2021 Torr Barren AC portrait2 croppedWhen the public stops reading a novel, that book goes into a hibernation that it may never emerge from. The winter of the forgotten can last forever.

Some books are never forgotten, and that’s usually because of a character. Many of Dickens’ characters – think of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol – may prove to be immortal.

But it’s more common to be forgotten. In the UK alone, approximately 50,000 novels were written in the 19th century (according to John Sutherland’s 1995 book Victorian Fiction). Most of them have been buried by time and neglect. He believes there were about 3,500 nineteenth century fiction authors writing in English, but he was only able to identify 878 of them.

So, in little more than a hundred years we lost most of that century’s English language books, and no doubt many more in other languages. Many twentieth century books are already gone or on their way to oblivion. Here I’m trying to rescue a few.

I can’t call them the ’10 most forgotten’, since only books that are so forgotten that neither I nor anyone else know about them can qualify for that title, but these books are important in the land of the forgotten.

  • The House on the Borderland [1908] by William Hope Hodgson. This strange book about a man living alone in an old house in a remote part of Ireland should never have been forgotten, for the story is unforgettable. Through a trap door in the cellar, he discovers an empty open darkness below the house, with only the sound of rushing water, and, occasionally, a hint of voices. Then he and his dog encounter unpleasant pig-like beings coming up from a deep ravine near the house. Soon, night after night, the house is besieged as these creatures try to break in. Weary from reinforcing his doors and windows and fighting them off night after night, he falls asleep and has a long dream that is profoundly mythic and mysteriously connected with the house. Hodgson understood the connection between the inner and outer worlds, or maybe he had experienced them deeply and was trying to understand. The story is haunting, tense, beautiful and terrifying – but only if you read it, something few people have ever done. It might have become better known if Hodgson wasn’t killed on a World War I battlefield, preventing him from writing anything else, as so many promising writers then were.

  • The Reprieve [1945] by Jean-Paul Sartre [part 2 of his trilogy, Roads to Freedom]. Why would I give a spot here to one of the twentieth century’s most famous writers, and one of his most famous books? Because almost no one reads Sartre anymore. Outside of a few university courses, no one talks about him anymore (too ‘socialist’ for us now maybe). But the pages where Hitler gives his bragging/threatening Munich speech – celebrating his intimidation of the British and French that led to the Czechs being sacrificed for ‘peace in our time’ – are astonishing. Several characters listen to the speech on the radio, as all of Europe was doing that night, each in a separate place, each one’s life suddenly stopped in midstream by the ominous darkness in Hitler’s words. Those 3-4 pages are my choice for the finest pages in twentieth century fiction.

  • The Winds of Time [1957] by Chad Oliver – What can I say about this novel from SF’s golden age, which I bought as a 35 cent paperback in 1959 and have never been able to forget? An alien exploration ship searching for intelligent life, has found it again and again either in a stage similar to our stone age – or they find the ruins of civilizations that have destroyed themselves. Then, when their ship’s drive fails, they are forced to land on one last planet, which, of course, turns out to be Earth – in the stone age. What happens next makes this one of the best SF stories ever told. Why it is hardly read anymore is beyond me.

  • Norstrilia [1968]by Cordwainer Smith. Maybe if Smith hadn’t died in 1966 when he was only 53 years old he might have become famous enough to have this book made into the movie that I’ve longed to see all my adult life. If this ever happens (Stephen Spielberg, I hope you’re listening), we’ll see innocent young Rod McBan escape from being put to death on the planet Norstrilia (short for Old North Australia) because he can’t communicate telepathically like everyone else there. He is rescued by his family’s illegal sentient computer that, trading all night on the galactic financial markets, makes Rod owner of not just Norstrilia, but half the planets in the empire, including its magnificent capital, Earth. Rod innocently decides to visit Earth, accompanied by the little monkey surgeon Agentur who has to reduce him to a stew of molecules and put him back together when they reach their destination. There at Earthport, famous to Smith readers, as an ‘upside down wine glass’ that towers miles into the sky (apparently in New York ), they are joined by C’Mell, the beautiful cat woman, already the heroine of many of Smith’s short stories. The three of them look down on the Atlantic, with Africa on the far horizon, while C’Mell explains to Rod that she has been assigned to be his bodyguard, to protect him from assassins. “Why would anyone want to kill me?” Rod asks , and little Agentur just shakes his head, maybe in dismay that a human (Rod fits well on the autism spectrum) does not understand humanity. The subsequent descent of these three into the deep tunnel world inhabited by the ‘underpeople’, half-human, half bull, dog, cat, bird, etc, has all the tension, humor and action needed for any film. If such a movie is ever made, Norstrilia, my choice for the best SF novel ever written, should then be as unforgettable to everyone as it has been to me.

  • The Inheritors [1955] by William Golding, another well-known author, but that’s mainly due to one book – Lord of the Flies – which high school and university courses have kept alive for decades. The Inheritors is the almost unread reverse side of that Golding coin. It too is about humanity’s primitive instincts, except that here they aren’t hidden beneath the veneer of civilization because civilization has not even started. We watch a small family of hunter-gatherers (who some assume to be Neanderthals, though Golding doesn’t say that in the book), people who are not yet tribal and don’t yet have full speech (though they are highly intelligent and telepathic), meet up with a noisy, talkative, alcohol drinking tribal people who invade their territory with a weapon the silent ones have never seen before – the bow and arrow. Trying to resist the newcomers, the family are killed one by one. The last scene where two mute children, the only survivors, are carried away in a dugout canoe, haunted me for years. Read this book and you’ll see where many of my ideas come from.

  • Youth [1902] by Joseph Conrad – Yes, another famous writer, but this is the least read of his novels. Because it is only 56 pages long (in the 1958 William Blackwood and Sons edition I’ve saved since high school) the literary pundits consider it a short story. But in terms of how much happens and how memorable each event is, Youth puts most novels to shame. This is the first book in which Conrad’s character/narrator Marlow appears. It also might be the first book in which a machine – the old decrepit ship Judea – is a major character. Worn out, over-loaded with coal, the boat has to make yet another trip around the world. The description of its ill-fated trip to the far east, the suffering of the ship and its crew when the coal begins to burn, all of it experienced by young 2nd mate Marlow as pure adventure, make this, in my opinion, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

  • Star Bridge [1955] by Jack Williamson and James Gunn – Imagine a galactic empire where its star systems are connected to each other by golden energy tubes that allow faster-than-light transport between them, whose emperor is being hunted by a hundred hired assassins, only one of whom gets through and kills him – Alan Horn, who is then the subject of a giant hunt by the empire’s police. I bought this little paperback in 1959, also for 35 cents. Some SF critics say it has been forgotten because it is just routine space opera, but it’s more than that. To escape, Horn travels to Eron, capital of the galaxy, and there, amid the chaos and civil war unleashed by his killing of the emperor, through an unexpected chain of events, finds himself the only bodyguard left for the emperor’s daughter – but she doesn’t know who he is. Meanwhile, there are Horn’s enigmatic encounters with travelling salesman Wu and his crystal parrot Lil, the last living member of her race. Her satiric comments on human civilization touch home again and again. Those two play a crucial role that few readers can guess. Why couldn’t I forget this book? Part of it is that for a time I hoped to see a film version of it too, starring Steve McQueen, who would have played Horn perfectly. McQueen is long gone, but Daniel Craig would do just fine. However, there is another reason too – the book planted a seed in me that grew year by year, until it became my novel Skol.

  • Immortality, Inc [1959] by Robert Sheckley. Another novel from SF’s golden years. How could we forget this dynamic story built around the simultaneous creation by scientists of immortality for those who can afford it, time travel, and their discovery of the after-life., then the subsequent takeover of all this by big business? Yet try to find someone who has read it today. Tom Blaine, a not very successful yacht designer, is rescued by a future corporation from a head-on collision in 1958, transferred to the future and installed in a new body in hope of using him in their commercial ads. When they decide he isn’t useful, they dump him in the street where he struggles to find his way in the new world. Overflowing with compelling events and ideas, the book’s biting satire and off the wall humor still work well. Yet it has almost no readers. It supposedly inspired the 1992 movie Freejack, but that too, even with Mick Jagger added to the cast (or maybe because he was added) quickly faded into oblivion. Sheckley himself is now hardly known, though he was one of the brightest stars in SF’s golden age.

  • The Wolf King [1949] by Joseph Wharton Lippincott – During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and the first half of the 20th century there existed a genre of fiction based on the lives of wild North American animals. Ernest Thompson Seton and Jack London were among its authors, but my choice for the best of them was Joseph Wharton Lippincott, and this book was his crowning achievement. The story of a big black wolf whose pack is persecuted by hunters and trappers, ends with all the members of his pack killed, and the big wolf finally cornered by dogs in a vacant cabin where he has to fight for his life as the dogs’ handlers are approaching. One of the greatest action scenes in all literature, that should have guaranteed this book’s reputation forever. Instead it has been almost completely forgotten, along with its wonderful sequel, Wilderness Champion, where the black wolf, still alive, meets a lost dog pup in the forest, adopts it, and raises it to be his companion. On Amazon, The Wolf King has 17 reviews, all of them 5 star. Like me, most of these readers appear to have read it when they were 11-12 years old and have never been able to forget it. The Wolf King may be the most endangered of all, for it is out of print (I’ve been watching for 3 years) even in ebook form. At the moment, you can only buy expensive used copies, but it is still in a few libraries.
  • Moon Tiger [1997] by Penelope Lively, who is known best for her SF novel A Wrinkle in Time, especially since that became a movie. But not many people have read this book. I admit it has 588 reviews on Amazon, but its Amazon ranking today (373,736 – my own books can sometimes get above that) is not that of the bestseller it should be. A World War II story of the love between a British tank officer fighting in the western desert, and the narrator, a young woman journalist reporting on the war from Cairo, with the Germans expected to arrive there any day, is tense and vivid, probably because Lively grew up in Egypt, and lived through that time as a child. Most memorable to me is the title, an Egyptian name for something you’ve met at least once in your life. The image of one in in a window at night when these two last make love with one another is what I cannot forget . But you’ll have to read the book to find out what a moon tiger is. I’m not going to tell.

4 thoughts on “Rescuing Fiction | 10 forgotten Novels you might want to read

    1. You would also like her memoir – Oleander Jacaranda – which deals with the same time, has photos, etc. She was one of those British children who grew up outside the UK – outside the box – which often produced writers.

      Liked by 1 person

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