Paul Barnett (1949-2020)

My friend the writer Paul Barnett – who mostly wrote as John Grant – died suddenly this week, at the age of 70. To some, his name may be unfamiliar. For me, there has scarcely been a time in my reading life when he wasn’t somewhere in the background.

I first came across Paul’s work in the early 1990s, in my high school library – there was a book on Viking myths, and one on ‘unsolved mysteries’. Already I could tell he had a way with words, and a sense of humour, that I liked.

I was into adventure gamebooks at that time, including Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf series. This led me to the Legends of Lone Wolf novelisations, which were co-credited to John Grant – the same John Grant I knew from those library books. Collecting the Legends of Lone Wolf was something of an adventure itself: just as I started reading them, they began to drop out of print. I alternated them with Discworld books, and loved both series.

I didn’t realise at the time how far the Legends went against the grain of much fantasy fiction. Paul believed that fantasy could go much further, be more subversive and transformative, than it often did and was. In the Legends of Lone Wolf, he was quietly working out his own vision of the genre. I wasn’t thinking about that – I just enjoyed the books – but my taste is still for fiction that pushes against the norm in some way, and I credit that in large part to reading Paul’s work.

In Paul’s author biography in the Legends books, I began to see mention of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which he co-edited with John Clute. It was published in 1997, and I found a cheap copy a couple of years later. I spent hours browsing it, and much longer following up references. Of course Paul was far from the only person who contributed to this volume, but I could see that his view of fantasy ran through it – and this inspired me. It showed me a new way to read, which could also be a new way to think, and in turn a new way to see the world.

Paul’s email address was given in the Encyclopedia‘s introduction, and he became the first author I ever wrote to (it would have been in 2000, I think). We kept in touch, which I’m so glad about. In the early 2000s, Paul was reviewing books for the website Infinity Plus. I admired his style: rigorous and humorous in equal measure. When I began writing book reviews myself, Paul was one of my key influences.

Born in Aberdeen and later resident in Exeter, Paul had moved to the USA in 1999. Nevertheless, we met in a person a couple of times at SF/fantasy conventions. He was always friendly, funny and insightful. 

As the years went by, we were in touch less often. But Paul remained an occasional commenter on this blog, and I enjoyed catching up with his thoughts on his reading over on Goodreads. When I was invited to contribute to Jonathan Gibbs’ A Personal Anthology newsletter, one of Paul’s stories was my first choice, because his work was so significant to me. I’ll take this opportunity to recommend his story ‘Wooden Horse‘ again.

It’s not unusual for books, music, TV and films to form part of the furniture of our lives. But a select few become more than that: they truly become part of who we are. Paul’s work was like that for me. I don’t know if I can put into words just what that means. 

Thank you, old pal. Farewell. I’ll miss you, but I will always have your writing. 

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for the wonderful obituary to which I relate very closely.

    Like you, I started off with his Legends of Lone Wolf, which are the best fantasy books I have read. I was also one of the lucky ones who acquired Paul’s email address, and I often sent him fan mail from Japan where I was working around the new millenium.

    We kept in touch off and on over the years. I was honoured when he personally posted me signed copies of his wonderful novels Albion and The World. He also inspired me to follow in his footsteps and become a publishing editor, however briefly that lasted.

    The last time I contacted him was on the 7th of February. I thought it odd that he didn’t reply right away as he normally would. Suspecting his email address had changed, I ran a quick search and was devastated to discover he had passed away only a few days prior.

    Paul was a sage who started off in the sciences and moved on to thrive in the arts. He was ambitious, great with people, sharp-witted and funny. All of these qualities reflected in his writing. I will echo wholeheartedly what you said about his style — a balance between wit and rigour. I will add that he wrote with purpose and never wrote generic fantasy; in fact, his Legends of Lone Wolf had a strong literary aesthetic which, while probably lost on most of the audience to which it was marketed, many of us thrived on. His novels often had that unidentifiable magical quality that would fill a void in many a reader’s soul.

    I will miss you Paul. May your thoughts live on in your wonderful writings for many generations to come.

    Lawrence Ritchie

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Lawrence. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who was touched so deeply by Paul’s work.

      “His novels often had that unidentifiable magical quality that would fill a void in many a reader’s soul.” Yes, absolutely!

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