DESPERATELY SEEKING TOM
(WELL … SUSAN WASN’T IN)
David J. Howe looks at the words of Tom Holt
Tom Holt has been variously described as a number of things, most of which are not printable and a couple that are unpronounceable. He has also been variously described which might be some form of medieval punishment for a struggling writer in which a writing implement is forcibly removed from the person’s anatomy or it might be the systematic stripping away of all the layers of fiction that a writer creates about himself to reveal a trembling and weedy little man, someone who might be the brother of the chap in the Mr. Muscle adverts, or maybe Charles Hawtrey’s cousin.
If a butcher’s worth is judged by the quality of the meat he sells (and by the number of people who have not come down with some insidious government-denied brain disease after buying from him), then a writer must be judged on his words. Tom Holt uses all manner of words in his books. There are long ones, short ones, ones that make no sense, ones he has made up, foreign ones, foreign sounding ones that have probably been made up and ones that are spelt incorrectly. In fact, there is only one word that is spelt incorrectly – work it out for yourself. In the trade we call them ‘typos’.
All these words are put together with numerous forms of punctuation, printed by some arcane means by the presses affiliated to messieurs Little and Brown (I always start humming a song about jugs when I deal with this particular publisher), and then thrust out into a largely unfeeling and uncaring world where other people can gaze upon Tom Holt’s particular arrangements of words and murmur words of appreciation and awe at how witty and clever he is. Or at least how witty and clever they assume he must be.
Tom Holt writes about real life. His characters inhabit the real world. They just don’t hold much truck with the laws of physics, so that, to pick a random example, if the sun doesn’t rise one morning, it’s because the bloke whose job it was to open the garage doors and let the chariot carrying it out, had a skinful last night and now cannot be found. In fact, he will be found hours later, in the boudoir of one of the moon’s sisters, muttering about how he really shouldn’t have had that curry last night, and that he is sure that 20th pint was a bit dodgy.
There are no convenient alternative worlds carted around by giant spaceborne reptiles. There is no (well, very little) magic. What there is are stories based around reality, but mixed with a very liberal dose of unreality.
Another example, in Flying Dutch, we meet the Flying Dutchman, an immortal being who is being hunted by a certain insurance company, because he has now lived for so long that if he ever does die, his life insurance claim would bankrupt the company. Holt’s views on insurance, while we are on the subject, must be read to be believed. The fact that the author used to work in an insurance company, he claims, is in no way responsible for his views on the matter.
Holt’s books make you chuckle. They make you smile. They may even make you laugh, but that depends on what you are like as a person, and, speaking for myself, I will never through choice, choose the seat on the train next to the chap with a book who is laughing out loud. Just in case … you understand.
He has also written an awful lot of them. This seems to be a symptom of several humorous fantasy authors. It’s almost as though the plots, puns and characters come bursting out of them, and they have to write it all down before their brains explode from the pressure. There’s an image to conjure with. Holt has been creating books at the rate of about two a year for several years now and they are all pretty good.
His latest is My Hero and shows that practical physics is no barrier to a writer’s imagination. In Holt’s universe, characters created by authors are real and they inhabit a world of fiction. There is a God-like entity called Central Casting who puts up clients for the ‘jobs’ as they come up. Some clients have been around for years playing, for example, Hamlet. While others get cast as heroes all the time, some end up as villains. The problem is that fact and fiction have become a little muddled, and a writer of westerns has become trapped in his book. Hamlet, on the other hand, finds himself thrust into the real world in a cobbled together body created by Yorkshireman Norman Frankenbotham. Norman wants to call his creation Stanley Earnshaw, but Hamlet flees.
It is up to Jane, trusty Jane. She of the typewriter and the plot, to try and extract all these characters from the mess that they have got themselves into and back into their own books, reality or otherwise. This is how we come to have a novel which contains elements of Jane Austen alongside Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. How the gun toting anti-hero of a million westerns finds himself with the Queen of the Fairies (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). It also explains how sometimes an author’s characters don’t seem to do what the author wanted them to. ‘They had lives of their own …’ is the much cited authorial excuse. Well now we know this to be true.
Holt is an original. A one off. His books cannot be compared to those by other humorous fantasy authors because they are of a different ilk. He has marked out territory for himself and, so far, he is the only one playing on this particular turf.
Treat yourself to a stuck together pile of sheets of paper printed with words arranged by Tom Holt. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
1987 Expecting Someone Taller
1988 Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?
1991 Flying Dutch
1992 Ye Gods!
1993 Here Comes The Sun
1994 Faust Among Equals
1995 Odds and Gods
1995 Djinn Rummy
1996 My Hero
David J Howe