John Sladek and Black Aura

‘Humour and horror are never so far apart, and shaking with laughter often looked like shaking with fear.’

I first read John Sladek around the age of fifteen, when I picked up Tik-Tok from the science fiction section of the local library. For a teenager used to the ordered universe of Isaac Asimov, reading this story of a murderous robot felt like lurching from Flash Gordon to Flesh Gordon in a single sitting. Grotesque, satirical, and overall very funny, the book redefined the possibilities of genre fiction for me. I’ve never forgotten it.

Sladek was a genre writer who refused to be restrained by the rules of genre, or rather, who saw those rules less as regimental structures and more as the parameters of a game. His approach in Tik-Tok, and other works of science fiction such as The Reproductive System and The Mueller-Fokker Effect, employed wordplay, palindromes, diagrams and puns, to play games with form that resembled a folksier version of the oulipo method. When I learned that he’d also written crime novels, I was intrigued about how his approach would work with the rules of a different genre. It’s taken a while, but I finally got hold of a copy of Black Aura, the first of those novels. It’s every bit as playful and inventive as his work in science fiction: genre as game.

Black Aura masquerades as story from the Golden Age of crime writing, with amateur sleuth, Thackeray Phin, an American abroad in London, investigating a series of murders amongst a spiritualist society. The plot gathers together various staples of the classic murder mystery: the vicar, the medium, the creepy house, the Egyptian curse, the hokum sect, the military man, (in this case a racist, alcoholic ex-RAF pilot called Bruce Dank). The detective, Thackeray Phin—whose name owes something to Trollope and, well, Thackeray— is a self-aware detective, conversant with the whole history of his craft. He moves through a story of locked rooms, disguises, tricks with mirrors, wordplay, puns (one chapter ends with the word ‘Phin’, like the close of a French film) with the knowing air of someone who has seen, or at least read it all before. ‘After all, sleuths are supposed to leave puzzled policemen holding dead telephones.’ Of course, there are maps and diagrams too. It’s like crime writing as a technical manual. Clues are anticipated, the solution looked up in the back.

Another pleasing dimension to the book, for me at least, is how Black Aura works as a novel of an American in London. ‘Using public payphones, he’d already learned, was one of those exercise which kept the British cheerful an patient (the Blitz had been another’). Sladek lived in London for around twenty years, from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Eighties, and you feel that his foreignness came to charge his writing with a sense of distance, strangeness. And, in one of those weird coincidences that hint at monstrous design, for a while he shared a flat with fellow writers Pamela Zoline and Thomas Disch and at 221B Camden High Street. (There’s a neat fantasy sequence in Black Aura, where Sherlock Holmes unmasks Jack The Ripper as Doctor Watson; perhaps Iain Sinclair read it). I recently discovered that there’s a John Sladek Society, which aims to have a commemorative blue plaque installed on the address. The building stands opposite the Electric Ballroom. Given that I pass that flat every day on my way home from work, I’d love to see that happen.

Not long after I read Tik-Tok, my tastes changed, and I left science fiction behind to  pursue, amongst other things, the Beats, that other genre of misspent adolescence. Not that I ever gave up on genre writing completely, of course, but if you’d asked me at the time to find any relation between Sladek and Kerouac et al, I’d probably have struggled. Call it the naivety of youth. Here is ‘literature’. Here is ‘science fiction’. Don’t question the definitions. Keep the boxes fixed. The irony is that the writer Sladek resembles most is William S. Burroughs, and he preserves the most rewarding elements of Burroughs’s writing, the comedy. Sladek took the experimentation of the Beats and applied it to genre writing, playing and bending the rules to arrive at something new. As James Sallis wrote in his obituary to Sladek: ‘John Sladek was the high priest of something else, the clown in the choir, the valet who takes your keys to the Rolls and brings you an ice cream truck.’

Something else. It’s a fitting term to categorise the work of a writer who always looked to move between the lines. Presently, the area of Camden where Sladek lived is being renovated, regenerated, transformed. . . describe it however you want, it’s all part of the current mania for transforming the city into something no one really asked for, or really needs. On my way back from work, I give the space he occupied a little wave. Black Aura is currently out of print. Someone really ought to look at publishing it again.

‘”I know that,” Phin said. “I’ve read William Burroughs.”

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