Category Archives: Reading

Retelling the Tell-Tale Heart

I think perhaps that audiobooks have something of stigma attached. I can understand this – and to some extent agree with it. The narrator can get in the way of the narrative if he/she isn’t suitable for the title. It’s easy for the narrator to overdo (or understate) the story – in fact, it’s pretty hard to tell a good story verbally. And then there’s that nasty business of abridging – in my book, a euphemism for ‘chopping the heart out of’.

Real readers want real books, the way the writer intended.

Yet, storytelling has a long tradition; far longer than the printed word. It’s how stories were first handed down. If you’ve not been to a storytelling event, I very much recommend Festival at the Edge, a weekend of tales long and short, a little music and (if you’re like me) quite a bit of beer. Enjoying stories socially – and even interacting with the reader – can seem a little odd, but it’s remarkably enjoyable.

So in the end, I have to dismiss prejudice against the audiobook in the same way I do prejudice against the comic book. Just because it’s not printed prose, doesn’t mean it’s not a valid way to tell the tale.

And so, after that preamble, onto an audiobook I’ve just finished, Edgar Allan Poe – The Pit and the Pendulum.

The Pit and The Pendulum by David Soul

I don’t often listen to audiobooks – I guess for the reasons stated above: I hate abridged content with a vengeance and I find that narrators want to showcase themselves and not the story. Not so with this audiobook.

And Poe – goodness, that’s hallowed ground. Poe is one of my favourite authors and, over one hundred and fifty years after his death, his style of writing can easily come across as hammy and pseudo-gothic in the wrong hands.

Add to that the choice of narrator – David Soul? Surely he’s a bit, well, lightweight?

My misgivings were entirely misplaced. Soul is the perfect narrator. I’m going to go out on a limb, too. If, like me, you were entranced by James Mason’s rendition of The Tell-Tale Heart, there’s a real worry that nothing will come close. But not only does Soul come close, in my book he entirely surpasses Mason. Soul’s voice may not be as distinctive as Mason’s but the reading is all the better for it – and it’s every bit as intense and expressive. Immediately after listening to Soul, I went back to the Mason recording and was surprised at how many places his reading is misjudged. Soul manages to hold back, just the right amount – and yet squeezes from each line exactly the right level of delivery. He does exactly what a great storyteller should do: fade just enough into the background so that his voice creates the pictures in your mind. He’s showcasing Poe, not himself. Each tale is a superb reading from end to end.

Each of the stories is delivered with equal skill: The Pit and the Pendulum, The Masque of the Red Death, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar and Hop-Frog. And of course, the content is unabridged. Well, who would have the nerve to edit Poe?

Soul’s narration is underpinned by excellent music and sound effects. Director Barnaby Edwards has been responsible for plenty of full-cast audio plays; this experience shows when bringing into the narrative elements which don’t strictly belong there. Sound effects and music are there to support the narrator, not to overpower him. Some of this stuff is very subtly done – a wonderful experience when wearing headphones in the dark.

Clearly, this work has been directed by someone who isn’t just out to cash in on Poe: he understands his work and respects it thoroughly. It’s as much a labour of love as it is a commercial venture.

Is the release missing anything? I asked Barnaby Edwards about the lack of The Raven and he told me that a release of Poe’s poetry is on his mind. (You can follow Barnaby on Twitter as well as his audio company Textbook Stuff.)

If you love Poe do take some time to seek out this superb – and possibly definitive – retelling of some of Poe’s best tales. You won’t be disappointed. (If you love horror, you’ll also be pleased to note that Textbook Stuff has also released titles by MR James, Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker.)

The company is also using social funding to raise money to produce Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla. You can donate here to make this great project happen.

Library lunacy

I’m not the first author to write about this topic and I’m sure I won’t be the last. Of the many things the ConDems want to cut (indeed, I’m not sure what will be left intact when they’re done) libraries may seem to be a fairly low priority.

After all, what would you rather have – your roads maintained, your bins emptied, great healthcare or a local library? Well, the sad fact is the roads where I live are a potholed mess, the bins are emptied half as frequently as they were and last year I spent ten months being yo-yoed around a health system that still takes six weeks to send the test results from one side of the building to another. Goodness knows where my tax actually goes, but that’s another story.

The main problem I have with libraries being axed (or funding reduced) is that it does what many of this Government’s cuts do – it marginalises the poor even further.

I have to confess: I don’t need or use libraries. I’m lucky enough to be able to buy the books I want and read them on my Kindle. But it wasn’t always like that.

I grew up in Bury, Lancashire. This is roughly where my book The Well is set – and where I’m planning on setting future books.

The library was a place that I visited every Saturday morning. From a one-parent family, access to a large supply of books for a child who was a voracious reader was a very good thing.

One of the most exciting days of my young life was the day I was old enough to get an adult library card, which meant not only could I read the grown-up stuff, I wasn’t now limited to a book a week. Many was the Saturday when I carried home three or four books.

I was a very well-read child, though I have to confess a preference for science fiction and horror rather than classics. I remember having to add a list of books I’d read, as a bibliography, at the end of an essay – and being challenged by the teacher, who didn’t believe I could have read them all.

For me, the library was the only way I could obtain the volume of literature my appetite demanded – and when I fast-forward to today, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever the role it played in me becoming a copywriter and author.

So, when I hear about cuts to libraries, I picture the thousands – hundreds of thousands – of children for whom free reading will simply not be an option. Imagine the culture to which they will have no access. The opportunities taken away – not just to read, but to become writers, journalists, editors, or simply someone who just loves to read. This isn’t just taking away books, it’s blocking of culture and it’s narrowing career opportunities.

And make no mistake – this isn’t just the loss of the odd tiny library. It’s a decimation that is going to pull the literacy rug right from under this generation and those to come.

Take a look at how many libraries are affected:

It’s easy for fat, comfortable middle-class people (such as myself) to proclaim that they can get books another way – on the Internet perhaps. I think that’s another way of saying ‘let them eat cake’ and demonstrates really, really clearly how one part of society can simply not understand the needs of another.

And then there’s David Cameron’s Big Society, one of the smallest ideas I’ve ever come across. Applied to public libraries, the suggestion is that volunteers man libraries to save costs. What? Do politicians really think that a librarian has no skills and offers no value – and can be replaced by someone with no training? Is this the future? We cut skilled jobs, send intelligent people off to do something menial, then get someone with time on their hands to fill the gap? Dumb.

It’s an idea that could only be thought up by somebody who doesn’t use – or need to use – a library. Someone who can afford books. And someone who doesn’t care about those who can’t.