Amuse Yourself: The Virus VS The Story

Christopher Fowler

It's easy to forget there are actual words inside them

Excellent news; book sales are up thanks to Lockdown; no real surprise there. Fiction dipped slightly but general sales are good, probably driven by desperation for something to do that wasn't watching Netflix or cleaning out the composter. But we were already doing well; British publishers generated record revenues of £6.3 billion in 2019, up 20 per cent on 2015, driven by non-fiction bestsellers such as recipe books, volumes of cleaning tips and David Walliams, one-man children's book hitmaker. I'm not sniffy about this - they're books and may well encourage more reading. Or cleaning. But now the aesthetic appeal of bookshelves has risen because of Zoom calls. Nobody wants to reveal a bare wall and backgrounds have become curated. An American website called 'Books By The Foot' sells books with nice spines grouped together by colour purely as decorative objects. It's easy to forget there are actual, you know, words inside them. That's an extreme example (and to me a somewhat grotesque idea) - isn't buying books for their looks the wrong reason? No, because the aesthetic appearance of a hardback or paperback has always been an intrinsic part of its appeal. From the moment I had earned enough pocket money I started buying cheap paperbacks, sometimes just because I loved the covers. Wilbur Smith's jackets always promised adventure in far-off places. Now there are authors I've bought in hardback just because their matching designs appealed. But it's not all good news on the book front. Right now commissioning is slow, publishers are working from home and everything is taking much longer. (I recently wrote an article for the Times and realised it will take over 6 months to get paid - this is a standard freelancer's complaint). A bigger problem awaits film lovers. In Europe the cinemas are open; in America they'll remain shut for the rest of the year. No Hollywood movie of any size can open over there, but there's a dearth of product here because Hollywood won't release films to Europe before domestic launches (even though it makes half their profits) and the big Euro-hits are hoovered up by American streamers. Right now probably the biggest movie in the world is 'Peninsula', the Korean sequel to 'Train to Busan'. I'm keener to see that more than any Hollywood release except for 'Tenet'. The American domination of European entertainment extends to films and TV, but not to books or theatre. Director Sam Mendes has raised stop-gap cash for the beleaguered theatre industry but most British theatres are Victorian, small seated, packed tightly together and full of bottlenecks, the experience being one of communality. On a practical level there is simply no way to make them safe. Currently US film product has entirely vanished from the world, and local studios are once more gearing up. The idea that world cinema is dominated by small, intimate dramas has gone; big epic world cinema hits like 'Peninsula', 'Quake', 'See You Up There' and 'Parasite' make me wonder if I'll bother to see 'Jurassic Park 5'. Until this mess sorts itself out, I think I'll read some more.  


Ian Todd (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 08:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thank goodness I wasn't the only one. I remember trawling round second hand bookshops & charity stores looking for the 1960's Pan editions of the James Bond books so I could complete my set.

Liz Thompson (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 09:07

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was about to say, smugly, that I don't care if it's a hardback or a paperback, though I do buy favourite authors (that's you, Mr Fowler) in hardback as soon as published, so do have some matching sets. Then I recalled how many Folio Society books I have bought when I already had the book on my shelves, ostensibly for the illustrations, but contemplation of my Ursula Le Guin, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman collections give the lie to that excuse too. Mea culpa.

Peter T (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 10:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was talking with a cooker salesperson. I wanted one with a bigger top as a standard four-ring seems a bit dangerous with more than two pots going. She reckoned that, for the bigger range cookers, use goes inversely with size. The giant ones with exotic, French names are bought by the super rich and never used. I wonder if something similar is true of books?

SteveB (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 11:59

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I reached an age where I decided only to keep things that make me happy, because everything else just weighs me down.The ability to convert most of my books and films to e-equivalents really helps.

Christopher Fowler Fri, 24/07/2020 - 12:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There's an interesting novel (parable) on the subject of being weighed down by stuff (even Folio editions) by Brian Moore, called 'The Great Victorian Collection'.

Brooke (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 13:47

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Re: e-anything. See also Calvino's thoughts on weight/matter/mass in the 21st c.
After library and charity shops reopen, I will have < 15 books in my home.

Trace Turner (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 14:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"Books are awfully decorative, don't you think?" asks Gloria Upson in the film Auntie Mame...I admit that I have been seduced by many attractive book covers and have kept far too many books just because of the covers. As for collecting, I did go through a period when I would buy any book if the cover had been illustrated by Edward Gorey. Some of those are still tucked away in the recesses of the house, waiting to be rediscovered.

Paul C (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 15:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Love Edward Gorey's own books esp The Gashlycrumb Tinies (classic) but the recent biography 'Born To Be Posthumous' was a disappointment.

Brian Moore's The Statement and The Magician's Wife are wonderful books. A fine writer.

A local bookshop has a nifty sideline supplying books by the foot for theatres and TV companies as set dressing.
The shop is Keel Row books in North Shields (see their website) - they could really use some new customers if
anyone here is near Tyneside.

Trace Turner (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 18:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I went to Cape Cod last year and visited Edward Gorey's house, which is now a museum. The curator told us that after he died, they moved out literally tons of books. The house was in danger of structural damage or collapse with all of the weight.

Christopher Fowler Fri, 24/07/2020 - 18:30

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Gloria Upson is one of literature's great awful characters. And I love the set dressing for 'Upson Downs' in the film.

Brian Evans (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 19:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Nothing makes a home a home more than books all over the place.

I will not be losing any sleep over the lack of Hollywood films. I haven't seen one for donkey's years. I have an absolute passion for British films. I will not rest till I have the DVD of everyone available, which these days is a hell of a lot. I even like the dreaded "Quota Quickies". some of them are actually rather good and very watchable. The "Talking Pictures" channel has become very popular with its reruns of old British pictures and they are being re-discovered but I could've told people years ago about just how enjoyable so many are.

J F Norris (not verified) Fri, 24/07/2020 - 19:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Not all movie theaters are closed here in the US. Several "art house" theaters are braving the odds and reopening to much smaller and restricted house limits. In Chicago where I live The Music Box opened three weeks ago. There are two theaters, actually the original theater which seats about 600 and a small screening room that seats only about 40 people. They have decided to rope off seats and sell limited tickets online in order o control the audience numbers. In compliance with CDC Rules for indoor gatherings of course everyone is required to wear masks for the duration of being in the theater...unless you're chomping on popcorn and other snacks or chugging a bottle of beer they offer at the bar out front. In the large theater they sell only 50 tickets and people are spaced out accordingly. For the screening room only 14 seats will be sold with similar seating restrictions. I went to see the Australian horror film The Relic three weeks ago at its first showing in the small er theater. All 14 seats were sold. I felt perfectly safe. Only four people were allowed in my row, two seats each at the extreme ends of the aisles. All other seats were marked NOT AVAILABLE. For someone like me who loathes having people sit in front of him in a movie theater it was ideal.

In addition to allowing people to view films in the two locations as movies are meant to be seen, they continue their agreements with film distribution companies and offer streaming admission tickets for viewing at home. Purchase a ticket online and a portion goes to the the Music Box, then watch at your convenience within a period of days before the ticket expires. Since April I've taken advantage of the streaming services and seen more movies in a single year than I have prior to the pandemic. I saw about 15 films in three months to help the Music Box stay in business. Usually I only see about five films at that theater in any given year.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Sun, 26/07/2020 - 01:20

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Looking forward to Peninsula, I even saw the animated prequel to Train to Busan. We shall see.

Being a fan of low budget British films, I'd recommend the old B&W The Man in the Backseat, a splendid low budget crime film as is Cash on Demand by Hammer, as is Hell is a City.

As to being a completest I managed to stop it due to a fool hardy quest. I'm a fan of a number of actors who appeared in B-films including John Carridine, I tried to watch all his films especially the horror ones, I gave up in the end. When you realise Shock Waves (The yellow Nazis zombie movie with Peter Cushing.) isn't even close to the worst film you know you're in trouble. And Don't get me started on Jess Franco films.


Dawn Andrews (not verified) Sun, 26/07/2020 - 10:01

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

How Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee suffered! There were great Hammer moments though. I'm a B film addict, low budget makes directors get creative and rely more on atmosphere.

Paul C (not verified) Mon, 27/07/2020 - 11:40

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

John Carradine appeared in over 230 films so not surprised you gave up, Wayne. Astro Zombies is the worst but he was fabulous in Grapes of Wrath.

Peter Cushing's nadir is The Blood Beast Terror - a girl becomes a gigantic vampiric moth who preys on young men.
A were-moth acc to Cushing. He deserved so much better.

I envy you your visit to Edward Gorey's house, Trace. One day..............

Wayne Mook (not verified) Tue, 28/07/2020 - 01:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Paul I think Shock Waves is worse. When Peter Cushing said The Blood Beast Terror was the worst film he'd made he hadn't made Shock Waves, at least in the Blood Beast Terror someone got to use the immortal line that they had, '..caught too much sun up the Limpopo'. It's also better than the Akim Tamiroff starer the Vulture, the one with the giant radioactive vulture. I'm not making this up. By the moth turns into a woman, so I guess the moth is a were-human. I actually have a soft spot for The Blood Beast Terror, I wrote a review of it for a friend's book. But I do like stupid monster movies from Konga to The Host, even bottom of the barrel fair like The Killer Screws.

Frankenstein Island is much worse from the Carradine list, the stock footage of hot-air 'search' balloons combing an area with 'appropriate' voice-overs is hilarious searching for our heroes who have crash landed in the sea. He was in some good films, Of Mice and Men he was particularly good. He was in the Munsters as well.


Paul C (not verified) Tue, 28/07/2020 - 10:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cheers, Wayne - I love that kind of stuff too. What was the book you wrote for ?

Wayne Mook (not verified) Tue, 28/07/2020 - 19:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The Shrieking Sixties edited by Darrell Buxton from Marquee Press, I did three films. It was a group of us who used to post on the British Horror Forum.

Harry Fenton and David Flint did a book Ten Years of Terror which covered every British horror film form the 70's, so we did the 60's.

We did do another one Dead or Alive ed Darrell Buxton, which covered all British horror film from the 80's, I know there was festival version but I don't know if it found a publisher.


Ian Luck (not verified) Wed, 29/07/2020 - 16:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'The Blood Beast Terror', which had, as it's female lead, let us not forget, Benedict Cumberbatch's mum, Wanda Ventham, who also appears in the barking, but brilliantly entertaining 'Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter', and in a selection of tight, and carelessly buttoned costumes, in Gerry Anderson's 'UFO', which is where I first saw her, when I was seven. I quite liked the cut of her jib. I know my father did, too.

Ian Luck (not verified) Wed, 29/07/2020 - 16:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'The Killer Screws', Wayne? Did your brain say 'Shrews' but your finger thought otherwise?
It's a nice mental image, though: Messrs. Barrowclough and Mackay running amok with chainsaws, after bisecting 'Horrible' Ives for a laugh...

Wayne Mook (not verified) Wed, 29/07/2020 - 21:09

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry Ian - I did mean Killer Shrews, oddly enough I was just reading about the film Scum so some of the nastier end of young Porridge. Mr Barrowclough running amok is almost as odd as George (Brian Murphy) torturing Oliver Reed in The Devils.


snowy (not verified) Wed, 29/07/2020 - 21:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

'The Shrieking Sixties' is still available on the 'Zon, [and rather charmingly contains a handy glossary of British Idiom/Slang for the convenience of readers from overseas].

Diane Englot (not verified) Mon, 03/08/2020 - 14:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

There's a Train to Busan sequel?!!!