Drabble Who?

20150319-000654.jpgFirst, a bit about drabbles.

I first encountered the concept back in the 1980s, oblivious to the fact that it was nailed down as a thing by the very people who introduced me to it.

Cast your mind back to 1993.

The Drabble Project was originally published by a chap called Roger Robinson under Beccon Books. It had lots of short (i.e. exactly 100 word-long) stories by famous SF writers, including Isaac Asimov, amongst others. It was soon followed by Drabble II, which was co-edited by David B. Wake, a very strange man if ever you were to meet one, made famous for sci-fi convention party pieces that included the adventures of Captain Tartan, breaking his leg whilst dressed as an Alien Queen and doing a multi-Doctor quick-change routine whilst coming out of a TARDIS-wot-he-built, all whilst starring in plays-what-he-wrote. He is also well known among his friends for taking more time to write his magnum opus fantasy novel than Harlan Ellison took to edit the last volume of Dangerous Visions.

Dave was chair of the Birmingham University SF Society at the time, and was promoting the drabble in its 100-word short story format to anyone that might listen. Whether it was he or Roger Robinson that invented it, or whether they merely defined the modern and most accepted format, I can’t be sure. I do, however, know the term “drabble” was lifted from Monty Python’s Big Red Book (1971). In that is was a word game that involved racing to finish a novel first. To make such novels possible, the BUSF made up the 100 word target and promptly started approaching SF authors and publishing their contributions for charity.

I remember well a conversation with Dave (which he rigorously denies) in which he revealed that a third volume of the Drabble series would focus on Cult TV (or possibly Star Trek) and announced that the cover would be Spock’s head, with a third ear slap-bang in the middle of his face. This, Dave boldly announced, would take the Drabble Project where no drabble had gone before, and would inform the title of this salubrious tome: Drabble III: The Final Front Ear

I remember thinking it wasn’t the best idea he could have come up with (Dave had a lot of them, and most of them were utterly barking) and suggested that perhaps he could approach the Doctor Who community for a Who-themed volume instead. He dismissed the idea, but I was so taken with it that I set about writing a Drabble to submit. At the time I had just abandoned a Doctor Who New Adventures pitch called Haven (which later mutated into a role-playing scenario called The Village of Harmony), which was a thinly-veiled homage to The Prisoner.

My co-conspirator, Steve Jones (writing as Steve Graeme), decided instead to commemorate the idea with a Doctor Who-themed drabble which I dashed off before arguing hours on end with Steve over the last line. Typical. That meant we spent more time arguing about it than writing it. Eventually we agreed to submit my version and Steves, and leave it to Dave Wake to choose (he chose mine, hehehe…), and then we took a joint credit and waited to hear.

A month or so later Doctor Who Magazine announced the book, revealing it was a Doctor Who volume, now called Drabble Who?, co-edited by Dave Wake and David J Howe. it also ran a competition for fans to submit drabbles.

Drabble Who?is sadly out of print now and, having been limited to just 1000 copies, is never to be republished. Funds went to the RNIB.

Next time I saw Dave Wake I congratulated him on his wise choice to use my idea. He smiled momentarily, then blank-faced me, and said “what idea?”, consigning my enthusiasm to the the bin bags of history.

Anyway, I really should have entered that drabble competition, because I never knew that multiple entries were allowed (and that Ness Bishop got THREE drabbles accepted!). Anyway, the book was launched later that year (at Eastercon, I think, where it won an award), and Steve and I duly headed down to London for the launch.

What a day! We were cheapskates, I seem to recall, and travelled down by coach. I wore a fetching t-shirt and a big beige trenchcoat, which I planner to remove upon arrival. However, our coach arrived a little late, and we had to hard it across London on an unreliable underground day with barely an hour to spare. Sadly, I was bursting for the loo, but had neither the time nor found the place to go.

Eventually, with moments to spare, we reached the hotel. By this time my poor bladder was fit to burst, and I dived into some nearby shrubbery to pee before entering the convention’s hallowed halls.

All I can say is never pee on a rubber plant. At least I think it was a rubber plant. Well, it behaved like a rubber plant. Untying my coat I quickly relieved myself. Unfortunately, while my wee was powerful enough to bend said plant upon impact, it wasn’t able to sustain enough force to keep it at bay. The broad leaf against which I peed sprang forwards, spraying a line of wee across the chest of my t-shirt in a manner that rendered my apparel moot. Quickly tying up my coat and rearranging myself so the wee couldn’t be seen, I blushingly entered the convention and was immediately greeted by Dave Wake, who ushered me to the photocall of doom. There some fifteen or more writers gathered in their t-shirts, ready to pose for the cameras. I meanwhile, refused to remove my trenchcoat, in the desperate hope that nobody would ask about my cologne. Among the drabble authors gathered were the likes of Paul Cornell, Simon Bucher Jones, Andy Lane, Mark Morris, Nick Royle and Kate Orman, who kindly told me that mine was the best drabble in the book (and given my hubristic belief that it inspired the whole project, I should jolly well think so!), and promptly drew a picture next to it – a bouncy cartoon of The Prisoner‘s Rover. She proceeded to do the same to several other writers’ copies of my drabble, as if it had been her own. I naturally forgave her naive antipodean insolence. As for that drabble well, as Drabble Who is out of print, I offer it here for those who haven’t seen it:

Doctor Where?

Materializing in an office at Shepherd’s Bush, the police box doors swing open. The tasteless curly-haired pied piper storms over to Mr Grade. Firsts slam upon a table.

“I will not be cancelled! I resign!” He re-enters his timeship. It dematerialises.

“Come on, old girl, we have an appointment with a cottage in Wales.”

Arriving on a beach overlooked by cottages, he sees a giant bubble bounce towards him from the sea. Fleeing to nearby rocks, he crashes into a short shabby hobo with a recorder, who says…,

“I am Number Two. You are Number Six. Welcome to the Village.”

There is one good thing about drabbles. They count as a published story. Some of the early drabbles from volumes I and II were later developed into full stories at their authors’ leisure, because as previously published stories the ideas contained therein were about as protected as it is possible to be. In fact, Stephen Baxter’s drabble mutated first into The Time Ships and later into his manifold trilogy (Time, Space and Origin). So forget about emailing yourself or posting yourself a manuscript, just get your story published as a drabble, and it will be yours forever…

POSTSCRIPT: I hereby coin the term “twibble”, being a short story of exactly 140 characters. Here’s a Chris Rea inspired sample twibble:

The race to hell was short but exciting as they accelerated towards the pit of suffering. Brakes squealed, rubber burned, and they all died.

Please feel free to post your twibbles in the comments section, and if we reach 140 I’ll publish them for charity!!!

Doctor Where? is copyright ©1993 Adrian Middleton and Steve Graeme.

The Napoleon of Crime


The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, The Real Moriarty by Ben Macintyre

Harper Press 2012

£8.99 322pp

Reviewed by Adrian Middleton

Historian and Times columnist Ben Macintyre has earned himself a niche focusing on war, crime and espionage, with best sellers including Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat. In the wake of his popularity, 2012 saw the rerelease of his second such book,The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, The Real Moriarty (originally published in 1997).

Worth’s modern fame lies in being the primary inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty, who appropriated Worth’s title, his criminal genius and his penchant for valuable artworks, and Macintyre’s book is the most comprehensive publication available, becoming a much sought-after resource by Sherlockians and Victorian historians alike.

While Macintyre regales us with an inspiring visit into the bowels if the Pinkerton archives, many of the sources he draws upon come from elsewhere, and it is clear that this book is an early work by a writer still learning his craft. While in some cases he goes to great lengths to cite his sources, in others he neglects to quote them – and these are often the most important sources required by the narrative, as they are those which are flavour to the assertions made by the author throughout the book. Indeed, many of Macintyre’s assumptions and conclusions seem contradicted by the detail, and he often grasps at the possible significance of these often unfounded ideas to drive his story forwards.

The facts themselves are fairly straightforward, but the book feels like an episode of Just a Minute, filled with repetitions and deviations. For now it is the definitive volume on Worth’s life, although it could have been half the length and delivered twice the impact. By the end it left me feeling that the next person to tackle the subject might benefit from the hindsight Macintyre’s foray offers, and perhaps put more meat, and less fat, on the bones. His later books are slicker and more effective, and for such a significant book I would hope that he gets the chance to revisit, revise and reissue it as a new and improved edition. It would certainly benefit more than as an unaltered reissue.

Of Worth himself we are given the portrait of a gentleman thief whose exploits are more respected than reviled, and whose tastes for the high life set him amongst the gentry, even earning the admin ration of William, the chief Pinkerton, whose encounter with conan Doyle is said to have inspired Moriarty’s appearance, and whose anger at Doyle’s appropriation of the detail without attribution seems overstated.

Perhaps the most anticipated chapter – that relates to Moriarty’s origin and to the elements of Worth’s career that Doyle appropriates – is painfully short and unsatisfying, in spite of being one of the most thorough pieces available today.

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Le Roi en Jaune (The King in Yellow)



Le Roi en Jaune (The King in Yellow) by Thomas de Castigne
(‘translated’ by Simon Bucher-Jones)

Pantechnikon Press February 2015

£8.99 108pp

Reviewed by Adrian Middleton

Some reviews are approached with trepidation. Especially when it has to be a spoiler-free review, and even more especially where you really like the book, but are doing so in spite, rather than because of its flaws.

So, if you want to know if I think you should read this book, check out the star rating. Understand that I am a big fan of the author’s work, and that this particular book is a paradox: the pleasure you derive from it is entirely subjective, and entirely dependent upon your perspective. The review is critical because that is it’s nature, not because it seeks to find fault.

Robert W Chambers was a writer with promise whose ideas were often startlingly clever, but whose prose never really elevated his reputation outside of his disjointed 1895 anthology, The King in Yellow. Something in this work stirred Lovecraft to capitalise upon its imagery – just as he himself had stolen Hastur and Hali and Carcosa from Ambrose Bierce. It is not, despite modern re-imaginings, a book of the Cthulhu mythos, but neither does it stand alone. Its use of broken glimpses through a longer narrative was unique at the time, with each short story adding to the mystery of the skewed alternate history Chambers was creating, leaving the reader uncertain of what the author intended. To me it was always a curate’s egg, inspiring curiosity but sidestepping satisfaction. From such frustrations come the natural desire to reconstruct and explain, and this is what Simon Bucher-Jones (Like Lin Carter and James Blish before him) has set out to do. I suppose, when I saw the references to The King in Yellow in Simon’s Doctor Who novel The Death of Art, I should have seen this book coming. I am jealous that he achieved this, and yet, paradoxically, I do not envy him.

The title, however, feels wrong. Le Roi en Jaune is the French translation of the original anthology’s title, and is in use as such. From a googling perspective it makes finding the book difficult, and also makes it harder to stand out from the crowd. That and the insufficient amount of yellow in what could have been an otherwise outstanding cover (it did, however, make me superimpose a mental image of a Gustav Klimt painting (Der Kuss) over those which was provided. Now THAT would have worked as a cover).

20150317-141514.jpgThe Chambers book has inspired previous attempts at presenting the very same play. The french playwright Raymond Lefebre did so back in 1933. His version was based on the short story The Repairer of Reputations, which was part of chambers’ original anthology, and was eventually translated from French in 1958. Simon’s book, in my opinion, stands head and shoulders above that attempt… going one step further than Lefebre: he presents the pseudo-play and it’s translation side by side, along with supporting faux-scholarly notes that, irony aside, could almost persuade you that the play was real.

It is an interesting, if confusing, experiment. Now, I like experiments, but this one tries to be too many things at once, and in doing so has a high cool factor, but the end result feels somehow diminished by this. I was constantly asking myself the question: is this a vanity resource for a highly intelligent Call of Cthulhu GM?

Back in the day I would have loved a prop like this, and I’d even have paid top dollar. But as a role-player I’d also have wanted a companion piece; something that gives me the hooks and encounters I could introduce into my adventures. Things that give hidden meaning to the many fragments and vignettes contained within.

From a literary point of view, however, I have to ask myself “is this a play that drives men mad?” The answer (thank goodness) is no. No more than George Hay or Lin Carter or even Simon’s Necronomicons would have done. The difference here is that on some level this seems to be what the author hoped to achieve. And in part – through twists and nods – it does so, but the task, to write a book that drives men mad, is surely hampered by the things that Chambers already told us were contained within. That the first act was mundane, and that it’s significance doesn’t become apparent until the second act. What playwright would want to do that?

I think my difficulty with the book is that, as a reader of Chambers, I already had my own expectations, and just as I felt Lefebre had been wrong to base his attempt at writing the play upon The Repairer of Reputations, I didn’t feel that imbuing the play with a Shakespearian structure gave it the right atmosphere. And therein lay my problem: the reader’s expectations set the bar too high. At the very idea of this book I was looking for something that would feel like it had been written by a contemporary of Victor Hugo or Edgar Allen Poe or Guy de Maupassant, but that would somehow include skewed Jungian archetypes, Nietzchean madness, post-Gothic imagery and a proto-Brechtian sense of verfremdungseffekt (of being distanced from reality). All that and vague hints of mythos-inspired cosmic alienness to boot. There were certainly flashes of these (we also have the avant garde element that connects the play – through the character of Pere Ubu – to King Turd (Ubi Roi), an equally surreal play by Alfred Jarry that was released at almost the same time as the original anthology); but ultimately my satisfaction came from witnessing the attempt (and its detail) rather than from embracing the content.

20150317-142804.jpgAnother factor is Chambers himself: an average writer who stumbled upon a concept so enduring that even his own prose failed to capture it. Anyone who follows him is held back by those limitations and is swimming against the tide.

That said, Le Roi en Jaune is cool. As cool as a bow tie. I’m jealous of Simon’s achievement, and the end result is as unique a literary curiosity as the book upon which it is based.

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UPDATE: It is perhaps remiss of me not to have mentioned the cleverness of the James Blish version in More Light (1970), which I seem to recall implying the descent of man from a black-skinned race which, in the nineteenth century would certain have driven men mad, but not so much nowadays (Perhaps he was inspired by the purported origins of the Nation of Islam?).

The Pendragon Protocol



The Pendragon Protocol by Philip Purser-Hallard (Book One of The Devices Trilogy) Snowbooks July 2014
416pp £7.99

Reviewed by Adrian Middleton

[First up, apologies to the author, Philip Purser-Hallard. This review, submitted in good faith to a another site that shall not be mentioned, was not used and left to languish against my wishes. I now publish this review in advance of the release of the second book in the trilogy, The Locksley Exploit (available for kindle now), which I hope to review shortly.]

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table have long been a staple of adventure stories, and with the emergence of urban fantasy as a genre there’s been no let up. Most recently I’ve come across Maurice Broadus’ Knights of Breton Court trilogy from Angry Robot (Modern knights reimagined on the streets of Indianapolis) and Alan Fenton’s Return of Arthur cycle (a modern retelling of the Arthur myth) from the Dovecote press.

Thankfully, Purser-Hallard doesn’t let the apple fall too far from the tree.

Despite being set in the modern day, The Pendragon Protocol is a tale of the Kingdom of Logres (England to you and me), and feels more like a story set in the real world ties than many other urban fantasies whose magic lies within the dark shadows of gritty street corners. It also constrains itself to London for the most part – resisting the temptation to seek out mythic locales that might be hidden in some unchanged medieval landscape.

What matters is that the Knights of the Round Table never really went away, they simply became the Circle, a not-quite hidden service that operates alongside the modern police force, turning up and following their own very special set of procedures designed to manage and control the activities of those mythic archetypes first encountered in the Arthurian period. For me, the recognisable city of London and the comforting backdrop of the modern police procedural provide the perfect entry point for this world, setting it apart from other modern Arthuriana and standing it up alongside the more popular (and successful) urban fantasy series’ – particularly those of other former Doctor Who novelists like Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell.

Perhaps the cutting-of-teeth on the literary adventures of a televisual Time Lord creates an inherent advantage for those integrating the fantastic and the mundane, but the Devices world is as well built as that of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, and – despite needing to acclimatise to the narrative style in the first few pages of the book – it is just as easy a read.

The story feels like a cross between urban myth and modern superhero fantasy, with a solid undercurrent that dips into the tropes of religion and folklore alike, exploring the themes and ideas that have shaped British society over the centuries.

On the one hand, there is a sense of logic to the evolution of the Circle and to the technology that it wields, reminding me a little of how the Avengers can integrate the adventures of a high-tech man in an iron suit alongside a Norse god armed with a mystic hammer. My suspension of disbelief was maintained throughout the book, which maintained its pace beyond the central watershed of the plot.
On the other hand, hidden beneath a safely linear narrative in the pursuit of the Green Knight, is the journey taken by Jory Taylor/Sir Gawain, whose methodical approach overturns and examines the moral, societal and political aspects of the Arthurian ideal with enough depth to satisfy the deeper, more intellectual reader, but in a straightforward enough manner to satisfy the action-chaser that doesn’t want to pause to consider its implications too much. It’s a hard balance to strike, but Purser-Hallar achieves it well, and left this reader both satisfied and wanting more.

If I am disappointed by anything it is not the prose, but rather the packaging – the title (both of the book and the series) and the cover fail to make this book stand out. Had I not already been a reader of Purser-Hallard’s work, I doubt I would have paid much attention on a crowded bookshelf. Yes, it name-checks the Arthurian cycle, but ‘The Devices Trilogy’ sounds decidedly steampunk, but the cover fails to shine, meaning that word of mouth is what will make the difference here. For me such word of mouth is very much deserved – The Pendragon Protocol is solid, original and imaginative, with good character construction and development which doesn’t just make me keen to see how the series continues, but to want to see it re-imagined in comics and on the big screen.

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Seven Wonders


Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher

Angry Robot Books   September 2012   £7.99   411pp

Reviewed by Adrian Middleton

In the wake of his debut novel, Empire State, Adam Christopher steps sideways from the noir city to the shining superhero city of San Ventura to bring us a trip into the four colour world of the Seven Wonders, the last great superhero team, protecting the world and, in particular, the West Coast of America, from the last supervillain team up, The black-clad Cowl and his girl-wonder sidekick, Blackbird.

The pulp style of the novel gets the story off to a cracking start, with a touch that made me believe the book started life as a comic script rather than a novel. Each paragraph feels as if it’s describing an individual comic-book panel which, while giving the feel of authenticity to the piece, made me feel bereft of the depth that the prose of a novel, rather than a graphic novel, can bring.

More influenced by the superhero universes of DC and Wildstorm comics – particularly Batman, Superman and The Authority – Christopher’s world is filled with shades of grey, enthusiastically raising questions about the morality of its heroes and villains, making the reader question who are the real heroes and villains throughout the story.

The story follows the lives of the Cowl, San Ventura’s greatest billionnaire-supervillain, as his powers are mysteriously on the wane, the city’s newest hero, Tony Prosdocimi, and Blackbird, whose own motivations drive the story forward at a speed more like that of a cancelled soap opera than a speeding bullet.

Ultimately is the soap element – the relationships between the characters and their interactions with the San Ventura police and the Seven Wonders themselves – which drives the story forward. Unfortunately, the promised depth isn’t forthcoming, and the story dwells more on set-pieces like the protagonist’s fight to come to terms first with the emergence of his superman-like powers (clearly inspired by Larry Niven’s seminal essay ‘Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex’) and on the TV-style police procedural investigation by Sam Millar and Joe Milano, cops from a SuperCrime department responsible for dealing with the city’s super-powered community on zero budget. These are nice vignettes, but they don’t make up for weak characters who go through the motions with tenuous motives.

The book has some great moments, but they pass quickly, stopping short of what could have been comic-book gold had they been explored in the four-colour medium. Take an early scene where the Cowl touches upon the question: who is acting in the best interests of the city? Aloof heroes with no connection to the people, or career criminals who know every corner of the neighbourhoods they grew up in, protecting their territory while perpetrating crimes in other parts of the city. Unfortunately, when moments like this appear, they fade quickly and are not returned to, making potentially great thematic story elements into little more than passing thoughts.

Ultimately this brings me to the conclusion that as pulp prose, Seven Wonders should have been a comic book, and not a novel. Yes, it is light, action paced and entertaining, with lots of twists and turns as the story progresses, but ultimately without pictures to add depth to some fairly weak characterization, the book leaves me just a little too under-whelmed.

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RIP Sir Terry



Back before I started writing other fiction I was writing fantasy comedy. An avid fan of Douglas Adams in the wake of the Hitchhikers’ Guide radio series, I wanted nothing better than to write as well as he did. My pastiches were pretty good, to the point where I could write an article from the Guide and be accused of theft by anyone who read it! Then DNA’s books became fewer and farther between, and Terry Pratchett rose to prominence. I remember the many arguments I had thinking Adams was unsurpassable despite refusing to read The Colour of Magic (just in case it turned out to be better). Eventually the sheer weight of Terry’s output brushed Adams aside, and my writerly frustrations turned towards the fantasy market.

Every story or idea I came up with back then ended up in a book by Tom Holt or Sir Terry, usually a good year or so after I had conceived it. There was the story about the Norse Gods returning to Earth in search of the god of the 20th Century (yeah, Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? did that one better). Then there was the story where I based the Angel of Death on the fanatical Major Neuheim from Private Schultz (as played by Ian Richardson), then along came Mort and with a big sigh I had to return to the drawing board. Another of my ideas turned up in an Andrew Harman book (but I later found that Robert Rankin had beaten both of us to it! I won’t even mention Moses the Musical!), and then another of my ideas turned up, I think, as a footnote in Pyramids. Eventually, in 1999, when the millennium novel was writing remained unfinished by the time of the millennium, I gave up on dreams of writing genre comedy altogether.

The sad truth is that writers have ideas, and they don’t use them all, or else they spend too much time trying to use them, only to discover that “Bum! Someone else had the same idea and they used it SUCCESSFULLY!”. I am told that Sir Terry blamed this phenomenon on stray ideon particles visiting me and not being used quickly enough. His loss is a great tragedy, and (because I avoided reading them for so long) I have a lot of books to catch up on.

Those that know me are well aware that I have ideas tumbling out of every orifice. Like the human brain I use less than 10% of them. It’s been a while since I properly returned to the comedy genre. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but the  scary shadow that Adams and Pratchett over the genres that they had shaped were pretty big. Many writers – Andrew Harman again springs to mind – tried to succeed in it, but the bar was set so high, and the challenge so great,that they didn’t last long. I certainly decided to leave well alone – that kind of thing is absolutely what I grew up wanting to write, but I just dared not.

Maybe, instead of avoiding the genre because of these giants, I might delve back into it in Sir Terry’s memory.

“Enter freely, and of your own will…”

“…and leave behind a little of the happiness that you bring.”

Lovely sentiment.

Wasted on the lips of Count Dracula though.

My name is not Metabaronic, but Adrian Middleton, and this, for better or for worse, is my blog.

Continue reading “Enter freely, and of your own will…”