This is a follow on from the facebook meme which has been doing the rounds of late. Below are a list of four writers whose work has changed the way I look at the world, at people or at fiction. Surprisingly, there’s no literary figures here. All of them are commercial writers. I figured that the likes of William Shakespeare, Italo Calvino or Geoffery Chaucer would figure in the shorter list but they don’t. Great literature may elucidate the human condition but, when the chips are down, we turn to that which speaks to us loudly and clearly rather than that which others tell us we should.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft: There’s something about HPL’s bleak vision which I share at some deep biological level. His reaction against the anthropomorphising of the universe, whether as for or against us, just plain makes sense to me. If I was lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, I’d probably say that the feeling of being alone in an uncaring and thoroughly disinterested universe is something I know very well and struggle with daily. However, this is not a shrink’s office so I won’t say that. He is thoroughly misunderstood as both a writer and a man. So often I want to punch in the face those who claim to be Lovecraft fans who don’t have the slightest inkling of what makes him tick.
A. Bertram Chandler: On the opposite end of the scale, this Aussie (not half as well-known as he should be) is so concerned with the doings of humans that he cannot help but inspire an interest in human affairs. His sci-fi (particular the Rim of Space novels) are concerned with individuals making the best of what they have, with people clinging to each other for warmth and comfort in the coldness of space and, by doing that, creating something more greater and more valuable than themselves. While I find much of his writing quite sad, it is also, in a strange way, very uplifting. When I despair of human nature, I turn to Chandler to have my faith in people restored.
Bernard Cornwell: This guy showed me for the first time that historical fiction need not take liberties with history. At first, I found it comical that he includes an appendix in each novel showing what minor tweaks he made to the actual timeline of events he portrays. Then I came to really appreciate it. Rather than manipulating history to fit a preconceived story idea, Cornwell often takes advantage of points of confusion in accounts of historical events and attempts to work out from a very human point of view why the confusion exists. Of course, all of these works were written before the popularity of the Sharpe television series (which I really enjoy), after which all his characters became supermen who conquer all in a single bound and completely worthless.
William Hope Hodgson: Rather better known as a writer of early horror tales, to me Hodgson was my introduction to the wonders of sea stories, which lead on to the likes of C.S. Forester, Dudley Pope and Rafael Sabatini. Looking back over this list, I see that Hodgson ties the threads together in that his sea stories show Chandler’s interest with the fate and doings of individuals in a vast and uncaring Lovecraftian universe presetned with Cornwell’s concern for realism and reality.