The Grotesque


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From Hieronymous Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights

From Hieronymous Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights

This is the first in a series of posts looking at the Grotesque in literature and art. It’s a subject that’s fascinated me for years (in fact I wrote my Masters thesis about it during the time of the Old Republic). I thought I’d kick off by trying to understand what makes something in writing or painting Grotesque, as opposed to fantastic or horrific. It’s probably a good idea to begin with the origins of the word itself.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero's palace.

Grotesque ornaments similar to those found on the walls of Nero’s palace.

At the height of the Italian Renaissance explorers and enthusiasts of Classical Antiquity punched holes in the roof of Golden Dome at the then-buried villa of the Emperor Nero. Inside they found the ancient halls decorated with intricate patterns that combined human, plant and animal forms. They called this re-discovered style of decoration ‘grotesque’, from the Italian word for cave – grotta. Nowadays the word grotesque is used to mean something unpleasantly distorted to the extreme, but it also refers to a specific type of art or literature that hovers on the border between horror and fantasy, yet which really belongs to neither. It’s a rarely-explored sub-genre that lumps together Hieronymous Bosch with Charles Dickens, Kafka and Mervyn Peake. For some reason, during its long history it’s also transformed itself from something associated with peasant carnivals – an exuberant overdose of gluttony, sex and bodily functions that gleefully stuck two fingers up at the established church  – to an art form linked to 20th century alienation, Freudian nightmares and body horror, Kafka’s short story ‘The Metamorphosis’ (1915) being the classic example.

Peter Kuper's comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

Peter Kuper’s comic book adaptation of Metamorphosis

There hasn’t been a vast amount written about the Grotesque in art, but what does exist offers a handy list of characteristics peculiar to the style, which give clues as to why it is both transgressive and disturbing.

1) Normal boundaries between people, animals and things are broken down. The frescoes in Nero’s hall display the decorative end of a spectrum that, at the other end, has Bosch building horrific monsters out of creatures combined with everyday objects. The helmet with human legs and a bird’s beak  at the top of the page is a classic example. God only knows what it’s supposed to be but it’s the stuff of nightmares, simply because those items are not supposed to be together like that, let alone threatening a bloke being kissed by a pig in a wimple.

2) People are described as objects, objects start to appear human. This is a favourite of Charles Dickens and, to a lesser extent, Mervyn Peake. The latter’s Grey Scrubbers who scour the flagstones of Gormenghast’s kitchens in Titus Groan take on the characteristics of the floor they clean – with little pebble eyes and mouths like the cracks between the stones. Gormenghast castle itself, on the other hand, becomes an almost living, breathing entity. Dolls that come to life are favourite and guaranteed to inject toe-curling terror into any tale. Lucy Clifford’s The New Mother (1882) with her glass eyes, doctor’s bag and articulated wooden tale is the grotesque escaped doll turned monstrous parent par excellence.

3) The body itself starts to disintegrate and becomes an object of disgust and alienation. Gregor Samsa turns into an enormous bug in ‘The Metamorphosis’, though his reaction, instead of being OHMYGODI’VETURNEDINTOAF*****GCOCKROACH, is to wonder how he’s going to get out of bed and get to work. In other tales, most famously Gogol’s ‘The Nose’ (1836), bits fall off and take on a life of their own. In Gogol’s tale the hero’s nose escapes and ends up as a senior civil servant

In Gogol's The Nose the hero's nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

In Gogol’s The Nose the hero’s nose wanders off and joins the Civil Service.

4) Scale becomes distorted, combined with sudden and disorienting shifts of perspective. Giants figure prominently in Grotesque tales, as do images of (chiefly) men lost in vast nightmarish landscapes. Orson Welles captured this rather well in his 1962 version of The Trial when in one scene Josef K (played by Anthony Perkins) steps through a door only to have it grow to an immense size when he’s on the other side.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles' film of Kafka's The Trial.

Scale distorted in Orson Welles’ film of Kafka’s The Trial.

5) The Grotesque is associated with the perspective of children. This is a characteristic of the later Grotesque and there is a suggestion that writers like Kafka or Dickens suffered from an ‘arrested childhood consciousness’ which made them feel that they were in a world with rules made for everyone else (i.e. adults) and in which they were helpless and child-like victims. I’ll talk about this in detail in a later post but it’s worth quoting Kafka’s ‘Letter to his Father’ (1919) where he hits this particular nail on the head:

Hence the world was for me divided into three parts: one in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.

So The Grotesque is a very physical art form that plays on disorientation and alienation – very different from fantasy or classic horror which makes a clear distinction between the normal and the fantastic or supernatural. Later on I’ll look at some examples of Grotesque art, starting with the early, more positive imagery linked to the idea of the carnival or satire, and then delving into the truly nightmarish worlds of Dickens, Kafka, David Lindsay and others.

The Folio Society and The Easton Press


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The Folio Society Fahrenheit 451

I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful books. Growing up in an arty/literary family meant that every member more or less had their own personal library covering at least one wall of their room. My parents collected  The Folio Society books in particular, so I was introduced them when I was about 7 years old. That one picture I could never bear to look at as a child was the illustration to ‘Count Magnus’ in the Folio collection of The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, so I hid the book behind the fire place so no-one could jump out and wave it in my face at an unexpected moment. I’ve since gone through phases of collecting The Folio Society books over the years, but they rarely published any SF or Fantasy, so a while back I turned across the pond to The Easton Press, who also specialise in swanky editions for collectors. They not only ran a Masterpieces of Science Fiction series but would also bring out occasional runs of other famous books, such as E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. For those of you who might be interested in these editions I thought it might be interesting to talk about the differences between the two companies and their approach to publishing classics (and SF/Fantasy).

If we’re completely honest there is a strong element of snobbery behind both companies. The Easton Press in particular seems to be targeting that dying breed, the wise old intellectual Republican patriot who fancies an oak-lined library filled with Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. It may be hard to believe in the wake of the ignorant nonsense flooding the GOP at the moment, but there is a tradition of the learned establishment thinker or Harvard career academic of the 1950s for whom leather-bound copies of Plato’s Republic etc. are important pieces of cultural capital to be treasured. The books are designed to look like they belong in a dimly lit library with ladders, squishy armchairs and balloon snifters of brandy. They’re bound in real leather with raised bumps across the spine and 24 carat gold lettering. The pages are also edged in gold and you get a silk bookmark to keep your place in First Lensman or Newt Gingrich’s The Essential American (signed in crayon by the writer). Each book contains at least one colour illustration, often by a classic artist (Kelly Freas for Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Mugnaini for Fahrenheit 451). They are hefty tomes and it sometimes takes real effort to open one. You could stun a goat with some of these. The quality of the type varies, sometimes it’s nice and clear, sometimes it looks like it’s been lifted straight from the pages of Planet Stories.


From the Author’s library. Three volumes from The Easton Press Lensman Series rub shoulders with The Folio Society Gormenghast Trilogy.

The nice thing about The Easton Press is that they produced a fantastic Masterpieces of Science Fiction series of about 75 volumes covering most of the major works plus a few unexpected and interesting titles. Frustratingly they printed the first three in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series, but not the fourth, so my Citadel of the Autarch is a scrappy paperback stuffed next to cowhide and gold splendour like a poor relation at a wedding. The Masterpiece series is no longer in their catalogue, which is a shame but they also occasionally bring out collections of classic stories (a three volume anthology from Astounding Stories with all the original covers and illustrations, the complete Tom Swift etc.) as well as the aforementioned Lensman books. Although the size of the books varies, overall The Easton Press goes for high-quality uniformity and the kind of construction that means the tomes will last for thousands of years in whatever vault you bury them in. They aren’t cheap, Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles (if you’re into that kind of thing) comes in at an eye-watering $395. Sadly their catalogue seems reduced these days but it’s worth keeping an eye out for their sometimes quirky SF and Fantasy releases.

From The Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

From the Folio Society Ghost Stories of M. R. James. This gave me the heebie-jeebies for years.

The Folio Society, on the other hand, is still going strong and looks like it’s got the largest catalogue it’s ever had. It was forged in the same crucible of snobbery as The Easton Press, appearing in 1947 as a reaction against the rise of the post-war mass market paperback, though its target audience was more the metropolitan intellectual elite (Bloomsbury set or Guardianistas, depending on how old you are). For many years they were happy to advertise themselves with a quote from that grand old dame of reactionary pomposity Malcolm Muggeridge claiming that The Folio Society books were so much better than the tawdry pap bought by commoners in airports on the way to their grubby little holidays in Ibiza or wherever. Thankfully they’ve shed the earlier taint of elitism, mainly by producing books that are real works of art. Unlike The Easton Press, whose conformity of production gets a bit dull after the fortieth cowhide brick thumps onto the mat, The Folio Society designs each volume (or series) from the ground up, making sure that all the elements – binding, illustrations, typography and general look and feel fits in with the book. For example, their Marlowe’s Dr Faustus is a slim evil looking thing in black and red, while the three-volume Steven Runciman History of the Crusades is done in wonderful sand, blue and gold covered boards with fantastic reproductions of medieval art inside.

A nightmare for the obsessively  tidy - every Folio book is unique.

A nightmare for the obsessively tidy – every Folio book is virtually unique.

I’ve already written about their edition of the Oxford Bestiary elsewhere but it’s worth pointing out the sheer variety of production, though it plays merry hell with any attempt to keep your books tidy. The Folio Society has always faced the dilemma of finding the right balance between printing nice editions of classics that will sell, and bringing out lesser known and therefore less commercially viable works. They’ve managed to find the right balance and sometimes you end up with a completely unusual and rare left-field choice bought purely because the book looked so lovely – in my case Saint Exupéry’s record of his time flying across the Sahara in the 1930s in Wind, Sand and Stars. One of their greatest coups was the Northanger Novels series printed in the 1960s, the once and only reprinting of seven rare Gothic novels mentioned in Jane Austen’s classic tale, including such marvellous titles as Horrid Mysteries and The Castle of Wolfenbach.

Jack Schoenherr's classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

Jack Schoenherr’s classic illustration of Baron Harkonnen from The Easton Press Dune

The Folio Society books aren’t always as sturdy as The Easton Press volumes, and sometimes sheer bulk makes them impractical to read in bed. In fact you need a lectern for some. Their Gormenghast Trilogy is beautifully designed but appears to be created to look like three large bricks prised out of the wall of the Tower of Flints. In the past their choice of translations also seemed a bit dodgy – they appeared to favour Victorian translations of writers like Herodotus (possibly because they were out of copyright and therefore cheap) and while they had that tendentious charm of fusty 19th century classics authors there are far better versions available. Having said that they’ve just released the definitive Lattimore and Grene translations of The Complete Greek Tragedies in a five volume set, so all is forgiven. Right now they have more SF and Fantasy in their catalogue than ever before. Without the ghost of Muggeridge to hold them between finger and thumb at arms length with a peg over his nose, Bradbury, Huxley, Ballard, Wyndham and Asimov are all there in their own wonderfully unique editions.

One of Alex Wells's specially commissioned illustrations for The Folio Society's Foundation Trilogy

One of Alex Wells’s specially commissioned illustrations to The Folio Society’s Foundation Trilogy

In the end I prefer The Folio Society, even if The Easton Press has produced some brilliant editions of Golden Age SF. It’s exciting getting a Folio Society book because each one is unique. They also are very responsive to their customers – they replaced a couple of flawed copies I received without question. They also listen to feedback. I might be kidding myself but I once sent them a letter suggesting they print Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy and a year later there it was. The Folio Society books are marginally cheaper than The Easton Press ones, averaging at around £30 a book. In the past they weren’t that much more than ordinary hardbacks, but the gap seems to have widened. They run sales though, and you have to be quick because all their editions are limited and out of print copies of some books are hard to find.

Tove Jansson – the Truth about the Moomins


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Tove_Jansson_in_1967A while back I wrote a post about Tove Jansson’s last Moomin book, Moominvalley in November (1971), pointing out that behind the innocent guise of a charming children’s tale lurked a masterpiece of Nordic existentialism. I had no idea. I’ve just finished Boel Westin’s biography of the author Tove Jansson: Life, Art and Words, translated into English for the first time this year, and now all my Moomin books are under a bucket at the bottom of the garden with several large bricks on top.

If Westin’s book is anything to go by (and it’s hard to fault any of her meticulously researched arguments) the entire chronicle of those fluffy-tailed, big-nosed cuddly toys is a masterpiece study of the relationship between the artist, family, existence, the universe and consciousness to rival anything by Sartre, Kafka or Camus.

In many ways Tove Jansson’s life is a text-book essay in How to Be a Bohemian Artist. Her father was a sculptor, her mother a graphic designer, and they come across as wackily creative and avant-garde as you would expect, along with their immediate circle of relatives and friends. Tellingly holidays often consisted of sitting in tents on islands in the middle of thunderstorms, an image of the eccentric family simultaneously defying and flourishing from disasters and tempests which she would return to time and again in her books. She took Art at several colleges. By her own admission her studies followed the all-too familiar pattern of Dull Classes – Rebellion against Traditional Teachers – Creating a Bohemian Colony of Free Art with Fellow Students – Rinse and Repeat. For most of her career in her own mind she was always, first and foremost, a painter, not a writer of children’s fairy stories. What is interesting is that instead of hating the Moomins for the colossal distraction they became (at one point she was receiving hundreds of fan letters a day, and replying to most if not all), she used them to work through her own psychological responses to the world around her, which is why the series of books (and comic strips) grow so decidedly odd as the saga progresses.

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934

Watercolour with Black Moomintroll, 1934. One of the first appearances of a Moomin, painted in Nazi Germany.

It’s very tempting to assume that the Moomin family is just a fantasy version of her own family and friends. Moomintroll himself first appeared alongside her signature in the Swedish satirical magazine Garm, for which she drew many cartoons (including a controversial cover showing the European powers trying to appease a cry-baby Hitler). Yet with a couple of exceptions there isn’t really a one-to-one correspondence between the inhabitants of Moominvalley and the people who influenced her. Her first partner the larger-than-life leftwing intellectual Artos Wirtanen, who she almost married, appears as both Snufkin and the doleful philosopher Muskrat in Finn Family Moomintroll. Having eventually acknowledged and embraced her lesbianism, Jansson introduced the real love of her life, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä as Too-Ticky in Moominland Midwinter. Jansson claimed that Moominmamma was her own mother, Ham, but in fact, as with all the other creatures in the tales, she becomes another aspect of her creator’s psyche as it wrestled with the artists relationship with art and existence. In fact the Moominvalley bestiary reads as though someone had emptied Tove Jansson’s unconscious mind out onto the table and then used the contents to make a series of fluffy toys.

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc...

From left to right: Existentialism, the Id, the Self and Other, Nihilism confronting the Infinite, the Soul of Art etc…

The Moomin books fall into three distinct groups. Comet in Moominland (1946), Finn Family Moomintroll (1948) and The Exploits of Moominpappa (1950) are tales of a Bohemian commune facing challenges and threats from outside, returning each time to the safety of Moominvalley and the tower-house of the Moomins. Architecture played a huge role in Jansson’s life. She fought tooth and nail to acquire a number of wonderfully unusual studios, all characterised by vertical spaces in which she would build ‘nests’ to live. Outdoing just about every other free-thinking creative she ended up building her own house out of stones with her bare hands on an island in the middle of nowhere, desperately searching for the solitude she revelled in, and felt was a profound catalyst for her art. Inevitably the famous Moomin author in her house on an island was a magnet to thousands of fans who would cheerfully row out for a look and even a chat. She accepted most with good grace, though apparently hurled rocks at some on the occasional bad day.

Tove Jansson the Artist

Tove Jansson the Artist

In the second group of books, Moominsummer Madness (1954),  Moominland Midwinter (1957) and, to a lesser extent, Tales from Moominvalley (1964) the family is uprooted from the familiar landscape of home, either because they wake up in the wrong season to find everything changed, or a great big flood whirls them away. Westin argues that this is partly Jansson’s moving apart from the family that had defined her, and her own uneasy relationship with her father who, traumatised by the wars and political upheavals of the early part of the century, had embraced an ugly nationalism that Jansson hated.

And then it gets really weird. In the last two books – Moominpappa at Sea (1965), and Moominvalley in November it’s not just the family that starts to disappear, but the whole notion of the artistic consciousness built into the stories fragments. Moominpappa has a mid-life crisis and turns into an obsessive, dragging the whole family to a lighthouse while the nihilistic Groke hovers in the background. Moominmamma, always the secure lynch-pin of the group, goes all quiet and pointless, paints a big fresco and promptly disappears into it. She watches the others get on with their lives in the real world with a kind of melancholy satisfaction. For Jansson she was a painter first and foremost, and life became a search for the silence and solitude that would allow her to get on with her art. Disappearing into a painting on an island in the middle of nowhere probably had huge appeal. Being one of the most famous authors of children’s books in the entire world made this a wee bit tricky.

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa's mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

A metaphor and then some. Moominpappa’s mid-life crisis and his enormous lighthouse in Moominpappa at Sea

I won’t go over Moominvalley in November, you can read my thoughts on the last book here. Suffice to say the Moomintrolls are not even in the story, they’re away on their island pondering on the nature of existence and losing themselves in paintings. Eventually Jansson turned from painting to writing, producing a series of adult books that tackled the same themes of identity, art and the uneasy relationship between consciousness, creation and, in this case, words. Her books have a beautiful economy of style, but no Moomins, and despite the praise and awards heaped on them they never gained the immense traction of her supposed tales for kids. Yet Tove Jansson was never a victim of her success, the author or painter desperate to create Great Art but tragically tied to her one commercial triumph. Her Moomin tales, cartoons, operas and songs represent a constant internal dialogue in which she tried to understand and work through her relationship with her own artistic identity.


Westin’s biography is a fascinating read. It suffers occasionally from hagiography in its praise of its subject and her work, though it’s entirely understandable given that Tove Jansson was such a remarkable woman. The portrait created is so compelling it makes you wish she’d been a friend you could have spent fascinating days with. The passages in which Westin (Professor of Literature at the University of Stockholm) slips into academic mode are less interesting. Given that the Moomin books are a rigorous essay in self-analysis, layering more on top seems over egging the pudding a bit. Appeals to Freud come across as a bit obvious – Moominpappa and his Great Big Lighthouse, nudge nudge etc. But these are minor quibbles. Anyone interested in the Moomins, Existentialism, the Artist and Art or Jansson herself should read this.

Europa Report (2013)


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EuropaReportPosterSpoiler Alert

News from Space last week confirmed the existence of an ocean underneath the icy surface of Enceladus. Furthermore it seems that this immense body of water is in contact with the moon’s rocky core, allowing minerals to leach into the sea. Chemicals, water and tidal heating caused by Saturn’s gravity point to the tantalising possibility of life. The only way to find out, of course, is to drill through the ice and have a look, a plan that’s been on the cards for Jupiter’s moon Europa for many years, and which forms the background to the found-footage SF movie Europa Report.

For a while it seemed that the completely ridiculous Apollo 18, with its moon rock spiders, had pretty well put the nail in the coffin of the found-footage SF genre and the horror versions were tying themselves in increasing knots. I know modern dads sometimes hide behind the video camera to avoid engaging with their families but if I’m rescuing my daughter from a coven of witches I want one hand to hold the kid, and one hand to hold the tyre iron, not a bloody handy cam, but hey ho. Anyway just when we all thought grainy video footage had had its day as a plot device, Europa Report breathes fresh life into the conceit, combining hard realism with a pretty engaging story.

The Mission Crew - slightly more competent than the BBC's band of muppets.

The Mission Crew – slightly more competent than the BBC’s band of muppets.

The release schedule of Europa Report was frustratingly odd. It came out on the US iTunes in 2013 as a download but wasn’t available here until this Spring, probably to coincide with the release of Gravity on DVD so it could ride on the coattails of that movie. Apart from obvious similarities to 2001, Sunshine and Gravity in its hard science approach to near-space exploration the closest ancestor is the BBC TV series Space Odyssey: A Voyage to the Planets, produced by the BBC in 2004 as a quasi-documentary tour of the universe taking in Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, a fictional comet and Pluto. It was an oddly unsatisfying two-part series that didn’t really work as science or drama, and underscored a lot of the problems facing film makers trying to create realistic space journeys that have enough drama and interest to sustain a couple of hours.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The sheer terrifying loneliness of space.

The basic problem is that in between taking off and landing space flight is deadly dull and the writers are left with very little to work on. The choices are

a) Things Go Wrong – which can be pretty exciting and spectacular in the case of Gravity or Apollo 13 where things go really wrong. For the BBC documentary and Europa Report things can’t go too wrong, because then you’ve lost the mission. So things go a bit wrong and people gather anxiously around readouts muttering things like ‘I’m seeing a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’, which means bugger-all to anyone. The only alternative to this is Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up

b) Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up – and boy did they cock up in the BBC documentary. Whoever put this lot in charge of a multi-trillion dollar spaceship needs a quiet talking to. Nearly everything went wrong and a lot of it was down to human error – i.e. dithering around in lethal radiation zones, getting too close to the asteroid so the ship nearly got atomised, staying too long on Venus/Mars/the Comet etc etc. Inevitably this triggers the Crewman Dies scenario, followed by the Guilty Crewman Mopes Around. This can trigger Crewman Goes Barmy but then you are into the realm of Apollo 18 as real astronauts just sit on bunks and sulk instead of chasing the others round the ship with a hammer or a knife and fork like Big Jim in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush.

Landing on Europa

Landing on Europa

So in Europa Report we get Crewman Spectacularly Cocks Up when Sharlto Copley gets Hydrazine all over his suit while performing a routine EVA and so has to be left to die in space, followed by Guilty Crewman Mopes Around when Michael Nyqvist’s character goes all Scandinavian and broody because he thinks it was his fault. We almost get Crewman Goes Barmy because he sees things moving around outside when they land on Europa and everyone else exchanges glances and twiddles their fingers next to their temples. Of course anyone with a fraction of a brain would be going ‘Bloody hell, where?’ but this is Seriously Real Space Stuff so instead they gather round readouts going ‘Maybe it’s a voltage spike on the KU-BAND Circuit Breakers on Panel R15’. From then on the film is just one string of disasters after another, people falling through the ice, engines going wrong, the ship falling back onto the ice, everyone else falling through the ice again until we get the final OMG scene at the very end, which to be honest was expected all along but is still impressive despite that.

Stepping onto the surface.

Stepping onto the surface.

To be fair, although the film, like every Lovecraft story ever written, rides well-worn tracks to the final reveal it is still an impressive and eminently watchable movie, and before Gravity came along a delightfully refreshing break from overblown action SF spectaculars like Oblivion and Pacific Rim. The cast, on the whole, act well even if their roles are a bit obvious. Sharlto Copley reprises his goofily enthusiastic Wikus from District 9, Michael Nyqvist does Gloomy Swede and Christian Camargo looks and sounds like Mr Spock as the science officer. The real star of the show is, for me, Anamaria Marinca as the pilot Rosa. The way she switches between I’m Going To Die terror and sheer, wondrous curiosity in the final few moments is very moving, flattened somewhat by Embeth Daviditz’s wholly unecessary ‘Well that really shook up our understanding of the universe, didn’t it?’ speech in which she seems to be trying to channel Margaret Thatcher’s accent.

In terms of cinematography and pacing, the film is spot on. Although ultra realistic space flight tends to consist of scrapyard vessels motionless against a black background, the special effects and imagery work beautifully to give a real sense of a journey travelling far beyond the limits of what’s decent. While the film might now be completely overshadowed by Gravity, it’s an unfair comparison as it has its own intelligent and considered pace that rewards careful watching.

Kate Bush


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Tickets for Kate Bush’s first live concert in 35 years went on sale this morning and within fifteen minutes all 80,000 had gone. The fact she hasn’t toured for so long (and this isn’t really a tour as it’s just one London venue) only partly explains the frenzy. For some reason she has created a hugely loyal fan base over the years which is far out of sync with her fairly modest output (10 studio albums and one tour), including a whopping great 12-year gap in the middle.

When she first turned up on Top of the Pops in 1978 the reasons for a lot of her appeal were immediately obvious – stunning doe-eyed, big-eared teenager in a leotard gyrating in peculiar Lyndsey Kemp inspired dance routines. She had a voice that could shatter glass (Johnny Rotten’s mum called it ‘a bag of cats’) and she sang about Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, that classic tale of tempestuous passion gone wrong. Gered Mankowitz’s photo of her in a skimpy top and no bra on a cold day ended up plastered on the back of London buses and added to the notion it was all about sex – fuelling the rumour that she’d posed nude for Penthouse when that magazine did a photo shoot of someone called ‘Kate’ who looked remarkably similar (the model Kate Simmons).


In the age of Lady Gaga (and before her, Madonna), Kate Bush seems less remarkable now but at the time she was part of a ground-breaking emergence of women artists taking centre stage in the rock world. Before Punk in the mid 1970s female singers in the UK tended to be winsome folk guitarists and/or Eurovision fodder like Marianne Faithful or The Nolans. Apart from Suzy Quatro, who dressed, acted and sang like a Rocker bloke, women in bands stood at the back, rattled tambourines à la Linda McCartney and looked cute. Punk changed that. On the back of the indie-based shake up of the UK record industry a group of female artists appeared in an explosion of demented music, all going for the same mad stare, letter-box mouth, Miss Haversham couture and weird jerky arm-waving dance routines – Lene Lovich, Hazel O’Connor, Nina Hagen and Kate Bush. Instead of crooning about flowers, puppets on strings and falling autumn leaves they sang about sex and death, and what a bunch of arseholes most blokes were.

Kate Bush was different from the rest. Although she appeared on the back of punk she, by rights, shouldn’t have been as successful as she was. Anything that smacked of pretentious progressive rock or hippy music was roundly sneered at, yet here she was a woman from a resolutely bohemian artist family singing songs about Gurdjieff, Peter Pan and ‘England My Lionheart’. Johnny Rotten, one of the most articulate of the punk musicians, loved her stuff, and not just because at the time her voice was a falsetto wail that took some getting used to.

So why is Kate Bush so popular? I can only articulate my own reasons for being completely in love with her but I think there are a number of things that have led to her accruing a following whose interest and loyalty continually baffles her.

1. She does her own stuff when she feels like it, full stop. Apart from the second album Lionheart which she was pressurised into bringing out on the back of her initial success, and is filled with the songs she didn’t think good enough to put on the debut LP The Kick Inside, she cheerfully follows her own interests and instincts without paying the slightest interest to any other trends. In this she’s a lot like David Bowie, who is a clear influence on her own music. For this reason she’s a role model for anyone who wants to do their own thing artistically and turn left, regardless of whether critics, listeners and the world in general think she ought to go right.

Channelling Eisenstein

Channelling Eisenstein

2. She’s bonkers – often producing stuff that is utterly insane, and yet she rarely misses a step. She has a magpie mind that picks out ideas and images and then bangs them together in weird and wonderful combinations. She’ll sing about sex with snowmen, failed bank robberies in the strangest faux cockney accent, incorporate Bulgarian folk wailing in a song about fireworks and write an ode to the Easy-Care cycle on a washing machine as a metaphor for something or other. She wanted to put Molly Bloom’s monologue to music but the estate of James Joyce said no, so she wrote her own version The Sensual World. They relented in 2011 and let her use the original on her album Director’s Cut, but I honestly prefer her lyrics.

3. She’s surprisingly down to earth. Like Enya her resolute refusal to engage in any self-promotion, and her 12 year disappearing act to look after her son, has led to speculation that she is a weird recluse, somewhere between Miss Haversham and Miss Whiplash as one biographer put it. Either that or she really had gone bonkers and lurked in her mansion terrified of emerging and ballooning on Snickers. In reality she comes across as totally straightforward in the rare interviews she grants (as does Enya) and talks about her own music in a completely unpretentious manner that sometimes borders on the dismissive – famously calling her film based around the album The Red Shoes ‘a load of bollocks’.

4. She simply has no comprehension of the effect she has on other people, often to an absurd degree. Perhaps it’s a symptom of distancing yourself from the music world between albums, but she comes across as genuinely shocked by the response she gets whenever she sticks her head above the parapet. She releases a song in a manner that suggests ‘here you go, let me know if you think it’s crap or not’ and then is baffled when the world goes into meltdown. “It’s all very flattering, but have you all gone completely mad?” she asked, somewhat ingenuously, in one radio interview when Director’s Cut appeared to the inevitable response. Apparently her reaction when hearing of the frenzy around the announcement of her upcoming concerts was a similar WTF?

katebushlion5. She’s very English in her content and treatment – which is why she’s never really taken off in the US. Listening to her music over the ten albums is like dragging a garden rake through an old second hand bookshop with a particularly large children’s section, tucked away in some sleepy market town. One of her biggest influences is Monty Python – which explains the constant strain of comedy surrealism in her songs.

I saw Kate Bush live in 1979 at the Manchester Apollo. She spent two hours singing and dancing her way through what was then her entire catalogue, changing costume for nearly every song. It was incredible and the audience sat open-mouthed in stunned silence till the end, when they went completely berserk. She didn’t tour again, though she put in a few one-off appearances at various shows. She’s performing live again at the end of the year – by some colossal fluke I managed to get a couple of tickets so it’ll be interesting to compare the two. These days her songs run between 7 and 12 minutes and are perhaps even more deranged than before. My mind is boggling already.

Ragged Claws out now!


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Goodreads Book Giveaway

Ragged Claws by John Guy Collick

Ragged Claws

by John Guy Collick

Giveaway ends March 31, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Ragged Claws, second volume in The Book of the Colossus, is available on Amazon as an eBook and a paperback, and on Smashwords. Apple, Kobo and Barnes and Noble will follow shortly.

To order from click here.

To order from click here.

To order from Smashwords click here.

To order from Createspace click here.

Ragged Claws, like its predecessor Thumb, is set at the very end of the universe, when all the stars and planets have dissolved into quantum ash. The last remnants of humanity live on an immense, flat singularity created for them by the alien race known as the Black Roses. Covered in the remnants of ground-up worlds this wilderness has become a workbench on which mankind is building a god. The titan, half a million-miles long from head to toe, will come to life and carry humanity to a new universe. Because there is nothing left at the end of time the materials to build the colossus are plundered from the past via wormholes punched through the singularity. These swiftly-fading portals also provide the last people with the clothes, food and artifacts they need to survive and so the realms of Ragged Claws are a patchwork of tatterdemalion kingdoms in which diesel-powered flyers fight battles inside the caverns of God’s body with guns and missiles, and men and machines are fused together into monstrous hybrids using science so rarefied it has become arcane magic.

The Great Task has taken a million years and is reaching completion, but over the long aeons most people have forgotten its purpose and turned on each other, building empires and kingdoms that plot, go to war, conquer, rise and fall. Max Ocel and Abby Fabrice are making their way through the shadowed interstices of the titan’s body in search of the Machine Men. Max carries him with a terrible secret that will condemn all of mankind to destruction and he finds himself in a race against time, pursued by enemies human and inhuman, and betrayed by those closest to him.

If you want to find out more about the universe of The Book of the Colossus, and the first book in the series, Thumb, check out this interview on Underground Book Reviews.

For those of you who have not read Thumb, the eBook version is now available at the discounted price of 77p/$1.28.


Ragged Claws available on March 16th!


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Release flyer


Max and Abby are trapped in the city of Interosseous where the inhabitants navigate through the treacherous streets using the giant faces in the sky.

If humanity is to survive Max must contact the Machine Men who live in the Heart and Mind of the Colossus. But the way onward is a deadly maze peopled with lost creatures transformed by the darkness at the end of time.

As Max tries to trace a safe path through the Body of God he stumbles across a pair of fugitives, and finds himself caught in a web of betrayal and conspiracy that ultimately threatens to destroy the last remnants of mankind.

Ragged Claws is the astonishing sequel to Thumb and the second volume of The Book of the Colossus, a gripping fast-paced science fantasy series.

Ragged Claws Cover Art


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The great news is that the manuscript for Ragged Claws is back from my editor, John Jarrold, and ready for the final knocking into shape before release. The book is 99% finished, with just a few minor adjustments and tightening of knots before it gets pushed out to the world. I will announce the release date shortly.

Anyway, to celebrate I thought I’d do two things. First of all I’m knocking the price of the e-book version of Thumb down to around 99 cents/75 pence. This is because Ragged Claws is the sequel (and part two of a four-book series), and people really need to read Thumb first to understand the beginning of the story of Max and Abby and the surreal universe they inhabit. You can buy a copy by clicking on the links in the sidebar.

Secondly I thought I’d reveal the beta version of the cover. Apart from a few minor adjustments this is what it will look like.


As with Thumb, I wanted a cover that referred to to an episode or characters in the book. I also wanted to change the colour scheme, so that the pallet for each volume in the series is different – Red for Thumb, Blue for Ragged Claws etc. I won’t spoil the story or give too much away by explaining who the white figure is, or what she’s doing with those glowing lines. I was still aiming for an overall German Expressionist aesthetic – big bold shapes and a sense of sinister mystery.

This image will be the wrap around for the paperback:


Classrooms of the Future


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A young Spock at school on Vulcan. Education as mechanistic data stuffing.

A young Spock at school on Vulcan. Education as mechanistic data stuffing.

I work in education, advising ministries throughout the world on how to best use technology in the classroom. For most the process is one of constant catch up. Technology changes on a monthly basis, while education systems tend to work on yearly budget cycles. Furthermore if you tinker with something you usually don’t see the effects for years, until the poor little buggers in the classroom who experienced the change work their way through the school system and pop out into society. On the whole I try and point out that education goals should dictate how technology is used, not the other way round, but often grand gesture politics takes over and every pupil is given an iPad (or even worse, forced to buy one) because THAT IS THE FUTURE OF LEARNING, and looks good in the press.

The future of the classroom has been exercising the imagination of writers, artists and film directors since the end of the 19th century. Because most of them don’t really understand that education is primarily to do with human beings telling each other stuff and working out how to solve problems, they focus on the machines. In the World of Tomorrow education will be more efficient because either machines will do it, or machines will help us do it. Here’s a little wander through some of the various visions these largely misguided prophets have put together.


Ok, this isn’t that bad. This drawing from Albert Robida’s 1890 novel La Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique, which purported to show life in Paris in 1955. A young woman uses the téléphonoscope to study maths. It’s essentially online learning. The two striking things to note are a) it’s a woman learning maths – in Robida’s future women are equal, if not generally better at stuff, than the men and b) the method of delivery is totally old fashioned. A guy who looks like an eighteenth century vicar pontificates in front of a blackboard. For those of you who remember late night, flickering, black and white images of sideburns, Grateful Dead beards and kipper ties it’s the Open University all over again.


Our current model of education is based on the industrial approach, geared towards producing an army of literate and numerate workers to go and work in factories, so it’s all about stuffing heads with essential knowledge and basic skills, even though the world has moved on and this kind of learning is no longer fit for purpose. This jokey cartoon from France in the 1900s shows the ideal learning machine of the future. All you do is wire the kids up and pipe information into their brains.

The cyberpunk dream of quick-fix education by jacking into the net.

The cyberpunk dream of quick-fix education by jacking into the net.

It’s the same paradigm as in The Matrix (and the whole bogus ‘learn while you are asleep by listening to a tape recorder’ industry of the ’60s and ’70s), where all you have to do is jack yourself into a computer, twitch around for ten minutes and bingo, you know Kung Fu, and Japanese, with 19th century Russian literature thrown in for LOLs.


As a slight digression, this wonderful invention of Hugo Gernsback is called The Isolator and is designed to allow the studious worker to concentrate without distractions from colleagues. Putting aside the fact that it would give any Health and Safety officer the screaming hab-dabs (let’s swap the oxygen cylinder for helium), or that you could make good money renting this out in certain clubs, it has perfect application in the modern classroom. I showed this for a laugh to an audience of education officials and teachers in a certain country and their eyes lit up, which was worrying. I’ve no idea what the thing sticking out the front is, perhaps it’s to accommodate the author’s pipe.


So visions of future classrooms essentially ramp up traditionally dull ways of teaching using computers and robots. Forget the fact that the chalk and talk approach is incredibly inefficient for learning, all we need to do is to swap out the teacher for a screen or an android. This cartoon from a Japanese magazine in the 1960s shows how ‘computers’ will teach in the class, complete with little robot helpers who belt the kids over the head with red bludgeons if they get their sums wrong.

Let's see how quickly we can induce Terminator-style mayhem.

Let’s see how quickly we can induce Terminator-style mayhem.

It’s not surprising that Japan and South Korea, with their love of robots, now seem to be locked into an arms race to see which country can produce the most terrifying robot teacher. The Japanese have gone for the human looking one, though she is about as far down in Uncanny Valley as it’s possible to get, and has the disadvantage of being immobile, which is probably just as well as this monstrous creation looks permanently on the verge of running amok.


The South Korean English Language Robot clearly aims for the cute R2D2/automatic vacuum cleaner approach though that video face reminds me of the mad Cain robot in Robocop 2 just before it went off on one. For me this image sums up everything wrong with technology in the classroom, and what happens when the perceived coolness of the machinery completely overrides the education side of things. Teaching languages is about communication, right? It’s about people talking to people. Racial stereotypes aside (English is spoken by pretty, blue eyed, white, American blondes) how can anyone think that this abomination is a good idea? Those extended wing things worry me too, I think they have missiles in them.


Finally, on a more civilised note, it’s back to Things to Come to offer a paradigm of future education which is not completely tech obsessed or utterly deranged. In a charming scene towards the end of the film a grandfather explains history to his granddaughter with the aid of a giant Interactive Whiteboard (ok, a screen telly). Putting aside the hideously grating voice of the infant, the education paradigm it’s offering is that of Rousseau’s 1762 classic, Emile. In his treatise/novel Rousseau suggested learning was best done by the child exploring the world, and asking intelligent questions of a patient mentor. As the old ways of learning breakdown we may well find ourselves moving back towards this approach which, thankfully, relies on human interaction and not machines.


You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack – Tom Gauld


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A while back I posted one of Tom Gauld’s cartoons on this blog and wrote a brief piece for my newsletter. His work is so clever, and pushes so many of the right buttons for an Eng-Lit professor turned science fiction writer that I couldn’t help but share some more of his work, taken from his book You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013). Normally I hesitate before buying a book of cartoons, after going through them once there’s rarely enough to pull me back, but Gauld’s collection is a happy exception.


Analysing jokes inevitably kills them dead, and besides these cartoons often poke fun at overwrought intellectual interpretations. Talking too much about Gauld’s work risks putting legs on a snake (as Kurosawa once described the process of looking for hidden meanings in his own movies). His ideas are reminiscent of Edward Gorey and the lesser known B. Kliban, both US illustrators known for their surreal humour and, in Gorey’s case, gently nostalgic nods at Victorian and Edwardian narratives transformed into total absurdity. Gauld’s ideas, like those of the Monty Python team and the stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard, are filled with the same bizarre non-sequiturs.


Sadly, this one isn’t in the collection.


One recurring theme is pushing together the (supposed) high-brow and popular culture, as in Samuel Beckett’s Adventures of TinTin, or Dickens’ Great Expectations re-imagined as an old Spectrum-style computer game. Science Fiction plays a big part in Gauld’s world, as do the trials of trying to be a novelist.


As a Science Fiction fan navigating his way through the often unbelievably pretentious world of Literary Academia (especially in the early ’80s) I feel like having half a dozen of these tattooed to my chest in reverse so I can laugh at them in the bathroom mirror when I get up. I vividly remember one ultra-cool Guardian reading professor who sneered relentlessly at SF ‘discovering’ Joanna Russ when the Women’s Press published The Female Man, (of course he still refused to accept it was SF at all). I can really, really relate to You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack. A must for any writer/critic/SF fan.


Tom Gauld’s book is available on here, and here.

Tom’s own website is here, and his Flickr stream is here.


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