Monday, January 7, 2008

New Things from Old Favourites

By Stuart Sharp

I’ve just finished reading some Arthur Conan Doyle. It didn’t feature Sherlock Holmes, still less Dr Watson. It didn’t have dinosaurs or strange expeditions, though it did involve a certain amount of Egyptology. ‘The Ring of Thoth’ is one of the many short stories he wrote, and one that most people don’t get to read, because it’s not in one of Conan Doyle’s most popular works.

As it happens, he wrote a great many things most people won’t know much about. Obviously more ardent fans will know about these works, but for me it was still something of a shock when, in search of his obscure cricketing short story ‘Spedegue’s Dropper’ I ran his name through my university library’s records. It came back with novels I’d never heard of, short story collections such as The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport, a couple of serious works on the Boer war and a volume or two on fairies.

In the end, I ran out of time before I got to the short story I was looking for, but I did learn something. With even a little looking, it’s possible to find all sorts of unexpected things by favourite authors, things that are often every bit as good as their better known work.

Searching for short stories is usually a good place to start. Most authors will have written them at some point, and thanks to the wonders of the net, it’s often easy to find lists of where they can be found. With a relatively popular author, you might not even have to do this, because they are the one group of people who can tell a publisher that they’d like to put together a short story collection and get a positive response.

Given that we’re dealing with favourites, it’s probably no surprise that I’m going to mention a couple of collections by Neil Gaiman at this point, namely Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things. Some of the stories deal with characters from his novels, as with the piece featuring Shadow from American Gods, ‘Monarch of the Glen’. Far more, though, take us down paths that don’t show up in his novels in a mixture of strange prose and equally strange poetry.

Not everyone appreciates short stories. I know at least one person who finds this sort of short story collection annoying, on the basis that you get glimpses into fictional worlds without any of the follow through found in a full length novel. Personally, I find these brief glimpses fascinating, but anyone who shares my friend’s opinion isn’t totally stumped. Take Laurell K. Hamilton, for example, another of my favourite authors. While I enjoy her short story collection Strange Candy, those who don’t and still want to find something interesting away from her main series still have options. They could try the novel Death of a Darklord, for example, or they could go for her first novel, Nightseer.

Both of those are still at least vaguely within her normal genre. Other authors though, stray a little further from their roots, because they want to try something new, or because they’re trying to write in a particularly popular area, or just because they’re very easily distracted.

I’m not entirely sure which of these explanations is responsible for Terry Pratchett’s book The Unadulterated Cat, and I’m not sure I want to guess. The idea of one of the world’s most successful fantasy authors sitting down and writing a book about cats jars somehow, but the book works. Presumably that’s because good, funny writing works just as well whether applied to the Discworld or to issues such as exactly how cats always manage to be on the wrong side of a locked door.

More commonly the change is less offbeat. With her novel, Exit Strategy, Kelly Armstrong took a brief break from writing supernatural thrillers to write… a thriller. A very good one, as it happens, and again proof that good writing usually transfers pretty well between genres. The best part about switches like this, it seems, is that they provide a good way of combining that ‘start of a series freshness’ with the knowledge that you’ll enjoy the author’s work. At least, so long as the switch is temporary. I doubt if anyone would appreciate it if their favourite author announced that they were abandoning their normal books permanently.

Occasionally, just occasionally, a favourite author doesn’t have to do any of this to provoke surprise. For those who don’t know his work, Robert Twigger is principally from the ‘do something that’s equal parts stupid and heroic, and then write about it’ school of writing. I’ve included him in this article on surprising favourites because 1) He is one of my favourite authors and 2) The appearance of one of his books on the shelves of my local bookshop always comes as something of a shock.

That’s not so much a comment on anything about the books as it is on the perils of discovering that a lesser-known writer is one of your favourites. With writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, we lose track of their lesser-known works through a combination of time and an over-concentration on their most popular stuff. With popular modern writers, the surprise comes with works for fans, things that don’t get pushed as much as their regular work.

With less popular writers, the surprise is for different reasons. Partly it’s because each book doesn’t have the build up that more popular authors get. Partly, it’s because it doesn’t necessarily hit the shelves of your local bookshop as soon as it comes out, the owner never having heard of them. Occasionally, it’s because it takes them a while between books. In that case, you start to worry that you were the only one buying the books and their publisher has dropped them.

Whatever the reasons, there’s plenty of scope for surprise with a favourite author whether they’re well established or not. Take a moment to think about your own favourite. Are you sure you’ve read everything they’ve written, that there aren’t a couple of odd volumes of poetry lying in some corner of a library? Take the time to check, and you could be pleasantly surprised. As for me, I’ll be off back to my own library, to see if I can’t finally read that short story.

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