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Wednesday, 23 May 2018

'... feels absolutely real.'

"When I picked up this novel about psychic British spy, Tana Standish, and her adventures in 1970s Czechoslovakia, the spy template I thought it would adhere to is the James Bond one. After all, that is already an outsized world and surely a beautiful spy with precognitive abilities could be dropped in fairly seamlessly.

But Nik Morton actually foxed me, by instead opting for the John Le CarrĂ© model. This is a gritty and realistic feeling world, with dirt under its fingernails. And it’s beautifully realised. You can almost smell the Turkish coffee and cheap cigarettes in the cafes... But is there any way to make a psychic spy fit seamlessly into this world?

You have your doubts, don’t you?

And yet Morton manages it.

Such is the level of detail and ambition, that Morton soon sweeps the reader up in the narrative and creates such a convincing canvas that we can easily accept the central conceit. Bouncing between different times and locations, he has created a book which feels big in scope, an adventure story with a supernaturally gifted protagonist that still feels absolutely real.

I was expecting a light throwaway read with Mission: Prague, but was glad I got something far more ambitious."

Thank you, F.R. Jameson for commenting on Goodreads.

The full review can be read there. 

Mission: Prague

Available on Amazon as a paperback and an e-book here

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

An exorcism...

There follows a small scene from CHILL OF THE SHADOW. An exorcism.
The church clock chimed eleven, each tolling of the hour resonating in the room.
            “Oh, God, it’s time?” Father Joseph said.
            “Yes, Father. Your hour is here.”
            Father Joseph nodded, his holy stole draped round his neck. The Bible in one hand, he recited the Credo aloud three times. He carried around the room a censer containing a small amount of the burning Frankincense.
            Maria’s eyes suddenly opened wide, staring, alarmed. But Michael didn’t recognize Maria in them.
            The priest whispered, “Poor soul–”
            “Now, Father, the water,” Michael said, his tone firm and commanding.
            Putting down the censer, the priest picked up a large glass jug of holy water which he had consecrated in his church next door. He dipped a hyssop in the purifying liquid and sprinkled it over Maria, intoning, “I exorcise thee, O unclean spirit, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
            The response was immediate and startling. Maria’s body arched up from the bedsprings, and her flesh started to bead with a sickly green sweat.
            “Stand firm, Father,” Michael commanded as an eldritch shriek erupted from Maria’s mouth. Then she slumped down, the bedsprings rattling, and was still again.
            Father Joseph was trembling. “Dear God, will she survive this ordeal?”
            Michael whispered, “The strain has been known to be so great that limbs have been dislocated. But I believe she isn’t fully possessed yet. The demons are not comfortable in her shell.” He waved a hand. “Again, Father.”
            Father Joseph nodded and swallowed. Steeling himself, he stepped forward again. This time he was too quick, accidentally splashing Michael’s outstretched hand in the process. Three globules of water settled for a moment on the back of his hand, and then sizzled. Unconcerned, Michael shook the liquid off his hand; blisters, as if from an acid burn, appeared.
            “My God, what manner of man are you?” Father Joseph said, almost dropping the jug of holy water.
            “Just one of the good guys, Father.” He took a pair of black leather gloves from his jacket on the back of a chair and put them on. “Please continue. Maria’s life and soul are at stake.”
            Father Joseph made the sign of the cross, and then sprinkled more holy water on Maria. “I exorcise thee, unclean spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ. Tremble, O Satan, enemy of the faith, thou foe of mankind who hast brought death to the world, and hast rebelled against justice, thou seducer of mankind, thou root of evil, source of avarice, discord and envy.”
            “Stand back, it’s my turn,” Michael ordered, lighting the Paschal candle.
            Very carefully, he lowered the flame to Maria’s naked flesh that still glistened with an unwholesome green sheen. “Get ready!”
            There was a disconcerting flash of yellow and suddenly Maria was surrounded by a blazing transparent flame. It lasted for mere seconds and her body levitated this time, prevented from rising more than twelve inches by the ropes.
            “May God break your teeth, vile spirit, and cut the veins of your neck and the sinews thereof. I bind you in the name of Gabriel and Michael, I bind you by these Angels!” wailed the priest. “May you vanish as smoke from before the wind for ever and ever, Amen!”
            Maria shrieked horribly, and out of her mouth leapt a gout of thick bile, speckled with green and yellow and red. In its gross suddenness it resembled projectile vomit, but it was unlike it in colour, consistency and smell.
            As the vile streamer left Maria’s mouth, Father Joseph leapt forward and thrust the crucifix he was holding over her mouth and held it there, while his eyes followed the terrifying manifestation across the room.
            Defying gravity, the sliver of bile appeared sentient, moving toward the balcony door; it baulked inches from the array of crosses; it tried the window and door, and retreated. Wherever it travelled, it left a putrefying stench in its wake.
            “Unbind the curse!” Father Joseph cried out and prayed again, louder, bellowing, commanding the evil spirit to leave in the name of the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Trinity.
            The horrible thing made a beeline for Michael, as if divining that he carried no protective cross. In one swift motion Zondadari’s fingers hooked up the censer and swung it, catching the thing as if he were playing pelota. As the evil spirit sizzled and emitted a stomach-churning smell, Father Joseph left Maria’s side and poured the remainder of the holy water onto the mixture of cooking bile and Frankincense. The steam quickly dissipated, to leave a burned, brittle husk.
            “And what the hell do you think you’re doing?” shrieked Maria from the bed, trying to tug her arms and legs free.
            Michael crossed the room, picked up the sheet and draped it over her. He gazed into her eyes and after a long moment of study he smiled thinly, satisfied. “As it happens,” he said, “Hell has a lot to do with it.” He pulled out the Knife of Astarte and cut the rope securing her right wrist. “You’ve had quite an ordeal, Maria – but now you’re free.”
Available as an e-book and paperback here

Friday, 11 May 2018

A Dance to the Music of Time (4 of 12)

Anthony Powell’s fourth book in his series, At Lady Molly’s (1957) is set in the early 1930s. As before, the narrator, Nick Jenkins seems cold and detached. ‘I always enjoy hearing the details of other people’s lives, whether imaginary or not…’ (p211)
Nick has achieved some modest success with his writing: ‘Written a couple of novels, and moved from a firm that published art books to a company that produced second-feature films.’ (p16) Clearly heavily influenced by Powell’s own work at Duckworths, the publishers and his later stint as a scriptwriter for Warner Brothers in England. ‘I on what is called the “scenario side”. I help to write that part of the programme known as the “second feature”. For every foot of American film shown in this country, a proportionate length of British film must appear. The Quota, in fact.’ (p55)

When we last shared Nick’s life, he was romantically involved with Jean Duport. Now, that was over and he was ‘fancy-free’, aged twenty-eight or so, and open to his confederate Chips Lovell’s suggestion to visit his aunt –Molly Jeavons. Previously married to Lord John Sleaford, Molly lived in the mansion Dogdene; Sleaford died of Spanish Flu in 1919; she was now married to Captain Teddy Jeavons. ‘Molly remained a big, charming, noisy young woman, who had never entirely ceased to be a schoolgirl. When the Dogdene frame was removed, like the loosening of a corset of steel, the unconventional, the eccentric, even the sluttish side of her nature became suddenly revealed to the world.’ (p159)

Molly is quite a character. ‘… exceptionally kind-hearted. The house is always full of people she is doing good turns to. Children stay here while their parents are fixing up a divorce.. Penniless young men get asked to meals. Former servants are always being given help of one sort or another…’ (p164)

While at Lady Molly’s, Nick comes across Widmerpool who is in the company of an older woman, Mildred. Powell’s strengths are his character descriptions, such as this sighting of Widmerpool: ‘He was wearing a new dark suit. Like a huge fish swimming into a hitherto unexplored and unexpectedly exciting aquarium, he sailed resolutely forward.’ (p46)

In this fourth outing it is obvious that certain characters will continue to surface in Nick’s life. ‘Widmerpool was a recurring milestone on the road; perhaps it would be more apt to say that his course, as one jogged round the track, was run from time to time, however different the pace, in common with my own.’ (p47)

Nick is surprised to learn he is getting married to Mildred, which is quite shocking news…

Other news concerns the rumbling in Europe caused by the ascension of Herr Hitler. Widmerpool has a leaning towards the ‘socialist’ political spectrum. ‘People talk of rearming. I am glad to say the Labour Party is against it to a man – and the more enlightened Tories, too.’ (p66) This is another one of those lengthy speeches Powell’s characters indulge in. ‘What is much more likely to be productive is to settle things round a table…’ (p67) So, while the bohemians and businessmen enjoy their chatter over cocktails, all of Europe sleepwalks towards a world war.

Later, mention is made of the embargo on arms to Bolivia and Paraguay, the ‘Smash Fascism’ group, the worries about Mosley, and the independence of Catalonia, and free meals for schoolchildren. (p120) And, briefly touched on, the conflict between Japan and China (p203).

Again, Nick meets Quiggin and the Tolland family, notably Erridge. The arrival one evening of Susan and Isobel Tolland is quite seismic for Nick: ‘The atmosphere changed suddenly, violently. One became all at once aware of the delicious, sparkling proximity of young feminine beings. The room was transformed.’ (p136) Powell doesn’t go in for emotion. The books are observational, dealing with manners, pomposity, venality, and the narrator is virtually invisible. ‘Would it be too explicit, too exaggerated, to say that when I set eyes on Isobel Tolland, I knew at once that I should marry her?’ (p137) There’s much about marriage – and divorce, too. Nick’s friend Peter Templer said, ‘Women may show some discrimination about whom they sleep with, but they’ll marry anybody.’ (p187) And Nick himself contemplated that blessed union, too: ‘I, too, should be married soon, a change that presented itself in terms of action rather than reflection, the mood in which even the most prudent often marry: a crisis of delight and anxiety, excitement and oppression.’ (p201)

While there are no great laughs, despite this being described as a humorous novel, there are moments that raise a smile. One of these is Erridge’s butler, Smith. An alcoholic who imbibed from the cellar, he was shaken when asked if there were any champagne in the cellar.

‘Champagne, m’lord?’
‘Have we got any? One bottle would do. Even a half-bottle.’
Smith’s face puckered, as if manfully attempting to force his mind to grapple with a mathematical or philosophical problem of extraordinary complexity. His hearing suggested that he had certainly before heard the word “champagne” used, if only in some distant, outlandish context; that dvotion to his master alone gave him some apprehension of what this question – these ravings, almost – might mean… After a long pause, he at last shook his head.
‘I doubt if there is any champagne left, m’lord.’ (p143)

Nick’s friend Stringham seems dominated in some manner by Miss Weedon, Tuffy, who may have designs on curing Stringham of his affection for alcohol. Nick ‘found her a trifle alarming. She gave an impression of complete singleness of purpose: the impression of a person who could make herself very disagreeable if thwarted.’ (p163) We shall see more of her in volume 5.

Molly’s sister Lady Warminster is a widow and a hypochondriac, and ‘awe-inspiring. Something of the witch haunted her delicate, aquiline features and transparent ivory skin: a calm, autumnal beauty that did not at all mask the amused, malicious, almost insane light that glinted all the time in her infinitely pale eyes. When young, she must have been very good-looking indeed.’ (p205)

The book begins with recollections of Nick’s family’s distant relation, General Conyers and almost ends with him in the flesh, paraphrasing Foch: ‘War not an exact science, but a terrible and passionate drama? Something like that. Fact is, marriage is rather like that too.’

If I’d been reading these books when they were first published, I may well have lost the thread and interest, waiting a year or more between each ‘episode’. Being able to read them in close proximity (even if interspersed with other books), the characters do tend to live – even if essentially uneventful lives.

The cover depicts Kenneth Widmerpool by Mark Butcher; a fleeting resemblance to Reginald Maudling (1917-1979), British politician.

Next: 5 - Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant.

Editorial comment:

Still huge unbroken paragraphs, also in speech, which is totally unrealistic.

Again, there’s not a great deal of description of the scenes that contain the characters, the reader can’t actually ‘be there’.

As observed above, Powell’s character descriptions are a delight.

Monday, 23 April 2018

Death of Shakespeare and Marlowe

On 23 April 1616 Shakespeare died; he was fifty-two. Not surprisingly, his plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright.

Controversy has lingered over the authenticity of some of his works. I decided to play (!) with this idea for a science fiction story, ‘If We Shadows Have Offended’, which can be found in the collection Nourish a Blind Life (2017).

The story is set in 2093 and concerns Zeigler, who has gained approval from the Time Door Committee, to research a specific event in the past. Here’s an excerpt:

He smiled at his great ancestor’s photograph. In 1895 WG Zeigler, a Californian lawyer, had been the first to suggest that Christopher Marlowe’s death on 30 May 1593 was staged and that the poet actually went underground to write the plays using Shakespeare’s name.
Now, at last, he would be able to prove once and for all whether or not Shakespeare had written everything attributed to him.
The twelfth night arrived.
In the greying mackerel sky, the sinking sun streamed red down onto the white concrete square building with a circular tower, similar in style to the old-fashioned long superseded light-houses. Above the tower hovered a shimmering black cloud. But this was no ordinary cloud. It hung perpetually over the tower, possessing no depth or discernible edge. Gleaming. Apparently as fathomless as the deeps of the oceans.
One of several Timedoors into the past.
Zeigler had frequently passed this and other Timedoors, and on each occasion he had been drawn by the weird unearthly sight of those black clouds. Such awesome power, so frightening to contemplate, and now he was destined to travel through one.
He stood outside the door marked ENTRANCE. Above was a plaque with a quotation, ironically from Shakespeare:
            ‘The end crowns all,
             And that old common arbitrator, Time,
             Will one day end it.’ - Troilus and Cressida
Zeigler read the small red print alongside the doorway.
He was to give his name, age, occupation, ID number, and his appointment reference number. Making sure he got it in the right order, he complied.
The door opened upwards with a hiss.
The interior was blank metallic walls on three sides bathed in glowing red light.
A faint humming reached him as he entered. He hardly noticed it. His was the last generation not to live wholly in an electronic, mechanical world together with its concomitant noises. He could still remember when silence was accessible on the planet. It was an irrational thought, but he wondered what the next-but-one generation would do if confronted with total silence. He shuddered to think and recalled Coriolanus: ‘My gracious silence, hail!’
By then of course they might be virtually deaf - his nephew’s hearing was 30% poorer than his, and the lad was average for his age.
The door glissaded shut behind him.
The pitch of humming heightened. If the slight upsurge of his entrails was anything to go by, he was rising in a remarkable lift - no, there was no lift cubicle: he was rising bodily up a shaft, probably in some kind of anti-gravity beam.
The instructions had been unable to prepare him for anything like this, doubtless for security reasons.
Markers on the walls showed his ascent. At the fifty-foot mark he stopped with a queasy reaction in his stomach.
An opening appeared in front of him and he stepped into a brightly lit circular room, the walls crammed with computer facia and attendant hardware. Seated at a tubular steel desk, a young beardless man in a white smock beckoned for Zeigler to step forward.
The young man’s ample stomach pressed tightly against the coat, reminding Zeigler of Henry VIII: ‘He was a man, Of an unbounded stomach.’
‘You are on time, Mr Zeigler - a trait sadly lacking these days!’ The man shoved across a quarto printed sheet. ‘Please read this and sign. It is the Official Secrets Codicil (TPC) 2058. Afterwhich, kindly enter that stall over there.’ He pointed to a recess in the wall, between two orange steel computer cabinets.
The cubicle was uncomfortably narrow.
‘This won’t hurt, Mr Zeigler. But we have to be sure you are the real you! And, you see, access to the Timedoor is only permitted if you’re completely fit and germ-free.’
A flash appeared in front of his eyes. It felt as though his eyelashes had been seared off. But it was over so fast he remained unmoved.
Zeigler found that the man with an unbounded stomach was blurred. ‘Yes, Mr Zeigler, your physiogram matches with State records. You have also been made bacteria-free. Your unique bacteria, however, will be coated back onto you when you return. Be careful while in Elizabethan England, sir, for you are now exceedingly vulnerable to illness of any kind.’
‘Haven’t you any panacea-type injection you could give me?’
‘No, the side effects while undergoing the time-journey are deleterious in the extreme. We lost two esteemed pioneers that way - they were devoured from the inside by various bacteria that grew to huge proportions. As yet we don’t know why - but at least we detected it. This is another very good reason why you’ve signed this piece of paper, Mr Zeigler.’ The man wafted the form and smiled; he was not so blurry an image now. ‘Not a word, mind. To anyone. You will be free to report on your findings only. The rest will be erased from your mind once the report is filed and copyrighted; however, any credit will be yours entirely.’
‘I never realised how - delicate, no, how dangerous - this time-travelling is. It puts me in mind of The Merchant of Venice: “Men that hazard all, Do it in hope of fair advantages”.’
‘Really, sir? And what’s your “fair advantage”?’
‘Oh, confirmation of my research paper, to vindicate an ancestor.’
‘I see. Well, we’re meddling with things our ancestors only dreamed about, Mr Zeigler. Our fail-safes even have fail-safes, hence this little gadget.’
The young nameless man held up a small black box. ‘Please remove your shirt, sir. Here is a pamphlet about this little beauty. Read it carefully.’
Although very curious as to why the box was being secured over the fleshy bulge of his left shoulder blade, Zeigler scanned the pages of small print.
It appeared that the device would self-destruct should he do anything to disturb the balance in the past. By self-destructing, it would also take him with it, leaving no trace whatsoever. Then the Timedoor would close on his ashes and the pod would disintegrate.
Connected remotely to the box was a pendant, an eye. The man draped this round Zeigler’s neck. ‘The simple act of removing the eye or breaking it will also result in the box self-destructing.’ He shrugged apologetically. ‘We must protect ourselves as well as our past.’ He grinned. ‘Selfish maybe, but I wish to continue in existence!’
‘You mean some applicants might seriously contemplate disrupting the past to change the future? Don’t they realise they’d be putting their own existence in jeopardy?’
‘Some fanatics think it worth the risk, Mr Zeigler.’
Zeigler went cold and thought how chilling the words from Richard II were in this context: ‘O! call back yesterday, bid time return.’
‘Right, Mr Zeigler, now you are ready. Please stand on that circular brass plate.’
Zeigler was lifted up another anti-gravity beam. ‘Enjoy your trip!’ called the young attendant.
Again, Zeigler rose but this time it was a green zone: olive and yellowish. Quite sickly.
Finding himself in another room devoid of furniture or machinery, he was startled to hear a metallic female voice issuing from a grille.
‘The parcel you dispatched separately in accordance with instructions has been examined and you may now put on the clothes. You have chosen a particularly smart set of garments, sir.’
The speaker unit clicked off and a tray levered out from the wall with his pile of Elizabethan clothes lying on its shiny surface.
Irrationally, he felt self-conscious as he undressed; simply because the metallic voice sounded female?
He took a while to slip into the clothes, all the while conscious of the presence of the black box.
The voice returned. ‘Now step back into the shaft. Don’t look down, don’t worry - the ag’s still on!’
Zeigler was not amused. But he didn’t look down; his ruff made that action awkward anyway.
Up again. To the 140ft mark.
‘Alight, please.’ A flesh-and-blood woman’s voice.
This room was roofless and possessed a central dais on which rested a conical transparent pod. The pod was aimed upwards, pointing at the black hole. Even from this close, the true edges of the Time Hole were not readily discernible. The shimmering effect made him dizzy.
‘Step this way, please, Mr Zeigler,’ said an attractive brunette attendant also dressed in white. She possessed angelic features, which he thought somehow appropriate up here.
She eyed his prominent codpiece, arched her eyebrows suggestively and smiled.
He blushed; another first-impression destroyed: I thought her as chaste as unsunn’d snow - Cymbeline. He sighed.
Gently the woman placed Zeigler inside the pod. Although the pod was designed for bigger men than him, it was still a tight squeeze, mainly due to his doublet bulging with the bombast stuffing of the period.
‘Everything all right? You require any paper of the period for notes, or a recorder can be fitted to the “eye” if you like?’
Zeigler shook his head. ‘No, thanks. I’m only after one fact. Have you been able to pinpoint - select the right…?’
‘Yes. May 30th, 1593. Almost 500 years ago to the day, Mr Zeigler. We’ll put you down just outside the town. There’s ample room to conceal the pod in a neglected grove nearby.’
He craned his neck. ‘Are those the screens that you view me on - through the eye, I mean?’
She nodded, then said in a serious tone, ‘Take care, Mr Zeigler - we can’t help you once you leave the pod.’
‘I know,’ he said solemnly, his stomach performing somersaults. ‘I know all the risks. But our faculty must find out if - well, you know my theories, anyway.’
‘Yes. Now I’m going to lower the cowling and secure you inside. You’re liable to feel excessively giddy and you may even lose consciousness for a short while. Our scanners show you obeyed instructions and didn’t eat today - so your ride should be an untroubled one. I trust it will also be successful, sir.’
‘Thanks.’ He smiled.
And she shut him inside.
It was most peculiar, how he suddenly felt trapped, though he could see all round. He closed his eyes, calmed himself. Mustn’t get excited. Be rational, logical. Simply observe.
‘Yes.’ His voice came out as a strangled croak.
He felt as though his whole face was suddenly being squeezed off his skull as the pod fired up, the G-forces ramming him hard into the ergonomically-shaped cushioned seat.
Contrary to his original conception, he was not immersed in absolute blackness on entering the Time Hole.
It was like a velvety blue-black, with pinpoints all around, like stars that had forgotten how to twinkle. The sensation of movement had stopped - how long ago? He had no way of knowing, there were no instruments or clocks in here; and his wristwatch had been removed, together with every other personal possession.
Another quotation, from As you like it, reared its head for him to muse upon: ‘Time travels in divers paces with divers persons.’
Dizziness gnawed at the edges of his consciousness but never posed a serious threat. Elation kept him awake. He would succeed where so many before him had failed!
Over the years, anti-Stratfordiana had grown to a flood.
Professor Thomas C Mendenhall counted the letters in 400,000 Shakespearean words, discovering that for both Shakespeare and Marlowe the ‘word of greatest frequency was the four-letter word’, a fact that left the world of letters decidedly unshaken.
Then in 1955 Calvin Hoffman sought documentary proof for his case in the tomb of Sir Francis Walsingham, Marlowe’s reputed homosexual lover. But nothing was found in the tomb. Not even Sir Francis.
Which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, Zeigler reasoned.
Walsingham had contrived a most corrupt system of espionage at home and abroad, enabling him to reveal the Babington plot which implicated Mary Queen of Scots in treason, and to obtain in 1587 details of some plans for the Spanish armada. Queen Elizabeth I acknowledged his genius and important services, yet she kept him poor and without honours, and he died in poverty and debt in 1590. At least he seemed to live longer than Marlowe.
The twenty-nine-year-old son of a shoemaker, Marlowe had died with a dagger in his brain, the precise circumstances quite obscure.
Marlowe had from time to time been engaged in government employ, a euphemism for secret service work, and had become embroiled in the theatre of conspiracy and intrigue, the tumultuous, often dangerous life of London’s underworld.
At the age of twenty-one, Marlowe was employed as an agent provocateur, posing as a Catholic to spy on other Catholics, and acted as a renegade to trap such people.
He did it for the money, insinuating himself into the households of Earl of Northumberland and Lord Strange. As a projector he actively fostered treason in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham and later of Sir William Cecil Burghley.
Wily young Marlowe’s apparent atheism was just a ruse for trapping free thinkers into indiscretion. Finally, he was set up as a conspirator by the Earl of Essex as a way of striking at Sir Walter Raleigh.
On that fateful night, Marlowe was knifed over his right eye in a drunken brawl at a tavern in Deptford, but the swift pardon of his murderer, Friser, twenty-seven days after the poet’s burial, suggested to Zeigler that the death had other, possibly political, undertones.
Hoffman had believed the whole affair was staged by Sir Francis Walsingham to remove his lover from the threat of imminent arrest for alleged blasphemy and atheism. Hoffman argued that the coroner was bribed to accept a plea of self-defence on behalf of Marlowe’s alleged killer and docilely accepted the stated identity of the body.
Hoffman believed Marlowe settled on the Continent and continued to write and sent his manuscripts to Walsingham, who had found a reliable if dull-witted actor fellow, William Shakespeare, ready - for a stipend - to lend his name as the author of Marlowe’s works.
As Walsingham had apparently died two years earlier than the Deptford incident, Hoffman’s theory was far from acceptable, but it suggested other similar possibilities to Zeigler.
Since most of Shakespeare’s plays were written after the recorded death of Marlowe, Marlovian theorists must prove Marlowe lived after the Deptford incident in order to write the plays.
Marlowe had been deeply influenced by the writings of Machiavelli, so any intrigue along these lines would most certainly appeal to him.
Other contenders over the years for the mantle of “greatest writer in the English language” included Sir Francis Bacon (died 1626), Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (died 1604), Sir Walter Raleigh (died 1618), Michel Angelo Florio (died 1605), Anne Whateley (died 1600) and even Queen Elizabeth herself (died 1603). As Shakespeare’s last known work The Tempest was attributed to 1611, the literary prowess of some of these contenders can be marvelled at, Zeigler thought, capable of even writing beyond the grave.
In the latter part of last century, computers had been used to join in the academic fray.
Shakespeare databases were built as early as 1969 on an ICL machine, the KDF-9. Since then, ICL’s Content Addressable File Store - Information Search Processing and Oxford’s Concordance Program, written in Ansi Fortran had been used to word-count and create concordances, ostensibly to facilitate research. The DEC VAX 11/70 computer research gave credit to Shakespeare for Acts Four and Five of Pericles but not Acts One and Two; the researcher or computer never mentioned Act Three!
Certainly in the world of letters it was a controversial theory and Zeigler had some sympathy with Shakespeare. Lines from his Venus and Adonis seemed apt:
‘By this, poor Wat, far off upon a hill,
             Stands on his hinder legs with listening ear,
             To hearken if his foes pursue him still.’
Zeigler wondered if Shakespeare waited still, far off on some heavenly hill, wondering if his detractors would ever cease pursuing him.
Poor Will, thought Zeigler. Well, the Timedoor Committee evidently felt the Zeigler theory had sufficient merit for them to accept his research request. And now he was almost there!
After some time, Zeigler noticed a lighter patch ahead, getting bigger. The indefinable edges again, the tint of a dusky sky...
He didn’t recall passing through the hole or landing. Perhaps he simply materialised?
Darkness. Raised jaunty voices. The rank stench of open sewers. These were his first impressions. It was night. He looked around and discovered he was still lying in the pod amidst a grove of bushes.
He checked the two console buttons. Red for his return signal. Green for opening the pod. Another button, on the reverse of his eye-pendant, worked the pod’s entrance-hatch for ingress.
Zeigler operated the green button and no sooner had he stepped out than the hatch shut behind him.
As he walked a few paces out of the bushes, he glanced back and was surprised to find he could no longer see the pod; its see-through capabilities aided concealment: someone would have to virtually stumble over it to discover the craft’s presence.
He didn’t have far to walk before he came to the town with its tumbled toppling street, black and white timber awry, cobbles threatening to pitch him every which way. Cats fought for thrown out fish-heads and other unidentifiable scraps.
Zeigler felt very vulnerable strolling the streets, for in these times no man was safe from the reach of the torturer or the smell of the dungeon. A carrion odour blew towards him and he retched emptily: ahead he noticed the swaying hanging remnants of a human being; some of the hideous butchery on the scaffold was sufficient even to turn the stomach of an Elizabethan crowd.
A building belched forth the soul of an alehouse but, gagging on the riot of smells, he passed it by. He needed to find Mistress Turner’s lodging house, up a squeeze-gut alley.
The full story can be found in the collection of 21 tales, Nourish a Blind Life (paperback and e-book) The title story won a prize; the judge stated:
‘I read a lot and like to think that I’m fairly hardened to the human experience. Your story Nourish a blind life however, moved me enormously. With a powerful understanding you avoided any mawkish melodrama. The ending, although sad, gave satisfaction knowing the narrator was soon to be free! Thank you.’ – Eve Blizzard, judge
The full story was published in my blog on 23 April and 24 April 2016 on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.