A Seasonal Chill For Halloween

This is longer than usual, but for anyone who feels the need of a Halloween chill, read on:

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Who Is She?

“Woops … There he goes?”

Eleanor Friel gritted her teeth, levered her head reluctantly from scrutiny of the unfolding road, and saw the head of her husband lolling, losing guidance amid the folds of his neck, giving vent to mucous and mutters.

She aimed a look of pure, cold loathing at his slackened, unmanned features, hoping for decorum’s sake that Maeve and Darina hadn’t caught it, then she returned her meticulous gaze to the bland demands of the highway. They were on their way to a meeting, one of the frequent reunions Eleanor held with sisters who had crossed her path.

Maeve and she had nursed in Ennis in … had it been 1978? A year or two later? Darina was there for the ride, or more precisely, because she was terribly lonely since that feckless arse of a husband had finally died from that fecklessly weak heart of his.

Robert was supposed to drive them back, since it was likely the girls would, by night’s end, have had a tad too much wine to render the trip home entirely safe. But look at him now! What if he fell asleep when it was his turn to grip the wheel?

For God’s sake, he’d been talking, or rather rambling – for Eleanor was confident none of them had been listening – only seconds before; some awful tedium about taxes and the balance of trade.

And his lapse was so blatant that Maeve had felt emboldened to call attention to it. Unforgivable. Eleanor drove and simmered with polite rage. She had made him visit doctors. The swine would never have gone on his own. He’d come back and sworn, yes sworn, that he had not been diagnosed with narcolepsy, that the medics had been unable to divine the deep neurological malady Eleanor knew must be there, the embolism on the point of explosion, the dark arterial channel waiting to unleash its clenched balls of black death.

She had commanded him to take more tests. These would not take place for months (damn the useless health service).

Eleanor felt sufficiently enraged to dare a second glance at her husband. He was, as expected, now dribbling happily on to his collar. She prayed Maeve and Darina could not see.

If they had been alone in the car, she would have walloped him back into wakefulness. She had many times considered the possibility that he was lying to her; that the doctors had confirmed her entirely logical suspicions, but the dribbling cur swore not, and that damnable doctor – patient nonsense precluded her from demanding the confirmation of her own opinion.

“I wonder how Maura’s getting on,” she said, orchestrating a new conversation as seamlessly as a gear change, “Milly was telling me she’s put on terrible weight since the … you know.”

She could hear Maeve preparing a response, something which, Eleanor knew, would seek to glean how much she knew about the “you know” before hazarding some information of her own, but then something profoundly strange happened.

The space around them was filled with the sound of a deep, low rattling him, like some critical component of the engine had commenced a new and entirely ominous vibration. The noise spoke of imminent unmanning, of vital components becoming unhinged from each other, of sudden, unwonted disintegration.

“Guuuhhhh huuuuhhh,” went the noise.

“Ellie, is everything ok?” Maeve’s alarmed voice.

“Uhhh wuuuhhh,” said the noise.

And some nuance in the inflection of Maeve’s alarm – for powerful is the communication between sisters – made it clear to Eleanor that the noise was coming, not from under the Audi’s thick, black, light drinking bonnet, but from her husband, who now went “urrr huhh wahhh unnnhhh aaaahhh.”

“I – uh – I don’t know,” she said, carefully slowing and preparing to move into a lay by if need be, “he’s never done this before.”

Then he did something else he had never done before. The dribbling, unhinged lips now began to form something that sounded like a word.

“Ess-men-ayy” said the coma sufferer in the front passenger seat.

“Ess-men-ayy” he said again, taking what seemed like sensual pleasure from the syllables, repeating the word more rapidly three or four times, before emitting a long, low groan of unspeakable pleasure, and lapsing into loud, clear wordless snores entirely free of spit or syllable.

“I don’t know,” said Eleanor, essaying a nervous giggle and signalling as she prepared to move out from lay by to left lane, “men, huh?”

 

All her married life Eleanor had been obsessed with the notion that Robert kept secrets from her. To those who knew the man – work colleagues, golfing buddies and so on – the idea would have seemed hilarious, but Eleanor was a woman of boundless energy and vigorous imagination.

She had tracked him on those very rare occasions when his job had taken him to weekend conferences. She had made him phone her every hour, besieging hotel switchboards if a call was even fifteen minutes late. As is frequently the case with people like Eleanor, she did not brook any attempt at reciprocation.

Once, Robert’s car had broken down on the other side of town during some thunderous deluge. The poor slob had phoned his home eight times without response. Eleanor was in the tub, Eleanor was having a nap, Eleanor had popped out with some friends, at any rate, she was somewhere she could not be reached.

Poor Robert, unable to hail a taxi, for Eleanor disapproved of him leaving the house with more cash than was necessary for a sensible lunch, had been forced to walk home and catch a severe cold, as well as a tantrum from Eleanor, who then became  convinced the mangy idiot had given himself meningitis.

As time passed and Robert grew older and homelier looking, and he had never – even in his heyday – been Robert Redford – Eleanor abandoned the contemplation of secret lovers and focused instead on mystery illnesses, things the ailing fool was too weak and frightened to admit to having: heart disease, bowel cancer, scabies, arthritis, pleurisy, Parkinson’s, MS, both kinds of Hodgkin’s… Probably he would succumb to one or the other eventually, so thoroughly did Eleanor insist on covering all the bases.

Now, Eleanor found herself forced to reopen some of the old plotlines. The randy witless cur had humiliated her completely. What was worse, she could not berate him for it – at least not publicly – for he had done it while unconscious.

Still, on the trip home Eleanor fumed and responded to even his lightest questions with a snarl. And Robert, having long before given up the interrogation of any of his wife’s moods, simply drove them amiably home.

It was necessary to conduct one of Eleanor’s periodic trawls through her husband’s old correspondence. She knew every page practically by heart, but perhaps there was something, some veiled hint, some obscure word that might now become a clue. She waited till he was at work – thank God there was still a year before the early retirement she had forced him to take – and dug out the meticulously filed boxes.

Everything was as it had been. Tax forms, confirmation letters from banks, electricity bills – God what a boring life the fool had led – minutes and receipts from his undistinguished year as Treasurer of the Golf Club, nothing, not a trace.

All she had was  a word, if it even was a word: ‘Ess-men-ay.’ Eleanor had a brainwave. There was another set of boxes containing every single yearbook the golf club had produced for the last thirty years. Perhaps the name was in there, buried somewhere inside the interminable lists of placings for tournaments, of donors and sponsors, of people who’d signed the visitor’s book, or been photographed at one of the endless fundraisers.

It was late afternoon before Eleanor was forced to abandon her trek through golf club history. She put everything carefully back and decided to think again.

She decided, as people increasingly did in those days, to consult the Internet. Alas, the planet’s self-proclaimed metabrain was of little help. In response to her typing the word ‘Esmene’ – which Eleanor had learned was the correct spelling – it brought forward an array of obscure medieval princesses and literary heroines who hadn’t even had time to be forgotten.

Was Robert having some kind of deeply sick, platonic affair with someone who had been dust for centuries, or worse, who hadn’t even existed outside the imagination of some randy old Frenchman? Was he – my, how this thought disgusted her – was he masturbating to the memory of some German countess who’d died of plague in 1342?

She told herself she was being ridiculous. The dribbling idiot would never have the imagination for something like that. No, she had to have been a real person. But who? There was no point in coming out straight and asking him about it. The drooling pervert would simply lie, as he had about his neurological condition.

Eleanor decided she needed to clear her head with a long walk. She left a note for Robert, instructing him to microwave his frozen dinner, and left.

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The thing, I guess, which distinguishes people like Eleanor from the broad, lumpen mass of humanity is this: they can never leave anything alone. They are the proverbial dogs with bones. In fact, their heroic dedication to their particular goals would leave even the most obsessive Rottweiler looking like a mere pussy.

There was no such thing as an idea which, once it had taken hold, Eleanor could ever let herself forget. She would resolve any confusion, no matter how long it took. It took her quite some time, but she even managed to find a solution to the problem of Robert’s phantom slut.

A couple of her old nursing friends had taken leave of their health service jobs and gone to work in a private clinic run by the UROK Corporation, the drug manufacturer which had set up in the town of Loonford some years before.

Eleanor now cultivated some of these friends a little more assiduously than before. She had them round for dinner, where the general pleasantry of the evening was only marred by Eleanor having to utter two mighty bellows at her husband, who had of course fallen asleep.

Protocol dictated that there were return invitations, which Eleanor was of course delighted to accept, on her and Robert’s behalf.

While the worthless fool drooled over brandy with the spouse whose name she kept forgetting, Eleanor unburdened herself in the kitchen.

“Oh darling I really am at my wit’s end, you know. I really feel like I can’t go on much more.”

“Oh no. What’s the matter?”

“Insomnia darling. I’m absolutely cursed with it. I can’t get any more than two hours a night. I feel – I feel like I’m coming apart.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Years darling, years and years. It’s partly the worry, you know, worrying about that man and all the health problems he won’t tell me about. And then of course there’s his snoring.”

“Robert snores?”

“Of course. Haven’t you heard him? And he talks, talks continually. He really is a most violent sleeper. I’ve begged him to have it checked out, but of course I’m only his wife. Why should he listen to me?”

“Have you thought of separate bedrooms? Loads of people do that, you know.”

“Oh darling I’ve begged. Begged and begged, but himself won’t hear about it, says that the moment we stop sharing a bed, we cease to be man and wife. Have you ever heard the like? I mean, at our age. It’s not like we do anything.”

“Oh, poor Eleanor. Surely there’s something you can do?”

“I’m terrified of messing around with Valium or any of that type of thing. I mean, what about side-effects? What if you don’t wake up? If there was just something, something safe that could help me to relax.”

“Well, funny you should mention it, but the firm is working on something at the moment. It’s supposed to be absolutely safe, but you do have to be careful with the dose. I mean, don’t take any more than what’s specified on the label. A couple of people I know have tried it, and they absolutely swear by it.”

“Really?”

“Yes, I could … I mean, there’s no danger of you overdosing is there? Just – just make sure you keep it very quiet, you know? Don’t say anything about where you got it.”

“Oh I wouldn’t say a word darling. Oh you know I’d be so grateful for something, anything that could…”

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Eleanor, in the manner of creatures like her everywhere, had done her homework. She already knew that, in tiny quantities, the UROK drug induced a profound feeling of relaxation and well being in those who took it. It was a state likened by one internet blogger to hypnosis.

She had also learned that, in more concentrated form, the drug functioned like an extremely powerful truth serum.

A couple of weeks later, she cooked dinner for herself and Robert, having made it abundantly clear to the clown that she expected him to be on time.

Robert, who had passed under the latest storm with his usual amiable incomprehension, took it as a sign that some equally inexplicable fair weather had dawned, and spent the evening commenting beatifically on the tender sweetness of his steak in ZRX-4403 sauce.

He smiled amiably at his wife, even complimenting her on her choice of wine, a fruity red garnished with the elusive bouquet of ZRX-4403 in powder form, just for luck, until his head went limp, and his wine glass shattered on the tiled kitchen floor.

Eleanor rose, swept the shards into a dustpan, threw her own steak and wine, both unembellished by ZRX-4403, into the bin. She dimmed the lights and stood over her again unmanned spouse.

“Robert! Robert Friel! Can you hear me?”

The voice seemed to ascend fathoms before replying … “yes.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“Mmm.”

“Who am I?”

“Mmm … I’ve a vague idea, I think.”

A smile! The dog was laughing at her. He was using his hypnosis to make fun of her. Oh was there no end to the humiliation?

“If you know who I am, then you also know who you are. You are a witless, faithless failure, a disgrace to the humanity God gave you, a boring, pointless waste of human material. Isn’t that true Robert Friel?”

“Yes dear.” But the swine smiled again.

“You could not even bring yourself to be faithful to the wife who has cared, cleaned and cooked for you all these thankless years, she who has been faithfulness itself to you all this time. Oh, Robert Friel, you are absolutely without honour. You are disgusting.”

“Yes. Disgusting.” As to the faith thing, it was true … apart from that Doctor at the hospital and that estate agent who’d almost got her that house by the lake – but such things were trifles compared to all she had given up. How could a woman be expected to live through such a Hell without the odd tiny compensation now and again?

“And now, Robert Friel, it is finally time for you to be truthful. You cannot hide behind any more lies Robert Friel. You are to tell the name of the whore you cheated your poor wife with. Robert Friel: who is Esmene?”

“Esmene?… Cheated?”

“Yes Robert Friel. Where and when did you commit your foul, disgusting deeds with Esmene? Who is she? Where did she come from?”

“Ess…men…ay.” He’d simply lapsed into the same dreamy tone with which he’d first mouthed the name. Eleanor, who had already worked herself into a fine lather, began to feel utter fury. The dog was actually enjoying being reminded of her. He was probably even having an erection.

“Concentrate you pig! When and where did you have sex with her? Confess! Confess or I swear I’ll…”

“Ess-men-ay.” Oh, this was getting nowhere. The man’s mental deceit had more layers than the Atlantic. But Eleanor would not be defeated, oh no.

She sprang from the dining table into the kitchen. She pulled the contraband packet from a drawer and retrieved four large capsules of ZRX-4403. She pulled the capsules open with her strong nurse’s fingers, then emptied their reddish powder into a glass.

She filled the glass with water, relentlessly stirring until all the crystals had been dissolved. The liquid she brought back had a strong reddish hue.

Her husband was still sitting motionless, eyes closed.

“Robert Friel.”

“Hello again.”

“You are to drink this, Robert Friel. You are to drink every last gulp, is that clear? You are to drink and wait for my voice.”

“Of course dear.”

She held the glass up to his mouth while he glugged, making disgusting noises at the back of his throat. What harm if the dose killed him? Eleanor was past caring about that now.

She allowed a minute or so to pass. The drug was supposed to be fast acting.

“And now Robert Friel. Can you hear me?”

His response almost made her jump backward. It was a low cackle, creepy, filled with phlegm. There were no words, just horrible, mocking laughter.

It took Eleanor a moment  to regain her composure.

“Don’t you dare laugh at me, you evil cur. Don’t you dare! My God I’ll finish you so fast. You’ve no idea how I’ll make you suffer. Now, I ask you again. Do you know who I am?”

There was a pause. The head lolled from side to side, then an entirely unfamiliar voice said “of course I know who you are.”

Eleanor almost suffered a collapse of nerve. There was something deeply ominous about this new voice. The contempt it dared to bear her. It seemed not to fear her in the least. She willed herself to go forward. Her father had not raised her to be timid.

“Then who am I?”

“You’re not going to like the answer.”

“Dammit. Tell me, you bastard, I’ll kill you.”

“You are the blood sucking, life corrupting bitch this misfortunate vessel has been tethered to for over thirty years. You are an avatar of that force put on Earth for the generation of pointless, tedious misery. How often this poor shit has dreamed of leaving you, how often he has thought that even a disgraced life in a hungry bedsit would be preferable to another moment in your pestilent company, but always I, his ruling demon, have stayed him, always defeated his courage when it might have brought him far away from you.”

Eleanor clasped the sides of her head. For the first time in many, many years, she felt exposed. Yet she tried to muster the old force of command.

“Stop this nonsense! I demand to speak to my husband! I want to talk to Robert now.”

“Oh he’s long gone, you silly cow.”

“What? How can he…”

“Those drugs you gave the poor fool have all but killed him. His identity is buried. Robert and all his polite bowing and scraping before the monstrosity, before the appalling, inescapable reality of you are drowned now. Now there is only me. You are alone with the truth. It’s not a pleasant feeling, is it? I bet you feel naked, don’t you? Someone is going to speak truth to you after thirty years.”

Eleanor was backing away from the table. All her rage had been frozen. Her blood had all but stopped.

“Who? Who are you?”

“I would speak my name only to one trained in how to seek it. To a human harpy like you, who serves my purpose so exquisitely without the merest idea of what you are doing, I give nothing, nothing except the delights that await you in my realm.”

“No!” She kept backing away, hands pushing at air.

“Yes, yes,” the voice mocked. “I suppose it’s a little unfair, really. You are among the most dogged of our foot soldiers. You do so much to create the conditions in which our designs might flourish. But in the end, all you are is fodder, and not particularly pleasing fodder at that. So it goes with armies, I suppose.”

Eleanor’s terror had turned into tears.

“On the other hand, your idiocy may well have cost me a soul. Robert’s failure of courage all these years will stand against him, of course, but he is gone before I could make sure of him. For that you must be made accountable. Your ignorance and stupidity will be no defence. You will experience in full the joys you have done so much to create on Earth.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Why my dear, don’t you know? I’m going to eat your soul, of course. Tasteless filth though it is.”

“No!” Eleanor fled into the kitchen. Moving in blind instinct, she pulled open the door to the garage. She could have fled the house altogether, but that was not her way.

She re-entered the dining room with a garden shovel. Her husband, or his shell, was still sitting there, cackling to itself.

Eleanor whacked him hard across the head with the point of the shovel. The cackling stopped. The head lolled to one side. She whacked again, and again. Robert crumpled to the floor. Eleanor set about the head several more times, just to be sure.

 

At a hearing before Eleanor’s trial, her lawyer told the judge that it was her intention not to dispute the charges before her. The simple fact was that an unprecedented mental breakdown had caused her to kill her husband, whom she loved beyond all reason, and the awful reality of that thought would make the very worst prison out of all her remaining days.

Surely, the lawyer urged, no useful purpose could be served by spending the hard pressed State’s resources on putting such a woman through a trial? Her punishment already outweighed anything the court could do to her.

The judge mulled it over for a few weeks, but eventually agreed. Eleanor was remanded in continuing custody to the State’s main psychiatric institution, until such time as the Doctors there pronounced her mostly cured, or at least no longer a danger to herself or others.

She remained there a few years, eventually being discharged to what was termed ‘sheltered accommodation’ in a cottage many miles from Loonford. She has lived quietly there ever since. She hardly ever goes out, and never sees anyone from her old life.

She has become intensely religious, attending several Masses a day at the small local Church. What little money she has now is spent on religious ornaments: medals for her neck, Sacred Hearts, votive lights, crucifixes.

When Mass is not taking place, she is often to be seen kneeling at a side altar to some Saint or other, her hands covering her face, her head nodding up and down. The local priest often spies her on his rounds, and shakes his head gently in pity and puzzlement at some of his God’s sadder creations.

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That Weird Girl In The Corner

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Influence. Some people have it. Loads of people want it. But the means by which some people attain it is a mystery as weird as quantum mechanics.

Take Yoko Ono, for instance. Most people in this part of the world assume she gained her fame and influence through being Mrs  John Lennon. Not so, apparently, for since the early 1960’s, there has been a small but highly dedicated band of artistic academics (many of whom have gone on to become influential Professors instructing whole new generations of artists) who have championed Ono’s work in conceptual art as being both revolutionary and deeply profound.

They speak with reverence of her notorious ‘Cut Piece,’ an art installation – performed repeatedly by Ono and others across the world – whereby members of the audience are invited to cut away pieces of the artist’s clothing, until she presumably ends up bollock naked.

Cynics like myself might be tempted to snort at ‘Film No. 4,’ which features extended close ups on the 355 bottoms of various artists and friends of Yoko Ono’s, but if you hang around with arty types, you’d want to be careful where you do your snorting.

Until a few months ago, I hadn’t met anyone who had actually listened to a Yoko Ono album. Yes, quite independently of John, she’s been writing and recording her own songs for ages, a fact I was unaware of until embarrassingly recently.

As with the output of most conceptual artists, I often find myself divided. Yoko Ono has produced pieces  of art – such as her white chessboards – which seem to conform to some doubtless outmoded patriarchal, woman suppressing notion of beauty (I’m trying to be scrupulously correct and non-patriarchal here). But a large other part of me just purses its metaphysical lips and goes ‘so what? What’s the point?’

Those who know ‘things’ about conceptual art will tell me that this is precisely where I am falling down: my atavistic lust to find a point is defeating the whole enterprise. The viewer of conceptual art is in some sort of Schrodinger’s cat like relationship with the artist and the art. It’s only there because you’re seeing it, or something, and it’s all about what you yourself bring to the viewing process, or something.

If I was venturing into the perilous territory of those who write explanatory notes for pieces at conceptual art exhibitions (to assist slow learners like myself), I might say that Yoko Ono’s art is an attempt to bring Eastern notions of silence, self-exploration and even self-immolation into the noisier performance spaces of Western culture, but breathe easy, it’s not a gig I’m likely to be offered anytime soon.

And yet, from as far back as my college days, I’ve been aware of one way in which Yoko Ono has influenced the culture very profoundly. It is a way in which avatars of her have become ubiquitous all over the planet, everywhere young people gather to explore new ways of communally fleeing reality.

It’s what I call ‘the weird girl in the corner’ phenomenon. Many of the most iconic images of Yoko Ono involve her seated, usually on the floor, in the corner of some gathering of artists or musicians. During those last fractious days of The Beatles, with Lennon and McCartney fuming at each other in the mutually resentful effort to get those last immortal albums hammered down on vinyl, there she is, sitting like a Japanese Mona Lisa, inscrutable, internal.

Is she smiling? What, if anything, is she thinking about? I bet such questions drove McCartney crazy.

I came across reproductions of the phenomenon at virtually every house party I attended during and after College. Along with the drunks, the music, the shrieking girls, the lumbering jocks inarticulately attempting to persuade the shrieking girls to repair with them to some slightly quieter location, there would be the weird girl in the corner.

She often sat on floors, usually cross-legged, long hair falling in strangely ordered strands down her front. Was she smiling? Was she internally dismissive of the bedlam around her? Was she having the time of her life? Nobody knew. The weird girl in the corner occupied her own precisely defined universe of space, like an enchanted fairy circle, and only the most hard core drunken sociopath ever dared interfere with that space.

And maybe the weird girls had tapped into some Yokoesque voodoo about how to exploit the insecurities of western masculinity, simply by being. They were rarely beautiful in any Barbie sense, but they were always striking. Did they know from birth that they had always been striking, or was it a look they had worked on?

The insecure male could never entirely ignore their presence. No matter how much you tried to drown your awareness in ever louder buffoonery, your gaze kept straying back to the weird girl in the corner.

Is she judging me? Is her sheer passivity mocking the way I am seeking to swathe my universe in noise? Does she think I’m unlikely to be any good in bed? Is she even aware of my existence?

Some clue as to what some at least of the weird girls might be thinking was provided by the Great One herself, in an explanatory note on the programme of the immortal ‘Film No. 4’:

“I wonder why men can get serious at all. They have this delicate thing hanging outside their bodies, which goes up and down by its own will. First of all having it outside your body is terribly dangerous. If I were a man I would have a fantastic castration complex to the point that I wouldn’t be able to do a thing. If I were a man I would always be laughing at myself.”

I knew it. I knew it. Those weird girls in the corner were laughing at us all the time!

Robinson Crusoe And Other Calamities

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It isn’t just today that serves up inexplicable publishing phenomena. There’s a lot more of it about these days, of course. Paper used to be prohibitively expensive back in the day, but that didn’t stop plenty of doozies getting through, and not only getting through, but managing to get themselves called Classics, required reading for unfortunate generations yet to be conceived.

I have attempted the reading of Robinson Crusoe three times, twice as a child, once as an adult. Daniel Defoe’s novel is apparently based on the real life story of Alexander Selkirk, which I read in comic book form many, many years ago. Selkirk was genuinely stranded on the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile, for about four years, but somehow managed to make a go of things.

What the comic book didn’t tell me was that Selkirk was apparently deliberately abandoned on the island by his shipmates, who decided that they’d rather commit the nearest thing to murder than listen to him for another minute. My tortured attempts the read the novel (and I had such a lovely edition, red hardback and colour illustrations) offered some clue as to how it all kicked off.

Extremely boring control freak gets stranded on an island and proceeds to write long lists of everything in order to keep himself from going mad, never realizing that he’s actually been out to lunch his entire life, madder than a ferret in a microwave oven, crankier than Planet Crank’s finest.

Robinson Crusoe would be a torturously overlong joke if it was written today, a bit like ’50 Shades of Grey’ or ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ or ‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair.’ It would have become what is referred to as a ‘publishing phenomenon,’ i.e. a book which is crap to the point of actually constituting a mental health hazard, but which somehow sells millions anyway.

For this is it. This is where it’s at: literature fashioned exclusively for people who never read, brain doodles for those who never think. The publishing industry see as its main business the persuasion of millions of people to part with cash in exchange for something with print in it. It doesn’t actually matter what’s in the print, or even if anything’s in it.

The ideal, perhaps, would be if non-readers bought the books as presents for other people who never actually get around to reading them, but naturally feel too embarrassed to admit this, and just go “oh yeah. Thanks a million. That was great.”

Actually, I’m increasingly wondering if the entire book publishing industry doesn’t hinge on the crucial condition of nobody ever reading anything. As I know from my limited experience of PR, it’s much easier to write a press release about something if you’ve never actually read or seen it. Actual knowledge of what’s inside the subject impedes your creative ability to make up snazzy sound bytes about it.

The odd review of something in a major newspaper increasingly makes me wonder if the critic whose name is on the article has actually read or seen anything connected with ‘the thing’ either. Again, should we be surprised at this? Those rare critics still important enough to get their names on bylines probably have all sorts of other things to do, don’t they, like drinking wine at book signings or doing product endorsements or playing skittles with JK Rowling?

It is thus reasonable to assume that the job of actually ‘reading’ or ‘seeing’ anything is devolved upon some nameless underling, an intern perhaps. This intern is of the smarter variety, and realized some time ago that she can spend the $10.50 involved on pizza with her boyfriend, and so long as what she says chimes in with the general orthodoxy of what everyone else is saying, no one is any the wiser.

I have an increasing suspicion that publishing houses function in exactly the same way: an entire industry which rests upon the fact that nobody ever reads anything; and even the readers themselves are locked into the deal by the glorious social contract of embarrassment: ‘I’ve never read it either, but please don’t tell anyone.’

A friend once told me an amusing story about ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’

He was locked inside deep conversation with some shining eyed, beauteous creature. The glow of her face and a thousand non-verbal signals were pointing emphatically towards a many-splendoured night, when all of a sudden the girl’s eyes upped a notch in fantastic luminosity, and she asked if he’d ever read ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’

He essayed a sort of indeterminate burp, realizing that a sudden change of subject was impossible, unless he actually set fire to her dress. He even considered this notion briefly, but dismissed it as impractical and open to all kinds of misinterpretation. Of course he’d never read the cursed thing, or rather, he’d scanned the first five pages and realized that, even at his tender age, life was far too short.

But the clock was ticking. She was gushing and shining and asking him what he thought in a voice that caused sweat to grow old before its time on his brow.

What did you think? He had to think pretty bloody fast.

Well?

“I think,” he said, after an intense and woozy pause, “I think there was too much in it about motorcycle maintenance, and not enough about Zen.”

Reality wobbled and went limp as he awaited her reaction.

It came – after a long second – as another kind of fantastic luminosity, a symphony of light, green eyed lasers, phosphorescent skin, giant white teeth that induced immediate snow blindness.

“You know,” she said, “you are just so right. You are so absolutely right.”

Notes On A Crime Novel

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I came pretty late to the Detective story. Sure, cop shows on TV were unavoidable when I was a kid, and I developed a fondness for Inspector Morse years later, not so much because of the mystery solving (while Morse has occasional flashes, he’s a long way from being the world’s greatest detective. It’s a pity the way the newer prequel, ‘Endeavour,’ attempts to reimagine him as Benedict Cumberbatch), but because of the grand, almost operatic scale of the storytelling.

John Thaw was simply magnetic as Morse, and the stories were lingered over lovingly. They were essentially movies – most of them were even shot with cinema cameras – as much about the feel and morose grandeur of Morse’s world as solving the crime at hand.

In terms of reading, I had paid very little attention to detective novels since I was a child. Occasionally, during some unusually long period of idleness (maybe on one of those rare holidays where nothing much was happening) I might come across an old, yellowing Agatha Christie paperback. I could admire the storytelling skill and neat prose (it’s rarely mentioned that Christie was actually a very decent stylist) without getting terribly carried away.

Maybe this is because while Christie’s stories are powerful, and treat – as murder must – of the most raw and visceral human passions, we’re seeing them through the prism of ‘safe’ characters like Miss Marple and Poirot. Christie’s sleuths thus serve two purposes: they solve the crime and serve as a kind of comfort blanket for the reader, they are a protective layer between you and the very worst things that human beings are capable of.

It was when I began to read Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories that some sort of process was touched off in my brain. I had never read them as a child, and my impression of Sherlock had been rendered a bit jaundiced by a few crazy efforts to ‘reimagine’ or ‘reinvent’ the most famous character in English Literature. One of the worst of these was a hilariously hysterical effort in which Nicol Williamson (as Holmes) bumps into Sigmund Freud, who proves that his unpleasant character and mania for crime solving are – you’ve guessed it – the product of something he caught his mother doing when he was a kid.

Later, there was the long running TV series with Jeremy Brett as the great sleuth. This garnered much praise for its fidelity to the original stories and attention to Victorian detail, but I always found Brett’s performance too fussy, too camp, and the show’s stately pace could be stultifying. The original stories themselves, by contrast, can fairly crackle with a pace and energy that TV and film versions have only rarely lived up to.

The latest BBC version of Sherlock, starring the aforementioned and ubiquitous Benedict, try to inject some of that amazing energy by massively sexing and teching everything up. It works, up to a point, but if you want to touch Conan Doyle’s genuine genius, go back to the stories, and marvel at an achievement which is still being ‘reimagined’ over a hundred years later.

Beyond the puzzles, which must have been fiendish to devise and resolve, Conan Doyle was decades ahead of his time by choosing as his hero someone with distinctly unpleasant traits. Sherlock is (or has been) a drug addict. While not actually cruel, he is capable of enormous callousness, particularly towards the ever faithful Watson. He appears to have an almost pathological aversion (never fully explained) towards sexual contact with women, while at the same time going to great sentimental lengths to help any damsel in distress within a hundred mile radius of London.

Moreover, even though he’s a genius, he sometimes gets it wrong. There are times when, stuck in a self-indulgent miasma, he doesn’t react quickly enough to save a client. Elements such as these – fallibility, self-indulgence, unpleasantness, wouldn’t start appearing in mainstream TV detective characters until the 1980’s. Conan Doyle died in 1930.

Yet the unpleasantness and complexity of the character is one key reason why Holmes has become perhaps the most famous fictional person in the world. His oddness makes for a more interesting prism through which to view the world of evil. The reader still has the comfort blanket of the unerringly moral and sentimental Watson, but Holmes represents both danger and reassurance, a remarkable achievement.

To me, that seems the most important element of any detective story, not who is murdered and why, but who is your main character. It’s something I had to think about for ‘The Killing of Sheila Price.’ Who is going to process and interpret all this madness and malevolence for the benefit of the reader?

It’s become the ultimate cliché these days to make your lead Detective an alcoholic, and at first I thought I wanted to avoid this with Dan Hogan. Since Sherlock, it’s become unthinkable for a Detective not to have a dark side. All that horror, all that daily evidence of how bestial and vicious human beings must – so the literary reasoning goes – have some sort of visible impact.  Either he has a trunk full of dead bunnies, or he must be either an alkie or a junkie.

I decided in the end that it made sense for Dan because it sat with the other elements of his persona. Like most fictional Detectives, Dan is horrified by human nature, but he internalises it in a way the others don’t. There’s a line in ‘The Killing of Sheila Price’ which refers to his sparse hair standing up like a shocked question mark against human brutality.

He holds long private monologues in which he attempts to address the ghost of the dead woman. Whereas other professionals would practice ways of emotionally distancing themselves from trauma encountered in the course of work, Dan does the opposite. He uses the internalised pain of others as fuel to propel him towards solving the case. This seems to get results, but he knows that it’s shortening his life. This doesn’t bother him so much, though, because like many other Detectives, Dan fell out of love with life a long time ago. He is perhaps a little more systematic, though, in terms of actually trying to give it up.

He tends to view the world in passive terms. Stuff happens to him, not the other way around. He is attracted to Buddhism, both as a kind of shock medicine for the horrors of the world but also because of his suspicion that any action, however well intentioned, is either meaningless or destined to bounce back upon the actor.

He no longer has much use for reason either. Whereas someone like Sherlock clings remorselessly to the power of reason and the rational mind in the face of indescribable madness and horror, Dan – made of less stern stuff – gave up a long time ago. Grace, the psychic he consults without telling his bosses, recalls him telling her that he had run out of mathematics, and now needed voodoo.

While there are aspects of Dan Hogan’s character that seem old-fashioned, I think this makes him extremely contemporary. We live in a world that makes a little less sense every day. A giant orange oompa loompa is running against a despised power junkie for the most powerful office on the planet. Some quite reputable scientists are talking out loud about the entire Universe being a computer simulation. Bob Dylan has just won the Nobel Prize, and as he says himself: “people uh cwazy an’ life is strange.”

In a world such as this, Dan Hogan makes perfect sense. I also wanted to make the story contemporary by including details I believe to be true about the society he inhabits. Sheila Price’s death occurs not long after the Irish property crash, when the country’s entire economy was placed on life support while the Irish Government – obeying the demands of the EU and Germany – took it upon itself to pay off the debts of criminal bankers.

This was a time when it became obvious that the Irish State itself is a kind of hologram, a failed pyramid scheme still loosely clinging to the pretence that it is some sort of country.

‘The Killing of Sheila Price’ is also one of the few contemporary novels to refer to the existence of ‘alternative’ sexual communities in Ireland: people who practice organised partner swapping, orgies and so on, often in parts of the country (rural Ireland) where such things are thought not to exist. There’s a good deal of anecdotal evidence that such practices are actually very widespread in Ireland: the last veneers of social control exercised by the Catholic Church are gone, and appear to have left exposed a kind of orgiastic nihilism which may actually be what passes for the real Irish soul.

Like so many other activities in Ireland however, such as police and political corruption, these things remain secret, and their secrecy is guarded fiercely by a corrupt legal system which ruthlessly stamps out freedom of speech. It sometimes seems incredible that we can have these North Korean levels of control and secrecy in a country that sits slap bang in the Western sphere, but there it is.

Public life in Ireland (all official life to an extent) is basically a legal fiction, with the borders of this fiction being constantly patrolled by lawyers. Underneath the fiction is a sort of free for all where, so long as you belong to this or that protected group, pretty much anything goes.

Who other than a Dan Hogan can possibly guide the reader through such waters? Again and again, Dan has to chart his course knowing that various, undefined forces are ready to shut him down the minute he strays into forbidden territory, and it is my experience and belief that just about every serious criminal investigation in the Republic of Ireland has to do exactly the same thing.

Finally, Dan has to grapple with the whole issue of marriage, 21st Century style, since central to the entire plot is the marriage between Sheila and her estranged spouse, Harry. It’s alien territory for Dan, who can barely remember his own brief marriage. But as his method includes approaching things with a sort of Buddhist absence of assumption, Dan begins to find out things.

There has never been a theatre with more potential for visceral cruelty than the noble institution of marriage. People get to do things and behave in ways that would surely earn incarceration if you did them anywhere else. One of the assumptions of the legal fiction that defines official life in Ireland is that cruelty in marriage is practised exclusively by men. It leads to a lot of criminal behaviour by women going unreported. People think there’s no point because even if it is investigated, it certainly won’t be prosecuted, and of course they’re right.

Being that unusual creature, a policeman who thinks for himself, Dan Hogan knows different. And some of his discoveries touch interestingly on the inferno that is sexual politics in the 21st Century.

“The Killing of Sheila Price” is available for download on Amazon Kindle. Simply type the name into the Amazon search engine or:

 

‘The Killing Of Sheila Price’ – Now Available on Amazon

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I’m delighted to finally be able to announce that my crime novel, ‘The Killing of Sheila Price,’ is finally available for download on Amazon Kindle. It tells the story of a brutal murder in the Irish Midlands, investigated by Dan Hogan, a character I’m actually pretty proud of: a frail, lonely, alcoholic who dabbles in things as diverse as Buddhism and the occult.

The body of an Irish woman, Sheila Price, is found in her home very early one morning. She has apparently been the victim of a particularly brutal and ritualised killing. Is her tragedy the work of Ireland’s first serial killer? Dan Hogan isn’t so sure, and his suspicions fall almost immediately on the dead woman’s estranged husband, Harry.

What follows is a bizarre voyage through the underbelly of Irish society, the stuff you see and hear about only very rarely, and then through a glass darkly. Hogan’s efforts to solve the case take him into dark family histories, the visions of a psychic and a secret Irish community which embraces alternative sexual lifestyles.

How far will he have to go in order to find out what happened? How far will he get before he is forced to stop?

This is tense, haunting storytelling with unforgettable characters and some unique twists. Its noir atmosphere is heightened by being set amid the post-apocalyptic wreckage of the Celtic Tiger, where everything just seems to have stopped.

It’s taken a while to get it up there, which is down to a combination of my torturously slow editing, Neanderthal I.T. skills and absurdly complicated life, but there it is. Give it a look.

It retails at $3.99. I think that’s about €3.55 (euro) or £3.07. I hope to post regular updates about the book in the weeks to come. People who are interested in finding out more can also check out the ‘Dreaming Sheila’ page on Facebook.

You can go direct to the book by clicking on this infeasibly long link here:

https://www.amazon.com/Killing-Sheila-Price-Century-Ireland-ebook/dp/B01M0DVQ2E/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1476188103&sr=8-1&keywords=%27The+Killing+of+Sheila+Price%27

All Hail Westworld: Newest Of The TV Undead

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It’s the NBT, the great white hype, at least until next Tuesday. HBO’s latest nude shockfest, ‘Westworld,’ will, they hope, fill that Game of Thrones shaped hole in everybody’s lives. But amid all the carefully crafted excitement, isn’t there just the slightest sense that TV’s oft proclaimed ‘Golden Age’ might have passed its high water mark, that the arrival of ‘Westworld’ means it’s all downhill from here?

Why? Well, the ‘Golden Age’ of TV was signalled by the arrival of new shows which confounded jaded viewers by telling their stories in a frankly novelistic way which, while occasionally frustrating, was never less than compelling. Shows like ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ could occasionally exasperate you with their non-linear storytelling, but the sheer newness of the style made it breathtaking. No one had ever dared tell stories in quite this way on TV before, and not alone was the method surprising, but (and here’s the thing) THE STORIES WERE NEW!

‘Westworld’ conforms to the eco friendly diktats of modern mediocre telly by being made up 100% recycled thoughts. It is a ‘reboot’ of a not very good 1973 sci fi movie by Michael Crichton, in which hedonistic, weirdly dopey tourists visit a resort staffed and people entirely by robots. They get to act out Wild West fantasies (surely a little dated by now, I would have thought), have sex with robot waitresses and kill robot gunfighters (who are of course programmed to lose, until things start getting hairy with the software).

The original movie is chiefly memorable for two things: Yul Brynner’s somewhat ahead of its time performance as a robotic killer, and a weird flash which takes place in the pupils of the robot waitress just after she has, er, entertained the main character. I’m not sure what the flash was supposed to signify. Was it the entry of a new and unexpected datum into the ‘girl’s’ cognitive matrix, or simply the most cunning way they could show in 1973 that actual coitus (or sort of coitus) had occurred?

And that’s pretty much it. A la the dinos in Jurassic Park, the robots eventually go nuts and start killing everybody. It would probably have been a much bigger surprise to the audience if they hadn’t. ‘Westworld’ is the latest in a raft of not very good ideas that have enjoyed an inexplicable second life. Some of them are just lucky like that: take a bow ‘A Team,’ ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ ‘Starsky and Hutch,’ ‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Ninja Turtles’ and all the rest.

One thing that perhaps deserves remark is the presence of JJ Abrams, currently the most powerful being in the celluloid universe, as executive producer on ‘Westworld.’ The curious bit is this: here he is again, helping fashion another tale about little artificial beings in an entirely artificial universe, yet another world in a bottle.

Abrams doesn’t just have form in this department, he seems to have a genuine thing for it. He made his name, after all, with ‘Lost,’ which was about a bunch of characters lost inside a contrived reality, shut off from the outside world, which might as well have been ‘Westworld.’ That series enjoyed a surge of popularity until it became evident that it couldn’t escape its own limited logic: in short, they couldn’t figure out a way to end it properly.

Whatever its flaws, ‘Lost’ proved itself a good Hollwyood idea by spawning a galaxy of lesser imitations, such as ‘Under The Dome,’ in which the main tension in every episode seemed to revolve around the question of ‘how the hell do we figure out a way to resolve this dome thing without looking even more ridiculous than we do already?’

Abrams went on to other, more elaborately fake universes. He was responsible for the Star Trek cinema reboot, deciding along the way that the original Star Trek Universe wasn’t artificial enough, so he had to invent an entirely new one. In case you missed it, because of torturously arcane (and actually pretty dodgy) plot points in the first Abrams movie, the new Kirk, Spock and Bones don’t inhabit the same Universe as their aged originals, but live in a parallel one, which may or may not be as or more real than the one they launched back in the 60’s, presumably depending on which version you personally accept as more real – the 1960’s TV series or the reboot (I know which version I’ve chosen).

‘Westworld’ feels like more of the same. When I was a kid, I used to like to imagine enclosed, artificial realities – tiny worlds in bottles I suppose – for my toy soldiers and the like to besport themselves around in, but I – er – kind of gave it up after the age of 10. Does it tell us something about Abrams, or the strange re-infantilisation of culture he and we inhabit, that these tiny worlds in bottles now come with hundred million dollar budgets and global marketing rights?

The global colossus that is Game of Thrones is basically a giant game of soldiers, albeit with loads of nudity and rather more gore than one forced one’s toys to engage in (I’d have ended up on the serial killer watch list). It is new only in the sense that its themes have never been shown in quite this way on TV before. But it remains true to current TV dogma by ‘sampling’ the incredibly rich storylines and characters in George RR Martin’s books.

What does it say about our species that we seem to prefer any artificial reality, even ones as bleak as Game of Thrones or as limited in horizon as ‘Under The Dome’ or ‘Westworld,’ to the one which is called real? Maybe we’ve had enough of this adulthood lark and decided to literally f*** it for a game of soldiers.

But whatever about all that, there’s money to be made. Anthony Hopkins clearly expects to live to be at least 250, and thus needs a pension plan that is correspondingly enormous (hence, presumably, his presence in Westworld), so it’s high time I got cracking. Here are some of my own proposed ‘reboots,’ or ‘re-heats’ of older TV stuff that wasn’t all that great to begin with. I’m reliably assured that this is the way to make it, and believe me, it took a long time to find stuff that hadn’t been ‘rebooted’ already.

1: Revenge On Walton Mountain

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The entire Earth has been devastated by an apocalyptic plague. Johnboy, now the leader of a coven of polysexual nudists, returns to try and recapture the family mountain from an army of flesh eating zombies, led by a horrifyingly reanimated Grandpa.

2: How I Ate Your Mother

Gentle reality show where cannibals and former zombies share tales of past experiences in picturesque seaside hotels.

3. The Pukes of Hazzard

A laidback, carefree pair of rednecks drive their red car throughout America, drinking loads of Doctor Pepper and vomiting all over their victims.

4. The Flesh Prince of Bel Air

Will Smith, or whatever clone of him happens to be doing the rounds at the time, leads a hip bunch of teen zombies feasting on the bodies  of the rich and famous.

5. Murder She Did

Elderly crime novelist Jessica Fletcher commits a new murder every week, then sets about cunningly pinning the deed on some washed up 80’s TV actor.

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With all this artillery, I fully expect to be a billionaire by the end of next month, though 5 might be a bit on the cerebral side. Time to sit and wait for that phone to ring.

 

Science And The Global Addiction To Publicity

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They assure me that the very first 250 year old man (or maybe it’s a woman) has already been born. I don’t believe them of course, but I do know that there’s a man in Indonesia who claims to be 145. He says he’s more than ready to die, according to reports, but somehow it just won’t happen.

It’s tough when you get to a place like that. It sounds like the ultimate in dream inversion. We’re supposed to want to be ‘immortal,’ or so Elon Musk and a load of other ‘people who matter’ keep telling us. But what if we make it and then find out we don’t want to be there? I could hit 250, keep throwing myself off mountains, drinking litres of absinthe and going on one way trips to Mars, but it just won’t happen.

Be careful what you wish for. Thoroughly double check those dreams. Nobody wants to end up like those male porn actors who allegedly off themselves because they can no longer ‘perform’ at their dream jobs.

Whatever about all that, one side effect of the Internet seems to be that science has become dangerously addicted to racy headlines.

In the past few weeks alone, I’ve read upmarket clickbait which claims (a) that humans will be immortal within ten years, (b) that last year, Russian astronomers discovered proof of life on another planet, (c) that a massive artefact similar to a Dyson Sphere (ask the sci fi fan nearest you) has been detected in orbit round another star, (d) that there’s another Earth in orbit round the nearest star in space and (e) that NASA has accidentally discovered a form of propulsion which breaks all the known laws of physics and could therefore enable us to travel at faster than the speed 0f light, a la Star Trek.

Some of these headlines, such as the immortality ones, can be easily dismissed as the pleadings of geneticists endlessly hungry for more funding or the narcissistic witterings of billionaires who believe that, since they’ve conquered everything else, death should be just another number.

There’s an easy way to check out their claims too. Turn to the obituary section in your nearest newspaper. If they’re empty, the guys are on to something. If they’re not, it’s rubbish.

(On a side note, would it be stretching credulity to suggest that, 20 or so years hence, Elon Musk will be running for the US Presidency, addressing eager voters as ‘my fellow holograms’?)

The space headlines, on the other hand, refer to some of the wettest dreams of the species. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a thriving, economically solvent Galactic Federation, jetting off to Alpha Centauri B for the weekend, going rocket skiing down the thousand mile glaciers of Gargantua, getting all worked up about the nine-headed Donald Trump figure running for Emperor of Romulus?

It’s all marvellous. I can’t wait. The niggling fear that, as Stephen Hawking and others have warned, our alien brothers and sisters might just want to use us as a cheap alternative to junk food troubles me not a whit. I only have one question, my own down home version of the Fermi Paradox, if you will: why are we only hearing about all this in the last few months?

Alien hunters still scratch their heads over the so called ‘WOW’ signal, picked up randomly by a radio telescope back in 1977, which seemed to signify the presence of some sort of intelligent life in deep space. The problem is, it has never been repeated, despite dedicated efforts to find it again.

Now, we’ve heard that another one was detected only last year. Call me a pessimistic old fool, but I’ve a funny feeling we’ll be hearing about another one before the year is out.

And it’s not just the more hyper-excitable among the science community who are getting carried away. NASA is not normally regarded as a bastion of hysteria, but over the past couple of years, the breathless tones which accompany press releases about the discovery of fossilised micro globs of liquid from 100 Million years ago on Mars which might or might not hint obliquely at the possibility of long extinct life give pause for thought.

We are told, as a matter of established fact, that there are underground oceans on Europa (a moon of Jupiter) and Enceladus (a moon of Saturn), and lately I’ve even heard similar bizarre speculation about Pluto. Really? Can we be sure about any of that? Surely the only way is to actually drill down into one of them, and therein lies the point, and the problem.

The entire world suffers more than ever from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and science is finding that it has to stand in line and scream for attention with everyone else: all the politicians and porn stars, the juice salesmen and the eco cults, the kitchen fitters and the X Factor contestants.

It is having to make exaggerated claims for its own significance. Stick with us and we’ll invent something really, really useful, not like the iPhone and all those other things that just turned out to be traps.

Of course, the problem with hysterical claims is that, sooner or later, even the most slow witted among us are going to stop believing them, and stop believing the messenger. The conundrum here is that science is the only thing we’re officially allowed to believe in any more. What happens when the last guru turns to dust?

There has to be more than money and nihilism, doesn’t there? Does there?