This Yule I was lucky enough to be given an e-book reader. After switching it on and frustratingly browsing some e-book distributor websites I chose to download George Orwell’s 1984. There are complicated reasons for this choice, not the least of which that the last time I read 1984 from cover to cover was early september 2001. I was actually reading about the Ministry of Peace at the exact moment that I heard about the twin towers, it seemed as if the face of Osama Bin Laden had been forever superimposed over the goat-like features of Goldstein – Orwell’s archetypal terrorist scapegoat. Winston Smith’s job in the ministry of Truth is to re-edit historical documents in prescribed ways in order to justify and uphold the shifting pragmatic views and actions of a monolithic state. For me the book is a study of social control through the control of information, the manipulation of minds through the manipulation of accepted reality – propaganda, censorship and outright lies as strategies to maintain the position of those in power. I have for sometime now viewed the rise of the e-book as a form of Orwellian censorship, the change in technological format resulting in the unavailability of more marginal, less popular, or less marketable texts. Just as the transference from vinyl to CD and from VHS to DVD accentuated the predominance of blockbusters, bestsellers and profit considerations in film and music output, so the e–book may serve to narrow literary production. Although this fear has proven unfounded, downloading Orwell’s evermore relevant 1984 as my first e-book went someway to alleviating my anxiety at the time.
The second book I downloaded was The Satanist by James Mclachlan (published in 2011), a very different book from its 1960 namesake by Dennis Wheatley.
I’d become interested in James Mclachlan’s novel a few months ago through a re-directed mailout to the small independent bookshop I used to run in Cambridge and I emailed the author to say that although we had to close the shop in a state of financial meltdown over a year ago, I was intrigued on a personal level and would like to read the book myself. I was much heartened when Mclachlan said that it bore no relation to the Dennis Wheatley book, but saddened that his book was undergoing a reprint and so unavailable. When I got the e-book reader I began browsing titles and discovered that Mclachlan’s The Satanist was available in a Kindle version.
Angus, the eponymous Satanist of this new novel by James Mclachlan, is a much put-upon and exploited character – besides being cheated on, walked out on and generally thrown into confusion by two consecutives girlfriends and his mother, his friends at the Melbourne chapter of The Church of Satan are hell-bent on driving him and themselves to distraction (if not destruction) in a series of locations across Australia. Remarkably, Angus remains an engaging and likeable character, even if at the start of the book he has a toxic lack of self-esteem, views most people as mindless “herd” and would rather watch re-runs of The Avengers than engage in meaningful social contact with his peers or family; by the end of the book he has grown and developed, he has not only saved the lives of a whole stadium-full of pappy-pop-fans, he has come to terms with the infidelities of his first girlfriend, fallen in love and settled down with his second girlfriend, made contact with and connected with his estranged father, caught up with his old mates in Tasmania and put a viper’s nest of literally homicidal evangelical bible-bashers in jail. So I guess he turned out alright in the end.
In many ways the Satanists – Angus, Sim, Dim, Jerald and the two naked girls watching Hammer Horror films from under the blanket (don’t ask!) – are by far the most honourable and admirable characters in this novel. They certainly stand up well beside the Christians they are battling with, a murderous, cowardly, superstitious, psychotic bunch whose constant justifications for their atrocities “(we are) to deliver God’s judgement” “it is the Lord’s will” and “The Lord God is working through me” recall the god-made-me-do-it excuses of the Yorkshire Ripper.
In an email James told me that his ideal readership were people who identified with those in the novel – young or not so young, goth/camp psychonauts, determined on upholding the principles of self-will. They are also Satanists. If you are not familiar with Satanism as it is practiced in the English-speaking world today, perhaps I need to explain (as Mclachlan does) that far from being the drug-addled blood-lust-orgy shenanigans of an elite of crazed libertines, the Church of Satan presents a lucid and cohesive philosophical and practical denunciation of the life-denying sexually repressive extremes of christianity. Based on the writings of its founder Anton La Vey, the Church of Satan seeks to encourage an awareness and identification with ones real, deep and untamed needs outside the strictures of a morality defined by the monotheisms, and to engender personal responsibility for meeting one’s own needs. Although I find La Vey’s writings a tad dated (particularly the unreconstructed sexism of Diary of a Satanic Witch), I find the self-determinism liberating, and what normal human being wouldn’t prefer comfort over a hair shirt, emotional satisfaction above eternally delayed gratification. (To find out more read Gavin Baddley’s Lucifer Rising (Plexus 1999) for a superb history and commentary on C20th satanic groupings).
This may all sound very heavy and cerebral but Mclachlan’s story bounds along, leaping from one surreal improbability to the next, twisting in hilarious character-driven episodes, it is fast and entertaining. Although I enjoyed the twists and turns of the story and delighted in the acerbic wit of the character asides and vignettes, it is difficult to discuss the plot without divulging too much. In this and other ways the novel reminded me of Jack Barrow’s The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil and Dice and Dysfunctionality by Fay Knight. All three novels are essentially comic occult thrillers concerning contemporary occult social groupings – Satanists (Mclachlan), Chaos Magicians (Barrow) and Role-Players (Knight) – who are running around like headless chickens trying to avert a snowballing, potentially global, catastrophe. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that it all turns out sorta alright really in the end. Incidentally, all three authors are also published by small independent presses and are worth keeping an eye on in the future.
The plot of Dennis Wheatley’s novel, first published in 1960, is the typical trite class-bound occult mumbo-jumbo that we’ve come to expect from this once popular author. I have read about half a dozen Wheatley books in my time, and I am hard pushed to distinguish any of them apart – it is formula writing in the occult thriller genre that is thoroughly lacking in imagination or insight. All the so-called Satanists greet each other with “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, none of them are English and they all speak in ridiculous phonetically transcribed accents. All the goodies work clandestinely for the War Office, throw holy water in people’s faces and all speak in ridiculous phonetically transcribed English accents. The cheap trade paperback red cardboard cover was an imitation of an august nineteenth century library-binding but like tacky, with smudged gold blocking (lettering). It was published by Grove Press and it cost me a quid second-hand from somewhere or other. The cover cracked and the front fell off, although no actual pages had fallen out by page 145, when I couldn’t take anymore sexist racist classist twaddle and stopped reading the damned thing.
What does all this tell me? For a start, reading from a kindle is a better experience than reading a badly made paperback that falls apart, particularly if that paperback is by Dennis Wheatley. Further, I sense an ecological dilemma with buying paperbacks. Frankly, the vast volume of best-seller trash that has been committed to paper in the past decade or so is enough to make a whole forest weep. It probably is better to keep the throw-away cheap fiction pot-boilers in cyberspace. I have also discovered that out of print books are often still available as e-books, quite the reverse of my Orwellian censorship fears. It may in fact be the situation that a book need never be ‘out of print’ ever again. Finally, a few writers and small publishers have explained to me how easy e-book publishing has become, easier and cheaper than publishing paperbacks, which of course opens up the range of titles available rather than narrowing it. Perhaps nobody will be re-issuing Dennis Wheatley’s backlist in e-book format, but that can hardly be a bad thing when all’s said and done.
On the other hand, I still do have qualms about the threat that e-book readers pose to some aspects of the book industry. Independent bookshops have been in decline for some years now. In the 2 two years around the time of the closure of my own bookshop, 6 other independent bookshops were forced to close in Cambridge alone. Partly this was due to the rise of the multi-national corporate chain bookshops, the burgeoning of internet book sales, the cornering of the second-hand book market by charity shops and the proliferation of bookstands in supermarkets, cafes and most other public spaces. My worry is the loss of the expertise and experience if the independent bookshops all go to the wall. I am very disappointed by the categorisation and presentation of titles available on Kindle – either you type in a specific title or accept a recommended best-seller from Amazon, who are hardly qualified to distinguish literary quality from profit-generated quantity. Furthermore, although traditional bookbinding skills have been in decline since Penguin invented the non-sewn paperback in the 1930s, the sewing and casing of books is a much-refined and functional craft that has been perfected over centuries to be the most effective and aesthetic way of keeping texts for long periods, the total loss of this art-form could have Orwellian consquences.
This is not all, I encountered three serious practical problems in reading from an e-book. Firstly, progress is indicated by a percentage and I am totally lost without page numbers. It doesn’t seem possible to make an index using these percentages which, like the visible screen, bear no relation to a fixed page, starting and ending in different places each time I switched away. There didn’t seem to be a contents page either, so chapter headings became inconsequentially clicked by and forgotten, and I felt I had no point of reference for a structural overview of the book and how the elements fitted together progressing to the final chapter. The second practical problem is that on the Kindle reading progresses from the start sequentially to the end with no room for flicking back more than one screen at a time, this is simply not how I read. The experience was a feeling of plodding, whereas I naturally read back and forth reading and re-reading, sometimes by whole chapters, in search of a vaguely remembered choice sentence or poignant metaphor. This pleasure was lost in the limited linear start-to-finish capacities of the e-book reader. Thirdly, what will happen to e-book readers when the oil/gas/electricity finally runs out, are they developing a solar or wind-powered extension? And what will happen if e-books are made obsolete by some other yet undreamed-of book-reading technology. Will Kindle go the way of Betamax? (a joke there for anyone over 40).
I can’t imagine what a bookless world would be like, I have 1000s of paper books in my collection and one of my pleasures is stumbling across a book I haven’t seen for a while, some cannot possibly be reproduced on an e-book – graphic novels and art books for instance. Many readers I have spoken to say they miss the tactile qualities of books, the physical turning of pages, riffling, skimming, jotting in the margins and turning over corners. Some even obsess about the smell of books (as a former bookshop owner I can vouch that there are people out there who sniff books rather than read them!)
But it all turns out alright in the end, because the book version of The Satanist is now back in print and James Mclachlan has promised to send me a signed paper copy for my library. The best of both worlds!