The Curmudgeon


Saturday, March 01, 2008

L P Davies

I first encountered the work of Leslie Purnell Davies as a result of seeing a film called The Groundstar Conspiracy on late-night television. It starred George Peppard as a security chief investigating an explosion at a secret base, and Michael Sarrazin as a mysterious, apparently amnesiac young man who might be a terrorist, an innocent or perhaps not of this earth. The film was based, rather loosely, on Davies' novel The Alien (1968), which I found on one of the second-hand book stalls at the invaluable Preston Market some time later. Although I knew and deplored the famous Hollywood habit of faithfulness to adapted texts, I was still a bit startled to find the book based in England in the year 2016, rather than present-day America; and even more surprised to find that the security chief, a major character in the film, was little more than a vaguely sinister presence on the novel's sidelines. The central character is the amnesiac who, among other symptoms, has unexplained scars on his head and chest, finds it difficult to breathe the local atmosphere, and has something in his veins that clearly is not human blood. Apart from the difficulty of not knowing who he is - spy? murderer? extraterrestrial infiltrator? - he also has to contend with the various sinister interests whose attention he has attracted.

A bit later I also read Davies' The Artificial Man (1965), about a science fiction writer who begins to doubt the reality of his surroundings, which struck me at the time as being rather too much like Philip K Dick's Time Out of Joint (1959); then I forgot about him until I read S T Joshi's essay in The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004). Joshi regards Davies' work as "in its quiet way, some of the most remarkable weird fiction written during the 1960s and 1970s", and on that recommendation, I quickly got hold of three more Davies novels. The most outrageous is the superbly-titled Psychogeist (1967), in which the subconscious of an elderly paranoiac, saturated with the comic-book fantasies he read in his youth, reanimates the corpse of a drifter which then goes marauding about the countryside believing itself to be a primitive superhero from another planet. Davies' clear, restrained style, in contrast to the publisher's blurb ("A nightmare of violence and terror, in which logic ceases to exist ... in which all things are the wild inventions of a deranged mind!"), makes it all eminently convincing.

Twilight Journey (1968) opens with a man, apparently another amnesiac, struggling across a wasteland to a tatty café where the man behind the counter provides him with some helpful information:

"This is a café. It is larger than a snack-bar, smaller than a restaurant. A restaurant is often part of a hotel. A hotel is a larger and better-class place than a lodging-house. The customers who frequent this café are mainly long-distance lorry drivers and workmen. The lorries carry industrial components, foodstuffs - "

The protagonist, it turns out, is a twenty-second-century scientist undergoing a form of virtual reality, called "senduction", which he has developed. The process was originally intended as an educational aid, but certain elements of the British government have less benign plans. This is, after all, science fiction. There is also a danger of "reversal", whereby a user of the senduction process may be brought back to the real world still believing themselves to be in a virtual one. The story moves between the outside world, where the scientist's colleagues and the men from the ministry are investigating the situation he has created; and the virtual reality, in which he eventually experiences a terrifying dystopian future as a result of his own beliefs about the uses to which the government will put his discovery.

In The Shadow Before (1970), a struggling London pharmacist has an operation to remove a brain tumour, resulting in a long, elaborate hallucination in which he is living in a large house under a new name, having apparently become wealthy as a result of some criminal activity. Having lost his memory because of a car accident, he recovers some of it only to discover that he and his partners in crime are about to be exposed. As the situation reaches a crisis, he wakes up in hospital; but over the next few weeks he becomes involved, not quite involuntarily, in the very crime that, in his hallucination, had originally made him rich. Even when he tries to use the dream as a guide to what he should not do - attempting to keep someone out of the real conspiracy who was involved in the dream one, for example - events seem to conspire against him. As in Twilight Journey, Davies tears through his convoluted plot in less than two hundred pages without a moment's confusion or a wasted word, and ties everything up at the end in an entirely satisfying and unpredictable fashion.

Given Davies' consistent concern with memory, identity and official snoopery, his work should retain its relevance well into the 2000s; and I have been fortunate enough to contribute in a small way to its revival. Some time ago I was contacted by a Mr Daniel Caffrey from Trashface, a publishing house dedicated to reprinting "books which otherwise languish in bargain basements and on Abe Books in secondhand Corgi editions". He had read my piece on Thomas Page's The Hephaestus Plague; Page's oeuvre is one of those scheduled for revival, and amid much shameless flattery Mr Caffrey asked if I knew of any other worthy candidates. I mentioned L P Davies and Psychogeist, and Mr Caffrey duly turned up trumps. Trashface launches today, and will be re-launching L P Davies in April. At his best, Davies brilliantly conveys the fragility and mutability of what we have inside our skulls, and it's a privilege to have head-hunted him.


  • At 10:00 pm , Anonymous Pat said...

    We read a lot of LP Davies a few years ago. His writing and inventive plots were superb and he should be out there for people to read now.
    New Jersey


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