Imagine a time before Google, before cellphones, when there were only four terrestrial television channel in the whole of the United Kingdom. No DVDs, streaming media, Facebook, YouTube, mobile phones or text messaging, and most television broadcasting comes to a halt not long after midnight, sliding off behind a wall of hissing static.
There's no on-demand film, no instant replay. There's VHS, of course, and Betamax, if you go back a little farther. Before that, nothing.
Back then, strange beasts were to be found lurking in the less-visited corners of the TV schedules and video rental shops, thing that could not be anticipated or, sometimes, even imagined. It might be a monster movie in the very early hours of the morning on Channel Four, or hidden away in the televisual equivalent of the Twilight Zone known as the afternoon slot, sometime after Pebble Mill at One but before Play School. It might be that VHS film with the grimy, blood-spattered cardboard cover that reeks of sleaze and bad taste, but just very occasionally turns out to be something entirely different. These were films that came to you without warning because there was no IMDB, no Rotten Tomatoes, and no Google to tell you the name of the director, or who wrote it, or what some critic in Adelaide or Schenectady or Aberdeen thought of it.
Even then, video recorders were far from reliable: tapes got chewed up, or highly fluid scheduling meant some movie you tried to record on Channel Four at insane o'clock in the morning came to a stop halfway through. Back then, there were films I knew only by reputation, that had last been shown on terrestrial television in the dark days of the 1970s, if ever .
I mention all this, because I was asked to write about the kind of pop culture that influenced me as a writer. Often, the stuff that influenced me the most was precisely the kind of stuff that was hardest to get hold of: although science fiction magazines like Interzone could actually be found in high street newsagents back then, if you wanted to get your hands on genre publications that were just a tiny bit more obscure - say, Back Brain Recluse, or SF Eye, or New Pathways - you either resorted to the small ads in the back of Interzone or tracked them down at a convention the next time it came to town.
Books influenced me, of course: a zillion science fiction pop artefacts packaged as print and uploaded straight into my eager brain. But sometimes the most interesting results of an experiment are the unintended ones, the strangely glowing bacilli found at the edge of the cultural Petri dish that demand further investigation. Sometimes, for me, that came in the form of movies stumbled across by accident, with no clue to their inherent strangeness to be found in their titles.
Movies like Harold and Maude, discovered by accident one afternoon, in the late Eighties, and about which I previously knew precisely zero. And yet I sat, watching, slightly stunned, my jaw probably just very slightly hanging open until it had finished. I've written elsewhere about my appreciation for Zardoz, stumbled across one late, late night sometime in the mid-80s - a film that starts with a giant flying stone head yelling orders at a heavily moustachioed Sean Connery in a post-apocalyptic Ireland, and which gets progressively stranger and increasingly more brilliant as it goes on.
Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris was discovered by a similar route, as was his other film, Stalker, based on the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I stumbled by sheer accident across the 1974 film of Michael Moorcock's The Final Programme one late, late evening, when I'd only just discovered Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels. I caught Fiend Without A Face, with its ghastly slithering brains on tails, on a rainy summer afternoon on Ayrshire, and somewhere about the same time discovered Lindsay Anderson's If, with its schoolboy revolutionaries and scenes of unparalleled surrealism.
Try as I might, I somehow can't picture the modern incarnation of either the BBC or Channel Four showing Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome at any time of the day or night, and yet there was a time they did precisely that.
But for sheer, unparalleled what-the-fuckery, few things beat the time I came home from school sometime in the very early 80s, switched on BBC2, and found myself witnessing one of the most unremittingly strange things I have ever seen.
I didn't know until later that Un Chien d'Andalou was some kind of surrealist classic. All I really knew was that the eyeball-cutting scene came to dominate the landscape of my nightmares for many, many years to come. And remember - this was about five or six in the afternoon, while Blue Peter or Nationwide is running on the main BBC channel.
There are other works, of course, sometimes identified only years or decades later, once the Internet became a part of all our lives, but they all had roughly the same effect in that they made me sit back and think what the hell did I just watch?
Sometimes, there were films that couldn't even be found on the late-night schedules, films that gained cachet precisely because of the difficulty of first finding and then viewing them.
The first time I saw Peter Watkin's mid-60s television movie The War Game was thanks to the CND. At the time, it was still banned from being shown on television because of its grisly depiction of a nuclear attack on Britain. They showed it on a roll down screen in a borrowed schoolroom in Glasgow. It made the experience feel somehow subversive. I first encountered Buckaroo Banzai's Adventures in the Fifth Dimension when it was (I believe) premiered at the 1986 World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton. I may have seen William Shatner's mid-70s horror flick The Devil's Rain at the same convention, or it might have been some other time. Despite being uniquely terrible, certain aspects of its filmmaking long stuck in my mind. Bad cinema, like bad writing or bad art, can nonetheless retain about it a certain truth, a window into the soul of its maker, however twisted and gauche that vision might be.
I hold that if you wish to truly analyse your influences, it's hardly so simple a task as naming a particular book, or some specific prose style or philosophy or politics. It's far closer to a stew, a chaotic churning mess of visual and textual information that somehow merges with whatever accidents of circumstance and DNA make you who you are, thereby furnishing your worldview.
Take all these influences. Mix them into a torrid psychic broth. Season with Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Greg Bear, and William Gibson books. Throw in some late night movies and a whole bunch of heavy metal and Hawkwind albums. Stir some more. Bring it to the boil before upending the whole ungodly mess into my open skull. Turn the crank, and watch the fingers fly as books emerge: Against Gravity, Stealing Light, Extinction Game and more.
I stutter, sometimes, when asked to name my influences, because I find it so hard to summarise something that seems beyond summary. The nearest I will ever get to answering that question clearly is here, in this article. Go ye forth, then, and find some of those incredibly strange movies and books and records, and may they do unto you as they did unto me, and screw your head up in the best way possible.