It is often said that we put our heroes on a pedestal, but I think that there’s more to it than that.
We confer a sort of immortality on them, so that when they do succumb to the inevitability of time, disease, overindulgence, or bad driving, it comes as somehow more of a shock than if it were someone we knew.
This applies to heroes of the literary world in a special way, since their legacy can be re-discovered by so many new generations down the years.
And although movie stars may have a huge fanbase, who undoubtedly mourn their passing, it doesn’t take long for movies to become dated and unfashionable, leaving their stars fading in time and memory.
Whereas we all know that the best pictures are in our heads, and that we can make any book into the biggest budget blockbuster, or the most low-tech Indie debut, and each person sees it differently, giving books a longevity that most films just don’t have.
Maybe this is of some consolation to those giants of the literary world who leave a large body of work behind them, knowing that they will give so much pleasure to readers for, possibly, hundreds of years.
I hope so.
There is also that slightly selfish thought of “Oh no, that means I won’t be able to read any more of those great books”, which I guess is natural, given how much we invest in the characters and their universes, created in our minds, in partnership with the author in a kind of symbiosis, mutually beneficial to both parties.
I clearly remember hearing about Douglas Adams’ tragically premature death in 2001 and feeling a sense of loss that at first I didn’t fully understand, but that I now suppose I would equate to the feeling of shock you get when a close friend has died suddenly.
When Stephen King was badly injured in a road accident, I’m sure that like myself, fans around the world were willing on his recovery, and I’m equally sure that the many millions of people that have been amazed, shocked, awed, sometimes baffled, but always entertained by the brilliant Iain Banks since his dazzling debut, The Wasp Factory took the literary world by storm, will be deeply saddened to hear of his announcement this week that he has gall bladder cancer, and is unlikely to live more than a few months, just allowing him enough time to finish his current novel, The Quarry.
Banks’ extraordinary back catalogue contains enough work for two novelists, and that is pretty much the case, with Iain Banks publishing a wide variety of non-genre fiction, and Iain M Banks writing incredibly complex, breathtakingly large scale, space opera science fiction, both of which he does in his own unique style.
On hearing the terrible news, I immediately felt the need to pass on his gift of genius to others, to help ensure the continued appreciation of his work in some small way, finally badgering a fellow blogger in South Africa so much, she actually went and bought a copy of his first novel the next day.
Another shock to readers of classic horror fiction, but not a shock of the good kind, was the news that James Herbert has died.
Generations of teenagers, including mine, have grown up with his particularly british mix of the supernatural – mutations of nature, occult goings-on, demented serial killers, secret Nazi plots to acquire the Spear of Destiny – and raunchy love scenes that, if you were the cynical type, you might think were included less for plot development, and more to attract even more hormone-drenched adolescent readers.
Herbert’s The Rats was one of the first horror novels I ever read, and it set the standard as far as I was concerned. For any book to deserve the “horror” tag after that, it had to really scare you when you were in that world.
If it didn’t, it hadn’t taken you there.
But for me, by far the most poignant prospect for the ending of a truly glittering career is that of a man whose work has been read by untold millions of people all over the world, has blurred the line between children’s and adult fiction in both directions, and has, with his Discworld™ series, created a whole magical universe, where all things are possible, but will almost certainly not happen in the most convenient order.
I have been a huge Terry Pratchett fan for many years, but since the discovery that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and heard him talk frankly and openly on the subject of assisted suicide, (Terry has stated publicly that when the time comes that he can no longer write, and therefore have any meaningful life, he will take his own life, in the comfort of his own home, surrounded by his loved ones), I haven’t read many of his new books.
The reason for this may seem strange to some of you, but I’m sure it’ll make sense to someone.
You see, I have this irrational worry that if I go rushing out to buy, and hungrily consume, all of his books the moment they come out, as I always used to, then a time will come when he is no longer around, and I’ll know that I will never read another of his books.
Nowadays I buy them all as they come out, (I’m attempting to collect all the Discworld™ books in hardback) but then just put them on the shelf, only re-reading previous books, against that day in the hopefully not-too-near future when the World Turtle Great A’Tuin swims out of my own personal universe forever.
Except of course, the stories never really leave us, calling to us from between the covers, eager to be read once again, to take us back to those places to which only books, and those magicians of words, authors, can transport us.