Theatre Nights: The Hero

Sandman Mystery Theatre 69-70. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Guy Davis (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
It’s been a strange time in Manhattan.
A month has passed since the end of The Goblin. Christmas has passed and we are coming up on New Year, the advent of the Forties.
Russia has invaded Finland and O’Grady’s buying a paper to read about it. Burke doesn’t think about it, but O’Grady upbraids him: people not thinking about things is why the world is as it is. Burke’s definitely mellowing, because he hasn’t got an acid retort.
In fact, he’s been seeing Doris regularly this past month and is starting to have certain ideas.
Larry Belmont has been recuperating in hospital, and is about to be sent home with a nurse. Dian’s been visiting him every day in the Hospital. She’s also been visiting Wesley’s house every day, but only to work in her office. She hasn’t been staying at night, an act of contrition over the guilt she feels for his heart attack.
Dian’s intent on resolving all the loose ends in her life before the new decade starts. She’s finished her novel, she tells the publisher Richard Manten introduced her to that it’s good and he’ll want to publish it. The only loose end she hasn’t been able to work out is Wesley. Wesley hasn’t been to see Larry yet. Wesley hasn’t found the words, nor the courage.
Strangest of all though is Wesley himself. The thought of being confronted by Larry has him paralysed, but more than that, though he continues to dream, Wesley has not put on the gasmask.
And now there’s another killer, a man dressed as a soldier of the Great War (with Sandman-esque gasmask). He is actually such a soldier, a man abandoned, believed dead, now returned and taking bloody vengeance on those who betrayed him. Burke and O’Grady pull the case.
But where normally Wesley would be on the trail, he’s got other things on his mind: a letter from Poland, delivered by hand through the auspices of Janos Prohaska (told you he wasn’t dead). It’s a plea for help from Gerald Dodds: Wesley’s brother.
In view of our knowledge of the imminent demise of this series, the left field appearance of a hitherto unmentioned and even unsuggested brother smacks of contrivance. Which it is. But it has to be allowed that it is wholly within Wesley Dodds’ character as we have known him throughout this season not to talk about his family.
Gerald fills in the background for us in his appeal for Wesley’s help: he is trapped in the Warsaw ghetto thanks to having been fingered as half-Jewish, and has no other recourse.
The brothers haven’t seen each since Paris, 1918, a visit organised with their father. Gerald – who is presumably older than Wesley – received a public violent slap across the face for paying more attention to Parisian women than his father’s commentary. Both brothers were upset about Edward Dodds flaunting his new mistress in front of them so soon after their mother’s death, but it was Gerald who took action by seducing her and making sure they were discovered.
Gerald was sent away, and disowned. No doubt Wesley’s sending away, to school in the Far East, followed shortly. The two have had no contact since. Gerald has lived his own life seemingly without any resentment at losing his ‘inheritance’. He has no claim on Wesley, save only that if the roles were reversed, he would come to his brother’s assistance.
Wesley’s resentful of the intrusion, inclined immediately to be dismissive of Gerald, but already family sympathy – combined with the restlessness he currently feels about his life in New York – prompts him towards what would be required to simply abandon his life to fly off.
The beginning of that process is contacting Hubert Klein in the Medical Examiner’s office. Klein’s concerned about the latest killer and assumes that’s what the Sandman is on to him about, but before they can progress, he is knocked out from behind.
This is what it takes to get Wesley into his gasmask, racing off to the precinct with Dian. Unfortunately, it’s icy, there’s a commotion near the precinct where the soldier is being pursued, and the car skids on the ice when Dian brakes suddenly, but it knocks down a pedestrian. It’s Burke.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s the Soldier wielding a grenade, the Crimson Avenger trying to shoot him and the Hourman, trying to bring him in alive. Three superheroes, each in costume, in each other’s faces until Dian, in her ‘Sandy’ mask tips the balance in Sandman’s favour.
That’s the climax to the First Act: the next decade is clearly going to be very different.
The mis-matched trio do follow the soldier, without getting anywhere or ever reconciling: the Avenger even protests being hauled out of the blast zone of a grenade by Hourman’s speed! But their presence, the knowledge that there are others who can be left to protect the city, helps speed Wesley’s decision. The case goes unresolved, at least in the pages of the second and final Act, as Wesley begins to lay down the threads of his New York life.
Judge Schaffer reappears in time to offer a convenient plane to the Polish Resistance. Wesley promotes his secretary to Business Manager: she is, after all, his only employee.
Dian gets a call from her publisher: she is right, her novel is good and he does want to publish it: a contract is in the post.
Burke survives the accident, bruised but otherwise unhurt. It’s enough to affect his temper into kicking off before Doris, but despite her exposure to his darker side, she accepts his proposal and agrees to marry him.
The Sandman visits Burke in his office to announce his disappearance. He leaves files with Burke to assist him on previous cases. Burke is never going to reconcile himself to the age of heroes that is fast overtaking New York, but he accepts the truce, and the Sandman departs, unaware that behind his back, Burke calls him Dodds.
Wesley even manages to visit Larry, on his return home, to apologise and to assure (without once mentioning the M word) that Dian is and always will be the centre of his heart and that he will protect her for the rest of his life. It satisfies Larry, at least until the end of the Act, though we may presume a change of heart in view of what follows.
And lastly there is Dian. Wesley wants her with him, but she still cannot bridge that last gap without more. At the airfield, he takes her aside, gives her a ring that belonged to his mother, takes her as his wife in the heart (though not in any legal or religious sense). That is enough for Dian, enough for her to agree to join him in the plane, which takes off and flies away from New York.
And it’s done. The case is never solved. Whether the Hourman or the Crimson Avenger brings in the soldier, who he is, what lies behind his rampage, we will never know, for that story is completed in the issues 71 and 72 of Sandman Mystery Theatre that can be found only in Lucien’s Library in the Dreaming, in the section devoted to books their author imagined but never wrote. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it was never part of the story. Like so many plays, the murders were a backdrop to what mattered.
Some of it is a little unconvincing: it’s stretching credibility that Wesley Dodd’s business empire is run solely by himself and one secretary, no other employees and the times are not conducive to a female CEO. Equally, the sudden revelation that Burke knows who the Sandman is comes equally out of left field, and is based on no evidence in this or any previous Act. It’s neat but the deduction is pretty mystical.
But it’s a wrap-up. It’s about ending things in as stable a manner as possible, and sometimes strict plausibility has to be sacrificed when all you have is 24 pages. The Mystery Theatre would never open again. Burke and Doris, O’Grady on the edge of his promotion, Larry Belmont’s medical condition, Hubert Klein, Judge Schaffer, none of these would be seen again, their lives interrupted.
The lights fall, save for spotlights trained on the leading man and the leading lady, that follow them as they turn and disappear into the wings. The cast remain, frozen, in darkness, until the audience, silent and shuffling, have left the Theatre. Behind them, a commissionaire in besplendent uniform closes and bars the door. As the final members of the audience walk down the steps, the lights within go out. We do not know if the actors ever return to their dressing rooms, removing one final time the greasepaint, wigs and costumes that have sustained their repertoire for this season of plays.
The Mystery Theatre stands dark and deserted. Only ghosts perform there now.

I coulda been an Arranger…

First of all, let me be honest: I have no musical ability whatsoever. At primary school, I got on with the recorder – until you had to start using your right hand as well. After A-levels, I bought myself an acoustic guitar, only to rapidly realise I had no aptitude for it. And during my marriage, we acquired a set of drums, only to discover that whilst I was capable of creating a lot of vigorous noise on it, I couldn’t create any kind of organised noise.

As for singing, a music teacher friend of mine once assured me that I was not tone-deaf, but rather tone-dumb: I knew the note I wanted to produce, I was just incapable of producing it at will!

That wasn’t entirely fair. There were certain songs that I could harmonise with quite efficiently on late-night Friday drives returning from delivering the kids to their father for the weekend, though my dear wife was more often dumbfounded by my apparent ability to sing a song perfectly adequately but a half-tone out.

I can’t even do that now. I’ve never been one to praise my own efforts, but the cracked and gravelly thing that’s my ‘singing’ voice nowadays can’t get anywhere near a reproducible note. Not that it stops me, when the headphones are on, from singing forcefully. But that’s with no-one around to hear.

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but the last few months I’ve been engaged on a massive musical project that, at times, has seen me burning as many as four CDs in a day. It all began with a moment of forgetfulness: about to go off for a long train journey, I realised I’d overlooked recharging my mp3 player. As a substitute, I grabbed for my long unused portable MD player and a handful of MiniDiscs. I had enough presence of mind to put in new batteries but not enough to remember to grab the headphones. So it was all a bit of a bust really.

But it reminded me of those MiniDiscs, and I started playing them. It was a carnival of sound: music I’d long forgotten I had, music I’d long forgotten existed. I wanted it to be more accessible so I’ve spent the last three to four months in collating all those songs, organising and theming them, combining with stuff I’d long since downloaded, and as a result creating over 50 new CDRs for myself.

Among the long-lost-and-forgotten was the theme music to ‘Budgie’. This was an early Seventies comedy/drama starring Adam Faith in his breakthrough acting role as Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird, a young chancer just out of prison, ducking and diving in London, perpetually beholden to Scottish gangboss Charlie Endell (played by Iain Cuthbertson, whose characteristically gravelly call, “Eh, Budgie” was much imitated at my school).

The theme music was written and recorded by Ray Davies, in a solo gig away from the Kinks. I loved it but it was not, so far as I was aware, commercially available at the time so, in order to capture it, I had to record it ff the TV. Using microphones.

The task was doubly difficult in that the music was never played as a continual whole. The opening credits went directly into a ballad style verse, the closing credits the same but with a different verse. Links into and out of adverts consisted of a short guitar motif. All told, it was not really satisfactory, so I did something I’d never done before or since: I taped all the bits and then, laboriously, using two tape recorders and no editing equipment whatsoever, I linked the bits together in a manner that built them into a recognisably structured song.

I used one of the advert breaks, doubled, as a lead into the opening credit verse, slipped another double breaks in as a bridge to the closing credits verse, and used the break again as a fade-out. It was primitive, the sound quality was poor, even before I bounced the track at least once to transfer it to cassette, and finally onto MiniDisc, where it lay, unheard and forgotten, for most of a decade.

When I was engaged in the transferring process, I tried wherever possible to get new, digital, clean tracks. Many of my old favourites had been recorded off the radio, so intros were missing, or talked over, and the songs often were refreshed by eliminating these long ago words or lacunae (I had had Robert Palmer’s ‘Back in Your Arms’ for forty years without listening to its intro, and that’s just one example). In total, no more than fifty tracks needed to be transferred directly from the MiniDiscs which, given that there were between 650 – 750 tracks to begin with, was a tremendous testament to how much music is available now.

I came to ‘Nobody’s Fool‘, the title of the ‘Budgie’ theme song. I wondered if, in all these years of rarities being released, whether it was available. It was indeed, and I downloaded and burned it. But best of all, I recognised it in every moment. For the song as recorded entire used all the primitive bits off the TV show that I had long ago miked and stapled together, in the same order. I had arranged my version of the song exactly as Davies had written and recorded it.

I coulda been an arranger…

Travelling with Tinniswood: Mog

“It was the judge what upset me, though,” said Mog
“Why was that, Mog?” said Megan.
“Because of what he says to me. ‘Maurice Mansell Williams’ he says, ‘I’m sending you down the old swanee for five years on account of your false pretences and on account of you being the biggest fucking rogue unhung in the whole of South Wales. Right? Like?’”
“What language,” said Megan. “He didn’t ought to be a judge using language like that – especially in front of criminals.”
“No, no, fair do’s to him, he didn’t use the exact words identical like.”
Peter Tinniswood’s second novel, Mog, was published in 1970, though I wasn’t able to get hold of a copy myself until it received a first paperback edition in 1985, published as a tie-in to the ITV sitcom adapted by Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais, the only occasion as far as I am aware when Tinniswood’s work has been adapted by other writers. The sitcom, which borrowed only a few elements of the book, was a failure commercially and artistically.
Where A Touch of Daniel sustained itself on slice-of-eccentric-life comedy, incubating not so much a story as a steadily growing surreal situation, Mog enjoys a defined plot, laid out early in its pages, which is multi-layered and dramatic in its structure.
Philip Manners, a very rich and successful businessman, owns a property developing company which is run day-to-day by his elder son, Tom,a stuffed shirt, prig and Tory MP. Philip Manners still signs all the paperwork, because he’s well aware that Tom and his partner Sir Peter Wakefield are out to break the company down and sell it to their cronies.
Philip plans to protect the company, and his family’s fortune, by leaving it all to his younger son, Oliver. There is just one hitch to this plan, and that is that Oliver is certifiably insane.
Oliver has not actually ever been certified, and that is because Philip Manners has built a private asylum at his estate, Mannersville, where Oliver and half a dozen other lunatics are under the care of Mrs Mortensen, a widowed Danish psychiatrist of considerably beauty, who has also had Philip Manners under a strict vegetarian regime for five years whilst insisting on sex with him every night.
The story is, incidentally, set in 1960.
Mrs Mortensen is the kind of psychiatrist who believes that mental problems are entirely due to sexual issues and repression, about which she is happy to talk quite enthusiastically, and you can imagine how that goes down among the elder generation in a staid, pre-Swinging Sixties northern town.
As for Oliver, he neither looks nor sounds mad. The other lunatics around him do: this is not an enlightened book so there will be some reservations about Tinniswood’s portrayal of the lunatics, not least in the use of the blunt word, and the attitudes of most of the outsiders to the mere idea of lunacy, but this is 1960, remember, and it is an authentic portrayal of the average person’s beliefs.
Except for Oliver, the other inmates are almost all people who, in one way or another, are unable to deal with the pressures of the world around them and who have adopted unreal persona: Brother Herbert, Group Captain Greenaway, ‘Baldy’ Hogan.
But Oliver seems to be entirely normal and sane. That certainly is the opinion of Miss Miranda, Mrs Mortensen’s sixteen year old daughter, recently returned from an all-girl’s school, full of randiness and hormones, a raging sex drive directed, along with love, at Oliver, who she wants to marry. Miss Miranda is upfront and forthright and almost completely ignorant in every respect about sex, except for what people like Antoinette Lilley and Oonagh Liddell at school have told her and everybody laughs at them.
You may be noticing that whilst I’m trying to describe a serious and dramatic set-up that it’s already difficult to stop eccentricity and absurdity from creeping into the picture.
Anyway, Philip Manners want Oliver cured, and so does Miss Miranda, whilst Tom Manners and Sir Peter Wakefield want him properly certified and ruled out completely as an obstacle to their nefarious objects. As for Mrs Mortensen, we begin by assuming she wants Oliver to be cured, but as the story develops, that is not necessarily the case.
But the question that intrigues, as it should, is whether or not Oliver is insane? Oliver’s quite happy with the situation, free from responsibility of any kind, a theme that will be openly and cynically expressed in the book by its title character, who you will notice we still haven’t got round to introducing. Oliver acts normally, Oliver talks normally, Oliver isn’t being anyone except Oliver Manners.
But it’s interesting that Philip Manners never has any actual contact with Oliver in Mog. And there are two unexplained incidents that dog Oliver’s past. One was the incident that led to him being court-martialled and drummed out of the army, which seemed to have involved a woman, a boat on a lake and an oar, and the other involving the death of his mother. No-one seems to know what actually happened on these occasions, least of all Oliver, who cannot remember…
When the book starts (finally!), Mrs Mortensen has had the idea of Philip Manners buying an ordinary house in an ordinary street, to set up an unadmitted asylum in the midst of the real, everyday lives her sexually-afflicted patients are trying to escape. Oliver and three other inmates will live there, whilst undergoing treatment at Mannersville, but living in a mundane environment where they are not picked out as lunatics.
The house, we are delighted to see, is a three-storey terrace next door to, of all people, the Brandons (their presence in the book is primarily that of background colour, though Uncle Mort will take part in many a jaundiced conversation). It will be managed by Philip Manners’ patient, steady, phlegmatic chauffeur, Ambrose Tierney, and his beautiful but rather simple wife, Megan, who is from Cardiff.
Shortly before leaving for the house, Ambrose and Megan have a few days in Cardiff, primarily looking for Megan’s brother Mog, a petty criminal who has just got out of jail. Mog is a waster and a wastrel, a pathological liar who boasts about any and everything and for whom ignorance, failure or reversal is always the fault of someone else and he the put-on, repressed, misunderstood genius, a man whose criminal horizons are as small and limited as his perpetual fantasy of himself is broad. He’s a hypochondriac, a manipulator, a coward, as unreliable as it’s possible for anyone to be, and he takes to faking being a lunatic with energy and utter implausibility.
In short, a three-month old baby would look at him and think ‘what is this guy trying to pull?’.
And he’s the hero.
It’s really very simple. Despite his boasting to his impressionable sister and her wholly unimpressionable husband about interests and liquidity, Mog accepts an invitation to stay at Mannersville because he’s no other options. This is before he learns he’s living in a looney bin. Mrs Mortensen, recognising a disturbing influence when she sees one, wants him gone. But the commercial possibilities of the situation light up Mog’s eyes, especially if it comes to curing Oliver.
And Oliver’s promising to pay Mog a substantial sum in return (A fiver, asks Mog, hopefully, demonstrating the narrow limitations to his imagination when it comes down to the real world, when Oliver is talking four figures) prompts our hero to promptly decide to become a looney under the name of F. S. Seymour.
With Oliver’s support, Mog goes with Ambrose and Megan to the new house, where he meets the Brandons, conspires with Miss Miranda and, out of the daily sight of Mrs Mortensen, and in the guise of being a genius at curing looneys, takes over the establishment by enlisting the inmates in money-making piecework, such as stuffing horsehair into greyhound tracks hares until they droop from exhaustion and produce very curious responses to word association tests!
It sounds extremely dubious and in incredibly bad taste in an age that has a rather more sophisticated understanding of mental health problems, but it rides a tide of absurdity based on the bizarre twist of a man openly pretending to be mentally ill whose everyday behaviour and attitudes are so off-key that he is identifiably mentally ill to begin with!
Mog’s antics, his pretensions and defensiveness, are the creative tension at the heart of this novel, but having introduced a plausibly realistic plot, Tinniswood makes sure of keeping the serious element of the framework fully occupied.
Tom Manners really is a shit, and a hollow shit at that. Early on, he proposes marriage to Estelle Nicholson, daughter of the very rich and considerably straightforward and decent Hedley Nicholson, though not in terms of love or even lust (despite Estelle’s efforts to introduce at least that idea) but rather as an openly political gesture: his constituency would be best served by an MP who is married, so it is his duty to provide it with a wife.
Sir Peter Wakefield, in contrast, is a slimy manipulator who openly plots to undermine Philip Manners by making a play to seduce Mrs Mortensen away from him. Everyone – Tom Manners, Hedley Nicholson, Alderman Samson Tufton – reacts in horror at how this will break Philip Manners if he ever finds out, without knowing that Mrs Mortensen is making no secret of Sir Peter’s pursuit and that Philip Manners isn’t bothered: her absence gives him the welcome opportunity to gobble down all sorts of roasts, steak and kidney puddings and the like, behind her back.
The Alderman is a bit of a pompous idiot, continually shocked by Mrs Mortensen’s sexual openness and determined to resist the sexually progressive world she anticipates coming within the next ten years (i.e., the Sixties). He’s more at home at the local county cricket ground, where the fresh, new fast bowler, young Renshawe, is having a great season (“But what if he goes the same way as his brother?” Hedley Nicholson continually wonders).
Then a rapid set of circumstances change the ground rules. Mrs Mortensen openly goes away for the weekend with Sir Peter, to his country cottage. It turns out to be a bit of a tip, and that Alderman Samson Tufton and his wife are, unknown to her, also invited. Worse than that, having raised the Tuftons’ disapproval, Sir Peter does the dirty on her by locking his bedroom against her.
This reversal is made worse by the unexpected arrival of Mog and Miss Miranda, having pursued on Miss Miranda’s scooter (via every second pub between the North and Norfolk) and arrived blind drunk. A very disgruntled Mrs Mortensen arrives back at Mannersville to find Philip Manners pigging out on meat, but instead of wilting under her demands, he reasserts himself at last.
Unfortunately, the next day he’s killed. This occurs at his racing stables and is the indirect result of Miss Miranda’s frustrated urge to find out more about what sex actually entails when nobody will tell her, and what are cobblers anyway? Mog shows her a gelding, who doesn’t have any, but Miss Miranda’s helpless frustration sends the horse into a panicky flight. It leaps a wall and kicks Philip Manners, having a solitary piss on the other side of it, in the head.
So the plot approaches a hinge point. At exactly the right moment, Oliver is starting to remember what happened with Lieutenant Quimby and the oars, not to mention his mother, and he’s starting to lose his sexual inhibitions (and ultimately his virginity) around Miss Miranda. She and Mog, and Oliver, believe he’s cured but that’s down to Mrs Mortensen.
Because Philip Manners has indeed left the business to Oliver, and Tom Manners and Sir Peter want Oliver finally certified as mad. And if Mrs Mortensen wants to get anything out of this, she should co-operate with them. However, Mrs Mortensen is anything but cowed. She is in a position of strength: she has Philip Manners’ notebook which explains the truth about what happened when Mrs Manners died.
Yes, she’s very much in charge, and to prove it, she’s going to marry Tom. Whether he wants it or not.
All the forces of the novel some together in a clash. Oliver refuses to leave the house and return to Mannersville. Megan is at last aroused to action, setting up and manning barricades against Tom and the Police, coming with a warrant. Sensibly, the men (Mog, Ambrose, Uncle Mort, Mr Brandon, Cater Brandon) go off down the pub for a jar or two and a game of dominos whilst the comic scene of defiance is expertly kept off-stage with new arrivals reporting on the hilariously escalating scenes elsewhere.
And it all comes good. The siege ends with Tom Manners climbing a ladder to get in through the first floor window when the Police – alerted by Hedley Nicholson from a tip by Mog – arrive to arrest him. Tom falls off into Ambrose’s fuchsia bush, hitting his head. As a result, he is certified as irrevocably insane. Oliver is certified sane and marries Miss Miranda, Sir Peter is sentenced to three years for embezzlement and Mrs Mortensen to one for conspiracy.
Oliver becomes chairman. He appoints Mog as the managing director, with the rest of the inmates, plus Mog’s exceedingly seedy criminal cohort Fat Bas on the board, except that at their first meeting, Mog’s announcement of a plan to takeover Tommy Ishmael’s cafe in South Wales is interrupted by the Police arriving to arrest him for impersonating a clergyman. Under the name of F. S. Seymour.
He’s shoved into the back of a cop car alongside a tall, well-set up young man. As they are taken into the station, a passerby comments, “I see young Renshawe’s gone the same way as his brother, then.”
The alacrity with which Tinniswood brings the story to a speedy conclusion and a seemingly happy ending, and deals rapidly with the aftermath, is brilliant, and a fitting end to a plot-driven tale in which the plot has been subverted all along by the absurdity of the central characters, whilst providing a backcloth of dark motivations and, shortly before the end, a genuine moment of danger and uncertainty.
In Mog, that outlandish character who animates so much of the story, Tinniswood spread a deep layer of comic improbability that helped to justify an equally implausible, clichéd and problematic approach to the inmates. They’re almost all stereotypes, characters who have assumed other personalities to escape their real lives.
Two are cured by bangs on the head. One leaves, under unexplained circumstances. Another, one who appears to have genuine issues, and genuinely sexual issues at that, is bullied by Mog and the other inmates and dies, inexplicably, in his sleep, though just before the end an explanation is hinted at that opens up a door into the possibility that these ‘looneys’ may be genuinely disturbed, beyond the camouflage of the book, and may be genuinely dangerous.
This is of a piece with Oliver. We are give the bare outlines of the incident with Lieutenant Quimby, and these are horrific, and they seem to haunt Oliver even through his trauma-instigated failure of memory.  When his ‘explanation’ comes from his returning memories, the neutral reader, lacking Mog’s and Miss Miranda’s biases, fits the two stories very closely together.
Again, with his mother’s death, the official version and Oliver’s memories are not so very far apart that they could not very easily be the same thing. And though Philip Manners’ notebook contains the ‘truth’, it’s very noticeable that Tinniswood never shares that truth with us.
So, is or was Oliver insane? The true answer, beneath all the slapstick of Mog and Megan and Uncle Mort, is the reader’s decision, but to me Tinniswood does a brilliant job of not quite creating enough doubt. Which means that Miss Miranda’s happy-ever-after ending of marriage, and oodles of sex, and finding out at last what cobblers are, and queening it over such jealous figures of fun as Antoinette Tilley and Oonagh Liddell, comes with a trapdoor into a very black place, and no bolt to hold it up.
Underneath the comedy, there are very deep waters in Peter Tinniswood’s early novels.

Theatre Nights: Two Short Stories

Vertigo: Winter’s Edge. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (plot and dialogue) and John K Snyder III (artist), Vertigo: Winter’s Edge 2. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer) and Paul Rivoche (artist)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
Throughout its publishing history, Sandman Mystery Theatre was published by Vertigo Comics, the Adult and Mature Reader imprint of DC Comics. Vertigo specialised in more adult material, dark, noirish, frequently imbued with horror: not blatant gore or gratuitous sex, but a genuine exploration of more serious themes, as the Mystery Theatre demonstrates.
In the late Nineties, Vertigo twice published Winter’s Edge anthologies, squarebound 96 page comics in which one of the imprint’s series would act as a framing device to eight page shorts featuring other series form the line. Sandman Mystery Theatre was represented in both.
Spirit of the Season, in 1997, was plotted by Wagner and Seagle, dialogued by Seagle, and drawn, in a neat, precise, slightly stylised manner, by John K Snyder III. The story is set in the Christmas season, starting with Dian and Wesley out Christmas shopping. Dian’s full of fun, though Wesley, whose thoughts lie behind this story, is his usual quasi-curmudgeonly self, focussing only on the emptiness and hollow materialism of a consumer oriented season.
The two separate: Wesley has something to do alone and Dian, joking about buying a girlfriend his Christmas present, is happy to let him go. Wesley’s destination, his intention, is uncharacteristic for an avowed atheist, believing in no religion. He is going to a synagogue.
It’s to do with another woman, and something he feels unable to share with Dian. But the woman is Marina Dodds, Wesley’s late mother, who (we learned in The Mist) was Jewish. Wesley has paid for an observance plaque, and for a candle to be lit in front of it every year on the anniversary of her passing.
There is no candle tonight, but it is no negligence on the part of the Rabbi, rather Wesley’s own failings, as his mother’s anniversary was a week before. The Rabbi gives him a Kaddish prayer to contemplate, to ease him: despite his beliefs, Wesley takes the prayer to a pew.
This short story is the only time in the entire run that we are treated to any insight into Wesley’s relationship with his mother. Though he hints that he was denied parental comfort and involvement as with his father, it’s plain to see that Wesley is still more closely involved with his mother’s memory, paying for rituals he does not believe in for her benefit, being protective towards the much-spat upon Jews. Where does he so much as mention his father’s Christian religion, or make any act in his honour?
In the pew, a young, beshawled woman sits, crying. Wesley offers support and learns her story: her name is Yora Zacoff and she is a refugee from Nazi Germany, spirited out by her father and, after his death, cared for and eventually married to an older guardian, Alexi. But the marriage was brief: four days ago, Alexi died of consumption, and she has not slept since, trying desperately to get money to pay for his burial.
The conversation is interrupted by gentile thugs, breaking into the synagogue to steal gold candelabra and candlesticks. They are confronted by the Sandman, who downs two of them, but the third is about top batter his way out before he is grabbed by Yura, fierce in the defence of her faith. She is about to get her head smashed in when the Sandman puts the last man to sleep.
The thugs may be collected by the Police before they wake, but the Sandman offers the brave Yora a gift: a small whiff of gas, to grant her peaceful sleep, and a release from her stress.
Wesley Dodds then rejoins Dian Belmont, ready now to share his story with her.
Spirit of the Season was a superb vignette, folding down a complex and moving story into a mere eight pages, a masterpiece of story-telling. In sad contrast, City of Dreams was an appallingly slight piece. This was published in late 1998, contemporaneously with Sandman Mystery Theatre 69, the penultimate issue. It was written by Seagle and drawn by Paul Rivoche, best known for his work on Mr X, a series with a background of futuristic architecture.
City of Dreams is also an eight-pager. It uses three full pages to depict a dream in which the Sandman pursues a man through a fantastic, futuristic city, ending with him leaping ostensibly to his death, only to survive and escape.
It then cuts immediately to an exhibition of a futuristic city, to which Wesley has dragged Dian due to his dream. The Christmas connection is her kissing him in public, despite the absence of mistletoe.
Both see the city’s architect attempting to throttle his partner. Wesley changes to the Sandman whilst Dian, claiming to be a reporter, pursues the man with questions.
He turns on her in a fury but the Sandman intervenes. This leads to a reprise of the dream fight and the leap from the balcony, although the result this time is a bathetic fall destroying the model, which was flawed in any event. The sole twist is that, in the initial struggle, the Sandman’s gasmask is partly displaced, and he gets a whiff of his own gas.
The final page effectively reprises The Goblin by Dian calming down the confused Sandman and sending him home.
City of Dreams is a very poor story, feeling bloated even at only eight pages, it’s story dull and negligible. The only point of interest in it is the near immediate repetition of the distracted Sandman as a potential menace. This suggests that Seagle planned to develop the schizophrenic nature of Wesley Dodds and the Sandman in future stories, and the potential menace one role has for the other. But it never was.
One sublime, one ridiculous. There is nothing now to detain us. We must return to the Mystery Theatre for its final performance.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their final call to performance, in a play titled The Hero.
Break a leg.

Discounted Books – Not


This is a warning and an apology to anyone who tried to follow my recent post about a 15% discount of my latest novel, The Revenge of the Purple Puffin: many thanks to Alex who has alerted me that it doesn’t work (but who has bought the book anyway, cheers mate).

In case it was something I’d done differently on Puffin, I tried to apply it to one of the others, only to get the same response.

That seems to suggest that my books are neither Standard nor Premium, which I will check out as soon as I am able.

In the meantime, ignore my first post, though anyone who makes like Alex and buys it anyway will be my friend forever.

Discounted Books

Yes, it’s Shameless Plug again.

From now until the end of Monday 21 July, are offering 15% off the purchase price of my latest novel, The Revenge of the Purple Puffin (as purchasable via the following link – ). All you have to do is use the following Code at checkout – DOGDAYS14 – to claim your discount.

Indeed, you don’t have to restrict your buying to The Revenge of the Purple Puffin as it applies to everything I have written that’s available from Lulu.

Go mad, take the chance to grab a bargain, there are two trilogies out there that you can purchase whilst the cost is even righter than usual.

You know how happy it would make me…

Tarns – Foxes Tarn

Foxes Tarn is a place to savour. Not so much for the waters, but for their context. No walker will set out with it as a destination, or even as a highlight of his or her day, but it is nevertheless a wonderful place to be, because when you are on the shore of Foxes Tarn, you are either on the threshold of the highest heights, or you have begun the return to the ground but are still touched by the majesty of the summits.
The tarn is the highest named body of water in the Lake District, as well as being one of the smallest. It hides in a hollow in the north-western flank of Scafell, invisible from outside to anyone lacking the vision of a Clark Kent. I’d estimate its surface area to be not much more than that of a good-sized family lounge, and one that is occupied by a boulder the size of a three-piece suite.
Foxes Tarn’s importance is as a route of ascent to, or (in my case) descent from Scafell, for those whose limitations preclude the direct approach from Mickledore via Broad Stand. A steep, stony gully that almost chokes the streamlet running from the tarn’s outflow gives a way to bypass the crags on the Eskdale flank of the fell, and it occupies the narrow bed of a fold in the fellside, out of which a steep, loose path (remade once already by the National Trust and now as abominably loose as before), climbs almost vertically onto the back of the summit.
As I said, one comes here en route to the top of the second highest fell in England, or in the very first stage of descent.
I’ve never ascended Scafell via Foxes Tarn: both my visits have been in retreat from the summit, and I’ve never paused by the water. This, I think, is the likely fate of Foxes Tarn when anyone visits it from above: after leaving the saddle on the back of Scafell, the land rapidly steepens, the way is enclosed on both sides and the tarn is visible for a long, slow time, from above. The hollow looks to be completely enclosed from above: escape by water or foot looks impossible. It has the feel of a secret chamber, accessible only by some means revealed only to a very few.
By the time you reach the bed of the hollow, and the brief shores of the tarn, it has been in sight for long enough to take in all its glories, such as they are. There is no temptation to wait beside it, no need for rest. The outflow opens around a corner, the hollow is not as sealed as it looks. There are miles to go and, in the case of walkers who have conquered Lord’s Rake earlier in the day, I can attest to a heightened adrenalin that incites you to devour as much as you can whilst you’re up here.
I rather imagine that it would be a very different matter in ascent. Given that the stone-chocked gully requires careful negotiation in descent, I rather think that by the time the Tarn is reached, unseen and unsuspected until that moment you stumble ‘around the corner’ and find it beside you, the temptation to sit and take a breather would be very high. Especially when you look at the next stage to get out of there!
I think it would be nice to rest there, out of sight of everyone except those few birds that circulate. It’s always nice to sit by a tarn and contemplate its waters. Even through a boulder on which you could seat a family of five.