The notion that Jorge Luis Borges’ “Labyrinths” – a collection of idiosyncratic short stories, essays, and even parables by the much-acclaimed Argentinian writer, wrangled into English with no little hair-pulling – somehow parallels Voynich research is one that has been floated and repeated for decades.

But is it true now, here in the Fake News world of 2017? Is Borges a harbinger of what we see, or are we all post-Borges?

Describing The Indescribable

What Borges does in his short stories is to gleefully plunder history, not for mere colour (as so many writers now do) but to subvert it and channel it into a secret paradoxical alt.history, which typically forms the conceptual spine of each story’s skeleton.

The twisted steps backwards he takes to go forward again are equal parts erudite and imaginary. These all lead to a creative pyre whose flames are fed by philosophy, religion, esotericism, literature, self-referentiality, dreams, chess, labyrinths, and the numberless ways to cheat (or at least sidestep) the infinities of time, space, and mathematics.

Yet despite the range of references, the setting is predominantly a high-register, sexless, atheistic domain, ruled by stern, darkly logical planets. As a reader, you often feel as though the author is trying to conjure up a paradoxical exit visa from one dark oppressive reality into another.

Borges’ Three Tells

It’s not hard to tell his writing apart from just about anybody else’s.

His first writing trademark is embellished and over-decorated footnotes and references to books and articles which may or may not exist, embedding (if not actually entangling) his narratives in an imaginary textual web. This corresponds to the “falsifying and magnifying” tendency he derides himself (at a remove) for.

His second trademark is inserting himself into his stories, often as an unreliable narrator (not such a modern conceit as some may think).

His third trademark is that his stories almost always reveal themselves to be less than the sum of their parts – the denouement is often little more than a peek behind Oz’s curtain, collapsing the conceit preceding it.

Is Borges Worth Reading?

This is a tough question. Many of the things that are good about his writing would also likely make him completely unreadable to many modern readers. If you are impatient and/or prefer things to be grounded in the concrete, Borges’ concept-heavy counter-factuals are almost certainly not for you.

Yet the bigger problem, I think, is one of style, because Borges writes with a kind of refined, over-polished lightness that somehow never quite becomes levity. I don’t believe that the reading difficulties are translation artefacts: they’d be just as difficult in Hawaiian or Esperanto.

Is Borges a fellow-traveller to Voynich researchers? He certainly sets his readers cerebral challenges, ones which wear cloaks of obscurity, esotericism, and a tight knowingness, yet which he then reveals to be simpler than they at first seemed: and in some ways this is the (idealized) research trajectory.

But in the end, I think the answer is no: his mystification and erudition aren’t his means to knowledge, they are merely the scaffolding he uses to support the canvas behind his all-too-briefly-erected stages. Borges offers only an anagram of research, not research itself: the teasing paranoia of conspiracy, rather than causality.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Borges: but, like fried grasshoppers dipped in Marmite, I can quite see he’s not going to be to everyone’s tastes. :-/

A few years back, Bill Walsh sent me a (fairly early, as I recall) draft of his vaguely-Voynich-Manuscript-themed novel to have a look at. And now that a proper copy has finally landed on my doorstep, all finished and shiny, the inevitable question arises…

Is it any good?

Tales From The Black Chamber: A Supernatural Thriller

First things first: anyone who fills their bookshelves solely with High Literature can look away now. “Tales From The Black Chamber” was written more as an amuse-bouche, to the point that many of the book’s protagonists were simply light-hearted pastiches of Bill’s friends at the time. He even mentions me (p.110) as an interesting Voynich theorist (but don’t hold that against him, it’s mercifully brief).

His story races past all manner of things cryptographic and demonological, with a sassy female bibliophile main character who gets swept up (mostly unwillingly) in a world-spanning story that’s far more fin du monde than fan-fic. Even though knowing a bit about Richard Kieckhefer and the history of magic circles beforehand might help the reader a little, such research fare is certainly far from essential here. Oddly enough, I didn’t remember the story’s ending at all from when I read it the first time round (perhaps it changed along the way?), but it did wrap everything up quite satisfyingly.

So… what are the scores, George Dawes? Well, my arithmetic goes like this: Tales From The Black Chamber gets four stars, basically for being pacy, genuinely readable, not outstaying its welcome, and having characters you don’t actually want to punch after half a page. The extra half a star I’d really like to give it for The Best Gratuitous Inclusion Of A Mongolian Shaman gets cancelled out by The Worst Job Offer (And Least Plausible Job Acceptance) In History Ever Ever (Ever), along with the main characters’ hyperactive overuse of weaponry (despite the fact that this has become completely par for the course in a primarily American genre, arguably).

Even though Bill seems never to have expected it to turn out so well, I think he’s ended up doing a damn fine job: and anyone who secretly enjoys the warm buzz of reading about necromancy and the supernatural that always seems to be a mere half-step away from the Voynichian research mainstream will probably enjoy his book. Good luck, Bill, I hope it does well! 🙂

PS: doubtless some people (OK, mainly Americans) will actually rather enjoy all that gun fetishry, but it’s a big Internet out there, with plenty of space to write your own reviews if such a thing wouldst pleaseth thee greatly. If so, then go ahead, knocketh thyself out. 🙂

Too long to be a short story and too short to be a novel, some might say that The Voynich Affair by Linnet Moss suffers from both problematic elongation and improper positioning.

But given that Google (until today) yielded precisely zero hits for the phrase “Voynich erotica”, Moss is clearly reaming out a niche untouched by few (if any) previous hands.

Voynich Erotica

But has she hit the spot?

I must confess that I found reading “The Voynich Affair” on a Kindle on the bus towards Staines in the morning rush hour more than a bit unsettling. Coming to the genre for the first time (so to speak), what I found oddest was that it seems to be written by people scared to death of physical intimacy, and aimed at readers who are also scared to death of physical intimacy. No, really.

I don’t know, it’s like it was typed by someone wearing gloves: chic, distantly-perfumed Italian leather gloves, sure, but gloves nonetheless. And for all the shudderingly implausible physical encounters described in the text, the whole endeavour came across as being locked within a resolutely lonely world, sans any flicker of Sartrean authenticity.

As a result, I can’t claim to have liked (or even mildly empathised with) any of the protagonists: but given that there are plenty of Internationally Acclaimed Bestsellers which failed that same test even more dramatically (Digital Fortress, anyone? *sigh*), that hardly amounts to a serious criticism. And anyway, that’s probably not the point of erotica, right?

At this point, a traditional review would tell you about how the story is based around extra missing pages of the manuscript in a French chateau, and involves various broodingly mysterious (and sociopathic) Voynich researchers: but frankly that’s a bit pointless. By now, you’ve almost certainly decided whether or not you’re interested, so all I can usefully add is that all fifteen chapters are freely available online, starting here.

The Selfish Reason

At this point, I have to ‘fess up to the real reason I bought a copy of The Voynich Affair (which Linnet Moss published as part of “The Mind-Body Problem: Stories of Desire and Love in Academe” (2012), complete with Voynich page on the (virtual) front cover)…

mind-body-problem

…which is that I wanted to see if the various Voynich researchers in the story were loosely based on any real-world Voynich researchers.

OK, OK: I wanted to see if I had been parodied. Not that I can’t take a joke, it’s just that I’d rather know about the joke than find out about it a decade later. 🙂

Happily, though, I can exclusively reveal that no Voynich researcher seems to have been openly parodied (no Randy Zenbergen, no Donna Via-Odeon, and no sign of the infamous Len Pickling), nor were any Voynichians’ sexual proclivities (errrm, to the best of my knowledge) turned into sort-of-page-turning Voynich-themed erotic encounters.

Unless you know better, that is? 😉

But… Who Would Write Such A Thing?

Author Linnet Moss claims to be:

“a college professor who writes fiction in her spare time. She adores old books, new books, cats, frogs, miniature books, wine, Trappist ales, tea from Ceylon, vegetarian gourmet food, London, Rome, Art Deco skyscrapers, and beautiful men.”

Of course, while some (or indeed all) of this may be true, it remains just as possible that Moss is a short balding non-professor bloke from Deptford with OCD, conceptually not too far removed from “paradee man woman” Wor Cheryl, pet.

As a result, I can (just about) see how some readers might possibly see decrypting the author’s identity, age, and/or indeed gender from the text as a worthwhile challenge.

For me, though, I’m sticking with the Voynich Manuscript: that has more than enough strangely inscrutable nymphs to worry about for one lifetime. 😉

A nice set of past Voynich limericks are elsewhere on Cipher Mysteries, but I thought (six years on) I’d write a couple of new ones for you:

Might Voynichese be Nahuatl?
Or incomprehensible prattle?
We might never find
How this thing was designed
Without patronage from Seattle.

The Voynich Manuscript’s a conundrum
One that draws us away from the humdrum
It defies those who attack it
But have faith – you’ll soon crack it
Illegitimi non carborundum! 🙂

I’ve read a lot – and I really do mean a lot – of Voynich Manuscript-themed (and other genuine-historical-cipher-themed) novels over the years, and I have to say that the whole experience rarely gets any better than just-about-OK-if-there’s-nothing-much-on-TV. Yes, even with TV in the nadir-like pit it has winched itself down into these days.

Sad as it is, such novelists’ including-an-ancient-unbroken-cipher writing mechanism comes across to reflective readers as rather, I don’t know, desperate-and-wanting-to-be-loved (and doubtless someone will tell me an obscure German or Icelandic adjective to describe this more precisely). More precisely, it shouts out “please God, let importing some genuine real-world mystery be enough to distract attention from the countless plot flaws, the unconvincing characters, and the piss-poor writing“. And that’s before you’ve even got to page one.

At the same time, none of the above ever hurt Dan Brown, so why not press that button and see where it leads, eh?

the-voynich-deception

Indeed, Michael Lancashire pressed that very button: and to his credit, his novel “The Voynich Deception” comes out of it basically an OK read. As the backdrop to his story, he has an unfeasibly clever guy (‘The Architect’) devising unfeasibly-clever-yet-still-oddly-micromanaged evil plans for ambitious crims to buy to execute. The rest of the plot involves a group of brutal, greedy and unlovable – though utterly uninvolving – Albanian gangsters following a blood-soaked trail of Voynich-linked cookie crumbs ever onwards towards a long-concealed treasure trove, where… well, that last bit would be telling, so my lips are sealed.

But at the same time, what I can say is that the structural weakness of “The Voynich Deception” is that while Lancashire’s ‘Architect’ is just an anti-Sherlock Holmesian conceit, the entire story pivots entirely on a single (admittedly fairly large) twist, one which the author flags very early on. As such, it’s more like a long short story than a novel: and for all the (occasional spatter of) blood ‘n’ gore, it does end up feeling a bit… thin.

Still, Lancashire is respectful towards the Voynich Manuscript (which is good), and he tells his story at a fair old pace, something far too many cipher novelists struggle with (hint: a fight they usually lose ignominiously).

The Kindle ebook version is only £1.99, so it’s not a huge investment or risk. And if you like The Voynich Deception, Lancashire has since written an Architect prequel novella (“Kernel Panic”) for you to move onto. All in all: not my tasse de thé, sure, but a perfectly OK read.

The Brazilian nurse adjusted the Great Poet’s line and pillows with genuine tenderness but little effect.

“Titanic deckchairs?” he mused. “Infinitesimal parameters?” Words, old friends, pain relief, they all failed him now: like the snow falling softly outside, the only way was down.

Since arriving, he had only written occasional haikus on a Post-It Note pad: but day by day even that had become impossibly long-form. His writing fingers drummed arthritically on the coverlet, empty-tanked sports cars ever impatient for races they would never finish.

On a whim, he stared past her out of the window at the snowman standing in the tiny courtyard. It lacked yesterday’s newly-made sharp definition, true, but a pinprick of its shaped vitality was still discernible, if you knew where to look. “You and me both, pal”, he wheezed ineffectively.

“Are you alright, Meester Alston?”

“Never better”, he tried to lie: but as with his pen, the words seemed too wide, the channel too narrow.

She paused, watching his struggle for breath. “I will leave the light on”, she said as she left. “You seem to have a lot on your mind tonight.”

As the ground-floor’s other temporary residents turned in and switched off, the snowman gradually found itself illuminated just by the poet’s room light, leaving it a white lighthouse in a wine-dark sea of night. And far off in the hospice, a muffled radio played the organ intro to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

And he was back in the ballroom, Bayswater, 1967, winter solstice. Dress code was pagan, Bohemian black for everyone except his bride, white-faced, ivory-clad Lindsay, his Mama Cass, his muse, with her sane reasoning and insane appetites.

Oddly, his resentful, drug-abusing sons were there too, their burning arrows of creativity forever condemned to sail listlessly beneath his own Laureate arc: and his daughter Caterina as well, beautiful before she was born and serene after she died.

“We skipped the light fandango…” Indeed: so what shall we dance this time, my dear? His mistresses, Tarni and Ute and Iris, eased gently out of the shadows as bridesmaids – though hardly vestal virgins – lifting him to the stage, to Lindsay, to a reconciliation they had both wanted but had never quite reached.

And everywhere he looked in the darkness around her, he saw more eyes, more faces, more everything, and with a vivid clarity that had long eluded him. And he was writing, writing now, writing his life and his love and his pain and his death, trapped and freed within a seventeen syllable prison cell of heaven and hell…

It was Nurse Celestina who found the body beside the snowman: how the Great Poet got there was a mystery. The Post-It Note in his hand was blank, though: there never was enough time to write that final haiku.

Our winter ballroom
Fills with friends anew.
My first and last dance, with you.

I’ve just heard about an upcoming auction for a Da Vinci Code “cryptex”. It’s allegedly one of the ones ‘potentially’ used in the film (whatever ‘potentially’ means, you’d have to ask an IP lawyer to be sure), but is believed by the auctioneers to be genuine. Which is nice.

cryptex-in-box

I should add that word on the crypto street (if your street just happens to have lots of collectors) is that movie props are widely forged and can be very hard to prove genuine, so it really is a case of caveat emptor etc.

But if neither your budget nor your appetite for risk will stretch quite that far, you can buy Authorized Cryptex Replicas on eBay (of course you can, that’s exactly what eBay is for, isn’t it?).

Here’s a nice departure from normal: a ‘Peter Crossman’ short story that just appeared on tor.com called The Devil in the Details, by Debra Doyle and James D. McDonald.

It’s a kind of high-octane (parody of / homage to) the modern-day Knights-Templar-as-God’s-Special-Ops novel genre, based around missing pages from the Voynich Manuscript being offered at a dangerously high-powered auction, at an arcane and mysterious venue with the Vatican and (possibly) Google Research also trying to bid, if they can stay alive long enough… you get the idea.

The writing sustains a quirky balance between rigid Latin medievalism and modern weapon fetishism, with tongue firmly in cheek. I hope you like it! 🙂

Having been exposed to what might reasonably be termed a ‘surfeit’ of unhealthily imaginative Voynich theories since nineteen-clickety-duck [*], I’d like to think that I’ve seen quite a lot of ‘highly unlikely scenarios’: and so pretty much anything involving Roger Bacon, time travel, and the Voynich Manuscript I should have covered, right?

Wrong! In her 2013 novel “A Highly Unlikely Scenario: Or, A Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide To Saving The World” Rachel Cantor straps an extra ten feet to her conceptual pole and vaults far higher than just about anyone else would try. (In fact, I’d say she tries her level best to vault out of the whole darn arena.)

Yet there’s a spark, verve and swerve to her jambalaya of story ingredients: future fast food corporations at war, a heady mix of mismatched philosophies, time-travelling conversations (with Marco Polo and family members), magical songs (“who is the king of the [clap] third ether?“, stop me if you’ve heard it before), anarchist book club members (sort of), and clothes so vividly jangling they make your inner eye hurt (toreador pants and red afros? Yes, really). And then the story properly begins…

There will be those who glibly snark that such a book is not a ‘novel’, it is simply a creative writing experiment that somehow managed to escape the labs: and that the correct cultural response to such over-hybridized monsters is a tranquilizer dart in the thigh and a discreetly dark van to clear the Frankenbody from the streets. But pshaw to such reactionary knee-jerking, I say: for all its angularity, such writing keeps language fresh and (dare I say it) exciting. Read this and enjoy it! 🙂

[*] Which is, of course, the punch-line to the wonderful old joke: “Two little old ladies playing bingo. One says to the other, ‘You know, I’ve been coming here since nineteen clickety-duck’.

Leena Krohn’s novel “Datura” has long been on my big fat list of Voynich novels: though originally released in 2001 as ‘Datura tai harha jonka jokainen näkee’ by the multi-genre Finnish writer, it has now been translated into English as Datura, or a delusion we all see.

The story follows a woman running a kind of Finnish Fortean Times, and its chapters are criss-crossed by her (fictional) encounters with oddbods holding a wide range of fringe beliefs about reality. All the while, her accidental addiction to Datura is growing, while her ability to tell fantasy from reality diminishes… it’s a slippery slope. The Voynich Manuscript is in there somewhere (but then again, so is a lot of other marginal stuff).

That’s the bare bones of the story – is it worth a read?

Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy it half as much as I hoped I would. Krohn launches her story from a traditional horror plotline trope (the a-little-bit-of-this-surely-won’t-hurt gag), but never really puts her foot on the accelerator: her main character’s meetings with Fortean outsiders are more tetchy and impatient than genuinely weird or mind-expanding, and only occasionally intersect with anything like the plot.

Even the book’s Fortean fare – the Voynich Manuscript included – acts merely as a backdrop to the main character’s solipsistic, dreary suburban life, in thrall to her friend Markus (who owns the magazine she edits) for no particularly good reason. Even the ridiculous practical risks involved with taking Datura – aka the moonflower, angel’s trumpets, Devil’s Weed, or Jinson weed – are breezed over.

I’m sorry to say that at the end of the book I came away wishing that Krohn had been braver, had taken more risks with the writing, had been… I don’t know, altogether more gothic.

Structurally, you can’t (I’d say with my editor hat on) genuinely hope to sustain a book around a main character whose interactions with other characters are avowedly indifferent or grudgingly accepting: it’s just not enough for readers to work with.