Actual Ethnic Person Expresses Disgust

A hundred years ago, writers and film makers in the West could just say ”poorly known ethnic group X is scary and evil”. Tolkien used his invented goblins and orcs for the same purpose. Thankfully this is considered hate speech today. But it seems that some stories still need tribes of exotic villains. So a new trope has emerged that I like to call ”Actual Ethnic Person Expresses Disgust”.

The Tcho-tcho people were first described in a 1932 story by August Derleth and Mark Shorer, “Lair of the Star Spawn”. They are a race of evil Burmese pygmies. Derleth & Shorer did not make up this fictitious ethnic group out of any concern that peaceful Burmese tribespeople in the real world would read the story and be offended. More likely they had no idea what any real tribe in Myanmar was named. The nasty Tcho-tcho then proved tenacious: they have recurred through the decades in many stories by other writers, notably Lin Carter and T.E.D. Klein.

By the 1990s it became clear that an Actual Ethnic Person had to come in and Express Disgust if the Tcho-tcho people were to remain useful to horror writers. In the 1997 modern-day supplement Delta Green for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, Dennis Detwiller et al. explained that though the Tcho-tcho themselves are indeed scary evil pseudo-humans from south-east Asia, everybody else in that part of the world absolutely hates them. In scenarios in the 2018 collection A Night At The Opera, which myself and my RPG group have been enjoying for months now, Shane Ivey and Greg Stoltze specify that the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Burmese and the Thai loathe the Tcho-tcho. In Stoltze’s neatly structured and unusual scenario “The Star Chamber”, a woman who keeps a bar in a remote multi-ethnic Myanmar village informs the player characters that the Tcho-tcho are terrible monsters — even though a number of them live in that same village.

A really clear recent example of this trope from the screen is found in the fine 2015 horror Western Bone Tomahawk. Here the scary evil people are a race of mute murderous male cave-dwelling cannibals who treat their own women with horrifying cruelty. But they do seem to have been living in that cave for a very long time. And this, the script writer realised, technically makes them Native Americans, which is not good. So there’s a scene in the movie where an Apache man (played by Zahn McClarnon) comments on them and says that the troglodytes are nasty and evil and absolutely not Native Americans. (Even though several of them are played by Native American actors!) The Apache character serves no other purpose in the narrative and is never seen again. Even in our own more enlightened time, once an Actual Ethnic Person has Expressed Disgust, we are free to enjoy the fight against the scary evil people / orcs as if it was 1932.

For a solid summary of Tcho-tcho lore in fiction and RPG materials with references to the literature, see Daniel Harms, The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana. I have the 1998 2nd edition.

Best Reads of 2022, #3

Here are my best reads in English during September through December. My total for 2022 was 60 books, which is a lot for me. 55% of the total were e-books.

Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of past few months?

  • The English Eccentrics. Edith Sitwell 1933.
  • The Queen and I. Sue Townsend 1992.
  • Homeland. Cory Doctorow 2013.
  • A Celtic Miscellany: Translations from the Celtic Literatures. K.H. Jackson 1951.
  • Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space. Ed. Isaac Asimov et al. 1984.
  • Rivers of London. Ben Aaronovitch 2011.
  • Once Upon a Tome: the Misadventures of a Rare Bookseller. Oliver Darkshire 2022.
  • A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Bill Bryson 1998.
  • New Moon. Ian McDonald 2015.

Here’s my list for 2021.

Best Reads of 2022, #2

Here are my best reads in English during May through August.

  • Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Robin Sloan 2012.
  • The Corner That Held Them. Sylvia Townsend Warner 1948.
  • Piranesi. Susanna Clarke 2020.
  • The Songlines. Bruce Chatwin 1987.
  • We Can English. Paddy Kelly 2022.
  • A Judgement in Stone. Ruth Rendell 1977.
  • 88 Names. Matt Ruff 2020.
  • Rest in Pieces: the Curious Fates of Famous Corpses. Bess Lovejoy 2013.
  • Amazing Stories of the Space Age. Rod Pyle 2016.
  • Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing. Melissa Mohr 2013.
  • Limonov. Emmanuel Carrère 2011.
  • Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames. Lara Maiklem 2019.
  • Voodoo Histories: the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History. David Aaronovitch 2009.
  • The Go-Between. L.P. Hartley 1953.
  • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. T. Kingfisher 2020.
  • Passionate Travellers. Trish Nicholson 2019.
  • The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity. Jon Peterson 2020.
  • The Warrior’s Apprentice. Lois McMaster Bujold 1986.
  • High Life, Low Morals: the duel that shook Stuart society. Victor Stater 1999.

Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what have been your best reads of the past few months?

Oiling the Cricket Bat in “The Go-Between”

L.P. Hartley’s excellent 1953 novel The Go-Between deals with a secret affair between a manor-dwelling girl of good family and a young tenant farmer in Norfolk during the summer of 1900. We see it through the eyes of a visiting 12-y-o boy who takes messages between them without understanding what sort of “business” the couple has together.

Sex is very much visible and understood in the surface text here: the plot hinges entirely on these two young people carrying on across the class boundary. But let’s look at the sub-text in the remarkable ch. XV. The author is a 60ish closeted gay man writing in an early-1950s literary climate where homosexuality is not discussed frankly. It seems pretty clear what reading demographic he’s addressing so knowingly here.

At a prior visit, farmer Ted has alluded to a pregnant horse and the link between its pregnancy and “spooning”. This shocks young Leo who has no clear idea of what spooning is about, except that it is a silly laughable thing that grown-ups do. Ted offers to explain more fully about spooning at a later date, but Leo is not sure he wants to know. Now the boy has come to deliver yet another secret message from Ted’s girl up at the manor.


He was sitting on a chair behind the table with a gun between his knees, so absorbed that he didn’t hear me. The muzzle was just below his mouth, the barrel was pressed against his naked chest, and he was peering down it. He heard me and jumped up.

‘Why,’ he said, ‘it’s the postman!’

He stood the gun against the table and came across to me, with a swish of the brown corduroy trousers that he wore in the hottest weather. Seeing the hesitations and reservations in my face he said, ‘I oughtn’t to be like this when callers come, but I was that hot. Do you mind? Shall I put a shirt on? There are no ladies present.’


‘Well, would you like to come out and see me shoot something?’ he suggested, as if my salvation lay in shooting. ‘There’s some old rooks round here that could do with a peppering.’


‘Do you ever miss?’ I asked.

‘Good Lord, yes, but I’m a pretty good shot, though I say it. Now, would you like to see me clean the gun?’

No one is quite the same after a loud bang as before it: I went back into the kitchen a different person. My grief had changed to sulkiness and self-pity, a sure sign of recovery. The deed of blood had somehow sealed a covenant between us, drawn us together by some ancient, sacrificial rite.

‘Now you take this cleaning-rod’ he said, ‘and this bit of four-by-two’ — picking up a piece of frayed, white, oily rag — ‘and you thread it through the eye of this cleaning-rod, same as you would a needle.’ Screwing his eyes up, for the kitchen was not well lighted, he suited the action to the word. The slightest movement brought into play the muscles of his forearms; they moved in ridges and hollows from a knot above his elbow, like pistons working from a cylinder. ‘And then you press it down the breech, like this, and you’ll be surprised how dirty it comes out.’ He pushed the wire rod up and down several times. ‘There, didn’t I say it would be dirty?’ he exclaimed, triumphantly showing me the rag, which was filthy enough to satisfy one’s extremest expectations.


‘Now I’ll just clean the other barrel’ he said, ‘and then I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.’

Should I accept his offer? Tea would be waiting for me at Brandham Hall. I saw his cricket bat standing in a corner, and to gain time I said: ‘You ought to oil your bat, too.’ It was rather pleasant to give instructions after receiving so many.

“Thank for reminding me. I shall want it again on Saturday.’

‘May I oil it for you?’ I asked.


I handled the bat as reverently as if it had been the bow of Ulysses … I poured a little oil on to the middle of the bat and began to work it in gently with my fingers; the wood seemed to drink it thirstily and gratefully as if it too was suffering from the drought. The rhythmic rubbing half soothed and half excited me: it seemed to have a ritual significance, as if I was rubbing out my own bruises, as if the new strength I was putting into the bat would pass into its owner.

Best Reads of 2022, #1

Here are my best reads in English during January through April.

  • The Treasure Seekers. Edith Nesbit 1899.
  • Games of Venus: an anthology of Greek and Roman erotic verse from Sappho to Ovid. Transl. Bing & Cohen 1993.
  • Eminent Victorians. Lytton Strachey 1918.
  • Reassuring Tales: Expanded Edition. T.E.D. Klein.
  • Delta Green: A Night at the Opera. Detwiller et al.
  • Salmon of Doubt. Douglas Adams 2002.
  • Apple Children of Aeon #1. Ai Tanaka 2012. Transl. S.R Messner 2022.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios. Eric Ambler 1939.
  • About a Boy. Nick Hornby 1998.
  • The Phoenix and the Mirror. Avram Davidson 1969.
  • Adrift: The curious tale of the Lego lost at sea. Tracey Williams 2022.
  • Station Eleven. Emily St. John Mandel 2014.
  • How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts. Ruth Goodman 2018.

Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what have been your best reads of the past few months?

After Hours in the Nursing Home Library

A memory. A friend of mine was briefly involved with a woman who worked as a nurse at an old people’s home. My then wife A and I were invited to her place for dinner, probably one of the first social situations where this couple met the world as a unit.

Pretty soon A went to have a look at the bookshelves, which were large and well stocked. But she came back into the kitchen looking really confused. Could our hostess please explain why almost all of the books were in pristine library bindings? And why they were largely quite new titles? The woman was forthcoming and calmly unapologetic in her reply.

Turned out that there was a little library at the nursing home, and she’d been systematically looting it for a couple of years. She seemed honestly surprised that anyone who wasn’t a librarian would think that this was a big deal. “Nobody ever reads those books anyway”, she said. “WELL OBVIOUSLY THEY DON’T AFTER YOU STOLE THEM”, A shouted. “MARTIN, LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!” And we left.

The woman returned the books to the workplace library in the following days, quite a chore given how many they were. This earned her some curt praise from A when she called to tell us. For a while afterwards we made a running joke of using her surname as a synonym of the verb “to steal”.

Best Reads of 2021

Here are my best reads in English during 2021. The total was 69 books, which is a lot for me. This was mainly because in April I sorted my Goodreads reading queue on page count and then mostly read the shortest books on the list for the rest of the year. 67% of the total were e-books, an all-time high.

Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • Castle Hangnail. Ursula Vernon 2015.
  • The Fall of the House of Cabal. Jonathan L. Howard 2016.
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Jon Ronson 2015.
  • Doctor No (James Bond #6). Ian Fleming 1958.
  • First 1/5 of Arthur C. Clarke, Collected stories, 1937-50.
  • Collected Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham #3.
  • The Wild Girls. Ursula K. Le Guin 2002-11.
  • Slaughterhouse Five. Kurt Vonnegut 1969.
  • The Stone Book Quartet. Alan Garner 1979.
  • The Justice Trade (Ashen Stars RPG). Leonard Balsera et al. 2013.
  • Swords of the Serpentine RPG. Kevin Kulp & Emily Dresner 2020.
  • Suppressed Transmission: The First Broadcast. Kenneth Hite 2000.
  • Nobody’s Fool. Richard Russo 1993.
  • Project Hail Mary. Andy Weir 2021.
  • Time and the Gods. Lord Dunsany 1906.
  • Spoon River Anthology. Edgar Lee Masters 1915.
  • The Palm-Wine Drinkard. Amos Tutuola 1952.
  • Switch Bitch. Roald Dahl 1974.
  • Bronze Age Lives. Anthony Harding 2021.
  • Deep Secret (Magids #1). Diana Wynne Jones 1997.
  • The Pirate. Frederick Maryatt 1836.
  • More Walls Broken. Tim Powers 2019.
  • Murder Me For Nickels. Peter Rabe 1960.
  • Revenge of the Lawn: Stories 1962-1970. Richard Brautigan.
  • Wylding Hall. Elizabeth Hand 2015.
  • Boy: Tales of Childhood. Roald Dahl 1984.
  • An African Millionaire. Grant Allen 1897.
  • The Seedling Stars. James Blish 1956.
  • The Erotic Traveller. R.F. Burton 1969.
  • Primal Sources: Essays on H. P. Lovecraft. S.T. Joshi 2003.
  • Emphyrio. Jack Vance 1969.
  • A Morbid Taste for Bones. Ellis Peters 1977.
  • A Scanner Darkly. P.K. Dick 1977.
  • Rogues and Rascals in English History. Neville Williams 1959.
  • My Planet: Finding Humor in the Oddest Places. Mary Roach 2013.
  • Changing Places. David Lodge 1975.
  • The Perfumed Garden. Umar Ibn Muhammed Al-Nefzawi, 15th c.
  • Werewolves in Their Youth. Michael Chabon 1999.
  • The House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne 1851.
  • The Samurai. Stephen Turnbull 2016.
  • The Wild Shore. Kim Stanley Robinson 1984.
  • Ice Station Zebra. Alistair MacLean 1963.
  • Minnow on the Say. Philippa Pearce 1955.
  • 50 Years of Text Games. Aaron A. Reed 2021.

Here’s my list for 2020.

Best Reads of 2020

Here are my best reads in English during 2020. The total was 57 books of which 39% were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • The Essential Guide to Being Polish. Anna Spysz & Marta Turek 2013.
  • Going Postal. Terry Pratchett 2004.
  • Polish: the Ultimate Beginners Learning Guide. Piotr Młynarski 2019.
  • The Raven and the Reindeer. T. Kingfisher = Ursula Vernon 2016.
  • Viking-Age Transformations: Trade, Craft and Resources in Western Scandinavia. Eds Zanette T. Glørstad & Kjetil Loftsgarden 2017.
  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Douglas Adams 1987.
  • Mythago Wood. Robert Holdstock 1984.
  • Moonglow. Michael Chabon 2016.
  • Silver, Butter, Cloth: Monetary and Social Economies in the Viking Age. Eds Kershaw & Williams 2019. (My review in Antiquity here, paywalled.)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain 1875.
  • Johannes Cabal and the Blustery Day: And Other Tales of the Necromancer. Jonathan Howard. (The title actually refers to an audiobook. I bought each story as a separate little e-book.)
  • Lost At Sea. Jon Ronson 2012.
  • Theatre. W. Somerset Maugham 1937.
  • Jurgen. A Comedy of Justice. James Branch Cabell 1919.
  • Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse #1). James S.A. Corey 2011.
  • A Face Like Glass. Frances Hardinge 2012.
  • Lavinia. Ursula K. LeGuin 2008.
  • Cat’s Cradle. Kurt Vonnegut 1963.
  • Where Eagles Dare. Alistair MacLean 1967.
  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Mary Roach 2005.
  • Tour de Lovecraft – The Destinations. Kenneth Hite 2020.
  • The Book of Koli. M.R. Carey 2020.
  • Shards of Honour. Lois McMaster Bujold 1986.
  • The Avram Davidson Science Fiction & Fantasy Megapack. (20 largely excellent stories, all except one from 1955-64.)
  • In Patagonia. Bruce Chatwin 1977.
  • Ring the Hill. Tom Cox 2019.
  • The Big Time. Fritz Leiber 1958.
  • First Footsteps in East Africa, or an Exploration of Harar. Richard Francis Burton 1856.
  • Rag and Bone: a Family History of What We’ve Thrown Away. Lisa Woollett 2020.
  • The Wee Free Men. Terry Pratchett 2003.
  • Dead Rock 7. Gareth Hanrahan 2011. (Four scenarios for the Ashen Stars space opera RPG.)

Here’s my list for 2019.

Novels In English Are A New Thing

The English-language novel is commonly held to have originated around 1700, with Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688; at 31,000 words it’s a novella by current standards) or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It occurred to me that since it’s such a recent thing, I’ve lived through much of its history by now. I’ve been reading English-language novels for about 35 years, that is, 11% of the period.

Let’s say you and your grandma read a new novel that you both like in 2020 when you’re 15 and she is 75. And she shared a new novel with her grandma when she was 15, etc., etc. Then the book you two are sharing now is only the sixth in the chain back to Robinson Crusoe. And we know that the book they shared in 1720 was Robinson Crusoe, because there was no other original novel-length prose fiction in English to choose from then.

The first novella in Swedish is Urban Hiärne’s Stratonice from 1666-68. I discussed it here back in 2012.

Best Reads of 2019

189354Here are my best reads in English during 2019. The total was 41 books of which 44% were e-books. Find me at Goodreads! Dear Reader, what were your best reads of the year?

  • No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. Ursula LeGuin 2017.
  • The Events at Poroth Farm. T.E.D. Klein 1975.
  • The Painted Veil. W. Somerset Maugham 1925.
  • Balanced on the Blade’s Edge. Lindsay Buroker 2014.
  • All Systems Red. Martha Wells 2017.
  • Tales from the Inner City. Shaun Tan 2018.
  • Code of the Woosters. P.G. Wodehouse 1938.
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Mary Roach 2013.
  • Radiance (Wraith Kings #1). Grace Draven 2014.
  • Someone Like Me. M.R. Carey 2018.
  • Barrayar (Vorkosigan Saga #7). Lois McMaster Bujold 1991.
  • Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends. Avram Davidson 1981-90.
  • Sharpe’s Tiger. Bernard Cornwell 1997.
  • Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. Salman Rushdie.
  • Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. Stephen Jay Gould 1997.
  • Exhalation: Stories. Ted Chiang 2019.
  • Judas Unchained (Commonwealth Saga #2). Peter F. Hamilton 2005.
  • Anatomy of Restlessness: Selected Writings, 1969-1989. Bruce Chatwin.
  • Spirits Abroad. Zen Cho 2014.
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Brian Selznick 2007.
  • Swords Against Death. Fritz Leiber 1970, stories published in 1939-63.
  • The Unexpected Truth About Animals: A Menagerie of the Misunderstood. Lucy Cooke 2017.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bill Bryson 2003.

Here’s my list for 2018.