Happy birthday, Mr Poe

It’s the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe, a favourite author of mine since I was about ten and thumbing through a collection of his work. One of the real ale pubs I regularly drink in has a poem extolling ale written by Poe, enscribed up on the wall, which always makes me smile. I wonder if the Poe Toaster made their customary, secretive appearance today? For half a century someone has left cognac and roses on Poe’s grave, a rather lovely little tradition, I think; they have become known as the Poe Toaster. I will raise a glass if single malt in his honour myself later on (any excuse).

Last summer the Edinburgh Film Festival had a retrospective of Roger Corman and the great Vincent Price’s Edgar Allan Poe films from the 60s in their wonderfully lurid colour and with Vincent’s velvet voice. In fact I usually tell people who don’t get Poe to read his short fiction and to do so slowly, imagining in their head the voice of Vincent Price narrating it to them. If they still don’t get it then they are beyond help.

Poe has influenced and inspired many later writers, not just in the phantasmagorical, horror and fantasy realms but in establishing one of the great literary successes of the last century and a bit, the detective tale, setting out many of the rules and procedures of a proper, modern detective for fiction; without it probably no Sherlock Holmes, no Maigret, no Rebus…

He’s been directly referenced by generations of authors and other artists, including some of the finest, such as the immortal Ray Bradbury, who explored one of his favourite, lifelong themes – the battle against ignorance and censorship – in the short story Usher II, where there is a world where all fantastical tales, from outright horror to children’s fairy tales, are banned, only the logical and rational is allowed. One rich eccentric builds a replica of the House of Usher and staffs it with robotic versions of Poe characters, inviting the great and good from this new rational society to a party.

They are all shocked by his lawbreaking but take it as a delightful piece of bad taste for one night. What they don’t know is the robot characters are murdering them all, one by one, in the style of Poe deaths – a robot ape stuffs a screaming victim up the chimney and the rest of the guests applaud assuming it all artifice. The final victim only realises the trap they have come into as he is walled up, buried alive, at the end. His host explains that if he had read the books instead of burning them, he would have known what was happening and saved himself. Ignorance and embracing censorship has killed them all. He exits and the walls of Usher II rip asunder and fall into the mere…

Anyway, for Poe’s birthday, enjoy The Raven, here interpreted in a fine manner by Omnia:

Fog in Channel

Quite a while back I was asked by Tom and Simon Sykes if I’d like to contribute to a book they were putting together on British attitudes to Europe; its taken some time to get to print but its now finally been released (I just received my complimentary copy). It was quite nice to be asked (they had come across the Woolamaloo after the infamous ‘Bastardstone’s’ incident and liked my writing style) and it was unusual for me to be asked to write on something other than my regular subjects of books, comics or films (much as I do enjoy writing and talking about those). I’m also rather chuffed to think I’m in there with company such as Bill Deedes, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell and Tony Benn (my late uncle, a solid socialist to the day he died, would have been delighted to see his nephew in a book alongside Benn). The guys wanted to have a spread of people and so a variety of thoughts and opinion and not just the ‘usual suspects’, hence why I was also approached; I drew on my own experience of an earlier Union to describe my feeling towards European Union, looking at the notion of being Scottish and British against the idea of being British but also European. Fog in Channel (the title inspired by the old weather report on the radio) is published now by Shoehorn Publishing.

“A colossal dick move”

The writer’s strike in Hollywood is hitting production in TV and film quite hard, with a number of shows, including Battlestar Galactica and the new Bionic Woman (with the utterly gorgeous Michelle Ryan) now having to shut down because they’ve filmed episodes and run out of finished scripts, with no more in the pipeline while the strike continues. Family Guy has been hit by it – writer, creator and actor Seth McFarlane is out on sympathy with the writers – three new season episodes are almost finished but not quite and Fox announced they would just finish them without Seth and put them on air. Seth acknowledges they have the legal right to do it but going past him like this is obviously going to damage the relationship between him and the studio and would be, in his own words, “a colossal dick move.” I love that and I think that’s going to be one of my new phrases for anything spectacularly stupid. On the Family Guy front the special Star Wars episode has to be one of the funniest ones for a while and littered with SF and movie references that makes it Geek Heaven.

Still, it isn’t all bad, this strike – the Beeb reports that a prequel to the god-awful Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, has been hit by it and postponed. Thank smeg for that, the world really doesn’t need any more of that load of recycled conspiracy cobblers – even having the incredibly delectable Audrey Tautou in it wasn’t enough to make it bearable.

And before you say, Joe, stop showing your literary snobbery, lots of folks enjoy the book (and movie), leave it alone, yes, fair point, I know they do, but if a lot of people like something it doesn’t necessarily mean it is good, just that a lot of people can share the same bloody awful taste; it is the same factor boy bands and reality shows exploit to be popular. What I find even more depressing in the case of tosh like the Luigi Load is the number of brain-dead morons who mutter “I know it’s fiction, but I reckon he’s onto something here…” NO HE ISN’T!!! Why does the law prevent me from choking people who say that do death by forcing the smegging book down their throat?

Bye-bye Kurt

Dammit, we lost a brilliant writer this week when Kurt Vonnegut slipped away, exchanging mortal body for immortal words. Of the many good writers we’ve been lucky to have it is given to only a select few of them to become that rare thing, the immortal, a writer who has books which are read and re-read across the years by a whole range of people, from the SF fan to the purveyor of ‘serious’ literature (here’s a shock, those two can often be the same). As long as people are reading they will still be picking up books like Slaughterhouse Five; they’ll still be teaching it in schools and college students will still be doing papers on it. Very few writers achieve that level of cultural penetration. Kurt took something awful, the fire bombing of Dresden which he saw as a POW during WWII, and took something of those fires within himself to fuel his writing (Slaughterhouse remains one of those books you should read. I know I’ve said that about a lot of books, but it is; there’s a good reason it comes up as one of the most important novels of the 20th century).

Just the other year at 83 Kurt stirred himself out of retirement (does a writer ever really retire? I doubt the urge to put words together to express yourself ever truly dies) with a short story collection A Man Without A Country, driven by anger at Bush and the dire effects on America and the world that odious chimp has had. I hope I’m still feeling the urge to stick it to the man when I reach that age (although it would be preferable if by then we all learned to be nice to one another and I didn’t have anything to have a go at; gladly would I hang up my sarcastic barbs for that to happen). In an interview I found on In These Times he express his disgust with Bush’s policies: “I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been.” Cool and clever to the end. By curious coincidence some of the folks in the book group were just talking a few days ago about how we should cover one of Kurt’s books; he is one of those writers that a lot of people think that about – why not just do it? Pick yourself up a copy of Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse Five, sit down, read it. Then pass it on and spread the words.

On a related not Ariel and I were discussing how odd Kurt would die from ‘brain injuries’ a few weeks after an accident which came after this respected elder statesman of American letters (and a veteran who actually served unlike the current chimp-in-chief) so publically attacked Bush’s government. Natural causes or a sinister, shadowy conspiracy… Okay, probably not, but I’m sure somewhere right now it is being written up as such on some conspiracy blogs.