Wednesday, 21 April 2010
THE MANY WORLDS OF KIM NEWMAN - Part I
There’s a growing school of thought that these days everything, no matter how obscure or for that matter unpalatable, has its own cult following thanks to the magic of the internet making fellow devotees aware of each other. Certainly, it’s very true that these days it’s easier than ever for word of mouth about a creator or a property to spread among the audience of a particular genre.
However despite the digital tentacles of cyberspace writhing ever deeper into our lifestyles, things still manage to get lost down the cracks of the cultural sofa sometimes. Now this is becoming a rarer phenomena, but I’m sure many of you out there can name at least one thing that you hold dear to your fan heart and yet bafflingly seems to remain overlooked and under seen by the rest of the world. For me, it’s been an enduring mystery for many years why Kim Newman’s fiction isn’t commanding legions of fans.
Now that’s not to say that the good Mr Newman is a total unknown, or that his work doesn’t have its devotees. For example, many of his titles are much sought after on second-hand and auction sites, and others consistently sell out their print runs whenever they are reappear on the shelves. And yet despite this encouraging signs, the majority of his canon remains stupidly out of print and thus limiting the potential for new fans to enter the fold.
Now you’ve probably heard that variant on the classic dig at teachers - ‘those who can’t, become critics’. And while there is no doubt that sometimes there is some truth in this, with failed creators taking up the pen and spraying their more successful brethren with the bitter ink of resentment, Kim Newman’s fiction convincingly proves that this claim is by no means a hard and fast law.
Aside from being one of our more erudite and entertaining critics, Kim is at least as equally accomplished as an author of fiction. In fact, his literary work is frankly breathtakingly good and it is nothing short of criminal that he isn’t better known. And for so much of his work to be unavailable is almost an act of cultural vandalism on the part of the publishing world. And so to rectify this sorry state of affairs, I offer this comprehensive tour of his literary works.
Undoubtedly a large contributing factor in his fiction’s off-the-radar status is that his publishers have often been confused as to how to market him, and similarly the book stores befuddled as to which section to place his tomes. For Kim’s work tends to skip genres and defies easy pigeon holing at every turn – one book may appear to be most at home in the horror section, but his next may be science fiction. But then if some one takes the trouble to read them, and discovers the intelligent layers of muscular cultural deconstruction and the extensive veins of satire pulsing beneath the skin, then the question arises whether this book perhaps should be in the section reserved for literature.
Now to an ordinary reader, such distinctions aren’t a problem and most will happily lump all of Kim’s work under the simple banner of ‘good books’. However if you are a worshipper at the charnel altar of the Arch Fiend Demographics, his fiction will have you weeping into your pie charts. The stat counters and graph makers really don’t like works that don’t fit their slots, you know. For example, take the Twilight books…
…and please do! Dah-dum-tish! Thank you, thank you, I’m here all week!
But seriously though folks, despite the twinkly vampire saga having seemingly captured the not inconsiderable market of every female under 30, I’ve noticed books stores getting in a right old flap over where to display Miss Meyer’s novels. Considering the books are already flying out of the stores by the boat load, you’d think they wouldn’t be too worried whether to place them in teen, horror of romance fiction sections. But no, they’ve taken to inventing new sections to solve this non problem. Unbelievably now major books chains here in the UK are sporting spurious new sections such as ‘paranormal romance’ and ‘dark fantasy’.
So if this how they react to a string of best sellers they can’t definitively tag, you can deduce their response to an lower profile author like Newman who is similarly confusing for them. If you guessed apathy and disinterest, then award yourself a double bill of your favourite obscure cult movies…
HOwever for the rest of us, who inhabit a saner universe where everything doesn;t need to be beaten to death to fit a bloody graph, this kind of genre bending is a draw in itself. A range of works spanning multiple genres and milieus is usually a reliable indicator of a writer who is honestly attempting to progress in his craft, rather hacking away at the same tired seam, content to just shovel out more of the same. Roughly speaking, an average author will write using the same kind of plots ring-fenced in a particular genre, but a brilliant writer will be returning again and again to the similar themes and philosophies in his works.
Now despite his canon roving across many different genres, Kim is consistently exploring the same artistic territories. If you will indulge me in a moment of literary pretentiousness, we could hypothesise that Kim’s textual mission statement for his fiction is 'deconstruction through juxtaposition'.
Yes, that is a ghastly critical phrase I’ve just coined, and rest assured I will atone by flogging myself with a copy of Pierce Nace’s Eat Them Alive later, but it’s still la better fit than taking the dahwn wiv da kidz route and calling Kim’s work ‘mash-up’ fiction.
For although one could loosely categorise much of his work as cross-over fiction, there is far more going on than merely playing a literary game of wouldn’t it be fun if Character X met Character Y. Firstly often he is creating little worlds where different fictional beings co-exist rather merely teaming up a brace of fictional people; any given piece of Kim’s fiction is literally teeming with references and allusions to other movies, television, books and comics.
Now anyone reasonably familiar with popular culture in all its many forms can have a lot of fun recognising all these little homages and cameos. But more importantly than the trainspotter thrills for your inner cultural anorak, is the way he employs these fictions; it’s a case of melding the genre styles and concepts of different works rather than indulging in dream team fantasies.
Basically what he is actually doing is running textual explorations that are the literary/cultural equivalent of the experiments they are running at CERN. Now if particle physics doesn't give you a large hadron, the charming Alpinekat explains it all nicely in rap here. But basically the point is this, in order to discover more about the nature of the fabric of space-time, physicists collide atomic particles at high speed and observe the resulting fireworks. And essentially Kim is doing the same thing but with fictional properties.
So for example, while a story like the much anthologised Big Fish on one level is a fun yarn of which might be loosely summarised as ‘Phillip Marlowe vs. The Deep Ones’, it also illuminates the concepts underpinning the writings of Raymond Chandler and HP Lovecraft, and unearths thematic parallels in their works.
Now some may say that this is nothing new and that Alan Moore – he who knows the score apparently – has been doing this kind of thing for ages with his ongoing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics saga. And this is perfectly true.
But in all fairness, both of these gentlemen are taking their cues from Phillip José Farmer, who created what is termed the Wold Newton Universe. In a series of books and stories, Farmer created an alternate world where not only many famous classic fictional heroes coexisted but were shown to be related.
However in a similar spirit of equity, it also must be pointed out that Mr Newman had picked up Mr Farmer’s ball a good many years before Mr Moore. And, although I hold Alan Moore in the highest regard, I must confess that for my money, Kim has carried it far further and better than the Wizard of Northampton…
In PART II we’ll take a tour of the Newman multiverse, and have an exhaustive look through his entire back catalogue. But in the meantime, you can have a taste of this fine gentlemen’s literary work at the following online reading rooms…
The Wandering Christian (with Eugene Bryne)
A Shambles in Bohemia