The very first book I can remember reading was about intrepid Earthmen discovering and combating a race of Moon beings living beneath the surface of our satellite. The title, author and conclusion are lost in the mists of time, but it did help shape a lifetime’s interest in what we now term speculative fiction. I do wander off into other genres from time to time, but always in addition to my helpings of sf and horror, never replacing them.
Choosing one book above all others, as this series insists you do, is an almost impossible task. My reading history has been littered with ‘important moments’. Catch 22, Something Wicked This Way Comes, I Am Legend, Dying Inside and any number of Philip K Dick novels came to mind as part of an even longer list of possibilities. Pushing very hard near the top was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but that has been so many people’s coming-of-age experience and so many words have already been written about it. In the end I settled on William Burroughs’ extraordinary Nova Express.
William Seward Burroughs was the older intellectual looked up to by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in the formative years of the Beat Era. He played around at the edges of a literary career and it took the accidental (was it? We will never really know) shooting of his wife to harden his writing ambitions. He felt it was the only way he could give her death any meaning. Whatever the truth, and maybe it was exactly as he said, Burroughs did indeed become a writer of lasting importance, his tentacles spreading far and wide. He had a great influence on, for instance, J. G. Ballard and the New Wave school based around Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds.
Nova Express, as the saying goes, knocked my socks off. A story of hallucinatory and interplanetary cops and robbers, pitting the Nova Police against the Nova Mob. Peopled by characters like Hamburger Mary and the Subliminal Kid. Pointing towards an apocalyptic future yet rooted in a damning indictment of the present. For him, the outlook was grim, but laid out in so radical a manner that it engaged the reader on many levels.
“The only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius” said Norman Mailer at the time.
“The future of the novel lies in Burroughs’ hands” stated Books and Bookmen.
You read some novels that are so good you dream of being able to adopt the style as your own. That did not happen when I read Nova Express. I knew I would never write in any way like William Burroughs. What the book did do was free my mind as to the possibilities of language, its use, and the way in which words can be placed in a variety of ways, all making sense or not, as required.
Along with The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express was the third and final part of The Nova Trilogy, which covered Burroughs’ obsession with the Brion Gysin instigated cut-up technique. Always open to a new literary device, he used the method for many years, including in films with British director Anthony Balch.
A strange and complex man, traits often mirrored in his writing, he would switch from hints of a remarkable talent to total unreadability, often within the same piece. A kinder side to his nature than he was usually credited with surfaced in pre-war Austria when he married a Jewish woman to secure her a visa to escape the Nazis. He also, at one stage, planned a bank robbery, but when the time came he was too drunk to carry it out.
I still to this day own a dog-eared and battered copy of Nova Express. I can flick it open at any page and dip into the oddball world of Izzy the Push and all the others. THE FISH POISON CON says one heading. WILL HOLLYWOOD NEVER LEARN? says another. It’s a different world, quite unlike any other. Jack Kerouac called him the greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift. Burroughs too feared a prepackaged future and sent in the Nova Police. May they ever continue to hunt down the Mob.
The diabolical Nova Criminals now include the nightmarish characters of Sammy the Butcher, Iron Claws, Izzy the Push and the Brown Artist, and are poised to wreak untold destruction on the world with their new-found control. Only Inspector Lee of the Nova Police has any chance of stopping them, by dismantling the word and image machine before it's too late. The third book of Burroughs's linguistically prophetic 'cut-up' trilogy - following The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded - Nova Express is a hilarious and Swiftian parody of bureaucracy and the frailty of the human animal.
Bryn Fortey has been writing short stories and poems since the 1960s, from science fiction to horror and all points in between. His work appeared in seminal anthologies, such as The Fontana Book of Great Horror Stories and New Writings in Horror and the Supernatural. Forty plus years later The Alchemy Press presents Bryn's first collection, a comprehensive array of his best stories and poems. Stand out stories include the two "Shrewhampton" tales that bookend this collection. Merry-Go-Round includes an introduction by Johnny Mains.