Short Fiction by Sam Thompson
The novelist J. S. Gaunt gets described as a writer’s writer, but for me, he’s more than that. I sometimes think he’s the writer that made me what I am.
When I met him, fifteen years after I started reading his work, I told him so. This was one of the many ways I embarrassed myself during those ninety minutes of conversation in a Soho coffee shop. In person, Gaunt was gentle-mannered, accommodating, sometimes lost for words – the man was unlike the writing in all these respects – but even so, I spent the encounter disoriented, saying foolish things. Some books come to feel as if they belong to you alone. And then you find yourself face to face with the person who made them, and what are you supposed to do?
I was seventeen years old when I discovered Gaunt. I knew I was going to do English Lit at university – in those days a fairly modest ambition – but alongside my curricular reading, I had a taste for the more disreputable stuff. I thought I had a radical streak because I liked horror and space opera and dungeonpunk fantasy in just the same way I liked Austen, Dickens and Woolf. I was a rebel in my own head because I refused to make a distinction.
I kept coming across Gaunt’s name in magazine interviews with genre writers I admired. When asked about their influences, they all said the same thing: J. S. Gaunt was a stylist and a visionary, and it was a crime his work was not more widely known. I needed no further encouragement to make a day trip to Charing Cross Road. Tucked away on the top floor in Foyles, I found a copy of the old omnibus edition of the Masquador novels, with its ugly cover and its selection of cryptic critical praise on the back. ‘Perturbing fables, twisted and occasionally perverse’; ‘The Man Who Was Thursday as rewritten by Ballard’; ‘The Alexandria Quartet meets Lovecraft via Djuna Barnes’; ‘These hallucinations would crumble if they were not sustained by prose of such unfaltering precision’; ‘From its pulp-fiction roots the Masquador cycle blooms as a strange new flower of evil’.
It was an ideal introduction to Gaunt. I tore through the three novels. In The Silver Curtain, the story of supernatural intrigue was largely conventional, but A Conspiracy of Wasps twisted the same scenario into baffling surrealism. And then came Among The Masquadors: I had never finished a book with such a strong intuition that it contained a hidden pattern, some secret I needed to understand. The omnibus concluded with the handful of short stories usually known as The Masquador Dances: really they were no more than sketches for the mythos, but I combed each of them for clues to what it all meant.
While I was a student, I read all the Gaunt I could find. I tracked down his first two novels, The Remnants and The Foal, in the library stacks. They were set in 1970s Manchester and dealt with the adventures of bohemian young men who were mystified by women and angry with the world. There was a lot of cynical sex and hippie philosophy, broken up by moments of unexplained violence, betrayal and magic. They weren’t great, but I read them studiously. There was a thrill in recognising Gaunt’s way with a sentence, his daredevil adverbs and ruthless commas, highly characteristic and already there in his earliest stuff. From the beginning, he was using some of his favourite motifs: iridescent green beetles, bereaved women, poker, strange buried machinery, one-eyed cats, a pair of clasped hands that suddenly takes on the appearance of a face. These images, and certain key phrases relating to them, recurred through all the Gaunt I had read, as if they were a tarot that he dealt and re-dealt, finding new meanings each time.
I read the books he had published in the twenty-odd years since the Masquador sequence. It took me a long time to get through The Ablation Colony, The Heart’s Retreat and Crocodile Fires, though all three of those novels are so short. For a while, I was defeated by their density and their refusal to belong to any obvious category, and even when I had finished them, I had an odd feeling I shouldn’t move on. It was as if I had glimpsed something lurking in the edges of the fictions, as if getting the three books into alignment would reveal a figure that had nothing to do with what the stories seemed to be about.
When I tried introducing friends to Gaunt, I always ended up regretting it, always feeling they hadn’t quite seen what I was getting at. It gives me the same shiver that I get when I remember stupid things I did at that age: blurting out private matters to people I had just met, getting infatuated with girls I didn’t like, making obnoxious remarks because I didn’t know what I believed. That urge to share Gaunt’s work was no different.
Once I ran into another fan. I was in the union canteen, reading my new hardback of his novel Form, and she came over. We enthused for a while over the sheer fact that he had written another; I told her I was only up to page seventy-nine but so far it was astonishing, that you could see how it grew out of what he had been doing in short stories like ‘Caffè Atrocità’ and ‘Dancing in the Disaster’, but it went so much further. She begged me not to say more because she was going to read it the first chance she got. It flashed across my mind that maybe we would start a relationship, an affair. Maybe this was how it was done – we’d be thrown into it by shared passionate intimacy with Gaunt’s work. Instead, we found we had nothing else to say.
Form was the longest book Gaunt had written. The reviews said it was his most ambitious but also his most accessible. I wasn’t sure about that, but it was a major feat, big and picaresque, with five protagonists on odysseys through the past, the present, the future and several parallel universes. The satirical edge was sharper than ever, and the ending was as bleak and enigmatic as anything he had written. Obviously, it was going to be understood as a comedy of despair at contemporary culture, and its inventive vigour would be seen as redeeming its nihilism. But as I read, I found myself dwelling on smaller details. When Lulu Zhong finds her daughter, why is the nail bar where they meet called ‘Rainbow Foam’ – the same name Gaunt gave to a bioengineered psychedelic virus in a story he published in a New Wave magazine more than thirty years earlier? Why is Rossi quite so frightened when he mistakes Lamb’s face for his own in the mirror? What’s with all the molecular chemistry stuff? Why does Dorian Scurf, who first appeared as the proprietor of the junk shop in The Silver Curtain and turned up again in The Heart’s Retreat to usher the protagonist to his doom, now feature as an occult card-shark? And what’s actually at stake in the last game? I had dozens of questions along these lines.
A year or so after Form was published, I had an argument with a young woman. I was about to travel two hundred miles by National Express to a provincial book festival where Gaunt was making an appearance, and the young woman, to whom I would later get married, ribbed me for being so into a writer no one else had heard of. I responded so humourlessly that I still cringe to think of it, getting indignant and asking if she had even read him. She said she had tried one of his books but found its attitude so singularly male that she lost interest. I fumed for the whole coach journey and decided she and I had no future. As for the author talk, I didn’t remember much of it afterwards. Gaunt was a slight, trim man in jeans and a hooded top, who kept his feet flat on the floor and had a way of pressing his palms together between his knees. The slate-grey hair was cropped close to the small, handsome head, and the steel-rimmed spectacles flashed when they caught the lights. At one point the chair quoted Henry James: ‘We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have,’ and so on. I thought Gaunt was going to skewer the man’s pomposity, but instead, he said that for him writing was like sleep. It takes you to the same place you go when you fall asleep, he said, but the gravity is reversed. Up becomes down, so you can’t get there by falling. You have to climb. When the chair invited questions from the audience I did not raise my hand.
Gaunt followed up Form with a novel called Harm, ostensibly a sequel although it bore little resemblance. It was a quarter of the length, and instead of a rambling epic, it was a tight three-hand psychodrama set in a single location. Harm’s nameless characters don’t appear in Form, but the sharp-eyed reader recognises that the isolated, decaying manse where the woman, the man and the daughter play out their catastrophe is the same house where the Nyberg children go missing in the earlier book. I reviewed Harm for the Times Literary Supplement. I had got into book-reviewing the year I graduated when I sent the TLS a clipping of something I had written in a student paper and they sent me back a copy of some novel and a deadline for 600 words. Since then I had been doing a piece every few months and had not ceased to be amazed at what a painful process it was to review a book. Less harrowing than my attempts at fiction, for sure, but its own special kind of misery. In a review, there are so many ways to be lazy, dishonest, timid, ignorant, bullying, spurious, inexact, ungenerous or unjust, and so few ways to be true. Reviewing Gaunt was ten times worse than usual. I re-read everything he had published, then spent most of a week on my opening paragraph, trying to encapsulate his career, his style, his preoccupations and his significance to date in eighty words. I scribbled all over my review copy. I wrote nine different plot-summaries and rejected them all as too reductive. I realised the apparently straightforward action of the book was in fact irreducibly ambiguous. I kept leafing through Gaunt’s collected short fiction and finding clues in stories he had written over four decades. Stories like ‘Little Quadratics’, ‘Spider Dimension’, ‘Singularity Blues’, ‘Disco Lazarus’: all bore vitally on this new phase of work, and, what was more, the post-apocalypse sections of Crocodile Fires now had to be seen in a completely different light. I couldn’t imagine how it was possible for a life’s writing all to map together like a great fractal falling into itself forever on every scale at once. What it was or what it meant, what figure might show itself at last, I had no idea.
A couple of months later I went along to the TLS summer party, out of some impulse to drink warm white wine with several hundred people who would all prefer to be at home. To my surprise, Gaunt was there among the moleskin jackets and balding heads. He sometimes wrote for the paper, but he didn’t seem the sort to come to drinks parties. He was in motorcycle leathers, not holding a drink, listening closely to a woman in a purple shawl. I felt I should speak to him – perhaps I would always regret it if I didn’t – but I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. I hovered for a while and then, murmuring Hey I’m no one you know but I’ve read all your books and what do you think about that, I left.
I wrote a book of my own. I thought that publishing a novel would answer some question I had not fully articulated. I wasn’t so naive as to imagine life would change in any practical way, but I had a notion that when I saw the thing in print I would know why it had been worth doing: why I had spent four years of evenings and weekends shut in my room, instead of giving that time to the young woman who found Gaunt’s work excessively male, and to our daughter. I expected that once published, the book would feel different from all the failed fragments, terrible stories and unworkable novels I had been writing and discarding for as long as I could remember. But when I picked up the first proof copy I found that each page was a mass of flaws and vulnerabilities. The book’s whole purpose, it appeared, was to expose the limitations of its author. The debt to Gaunt was painfully obvious. I had known he was one of my touchstones, but now I saw I had produced nothing but a thin imitation. Even my title seemed shamefully Gauntian, and for a while, I cast around for an alternative that would at least throw readers off the scent. But nothing else fit, and I had to accept that the book was called The Heights of Sleep.
I had slept poorly in the last weeks of the final draft, lying half-awake for hours with structural problems flailing in my head. Then I would slip into a dream in which the world was a single infinite house in whose grey rooms and gardens I kept accosting family and strangers, trying to convince them of a peril that had been revealed to me alone. Every time I dreamt it there was the same shock as I grasped that they knew the abominable truth already: they had been living with it all along. I had never had a recurring dream before, and I grew concerned it might not go away. But once the book was signed off I stopped remembering my dreams.
My editor asked for a list of writers to send advance reading copies, the idea being that if they liked the book they might give us a quote for promotional purposes. I hesitated before including Gaunt’s name. He would see at once that I had written a knock-off of his early stuff; he’d be furious, or he’d pity me, or sue me for plagiarism. In the end, though, I decided to send him a copy. If not now, I told myself, then when? He probably wouldn’t read it anyway. And in the days that followed, I felt lightened, as if I had been freed from a compulsion.
A few weeks later my editor forwarded me a message from J. S. Gaunt. He was grateful for the copy of The Heights of Sleep. He never gave publicity endorsements, but he had enjoyed the book. He looked forward to my next one, and in the meantime, I should get in touch if I ever wanted to meet up.
A bright, cramped, Italian coffee bar: grubby Formica, Soho crowding past the window, light echoing off steel surfaces, the espresso machine’s snarl. I got there early and was immediately mired in logistics. Which table? Should I order now? Would I recognise him? How should I make myself known? I was rearranging my coat on the back of my seat when I saw him standing in the entrance, blinking as if the scene were a surprise. Close-cropped hair no longer grey but white. Leather jacket, hoodie, worn jeans, biker boots, messenger backpack. My pulse beat in my temples as I stood up. I wanted this to be over already, and at the same time, I wanted us to hit it off so well that before we knew it we’d be falling out of a late bar in the small hours of tomorrow morning.
He ordered a double espresso, and I asked for the same. My copy of Form, which I was planning to ask him to sign, lay on the table between us. He did and did not look as I had expected. He looked like a man of his age, with liver-spots at his hairline, grey hairs in his nostrils and a trace of milk in his pale blue eyes. I had taken up poker as a result of reading his accounts of the game. He saw it as a practice in which you could discover your illusions about the world: not as a metaphor for anything, but poker as a way of actually confronting yourself. I wanted to tell him how this idea had beguiled me, but it seemed a weird thing to bring up, and besides, I was hardly in a position to swap poker stories with a veteran of the card table. I had played a few nights with friends and then let it slide.
I emptied two sachets of sugar into my coffee. Gaunt sipped his straight. I told him that one of my most vivid memories was of lying in a park in hot July sun, smelling the chlorine from an outdoor pool and reading the whole of Among the Masquadors in an afternoon. I told him I was extremely interested in the way he had taken his stories ‘Taboo Parade’ and ‘The Insufferablist’ and crossbred them to produce his novella Persephone Potts. I told him I was all too conscious that my review of Harm hadn’t even scratched the surface of what was really going on in that book. I told him I had a theory that whatever the daughter sees in the upstairs bathroom is linked with the crooked murder investigation in the central section of Form. I told him I had read on the internet that he had finished the third book in the sequence and I couldn’t wait to see how the pattern was going to unfold. He asked me what I was working on now.
I was dumbfounded less by the question than by the fact I hadn’t thought to have an answer ready. I stumbled through a couple of half-formed ideas. Then, confused, I told him how nervous I had been about sending him The Heights of Sleep, given the book’s debt to his work.
Gaunt looked puzzled.
‘I hadn’t noticed a resemblance,’ he said.
At that, we both seemed to lose the thread of the conversation. Gaunt looked at the ceiling and I swallowed the sludge at the bottom of my cup.
He began to talk about Cynthia Cleaver. She had been kind to him when he was starting out, he said. There had been one night, around the time of his second book, when she had asked him round for dinner. I leaned forward, excited, because – it now seemed obvious – this must be the reason distinguished writers met with tyros: to pass on this kind of story.
Cynthia Cleaver was an important name to me, not that this was unusual on my part. She was the kind of writer I could only have admired more if she had been a little less well-known. I had first come to her when I did The Fox’s Tower as an A-level text, but it took me years to realise what a figure she actually was. Cynthia Cleaver: prolific experimental novelist in genres from kitchen-sink gothic to surreal satirical SF to postmodernist Victorian pastiche, leftist campaigner, feminist provocateur, folklorist, writer of stage plays, screenplays and radio plays, translator of Beowulf and the Arabian Nights, travel writer, pioneer of long-form first-person cultural criticism, tireless polemicist, reviewer of everything from literary fiction to sixties fashion to punk rock to pornography to political rallies. She had died in middle age, eleven years after I was born. I had a shelf of her books.
Gaunt was explaining that in the late seventies Cleaver liked to invite young writers for dinner, two or three at a time, at her house beside Hampstead Heath. She would roast a joint and serve it in her little basement kitchen, then pour the wine and hold court. Along with Gaunt, Cleaver had served dinner that night to Will Stagg and Charlotte Borden, both of whom at that time were trendy youngsters who had done a few things. Stagg was as much of a dick then as now, Gaunt said, and Borden was going through a troubled period. As for the young Gaunt himself, he was callow, arrogant and rude. He was convinced that they were laughing up their sleeves at him and that they thought he should be mopping floors for a living. He shook his head.
‘I must have talked some rubbish that night.’
But Cleaver, he said, had been equal to his shortcomings as a dinner guest. Briskly, discreetly, with a glint of irony―and doing the same for the other two idiots at the table―she had coaxed him into loosening his grip on his own ego. She conducted an acerbic conversation, demanding hard thought and quick wits from her guests. She didn’t let you off on any particular point, but she drew you up to her level. The atmosphere in Cynthia Cleaver’s kitchen told you that writing was too serious a matter for writers to be allowed to get in its way.
‘I saw things differently after that,’ Gaunt said.
We ordered more coffees. Out of sheer discomfiture, I picked up the copy of Form and opened it at random. It was the passage where Vincent gets kidnapped. I told Gaunt – chuckling at how unlikely it sounded now I came to say it out loud – that I had always had this notion of something hidden in his work, something with its own separate existence. He looked blank. I began to speak faster and less coherently as I tried to get across what I meant. Not a point or an idea, I said, not a pattern or a design, but something big, something else, something you’ve been getting at all this time. A kind of fractal shape, so we have to know how to calculate it before it can appear. I wasn’t explaining well, I said. I heard a pleading note in my voice. At that moment, I felt that I was not asking Gaunt to confirm the existence of the secret figure, but to deny it.
He did not reply. He wasn’t surprised by what I had said; only embarrassed by the jumbled emotional demand I seemed all of a sudden to be making. Twenty minutes later we parted at a bus stop.
That day, seven years ago, was the last time I saw Gaunt. Life has changed since then, but I’ve been working on my next book the whole time. I still have a way to go. It’s an ambitious one, I suppose.
Encouragement is important, and I often look at my copy of Gaunt’s novel Germ, which arrived in the post a month after we met in the coffee shop. It has an inscription from the author. The date, my name, his name, and one other word: Upward. When I first saw that, the meaning was clear. Now it seems less so. I emailed Gaunt to thank him for the book, but there was no reply.
For a long time, I blamed myself for not having struck up a friendship. Now and then I felt I had defeated the whole purpose of writing The Heights of Sleep. The regret was useful, though, because it drove me on in the early stages of this new book. I liked to imagine that when it was finished it would redeem that failure. It would show beyond a doubt that I understood.
Gaunt dropped out of sight after Germ was published. He wasn’t reviewing. Nothing fresh came up when I searched for his name. My editor, in one of the conversations we still occasionally had, told me she had heard he was working on a new project. I imagined him in a late surge, setting out on a new inward journey at an age when most would be content to rest on an honourable career. Then one day I saw an arts-and-culture item which said that the cult author J. S. Gaunt had died at the age of seventy-six after a short illness.
I could hardly claim to have known the man, but it did have an impact. We would never have another book. We would never have another inimitably Gauntian sentence. Whatever happened on this planet from now on would happen without him. For a while I stopped writing, the first shock turning into gloomy months in which I couldn’t see the point. The woman with whom I had once argued over a literary festival was sympathetic, but I knew she thought it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if this was the end of my attempt at a second book. It might be good news for us all. It’s a pity she felt like that, and a pity I didn’t try harder to change her mind.
But setting a project aside can produce new insights, and soon I was seeing things I hadn’t noticed before. Unfinished as it was, the work in progress showed traces of a pattern or a shape that had yet to be revealed. I hadn’t planned it, but there it was, lurking in the edges. One night I dreamed that the world was one infinite house, and woke up convinced that if I could finish my work I would grasp the secret that was hidden there. A form would resolve itself into existence, the figure that had been implied all along although it had nothing to do with what the story appeared to be about.
Since then, I carry on. Some days progress is good, others not. I’ve learned not to force it. When the work won’t come, I walk around the city, not thinking about where I’m going. Not long ago I walked all day, and at the end of the afternoon found myself standing on an enclosed pedestrian bridge between a shopping centre and a multi-storey car park, watching the people in the street below. I stood for several minutes with my forehead close to the bronze-tinted glass, and then I saw my wife and daughter. They came out of an overground station and waited at the lights, hand in hand. They crossed the road and began to walk along the pavement, passing underneath me. I moved to the other side of the bridge to keep them in sight.
I watched them for as long as I could. I didn’t know why I was so afraid of losing them in the crowd, or why I was filled with this unexpected joy, this certainty that everything had been worthwhile. My daughter was wearing a plastic raincoat I hadn’t seen before. My wife looked young. They were nowhere near home.