Newly discovered Terry Pratchett stories published

There’s a kind of grim joke in this title. When, in 2007, Terry Pratchett experienced the first symptoms of the posterior cortical atrophy that went on to kill him, his doctors said he had had a minor stroke. He hadn’t. What he had was much more severe. But he continued writing, releasing four more Discworld novels between 2008 and when he died in 2015. He left behind three completed novels: the final Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown, and the last two volumes of the science fiction series he had been writing with Stephen Baxter, The Long Earth.

There was, he insisted, nothing more. Pratchett gave instructions that all his incomplete drafts be destroyed. He didn’t want to end up like Tolkien, every last jotting and note and laundry list dragged out into public view. His quality control was always high, and he was absolutely averse to the sound of a barrel being scraped. And so in 2017 his business manager and literary executor Rob Wilkins drove a steamroller over the hard drive containing all his work in progress. A very Pratchettian moment.

And yet here we are: a “new” volume of hitherto unknown short fiction. How this book came about speaks to the dedication of Pratchett fans. Pat and Jan Harkin assiduously searched the archives of the Bristol-based newspaper the Western Daily Press, following a lead that Pratchett had published there. They discovered fully 20 stories from way back in the 1970s and early 80s written under the pseudonym Patrick Kearns (Kearns being his mother’s maiden name; Patrick presumably a blurring of Pratchett). Since these stories had previously appeared in print, the estate has decided they evade the “no publishing of unpublished material” rule Pratchett himself laid down.

It’s a charming story. And it would be nice to be able to report that this collection constitutes classic Pratchett. But in the words of Granny Weatherwax: “Good ain’t nice”. These pieces, though pleasant and amusing, are all slight, disposable, five-finger exercises; there’s nothing here that catches the greatness of Pratchett at his peak. Most are a few pages long, riffing briefly on one or other ludicrous situation – comical cave people, a haunted steamroller, a hundred-yard pie, UFO aliens on holiday mistaken for invaders.

A quarter of the stories are Christmas squibs: a pastiche Scrooge piece, a couple of comic modernisations of festive standards, and two stories about Father Christmas quitting his job. The better of these, Wanted: A Fat Jolly Man with a Red Woolly Hat, contains the story germ of the marvellous Mort, the 1987 Discworld novel in which Death resigns his position. But this earlier piece can’t do much in its four pages: Santa gets a job in a bank but gives all the money away because “it’s in my nature”; he gets a job driving lorries but parks them on the roofs of buildings. It’s underbaked.

There are lots of 1970s in-jokes and references, which may baffle readers from later generations: Hughie Green, Eamonn Andrews, “Bruce Forsooth” (though he perhaps had the career longevity still to be recognisable). In Mr Brown’s Holiday Accident the title character stumbles on the truth that he’s only a character in a play being continuously written, The Absolute and Complete History of the Earth in 3,982,611,037,278,901,777,690,535,016,152 Acts (With a 15-minute interval). Eventually he meets God, who turns out to be Lew Grade. How many 21st-century readers will get this gag, I wonder?

The best stories have sparks of originality that, the reader wishes, could have been kindled into greater length. The Fossil Beach starts from the premise that putting a fossilised seashell to your ear enables you to hear a prehistoric ocean, spinning a neat and funny little time-travel comedy from that notion. The collection’s final story, The Quest for the Keys, is the best as well as the longest. It opens in “Morpork” – not exactly the Discworld’s Ankh-Morpork, but a more thinly rendered “evil, ancient, foggy city” – where a disreputable wizard, Grubble the Utterly Untrustworthy, sends the none-too-bright warrior Kron on the titular quest. It rattles along, and is liable to remind the Pratchett fan of The Colour of Magic. But it only confirms what the collection as a whole says: that this is a writer on his way somewhere more interesting.

In a well-judged introduction, Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s friend and collaborator, praises the stories faintly enough to remain true to the memory of their author. He likens them in style and vibe to Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm tales, “knowing and accessible for children with raisins of wit tossed in for adults”. This is exactly right. But at his best Pratchett was vastly better than Hunter: a prose stylist to rival Wodehouse, one of the most important writers of fantasy of the last 40 years. Of course, it would be wrong to hold these juvenilia, written long before Pratchett had begun his proper career, to that standard. And negative judgment hardly matters. It’s a new Pratchett! Clear the bestseller decks: this book is heading for the top.

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