“An echo, a resonance, an alignment. Something that will fade soon.”
I’m often asked: what are your influences? So now here is a link I can point people to when they ask.
This is a list of the writers who’ve most influenced me, or at least the ones that came to mind in the last two hours. I’ll expand it if I think of anyone else interesting. I’ve limited myself to one book per writer to keep the list manageable.
This is not a list of recommendations, although I would also recommend nearly everything on here. Nor is it remotely representative of Important Works in the Field. It’s just things that stuck, and some of those things are just things a teenager in the eighties happened to read.
Jack Vance, Suldrun’s Garden. Jack Vance wrote everything, resplendently, and I read most of it with delight, but it’s the Lyonesse books whose impact I think you can see most obviously in my work.
Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key. I learnt from Hammett that you can have a third-person narrative without ever describing or referencing anything that occurs inside the protagonist’s head. Basic, right? never occurred to me, though. He got me into Chandler, too.
Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder. This is his (enormously influential) essay on detective fiction. I can’t honestly remember all the plots of his novels and I suspect neither could he, but his metaphors do to sentences what skilled wrestlers do to unskilled wrestlers. He was a poet turned oilman turned novelist. Like TS Eliot, he was born in 1888, the year that Jack the Ripper and the Order of the Golden Dawn got going, and the year that I elected as the start date of Fallen London. He was born in Nebraska, moved to Croydon when he was 12, went to the same school as PG Wodehouse, and spent time in the British Civil Service before he moved to San Francisco. People are more complicated than we think.
TS Eliot, The Wasteland. I can’t include this because it’s not fiction, so I haven’t. Keep it between us.
Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. “Dream about these long enough and your hands and feet shrivel away when you look at them too closely. The sun shrinks to the size of an orange, only chillier…”
Tanith Lee, Night’s Sorceries. Lee is prolific, pulpy, elegant, and lush, not unlike Jack Vance with more feminism and a lot more sex. Night’s Sorceries is the last book in her Flat Earth series, but the first one I read, and I’m glad because it frames the rest beautifully.
Christopher Marlowe, Dr Faustus. This was one of my A-level set texts. Thirty years later I still can’t stop quoting it. (Marlowe was stabbed to death down the road from where I live now.)
William Shakespeare, The Tempest. This was another A-level set text. I hated it when I first read it, for reasons that I realised a couple of years later were stupid reasons.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic. I’m cheating a little here. You probably know that this is the novel on which Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. I saw Stalker at the age of eighteen, by accident, very late at night, and I was asleep for the first ten minutes, which include a very slightly explanatory text crawl. I woke up for the train scene and pretty much watched the rest of it with my mouth open. Then it sank into the bottom of my mind like a bomb into mud and I forgot about it for twenty years.
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. Horribly frightening with an undertone of yearning that Jackson can’t quite cynic her way out of.
Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Yes, ahead of Book of the New Sun. This is influences, not recommendations, remember? If you read it, touch the dog’s head for luck.
James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. I read this on the strength of its title when I was on one of my noir jags. Every so often I read two or three of his otherDave Robicheaux books and then they start to blur into each other, because there is something of a formula, but good Lord he writes up a storm.
Roger Zelazny, A Night in the Lonesome October. Zelazny is the master. This isn’t his best, but it’s the one I would be buried with. It’s also the one with by far the most direct and visible influence on Cultist Simulator.
Barbara Hambly, The Silent Tower. I loved Hambly so much when I was growing up that I genuinely can’t tell how good she is and I suspect she might be pulpier than I would prefer. But her characters are impossibly likeable, her plotting is meticulous and gripping and her prose descriptions of the play and light and shade are uniquely good. There’s a bit she writes about lamplight through a cracked-open door looking like ‘a dropped scarf on the parquet’ that I can’t forget.
Mary Renault, The King Must Die. Hilary Mantel wrote an introduction to Renault’s The Praise Singer, and this is what she wrote: “More than almost any novelist, Renault understood the deliciousness of mundane and technical details […] and just as we know exactly the feeling of turning on a light-switch or ordering a sandwich, from her reading of anecdotal accounts and linguistic analysis, and her own study of vases and friezes, Mary Renault could describe perfectly Greek daily life: the pattern of scarring ‘you see’ on the arms of a cavalryman and the shock of seeing bare-faced Etruscan actors […] the practicalities of acting in an eighteen-thousand-seater Corinthian theatre where ‘in the top row they can hear you sigh’; the way mourning women have to stop for a chat when they’re tired out with wailing; and how men yawn as they bleed to death.” So now you know. And I want to add that Renault’s ironic, affectionate sense of the shape of the human heart still warms me. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll just say that Stone, Storm and Salt in Sunless Sea would be very different if I hadn’t read The King Must Die.
Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave. A retelling of the Matter of Britain from Merlin’s point of view, in a persuasively Dark Ages setting. I loved it as a kid and then for years thought that it was by Mary Renault, until to my chagrin I found out that, no, it was a different Mary. To my intense relief I reread it last year and found that their prose styles are actually strikingly similar and a lot of their preoccupations overlap, so I wasn’t being a total eejit. Anyway, read it and you’ll see the relevance to my stuff.
Ian McDonald, Desolation Road. It’s about the terraforming of Mars, sort of. I’ve loved it for years and it was the first book I recommended to Lottie. As it happens, Mr Jericho in Desolation Road is the kernel of an idea for a thing called Exile which you’ll hear about at some point.
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia. “You cannot stir things apart.”
CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength: “There is no Oyarsa [planetary consciousness] in Heaven who has not got his representative on Earth. […] That is why there was an Italian Saturn as well as a heavenly one, and a Cretan Jove as well as an Olympian. It was these earthly wraiths of the high intelligences that men met in old times when they reported that they had seen the gods. It was with those that a man like Merlin was (at times) conversant. Nothing from beyond the Moon ever really descended. What concerns you more, there is a terrestrial as well as a celestial Venus–Perelandra’s wraith as well as Perelandra.”
“And you think…?”
“I do: I have long known that this house is deeply under her influence. There is even copper in the soil.”
Diana Wynne Jones, Dogsbody. Hey, Alexis, where did the Judgements in Fallen London came from? Well, I don’t think I would go so far as to say I ripped them off from a wonderful book about the star Sirius confined to the body of a dog on Earth that I read when I was ten, but I think it’s the single most nakedly borrowed idea of my career.
Julian May, The Golden Torc. I think she’s even better than Banks at multiple-viewpoint plotting for the effect of pacing.
Iain M Banks, The Player of Games. God rest his soul, as I would say if he hadn’t been a much more determined atheist than me. Player is not his best, just his most relevant (and the first I read).
Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister. It’s been claimed, though I think he denied it, that Nabokov suffered from synaesthesia. Read his prose and see why. I think coming to a language as a non-native speaker gives you a particular kind of insight, if you can get far enough. Nabokov did.
Mervyn Peake, Boy in Darkness. I’m mentioning it instead of Gormenghast because you might not hear of Boy in Darkness otherwise, and the Lamb in Boy gives me the frits.
The Insoll Codex. Obviously more ‘source’ than ‘influence’ but I can’t not include it.
John Masters, The Deceivers. “A week ago such thoughts as these would run like silver deer, horned and beautiful, across the jet mirror [of his mind] as he lay awake or, unseeing, rode his horse.”
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth. The Terrible Trivium is frightening when you’re five but makes much more sense when you’re forty.
Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea. It determined almost everything I thought ‘real’ fictional magic should feel like when I was a teenager, except what I got from Hambly, and I’m damned sure Hambly had read Le Guin too. It also has a claim to being the most masterfully written book on this list.
JRR Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories. Really this should be Rings, of course, but I want you to read On Fairy-Stories. It was like having a torch shone on terrain I’d only walked in the dark.
John Crowley, The Deep. Not Little, Big? Not Aegypt? No. I didn’t finish ’em. I don’t really get on with Crowley, and I don’t understand why. I genuinely think it might be because I was quite ill when I read The Deep, and he has such a distinctive prose style that I get Pavlovian nausea from the memory of that. But The Deep stuck.
Algernon Blackwood, The Wendigo. Lottie talks about this here.
Lucius Shephard, Life During Wartime. Shephard writes elegantly (and very self-consciously) but the underplot of this book is what really left a mark.
HP Lovecraft, The Shadow over Innsmouth. People were calling my work ‘Lovecraftian’ for years when I’d actually read very little Lovecraft. But of course I’d been influenced at second hand through dozens of other sources. And when I finally read him in bulk, ahead of making Cultist, I could see why he’d been so influential. Innsmouth is a bit of an arbitrary choice. It’s very good, but it’s here mostly so I can quote Hunter C. Eden, from the regular “My Favourite Anti-Semite” column in the Jewish magazine Tablet (“A continuing series of tributes to people who hate us”):
“With a few minor exceptions […] when Lovecraft’s racial attitudes appear in his work, they tend to surface as little asides: Just so you know, these depraved cultists are mulattoes. You roll your eyes, think, “Get over it, Howard,” and then you’re back with the warped fish men of Innsmouth and the Escherian geometry of Cthulhu’s tomb. It’s not Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Turner Diaries; it’s the literary equivalent of a cringeworthy reference to “darkies” by an older relative who you otherwise love spending time with. “
Tim Powers, Last Call. Powers’ submerged major Trumps are among the ancestors of the Hours. I wonder if Powers had read Johnny Panic.
Anita Mason, The Illusionist. An obliquely persuasive take on Gnosticism and early Christian history from a woman who wrote five very different and (from the two I’ve read) completely unclassifiable novels. “I don’t do storms or raising the dead.”
Mary Gentle, Rats and Gargoyles. “Alexis,” someone asked me online a couple of years ago, “do the Hours in Cultist Simulator owe anything to the thirty-six daemon gods, some of them explicitly associated with hours in the day, depicted in Mary Gentle’s epic grimy fantasy love letter to Hermetic tradition, Rats and Gargoyles?“Why yes, yes they do, but I read it on a train in secondary school and I’d almost forgotten it until someone pointed out the embarrassingly obvious connection.
Graham Greene, A Shocking Accident. I love Greene’s unfussily assured prose and I wasn’t sure which to pick, but then I remembered this very short short. If you read it, you’ll see why it struck home.
Jorge Luis Borges, Death and the Compass. Borges is the family ghost, but I started reading him because of Alex Cox’s film of this book. I still say “This is enemy territory. Red Scharlach country.” whenever we go past Canning Town on the DLR, although I don’t think anyone else has ever found it funny.
Richard Adams, Shardik. You’ve read actual Watership Down, right? You know it’s not just a book about bunnies? Shardik isn’t as tight but it made me think harder about gods.
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I think Mitchell may be my favourite living author. It’s not a very controversial or original choice, sorry.
Clive Barker, Weaveworld. Because of the sense of the world that is lost.
Alan Garner, Elidor. Because of the sense of the world that is lost…
Patricia Highsmith, The Cry of the Owl. I don’t think Highsmith was a very happy person, and I feel guilty for benefitting from her unhappiness, because her work wouldn’t have been as good otherwise. Her Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is very good too.
James P Blaylock, The Last Coin. Blaylock and Powers, who I mentioned above, were friends who shared a running joke about a poet called William Ashbless who shows up in both their work. Ashbless was imaginary, so maybe we’ll put him in Book of Hours as a tribute to them both.
Rosemary Sutcliff, The Mark of the Horse Lords. I’m not sure people should be allowed to put endings like that in a children’s book. I couldn’t read it again for years. It kickstarted my interest in Dark Ages Britain, though.
Fritz Leiber, The Swords of Lankhmar. Anthropomorphic rats aren’t a unique idea, but the L.B.s in Fallen London wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t read this book. What really works, though, is the scene-setting every time he switches protagonists.
Robert Holdstock, Lavondyss. I really didn’t get on with Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, and when I met him, once, very briefly, I blurted out something stupid about it and he looked quite hurt. He’s been dead ten years and more so I’ll never meet him a second time and apologise, or be able to tell him that Lavondyss – which was a sequel to Mythago Wood – changed the way I think about myth.
Damon Runyon, On Broadway. The Blind Bruiser in Sunless Sea doesn’t really sound like a Runyon character, but the technique of lightly punctuated stream of consciousness speech for forward momentum is specifically from Runyon – I read him and thought oh Christ yes, that’s it.
Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan. “You and I, at all events, have known something of the terror that may dwell in the secret place of life, manifested under human flesh; that which is without form taking to itself a form.”
M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart. This started life as a novella? short story? called The Great God Pan. Ivan Towlson, if you ever read this, sorry, you were right about Harrison.
DP Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic: from Ficino to Campanella. Did you know that Ficino identified the cause of depression as the result of overly intense thought or creative effort, because the refined substance of the spirit, which connects mind and soul, degrades into blackened ashy elements? Consequently, we can restore it by smelling sweet scents, listening to music, and drinking wine. But only white wine.
Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Norse Myths. The retelling is very very good, but the notes after each myth, which identified and discussed their matching and overlapping sources, were eye-opening for me when I’d only ever thought of myths as ideal objects.
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber. This is another slight cheat, because I saw a film based on a bunch of Carter shorts – Neil Jordan’s In the Company of Wolves – long before I read any Carter. It was on BBC TV very late at night when my brother and I were in our early teens. We VCRed it without telling our mother, who I suspect wouldn’t have approved. Anyway, Carter herself is brilliant, but I can’t read more than a story and a half without feeling like I’ve gorged myself.
Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World. When you read your first Ishiguro, you get most of the way through without understanding what all the fuss is about, and then you realise he’s been working unfussily away, like dripping water dissolving marble, or a sapper undermining a castle wall, and you’re in bits. This was my first.
Geoffrey Ashe, Mythology of the British Isles. A plethoric miscellany of fascinatingly linked stuff, but he’s particularly entertaining about the other Geoffrey, the one from Monmouth, with whom he visibly loses patience over the course of the book.
Jessie Laidlay Weston, From Ritual to Romance. The tradition that entrained the last choice between hatred, grief, and Salt.
Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday. The first line of this book is “The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset.” I read it and put the book face-down in annoyance and went into the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea, thinking, I’ll never be a writer because I’ll never be able to do anything like that with words.