Posts Tagged ‘Alan Moore’

I can’t manage a whole screenplay; short stories suit me better. So I wrote a half-hour-long, severely fucked-up horror Teleplay instead.


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As part of his BBC Maestro course, Alan Moore asks us to watch a film and to examine it for its ‘texture and cohesion’, by which Alan means the cultural and other artefacts within this fictional world that help establish its existence beyond the bounds of the film, pages of the book or the bounds of the comic frame. These include newscasts on in-world television, fake shops, fake products, etc.

I chose to examine the French black-comedy film ‘Bigbug’, which seemed to have an interesting world and vision, highly stylised and visually arresting in a way only the French seem capable of.

We are almost immediately introduced to the world through TV (or projected holovision as it turns out to be). We see a show called ‘Homo Ridiculous’, where cyborgs (reminiscent of RoboCop in style) walk their human pets and engage in somewhat comedic behaviour. This excerpt is one of many, and seems to be a cruelly sadistic joke at the expense of humanity, played upon them by the ‘Yonyx’, a transhuman group who appear to be slowly taking over the world, with increasingly dystopian hints dropped through the film from Yonyx-Human bullfighting to human foie gras.

Ironically, there don’t seem to be a lot of actual animals in the show besides Toby-6, a cloned terrier belonging to a neighbour. In place of meat, people are eating bugs, and we’re presented with a commercial example of this, ‘Kreekit’, roasted crickets in a can. It’s doubtful that any successful marketing of insect protein would be done this way, but it helps world-building and presents this as perfecting normal.

We find that we are in a lovely suburban home. Despite the French setting and origin of the film, this is a retro-futuristic building in the style of the ‘Gernsback Continuum’, a 1950s American vision of the future with chrome refrigerators, finned cars, bright colours and motifs and flourishes from right out of the Jetsons. These artistic cues are combined with more contemporary ideas about the future, an ‘internet of things, screens on everything, voice-activated home-help, innovative house technology and always-connected internet.

The one preparing the crickets, and other snacks, is a gynoid. This gynoid is humanoid in shape but does things like removing her finger to power a whisk and moving at an inhumanly fast speed when grating. Her colour scheme and angular clothing suggest classic appliances such as the KitchenAid standing mixer.

In our tour of the house, courtesy of the camera, we are treated to odd juxtapositions. The house owner keeps paper books, writes by hand and has ‘antiques’ (items familiar to us from our lifespans) such as a Rubik’s Cube or a rotary telephone presented under glass. Later, we find the daughter of the house also has a bunch of antiques, old computers on shelves and cupboard spaces in her room.

Through the eyes of the gynoid, we discover that everyone else in the house is putting up a pretence and a mask; they are as false in their way as the gynoid is. We know this because she can analyse their body language, voice and other cues to provide emotional probability read-outs. This device allows subtext to become text and gives us insight into the powers and capabilities of the robots.

Even the kitchen is like one big appliance, with the various surfaces able to rotate and turn about, almost like being inside one of those mixers, a further expression of the house’s automation. It incorporates ludicrously specialised devices, such as an egg cooker that rotates eggs and slices off their tops with a laser, ready for breakfast. It needs to be clarified whether this means that this is a particularly well-off household or whether everyone lives in such luxury. Still, given the extent of the suburb and the gadgets and other devices that everyone has, this is an affluent society, if not a post-scarcity one (given the lack of normal food).

Not all of our context comes through objects, robots or television; some is dropped in through conversation. Since the people in the house all have tangled relationships, and given that one man is there attempting to seduce the woman of the house, it makes sense to have introductions in conversation, which is where we learn that the dog is cloned and that the daughter of the house is adopted from the flooding of the Netherlands.

We also pick up other details like banning cheeses (which must hit differently in France). We are constantly interrupted throughout the movie by giant floating adverts that personalise themselves to the situation and the people in the house according to what is happening. It’s an obvious satire but exaggerated to an absurd degree. We learn that cybernetic implants can be repossessed (and that the ‘bug’ also extends to these prosthetics).

People are so utterly dependent upon their machines, even the antique-obsessed woman of the house, that one woman in the film almost suffocates because her meditation app glitches and doesn’t tell her to breathe out. We all know people who cannot unplug, even for a moment. All that’s missing is the social media aspect. However, people are encouraged to make fools of themselves online (Homo Ridiculous) or to subject themselves to more advertising from their appliances in exchange for free updates.

All very climate apocalypse and ‘live in the pod and eat bugs’ a very current paranoiac trend and very much in our current zeitgeist of the future. These homes are fortresses, climate-controlled pods of armoured glass where even the scent can be tailored. We get the idea that this sort of thing is typical, and even through an advert for ‘Isola Paradiso’, we learn that there are ‘pools of distilled water’ and ‘hypoallergenic beaches’. The increasing rate of allergies has been extended into the future to an even higher degree, a symptom of an artificial lifestyle.

Through news reports, we learn that traffic jams are afflicting the air and ground area. We are also shown more sinister antics of the Yonyx and their prejudice towards humanity and learn of their fleet of robot drones that they are set to deploy. It’s never outright stated, but the impression is very much that the Yonyx are staging a full-on coup over the world and are behind the in-house imprisonments and all the chaos outside.

Ultimately, the Yonyx are undone by their hubris, and destroyed by their drones due to an error. Frankenstein was undone by his creation, but in this, it is the monster’s creation that undoes him. Besides the point, but interesting nonetheless.

The film might be limited to a single house, but through the items in the background and on display, through the news items, conversation and products (some of which are also characters), we do get a sense of the wider world, outside the lines, the very thing Moore was talking about.

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https://greensdictofslang.com/ is a fantastic resource for looking up slang, and the online version is better than the paper one with quite powerful search functions. Here’s just a sample from me looking into the slang of the Gathercole period. Just be sure to right-click and ‘open new tab’ when looking at the detailed definitions, or you’ll lose your search.

Absent-Minded Beggar: Soldier.
Absquatulate: Leave abruptly.
Acid: Sarcasm.
Ack Emma: After Midnight.
Ackers: Money.
Act the Goat: Be foolish.
Adam’s Storeroom: Lady Parts/Womb.
Adzooks!: Exclamation.
After-Clap: Sudden and unexpected blow after the danger had seemingly passed.
Air Your Heels: Loiter.
All Beer & Skittles: Hedonism and fun.
All my Eye & Betty Martin: Nonsense.
All Sir Garnet: All in order, everything as it should be.
All the World to a China Orange: A near certainty.
Ally Slope: To escape, to take off.
Anchor, Swallow the: To reluctantly change course.
Anno Domini: Old age and its effects.
Anoint: Beat/thrash.
Apartments to Let: Crazy.
Apple Dumplings: Breasts.
Argle-Bargle: Argument.
Arkansas Toothpick: A large (bowie) knife.
Artful Dodger: Lodger, or penis.
Atch: Arrest.
Atkins: Tommy Atkins/Tommy, a private, a soldier.
Auctioneer: A fist, to knock things down.
Baa-Lamb: An amicable or pleasing person, esp used by women of meek, tractable men.
Backscuttle: To leave unobtrusively (out the back).
Bad Scran: Bad luck.
Bag of Mystery: A Sausage.
Baked Wind: Nonsense, eg ‘Hot Air’.
Baker-Kneed: Effeminate.
Baksheesh: A tip or gratuity.
Ball of Fire: A person with energy and determination.
Ballyrag: To bully and scold.
Banchoot: From an unspeakable insult in India, gentle insult in English.
Bandook: A rifle.
Beat Banagher: To tell a surpassingly good story or do something superlatively well.
Bantam: A young inexperienced man.
Barbary Coast: Red Light district, esp if popular with sailors.
Barber’s Cat: A sickly and malnourished person (the opposite of a butcher’s dog), also a gossip.
Bargee: Stereotypical bargeman, loud, coarse and rude.
Barking Iron: Pistol.
Barmpot/Bampot: An eccentric.
Barnacles: Spectacles/Eyeglasses.
Barrel Fever: Drunk.
Barrel-Boarder: Old drunk.
At Full Bat: Top speed.
Batchy: Silly or stupid.
Batwing: A Bow-tie.
Beachcomber: An idler.
Beano: A fight, or a party, depending on context.
To Know How Many Blue Beans Make Five: To be informed and aware.
Beat the Dutch: Do something outstanding.
Put to bed with a Shovel: To murder.
Beef-Witted: Stupid.
Beerage/Beerocracy: A pub’s regulars, a ‘peerage’.
Beer-Trap: The mouth.
Beetle: A madman, a stalker, a fanatic.
Beetle Crusher: A foot – a big one.
All Behind like the Cow’s Tail: Late.
Belcher: Handkerchief.
Bellibone: A well-dressed young woman.
Big Pot: An important person.
Bill: A name to use for an otherwise unknown person.
Birdcage: A prison, esp a temporary one.
Bit of Skin: A young girl or man who is one’s lover.
Bit of Fat: An unexpected advantage.
Blandander: To cajole with blandishments.
Blind Dragon: A fierce old woman or chaperone.
Bloat: A worthless, conceited person.
Blue Devils: A fit of depression.
Blue’O’Clock: Dawn.
Bluff the Rats: Spread panic.
Bobby Dazzler: Anything exceptional or wonderful.
Bog-Eyed: Tired, or drunk.
Bog-Latin: Fake latin, or gaelic.
Boiled Shirt: Respectable, upper class sort of man.
Where the Bottle Got the Cork: In the neck.
On the Bounce: Defaulting on a payment.
Box of Dominoes: The mouth.
Brickish: A good sort of person.
Broadbrow: Someone with a lot of different interests (as opposed to high or low brow).
Broomstick Marriage: A common-law marriage.
Browsing and Sluicing: Eating and drinking.
Brummagem: Second hand, or fake.
Bum-Freezer: A short jacket.
Burn Bad Powder: To fart.

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For an upcoming story, I need to situate it at a glassmaker, one that made a particular type of glass that fell out of favour in more modern times: uranium glass.

Uranium was first identified in the late 1700s but was soon used in glassmaking as it created a unique fluorescent colour. Many glassmakers began using it, and in England, one of the great creators of uranium glass was James Powell and Sons, also known as Whitefriar’s Glass. Interestingly enough, James Powell was from the same family as the founder of the Boy Scouts.

Uranium glass fell out of favour after World War II as sources of uranium (needed for bomb-making) dried up or became prohibitively expensive. The public became afraid of anything relating to radiation, even though uranium glass tableware was perfectly safe.

With my story set in the 1920s, I don’t need to worry about that, though physicists and fiction writers were already pondering the potential power of the atom and how it might be used, which is an association I want to exploit.

Whitefriar’s Glass was an existing company, established around 1680 and situated just off Fleet Street, though they relocated in 1923 to a factory in Wealdstone.

Interestingly, there is a ‘weald stone’ that was used to mark the boundary between parishes. It’s a sarsen stone, the same type used at Stonehenge, and its age, or at least how long it has been there, being unknown. A bit of a mystery in keeping with what I’m going for.

Powell and his sons took over Whitefriar’s Glass in 1834, six years before the elder Powell’s death. Weirdly, nobody involved had any experience with glassmaking. Still, they appeared to take to it quickly, to learn the necessary skills and – perhaps because of their lack of knowledge – to try new glassmaking methods and succeed with many of them.

James’ sons Arthur and Nathaniel made a name for themselves through the company in stained glass. They owned several technical-process patents, giving the company a strong reputation. They were amongst the first companies to offer glowing uranium glass due to their technical and innovative background.

Thanks to technological innovations and insights, they also produced a lot of architectural glass, becoming associated with Jackson, Burnes-Jones, de Morgan and Doyle and the arts and crafts movement around the same time.

The move to a new factory in the interwar period was intended to ramp up production and to allow the company to grow, but a planned village alongside the factor for workers to live in (taken from arts and crafts ideas) fell through as the factory was too expensive to build, in and of itself.

Even with that expense, the company continued to grow until after World War II, when it began a steep decline, finally winding up operations in 1980. Many examples of their work are either still found in situ or held in collections in various museums, though sadly, the factory was demolished and cleared.

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Like many kids who were forced to read even portions of ‘classic’ novels, especially boys, I loathe Jane Eyre. Silas Marner runs a close second, but Jane Eyre ranks higher as it is wildly over-celebrated, and one media company or another seems constantly engaged in making and remaking it.

My frustration at grappling with such a dull and hideous work was only made worse because much better books, such as Animal Farm or The War of the Worlds, were also on the school reading lists, but we never got to study them.


So if I am to break down and reconstruct a novel that I hate (at the urging of Alan Moore’s BBC Maestro course), I choose this horrible, dull, insipid ‘classic’.

So what’s the plot? What’s actually engaging in Jane Eyre?

The Plot: 

The novel is a first-person narrative from the perspective of the title character. Its setting is somewhere in the north of England, late in the reign of George III (1760–1820).[a] It has five distinct stages: Jane’s childhood at Gateshead Hall, where she is emotionally and physically abused by her aunt and cousins; her education at Lowood School, where she gains friends and role models but suffers privations and oppression; her time as governess at Thornfield Hall, where she falls in love with her mysterious employer, Edward Fairfax Rochester; her time in the Moor House, during which her earnest but cold clergyman cousin, St John Rivers, proposes to her; and ultimately her reunion with, and marriage to, her beloved Rochester. These sections provide perspectives on several important social issues and ideas, many of which are critical of the status quo.

So what’s interesting, more than anything, is the backdrop. This was the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the social shifts and ideas that would eventually lead to things like the Chartists arising.

What’s also interesting are the gothic elements in the book (Rochester as a Byronic hero, aspects of misery tourism and the presence of the supernatural).

Supernatural elements include telepathy, ghosts, prophetic dreaming, a ‘demon’, and religious factors and concepts – often somewhat critically.

Interesting elements:

  • Napoleonic and revolutionary backdrop.
  • Gothic/Byronic aspects.
  • Social criticism.

The Supernatural:

  • Jane is described as being like an elf, imp or sprite.
  • In her reflection, Jane sees herself in such a light (or as ghostly).
  • Rochester is unsettled by her.
  • The ghost in The Red Room.
  • Jane keeps searching for the supernatural or other oddities.
  • Jane and Rochester share a telepathic link.
  • Jane talks about fairies and appears to take them seriously (The Men in Green)
  • Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, is suspected of being a demon or vampire.
  • Presentiment and foreshadowing.
  • Ignis fatuus (Will’o’Wisp).
  • Implied mediumship.

Rewritten Plot:

Jane is a strange and peculiar girl who is treated poorly throughout her childhood and adolescence. She has gifts that others do not, sees the world differently and encounters the supernatural from a young age. Not so many years before, she’d have been considered a witch and hung, but we are now in the years following The Enlightenment, and nobody quite believes these things any more, at least nobody with any wealth or education. We don’t spend too long on these sections, instead focussing on the last portion, her time at Thornfield Hall.

Rochester has ‘seen some shit’ in his time and is now, secretly, a monster hunter of some sort. His interest in Jane starts out as the practicality of needing a governess to cover for his secretive and disturbing adventures, then professional, seeing her as a potential fellow monster hunter – one with gifts – and finally romantic.

In this version, the ghosts and monsters are not implied, nor devices to suggest an unreliable narrator or psychological state, rather they are true. The ghost in the red room is real, the premonitions are real, Jane may have a touch of the unnatural in her bloodline. Bertha is either possessed or a supernatural creature herself (a zombie, vampire or werewolf perhaps).

By the end of the rewritten work we have Rochester and Jane as equal partners, his strength, passion and martial skill coupled with her supernatural talents making them an effective duo at combating the supernatural, just as the world is about to be plunged into a massive period of revolution and bloodshed.

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Arequeet’s second skin hissed around xis spiracles as xe stepped out of the hopper on spindly legs. What a horrible world this was. High gravity compared to xis homeworld, a thin, low oxygen atmosphere that meant the skin had to work triple-hard to let xim breathe. Then there was all the radioactivity that lingered, making the skin hungrier than usual for anti-oxidants and cellular protein.

Still, Arequeet was an archaoeschatologist, which meant xe had to spend time in places such as this, puzzling out how and why an allegedly sophont species had wiped itself out so that the various species of the Taxonomic Polity could avoid the same fate.

This world didn’t even present a particularly compelling or exciting case. The species had been balkanised into different tribal and mutually antagonistic groups, allowing singular leaders to hold command authority over apocalyptic doomsday weapons. Xe’d seen it a dozen times, from the orbital bombardment scars of Trappist 1d to the grey goo of Gliese 514b. It was clear to Arequeet that non-eusocial species were at a distinct disadvantage regarding survivability, even with ideologies representing the superior model.

So this was going through the motions, drawing the shitty duty of stalking through the uglier and burnt-out remnants of this species’ ugly architecture, looking for any signs of lingering survivors or preserved caches of cultural artefacts. It was likely fruitless. Even the shelters of the species’ genocidal rulers that had caused the problems had been radioactive craters, their weapons technology was even more advanced than they had given each other credit for. They all knew exactly where each other would hide.

Even so, monitoring before the eschaton event had suggested that the species was so utterly, incredibly primitive and atomised that a secondary ruling class known as ‘billionaires’ (a reference to the quaint idea of currency) might still have survived, hidden in their own shelters that the primary ruling class might not have bothered with. It had been Arequeet’s job to check for those sites.

Thus far, this had been fruitless. One of the billionaires had tried to survive by flying into space in a chemically fuelled rocket (of all things) and had met his end in the whirling debris resulting from satellite warfare. Another had hidden on a private island beneath the notice of the war but not beneath the notice of the resulting climate apocalypse or drifting clouds of radiological and biological death.

This site, which Arequeet was now picking his way carefully across, brittle bones crunching under his tarsi, had been the centre of this species’ high-tech industries, such as it was. They had still been tinkering with computers made out of slivers of rock when everything went wrong and the early stages of a global information network that had only contributed to their tribalistic self-annihilation rather than cementing a planet-wide eusocial hivemind. Disgustingly primitive.

Probes had supposedly found a mostly-intact underground bunker complex here. Arequeet doubted anything could survive in there, given that the bombs had set off the faultlines that ran through this city and broken the ground apart. Still, Feudirk’s pheromones had been quite insistent that this whole expedition be done by the book, so here Arequeet was.

This heap of abject rubble was the site, so Arequeet set to work, dolloping an egg’s-worth of angstrobots onto the wreckage and letting them set to work.

It wasn’t long until much of the rubble had been sorted into its constituent elements, and the entrance to the bunker had been revealed. It was damaged and twisted, but the second skin’s effectors and neural layer were up to the task and soon had the thing open.

Arequeet had to duck down to fit inside. The heavyset primates of this world had rarely exceeded five tibias in height, while Arequeet was a healthy nine tibia high. Xe had to hunker down and walk on four out of six legs, which was quite demeaning.

There were bodies close to the entrance, which Arequeet had to step over. These primates were disgusting creatures, with horrid endoskeletons and flabby flesh, which was even worse when it was rotting. It made Arequeet’s spiracles pucker and clench with disgust, even though the scent of their rot was incongruously enticing.

It was clear rapidly that there were no survivors here and that this was nothing but a colossal waste of Arequeet’s time and expertise. Xe was about to log it and go when xe noticed something interesting. Part of the shelter was covered in tendrils and growths of what seemed like biotechnology, haphazardly spreading across walls, floor and ceiling and seeming to trace back to one of the more private chambers.

Biotechnology? They had been monitoring this crude species for many years, and they had only begun to fumble around with such things relatively recently. Had the Slumellow Concordant archaoeschatological team already visited this site and broken protocol? On closer inspection, it didn’t taste like their biological probes, so curiously, Arequeet followed the tendrils.

Arequeets secondary thorax rattled in disgust as xe beheld the scene. One of the primate’s bodies was sprawled on its sleeping platform, and the growths were coming out of it, fusing to the blankets and spreading across the surfaces. It was hideous and disgusting, but the body didn’t seem alive, even if the growths were, and was barely recognisable beneath them. The bulging and misshapen blobs emerged from the body like lazy grubs from a birthing corpse, giving the scene a disturbing, erotic undertone.

Reluctantly, Arequeet used the second skin’s sensors on the flesh blob.

“Can you hear me?” The skin had picked up neural activity within the flesh and had automatically translated it.

“Clutchrot!” Arequeet swore in disgust before xe could stop to think, and the skin – well-meaning but stupid – translated it across to the flesh blob.

“I take it that means yes,” said the blob.

“Yes,” Arequeet replied reluctantly, fretting, reviewing the data from the skin. The body was no longer alive, but the growths were – after a fashion – sickly mutated cells from the original host, replicating wildly, including neural tissue.

“Wonderful, I thought I’d never talk to anyone again. I can’t seem to move. Can you help me?”

“No,” said Arequeet, still desperately reviewing the data for some idea of what was happening.

“Why not? Why didn’t you help us before? You were here so quickly after the bombs. You must have known what was happening.”

“We are forbidden to interfere in the affairs of more primitive species.” The pat reply came out by rote as data and search terms rolled by Arequeets forebrain consciousness, desperately seeking an explanation.

“So you just let us kill ourselves? That seems cruel, heartless, unenlightened.”

Arequeet didn’t reply, xe’d found something buried deep in the medical database, a cellular problem from ancient times called ‘cancer’, which seemed to explain – somewhat – what had happened. Did this species not have a cure for that? Had this creature mutated so much, its cells grown so wildly out of control? What were the odds?”

“Are you still there?”

“Yes,” snapped Arequeet curtly. “I’m trying to understand what happened to you.”

“Why not just ask me?”

Xe had to admit that was as good an idea as any. “What happened to you?”

“My name is Adain.”

Arequeet hissed air through xis spiracles in irritation. “Adain, what happened to you?”

“We survived the blasts,” Adain said with a proud tone. “The shelter was built very strongly, but the bombs weakened it, and then there were the earthquakes. The walls split, and contamination got in. We couldn’t get out – not that it was safe – and we had no choice but to eat and drink contaminated food and water. The others killed themselves or chose to die. I stayed alive and got sick, and that’s the last thing I remember.”

Arequeet finished reviewing the data. “You died, sort of. What remains are what your species called ‘cancers’. They have outlived your main body and your brain.”

“But I can still think, and you’re reading my thoughts.”


“So I survived?”

“After a fashion.”

“So you’ll rescue me, one intelligent being to another?”

“No,” Arequeet told him, removing a fresh capsule of angstrobots.

“Why not? Isn’t that why you’re here, to find survivors?”

“No,” Arequeet popped the cap of the capsule, readying it.

“Then why are you here? Why did you come?”

“To understand how and why you did this to yourselves so that we can avoid it. As a survivor, you could perpetuate the memes that killed your species. You’re an information hazard. For what it’s worth, I am sorry.” Arequeet tipped the angstrobots onto the cancerous growth and let them get to work, breaking down the freakish survivor into its constituent atoms.

There, done. On to the next shelter, and then the next dead planet. There were so many to choose from and so much hazardous waste to clean up. Xis work was never done.

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Most editors I have worked with dislike the omniscient point of view and dislike it even more then you express inner thoughts of a variety of characters in the third person, rather than describing some outward manifestation of their inner life. Moore, however, suggests that there is the ‘close third-person’, and I intend to rub editor’s noses in it if it ever comes up again.

Exercise: Try rewriting some of your work in close third person, using free indirect discourse to hop between the minds and thoughts of different characters.

I seem to naturally fall into this a little, but have been restraining myself. I will now remove the limiters and rewrite part of my short story The Voice in the Radio, the intervention and intrusion of the character Crispin.


Crispin awoke, his mouth feeling like an old mouldy carpet, his head throbbing with a hangover and the acid aftertaste of cheap wine on his tongue. Screeching noises came from the attic, static whines, pops and hisses that seemed to bore through his skull like a drill with every change in tone.

He put his hand on William’s side of the bed where the covers were thrown back. It was cold. He’d been up a while then.

Crispin covered his head with his pillow as another high-pitched shriek bullied its way down from the roof and into his ears. It was no use. He’d have to get up.

He sat up slowly, moving his head as little as possible and shifted to the edge of the bed, pulling on his dressing gown – even silk felt rough this morning – and fumbling for a cigarette from his pack on the nightstand.

He was out.

He would rather, Crispin reflected, face the spectral creatures of the grave again than deal with William in the morning without coffee or cigarettes. There was nothing for it but to plead for mercy and to hope the man… no, the thoughtless boy, would show it.

In bare feet, Crispin stumbled the vast distance to the attic ladder and rung by tortuous rung, ascended.

Crispin’s head appeared through the square entry to the attic, hair tousled, eyes bruised and watery, a childish pout upon his lips to Gathercole’s eye.

“William, chap, is there the slightest possibility you could cease all this infernal radio screeching. I have the most beastly hangover.”

Even speaking was painful, and this close the radio sound made Crispin’s head hum with unsympathetic vibration.

Mildly irritated by the interruption, Gathercole carefully and pointedly set the Ersa to one side, ensuring the nib was not in contact with the table.

“I’m inspired, Crispin. I have to pursue this line of thought to its end, or I shan’t be able to rest.”

“You knew,” he thought to himself, “when you took up with me that I had a singular obsession. Must we go through this every time?”

Crispin clambered up the ladder the rest of the way into the attic. “I shan’t be able to rest until you stop. What the bloody hell are you doing anyway?”

Crispin swallowed back the taste of bile in his mouth and tried to stand straight and resolute, all too conscious of the difficulty he was having focussing, and feeling like he was swaying visibly, though Gathercole didn’t seem to notice.

“Since you ask…”

Crispin groaned, too late in realising his mistake, and sat – in his pyjamas – on an old valise to endure the lecture.

“Bugger,” he thought. “Why did I say that?”

“… I’m sure you’re aware that until recently radios used crystals as a rectifier.”

“I did not know that. Nor do I know what a rectifier is.”

“He treats me like a child sometimes, but he’s so like a child himself in other things,” thought Crispin.

Gathercole smiled inwardly but barely let it show on his face. He loved to explain things and Crispin was his most frequent audience. It often helped him order his thoughts and unstuck them when they were in a rut.

“Well, for your sake we can consider it to be a sort of translator. Radio waves are translated by the rectifier, typically galena crystals, into a signal that can be resolved as sound. Valves and amplifiers have made them outdated, which means I picked up these old radios and their headsets rather cheaply.”

“Maybe I kept some cigarettes in my pockets?” Thought Crispin, distractedly. “I can’t face this without them.”

“Hurrah,” Crispin absently patted his pyjama pockets in a futile quest for a cigarette. “Lend me a Dunhill, would you?”

Gathercole obliged.

“Well, there’s no reason why other semi-conducting crystals shouldn’t be used. We use galena for convenience. I hypothesise that certain types of crystal may be better suited to tuning into the energistic vibrations of the spirit plane and, thereby, translating them into sound.”

He trailed off slightly, thoughts racing ahead of his mouth. Perhaps he should be studying old lapidaries for crystals with the right resonance, rather than trying different stones at random.

Crispin lit the Dunhill and took a deep, luxurious drag. Pure bliss. Perhaps there was a reason he loved William after all. Outside his obsessions and lectures, he could be considerate. Time to feign interest. “Hence all the shrieking, the very cries of the damned.”

“If only,” Gathercole sighed wistfully. “Alas, it only seems to be interference. No tones or voices, no signals from the beyond as yet. Despite amplifying the signal using the more modern technology and despite focussing on the signal range that seems to trouble the spirits the most when we use the radio pentacle.”

It was confounding. Surely that band must be the vibration the spirits inhabited in some way. Otherwise, how could it impede or stop them?

“Maybe they have hangovers too,” Crispin thought, “After all, radio waves don’t directly interact with me, but they’re painful.” He tried to fumble the right words together to express that idea to William without sounding stupid.

“Perhaps,” Crispin opined. “Perhaps the spirits don’t like that frequency, which is why they react so badly to it. In which case, they would hardly be transmitting at that frequency, right?”

His fuddled head struggled to remember old music lessons.

“We find middle C with C sharp above rather jarring and unpleasant, and so we don’t play it in our musical combinations. Unless one is deliberately perverse, of course.”

Gathercole blinked and ran through that thought in his head. It made a certain kind of sense. We could hear notes like the one Crispin mentioned, but we avoided them. A frequency that caused spirits pain – somehow – might be one they avoided too.

Gathercole considered that for a moment. “You may well be right, in which case, I need to re-test all these samples at different frequencies.”

Crispin sighed inwardly, so much for a peaceful morning.

As Gathercole turned back to the radios and they began to shriek again, Crispin retreated back down the ladder. “I’m going to the bloody pub for a late breakfast and the hair of the dog. I intend to stay there until I’m sure you’ve wound up this infernal racket.”

Gathercole vaguely waved, not really paying attention. He was caught up in Crispin’s idea and was searching for new answers.

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A paragraph-length poem, in which you are only permitted to use a single vowel of your choice:

We regret
He needs egress
He expressed
The term negress

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In his BBC Maestro course, Alan Moore talks about the various rhetorical characters of the Greeks, in particular, the Attic and Asiatic styles. The first blunt and to the point, such as Hemmingway, the second overblown and florid, like that of Moore himself.

He encourages those taking the course to experiment with both styles and then synthesise the two. My own personal style is that of embellishment in the Asiatic style, as you can probably tell from my circumlocution in this very sentence (such as using the word ‘circumlocution’). My tendency to fall into run-on sentences is probably also evident.

Let’s take a typically Asiatic paragraph from one of my stories on this very blog:

Smoke curled from the long ash of the Dunhill, twisting its way across the room like a fragment of grey silk until it met the draft from the cracked window, which finally shattered it. The cigarette sat, ignored, in Gathercole’s mouth as he hunched over the spilt guts of several radios. His hands moved from the Ersa soldering iron to the screwdriver, taking the radios apart and putting them back together repeatedly. Every now and then, he would stop, reference his scattered notes, and make the tiniest of additional adjustments.

First, let’s dial the Asiatic style up to eleven:

Dunhills were advertised with the slogan: “The hygienic cigarette” and were some of the first to have proper filters. We can suggest or add to that description in the text.

We can stretch the analogies in that description, spend longer on the window and linger more on Gathercole’s description (since this is the first paragraph in a short story). We can emphasise the difficulty and complexity of what he is doing more when describing the radios, and hammer home the repetition and methodical nature of what he is doing.

OK, so, completely overflowing the already florid description:

Diminutive traces of clean smoke curled from the precariously outstretched ash of the Dunhull cigarette and slowly waltzed across the room like a sheer fragment of grey silk until it was finally torn asunder by it the stronger breeze from the slightly opened window. The cigarette sat alone, ignored, balanced on the precipice of Gathercole’s roseate lower lip as he concentrated on his work. A beautiful man in normal circumstances, with posture and bearing, with fine blonde hair like spun gold, his perfection was marred by a frown of ferocious concentration, and strands of his hair hung in his face. Normally so cleanly and immaculately dressed; here he wore a workman’s denim coveralls and rough shirt. Before him, on the scarred surface of a veteran work table, were the eviscerated entrails of several radios, indiscernible from one another and intermingled. Gathercole’s soft hands moved from his brand new Ersa soldering iron to the horn-handled screwdriver and back again as he reduced the radios to their elements and remade them again, over and over, mechanical and repetitious, each time with a barely perceptible adjustment to one small part or another.

And now stripping out every unnecessary element.

A cigarette, mostly ash, hung from Gathercole’s mouth. He was sat at his work table, engrossed in his task. Several radios were scattered across the table in pieces. He worked at them with his tools, taking them apart and putting them back together. Each time he did so there was some minor difference, some change. He did it again and again, and again.

I would say that my original version is also a hybrid. The Attic style just simply doesn’t appeal to me, though its blunt directness might perhaps be a way of creating a sense of pace and rapidity or representing a different type of character. At the same time going ‘full Asiatic’ makes me feel uncomfortably pretentious and inefficient, even though it can convey more nuance, information and characterisation.

I’m fairly happy with my style as is.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad…”

Polonius, Hamlet.

Which is a long-winded way of saying: Be as brief as you can.

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In his Maestro BBC learning course, Alan Moore refers to an idea presented by Douglas Hofstadter, that of ‘story dials’ or parameters. Hofstadter is an interesting fellow with a peculiar set of heterodox interests, who is worth looking up, but the idea of dials runs like this:

Stories have a particular set of dials or parameters that help define them. These include time, place, characters and other aspects of the story. If you take an existing story and twiddle the dials, you can end up with something different, even profoundly so.

One example Moore uses is that of Romeo and Juliet. If you shift the time to the 1950s, the place to America and the form to musical, you get West Side Story (or perhaps Tromeo and Juliet with a few more adjustments.

One of the exercises he presents for you is to take one of your favourite stories and twiddle the dials to see what kinds of other stories might come out of it.

One of my favourite stories ever written is the short story ‘The Preserving Machine’ by Phillip K Dick.

Here is a quick plot summary:

Doc Labyrinth fears for the safety of the fragile works of high culture, mainly classical music, during the apocalypse. Accordingly, he orders a machine to be built to transform musical scores into animals capable of surviving and defending themselves. The machine successfully transforms several composers’ works into various animals– Bach pieces into little beetles, Schubert songs into lamb-like creatures, and so forth. The Doctor, joyful at his success, releases them into the world; when he finds them later, he finds that they have undergone evolution– they have grown claws and stingers and fed on one another. When the Bach beetles are fed back into the machine, the resulting musical scores have also changed, becoming wild and chaotic, with all their beauty and harmony lost.

Doctor Rupert Labyrinth seems to have a general obsession with the ‘stuff of life’ and also appears in The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford, a re-telling of Frankenstein about a living shoe. In both stories, he is bringing life to the inanimate. In one, it is a musical score, and in the other, a shoe, but the overall characterisation is one of obsession over life.

I do not intend to analyse the story here overly, the themes seem apparent enough, and it is one of Dick’s earlier and perhaps less sophisticated stories (it was published in 1953, and he was first published in 1951).

It is worth highlighting that it follows several atomic themes of the Cold War period that so obsessed many writers after the end of World War Two—the fear of the loss of civilisation and the fear of mutation. Even relatively early in the arms race, people understood the terrible destructive power of the atomic bomb.

The Preserving Machine is a bit of, almost jocular whimsy in the face of all that. An absurd premise (a machine that turns music into animals) and an oddly named protagonist (discussed and described in the third person by the narrator), and yet it is a poignant and, to me, moving story about the inherent Anarchy and freedom of nature and, perhaps, culture and music itself. That civilisation is necessary for manners and fine things to endure and that society is only as gentile as it can afford.

So then, what if we start twiddling the dials a little? What are the dials?

  • The setting is 1950s America, though it does not have much that particularly places it in that location or at that time.
  • We have the male narrator and Doctor Labyrinth, though nothing would change if we altered the sexes involved.
  • It is told through the eyes of the narrator rather than the Doctor.
  • The Doctor does not build his machine; he creates its principles and has it built for him.
  • Music is made into animals.
  • The animals mutate and become wild and brutish.
  • The music resulting from the wild version of the animals is horrible and discordant.

What if we shift the setting to the 1980s and the music to that of punk or metal? In the story, pop songs become mouse-like creatures which are killed and eaten by a cat. The harsher sounds (Wagner in particular) become nastier animals, and the Wagner beast becomes a predatory, coyote-like thing.

The nuclear spectre still hung over us in the 1970s and 80s, and punk music was heavily censored and demonised. Perhaps the threat to the survival of the music in that instance could be censorship, and the preserving machine perverted into a sort of underground method of distributing the forbidden music. Tracks could be mated and bred to be more loud, vicious, and dangerous and then turned back into music, making the themes more Darwinian.

The idea of music (or ideas) as animals or organisms resonates nicely with Dawkins’ meme theory, for all that Internet usage has debased it. What if, instead of creating physical beings, it created informational beings? What if we could transform endangered animals into self-propagating code to be reconstituted later when we have rebuilt their habitats?

The story could be about how this code has adapted to life on the internet. White rhinos are eating up data from message boards like a grazing herd, peacocks trolling for attention with flashy displays, and predators gobbling up smaller programs for their cycles and runtime.

What happens when we turn these internet-adapted specimens back into physical animals? Can they now survive in the real world, or has their digital evolution (faster than biological evolution) made them into something strange and terrible, or something that cannot hope to survive any more?

What if it is not music that these things embody but areas of knowledge and study? What if Doctor Labyrinth wants to preserve our progress rather than our culture?

Does the physics beast flex its muscles to throw out exotic particles like an electric eel creates energy? Is this historical animal a slow, ponderous great tortoise with an intricately detailed shell? Is postmodernism a flabby, gelatinous cnidarian with no brain or spine but covered with poisonous prickles that kills and digests anything it comes into contact with? Is mathematics a hive of ant-like bugs all marching to the strict beat of simple commands that build on one another to make a complex nest?

Moreover, what happens when you turn these things back? What happens in the real world when academia meets the ‘wild’ of the public consciousness? Has the medical science animal become an anti-vax animal? Is the cosmology bird now a flat-earth treatise?

Or what if we reverse entirely one of the story dials? What if we are preserving animals by turning them into music? What does the tiger concerto sound like to the human ear? Does a chimney-swift sound like Taylor Swift? If biologically everything likes to become crabs, what do crabs sound like when made into music? A drum circle? Something simple and rhythmic?

None of these are unrecognisable as being inspired by the Dick story, but some are verging upon becoming their own thing and going off in new and different directions.

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