(1950- ) US writer. His first published story was "The Red Planet" (1977) for Unearth. His initial books were the first two fantasies in his Elfin series, The Elfin Ship (1982) and The Disappearing Dwarf (1983). The series was subsequently expanded to contain a rather darker prequel, The Stone Giant (1989). All three novels are set in a Fantasyland which includes elves, dwarves and goblins; if they are influenced by J R R Tolkien it is for the most part by the Shire chapters of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) in their combination of a society of small towns and isolated villages in which there is no heavy industry but a fair amount of user-friendly technology – in JPB's instance, barometers, airships, etc. The books' emphasis on a male collegiality full of shared meals and practical jokes echoes The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame. Grahame is also a possible source for the books' opposition between the River, presented here as a potentially dangerous environment made manageable by human conviviality and cooperation, and the uncontrollable dangers which arise when characters venture Into the Woods. All three books deal with the more or less genial suppression of an aspiring Dark Lord – in the first two, the dwarf Selznak, and in the prequel the rather similar Helstrom. The motives of the protagonists are never especially highflown: Jonathan Bing, protagonist of the first two books, is a Master Cheesemaker who takes action because worried about the restraint of trade the dwarf's incursions are causing. Selznak's magic watch, which stops time (> Time Fantasy) is the first of the magical McGuffins which dominate JPB's later books.
The other definable series in his work, St Ives, is a quintessential contribution to Steampunk, combining as it does a vision of 19th-century London as the archetypal City with endless proliferations of Alchemy and weird science and a constant atmosphere of conspiracy (> Fantasies of History) and Secret Guardians. The first of these two books, Homunculus (1986), won the Philip K Dick Award for best paperback original, and deals in part with the pursuit of Immortality through essences drawn from carp; the machinations of the hunchback Narbondo, a Magus and Napoleon of Crime, are defeated by a band of adventurers which includes St Ives. (The name of JPB's hero is possibly a homage to Robert Louis Stevenson's St Ives ; Stevenson's New Arabian Nights [coll 1882] is as important a source of JPB's vision of London in these books as the more often cited Charles Dickens.) St Ives's colleagues are less important in the second book, Lord Kelvin's Machine (1985 IASFM; exp 1992), which reads like a fixup. Narbondo's murder of St Ives's wife leads to an attempt to blackmail the governments of the world with a threat to turn off its magnetic field and to St Ives's going back in time to rid the world of his enemy in childhood. It is typical of JPB that St Ives's eventual deed is to give alms to Narbondo's mother rather than to commit infanticide.
Sometimes seen as Steampunk, The Digging Leviathan (1984) is the first of JPB's novels of modern California. Another version of Narbondo is but one of the eccentrics and true believers and dastards who cluster round the boy Giles, born with webbed fingers and gill slits; as with the other Californian novels, the story is less a conventional plot than a device to interrupt the display of characters by periodic flurries of action; again like the other Californian books, it is characterized by an interest in weird science like the Dean Drive and the Hieronymus Machine, and in Scholarly Fantasies like the Hollow Earth.
The remaining Californian novels, most set in northern California rather than the Los Angeles of The Digging Leviathan, are: Land of Dreams (1987), which includes a sinister travelling Carnival (rather in the style of Ray Bradbury) and a Portal; The Last Coin (1988), the characters of which include a travelling salesman who turns out to be the Wandering Jew and which has as its McGuffin the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for betraying Christ; The Paper Grail (1991), which features a lost drawing by Hokusai, the bones of Joseph of Arimathea, a Fisher King and echoes of the Preraphaelites; Night Relics (1994), concerned with Ghosts; and All the Bells on Earth (1995), where a small Californian town becomes a spiritual battlefield for the fight between Good and Evil. The juvenile The Magic Spectacles (1991 UK), by contrast, is set in an Otherworld, accessible only through use of the title's spectacles.
JPB has not published much short fiction, but his Paper Dragons (1985 in Imaginary Lands, anth ed Robin McKinley; 1986 chap) won the World Fantasy Award. It shares the northern Californian background of the later novels.
JPB was part of the Affinity Group that centred on Philip K Dick (1928-1982) in his latter years; so too were his friends K W Jeter and Tim Powers, with the latter of whom JPB created the imaginary 19th-century poet Ashbless, a cognate of whom appears in The Digging Leviathan as well as in Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983). Powers and JPB have collaborated on minor works. [RK]
other works: Twelve Hours of the Night (1985 chap) with Powers, together as William Ashbless; The Pink of Fading Neon (1986 chap dos); The Shadow on the Doorstep (1986 IASF; 1987 chap dos with short stories by Edward Bryant); A Short Poem (1987 chap) as by William Ashbless; Two Views of a Cave Painting (coll 1987 chap dos); A Postscript to Homunculus (1988 chap) as by William Hastings, a reprint of the last few pages of the limited edition of Homunculus; Doughnuts (1994 chap).
James P Blaylock