Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Review of The Empty Chair

Empty Chairs by Des Lewis

Now in his mid-seventies, Des Lewis – aka D.F. Lewis – is an elder statesman of the British horror- and fantasy-writing scene. In a long career he has published several novels, over a thousand short stories, and he won the BFS Karl Edward Wagner Award in 1998. Since 2008, he has been conducting his unique Gestalt Real-Time Reviews of stories and novels, recording his ideas as they occur within the reading journey, creating a fresh, spontaneous improvisational commentary on the experience, which differs greatly from the usual sober punctilious kind of review put together with hindsight.

Des was kind enough to review my previous novel, Literary Stalker, and to my delight he commenced another review of The Empty Chair upon publication. Such a long novel – running to fifty chapters plus an epilogue, containing over two hundred thousand words – would seemingly merit a similar reviewing approach under Des’s method, and that is exactly how it turned out. Des produced an epic review of more than ten thousand words, rendered in instalments like episodes of a favourite radio or TV series, over a period of around one month.

I was amazed and enraptured by Des’s technique, picking up on most every subtle nuance and ‘clue’ within the metafictional framework, sometimes riffing on elements in the text with the inventiveness of a John Coltrane sax solo, and even in parts emulating William Burroughs’s cut-up method. Here are some choice quotations:

In my 2021 review of this author’s 2017 novel Literary Stalker, I speculated on the great novel I saw within its potential. I am confident that this brave new novel is that very promise fulfilled. […] In fact this whole book is fast – or slowly – becoming a tour de force with a felicity of novelistic skills that are breathtaking. […] I know I might risk allegations of serially overpraising it, but with regard to this huge unending tap of a book, it seems to be the actual great novel I predicted coming out of this author’s earlier novel.

 

Goodfellas dudes banter killer weed awful churn Bristol Yardies Beethoven Oxford…I feel my own head expanding unduly, ready to burst, as I readily read the motley ingredients of Steve’s world as split open again for us, good with bad, black with white. Skis seriously off piste. Once Bullish Shares now in a Bear-pit. […] It simply ever-expands with a Zeno’s feast — obviously directly experienced narratively at some uncertain level of the freehold / leasehold ladder or relay of truth — of powerful readerly vicariousness in the TV/film world of the period, with a seemingly endless treasure of recognisable references….

 

Bravo! to this book and what utter belief of its realities it conveys so realistically within it, whether it is Steve at last joining his bridge together as he ‘walks through the mirror’ with his Potter-vamped Empty Chair, as he indeed walks into Channel 4’s expressionist architecture together with all the name checking of famous actors and potential notable film-crew members […] But do I necessarily believe any of its claimants as narrator or author, and the unchanging names that become unnamed, and the others that arise in their guise? […] these scenes are attritional, testing the reader’s ability to appreciate them, but one does somehow appreciate their over-the-topness because they are setting false misprints of fabricated archetypal romcom to make you misbelieve truth itself, the truth that they often lead to tragedy.

 

This novel gets even better and better. Despite it once being rejected, it says here, by its author’s agent for further representation…but then there was still so much more mileage of the above ‘found art’ of wisdom, truth and creativity to travel, a ticket for endless travel within its pages. […] But I do believe it all, I do have a fearless faith in fiction, for example, to believe The French Lieutenant’s Woman scenes at the Cobb, the ‘telestocracy’ if not the teleology. […] Some of this endgame is utterly gut-wrenching, inspiring, too, as we muddle along, as our man does, in later life, picking up the pieces, exploiting one’s meagre strengths as I hope I do with fiction gestalt quests. […] And this is probably the most remarkable ending to any novel that I have ever read, one I could not put down today. So emotional, so spiritual, so utterly Jungian and Proustian….

The full review can be read here:

The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews

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DARKNESS VISIBLE 2021

My previous review of Roger Keen and this publisher: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2021/04/05/literary-stalker/

When I read this book, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…

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The Empty Chair – A Novel Thirty-Four Years in the Making

It wouldn’t be strictly true to say The Empty Chair took me thirty-four years to write – I hardly did a stroke of work on the project between 1988 and ’98, the period in which I was trying to reinvent myself as a ‘horror/crime’ writer – but that span of around a third of a century was necessary for the work to find its final form, and there could be no shortcuts.

Just like in the marvellous Richard Linklater film Boyhood, which was shot over twelve years, with the actors ageing in sync with their fictional counterparts, so the narrative of The Empty Chair had to make a real-time journey, from Steve Penhaligon’s Bonfire Night vision on November 5th 1986 to the final narrator’s ruminations as an ‘OAP’ in March 2020, just before the pandemic wiped out life as we knew it…

The Empty Chair is indeed a tale that expanded in the unfolding of its many iterations, and at 216,000 words it’s almost certainly the longest single work I shall compose. What’s it about? Well…a hell of a lot of things…I sketched a complex Venn diagram of its many strands and themes, but it’s too fiddly to reproduce in palatable form just at the moment, so instead I made a more straightforward list of some of the issues covered: Abuse. Anxiety. Alzheimer’s. Depression. Delusion. Obsession. Paranoia. Psychotherapy. Psychosis. Psychedelia. Incest. Nightmares. Self-harming. Sex addiction. Catholicism. Spiritualism. Synchronicity. Suicide. Murder. Death. Life after death. And all that in a novel which focuses strongly on the British film and television industry in the ’80s and ’90s…

Is it the story of my life…? Well, no, not really. It is not a roman à clef. I aimed to make sure the story pans out significantly differently to my own. But…it does contain many scenes that are taken from life, some that are light fictionalisations of real events, and many more that are complete fabrications. Which is which? Only I know for sure, and like in my previous books there is constant game playing with the relationship of truth and fiction, which layers-up into metafiction as the story progresses and those nudge-wink moments and intertextuality increase more and more. The fundamental idea, developing on from The Mad Artist and Literary Stalker, is that the act of telling a story about your life eventually becomes the story itself. Read more…

The Strange Days of the Mid-1970s

It was fortuitous that publisher Trevor Denyer happened to see my trippy photomontage ‘Man of Letters’ from my time at art college on my Facebook page The Mad Artist, publicising the memoir that details those years. He came to use it for the cover of his Strange Days – Midnight Street Anthology 4, featuring stories by many writer friends, including Simon Clark, Allen Ashley, Rhys Hughes, Gary Couzens and Terry Grimwood.

The image – reflecting a very ‘strange’ period in my life, as an art student in my early twenties – obviously resonated with Trevor and evoked the strangeness of more contemporary life, as reflected in the stories; and indeed as the year 2020 has progressed an even greater Strangeness has enveloped us all, so there is some prescience all round in words and images…

In looking at the montage again, plus the other associated photographs from that era, memories have been brought back – and it was a highly crazy, turbulent period.

I was sharing a flat at the time with Vince, a fellow photography student, and we had many wild drunken times (see The Mad Artist Chapters 15-17). We partied on the Isle of Wight, picked up girls together, and once attended a college party where I almost started up a train, and I ended the night having a ‘friendly fight’ with Vince where I sustained some mild facial damage. The hangover was far worse! I was absolutely ‘mad’ in those days, hence the title of the memoir.

Our flat had the capacity for four people, and Vince and I had constant trouble filling the other spaces – and we had to endure interference from our puritan Irish landlord, who thought it was ‘immoral’ that boys and girls should share together.

One of our flatmates was the ditsy Zoe, who was escaping a troubled home life with her parents. A crisis was precipitated when she later stole a selection of albums from everyone in the flats, the police came around to investigate, and the landlord evicted Zoe and her suicidal boyfriend on the grounds of their multiple sins.

Vince went back to the Isle of Wight for the weekend, I was left on my own in the flat, and I decided to drop some LSD, as you do…It was a weird trip, involving boa constrictors on the ceiling, and looking in the mirror to see my Syd Barrett-like appearance transform into Neanderthal Man and many other things (full details in Chapter 17). But a lasting outcome was a resurgence of my letters-of-the-alphabet textural hallucination encountered on other trips (see Chapter 3).

Vince was a very talented photographic artist and his speciality was photomontage – I liked his work and wanted to somehow emulate it. Bearing this in mind, I decided to produce the photomontage based on the trip ideas.

At my previous art college, I’d already fashioned the letters out of plywood, each around four inches high, and now I positioned them on a colorama in the studio and photographed them with a wide-angle lens to give the impression of a landscape. Then I got Vince to photograph me in a phone box, a faraway look in my eyes as I held the receiver to my head, an action inspired by the strangeness of having to phone my parents during my first ever acid trip, also recorded in the Psychedelic Press XXIX Journal (sold out, unfortunately).

With the addition of a dramatic afternoon sky, shot in the New Forest, the elements were ready, and I composited them together using a scalpel, scissors and glue, as this was eons before the Age of the Computer. Vince was sceptical at first, but when he saw the finished result he gave it his seal of approval, and it was my best picture at the end-of-year show. Now it lives again in the equally – if not more! – Strange Days of the 2020s, thanks to Trevor.

More details about Midnight Street Anthology 4

More details about The Mad Artist

Recent Psychedelic Writings

February 14, 2020 Leave a comment

The latest Psychedelic Press Journal, Issue XXIX, contains an account of ‘My First Trip’ – another in the long-running series initiated by editor Nikki Wyrd.

For me this is the latest of many iterations in writing about this formative experience, which took place in December 1975, over forty-four years ago now. The longest version, of course, is the seventeen-thousand-word account at the start of my memoir, The Mad Artist, but here was an opportunity to boil it down and make it more concise for magazine purposes.

Processing the experience once again, I was reminded of the hair-raising aspects of the trip, which was both extremely strong – due to the LSD itself: Operation Julie Vintage in double dose – and was rendered more hazardous still by the poor choice of setting – country woods and roadways, involving passing cars, on a cold unforgiving winter’s night. In a way it’s a cautionary tale about how not to conduct a first trip!

Nikki Wyrd sets these factors in context in her Editorial and comes up with the delightful phrase ‘retroactive enchantment’, in order to describe how a subject’s view of an event can mature and transform over time as the various factors are processed and its true value comes to the fore. Nikki has said she sees these ‘First Trips’ as watersheds in peoples’ lives, a significant rite of passage, and she hopes the collection will provide a resource for historians of the future, with a range of times and places featured. A worthy project indeed!

Also the excellent cover of Issue XXIX, designed by Tom Andrews of Done London, was inspired by my ‘First Trip’ account, with the woodland setting featuring awesomely in the mandala-based imagery.

Other pieces include a wry trip poem by Kerry Rowberry, written in Birmingham dialect, which evokes Irvine Welsh’s use of dialect in Trainspotting; there’s a very vivid account of an epoch-making DMT trip from Anthony Pellegrino, with great existential resonance like my own; Mike Fioroto provides a psychedelic short story, and there are articles from Daniel Kelley, Mark Juhan and a review of Andy Roberts’ Divine Rascal from Rob Dickins. Another superb knowledge-packed issue!

More information: Psychedelic Press

SPECIAL OFFER FROM VALENTINE’S DAY FOR ONE WEEK: KINDLE EDITION OF THE MAD ARTIST AT HALF PRICE ON AMAZON.COM & AMAZON.CO.UK – LINKS HERE Read more…

Being John Malkovich Blu-ray

Old, New and New Inside Out!

Out now, new 4K restoration of the 1999 movie from Arrow Academy, featuring a reversible sleeve (see above) and many new extras, including a featurette exploring the marionettes made for the film, the full Floor 7½ corporate video seen in the film, and the full pseudo-documentary “John Horatio Malkovich: Dance of Despair and Disillusionment”.

The first pressing includes a booklet containing archive publicity materials and an in-depth essay by myself, where I explore the phenomenon that is John Malkovich, the phenomenon that is Charlie Kaufman (screenwriter) and how they fused so marvelously in this piece.

Find out more here: Arrow Films

Midsommar: Folk Horror Trip of the Year

Welcome to Trippy Sweden!

With its many striking tropes, shocks and grotesque elements, the folk horror sensation Midsommar has become a big talking point among fans of weird and psychedelic movies, and my favourite of the moment. Here is an in-depth article I wrote for the excellent Sweden-based psychedelic culture site The Oak Tree Review, run by Henrik Dahl.


 

The noun ‘trip’ and the adjective ‘trippy’ have long been embedded in the language as generalised indicators of anything that is weird, far out, uncanny or whatever, and when it comes to movies they are customarily overused. But with regard to those genuinely trippy cinematic journeys, the ones which connoisseurs know, love, recognise and seek out, then we have to dust off those words once again because there are none better.

Movies which are simpatico with the psychedelic experience have been around long before alternative culture flourished in the 1960s, tapping into a collective unconscious thread, perhaps, from the shorts of Georges Méliès through to mainstream entertainment such as The Wizard of OzFantasia and fortuitously big budget art films like A Matter of Life and Death. The direct impact of the ’60s gave us 2001: A Space Odyssey and a slew of films featuring actual showcased trip sequences, including Easy RiderAltered States and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, together with hippyish alternative cult movies such as Performance and The Holy Mountain.

Those same terms of reference boosted the sci-fi sub genre cyberpunk, with the riffs of Philip K. Dick echoing through TronTotal RecallThe Matrix and A Scanner Darkly. Then there’s the freeform, madcap quality of early Surrealist films such as Un Chien Andalou and The Seashell and the Clergyman, pointing to the later works of Buñuel – notably Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The French art film tradition, including Cocteau’s Orphée and Le testament d’Orphée, Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating also project that same dream/fugue/ trip quality. With all this feeding through, by the early days of the twenty-first century, we had a clearly established phenomenon – the postmodern weird mind-bending movie that nods to psychedelic experience, regardless of whether drugs are present or absent.

Of these the standout example is David Lynch’s Möbius strip surreal-noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive, quite rightly voted the greatest movie of the century so far. Lynch has never taken drugs, but then neither did Salvador Dali, yet in the works of both of these artists the sensibilities are there to see, getting knowing recognition from those who are ‘experienced’. Lynch’s splendid dive into a hallucinatory netherworld where higher dream logic has supplanted quotidian cause-and-effect and linear space-time is, to coin a word, definitively trippy. There are many other examples from the last twenty years, too numerous to discuss, and each of us will have favourites. My own are Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Read more on: The Oak Tree Review

 

Singing Detective Gogglebox

Yes, we’ve all indulged when we should have been viewing something better — those families and couples with their feet up on the furniture, munching unhealthy snacks, watching TV and making banal comments, hardly at the Brian Sewell level of critical acumen. But this kind of trashy entertainment is addictive, like monosodium glutamate in food, and no one is immune.

So Gogglebox has endured and gone the way of all reality TV, and like Big BrotherLove IslandMade in Chelsea, whatever, it has become a construct where the producers know what they want and manage the shooting to obtain that result. I can imagine the directors doing cutaway reactions, getting the protagonists to badly fake ‘surprise’, ‘wonder’, ‘outrage’ — or to say ‘Oh my God!’ when Glenn Close comes out of the bath in Fatal Attraction, even though we’ve all seen it at least twenty times before.

I had my own idea for a variation: MetaGogglebox, where people are filmed watching Gogglebox, and then the people watching the people watching Gogglebox are filmed…Yes, I know, I’ve seen Synecdoche, New York one too many times…But then another idea, slightly more sensible, occurred to me when writing my novel-in-progress…Suppose there existed in some other reality an intellectual version the programme, where people drank fine claret and talked about their television viewing in much more exalted terms…? So I created a chapter where the greatest TV drama serial ever comes under scrutiny — Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, no less.

What follows is not an extract from the work, but a bit of fun with ideas suggested by my writing. Imagine an upmarket media couple, sat in the lounge of their six-bedroom house in Hampstead, glasses of Haut-Médoc in hand…

Read more on: Medium

Literary Stalker – A ‘Gay Novel’ by a Straight Author

February 1, 2019 Leave a comment

As part of The Ginger Nuts of Horror LGBTQ+ Horror Month, I have penned this piece concerning the rationale and technical challenges I faced in producing Literary Stalker as a ‘gay novel’, with references to gay novelists Alan Hollinghurst, William Burroughs, Joel Lane and others. William Burroughs’s second novel Queer was a particular inspiration, as was Joel Lane’s From Blue To Black. Queer photo: 1986 Picador edition.


 

At the Hay Festival last year, prominent gay novelist Alan Hollinghurst declared that the gay novel has had its day. He said that in earlier decades it possessed urgency and novelty, but now it is ‘…dissolving back into everything else and we are living increasingly in a culture where sexuality is not so strongly defined.’ Broadly speaking, Hollinghurst feels that as homosexuality is now so familiar and generally accepted, the ‘gay novel’ no longer has an edge.

Yet the recent story of Matt Cain and The Madonna of Bolton (published in 2018), shows there is some vibrancy left in the phenomenon of the ‘gay novel’. A tale of a northern gay lad growing up in the 1980s and worshipping the singer Madonna, Cain’s novel was widely rejected by publishers for being ‘too gay’, ‘a little niche’ and also for not having the highbrow literary credentials of Hollinghurst’s work. But through a crowdfunding campaign and the support of backers such as David Walliams, Mark Gatiss and Lisa Jewell, it was published and proved popular with a large audience.

Nonetheless Hollinghurst does have a point. In an age where gay love stories and their tribulations are featured universally in screen dramas and soaps such as Coronation Street, what can the ‘gay novel’ do to be transgressive again? It has become a well-trodden path with familiar tropes, and so has the status of a genre one can dabble in, such as horror or science fiction. Which is the precise point where I personally interfaced with its world. For reasons of plot expediency, I set out, as a straight man, to manufacture – to the best of my ability – a ‘gay novel’.

Read more on: The Ginger Nuts of Horror

To read other Ginger Nuts Literary Stalker pieces, please follow these links:

Book Excerpt, Medusacon 2006

Author Interview with Roger Keen

Review of Literary Stalker by Jim Mcleod

Ginger Nuts of Horror Review of Literary Stalker

December 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Here, Ginger Nuts main man Jim Mcleod playfully explores his scepticism of ‘meta-horror’ by writing a ‘meta-review’, but through grappling with the ideas he comes out positive about the whole concept:

In all seriousness, though Literary Stalker is an ambitious book and one that for the vast majority of its length works exceptionally well. This is a rich and slightly darkly comic novel that has a lot to say about the not so new culture of social media and the instant unearned quest for fame and validation…Keen could have taken the easy route and written this as a straightforward novel with a linear narrative, but Keen isn’t your average writer, and his use of a story within a story multidimensional narrative is more than just a gimmick, it takes reading experience into a whole new level of cleverness.

So here is yet another most generous review from a high profile critic or writer. Big thanks is due to Jim for the review and for hosting the interview and book excerpt, making up the package (see posts below). In January I will be contributing an article to Ginger Nuts LGBT+ Month, concerning the challenge of a straight author creating an authentic gay narrator for Literary Stalker, touching on the influence of gay novelists such as William Burroughs and Joel Lane, and looking at the phenomenon of the ‘gay novel’.

Read the full review on: The Ginger Nuts of Horror

Ginger Nuts of Horror Interview with Roger Keen

November 22, 2018 Leave a comment

In conjunction with other Literary Stalker-related material on the Ginger Nuts site, this author interview deals with early influences, my views on horror literature, writing technique, social media and the process of being reviewed by peers. It contains thoughts about the semi-autobiographical and metafictional strands in The Mad Artist and Literary Stalker, and other things, such as the importance of character naming.

Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?

I went to art college in the 1970s and was very involved in the counter-culture scene of that era. I particularly loved the Beat writers, Burroughs and Kerouac, and surrealist painters such as Dali and Magritte. I painted for a while and then took up photography and filmmaking, and after college I worked in TV, including the drama series Robin of Sherwood in the ’80s. I’ve always liked Gothic fiction and movies, and in the ’90s I started writing horror stories and got into the scene, as it was then. More recently I’ve been reviving those associations because Literary Stalker is a return to the horror/crime genre and also it’s ‘about’ the horror-writing world.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Watching films and TV and reading, naturally. I try to root out more obscure films and novels I’ve always meant to watch and read – and also classics – and when I finally get around to experiencing them it’s always rewarding. Also I like walking, sometimes in wild country such as the Lake District and the Alps, and occasionally I play golf and ski in winter. I’m a big fan of Indian food and West Country cider, usually in that order.

Read more on: The Ginger Nuts of Horror

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