(2019) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £20, hrdbk, 354pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22600-5
Christopher Priest – author of The Adjacent, The Glamour and The Gradual – is one of the most acclaimed writers of both SF and literary fiction at work today. Here, for the first time in almost twenty years, is another collection of his short work. Largely previously uncollected, ranging from the horrific to the touching, the science fictional to the realist, these stories are a perfect demonstration of the breadth and power of Priest's writing.
Eleven stories are included, along with commentary and reflection from the author. Within these pages you will discover the stage magic-inspired horror of 'The Head and the Hand', the timeslip accidents of 'futouristic.co.uk', the impossible romance of 'Palely Loitering' and the present-day satire of 'Shooting an Episode'.
This really is a joy to read, and not just because of the stories, but because every story has a before and after explaining the origins of the story, and what happened afterwards. Before we get that far, there is a section called 'First' where Priest gives us his thoughts on the dominance of science fiction in different aspects of modern culture, the role of genre fiction, and his reflections on what it was like to be a fledgling writer sending your stories out into the world "does anyone out there remember sending stories to America and enclosing International Reply Coupons? Right at the end, we also have a 'Last', section telling us where the stories collected in Episodes appeared "some of them in magazines, some in anthologies and some were by very special invitation, but more of that later. Many of them have not been reprinted since they were first published back in the 1970s.
Here, we have eleven stories, and not all of them are science fiction, some are horror, and one called 'I, Haruspex' was written to order for a proposed Lovecraftian game. Priest duly finished the story, send it off, was paid handsomely and due to the vagaries of the business world it never saw the light of day, until he reclaimed it and resold it to The Third Alternative magazine for a 1/150th of what he was originally paid by the defunct gaming company. It was also reprinted in an anthology edited by Mike Ashley, and Priest notes that its appearance didn’t solicit any sort of reaction from critics or readers, something he comments on several times throughout this collection. He writes the story; it is published and then passes out of print as if it had never existed. Such seems to be the fate of another story written to order, for an anthology based on the Seven Deadly Sins. Priest got in first and chose “anger” with a story called 'The Ament', using a word that has passed into obscurity from the mental condition amentia. Again, that anthology seems to have been published unnoticed. Other stories about the stories, include an encounter with a hectoring Harlan Ellison who kept badgering Priest for a story in his quest to produce another Dangerous Visions anthology, which has never seen the light of day, although Priest’s story was rescued and appeared in Andromeda and was reprinted several times.
The most bizarre invite to write a story came from a bank’s risk management team who wanted Priest and some others – including Ricky Gervais, Conrad Williams and Roger McGough – to write stories for an in-house training aid that would be given to staff. Right at this time Priest was aware that an American comic book writer had changed his name to Christopher Priest, therefore the subject of identity fraud seemed ripe for choosing and so the story “The Stooge” was born, inspired by Priest’s love of magic, a love which obviously bore fruit for his novel The Prestige, and Priest does point out common themes between some of the stories here, and other stories and his longer works.
As for the stories themselves, while some are horror, some are science fiction, others are slipstream where the fantastic element is in the background, some were shortlisted for awards, while others won awards, and one was broadcast on the BBC. Further, as enjoyable, entertaining, and dark as they are, what is more fun is the chance to get inside the head of one of the best writers around. If only other writers would do the same.., sigh.
See also Peter's take on Episodes.
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