Extract from novel

I won’t do this too often, I promise. Mostly I’ll just sneak in quiet plugs here and there. But this is a full-on extract from my novel, We Used Dark Forces, which is available from Amazon UK and from Amazon US and from all the other Amazons.

Anne Billson, critic and novelist (Suckers, The Half Man, Cats on Film) said “Like the bastard offspring of Agatha Christie and HP Lovecraft squished through an Ealing comedy mangler and running amok in a Scottish castle at the height of the Blitz. Slapstick surrealism at its most compelling and hilarious. Whitsuntide is an anti-hero for the ages.”

David Quantick, screenwriter (The Thick of It, Veep, TV Burp) said: “We Used Dark Forces is a twisted mixture of dark wit, wry horror and splendidly-applied imagination.”

Wry horror is going to be my speciality, I think. Now for the extract. I think I was inspired here, if I may use that word, by seeing a TV doc years ago about Len Deighton’s nameless spy (later to become Harry Palmer, the blandest name they could think of), where one of the talking heads on offer exaggerated the facelessness of the character somewhat. A seed was planted, and I began to consider blandness as a superpower.

Inspector Graham There has been summoned to Scotland Yard Underground to receive a strange commission from Sir Sheckley Frestle-Mottram. Now read on…

It’s hard to describe Sir Sheckley Frestle-Mottram, let alone sum him up. He’d occupied a senior position at Scotland Yard for some fifty years, yet still had the vigour of a man ten years younger: perhaps ninety or so. He eyed me with, well, an eye, an eye which had seen things I’d never dreamed of, and probably vice versa. You hear of people having a faraway look. Sir Sheckley had the opposite of that. In his presence, I had never felt more in someone’s presence. But the feeling wasn’t mutual.

“Then?” he asked. This rather threw me. Then I surmised it was, perhaps, a stab at my name.

“There, sir,” I corrected him, as respectfully as possible.

“Here?” he asked, which didn’t seem to get us much further.

“Here to see you,” I agreed, then added, a bit uncertainly, “There.”

“Sit down there,” he ordered, or it might have been “Sit down, There.” He nodded at a spot on the rug, but I chose to interpret his nod loosely, and opted for the nearest chair.

“I have a case that’s perfect for you,” he said, flipping open a folder. Then he seemed to forget I was present. Which I’m used to.

“Very gratifying, sir,” I said, hoping to bring things into focus again.

“You needn’t feel flattered,” he snapped. “It isn’t any particular great quality that suits you to this job. Rather, it’s your singular lack of qualities.”

“Sir?”

“Your superiors tell me you’re apt, those of them that remember you exist. Good. I need an apt man who makes as little impression as possible, and you seem to satisfy the latter requirement to a staggering degree. You have no distinguishing traits. No personality. People not only forget you after they meet you, they seem to forget you while they’re meeting you. I’m looking right at you and I can barely see you.”

“Sir?”

“You have a rare talent, Where, you’re a human chameleon. A man of a thousand faces, all of them identical. You’ve heard the expression ‘The best place to hide a leaf is in a forest’? You, sir, are our forest.”

“Sir?”

“We’ve had our eye on you for some time, or at least I think we have. Not my eye, of course, my eye was taken out by a Mahdi spear in ’85. This one’s onyx. No, I mean the great, all-seeing eye of the Yard, which does all our head-hunting. And not like the head-hunters who got mine and shrunk it in ’92, I mean in a benign, caring way. This one’s brass, mostly. Works like a charm. Amazing what the boffins can do nowadays.”

“Sir?” – there didn’t seem to be anything else I could say, you know, and this repeated monosyllable did seem to have the effect of spurring him on. All I could hope for at this stage was to keep the conversation in some kind of motion, in the vague expectation of ending up somewhere comprehensible again.

“My point is that you, sir, are a find. A miracle, a prodigy, no, better than that, a freak of nature. A vacuum in human form, without a shred of charisma or charm or even basic human dignity. When you walk into a room it’s like somebody left. As you approach, you seem to get further away. The more I look at your blank, lifeless features, the more fascinated I become by my blotter.”

“Sir…” I tried to repurpose my word as a sort of remonstrance.

“Have much trouble getting served in bars?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“No. Just you.”

I must admit, he was starting to get on my nerves, partly because there was a nagging ring of truth to his words, as if he were writing my spiritual biography, summing up the way I’d seemed to spend my thirty-two years passing through the world without leaving a ripple.

“You exemplify all the negative qualities, Then,” he was saying. “You name it, you haven’t got it.”

“There,” I corrected. “There!”

“No need to console me, you’re the one with the terrible problem.”

“But there must be millions like me.”

“Yes,” he said, pounding the desk with his hook, “But not exactly like you. Whereas you are exactly like you, to a quite startling degree. You’re like an empty suit of clothes walking around, talking, eating watercress sandwiches — though obviously not as interesting as that would be. But this gives you an advantage over the common man, or should I say, the slightly less common man. You can vanish into a crowd because you are the crowd. Everyone assumes they already know you because you’re like everybody else, more like them than they are. A resemblance without an original. An exact lookalike of nobody special. Where other people have presence, you have absence. If you stood in front of another man, I’d still be able to see him better than you. You’re not a person, you’re not even an outline. You’re the echo of an unspoken thought. The sound of one hand failing to clap.”

7 Responses to “Extract from novel”

  1. Already got my copy!

    Besides the regulars, who would be your dream cast for an adaptation?

  2. Incredibly, I haven’t thought about it much. Well, General Shillingway could be Gavin Mitchell since his character from the short isn’t in it. But I was sort of thinking of Roger Allam in Parade’s End.

    Inspector There is slightly uncastable, maybe he should be a subjective camera and a blur. Or maybe Jack Davenport could do it.

    I can picture the grotesques but I don’t have actors in mind for them, or not living ones. Stagmantle might be Wilfred Lawson, Binky might be Seymour Hicks put through anachronistic digital shrinking, and Zalewski could be Tutte Lemkow in a bald cap or maybe Daniel Emilfork?

    Maybe Geraldine Somerville as Cannula, haven’t seen her in a while.

  3. chris schneider Says:

    Just saw IPCRESS FILE for the first time last night (shameful admission!), and this is very reminiscent of that film’s interviews. Also of the difficulty of addressing a character named “He” in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED.

  4. Mark Fuller Says:

    I don’t know about casting, per se, but I’m hearing your voice in There’s lines. So you’re in as far as the audiobook…..

  5. Fiona suggested getting Steven McNicoll, who played McWheattie in the short. I reckon, if it could be arranged, me doing There (although he’s supposed to be a Londoner), Steven and Freddie and Gav as Gen. Shillingway… multiple voices to match the multiple voices of the text.

    But I should probably concentrate on writing the sequel and/or getting the TV series proposal in front of some important heads.

  6. Getting C. Aubrey Smith vibes from Frestle-Mottram.

  7. Yes! I was probably thinking of Richard Vernon’s voice, but CAS would give us that, plus a startling fizzog. Oh, John Barron (CJ from the amazing Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) is in there too.

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