Forgotten Author No 64: John Burke

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 13 February 2011 01:00 GMT

How can you be forgotten if you've deliberately avoided having an identity to begin with? That's the challenge of pinning down John Burke's work.

In the past, not all authors were determined to produce the great roman- à-clef that would make sense of their lives. Many were simply available for hire, and would turn their hand to just about anything. This was not an easy way to make a living, because the writer's prose was not allowed to possess its own identity. Jobbing authors were required to submerge their stylistic quirks in the service of the product.

Occasionally, though, an author would come along who managed to combine both skills. John Burke, born in Sussex in 1922, has worked under at least 10 names, also writing Victorian Gothic romances with his wife Jean beneath the pseudonym Harriet Esmond. He has specialised in what has become something of a lost art: the novelisation of a film. His paperbacks for Hammer have stunning covers and each contains four condensed movie novelisations. They are now highly collectable.

His backlist reads like a summation of post-war pop culture. He wrote versions of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer (which must have been odd for John Osbourne), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (likewise for Roald Dahl), The Angry Silence, The Jokers, A Hard Day's Night, Privilege and Dr Terror's House of Horrors, before turning to TV spinoffs such as Dad's Army and books about The Bill.

Often, his narratives feel more structurally cohesive than the works upon which they were based, and have a clearly identifiable style that marks them with the author's imprimatur.

But Burke has another identity, as the Master of Unease. A superb short story writer, some of his best and most chilling works were recently collected in a single volume by Ash Tree Press, entitled We've Been Waiting For You (And Other Tales of Unease).

He has produced books on the history of England, its counties and its music; science fiction novels; thrillers; and television series. Happily, he's still working and has just finished a sequence of mystery novels set in the Scottish borders.

It seems that the time has come for Burke to step out from behind his books and receive proper recognition for his work. Ironically, an author once employed for his ability to be the film industry's chameleon is finally being rediscovered as a prose stylist in his own right.

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