Thursday 14 July 2022

Patrick Chapman

Patrick Chapman has published eight poetry collections since 1991, as well as a novel, three volumes of stories, and a non-fiction book about David Cronenberg. Other work includes an award-winning short film, television for children, and audio dramas for Doctor Who and Dan Dare. He is a founding editor of poetry magazine The Pickled Body. His next poetry collection, The Following Year, will appear from Salmon in 2023.

A book you loved reading at a child.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter was a touchstone for me when I was a child. A collection of disturbing gothic miniatures, it filled me with a sensible dread of werewolves, and a feeling that reality itself was provisional. The book’s subversion of fairy tales showed how a story depends on how it is told, as much as what happens within it. When Neil Jordan made a film based on this book, co-writing the script with Carter herself, I was mesmerised. I took seriously the injunction to beware those who are hairy on the inside. The book led me to Jordan’s own collection, Night in Tunisia, and The Dream of a Beast, his fantastical novella that feels like it was inspired by his work with Carter.

A book you have given as a gift / recommended to a friend.

Vermilion Sands collects J.G. Ballard’s short stories set in that holiday resort of the future, where plants sing opera, buildings can empathise with the feelings of their occupants, and sculptors in aircraft perform a kind of topiary on the clouds. This is a playground for the beautiful stranger and the beautifully strange. It’s a surrealistic landscape, a Palm Springs of the mind, filled with the disaffected leisured rich, and influenced by Ballard’s own delight in the works of DalĂ­ and other painters. His first published short story, ‘Prima Belladonna’ (1956) is also his first tale set in Vermilion Sands. If you’re new to Ballard’s short fiction, that’s a great place to start. I’d recommend reading Vermilion Sands as a standalone collection, even if you already have a copy of the enormous, beautiful Complete Short Stories.

A book you have read more than once.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson is the best vampire book ever written, and it isn’t about vampires. It’s better than Dracula, Carmilla, the Lestat books. It’s better, even, than ’Salem’s Lot, and the author of that book – who cites Matheson’s novella as an influence – would surely agree. There’s nothing supernatural in the story. These vampires are not ghosts, nor are they properly undead. To say more would be to spoil the plot. What can be said is that, in the same way that Jaws is not a film about a shark, I Am Legend is not a book about bloodsuckers. It’s about loneliness, morality, ethics, and the failure to recognise one’s own true place in society. As the promotional tagline tells us, the last man on Earth is not alone. The implications of this statement become shatteringly clear as the book goes on. None of the film adaptations has done the book justice, though the Vincent Price version comes closest. One day, an adaptation that is true to the story – and the title – may be made. For me, I suspect, the best version of I Am Legend will always be Matheson’s novella, which is best read while alone, with no other humans around.

A book that you started but never finished.

Final Exit, edited by Derek Humphry, is a handbook for those who wish to take control over their own departures from this life. Or, depending on your point of view, it is a dangerous manual on how to commit suicide. What it does, beyond the practical instruction it gives, is make you think about life, hope, illness, despair, and ethics. I bought it thinking I might need it and stopped reading when I realised that I didn’t. Perhaps the book is out of print now, or illegal, or superseded by the internet, and it has proven both liberating and troubling to different constituencies. Final Exit is the first ‘whodunnit’ in which the answer is not the butler, the adulterer, or the embezzler, but the reader.

A book with personal resonance.

Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles is what was known as a ‘fix-up novel’ – stitching many related short stories together with linking texts. Bradbury’s masterpiece stands up well today as an allegory of genocide, with its Martians being quite similar in many respects to the American ‘everyday citizens’ of the 1940s, as well as to the ‘Indians’ destroyed by the arrival of Europeans. The book is a warning against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a cry of despair at how, wherever humans go, we bring our own frailties with us. Its ending can be read as either hopeful or salutary. The Martian Chronicles has personal resonance because in 2014, I had the privilege of producing an adaptation for BBC Radio 4, directed by Andrew Sewell, and starring Derek Jacobi and Hayley Atwell. The writers, Richard Kurti and Bev Doyle, had to compress the story into 45 minutes, which they did admirably, though much was left out. This is another story I’d like to see given a decent film adaptation, probably as a trilogy. The 1980 television miniseries did a not-bad job, but it was very much of its time. The Martian Chronicles speaks to us today most clearly as an ecological fable. As we rush headlong into the collapse of our own civilisation it’s not too late to look up, slow down, and remember there’s no place like home.





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