist forces as the Paramilitary Restoration Army Taskforce. During the extensive security checks that would allow me inside, I began to hear rumours of other critics who had viewed the piece, and their comments.

Mr Dagon Weeks said: ‘It’s got Peri in it. So there’s a couple of good points. Dur, hur, hur, hur …’ before being dragged off by a right-thinking society to be torn apart by wild horses.
A Mr Rodney Chalmers, apparently, thought that the introduction of a so-called Synchrononambulatory Effect, which swapped the bodies of the Doctor and his companion, while leaving their clothes the same, to be, ‘utterly gratuitous and stupid.’

A Mr Arthur Completelymadeup, it seems, enjoyed the sequence where the Doctor berates his companion for almost stepping on a rat, on account of it being quite possibly vital to the unfolding of the whole vast panoply of Time. Although he finds the out-of-hand squishing of another rat, who quite possibly isn’t, somewhat out of character for the Time Lord …

All these comments and more resounded in my head as I at last sat down to view this long-lost masterpiece. What wonder and joys would await me? What vast new insights would this experience portend? What earth-shattering and life-changing pleasures were not in store …?

It didn’t have cats in it. I like cats, so I didn’t like it.