Month: February, 2012

Destructive Writing – Brookside

I’m bored, so I decided to take the ‘narrative’ section of the Wikipedia article on Brookside and delete all the extraneous, non-crazy text. Two decades of increasingly lunatic Scouse miserablism distilled to its essence. I’m a regular William Burroughs me, only without the talent. Or the heroin addiction. And I’ve never had to flee the country to avoid being imprisoned for drug charges, then flee again after accidentally shooting my wife in the head.

first casualty of the soap, dying from a brain haemorrhage, and Petra committed suicide a few months later . . . George was wrongly convicted of a warehouse robbery . . . Alan’s turbulent love-life, Sheila’s unexpected pregnancy in her forties, Paul’s unemployment, Edna’s gambling addiction and Barry and Terry’s descent into crime . . . frequent visits to union picket lines . . . concerned with marital problems and debt . . . sexually propositioned in return to pay off the family’s spiralling debts . . . churning up his neighbour’s gardens in a fit of depression. . . . John’s instability grew into insanity . . . armed with a revolver and ready to avenge his mother’s death . . . The siege culminated in three shots resulting in the death of Kate followed by John’s suicide. . . . unaware that he was a secret heroin addict . . . including stealing and selling her jewellery . . . subsequently dying of exposure in Sefton Park . . . Damon was fatally stabbed whilst on the run with his girlfriend Debbie . . . controversial affair with a married man . . . rescue her elderly and abused mother, Mona, from a corrupt care-home . . . popular union was cut short . . . Terry Sullivan’s wife Sue and baby Danny being pushed to their deaths off scaffolding. . . . increasingly involved in dubious plots . . . Jimmy descended into intense drug abuse . . . climaxing in a cocaine-induced car crash . . . such as Mick Johnson, who would later be held at gun-point in his flat by obsessed stalker . . . John’s asthma and shoplifting . . . involved in a lengthy date-rape plot with Rod Corkhill’s wife Diana . . . story of wife beater and child abuser Trevor Jordache . . . sold off to become a safe house for abused families . . . sexually abused by their father . . . stabbed him in the Kitchen of Number 10 . . . buried him underneath their patio . . . controversial subjects that other British soaps did not . . . A religious cult headed by Simon Howe blew up Number 5 . . . a mysterious killer virus . . . The incestuous relationship between brother and sister . . . a stint being terrorised by gang-land boss Callum Finnegan . . . the date rape of Nikki Shadwick . . . become synonymous with plots involving guns and explosions . . . no fewer than 6 catastrophic fires and explosions taking place . . . A gas-cooker destroyed much of the Brookside Parade and a bomb detonated in the Millennium Club . . . Separate fires at Number 6 and Number 8 almost killed several characters . . . children both perished in a car crash . . . character’s exit was extremely unpopular . . . supposedly had a 10 year-long affair with a woman never mentioned before in the script . . . Ron shot dead Clint Moffat in the kitchen . . . fell down the stairs . . . abrupt death of Alan . . . followed shortly after by Debbie dying in a car crash . . . began with drug-laden armed robbers speeding onto the Close, hotly pursued by Police . . . three teenagers being violently terrorised . . . Steve Murray getting shot and dumped outside the front door . . . Nikki Shadwick almost being raped for a second time, Emily Shadwick falling to her death from an upstairs window, Kirsty Gordon being raped, blatant drug abuse, strong language and a realistic portrayal of a deranged, drug addicted bank robber . . . police helicopter being gunned down by Psycho Gibson and crashing . . . eerie, deserted feel to the previously high-octane soap with a depressing dark overtone through it. . . . Characters slowly drifted away, often with little or no explanation, . . . Nikki Shadwick, who had nearly been raped for a second time and witnessed the death of her sister . . . so that he could be released from secure psychiatric care. . . . Brookside Close being emptied before demolition for the construction of a waste incinerator . . . “fuck” was now scripted regularly, as was unmotivated violence . . . despised drug-dealer Jack Michaelson . . . a play on the name of the Channel 4 controller, Michael Jackson . . . remaining residents of Brookside Close taking a stand against Michaelson, lynching him


Wild at Heart

Two articles on the Zanesville incident1, which you may remember from the news a few months back when a man in Ohio released all the animals from his private zoo and then killed himself, one in GQ and the other in Esquire. Both articles in US mens magazines, both released on the same day – it’s war to the knife in print media! Apparently the two journalists responsible were in Zanesville at the same time, staying in the same hotel and interviewing the same people. I picture them scuttling round desperately trying to outwit each other like they were in those old Spy vs Spy cartoons. Or possibly a romantic comedy where they both fall for one of the witnesses or something. Though in that case the story they’re working on probably wouldn’t start with a man shooting himself in the head and end with several dozen exotic animals being buried in a mass grave.

The two articles aren’t actually all that similar; the one in Esquire focuses on the events of that day, whereas the GQ piece is more about the big picture. The Esquire article in particular makes the whole thing sounds absolutely nightmarish – an unprepared SWAT team sweeping a darkened farm for dangerous, wildly out-of-place animals. The owner dead with a revolver in his hand, the body partially mutilated and eaten. An officer searching the dilapidated farmhouse and wondering if the place might be booby-trapped whilst monkeys scream and rattle their cages. Someone getting out of their car and finding themselves unable to free their entangled rifle as a black bear advances. The batteries in the lights dying. The night broken by howling and roaring and gunfire. The obvious way to describe it is ‘like something out of a horror movie’, though perhaps a survival horror videogame might be more like it.

The GQ article by contrast is less visceral but rather depressing. Ohio apparently has unusually lax laws regarding ‘exotic animals’2, so that no-one knows exactly how many big cats there are in the state or where they are. I was surprised to read that big cats can be bought as cubs for around $300 – for the price of the PC I’m writing this on I could have got a half-dozen and still had change for catnip. Of course, lions take rather more upkeep than plugging into a power socket and occasionally dusting. . . The background on the owner, Terry Thompson, makes the whole thing seem more understandable, if that’s the right word. A Vietnam veteran with mental health problems, who’d recently had his wife leave him and had just got out of prison after serving time for firearms offences. He had an overgrown, disintegrating farm, no money, a sizable menagerie of exotic animals he couldn’t take care of properly. . .

Myself I prefered the Esquire article, though they’re both definitely worth a read. It’s a strange world.


1 Sometimes called the Zanesville Zoo Massacre, which is rather melodramatic, as well as sounding like the name of an indie band.
2 Not for much longer though.

Books I Read In January 2012

Downriver – Iain Sinclair
The loose, meandering plot of this second novel by London’s leading psychogeographer1 supposedly revolves around the attempt of a film crew to make a documentary about the Thames towards the end of the Thatcher years. In practice it mostly consists of the usual elements of Sinclair’s work – (low)life on the blasted margins of society, a view of rare bookselling that makes the trade seem about as respectable as selling bent motors, a philistine media industry that destroys culture and history in favour of empty theme-park ‘heritage’, individuals who’ve crossed the line from eccentric into totally bloody mad. This is a book you read for all the little incidents and anecdotes, rather than to find out what happens at the end – and also for the writing itself, sometimes satirical, sometimes savage but always wonderful. You could probably read any of the twelve sections out of order without it mattering too much to your understanding of the plot. Like all his work, fiction and non-fiction, this is one of those things which you either love or find utterly incomprehensible. I loved it, though as you may have noticed I find it hard to explain why.

Mask of the Other – Greg Stolze
Excellent modern-day Cthulhu Mythos fiction from the man who brought us the magnificent Unknown Armies2. The story starts out switching between characters, places and times, before coalescing into a mostly chronological order by about half way. The main characters are a squad of US Army soldiers who stumbled into something very dangerous during the First Gulf War, and their subsequent involvement with the horrendous madness that lurks below normal human existence. The characterisation in particular is very good, the members of Third Squad seem like real people which is important in this kind of story – to properly portray the empty, monstrous insanity of the Cthulhu Mythos you need believable human characters to contrast it with. Too often in cosmic horror stories the lack of ordinary, identifiable people is noticeable, diluting the ‘wrongness’ that fuels the horror. Also features a conception of Deep One reproductive habits that manages to be even more disturbing than usual, and an excellent twist on the traditional ‘driven mad by monsters’ trope.

Death In Venice – Thomas Mann
Three novellas, all dealing in some way with the conflict between the ‘artistic temperament’ and bourgeois values. I suppose some people would call that pretentious; such people are best ignored. Anyway, Thomas Mann actually was a bloody genius, so there’s no pretence involved. The title story is easily the best, Mann’s classic tale of an artist who becomes obsessed with a teenage boy in a plague-stricken Venice. The sense of gloom and corruption enveloping both the city and the protagonist is beautifully observed, inescapable but not overwrought. The second story, Tristan, I was less taken with, possibly because I didn’t understand all the references. I’m pretty sure it’s intended to be commentary on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, but since I know nothing about opera it pretty much went right over my head, leaving a fairly simple story about some people in a sanatorium. Tonio Kroger, the third in the volume, follows a writer as journeys to his childhood home. Along the way he tries to reconcile the artistic leanings he inherited from his mother with the protestant middle-class values of his father, and to decide whether he is really an artist or a member of ‘respectable society’. In the end, Death in Venice is the only story that I’d put up there with Mann’s novels, the other two are good but don’t quite have the same spark to them.

Embedded – Dan Abnett
Fast-moving military sci-fi with an interesting premise; a burned out reporter travels to the backwater planet of Eighty-Six to cover an ongoing ‘police action’. Convinced that there’s more going on than a petty brushfire war and prevented from investigating by the military’s rigid media control, he takes drastic action. Using experimental technology his mind is projected into that of a soldier on the front lines, so that the two men ‘share’ the same body. As you’d expect, things quickly escalate out of control and he has to take more a hands-on approach. . . The concept is an interesting one, showing how the authorities don’t simply censor the press but rather subvert it, though it takes second place to the action towards the second half. As you’d expect from the man who brought us Gaunt’s Ghosts, the combat sequences are well realised and energetic. Once everyone opens up with the M32A HardBeams, Colt PDWs, PAP20s and Kobra Avtomats3 the pace doesn’t let up for a moment. At least until the ending, which is rather abrupt – the story just seems to arrive at the end and stop very quickly, and the final reveal is obvious to say the least. Not Abnett’s best work by any means, but it’s cleverer than it needed to be(always a good sign in pulp fiction) and certainly entertaining.

Johannes Cabal the Detective – Jonathan Howard
Fresh from having successfully gotten a refund of his soul from Lucifer in the first book(Johannes Cabal the Necromancer), in this book the worlds leading practitioner of the dark arts gets himself tangled up in some cloak and dagger business in a cluster of Ruritanian kingdoms. Most of the story revolves around an Agatha Christie style ‘series of murders in an enclosed location’ plot, in this case aboard a luxury aerocraft rather than a train or country house. Can Cabal survive to return to his peaceful laboratory, armed with only his piercing intellect and near-total amorality4? Of course he can, and as with the previous book most of the pleasure of the book comes from the character of Johannes Cabal. A sort of combined Victor Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes and Herbert West, in his determination to defeat death he leaves a swathe of madness, chaos and corpses(the irony!) in his wake which could all be avoided if people would just get out of his way and leave him alone. Importantly, the book doesn’t go too far with this; it’s always clear that Johannes is more human than he likes to admit, and for all his cleverness he still makes mistakes. A little lightweight maybe but always amusing and frequently funny.

The Drought – J G Ballard
Short, early work from the master of apocalyptic urbanism. Catastrophic pollution has destroyed the precipitation cycle, so that it never rains, rivers run dry whilst the sea recedes from the shores and the land turns to desert under the inescapable blazing sun. Ballard beautifully describes the way the landscape becomes hostile as the abandoned cities are buried under the sands, and there are some wonderful images – a a road jammed with a ‘steel glacier’ of cars, survivors ‘mining’ supplies by digging through sand to the supermarket buried beneath it. Of course, it’s not really the physical nature of the disaster that matters so much as it’s psychological side. Naturally, civilisation collapses almost immediately once drinkable water and food become incredible scarce. With the end of civilisation comes the end of time – the drought distils everyone’s lives down to the same bare minimum, carrying out the same backbreaking labour in lockstep every identical day so as to survive to do it again. Even the main character who goes on a journey across the hostile landscape ends up more or less back where he started from. Rip-roaring adventure it certainly isn’t, highly recommended to fans of apocalyptic fiction nonetheless.

Empire State – Adam Christopher
The Empire State is a weird, distorted version of Manhattan, where no-one remembers more than 20 years back or wonders why, in a permanent condition of ‘Wartime’ against the unknown and unseen ‘Enemy’ that surrounds them outside the impenetrable fogbanks that ring the island. The dictatorial City Commissioners periodically dispatch fleets of ironclads loaded with robot soldiers, who never return, and a superhero (or supervillain) has just been executed in prison. Combining noir detective stories, weird pulp fiction and the Golden Age of Superheroes, Empire State made me think of a version of Perdido Street Station based on New York rather than London, especially in the first half before the exact nature of the Empire State is revealed. Sadly this is only a superficial impression5, and there isn’t nearly the imaginative depth or richness of China Mieville’s work. Although there are a lot of cool ideas, none of them are really given enough attention to do them justice and they never really gel together satisfactorily. Would probably have been improved by being a little longer; brevity and pace are always important in pulp fiction of course, but in this case a little more space to breathe and explore the ideas wouldn’t be amiss. It isn’t a bad book, but I did find it a little disappointing – it feels like it doesn’t live up to it’s potential.


1 Well, joint first with Alan Moore maybe.
2 Or half of it anyway, he co-designed it with John Tynes.
3 It’s probably indicative of the book that I remember the names of more weapons than characters.
4 He loses his huge Webley revolver at the beginning.
5 Which is a shame, because that would be absolutely fantastic.