The Path Less Trodden Part 1
Esoteric Books For Christmas
Under normal circumstances the bookshop tables should by now be groaning with the weight of popular Christmas books. This is the time of year the crowd pleasers come out, but it looks as if this time we’ll have to buy most of our books online. I’m as happy as anyone to buy a fat biography or the new thriller, but what if you want something a little more obscure? Obviously it helps if a friend has recommended something, but I like to dig around and find my own esoteric books, even if a few turn out to be duds.
The first I picked up this year was Sean Hogan’s collection ‘England’s Screaming’, partly because I’m mates with both the editor and the illustrator, Graham Humphries. It’s essentially a collection of horror stories in disguise, but there’s a nicely esoteric element; the stories concern characters from films. As in David Thompson’s labour of love, ‘Suspects’, it assumes that all of these people inhabit the same universe and interact with one another. Could Carol Ledoux from ‘Repulsion’ know Dr Channard from ‘Hellraiser II’? You’ll find out here. A lovely idea, with well chosen subjects.
I’ve been following Ken Hollings for years, if only out of curiosity to see where he goes. Sometimes it’s like being trapped in a pub with a nonsense-spouting madman, and other times it’s eye-wideningly elucidating. This particular volume, ‘Inferno’, delves into trash culture of the 1960s, drawing all kinds of odd links between events so that Hollings operates as an avant garde Ballardian and predictor of future psychologies. Which makes this sound like harder work than it is. Plenty of subcultures are explored, and are easy to get lost in. There are several other volumes published by Strange Attractor Press including the superb ‘Welcome to Mars’.
‘The Secret Library’ by Oliver Tearle feels like a companion volume to my own ‘Book of Forgotten Authors’. The premise is the same but looser, dipping in and out of British history to uncover missing books and writers. Here, though, the brief is not popular paperbacks but a more general trawl that shows how books circulated among readers, and what a rewarding trawl it is. Although Tearle covers many rarities he also takes a fresh look at far more famous volumes. I just wish it went into a little more depth on each of them.
‘Undead Uprising: Haiti, Horror and the Zombie Complex’ by John Cussans sees another appearance by Graham Humphries on the cover. This work proves to be very far from the sensationalist work it appears; Cussans is interested in finding out how myths about Haiti arose in film and literature, inevitably taking in colonial racism and white prejudice. As such, it becomes the new cornerstone literature on a fascinating subject, with the nation’s own disastrous politics feeding the legends. It’s an astonishing, unexpected read.
‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ is about editing. No, wait, come back! Author John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay about a true-life death in Vegas. His work was edited by Jim Fingal, who disagreed with much of what D’Agata wrote. For the next seven years they argued about the negotiability of facts in a factual account. The combatants are pugilistic and won’t back down as the reader swings from one side to the other.
D’Agata goes for slightly broader strokes, describing the woods occasionally at the expense of the trees, while Fingal wants to know the history of the splinters without perceiving the wood. Both are right and wrong. You need to entertain the reader and not overwhelm them with factual detail, but you also need to be accurate. What emerges is a fascinating exercise in fact VS fiction. The book went on to become a Broadway play starring Daniel Radcliffe.
Speaking of choosing books online, Amazon now appears to be deliberately burying paperbacks. A search for many books will only get you an offer of a Kindle version or a hardback but no paperback, even though it can be found when you search thoroughly for it. Be warned.