Thursday 22 October 2015

The Science Fiction Of JOHN LYMINGTON


John Richard Newton Chance, 
known to the Science Fiction world as 
 ‘John Lymington’ – 1911 to 1983 

As in all good soap operas, the action is firmly centred on the village pub – the ‘White Lion’, where the characters make their entrances and exits. ‘Nothing is based upon fact’ explains John Lymington helpfully, ‘except the name of the inn.’ Landlord Richard Callum is also a writer of James Bond-style secret-agent thrillers. How has he managed to write so many books? Perhaps autobiographically, he responds ‘I’m forty-four, which is no chick age’ and ‘I started very early.’ To stretch a point, if we are talking about his ‘Night Of The Big Heat’ here, that would mean he was writing it in 1955. For the novel was published, by Hodder & Stoughton, in 1959, then in Corgi paperback edition in 1961. But that’s speculation, for Lymington – born John Richard Newton Chance in 1911 in London’s Streatham Hill, was churning out a vast number of novels in a variety of popular genres, since at least 1935. According to his autobiography ‘Yellow Belly’ (Robert Hale, 1959), in 1944 he was invalided out of the RAF where he’d served as flying instructor, retaining his permanent Flight Lieutenant’s rank. This enabled him even greater writing time.

Meanwhile, Callum’s wife, Frankie has taken the car fourteen miles to Yarmouth, so their unidentified island must be the Isle of Wight, and the pub the one that Chance himself managed from 1956, with wife Shirley neè Savill and their three sons. While Patricia Wells is the flighty typist the agency has sent to help Callum’s stalled work on his latest novel. She appears to be modeled on, say, Audrey Hepburn, acute, lively intelligence, just a playful hint of ‘the tingle of sex’, which leads him to kiss her.

The various rural yokels at the bar complain of the ‘queer heat’. It’s the eighteenth of June and its unnatural intensity has been increasing for a week. This is a novel of its time. They blame sputniks and atomic testing for the abrupt climate-change, but although they hoe potatoes and speak in fractured dialect (uttering ‘it’s moi sheep. They all be dead’ in the film version), they’ve spent years stationed in the Burmese jungle, the Western Desert, Mandalay. They are the war generation.

There’s a token sinister stranger – Harsen, who books a room at the Inn, from which mysterious buzzing machine noises can be heard. And there’s a young Air Force lad from the radar station on ‘the Point’ who tells them about the strange blips their screens have been picking up. There’s also the vicar from the Saxon church, who would probably be played by a bumbling tipsy Derek Nimmo. And drunken Bob Franker who claims he saw a ‘flying saucer’ crewed by giant spiders in a ‘drunken dream’. There’s also Vernon Stone in his horn-rimmed spectacles, not so much a science writer, as an occasional contributor of science-based ‘space-stuff’ features to SF magazines – a kind of ‘Kenneth Johns’ of ‘New Worlds’. Although he’s writing ‘an article about the Martian canals’, it’s he who first suggests that the intolerable heat-levels are due to cosmic interference, and propounds some odd ideas about the interrelationship of all organic matter – ‘remember, a million years is but a night in the span of life on Earth.’ And ‘scientific research proceeds and often disproves some basis upon which the later finding was based.’ The kind of bland generalization that passes for profound in cheap fiction.

Then an ‘elongated blob’ lands in the field behind the church. There are scares and scratching noises in the dark. Harsen – still a little sinister, turns out to be a kind of UFO-ologist or conspiracy theorist who believes the heat is caused by creatures being transmitted down to the island by ‘materialising beam’, and ‘reassembled by very short radio waves.’ A kind of beam-me-down technology. Harsen investigates strange goings-on in the local chalk-pit, reporting his commentary back by radio in a sequence obviously designed to be adapted into a BBC Light Programme thriller. While, like all the best 1950s black-and-white horror movies, the monsters remain off-screen, a menacing presence, more terrible for being imagined. As though Lymington always had screenplay options in mind, offering low-budget, picturesque sets in a quaint village. Cheaper to produce than ‘Quatermass’!

If the book was purposely slanted towards the broadcast medium, it was a strategy that paid off. For ‘Night Of The Big Heat’ was filmed twice. The first, a 1960 ITV ‘Play Of The Week’ adaptation relocated the setting to a village on Salisbury Plain. Directed by Cyril Coke the screenplay was by Giles Cooper. The ‘Observer’ reviewer called it ‘a poor man’s ‘Quatermass’, more than a bit crude – yet remarkably good sport.’ The second, ‘Night Of The Big Heat’ (Planet Films, 1967) was a 94-minute UK feature film directed by Terence Fisher – retitled ‘Island Of The Burning Damned’ for US release. With the action this time switched to chill winter on the remote Scottish island of Farah, it features Patrick Allen (as ‘Jeff’ Callum) with his real-life wife Sarah Lawson (as wife Jackie), plus the impeccable duo of Christopher Lee (as Hanson/ Harsen) and Peter Cushing (as Vernon Stone).

And all the while, the heat just gets hotter. John Lymington had astutely hopped onto the SF scene in the wake of John Wyndham’s mainstream success with ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ (1951) and ‘The Kraken Wakes’ (1953). John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris had been contributing to the Pulp magazines under variant forms of his convoluted name since that same 1935 dateline. But his ‘cosy disaster’ novels were published under the respectable Penguin imprint, and achieved massive critical and commercial success. Writer Sam Youd was quick to take advantage of the window that Wyndham had opened up, and as ‘John Christopher’ found a ready market for his eco-disaster novels ‘The Death Of Grass’ (Michael Joseph, 1955) and ‘The World In Winter’ (1962). ‘Night Of The Big Heat’ was consciously jumping this trend, pitched at a less elevated level maybe, but within its frames of reference it worked spectacularly well. Brian Stableford suggests that even the name ‘Lymington’ was chosen ‘in a blatant attempt to cash in’ on Wyndham’s popularity’ (in his ‘Historical Dictionary Of Science Fiction Literature’). While to critic John Clute, Lymington didn’t work ‘at the imaginative level of his predecessors (and possible models) John Wyndham and John Christopher’, and on a downbeat note, that he ‘writes with some verve, but little style’ (in Peter Nicholls’ ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’).

When both Harsen and Vernon Stone are killed off in what some would deem developments in a group-jeopardy plot, the rest of the team set off in an old Ford Roadster. They travel through a hot darkness filled with the hushing sounds of unseen alien movement. Yet all the themes come down to conjecture, as they start working on the idea that aliens are probing the area with beam-technology using experimental test-creatures in the way that early human space-shots used an unfortunate chimp or space-dog Laika. Surely this contradicts Bob Franker’s earlier flying saucer story? Either his sighting can be rationalized as a hysteria-induced hallucination… or a Lymington continuity-lapse?

Ultimately the heat generated by the radio waves causes its own destruction when fields and trees ignite in a wall of flame, causing the still-unseen monsters to pop ‘like lice on a fire.’ Evidently Lymington expects us to recognize what this sounds like. For the film version – requiring more visual action, the characters deliberately ignite bales of hay and use dynamite to achieve the same ends. Until the novel closes, as it began, in the ‘White Lion’, as a timely rain-deluge fortuitously extinguishes the blaze. For John Lymington, this novel was about as high-profile as it gets.

There were subsequent novels. The immediate follow-up, ‘The Giant Stumbles’ (1960), also centres on an isolated motley group faced by vast menace. There’s a chain-reaction series of unnatural highly-localised storms – ‘like a man breathing with no lungs.’ Nigel ‘Ni’ Orson Rhodes is a famous scientific writer with an idyllic marriage to ‘Hal’ Harriet, and three sons, teen love-interest Joe (18), Harry (10) and John (6). They live in a great semi-circular white bungalow where he works in a study nicknamed ‘The (Looney) Bin’ by skeptical local villagers.

Rhodes’ guests include Leila, European representative for US magazine ‘Wednesday’ who calls her contributing writers ‘children of volatility’, plus ruthlessly shrewd newspaper publisher Rex Hason, and creepy bespectacled mathematician Benstead of the Almos Radio Observatory (a conflation of Los Alamos?) who uses its ‘electronic computer’ to check out Rhodes figures concerning ‘the queer thing.’ This confirms that ‘the sum total of all nuclear fission has created a charge within the earth’s composition, in just the same way as electricity can be charged in a storage battery.’ This will cause a gravitational pause, ‘a stumble, as it were… a thing infinitesimally minute in the progress of this planet, yet to us a thing so gigantic we can only start to imagine it.’

During their Long Goodbye, facing the end of civilization as gravity momentarily blips out, they endlessly debate the wisdom of publishing a warning. Career-woman Leila flirts with Nigel, Benstead suicides, Leila connives with Rex who sets out to silence Nigel, and Nigel attempts to alert the Defense Minister. Eventually the nucleus around Rhodes’ family use his derided dream-project barge called ‘Elly’, or ‘Daddys White Elephant’ to ride out the apocalypse, also carrying Harry’s zoo of pets, Noah-style. It’s wiser to skip the quasi-biblical allusions. Roland Emmerich’s film ‘2012’ (2009) takes and massively CGI inflates a similar theme – provoked by neutrino-storms cataclysmic Earth crust displacement destroys civilization, as survivors escape in giant arks. Although there can be little more than the most tenuous analogy between the two works.

When he died in 1983 an obituary in Dave Langford’s ‘Ansible’ (No.38) credits John Richard Newton Chance with writing over 150 novels ‘including twenty+ SF potboilers’, adding that he ‘made a steady income by delivering thrillers to (publisher) Robert Hale at a chapter a week.’ So he was one of a generation of writers who made their fiction viable by prolific speed and volume, rather than by striving to conform to more literary critiques. His were the kind of books you stumble upon while browsing through the crammed shelves of musty secondhand bookshops. The kind you speed-read in an hour, then toss them aside with a grunt of satisfaction. But that’s no small achievement. That’s more than enough.

(1 January 1911- 3 August 1983): 


1960 – ‘THE GIANT STUMBLES’ (Hodder & Stoughton)

1960 – ‘THE GREY ONES’ To critic John Clute, ‘much of (Lymington’s) subsequent work has been a series of routine variations on the theme of alien or natural menace to Earth,’ his ‘use of genuine science is minimal and most of his books (many of which feature monsters) operate at the level of B-grade SF/Horror films, where menace strikes unexpectedly into a lazy, rural setting’ (in Peter Nicholls’ ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’)

1961 – ‘THE COMING OF STRANGERS’, ‘A Rustling In The Night, And Then Death, Horrible And Sudden’, ghostly appearances, footprints in the sand, and furniture knocked over, herald the presence of an unseen invasion

1962 – ‘A SWORD ABOVE THE NIGHT’ (reissued by MacFadden-Bartell Books, 1971)

1963 – ‘THE SLEEP EATERS’ (Corgi, 3/6d), ‘James Colvin’ (Michael Moorcock) in ‘New Worlds no.147’ (February 1965) is not impressed, writing that it ‘is no better, no worse than his usual novels. I find him dull’

1963 – ‘THE SCREAMING FACE’ (Corgi, 3/6d) according to Hilary Bailey in ‘New Worlds no.153’ (August 1965) this is ‘an end of the world story in the form of a diary written for posterity by one of the men who knows the horrid secret. As the big saw comes nearer and nearer the writer becomes increasingly tormented by the question of whether he loves his wife or her sister and whom his wife loves. Only in the last thirty pages does the eternal quadrangle, played out in one of those detective-story English villages, give way to the author’s real plot – planetary revelations, skin-saving in high places and guys fighting to get into the spacecraft’

1964 – ‘FROOMB!’ (Hodder), a time-traveller sees his own future. When explorer John Brunt, a tough, womanising adventurer, agrees to make the last exploration left to man, he cannot calculate the spiritual and physical terrors that await him. This is a story of the Future and of Now. Brunt find there is no escape from either. He finds he cannot shake off the seeds of destruction he takes with him to the years beyond Now. But does destruction come? There must be escape somewhere, somehow. But where? How?

1964 – ‘THE NIGHT SPIDERS’ (Corgi) ‘Twenty-Eight Tales Of Terror From The Imaginative Mind Of John Lymington’ including “Battle Of Wills”, “Easy With Music”, “Moving House” and “Threepenny To Mars”. James Colvin (Michael Moorcock) in ‘New Worlds no.144’ (Sept-October 1964) writes ‘though these stories are in the Corgi SF series, virtually none are SF – they’re ghost stories and very, very bad ones’

1965 – ‘THE STAR WITCHES’ (Hodder) ‘From Another World… A World That Wanted To Possess, Destroy, a man has been experimenting to make contact with the outer world. One night he disappears – to become the master of the forces he has unleashed, or their first victim? ‘She put her hands over her ears and stared at the silent man on the camp-bed. They had not touched her. He was breathing, but very slowly, so slowly that they had not noticed it at first. There were wires attached to his head by a structure like earphones. They ran under the bed and disappeared into the darkness beneath’



1967 – ‘TEN MILLION YEARS TO FRIDAY’, the multiplication of the speed of light imposes a resurrection of the distant past upon the modern world

1968 – ‘THE LIGHT BENDERS’ written as by ‘Jonathan Chance’



1972 – ‘THE YEAR DOT’










THE NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT’ (ITV ‘Play Of The Week’ broadcast 14 June 1960), produced for the Associated-Rediffusion Network by Cyril Coke, ninety-minutes in black and white, with Lee Montague (as Richard), Melissa Stribling (as Patricia), Sally Bazely (as Frankie), Bernard Cribbins (as Cpl Pearce), plus Bernard Archard, Karel Stepanek, Patrick Holt and June Ellis. In a tack-on ending not in the novel, the cunning invaders next switch their target to the Sahara Desert. The ‘Daily Telegraph’ reviewer says ‘the warning that it was unsuitable for adults of a nervous disposition was highly necessary – I was positively limp at the end and so were the hard-working, sweat-soaked cast’

THE NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT’ aka ‘Island Of The Burning Damned’ (1967, Planet Films, DVD by Simply Media, 2004), directed by Terence Fisher, starring Peter Cushing, Sarah Lawson, and Kenneth Cope (as Tinker). Screenplay by Ronald Liles, with additional dialogue by Pip and Jane Baker. Music by Malcolm Lockyer. Christopher Lee (Hanson) collects specimens and photos of UFO landings from ‘where the cosmic gasses ferment,’ he listens to the BBC Home Service weather forecast, and predicts that Earth will soon become ‘another hot planet… like so many others in the constellation.’ The Patricia Wells character becomes Angela Roberts (played by Jane Merrow), former mistress of Callum (Patrick Allen) who accuses her ‘you were no untouched virgin before we met.’ The aliens, beamed down through radar scanners, ‘resemble giant luminous fried eggs’ and are destroyed – not by fire as in the book, but by ‘the Triffid effect’ of dissolving in the rain. Writers David Miller and Mark Gatiss say ‘you can’t apply the word ‘abysmal’ to many films in this book, but it’s the only word to describe ‘Night Of The Big Heat’’ (in ‘They Came From Outer Space’, 1996, Visual Imagination)

John Richard Newton Chance also wrote a vast number of crime thrillers as John Nelson Chance, from his debut novel ‘Wheels In The Forest’ (Gollancz, 1935) through to ‘A Tale Of Tangled Ladies’ (Hale, 1989). He also wrote six novels in the ‘Bunst’ series – children’s stories featuring eccentric inventor Audacious Cotterell and his youthful assistant Bunstuffer, including ‘The Black Ghost’ (1947) as David C Newton, and ‘Bunst And The Brown Voice’ (1950) as John Newton Chance. Writing as John Drummond he wrote a series of War titles for the Amalgamated Press ‘Thriller Library’, and Detective crime-fiction under the Desmond Reid house-name for the ‘Sexton Blake’ series (including ‘Anger At World’s End’)

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