Famous for their ‘Blue Peter’ props, gregarious characters and catchy metal anthems, Evil Scarecrow have risen from the local pub to the main stage of Bloodstock Festival thanks to their live show, which is not just a metal gig but a piece of bizarre and immersive rock theatre. In 2018 the band released their 4th full-length album, Chapter IV: Antarctica, followed by the Lost in Antarctica Tour which played to huge audiences across the UK.
Evil Scarecrow are currently planning their next album and tour, and they also have a new keyboardist! Found wandering in the wastelands of the year 3087AD, Alice Babylon is a child of the apocalypse, a ghost, a survivor. The wasteland was the only home she knew until one surprising morning when a monk clad in a black cowl stepped out of a swirling portal and pulled her back in time to the year 2020. Her mission: to ensure METAL survives the coming apocalypse.
And it turns out that Alice Babylon knows a LOT about books…..
These are very exciting times for me – not only have I just become a member of a band I’ve been a fan of for years, I’m also being asked to provide a list of books I love – and there is literally nothing I like doing more than banging on about books I love.
First a note about the band. I’m very privileged to be a part of the wonderful silly metal family that is Evil Scarecrow. I’d seen the band as a fan dozens of times before I joined the highly skilled and talented backstage crew, and now I’m lucky enough to be able to play keys on stage. Although at the time of writing the new lineup hasn’t actually been able to practice together due to the coronavirus lockdown, I can’t wait to get on tour and say hi to all the fans as soon as we’re able.
And now down to the really important bit – the books. I loved reading as a kid; I consumed books like they were hot dinners. I studied English Literature at Nottingham Trent University for 8 years, and I have an MA and a PhD in the subject. But after leaving uni I found it really hard to get back into reading. I guess I had been doing it so long as an academic exercise, it was really hard to switch back to doing it for fun. Now that we’re not allowed to go to the pub, I’ve found myself with some free time, so I’ve been easing myself back in by re-reading some much-loved classics. Some of them are here.
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)
At uni I studied a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, and found it morbidly fascinating. I ended up writing my MA thesis on the genre, so I’ve amassed a significant collection of doomsday tales. This one stands out by virtue of being written in a dialect of the future. With the breakdown of society, literacy is non-existent. In Riddley’s world, oral tradition is how stories are passed on, and fragments of the old civilisation are treated like holy totems of mystical power that can only be loosely (and usually incorrectly) interpreted. Hoban’s ability to play with language is enviably clever, as he reveals over and over the fluidity and multiplicity of meaning. It’s not an easy read, because it’s written in an entirely made-up language, but it’s so worth the effort. Also, side note: Clutch wrote a song about it.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
If I had to pick a favourite author – nay, favourite person – it would be Vonnegut. His books are packed with such succinct wisdom that every word seems to speak directly to me, like he is looking through a window into my mind. His writing is both hilarious and tragic, ridiculous and beautiful. Above all, it is a wonderfully generous tribute to humanity. Slaughterhouse Five is his most famous novel, but I could have chosen any (of the ones I’ve read). It’s remarkable because it is a partially true story. Vonnegut was an American prisoner of war during the Second World War, and he was present in Dresden when it was bombed by the Allied Forces. He juxtaposes his account of that devastating event with a bizarre science fiction narrative that’s there to highlight the sheer absurdity of war, and of telling stories about war.
Philip Pullman, Northern Lights (1995)
This is the first in the trilogy known as His Dark Materials, and the best young adult novel I’ve ever read. The world Pullman creates is magical and addictive – it’s real enough to feel close to our world, but just strange enough that it provides a wonderful escape. The story of Lyra and Pantalaimon is as epic as the John Milton poem that inspired it, and the appeal of this tale is certainly not limited to children. I was in my twenties when I first read it, and I’ve read it a few times since. One of my favourite things about this book is that it was reportedly burned by some Catholic sects for being heretical – I believe anything that inspires such a drastic response from a religious organisation requires careful reading. Also, bears!
Patricia Leitch, Dream of Fair Horses (1975)
When I was a kid I was obsessed with horses. I rode them, I drew them, I wrote about them, I dreamed about them… It was pretty intense. I loved all the books of Patricia Leitch, who is most famous for her Jinny series. As much as I love that series, it was this book that brought me out in goosebumps as I recalled it. It’s the story of a young girl who loves horses, so of course I immediately identified. It’s been many, many years since I read it, so I confess I can’t remember very clearly what actually happens in it. What I can remember is that when I got to the end I cried harder than I think I’d ever cried before. There was actual trauma. I’m genuinely scared to read it again.
Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything (1982)
Although this is the third in the inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (of five), it was the first of the series that I read, purely because my dad happened to have a copy lying around when I was a kid. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever read, and it remains my favourite from the series. Adams is, like Vonnegut, able to make acutely sad observations about our world and make you laugh at the same time, and that’s a rare gift.
Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958)
Another one I found on my dad’s bookshelf, and probably the first ‘grown-up’ book I ever read. I was probably far too young for it, but I was captivated by this story of a vacuum-cleaner salesman reluctantly dragged into a perilous espionage plot. What grabbed me most was Greene’s descriptions of Havana – it was exotic and sweaty and hot, and it created such a vivid picture in my mind of the place that it’s still what I see when I imagine it. For me reading this novel is like going on holiday.
Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)
It’s about time we had another end-of-days tale, and this time it’s this devastatingly stripped down account of a man and his son navigating a landscape ruined by some untold disaster. McCarthy writes economically, yet conjures such vivid scenes they haunt me to this day. I read this book in a single day, and as I finished it I was sitting on a busy bus bawling my eyes out. It moved me so profoundly I didn’t feel able to speak to anyone for a while – I think I was genuinely grieving for the world and the characters I’d been reading about. I love this book so much I refuse to watch the film adaptation; no matter how good it is, it cannot replace the images in my mind.
Mervyn Peake, Gormenghast (1946-1950)
Technically, this includes books one and two of the trilogy entitled Gormenghast – ‘Titus Groan’ and ‘Gormenghast’ – but they are really just one story in two parts, so this counts as one book. I actually saw the BBC adaptation of this before I’d even heard of the book, which was so good it made me go out and buy the book immediately afterwards. It’s a significant tome, but I read it in a couple of days and loved it even more than the TV series. It’s a weird, gothic, creepy, cruel, ridiculous, fantastic world that Peake creates, and it’s so rich in detail that it feels real. Tragically, Peake suffered from a mental health breakdown and was unable to finish the trilogy before his death in 1968. The final book, ‘Titus Alone’, was completed by his editor, and it’s really weird – in it you pretty much witness the author losing his mind. Disturbing stuff.
Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong (1993)
Because I’m fascinated by cataclysms of all kinds, including war, I have to include this book, which I read for the first time only a couple of years ago. Birdsong was one of the first books that reignited my passion for reading after I left uni, and one of the first un-put-downable books I’d read for a long time. Its portrayal first of a passionate love affair and second of the horrors of trench warfare are thoroughly immersive, gripping and haunting. It was a close call between this and Regeneration by Pat Barker – another excellent First World War novel from the 90s – but this one won for the sheer visceral quality of the writing. I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare from which I couldn’t wake – and that is powerful writing. I should stress, it’s not all horrible. Although this book recounts in unflinching detail some of the most awful things humans have done to one another, it’s also a manifesto on love and beauty.
Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon (1959)
This list cannot be complete without the title that inspired my stage name, Alice Babylon. Given my academic career and my love for the post-apocalyptic genre, it made sense that my character should be tied in with all this, and when the pun on this title came to me it felt like the perfect collision of worlds. Alas, Babylon is a post-apo classic, a seminal tale of nuclear annihilation that has inspired countless other books and films. What struck me the most about it was how elegantly it depicts the collapse of civilisation. The story reveals how fragile are the structures of meaning we apply to the world to try and make sense of it – and how when they are destroyed we begin to realise just how arbitrarily we assign value. What seems essential now will one day be incidental – the world is always changing and our narratives of meaning must change along with it. The lesson: think carefully when choosing the things you care about.
Thank you Alice Babylon for this fascinating piece. I have read a few of these, but Kurt Vonnegut has been on my TBR list for a long time, and I’m definitely going to get hold of Alas, Babylon too. Now go listen to Evil Scarecrow, check them out on social media, and watch their hilarious videos: