Friday, July 1, 2022

The Wormwood Interview - R B Russell

And Other Stories have recently announced pre-orders for Fifty Forgotten Books by R B Russell, due out in September. The author recounts autobiographical episodes alongside discussing books that have been important to him, many of them not very well-known.

All enthusiasts of fantastic, supernatural and unusual literature will enjoy encountering the titles the author chooses, but the book also introduces us to a cast of decadents, bohemians, cult musicians, the odd (very odd) spy, shady publishers and backstreet booksellers, as well as the writers of the weird and wayward.

David Tibet calls it ‘A groovy and delicious and intimate jigsaw of memories and passions and books . . .  Falling in love with books voraciously, whilst growing up ferociously, has never been so beautifully described.’

We asked R B Russell to join us for The Wormwood Interview. Here he has chosen some different titles to those in the book.  Ray notes: ‘I have tried not to repeat myself in this interview for Wormwoodiana, and this time I discuss only well-known books!’

 The first book I remember

This would be the first in the Ladybird Key Words Reading Schemethe “Peter and Jane” books. They were not page-turners, but that was not the point. I didn’t discover that phenomenon until Enid Blyton’s “Five Find-Outers” and her “Mystery” series. Blyton has been rightly maligned, even in her own day, for not being particularly challenging, for creating lazy stereotypes, and not engaging with the issues of the modern world. Nevertheless, she made me, and hundreds of thousands of other children, desperate to read all the books in her various series, and that was important. I know it will have helped that I was like most of her characters—a white, middle class child, living in the countryside, with parents who didn’t mind if I left the house early in the morning and didn’t reappear until bedtime. The adventures of her characters merged with my adventures and are almost inseparable from my memories of childhood.


The first book I bought for myself

Through the Scholastic Book Services, The Tomorrow People in The Visitor by Roger Price and Julian R. Gregory (Piccolo, 1973). I loved the television series about young people from a range of backgrounds (very un-Blyton), brought together by their telepathic, telekinetic and other abilities. Looking back, it has that strange “period” feel of the 1970s, probably enhanced by the fading of the colour on the cover of my original paperback. It was essentially science fiction, and the evocative title music of the ITV television series was created by the immortal Delia Derbyshire (who was moonlighting from the BBC). It makes sense that children should recognise themselves in the characters they read about, but also that they should read about those with different experiences from their own. The educationalists who despise Blyton probably wouldn’t be too impressed, either, by children reading novelisations of popular television programmes. However, once again it got me reading and collecting (I eventually obtained all five books in the series). It was important for me to discover that, unlike ephemeral television programmes in those days, I could go back to a book again and again.

The book I thought was my discovery

This is difficult to answer because I’ve always assumed that any book I’ve come across will have been appreciated by other readers at some time or other. Before the internet, the problem was finding anybody else who appreciated the same authors as me. I’ve always enjoyed discussing books with other people, not least because everyone brings a different perspective, even a different understanding to a book. I well-remember discussing, at school break times, Camus and Kafka with Danny Goring and Tim Rich, and Machen and Lovecraft with Adrian Bott.

The book that changed me

I don’t think any one book has ever changed me, but all the books I have read have had some effect on me—even books that I haven’t enjoyed and have given up reading! If forced to name one book, it would have to be Machen’s The Hill of Dreams, which I have discussed often before.

 The book a friend told me about

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood (McClelland and Stewart, 1993) was recommended to me by Rosalie Parker fifteen years ago, when I was starting to write fiction seriously. It was, perhaps, the first time I had read a book and paid attention to the craft of novel-writing. In some ways it feels like going back to what I very first appreciated—a book being a page-turner. Many critics seem to denigrate this ability in writers, as though it automatically makes books shallow or second-rate. It strikes me as a bigger problem that there are writers who have great intellectual or philosophical ideas but who fail to engage the reader because they forget to write a decent story. I was impressed by the quiet way that Atwood drew me into the novel, kept me interested, and raised so many ideas without making an issue of them. It appears effortless, but once you start to pick it apart you can see what skill it takes.


The wildest weirdest book I ever read

Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (Random House, 2020) is perhaps the weirdest, wildest read I’ve experienced in a long time, not least because it is a book of non-fiction. Fungus is strange stuff, but its relationship with so much of life on earth is inextricable and often defies understanding. And lichen! The more that is discovered about lichen, the more alien it seems. Perhaps the most memorable section of the book deals with a fungus that infects leaf-cutter ants, but I won’t spoil it for those who are yet to read the book. Highly recommended!

The book I treasure most

An impossible question! If the house was on fire and I could only choose one book to save, I would probably not get out of the house in time.



  1. That's a fun selection and Ray's new book is fabulous - I read it earlier this week.
    I loved the famous five books as a little fella and I loved a novelisation. I still have a shelf full of my Doctor Who Targets

    1. I remember discussing William Burroughs at school and asking the English teacher what he thought of his work. When he told me it was "rubbish" that cured me of valuing anything teachers said. I wish I'd told "Uncle Bill" that when I met him years later.

    2. Thank you, Ian. I wish I still had my Dr Who target editions. I was especially fond of the "Pyramids of Mars"!

  2. Entangled Life sounds terrific and, as a regular book reviewer, I'm sorry I wasn't aware of it two years ago. I couldn't help but notice the author's name and confirmed that he is the son of Rupert Sheldrake. I presume Merlin's science is less speculative than his father's.
    By the way, he is only the second modern Merlin I've run across in my reading, the first being Merlin Holland, son of Vyvyan Holland and grandson of Oscar WIlde.--Michael Dirda

    1. Yes, Merlin is the son of Rupert. His science is a little more mainstream than his father's, although he is obviously coming from a hippy background.