Alain Robbe-Grillet: Early fiction (part 1)

If the nouveau roman (New Novel) had a driving force, it was Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008). The nouveau roman was an influential – if rarely best-selling – literary movement in post-war France. A number of writers, generally but not exclusively connected to the publishers Editions de Minuit, sought appropriate ways to take fiction forward in a world where, after Hiroshima and the Holocaust, there were none of the certainties which mankind had – however mistakenly – previously taken for granted. For Robbe-Grillet, the New Novel was being written by “those writers who are trying to find new forms for the novel which are capable of expressing (or creating) new relations between man and the world”. The world had changed; literature, too, had to change.

False starts and digressions: A Regicide (1949/1978)

Robbe-Grillet was born in Brest and raised in both Brittany and the Jura. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940 he was transported to Germany to support the occupiers’ war effort by working in a factory. His parents were “extreme right-wing anarchists” who venerated Marshall Petain even after the war, but their son’s own collaboration was unwilling. After the war he trained as an agronomist, and it was on the back of work documents that he wrote his debut novel, Un Regicide (A Regicide).

A Regicide is a confident debut which interweaves the superficially distinct stories of factory worker Boris (who, in a state of ennui, decides to kill the King) and whose tale is told in the third person, with that of a first-person narrator who lives on a dreamlike island haunted by mermaids and mysterious weather patterns, like Kafka by way of the surrealists.

I used the word “interweave” advisedly. The two stories do not alternate between chapters as in a conventional novel which may tell multiple strands of a story. A Regicide switches between the two stories between paragraphs, or even in mid-sentence. This dislocates the reader who, seeking narrative continuity, will be forced to establish a hierarchy of narrative: is one person’s story told by the other, or is one a figment of the other’s imagination? And if so, which one? That the more oneiric tale is told in the first-person (a mode which, while unreliable, aspires to authority by virtue of the lack of distance between narrative voice and reader: it is more “informal”) throws the stability of the text into doubt. Additionally, the actual murder of the king by Boris takes place (in true Robbe-Grillet style) not once but many times, and yet seems never to have happened at all. Typically, events which take place solely in the mind of the protagonist are given as much “reality” as those which happen outside that mind.

A Regicide, therefore, contains many of the techniques and tropes that Robbe-Grillet will use in his fictions over the next decade (and, in the use of the name Boris, the rest of his career), and which his subsequent works will expand on and embody.

Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day: The Erasers (1953)

A Regicide was amicably rejected by publishers, and Robbe-Grillet set it aside, following minor revisions, until 1978 when it was finally published, allowing readers the chance to view his career refracted through it (no edition in English existed until 2015). Although A Regicide had been rejected, Jerome Lindon at Editions de Minuit encouraged him to try again. The result was the publication in 1953 of Les Gommes (The Erasers).

The Erasers is the first (but not the last) instance of Robbe-Grillet exploring and subverting the conventions of a genre; in this case, the detective novel. A man – Daniel Dupont – appears to have been shot dead in his home at 7.30 one evening. A detective named Wallas is sent to investigate. What the reader knows, but Wallas doesn’t, is that the assassination attempt failed and Dupont is alive. However, returning to his home at 7.30 the following evening, Dupont is shot dead by Wallas, who is there expecting the arrival of the assassin. Thus the detective commits the crime he was sent to investigate. Adding to this the fact that Wallas’ watch stopped at the time of the “first” murder and only restarts upon the “second”, and that various characters are confused about which day it is, what we therefore have is a “hole”, a missing day of 24 hours. The concept of a hole in the text is one that Robbe-Grillet explores to its conclusion throughout his career, but here the “hole” (unlike the unseen murder in The Voyeur) forms the text of the novel, bookended – like a moebius-strip – by the same crime.

The Erasers contains Robbe-Grillet’s first reference to trompe-l’oeil: that is, a work of art designed to give an illusion of reality. The phrase recurs in each of his first four books, and first two films, as if he is winking at the reader/viewer to draw attention to the fact that fictional works may posit themselves as “real”, but are actually constructs. Tellingly, a view of the town in poor weather is described as if “the depth [loses] its natural look – and perhaps its reality”.

In the first labyrinth of Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre, Wallas gets continually lost and finds himself in the same place by accident on several occasions, and indeed those occasions appear to be repeating. The idea of text as labyrinth is another that the writer expands on over the next few years, to the extent that (in The Voyeur but also, inevitably, in In The Labyrinth) it is the reader who is in a labyrinth finding, again and again, moments in time that are revisited, or narrative paths which are rejected and the pathways to them retraced.

In this first published fiction, as with A Regicide, the signs are there of the techniques and obsessions that Robbe-Grillet will use time and again in his work. But crucially, from now on he perfected a particular narrative technique in each book. Throughout his career, each of his novels was structurally different as he sought to expand what the nouveau roman was capable of. After all, if form and content are as indivisible as he claimed, it is impossible to write two different works with the same structure. His next novel, The Voyeur, was a huge step forward and is a more mature, cohesive and disturbing work.


Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Regicide (Alma Books, 2015)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Erasers (John Calder, 1987)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Towards a New Novel (John Calder, 1963)

After the Factory

(This post is an unpublished piece I wrote over a decade ago, about the village in Fife where I grew up. A few details have since been updated, but on re-reading I can’t believe I didn’t mention the huge hill figure of a bear above Parkhill which was carved – the lines set alight to better mark them out – around the same time as the factory burned down. You can just make it out in the photo above.)


Until the late 1980s, to anybody entering the town by road or river, Newburgh would have seemed a factory with village attached. From across the river Tay, on the low, berry-rich lands of the Carse of Gowrie, the view would have been striking. The factory was huge, a massive red-brick Victorian edifice dominating the shoreline.

On a clear evening in May 1980, my cousin mistook the thick black smoke sweeping low over our Gran’s rooftop for effluent from the recent eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. It was terrifying to think that this smoke had travelled across the Atlantic to wreak havoc on a small Fife town. But it wasn’t the volcano, it was the factory.

The factory. The former Tayside Flooring Company building had stood empty since the company stumbled into receivership in 1978, giving its workforce – several hundred strong – 15 minutes’ notice. It was founded in 1891 by one Thomas Greig who, in common with the public-spirited, or perhaps guilt-ridden, tycoons and philanthropists of the nineteenth century, gifted a tennis court, curling pond, bowling club and park to the town. The bowling green is still there, tucked into the southern corner of the park; the first thing you see as you enter the town from the west.

We watched the fire from the sloping lawns of the ex-council houses on the hillside street where my Uncle still lives. The town is spread along a hill that tumbles down to the Tay, and the factory was on the water’s edge. On the north side of the High Street, where we lived with my Gran, the long strips of orchard garden reach almost to the river. Her house was too close to the burning building to give a good view, and there were obvious safety concerns. Up the hill, the adults stayed indoors and gazed through windows; we went outside where – even at a distance – it felt more dangerous. The rumour spread fast, as rumours do among children: the fire had reached a storeroom containing petrol and gases, and explosions were imminent. Perhaps the adults safely indoors also framed guesses, more educated ones: half my family had worked there. The flames seemed mean and vicious against the proud orange brickwork and the thick column of smoke that rose high into the clear evening sky. The smoke would have been visible from both Dundee, 10 miles downstream, and Ben Vorlich, much further west. The explosions never came. The fire had, thankfully, taken no casualties.

The story, for such it was, appeared on TV the following night; Reporting Scotland or North Tonight. There was nobody on hand to capture live images, so viewers were shown half a dozen shots of the smouldering ruins and of a High Street deserted but for my other cousin and a friend dawdling home from school so slowly all the shops had shut. I still remember their wary backward glance towards the camera. It seemed the only evidence of life in a village suddenly paralysed.

I say ‘paralysed’: life goes on, of course. But small towns and villages take a longer and harder route to adapt to sudden change than cities do, especially when adapting to the loss of the largest single employer. The factory had been closed for two years, though I retain a memory of noises from inside that I couldn’t have formed at such an early age, so perhaps some further work was carried on in parts of the building. If ever there was the symbolic setting of a seal on a town’s past, then this was surely it. Like Banquo’s ghost1 pricking the conscience, the deserted shell was a reminder of what was gone, and that the future was suddenly an uncertain place. With hindsight, at this point in Scottish history – after the 1979 General Election – such desolation of heavy industry seems horribly prescient.

The factory was traditionally the heart of such towns. In the morning were pumped in workers from the town and surrounding villages; in the evening they were pumped out again, and this beating allowed a growth of contingent and ancillary industries to develop. Ships stopped at the quay to load and unload. After the fire, the other industries lingered on a while, expiring their final breaths slowly over a number of years. The quayside – once full of grey lorries with the sturdy red-and-yellow BELL’S logo of the local quarry company – fell into disuse and was demolished. A town in this position looks around for something to quickly fill the gap, but here, no substitute would be strong enough to prop up such a heavy body. The prevailing economic winds were blowing ill for British heavy industry. That said, there are no real parallels with the systematic destruction of the coalmining industry that hit south Fife so hard a few years later. Newburgh’s factory went into receivership, which is the result of bad management. Of course it is the workforce who suffer hardest, and their families, local businesses and the social life of the community. It is, however, the common outcome that Newburgh shares with Lochgelly, Cardenden, Polmaise, Thornton.

Private enterprise was one of the dogmas of the Thatcher government. Some locals started up small businesses alongside (and sometimes in the empty shells of) the established family-run shops, but few survived the repeated recessions. Now, despite the gloss of the fresh road signs and the speed reducing measures – a sure sign that your village is merely a nuisance to be passed through en route to somewhere else – it has become, inevitably, one of the surrounding villages of a larger town; a commuter base, even, for people who work in far-distant Edinburgh.


Until the 1950s, children were educated to secondary level at the local school. The bus that has since taken pupils to the local secondary (Bell Baxter, in Cupar) has always been infamous as the roughest and rowdiest. This has always been an independent town; it has always stood apart, distant from neighbouring villages and with no obvious kinship to any of them. It’s location in Fife sunders it from communities in Perth & Kinross by virtue of being in a different administrative district. But to Fifers, it’s hidden away, right on the border, practically abroad.

Cupar draws its school catchment from the villages of the agricultural Howe of Fife, or those beyond the reach of Dundee and St. Andrews: Auchtermuchty (‘Muchty’, home to The Proclaimers and Jimmy Shand) and Strathmiglo, Ladybank (an important railway junction: Newburgh’s abandoned station exists in a slow state of collapse at the top of the High Street), and the Pitlessie-Kingskettle-Falkland-Freuchie polygon that encompasses the pine forests and mushroom fields that litter the flat, fertile Howe. Newburgh stands apart from all of these: the North Fife hills, an extension of the Ochils, separate it from the others. Its view is not to the central peaks of the Lomonds, but out towards Dundee, Perth, the Trossachs and beyond. It looked outward: pleasure boats visited until the 1960s. For their shopping, its citizens visit Perth rather than Kirkcaldy or Glenrothes. Different outlooks, different habits. And it had industry.

Once, it boasted cinemas and a swimming pool, but its decades since the town has merited either. The ice-cream from Annie Divito’s café at the top of the High Street (recently an antique dealers, now a café once again), was a snow-white milky pleasure that garnered national recognition. The recipe was a jealously-guarded secret she took to her grave. She closed the café area down at the end of the 70s and though the sweetshop and ice cream were still hugely popular, Newburgh was no longer a place people wanted to stop in and eat. Cafés have sporadically opened, prospered briefly, and closed again ever since. The story is familiar across the UK: small towns and villages lose their garages, their pubs, their chip-shops, one by one. Newburgh is no special case.

Also common to small towns everywhere is an instinctive wariness of strangers, or ‘incomers’ as they were, and are, with slightly more irony, still known. This doesn’t just apply to the family of travellers who arrived seasonally for many years (openly called ‘the Tinkies’), but to settlers from outside the village boundaries. Indeed those same borders are re-affirmed every seven years in a good-natured day-long procession known as ‘the Riding of the Marches’ over hills, through fields, and across burns. Some of the more successful businesses since the 1980s have been those started up by ‘incomers’, possibly because the owners are unknown quantities and its harder to measure what exactly ‘getting above themselves’, in proper Scots fashion, would constitute.

One such ‘incomer’ who has quite happily made Newburgh her home is the poet Kathleen Jamie2. Her garden is one of many that stretch up to the railway line that cuts across the town like a belt, and covers the ground that was once entirely orchards: plum and apple trees that my Gran could recall dotting the slopes in endless numbers.


The only contemporary guide3 to the town was written and published over thirty years ago by the parents of my friend Will, themselves English ‘incomers’ (Newburgh: A Historic Trail, Linda Pinfold, Michael Pinfold & Malcolm Robinson; Pinprint). Even today, whole chunks of this book, put together by hand in the short-lived studio they’d converted from a former sweetshop, can be found copied without acknowledgement on websites that feature Newburgh as a possible tourist stop. The book’s final chapter is on the linoleum factory, referring to its plunge into receivership but not it’s gutting by fire. Perhaps the event was too recent; unnecessary to recount. The factory at that time still stood, blackened, silent and shamed, visible down every road that hurtles to the river. It may or may not be significant that this attempt at gathering together the town’s many strands of history was not done by locals but by a couple only just settled in the area. It is indicative, though, that for a long time only this, an ‘Old Newburgh’ photo book, and the cardboard-and-glue history projects of the local Primary School children appeared since the factory fire to portray an image of the town.

But print is not the only means of representation. The end of the 1970s saw the establishment of the Pageant, part of a week-long Newburgh Festival that ran in mid-August for a few years. The Festival featured daily (and nightly) events such as the pram race, in which grown men dressed as babies and pushed each other in prams the length of the High Street, and between each of the town’s (then) half-dozen pubs. The Pageant took the form of a play: there was a ‘Jungle Book’ in the superbly atmospheric setting of the ruined Lindores Abbey, and an ambitious ‘King Arthur’ in which the audience followed the action on foot throughout the village. The highlight was a real-life Lady of the Lake, whose arm rose from those silvery Tay waves, offering Excalibur to the King. Pageant and Festival dwindled, like so much else, as the 80s ran their course.


There is a working factory, still, in town. Construction began not long after the old one burned down, at the eastern end of the village. We watched from the school playground every lunchtime as it went up in sheets of grey metal. This was a new type of factory: light industry. Long and low and looking like it was built from plastic, it appeared to have been set down alone in a field next to the school car park. If people were pumped in and out we never saw them. Today this atrophied industrial estate is shared with a modern fire station. The car park has grown to meet them under the demands of the school run.

It took a decade for the old factory ruins to be pulled down. Another passed as the site became overgrown and filled with pools of stagnant water. Finally, a luxury development of riverside homes was built on the factory site, in response to the rising cost of houses across the UK. Handy commuter town and rural retreat. This bland new vision of Newburgh is that of developers and estate agents: their usual airbrushing of history.


Most of the factory’s old employees have by now retired, having long ago been forced into what other work they could find. Unemployment in the early 80s was higher than today, but you must travel further to find the work. It’s impossible to picture a factory there now, though the buildings fringing the site still seem to be on their guard against some threat from across the road. The landlord of a Dundee Bed & Breakfast, himself a retired carpet-fitter and once familiar with the town, upon hearing where I came from, reckoned ‘it hasn’t been the same since the factory; lots of unemployment’. He captured neatly the town’s standing in the local imagination: once a small town, now just a village whose day has passed, slumbering like so many others.



1 A mile outside the town, in a field next to the country road to ‘Muchty, stands the ancient carved stone rump of ‘Macduff’s Cross’. The head of the clan Macduff was historically Earl of Fife.


2 Kathleen is not Newburgh’s first poet. Up the hill, at the back of Mount Pleasant, where town meets whin-covered hillside, stands a small cottage built in the early nineteenth century by brothers Alexander and John Bethune. Weavers and poets, crippled by poverty and illness, neither of them reached 40. A single copy of Alexander’s edited collection of his brother’s poetry resides in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. They built – unaided – the cottage for their parents. It is shaken daily by blasts from the quarry which has, despite a spirited local campaign in recent years, spread its empire further and further west, coming gradually into view of the town, where the scars are less easily concealed.


3 The 50s and 60s saw versions of a Newburgh town guide, with map and illustrations, but for a deeper view of the history and customs, look to ‘A History of Lindores and its Burgh of Newburgh’. This 1876 tome reads like a parochial version of ‘The Golden Bough’ with its exploration of magic and myth. It boasts superb illustrations of local landmarks, notably Mugdrum Cross, an 11th century needle-like pillar of stone covered in what are believed to be Norse engravings, which stands hidden deep in the rhododendrons of Mugdrum estate, overlooking the Tay.

None the wiser: Claude Ollier’s “The Mise-en-Scene” (1958)

A confession: I’d never heard of Claude Ollier until a few weeks ago. Although I’ve read numerous mid-century French nouveau romanistes (Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Sarraute, Simon, Butor, Pinget) I had never come across any reference to Ollier, probably because his work had not been published by John Calder, and the few English translations of his work are not easy to find.

The Mise-en-Scene, translated by Dominic Di Bernardi, is published by the ever-reliable Dalkey Archive and is one of the most accessible nouveau romans I’ve read. The “story” tells of a surveyor, Lassalle, working on the plans for a new route through the mountains of French-held North Africa. Lassalle is following in the footsteps – literally – of a previous engineer, who seems to have been murdered. The novel is an account of his fortnight’s stay in the mountainous region, trying to plot a route for the new road. This being a nouveau roman, where the way the story is being told is as significant as the events within the narrative, the concept of “spoiler alert” is rendered meaningless. I could tell you what happens at the end because it doesn’t matter.

The Mise-en-Scene is a book about the impossibility of knowing anything, and the whole book is a sustained meditation on the futility of trying to attain definitive, objective knowledge.

Descriptions are highly detailed, and use of Arabic or local dialect words further dislocates the European reader, making it difficult to visualise the terrain being described. The amount of detail works against visualisation, in an ironic undermining of traditional realist attempts at verisimilitude.

When he first arrives in the largest local town, Assameur, Lassalle is puzzled at night by a picture seen on the wall of his room. He sees what he thinks is a map, but daylight reveals it to be an incongruous seaside print. This is the first example of things not only not being what they seem, but even when they are seen, offer no answers.

There has been a murder – a young girl has been stabbed – but there is confusion in Lassalle’s mind about the name of the victim, and though he has his suspicions, his local contact Ba Iken’s constantly shifting evasions get him no closer to an understanding of what has happened. No version of the events seems to properly fit, so at every step, ground which was by no means solid becomes even more unstable.

Additionally, without technological means of apprehending the world, he is at the mercy of his memory and his senses. An “imposing panorama would be worth photographing [i.e. recording objectively, but he]…is sorry for the first time that he forgot his camera.” Later, “only the binoculars could remove any doubt. But [they] are at the bottom of the clothing bags, in the minivan”. But even with assistance of civilisation’s tools, he is no better off: maps are “stingy with details” and are full of blank spaces. Notations become fewer in the mountainous areas, or are absent altogether.

Lassalle constantly tries to tie together names of people with their village, in an effort to impose order, and thus gain understanding: “Ichou…Ichou ben X…ben Schlomo, grandson of the maqadden of the Asguine”. On asking his young assistant Ichou’s age, in order to complete this mental picture, he is given an ambiguous reply.

He writes in his diary, purposely to avoid the unreliability of memory, but his daily entries – some of which, ironically, are written days afterwards anyway – are so brief and cursory as to be meaningless. This is especially notable given that Ollier’s book, as with those of Alain Robbe-Grillet, is written in the present tense. As Robbe-Grillet says in his autobiography Ghosts in the Mirror, the “past historic” tense imposes “definitive glaciation of the most incomplete gestures, the most ephemeral thoughts”. It would, therefore, be a self-defeating move to have written this work in the past tense: the whole point is that we do not know anything for certain; there is and can be no such “glaciation” or certainty. We are made constantly aware by use of the present tense of the passage of time, especially as marked out by the passage of shadows over the mountains and ravines, and in this regard Ollier’s work differs from that of Robbe-Grillet, whose books are full of moments of stasis.

The man Lassalle suspects – of everything and anything – is Idder, a belligerent local who appears each day holding a different implement, magnified in Lassalle’s mind into a weapon. On one of his forays into the mountain, Lassalle is shown rock paintings, and – disturbingly – they seem to portray a double murder by someone wielding a weapon. He attempts in vain to follow conversations in the local dialect in the hope of gaining some clue, especially as he becomes aware that Ba Iken is maybe not as truthful or reliable as he’d thought. But even if he can pick out proper names, his inability to ground them in the context of the conversation only creates ambiguity, and fosters more suspicion.

One scene in particular encapsulates the novel in miniature. As he begins his return, having successfully surveyed the region for a road whose future construction is by no means certain, he watches an army of ants devour a scorpion. “His curiosity came to the fore again…with the feeling that the action is going to lunge forward or that an event of capital importance is in progress. But everything that happens is only very normal and exasperatingly slow.” There are no epiphanies, and knowing any more about something reveals no “meaning”, but only more of the thing itself.

At the end, on his return to Assameur, his previous contact is on leave, and things have changed in his absence. Lassalle has fewer reference points than before. With no continuity, he is unable to talk over the details of either the girl’s murder or Lessing’s, with the man who he had previous been dealing with. He – and the reader – is denied any closure.

Ollier’s worldview is vertiginous. Like a fractal, looking closer only reveals more details – some of which may mirror those seen at a higher level (the drawings on the rock echo the murders in the region), and the same patterns recur. At the same time, there is no “big picture”: if you try to pull back to gain perspective, all that’s revealed are the gaps in your knowledge. It’s a dizzying perspective.

The Mise-en-Scene forms the first part of an eight-book series in French, and though I’ve now ordered one of his other works (Law and Order), I can only find evidence that two more of his novels have ever been translated into English. On the basis of this book, it would be great if Dalkey Archive (or Alma in the UK) were to commission translations of more of Ollier’s work.



Ollier, Claude: The Mise-en-Scene (Dalkey Archives, 2000)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (John Calder, 1984)


photo: Jamie Gorman

Killing the parents: Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser”

“There are no new tales, only new ways to tell.” Clive Barker, in introducing Christopher Marlowe’s renaissance drama Doctor Faustus, acknowledges that the challenge for the modern writer lies in the “shaping of a fresh and original interpretation of a story cast and re-cast several hundred times.” The artist must drive “his imagination to new extremes…so that [the new work] can at least be called uniquely his.”

By 1987, following the success of his Books of Blood and The Damnation Game, Clive Barker was hot property. In a horror genre undergoing a real boom (heralded by the 1974 publication of both Stephen King’s Carrie and James Herbert’s The Rats) Barker was the new kid on the block, whose highly original work pushed the limits of the human body, and the accompanying levels of gore, further than before.

Poor adaptations had been made of two of the Books of Blood short stories so in 1986, determined to do better himself and to maintain artistic control, he began work on a film based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Although this would be his first full-length picture, the director’s chair was not new to him: he had for many years written and directed his own plays with the Dog Company, and had made short films in the 1970s.

Hellraiser, as the film would be called1, sees hedonist Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) taken into the sadistic realm of the Cenobites when he solves the mystery of a puzzle box. Months later, his meek brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into the house where Frank had performed his lethal game, with his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) in an effort to save their floundering marriage. Larry cuts his hand on removal day, and the spilt blood resurrects Frank, with whom Julia had a passionate affair before her wedding. Julia, though initially horrified by Frank’s condition, agrees to bring more blood to restore him to life. This she does via a series of liaisons with unwitting single men, whom she lures home and murders (with increasing skill and enjoyment). Frank grows: he regains a sense of touch and taste and after he tells Julia of the Cenobites’ existence, the two plan to escape together.

Aware that all is not well in the marital abode, Larry persuades his grown-up daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) to speak to Julia (the relationship between the two women is frosty). Kirsty, however, stumbles across Julia in the middle of one of her “liaisons” and is confronted by Frank. Finding the puzzle box, and realising its importance to Frank, she escapes with it, only to solve the riddle herself. After a close escape from a Hell which consists of endless dusty corridors2, she is found by the Mephistophelean Cenobites. Their visitation is one of the most iconic scenes in 1980s horror cinema. Terrified, she tries to do a deal: if she can lead them to Frank, they can take him back with them rather than her.

This she does, but not before Frank, realising time is against him, has found the finishing touch to his resurrection: a new skin, courtesy of brother Larry. Kirsty’s confrontation with Frank, Julia and the Cenobites forms the climax to the film. “There is a happy ending”, Barker said in an interview to promote the film, “but not for everyone”.

Although Barker’s vision, in whatever medium, is always uniquely and identifiably his own, Hellraiser’s parentage is not hard to find: Doctor Faustus (c1590) as mentioned above, and Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960).

Hellraiser is not the first Barker fiction to feature a Faustian bargain: The Damnation Game and The Last Illusion are re-tellings of the myth. But whereas Faustus makes his deal, enjoys the spurious fruits of it for twenty four years, then is hauled off to Hell by the demons he had hitherto had at his beck & call, in Hellraiser Larry Cotton is ripped to pieces right at the start. The film is therefore “what happened to Faustus afterwards?”

Faustus contains, as Barker noted, two stories: that of “the ambitious man brought down through…extremes” (as Barker noted to interviewer Kim Newman, Hellraiser is about “the consequences of desire pressed…beyond the limits”), and also “intercourse with hellish divinities”.

All of Marlowe’s work – not just Faustus – is ambiguous, and that ambiguity is furthered by what little is known of Marlowe himself: a possible government spy, possibly an atheist, possibly gay and certainly murdered in suspicious circumstances aged just 29. Much of his work can be read either as, politically, not too distant from the Christian morality plays which his work did much to render obsolete, or else championing the new renaissance attitude of enquiry and boundary-pushing. Faustus, though, is unambiguously damned, and whether we cheer or weep for him depends on our own outlook on life.

But, crucially, he is damned: that is, cast out of God’s sight, and condemned to a very real, physical Hell3. Barker’s world view – though over the years the Christianity which underpins it has become more evident – is much more post-Enlightenment. There is no God, and no Devil, either. Rather, Hell is subjective and, in seeming to consist of endless horizontal corridors, is non-hierarchical and therefore contrary to the prevailing image of Hell as a vertical pit. Its agents are the Cenobites, whose role is equally ambiguous: “demons to some, angels to others”. This existentialist afterlife is a sliding scale of pain and pleasure intermingled, curated by these beings, and it proved too much even for Frank.

“With the gods in retreat”, wrote Barker, “and the idea of the purgatorial judgement less acceptable to the modern mind, [in] the new adventures after death as dust and spirit, all imaginative accounts…become essential reading.”

At the centre of Hellraiser is female agency. This, in an era (and a genre) in which the fate of most females was to be either screaming victim or sex object, makes Barker’s film hugely refreshing. Julia is the motor of the film (in the novella “she had made this man, or re-made him…the thrill she felt…was the thrill of ownership”), and her stepdaughter Kirsty’s struggle for independence (achieved in the most brutal terms at the end) is the yin to her yang.

Les Yeux Sans Visage pits the doctor’s assistant Louise in a similar role to Julia: she cruises Paris in search of girls with certain, specific attributes, abducts them, takes them back to her employer and he removes the skin of their faces in order to rebuild the shattered features of his daughter. Each experiment fails, and another victim is needed. But the stepmother figure of Louise does her job out of a sense of duty to her scientist boss (arrogant, successful, acclaimed). Both films are family affairs, but there is arguably more love in Hellraiser: Larry for Kirsty (and vice-versa), Larry for Julia, Julia for Frank. Dr Génessier in Les Yeux performs his operations from an obsession; evidently it is unconscionable that his daughter may be part of society with a scarred face: she must be either beautiful, or to all intents and purposes dead. He plays God, trying to fix his little world. But who is the monster? Who is really divorced from society? They live in a secluded mansion outside Paris, whereas the Cottons’ home is an average north London semi-detached. The Cottons could be you or me.

Julia, though a murderer, is Hellraiser’s tragic figure. Trapped in a passionless marriage, among friends (in the novella) whom she holds in contempt, she is an atypical “evil stepmother”, in that she seems wary of Kirsty rather than jealous: after all, she no longer cares for Larry and so isn’t in a battle for his affection. She is only truly alive when with Frank; at other times her speeches show only platitudes and deceit. But she is being used. Frank has had Julia (before his death and after) and seeing Kirsty, he now wants her. When he ultimately kills Julia it is accidental, but without remorse.

Kirsty’s character is the one major change between Barker’s original novella and the movie version. In The Hellbound Heart she is a simpering wallflower, awed by Larry (“Rory” in the book). But, though Ashley Laurence’s performance is occasionally over the top, as a daughter she gives the film a dynamic the novella – for all its strengths – lacks. As Barker said in the interview with Newman “I liked that…in the novella, the heroine was a loser, but you can’t live with someone like that for the length of a movie”.

Near the start of the film, after a phone call to her father introduces the character, we see Kirsty walk along the Thames through post-industrial ruins. Partly this short scene provides a directorial “beat”, a moment’s breathing space, but it also establishes Kirsty as a character working to attain a degree of independence (Larry wants her to stay in the family home; how would things have transpired if she had?).

She has a relationship with Steve (who the script makes abundantly clear is English, though the actor’s lines have been dubbed by an American, thus rendering some of the dialogue absurd), but his function is limited to offering support and he is probably the most superfluous figure in the film. Kirsty is essentially on her own when things go wrong. In going to visit Julia, she merely speeds things up and spells her father’s doom. Frank and Julia had no plan to kill him before, but now there is no time to find another victim. When Frank – in Larry’s skin4 – hunts her down among the upstairs rooms, a wooden statue of Jesus falls out of a cupboard onto her. But this is a world without God, and he can’t save her. She shoves it, useless, back into the cupboard.

In an echo of Les Yeux’s end, where the daughter, having stabbed Louise, then releases the dogs who tear her father apart, Kirsty betrays her uncle to the Cenobites, who do much the same thing to Frank. Playing by their own rules – this is their game, after all – the Cenobites then pursue Kirsty, who must re-solve the puzzle box in order to expel them. In the novella, the Cenobites dismiss her and are only interested in Frank. She escapes the house, which “had not capitulated to the forces unleashed within. It stood now as quiet as a grave. No; quieter.”

Unfortunately, such a downbeat ending is not appropriate for a horror film, and in Hellraiser the Cenobites are consigned back to where they came from: a more conservative and conventional ending, and at odds with Barker’s usual treatment of “the Other” in his work.

Hellraiser was a success, and for a brief period in the late 80s it seemed there was no artistic medium that Barker could not master, and that he would be *the* name in horror for the foreseeable future. However, the studio treatment of his second feature, Nightbreed, ensured that it was a commercial flop (if a belated cult favourite), and none of his subsequent films have had the same impact as his debut. In fiction, too, it’s arguable that (although he has written fine books since then), following the dazzling Weaveworld and Imajica, he peaked with 1996’s Sacrament. No longer the enfant terrible of the British fantastique, he now lacks the public profile of Stephen King, who famously prophesied Barker would be “the future of horror”. The 2015 sequel to The Hellbound HeartThe Scarlet Gospels – was maddeningly frustrating: brilliant in some places, awful in others.

As for Hellraiser, it has spawned about a million sequels. None of them is worth watching, with the possible exception of Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, and that only once. The “lead Cenobite” – Pinhead – is a cultural icon in his way, and a remake of the original is in the works, with Barker writing the screenplay. Perhaps CGI can improve on the dated effects of the original. Will it emerge from the shadow of its parent? And will it still “tear your soul apart”?


1 New World thought The Hellbound Heart sounded too much like a love story.

2 The idea is expanded to that of a labyrinth, a really interesting idea, in the otherwise unnecessary first sequel Hellbound.

3 Though, that said, his demonic familiar Mephistopheles does make one of the greatest speeches in English drama:

“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,

And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,

In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?”

4 At this point, Andrew Robinson turns the performance levels up to 11, with highly entertaining results.



Barker, Clive: The Hellbound Heart (Collins, 1991)

Jones, Stephen (ed.): Clive Barker: Shadows in Eden (Underwood Miller, 1991)

Marlowe, Christopher: Doctor Faustus: The A Text (ed. David Ormerod & Christopher Wortham) (University of Western Australia Press, 1985)

Hellraiser (Blu-Ray, Arrow Films, 2016)

Les Yeux Sans Visage (DVD, BFI, 2015)

L’année dernière à Manderley

I’ve long wanted to read – or to write, and I’ve tried1 – something which marries the claustrophobic atmosphere of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories (such as ‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’ obviously, and also ‘The Blue Lenses’), with the formal experimentation of French nouveau-romaniste Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008).

Although they both published some of their best work around the same time, what similarities they have are largely incidental.

Take du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) and Alain Resnais’ 1961 film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), adapted from a script by Robbe-Grillet. Both feature an unnamed female lead character, and the events of each text occur in the shadow of an uncertain past (which are ultimately resolved in Rebecca, but not Marienbad).

There is also du Maurier’s The Parasites, which is narrated in the first person by three different people, and at no point can we tell which of them is speaking. This technique echoes those used by Robbe-Grillet’s peers Claude Simon and Michel Butor. But the similarities end there.

Much of du Maurier’s work is rooted in a definite place: usually Cornwall, and even then in a very specific locale around Fowey. But Robbe-Grillet’s early work (by which I mean up to around 1963) takes place in eerily unspecified places: an island off the French coast; a northern town; a banana plantation; a grand hotel. But if the writers were too alike, what would be the point in bringing them together? It’s the space between them that makes a marriage of styles enticing.

In their own way, the labyrinths, gyres and mises-en-abyme of Robbe-Grillet create their own atmosphere, especially in works such as In the Labyrinth with its endless, empty snow-covered streets and the “sealed, stifling world”2 of Marienbad. As he explains in the introduction to that work, Marienbad shows

“a reality which the hero creates…out of his own words…among a perfect labyrinth of false trails, variants, failures and repetitions”3.

Robbe-Grillet strips his fiction of the psychological shorthand that denotes a state of mind (such as describing what a character “thought”). He avoids, too, any attempt to explain what a character is “feeling”. Instead, subjectivity is presented in such a way that the reader cannot easily distinguish a purely mental process (a memory, a fantasy, an obsession), from what is being “experienced” at any given time: all are treated as objective phenomena. His works (especially those post-1963) actively work to prevent the suspension of disbelief which is necessary for the creation of any sort of “atmosphere” as found in a gothic tale.

Du Maurier’s work, conversely, gains much of its power from the inner workings of her characters’ minds. Think of the wilful ignorance of Philip in My Cousin Rachel, the fear of discovery which haunts the imposter in The Scapegoat, or the paranoia of Rebecca’s anonymous narrator. This latter, incidentally, at one point slips into an extraordinary imaginary conversation as if it were being lived at that moment; what Robbe-Grillet calls an “objectivised hypothesis”: “an image, if it is vivid enough, is always in the present”4.

From memory, I’d assumed du Maurier’s work was full of charged landscapes that would be anathema to Robbe-Grillet, who loathed the use of pathetic fallacy. But there is little metaphor in The Birds, for example: when the marauding flocks are described in military terms, that’s because they act with the precision and deadliness of an army. They are what they appear to be. The Venice of Don’t Look Now is a labyrinth which leads John to his death. It need not take too large a mental leap to see this sort of locale as ripe for depiction in nouveau-romanesque forms. So what might a hybrid of these authors look like? Roads taken; roads not taken but imagined; backtrackings; and all the while a sense of terror grows. Cities, but also forests or moorlands. Or the corridors and rooms of Manderley, the de Winter residence in Rebecca. Places, then, with either too much horizon or none at all, are the most suggestive. Non-spaces like this are the most fertile for a marriage of these two authors. If anyone knows of a work which achieves such a synergy, I’d love to know.


1 Maps and Legends

2 Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Last Year At Marienbad (Grove Press, 1961), p.10

3 ibid, p.10

4 ibid, p.13


photo credit: Jamie Gorman

Calder Books – a celebration

From the briefest of biographical details, John Calder would seem an unlikely revolutionary. Scion of a brewing dynasty, he once stood for election as the Liberal candidate for his home seat of Kinross. But at 90 this Scottish-Canadian publisher is still active, and still fighting against the forces of cultural reaction.

Few publishers can claim a Nobel prize winner on their backlist: Calder has over a dozen. The firm he founded in 1949 (Calder Publications) has had its share of troubles, but that it still exists today, even if only as an imprint, is thanks to his perseverance, and also to the vision of Alma Books.

That any of his authors are still in print in the UK, that least-hungry market for translated (never mind experimental) fiction, is a cause for celebration. For years Calder Books (and later Calder-Boyars) was a rare safe haven for avant-garde fiction in Britain, and their volumes would pop up in the unlikeliest of bookshops.

He courted scandal without fear: he faced an obscenity trial over the publication of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, and his Edinburgh conferences in the early 60s were scandalous at the time, not only for the behaviour of some of the featured writers (Alexander Trocchi) but for (shock!) the public appearance of a naked woman. His 2001 autobiography, Pursuit, is startling for its shamelessness (in the best sense of the word) and utter frankness.

Although Calder’s passion is for opera, he will be remembered for bringing a certain type of (chiefly) French fiction to British readers. Books published by the Olympia Press, or by Les Éditions de Minuit were translated by the likes of Christine Brooke-Rose and Richard Howard, and published under the Calder name. These introduced an anglophone audience to the nouveau roman (New Novel – which aimed to forge a new type of fiction appropriate to a post-war world) and its proponents: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras.

I stumbled across his books by a chain of luck and coincidence. By chance I saw a TV interview with John Hurt who at the time was playing in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Intrigued, I sought out anything I could find by Beckett – of whose work my only previous encounter was a single lecture at University – in my local library. However, they had none of his plays: only a book of short fiction, published by Calder. I borrowed it anyway. Beckett’s stories were like nothing I’d ever read: skeletal, stripped to the bare essentials of what might be recognisable as fiction, and also darkly funny. But the volume contained no reference to other books from the publisher, so I didn’t make any connection: there seemed nothing to connect to.

A few months later, scanning shelves in the Piccadilly Waterstone’s, I saw the Calder Books oak tree logo on the spine of some books by a writer I’d never heard of: Alain Robbe-Grillet. Deciding to give The Erasers a go, and seeing the Calder backlist on the inside of the front and rear covers, I realised there was a whole realm of experimental fiction I’d never previously suspected, and which seemed so deep under the radar I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to find them, had it not been for that chain of events. Over the months and years I hunted down other authors he published: Sarraute, Robert Pinget, Elspeth Davie (whose Providings is one of the great unsung Scottish books, by an unsung Scottish writer) and Raymond Queneau. If I was unable to articulate exactly what it was about these books that I liked, part of it was that they were undeniably European, and that was a good thing.

The new millennium saw John Calder open the Calder bookshop on The Cut, near Waterloo station. More recently though, he sold the rights to Beckett’s fiction to Faber (there are worse fates), and much of his list to Alma Books, who re-released some books under their Oneworld classics imprint. In 2015 they published Calder’s own translation of Robbe-Grillet’s debut novel A Regicide for the first time in English, and 2017 will see their relaunch of the Calder name, with (among others) Michel Butor’s Changing Track (la Modification). Long may it flourish in the twenty-first century.

If these names are new to you, or you’ve heard-of-them-but-can’t-think-where, explore your nearest library, go to the Alma website or the Calder shop, and keep Calder’s vision alive.

photo credit: Jamie Gorman

“There’s been a breakdown at the BBC”: the rural horror of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’

It’s my birthday today. I’ve always liked that I share it with two favourite writers: poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie (born 1962), and the master of mid-20th century English gothic, Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989).

I’m going to take a brief look at du Maurier’s short story The Birds, which can be read as an almost idiomatic text within the related – though not necessarily interchangeable – areas of rural horror and hauntology. It could have been written in 2017 as a pastiche – or homage – to the idea of the hauntological. It utilises every trope and ticks every box you’d care to name. Benevolent State institutions? Check. Malevolence manifesting itself through natural forces? Check. Et cetera, et cetera.

The Birds was first published in 1952. The world it depicts is that of the post-World War 2 settlement: an era – almost unimaginable now – in which nationalised industries were taken for granted, the welfare state was seen as a necessary part of a civilised nation, and homes were being built for a booming population (“the new council houses”). This era’s death-knell was sounded with Thatcher’s election victory of 1979, but the cultural assumptions and attitudes displayed within the story would have been recognisable to a reader in the early eighties.

The basic premise is simple, and familiar to those whose only knowledge of du Maurier’s story is via the Hitchcock adaptation: people, and the places where they shelter, are attacked when birds – all birds – turn on mankind in a systematic onslaught. People die, off-scene but still horribly. Gannets plunge in suicidal divebombings. Beaks peck out eyes; talons wrench at barricades.

Nat Hocken, the protagonist, is a war-disabled farm labourer. Both intelligent and imaginative, he is the first in the locality to spot the behaviour of the birds, to link it to the action of the tides, and to understand the threat it poses.

The folk horror resonances should be obvious from the start. I say “folk horror”, as although there are no instances of folklore or occult magic, the faith which the cowering populace place in the possibilities of science is still faith, and the central act of Nature turning on mankind is enough to place it squarely within the rural horror tradition. This is – or appears to be – nature as Other, bringing terror from the fields, skies and seas of rural Cornwall.

The deference to institutions of state – the fidelity to the BBC and the (civil service) scientists whom Nat assumes are working on a solution to the crisis – dates from a period when society viewed science and progress as not only intertwined, but as a galvanising force for civilisation.

That such an attitude should seem (from the viewpoint of today’s hyper-capitalist dystopia) quaint and almost touching, is key to the hauntological narrative. Hauntology is nostalgic in the true sense of the word, but its sense of longing is for a future which never actually occurred. It holds within it a recognition that the narrative was wrenched aside in 1979, and that something has been lost in the years since Britain was, at a fundamental level, reconfigured according to monetarist principles.

But the post-war era was not an idyll, and The Birds betrays its Cold War origins. The Russians are suspected of being to blame. The reference to “foreign birds” shows the island mentality which initially extends to the Cornish peninsula, but soon to all of Britain and ultimately “all Europe”, with the desperate hope that America will come to the rescue. Britain’s own “back-room boys” have failed the test.

Communication breaks down: news reports become sporadic, then cease. People are trapped inside their homes. Only the birds are connected: “[species of crow] were bound on some other mission. “They’ve been given the towns”, thought Nat. “They know what they have to do.””

At the end, Nat, his two children, and his curiously unnamed wife are barricaded inside their house. There is a moment of bathos in the face of extinction when his daughter Jill berates her brother: “you should learn to wipe your mouth”. Nat saves a final cigarette for “a rainy day”, but realising that such a day has dawned, he is smoking it as the story ends. And it ends in utter hopelessness as he turns on “the silent wireless”. The death of the BBC is the end of civilisation.

I said earlier that the story “appears to be” about mankind facing a malevolent Other, which must be tamed, destroyed or banished. But it is clear that through mankind’s scientific progress it is we who have become the Other. That Nat belongs to the very countryside that is rising against him – he knows his birds, knows the weather, knows the tides – makes it all the more horrifying.

The story will always be overshadowed by Hitchcock’s loose adaptation (though it’s easy to imagine a version set in Cornwall such as Hammer might have made in the early 70’s: how cheap the effects! how very red the blood!), and Virago are to be commended for their efforts in repackaging and – for want of a better – rebranding du Maurier over the last decade. Their smart reprints have also done much to restore her reputation after the awful Arrow editions, the covers of which would lead the casual browser to expect a West Country Catherine Cookson.

Du Maurier herself said she only wrote one romance (Frenchman’s Creek, though her debut The Loving Spirit is a kissing cousin), and there is a bitterness and darkness to much of her work that is profoundly unsettling. Few epiphanies that her characters experience will feel like a blessing and – unlike much gothic or horror fiction – where there is an Other (birds, a malignant apple tree) often it is neither conquered nor purged, but in the ascendant. She is a far from reassuring writer, and in this respect is more transgressive than many writers whose superficially more gruesome work became popular in the 1980s “horror boom”.



Du Maurier, Daphne. The Birds and Other Stories (Virago, 2004).

photo credit: Jamie Gorman

“What’s that man doing, Mummy?”

There have been times when, stuck for inspiration but desperate to keep the wheels turning, I’ve turned to a something that I’m interested in to use as the starting point for a story. This has happened more than once. Want to hear about stories you’ll never read by an author you’ve never heard of? Read on.

Twitch was a story about enmity between a pair of birdwatchers, and was set among the towering reedbeds of the Tay Estuary near where I grew up (I still think they’d make a great location for an eerie story). I like birdwatching but the trigger for this was a visit, deliberately in search of something to spark a story, to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. At the time there was a huge diorama on the ground floor, of stuffed animals that had once roamed Scotland. One of the birds, stalking through a small forest of dead reeds, was a purple heron. This became the focus of my story. However, a friend helpfully told me that the story’s end was telegraphed pages in advance (thanks Steve) and on reflection, the story never took wing (sorry). The use of something I knew and cared about stifled any hope of bringing the characters to life. It remains unpublished, as lifeless as the exercises in taxidermy that inspired it.

Nicholson, Wood, Wallis was probably both the zenith and nadir of my self-indulgence, and cautioned me forever off using a personal interest as the germ of a story. There’s nothing wrong with writing about something you like, but it shouldn’t be the onlie begetter, and shouldn’t be at the expense of what makes a story breathe. The story was, as the Ronseal title makes clear, about the St. Ives artists, and specifically the day in 1928 when Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood (ironically, themselves artists in search of inspiration) happened across the amateur – “primitive” – painter Alfred Wallis.

The story, then, was a dramatization of a real event, and it tried to do all sorts of clever things with time, projecting into the artists’ near-future and destabilising their present. It fell to pieces: literally, because I cut pages up to re-order the paragraphs. But what worked for William Burroughs didn’t work for me. Nonetheless I remain secretly fond of Nicholson, Wood, Wallis while being at the same time deeply embarrassed by it. The story had no point and achieved nothing a good blog post couldn’t have done, with better economy.

I’ve written several stories which used professional cycling (another interest) as a scaffold. Again, the stories were without purpose. They circled slowly inwards, dragged down by the weight that my interest in cycling – and the imparting of information about that sport – imposed on the story. They weren’t about cycling per se (in the way that Tim Krabbe’s peerless The Rider is); they were about the characters’ love of cycling and, really, about my own love of cycling.

That, I think, is the problem which connects the stories I’ve mentioned. They all owed their existence to a personal interest, and never managed to achieve any distance from it. That distance is needed for a story to become something that another person would find value in.

Such exercises – for that is all they are – are fine, as long as you recognise them as such. They are warm-ups, primers, stretches; they are the clearing of your throat. But to foist them on other people? That’s like flashing.


photo credit: Jamie Gorman

Under the influence

The artist John Wells was a member of the so-called “St. Ives” group, a loose collective of artists active from the late 1930s to the 1970s. None of the artists in question necessarily thought of themselves as part of a group, and their often fractious relationships makes for great reading. The most illustrious members were Barbara Hepworth – arguably Britain’s greatest female artist – and her husband Ben Nicholson, who moved to the west of Cornwall when war made London an unsuitable place to raise a family. The only “native” Cornishman in the group was Peter Lanyon, whose artistic development after he was demobbed from the RAF was astonishing, and who went on to produce some of the most striking abstract landscape paintings of the 1950s before his tragic early death in 1964.

But – though Lanyon is the artist whose work I love the most – back to Wells, a good friend of his. I have the catalogue from the Tate St. Ives 1998 Wells exhibition (John Wells: The Fragile Cell by Matthew Rose). Wells is a classic case of someone wearing his influences on his sleeve. Works which would be interesting on their own suffer when compared to those by artists Wells evidently (from his letters) admired and was inspired by. So it is possible, looking through the catalogue, to see in Wells’ work a Naum Gabo construction here, a Nicholson or Hepworth geometric drawing there. Only in the early 1950s does he emerge from the shadow of his influences with a series of spiralling, swooping oil-on-board works such as “Sea Bird Forms” and “Aspiring Forms” unlike anything produced by his peers (while still immediately recognisable as post-War abstract art).

I have previously written about riffing: taking a cue from a prior work and running with it, transforming it into an integral part of a whole in which the original motif no longer creates automatic associations with the source – or, if it does, in such a way as to open dialogue with that work. We all have our influences and inspirations. The two are not necessarily the same, and I’ll return to the difference between them in a subsequent post. For some it proves easy to shake off or outgrow those whose work has inspired us. Some never do (I’m looking at you, Noel Gallagher).

Me? Hell, yes. My parents’ attic used to be full of my juvenilia: Kerouac-inspired novels that were so much self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness; a poem that wanted to be Ginsberg’s Howl when it grew up, but never did; stories of domestic appliances turned evil (à la Stephen King’s Christine), or James Herbert-inspired gore; Joycean wordplay; Marquez magical realism; Kelman grittiness. From this list I excuse Star Battle, by me and my friend Will, which so outgrew the Star Wars influence that it was confident enough to name two of its characters “Luke” and “Vader”. We were 9 years old. Cut us some slack.

Paul McCartney said that the “Soul” in Rubber Soul was an acknowledgement of the influence of black American soul music on that album, but which the Fab Four internalised and re-processed to such an extent that only George Martin’s spacious production seems to link it to the dynamics of Philly or Motown.

Moving beyond your influences is a necessary part of maturing as an artist, but I still find myself guilty of adopting the voice of a work that has particularly grabbed me. Sometimes I will want to read fiction of a certain genre to help me get into the mood of what I am trying to write: at other times, fearing the creep of influence, I’ll deliberately read something totally different: non-fiction is a good way of cleansing the literary palate.

In his book How Proust can change your life, Alain de Botton hits the nail on the head. Although he’s talking about literary pilgrimages – going to Illiers to see Proust’s environment, or Dublin to see Joyce’s, or even Cornwall to see that of the St. Ives group – the key is not to look at the artist’s world through your eyes, but to look at your world through their eyes. Learning to see or to think like an artist will let your own voice emerge. This means internalising the lessons of the work; adopting & adapting the mindset, instead of copying the outward form.


Seabird forms © the estate of john wells


John Squire, 1990

In the mid-80s, before their breakthrough in 1989, Manchester band The Stone Roses followed the well-worn path of playing pubs and small venues around Britain and Europe. One such gig saw them play a pub in Dublin, before a crowd used to – and expecting – heavy metal rather than the punk/goth crossover rock the Roses were playing at that point.

Tough crowd.

Glasses and punches were thrown as the band started their set, and the atmosphere didn’t get better when guitarist John Squire started playing the unmistakable riff to Smoke on the Water, one of the heavy rock crowd’s Holy Grail texts. Assuming these English upstarts – with their paisley shirts – were taking the piss, things got heavy.

Now, Squire may have been taking the piss, or just trying to placate the locals – either seems likely. But what is certain is that the Roses – who have not, to date, recorded a cover version in their career (Elizabeth My Dear notwithstanding) – weren’t about to launch into the Deep Purple classic.

My point is that a riff, while a recognisable hook, can also be a diving-off point towards something else (in the Roses’ case, a near-riot); something new, within the context of which the original riff – if properly enmeshed in the new work – can sound totally different, to the extent that it no longer triggers memories of the source material.

Books can be riffs on other works. China Mieville’s Railsea has at its core an obsessive search for a white leviathan and is a riff on, among other things, Melville’s Moby Dick. What’s clear is that riffing on a source is not the same as “copying” or “updating” a text; nor is it the same as a mashup. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not a riff: it doesn’t – it can’t – obscure the source material. At other times, riffs appear almost by happenstance when the author spots connections between her work-in-progress and an existing text.

Riffing on a story can be a useful starting-off point if you’re short of inspiration. In my own experience, though, this doesn’t make for a successful story. The source material is used as a prop, and the new work is unable to stand independently. I wrote a story called Surfacing in 2004 or so, parts of which I still rate, but whose debt to the swimming motif in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s film Three Colours: Blue drowned it at birth (pun intended).

A later story, The Other Field, was my attempt at a timeslip/timeloop story. Only midway through, when I realised it included an East Anglian landscape and English Electric Lightning aircraft, did I make a few (hopefully subtle) nods towards a favourite book from my childhood. When I was 10, I must have read Jan Mark’s Thunder and Lightnings a dozen times or more, and I still have my well-worn Puffin copy.

My story may have existed in some form if I’d never read Mark’s book: impossible to say. But spotting the link, and weaving in acknowledgements to Thunder and Lightnings gave it – for me – an extra dimension. I’m not claiming this for The Other Field, but such riffing can create a relationship between two works; a dialogue, even, if we assume that a work, however old, is created anew with each reading. Going (back) to the original after reading a work that riffs on it can add nuance to one’s experience of the original.

I doubt the crowd in Dublin listened to Deep Purple in a new light after John Squire’s improvisation. But who knows?


photo credit: John Squire (1990) by Ian T Tilton