Fiction Reviews

A Stroke of the Pen
The Lost Stories

(2023) Terry Pratchett, Transworld, £20, hrdbk, xvi + 219pp, ISBN 978-0-857-52963-3


In keeping with the late Terry Pratchett’s wishes, any notes for uncompleted writings including potential new Discworld stories were destroyed, to the point of being added to a hard drive that was crushed under a steam roller. Terry feared other writers profiting from completing his works and claiming shared creative genius that few if any could match.

What was not considered in the purge was work he had already written in his journalistic years. He often filled column space with short funny stories, and the book’s editor, Colin Smythe, with Pratchett fans, has diligently tracked down many of these early gems to put them out in a collection genuinely likely to be the last work of the great man. There are no Discworld tales or characters in the book, though there is a wizard in a tale partly set in Morpork (not Ankh Morpork). One beloved Pratchettism is very present from the early days though, the wry quirky footnote entries that would be sprinkled through many Discworld tales to come.

'How It All Began' goes to very much the beginning as a caveman’s discoveries, including fire, lead only to trouble, and accidents, rather prophetic of all human progress and development to follow.

Some of the stories involve time travel anomalies, and there are many tales set in the fictional village of Blackberry where all shades of weird are encountered so much that few living there are surprised any more. In one prophetic piece, a sentient steam roller scheduled to be scrapped as obsolete, goes on a rampage ride, eventually aided by its driver who is also put out pasture. Death would have nothing much to do in this story (or throughout the book). No one is endangered, though a few post boxes are flattened and the whole pursuit has the feel of old Ealing comedies like 1953’s The Titfield Thunderbolt. It is whimsical rather than hilarious.

'A Partridge In A Postbox' has a neat sweet romantic play on the classic if irritating Christmas song The 12 Days Of Christmas, dealing with the postman charged with delivery of the absurd, over the top, complicated gifts to the ‘true love’ finding himself falling in love with her as the delivery days progress.

Most of these invariable charming light reads are flash fiction, and it sad that Pratchett stopped penning them as his bigger projects consumed his time, but his decency, thoughtfulness and humour are on full display.

The final longer tale, that mentioned earlier as involving a meeting in Morpork was probably serialised over several issues of the newspaper. In it, a wizard openly calling himself Grubble The Utterly Untrustworthy, (his only honest admission) hoodwinks a Conan (or younger Cohen) style Barbarian lummox called Kron into helping him find a set of keys that he believes will lead him to the greatest treasure there is. The Barbarian is teleported around largely against his will, and the search for each key is a fresh quest, usually involving danger. The overall outcome of the event is easy to see coming but it is a fun ride to follow. The set of keys are reminiscent of the Tom Baker era Doctor Who ‘Key To Time’ cycle.

There is a brief and moving introduction by Terry’s Good Omens (1990) co-author Neil Gaiman too. A must read for all Pratchett aficionados. Joyful throughout.

Arthur Chappell


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