Things are rolling along quite nicely at the moment with the stories that I’m working on and there are no major gripes for me to spill into my journal entries, so I thought I’d try to do something positive for a change. People always bang on about the books that changed their lives and what they learned from reading them and so I thought that I’d do the same and share a couple of titles that I feel are out of the ordinary, exceptional and really made a difference to the way I saw the world of literature after I’d finsihed them.
I’m not suggesting that they are essential or even that I can add some new degree of insight into what makes them special, rather I want to share the reasons that I still think of these books as landmarks for myself. If you have read them and agree with me than that’s a boost for my ego. Similarly if you are inspired to pick one of them up then we both win. But if you hate one of these books or are turned off after an attempt to read them, then I hope we can just agree that we differ in taste and leave it at that. So here goes, in no particular order:
1) Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien
No surprise there, not when you consider that this book is the closest thing that modern fantasy has to the Iliad in terms of scope, vision and influence. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the fog of fandom and recieved opinion surrounding this trilogy of books (actually there are six in total, if you want to be pedantic) that you forget what a gift Tolkien gave to his readers with this one. A lifetime of work on the history, mythology, languages, geography and peoples of Middle Earth went before and allowed that somewhat stuffy Oxford professor to weave the epic struggle between the overwhelming forces of evil and the isolated, divided but ultimately noble and enduring forces of good into a seemless world that lived, bled and died from the first time a Black Rider appeared in the Shire to the final battle at the gates of Mordor. There is no fantasy writer working today who is not influenced by Tolkien, with even those who claim not to be making a conscious decision to do so and thus revealing his effect upon their writing.
2) Drachenfels, by Kim Newman (writing as Jack Yoevil)
When Games Workshop began to publish novels back in the day, there were so many fewer titles than the Black Library can boast today and perhaps at the same time a greater number of outstanding reads as a result. Drachenfels is many things that are often considered negative in terms of being genre fiction, filled with gore and written to hawk the wares of GW first and as a work of fiction second. But that having been said, I remain fond of the book on account of the fact that it taught me the that fantasy can be brought down from the lofty heights of the epic and dropped into a world of sex, violence and seedy motives without losing the art of telling a compelling story populated with flawed and yet ultimately heroic characters. You can argue that there are other writers who did the same thing before and after in a better manner, but this was the first time I encountered fantasy that was about the outcasts and non-conformists rather than the shining heroes and to me that really changed the who scope of what the genre could encompass.
3) Game of Thrones, by George R R Martin
There really is no other single writer who has done more to make fantasy relevant and marketable in the latter part of the 20th and into the 21st century than Martin. In a time when the standard of the genre was groaning tomes of 700+ words in a series of up to and beyond a dozen books, in none of which anything happened or derivative children’s titles picked up by desperate adults starved of anything to keep them occupied, this book was different. It took the genre by the ears and proceeded to headbutt it square on the nose every time it mentioned a tired and overused trope or cliched character carrying a nonsensical magical maguffin towards a confrontation with a dark overlord in his land of evil. Sure the world is full of horrible stuff that wants to eat you, yes the corruption of the court is pushing the nation into a disasterous civil war just when the nobility needs to be united, I know magic is coming back into the world and dragons are back. But this is so much like the real world that people are just too greedy, stupid and self-absorbed to give a shit. How I loved the experience of reading this book, more real in some ways than anything written outside of the fantasy genre.
4) The Whisperer in the Darkness, by H P Lovecraft
Not technically a novel, this is one amongst many of the stories and novellas written by perhaps the most naturally talented man to produce horror that has ever lived. Not only did Lovecraft manage to move the genre away from the stuffy gothic trappings that had held it back in the realms of Stoker and Shelley with their hangover from the age of the Romantics, he began a move towards cosmic scope in popular literature that endures stronger than ever to this day, and most amazing of all he did it from beyond the grave having died before his body of work was accorded the status it truly deserved. Through his fevered view of the world around him, Lovecraft invested his paranoia and unease with a galactic and trans-dimensional quality which linked the limited manner he exprienced life to the concept of beings and powers that spanned time, space and beyond. And trust me, there are some of his stories that once they have been fully disgested, will make you very unwilling to spend time alone and remote from the supposed security of human civilisation.
5) The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
I once came across a quote that claimed while writers from some cultures in the time of Dostoyevsky could be said to excell in certain modes or subjects, only the Russians truly managed to capture the essence of life in their literature. If that is true, then none have been able to do so to the same degree as Dostoyevsky or with the pained and raw emotion that he achieves in this book. Based upon his own time spent in a Siberian Gulag, the reader is treated to a microcosm of human interaction, hopes and fears all observed with minute attention to detail and embodied in the characters and moods of the narrator and his fellow inmates. Rather than presenting a uniformly grim vision of the men whom he invents, Dostoyevsky instead uses their bleak circumstances as a background against which to present their emotions and the colour of their characters in all the more startling details. There is never a moment in this book when the reader is not aware of both the internal workings of the characters, the situation they are in and the intention of the author to provide an insight into the human condition by their example. If you are going to read any Russian novelist of this age, consider Dostoyevsky and I hope you will not be disappointed.