Great Unwritten Books

I am always trying to break new ground as a book blogger, but all the titles I write about are commercially available. Today I thought we’d do something a little different, and discuss books that were only ever published in fictional worlds or alternate universes. This is the list I have come up with – I hope you enjoy it – MD

Night Journey, Hugo Driver 

Never published in the real world, Driver’s novel was a cult success within the narrative of Peter Straub’s The Hellfire Club. Driver’s book emerged from the legendary Shorelands writer’s retreat in the late 1930s. It was the kind of novel that obsesses people, and defines lives. There are even ‘Driver houses’ where people live as Night Journey characters for months on end. The action of The Hellfire Club begins when protagonist Nora Chancel investigates the Driver mythos and finds that Driver – not a pleasant fellow by all accounts: fellow author Creeley Monk described him as a ‘nasty sneak’ – may have plagiarised his great work from somebody else. Nora plays a dangerous game because her entire family’s reputation is built on Night Journey‘s success.

Driver’s story itself is a mystical adventure story featuring a child who is rescued from death and taken to a fantasy world by the mysterious ‘Green Knight’. Parts of it are excerpted throughout The Hellfire Club. I’ve read some of Straub’s early stuff and I suspect that Night Journey was the epic book Straub had tried and failed (particularly in Shadowland) to write – the book that takes us to ‘the heart’s glade, where the great secret lay buried’. But The Hellfire Club is an underrated classic, a novel about literary rivalry which is genuinely thrilling, scary and compulsive.

The Runner trilogy/cycle, John Rothstein

I’ve touched on this briefly before, but Rothstein is the most interesting of Stephen King’s many invented novelists. He wrote an Augie March style trilogy about young iconoclast Jimmy Gold and the Runner books follow Gold’s journey from wild child to suburban complacency. Following the trilogy’s success, Rothstein retired to live a recluse’s life in New Hampshire, where he wrote two more Jimmy Gold books – available in a very limited edition of a few dozen Moleskine notebooks buried under a tree somewhere near Massachusetts. King might have created Rothstein as a composite or satire but he can’t help his natural talent and affection seep into the glimpses we get of Rothstein’s prose. The lost Runner manuscripts would tempt any serious reader, though mostly not to the extent of shooting the author dead.

Untitled, Richard Tull

Tull’s early novels fell off the radar as they were too considered too ‘difficult’ for average readers to cope with. Instead of caving in to market pressure, Tull doubled down with this modernist classic. Untitled features ‘an octuple time scheme’ with a ‘rotating crew of sixteen unreliable narrators’ – the prose is so complex that it proves literally unreadable: early readers succumbed to migraine headaches, vasomotor rhinitis, and organic lesions. (James Diedrich, in Understanding Martin Amis, says this is autobiographical – apparently friends of Amis felt sick and headachy after reading his drafts. It seems likely because so much of The Information is autobiographical and lines from it keep coming up in Amis’s personal reflections elsewhere.) Tull comes to believe that Untitled is ‘clearly and entirely hopeless as a novel’ but I feel he was too hard on himself and the book could easily find a home perhaps at an indie press or very highbrow commercial publisher. There could even be an element of masculine competition as critics risk their health to plough through the book. Can you get past page nine?

Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland, Adrian Mole

The trunk novel to beat all trunk novels, Lo! explores ‘late twentieth-century man and his dilemma, focusing on a ‘New Man’ living in a provincial city in England’. Originally written without vowels, Lo! was described by a Faber reader as ‘a most amusing parody of the English naïf school of fiction.’ Mole believed it was more than that and while I don’t think Lo! would ever be a GCSE set text as Mole would have liked, chances are that the daring title and deliberate provincialism would find his novel a home at an indie press, probably even a couple of prize shortlists. All together now: ‘Put your foot down! Take me to the nearest urban conurbation!’

History of Leith, Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy

Coming down from a heroin addiction and looking for a project to keep the jitters away, Murphy wrote a history of Leith at some point around the turn of the century. Covering incorporation into Edinburgh in 1920 right up until the HIV epidemic of the 1980s, Murphy’s book is a fascinating history of this distinctive port town, albeit that it’s handwritten and full of grammatical and syntactical errors. A local publisher described the History as ‘a badly written celebration of yob culture and of people who haven’t achieved anything noteworthy in the local community’ – what critics said about Irvine Welsh’s novels so many, many times. Spud is humiliated by this rejection and burns the manuscript, illustrating a Welsh theme that it’s the winners who write history. All this happens in the novel Porno – in this year’s Trainspotting book, Dead Men’s Trousers, there’s a possibility that Spud might find literary success after all. But will he be around to enjoy it?

America Works, Tom Yates

The Underwood administration is known for its secrecy, but in some ways it was surprisingly open. There have been great American writers who were close to power – Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal – but none of these legends got to live in Pennsylvania Avenue full time, or have an affair with the First Lady. Yates was originally commissioned to write a book about Frank Underwood’s flagship employment programme, but outlived his usefulness when he began to explore Underwood’s biography and motivations. On his death, Claire Underwood told the American Observer that ‘What happened to Mr. Yates is a tragedy. Not only was he a talented writer and a valued member of our staff, but he was also a friend. Sadly, he was a man of vices. Men, women, drink and drug. I only wish I could have gotten him the help he needed in time.’ As the House of Cards series has got so messy, the fate of Yates’s manuscript is unknown.

Sterling’s Gold, Roger Sterling

Every Mad Men fan remembers the episode ‘The Suitcase’ for its emotional punch. But it’s also notable because we get a glimpse of Roger Sterling’s memoirs. Late at night, a drunken and giggling Don Draper listens to tape recordings for the autobiography, including highlights of Miss Blankenship’s ‘flapper years’ and how Bertram Cooper lost his balls to an incompetent surgeon, who performed an ‘unnecessary orchiectomy’ (‘I think he had him killed’).

One Response to “Great Unwritten Books”

  1. Giles Says:

    love the list.

    the tension building up to the revelation of ‘History of Leith’ is my favourite part of Porno.

    Didn’t most copies of ‘Sterling’s Gold’ get pulped?

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