5 to Read.
Underknownness is here the key. Even among new and newish and young and youngish writers, a ruthless maximum celebrity must be enforced. Helen Oyeyemi, for example, is a magnificent young British writer, but having been justly feted, recent recipient of a Somerset Maugham Award, she is not here. Of course, inclusion here is no guarantee of on-going anonymity: indeed, the opposite is to be hoped.
All lists are acts of canonisation, and a list organised around neglect and/ or insufficient notice must be one of counter-canonisation. All moments in literature create their own foundations. When new generations stand upon those shoulders, this piece will be more than an exercise in nostalgia.
It is perhaps obvious to say, but worth pointing out nonetheless, that here we proceed from the position that in literature, honourable failure is vastly preferable to dishonourable success, high-risk aesthetic aspiration (even with, sometimes, concomitant inadequacies) to flawless safety. There may very well, then, be various things wrong--sometimes obviously or very wrong--with some of the works listed here. Not only does that not matter, but if that wrongness comes in the service of a reaching, the sense, to borrow a metaphor from Jeffrey Ford, of an inchworm at the end of a branch, stretching and repeatedly groping for something beyond, then it may even be something to celebrate.
Marion Fox (1885-1973)
One of the quirks of lovers of the fantastic is their--our--simultaneously charming and infuriating lack of discrimination, according to which any book with anything fantastic in it is more or less as voraciously consumed as any other. Sometimes we lack a sense that while this book was one we thoroughly enjoyed, it might not be suitable for a civilian who does not share our pulp and/or macabre predilections. Whereas this other one is a major work by any standards, and its low profile a literary crime.
So Ape's-Face. Once a well-received writer, who produced several works of fiction between 1910 and 1928, Marion Fox lay utterly obscure until 2006, when the estimable small press Ash-Tree Press released the novel for which she is listed here, Ape's-Face (1914). The book is perhaps too odd to ever quite be a classic, but in any sane literary firmament it would count as a major mooncalf anticlassic.
The story itself is of the transference--inevitable, just, unjust, by manipulation and guile, whatever--of property; of secret affairs; of manifestations of things in landscape; of the resurgence of the past; of an ancestral curse, a monster, that stalks a family, and places this within the "weird" tradition, though it has been neglected even in that neglected corner. With its obsession with a returned, inadequately repressed fratricidal violence, the book's publication at the start of the First World War feels like no coincidence.
What raises Fox's piece above the level of an enjoyable bagatelle is the complex of psychological and formal peculiarities that distinguish it. Her calm and homely heroine, whose cruel nickname gives the book its title, has something of Jane Eyre about her, but within the context of a class-mobile family shot through with early twentieth-century angst about that very mobility.
The writing itself veers between registers, in a kind of ingenuous avant-garde, vaguely reminiscent of Barbara Comyns at times; more, though the fit is still imprecise, of Mary Butts. Fox's experimentation is, though--seemingly at least--less deliberate than Butts's, a more naive and occasional modernism of, at times, astonishing strangeness. In her fascination with inanimate things' interactions without humans, for example, Fox prefigures the au courant trendy concerns of "object-oriented philosophy". This is the case above all in Chapter VI, 'Strange Conversation between Two Chairs'.
By the time the ancient evil manifests, towards the book's end, it is barely the weirdest thing we have encountered.
William Hope Hodgson (1877-1917)
"Weird fiction", that slippery anti-gothic macabre that reached its high point in the early years of the twentieth century, is receiving more and more sustained scholarly and cultural attention than it ever has before. What was for decades almost exclusively a marginal concern for specialists and enthusiasts, has become or is becoming of interest to some among the literati.
This is most evident in the growing attention to the work of H. P. Lovecraft, the key figure in this para-canon. In the last few years his pulp-modernist work has been the subject of an important study by Michel Houellebecq, translated by the hip US imprint McSweeneys, and has been brought out by such respectable imprints as the Library of America and Penguin Classics. Where Lovecraft is vanguard, others have followed: Penguin also now publishes the work of Algernon Blackwood, for example.
One figure still unendorsed by such propriety, though he has long been a favourite among the horror geekoscenti, is William Hope Hodgson. An amazing polymath, a pioneering photographer and body-builder, Hodgson was also a poet and author of an extraordinary and voluminous series of prose works. Ranging from horrifying sea stories (pioneering in their cephalopod-focus), through vigorous Edwardian psychic-detectiviana (Carnacki the Ghost-Finder [1910-12]), to works of deeply flawed but floorlessly deep ecstatic vision, like The House on the Borderland (1908) and, above all, his at times excruciatingly cack-handed but utterly searing apocalypse dream The Night-Land (1912).
Hodgson died at the Western Front, and his correspondence from that charnel zone makes clear and explicit the connections between the bad numinous of weird fiction, its obsessive focus on formless monstrosities and, to use Hodgson's own preferred formulation, abhuman landscapes, and the epochal enormity of the First World War. That Hodgson's writing taps this vein without slipping into the ostentatious reactionary ecstasy of Lovecraft or Arthur Machen makes it all the more important. Hodgson's single greatest work is a story of the war itself--published, poignantly, shortly after his death. 'Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani', is a neglected classic of First World War literature, a key text, deserving of a place alongside the poetry of Owen, Rosenberg and Sassoon. An irruption of humane yet visionary terror overwhelms what starts as relatively workmanlike prose, until the text invokes 'some Christ-aping monster of the void'. A ghastly implication is not stated, but hangs there: that there is no aping at all, that this monster is the deity that allows the Somme.
Jane Gaskell (1941-)
Gaskell, like Oyeyemi, was the winner of a Somerset Maugham Award. Unlike Oyeyemi, unfortunately, that she remains underknown seems unarguable.
Perhaps the variety of Gaskell's output, one of the very qualities that make her oeuvre so fascinating, has counted against her. Highly schematically, her work clusters around two centres of gravity: on the one hand, strange and dreamlike fantasies set in fraught fairylands or violent lost continents (Strange Evil ; the Atlan series [1963-1977]; King's Daughter ); on the other, wry, sometimes cruel, meticulously observed London lives (All Neat in Black Stockings ; Attic Summer ; Summer Coming ; Sun Bubble ).
In fact what is key to the schema is not only Gaskell's range (and precocity--her first novel, Strange Evil, a sultry and violent fairytale, was written when she was fourteen) but the extent to which the distinction between her 'fantasy' and her 'realism', is, in fact, unstable. Gaskell's ultra-rare and excellent vampire novel, The Shiny Narrow Grin (1964), for example, is as much an unsentimental observation of youth culture and psychodramas as it is about the undead. Summer Coming, amid its realistic depictions of London sex and angst, features one abrupt and jarring moment of the seemingly supernatural that is barely remarked upon by the characters. Even her last book, Sun Bubble, a strangely structured but wholly 'realist' work about a single mother struggling to make a way in London, through wince-making familial cruelty and painfully convincing emotional failings, feels like a dream. It is structured by a disobedient sense of time, a passionate and oneiric intensity that makes it feel as if the impossible might occur at any moment.
Perhaps Gaskell's key work is the one for which she won the Somerset Maugham Award, A Sweet, Sweet Summer (1969), precisely because it is in equipoise between these two poles. It is not realist at all, being set in a London successfully invaded by aliens that hang over the city in impossible ships. But those overlords (which order the public execution of Ringo Starr) remain ostentatiously out of sight, and their reign is characterised by a vivid and catastrophic heightening of pre-existing and real tensions within youth and sub-cultures, of everyday prejudices, violence, and longings. This is a post-apocalypse narrative of a very strange sort, the apocalypse being as much one of longing, incompetent emotion and overwrought London-ness as of extraterrestrial despotism and the ruins of war. The omission of this extraordinary work from the various regularly compiled lists of "visionary London writing" is unforgivable.
Lavie Tidhar (1976-)
Tidhar is a prolific young Israeli writer, resident in London, and considered part of the British scene here. In fact his varied work, reflecting the many places he has chosen to live, is characterised by a restless cosmopolitanism. Claiming it as British is, then, while not wholly unreasonable, a tendentious and political intervention into what Britishness-in-fiction can, could, should be, and can never foreclose all the other things his fiction is.
His commitment to internationalism and quality in speculative/science fiction is evident in his editorship of the two volumes of The Apex Book of World SF (2009, 2012) and stewardship of the World SF blog (http://worldsf. wordpress.com); the carefully varied cultural settings of his fiction, sometimes meticulously specific and carefully drawn (The Tel Aviv Dossier, with Nir Yaniv ), sometimes cheerfully syncretic (Jesus and the Eightfold Path ); and his committed interventions in the debates around the ethnic and national exclusivity of much of the (science-fictional/fantastic) imaginary. He is a political writer, an iconoclast and sometimes a provocateur, whose provocations are for specific ends and generally against a reactionary given, rather than being a pointless or recursive game.
Tidhar has been a prolific writer of short fiction--a form considerably more vibrant and celebrated in the fantastic genres than in "mainstream" literature-and novellas. What has recently brought him increasing notice is his novel Osama (2011), for which he was shortlisted for various awards.
The book is a fine and elegant many-worlds rift, a melancholy noir rumination, an alternative world story (of sorts) in which Osama Bin Laden is a character in the action stories of a mysterious pulp writer. From that conceit the plot becomes a conspiracy thriller (of sorts), an angry political novel (of sorts), a post-9/11 elegy (of sorts, and without mawkishness). It is a remarkable and ambitious work, that strives, abjuring the nostalgia and self-congratulation of the sf field at its worst, to use the tools of the fantastic/science-fictional to extract fuel for thought from what might have felt an exhausted seam.
I. Hips (1979-)
Hips has claimed variously that the initial T stands for 'Indira', 'Iain' and 'Io'. As Hips does not appear in public or give face-to-face or phone interviews, her/his gender is unknown. It is known that s/he was born in 1978 in London, and the city features in much of her/his work. Hips has insisted in an interview with 3:AM Magazine that s/he regularly appears at public events, but simply prefers not to announce her/himself. (In 2008, a rumour circulated that the fourth novel in the Kill-Burn series, Goading the Sea-Scouts, was to be longlisted for the Orange Prize, if the author would verify that s/he was female.)
Hips's first and second books were non-fiction. 2001's Before the Rooster Crows: A History in Disavowed Books, a precocious, millennia-spanning study of works repudiated by their authors. In it Hips not only provocatively insists that various curios are their authors' central works (eccentrically privileging
Ballard's The Wind from Nowhere over The Atrocity Exhibition, for example), but formulates a theory in which what the author calls 'the outcast book' is the key heuristic for decoding human civilisation. A second edition was released in 2011, excising a rather heavy-handed chapter insisting that the Bible was disavowed by God, and replacing it with a consideration of Jonathan Littell's Bad Voltage.
Hips's second book, Orpheus and the Bad Trains (2004), was a long photographic essay about those stretches of the London Underground network where the trains emerge from tunnels and travel uncovered tracks. Since then, Hips has entered a period of great productivity, publishing epic poetry (I Hide (In Plain Sight) ), children's books (Corvidious , The Angry Tweezers ), and the series of short, very loosely related novels set in northwest London known as The Kill-Burn Cycle (2005-ongoing). It is with these last books that Hips is building something of a following.
So far there are six Kill-Burn books: Go In Gwynne (2005); Goading the Sea Scouts (2007); The Rage of Trees (2008); I Come to Sew Your Lips to This (2008); Magnets and Cars (2009); and Canary in the Brick Mine (2011).
Varying wildly in tone, from the rumbustiously Dickensian and cheerfully filthy Go In Gwynne, through unremitting Barkerian body-horror (I Come ...), the Kill-Burn novels transmogrify the city into a landscape of friendly and unfriendly grotesques, political eschatology and commodified dreaming. Whatever their register, they are exuberant and giddying state-of-the-nation ruminations, and indispensable to any consideration of the modern British novel.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Issue: British Contemporary Fiction|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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