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Black Static


Their Favourite Novellas

3rd May, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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Back in Black Static #8 we did a cluster review of several novellas, and as part of that we put together a sidebar in which some of the writers being reviewed told us about their favourite novellas. Unfortunately the sidebar got pushed out for reasons of space, but at Case Notes we try to waste nothing, so here is what you should have read back in Black Static #8:-


My list of favourites is always changing, and I can never narrow it down to just one, so I'm going to cheat here and name three: Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan, because it's brilliantly constructed, and narrated with a perfect blend of pace, mood and use of language; Stephen King's Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, because it shows King's gift as the greatest of storytellers off to perfection, and Conrad Williams' Game for its sheer ambition and terrible beauty. That's true of all Williams' novellas, of course; the tough part was picking the one I like best right now.


To me John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? is one of the greatest sci-fi / horror stories ever written. Even those of us who don’t read are probably familiar with it, having seen one or both of the big screen adaptations, The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982). But if you haven’t read the original novella, I suggest you do. It’s a vividly written piece – the beauty and power of the writing alone can carry you through to the end, let alone the thrilling concept, which must have been so original at the time. It’s rare that I ever sit down and read a novella in one go, but with this one I remember getting to the end and being disappointed that it wasn’t a full length novel so that I could continue reading. The mind can only marvel at how this must have been received when first published in Astounding Stories back in 1938. Little wonder it was later voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America into the Science Fiction Hall Of Fame.


Nobody does it better than Ramsey Campbell, and his startling novella Needing Ghosts is the finest example of the form I've ever read. Here Campbell seems to let himself rip, and stuffs the slim volume full of such horrifying imagery and creepy incidents that when you put the book down you feel as if you've been immersed in the author's psyche for its duration. The prose is sublime, the story a revelation. It's my absolute favourite Campbell book, and one that I will return to often for the rest of my days.


It’s debatable whether The Stains is a short novella or a long story, and I could have chosen almost any of Robert Aickman’s extended works, but I picked The Stains partly because of where it first appeared, in Ramsey Campbell’s seminal New Terrors 1 (Pan, 1980). And partly because it’s a superb example of one of his ‘strange stories’. When Stephen’s wife dies, he goes to stay with his brother, an expert on lichens. He goes walking on the moors, where he encounters a girl whose father shares the same interest. A relationship develops between Stephen and the girl. I’m not sure I could summarise what happens, or explain what it means. What stay with me are the sense of doom and the atmosphere of encroaching strangeness. There’s added poignancy in the knowledge that Aickman died the year after publication, the story receiving the British Fantasy Award.


Favourite novellas? I may have fairly conventional tastes in these. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. He Who Shapes by Roger Zelazny. Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock. Notice that here we have two out of three that were expanded into books, but the short versions have their own integrity. I also could mention A Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake, which is a great masterpiece. Seven American Nights and The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. Of course Living With The Dead (Darrell’s novella, which was reviewed in Black Static #8 - Pete) is what you might call a story-cycle novella, i.e. a series of episodes that form a larger structure that happens to be short of novel length. It certainly takes cues from the many admirable exercises in this form by Zoran Zivkovic.


The setting for Graham Joyce’s Leningrad Nights is Leningrad (naturally) during the nine hundred days siege of 1941/44, and the central character Leo must do whatever he can to survive in a city bereft of fuel and food in the grip of a severe Russian winter. This could easily have been a depressing melange of hardship, desperation and apathy, but Joyce never lets the cello notes give way to the violin. I’ve read and reread this novella with increasing admiration.


My favourite novella is The Mist by Stephen King, which I read in Dark Forces for the first time - I'd never read anything like it, but I do remember thinking that it was about as perfect as it was possible for a story to get. It was just long enough, it was fast paced, it had everything. I've re-read it several times over the years and its impact doesn't lessen for me at all.


The Reflecting Eye by John Connolly. PI Charlie Parker's attempts to rescue a missing child find him disinterring the dead secrets behind a local tragedy - meanwhile a mysterious figure shadows Parker, leaving fear and death in his wake. Connolly ties this gripping plot to a haunting atmosphere, sharply drawn characters, elegant prose and witty dialogue whilst expertly weaving supernatural elements about its hardboiled core. And Parker makes a compelling hero - touched by melancholy yet still possessing warmth, humour and compassion. Great stuff.


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