More than twenty years have passed and gone, but this one memory lingers. A small child stands in a second-hand book shop. Bespectacled, nervous, excited, his eyes rove the shelves, picking out titles. Occasionally, he pulls a volume down and looks at the front, reads the back. He moves from fiction to horror to crime to science fiction. He stops, a paperback in hand. A small smile flickers across his face and he walks to the desk to pay.
With four older brothers and parents who all read for pleasure, I had the fortune to grow up in a house filled with words. Our interests ranged from science fiction and fantasy to crime and detective novels, from horror to romance, from westerns to non-fiction. Just about every subject was available in some form or another and my poor father must have spent hundreds of hours building all the shelves we needed!
It was, however, by pure chance that I discovered the writing of Roger Zelazny. The book I picked out in that second-hand store was The Guns Of Avalon, the second title in the Amber series. At the time, I didn’t know it was part of a series – I bought it because I liked the title and the cover. “Never judge a book”, right? Well, in this case I was lucky.
I paid twenty pence for that paperback. If I take it off the shelf just beside me, the price will still be visible, pencilled on the first page. When I discovered it was effectively the second chapter of a long story, I sought out the other books in the series, one by one. I remember finding the fourth book next, then the fifth and last, then the first, then the third. I read the whole epic tale. Since then, I’ve re-read it several times. I’ve acquired and read just about everything he ever wrote. Some titles I am still hunting – and will continue to do so until I find them.
There’s a magic in Zelazny’s writing that I have rarely experienced elsewhere. Quite apart from the well-researched backgrounds, for example the mythologies he used in Lord of Light or Eye of Cat, there is poetry in his style. He somehow managed to draw pictures with words, to create characters so real that one can almost hear their voices, to inject dark humour or real emotion where it was least expected and most effective. His stories transport a reader to other places, other universes where the strange is mundane. Some remain here in our world, with a touch of magic to spark the imagination. Normal people find themselves in unbelievable situations; remarkable people struggle against their past or fight for a better future. His ideas cover such a vast range of subjects and concepts that they leave a reader contemplating more than just a tale, without becoming heavy or overly philosophical.
Even though I’ve always loved writing, it was Zelazny’s gift for expression that inspired me to do more than just dream of one day being a writer. That dream is still a long way off, I would imagine, but the stories he wrote, the worlds he created and more than anything his beautiful writing style are all inspirations for me. It’s just such a shame we lost him so early. He was irreplaceable.