When Terry Pratchett died in 2015, he left behind precious few new works. Three completed novels: the final Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown, and the concluding two parts of The Long Earth series, the sci-fi project he’d been working on with Stephen Baxter. And that was basically it. Pratchett had always been adamant that any incomplete work must be destroyed after he died. He didn’t want people plundering his notes, as with Tolkien, or publishing incomplete drafts and stray ideas he had no control over, as with Douglas Adams. In 2017, as per the author’s explicit wishes, Pratchett’s friend, business manager and literary executor Rob Wilkins drove an antique steamroller over a hard drive containing all unpublished Pratchett material. It was sad, but also sort of satisfying.
So it was a startling and delightful surprise this week that a “new” collection of Pratchett’s short stories was announced. A Stroke of the Pen: The Lost Stories, will collect a tranche of recently discovered Pratchett tales written in the 1970s and 1980s under a pseudonym, Patrick Kearns, for the Western Daily Press newspaper, where Pratchett once worked as a reporter. As these were already completed and published, they get around the “steamroller” rule. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we have new-old Pratchett work to look forward to.
This isn’t the first time Pratchett’s early tales have been anthologised – four volumes of the children’s stories he wrote for the Bucks Free Press and other newspapers between 1965 and the late 1970s have already been published, and collections of his adult short fiction (A Blink of the Screen) and non-fiction essays (A Slip of the Keyboard) emerged shortly before his death. That’s quite a lot of material. But when the final volume of his children’s stories, The Time-Travelling Caveman was published in 2020, many readers assumed that the stockpile of those wonderful words had finally run out.
The death of a favourite author is a series of bereavements. You grieve for the person you were a fan of. Then you grieve for their characters, and finally you grieve because there’s no more words left to read. Pratchett knew the value of being present in the minds of the public. “Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?” he wrote in his book Going Postal (2004), an elaboration of an earlier quote, found in Reaper Man (1991) – “no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away”. In Pratchett’s case, those ripples have continued to spread through the world. He still feels remarkably alive. There are fans who point-blank refuse to ever read The Shepherd’s Crown for this exact reason. While there is still one Discworld novel left to savour, then there is still a version of Terry Pratchett still with us.
But these “new” stories bring him to life once more. Just for a while. For the next six months or so we have the possibility of them to savour. A section from one story, The Quest for the Keys, was read aloud by Wilkins on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday (28 February) – it was a funny piece of comic fantasy, unmistakeably Pratchett in tone. There was a wizard, there was a tavern, there were jokes. It was familiar and unfamiliar all at once. This was the tone of the early Discworld novels, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. The tone that made his name. It was like discovering a photograph that you’d never seen before of an friend in their youth.
Pratchett, of course, grew beyond “comic fantasy”. His later books, though undeniably still comic and proudly still fantasy, were extraordinarily rich and potent, brimming with fury and depth. He earned his national treasure status, and the knighthood that came with it. His early work is wonderful, his later stuff is extraordinary.
We don’t know where these recently unearthed tales will sit on the scale. Pratchett’s short stories were never his best work (“they cost me blood”, as he was fond of saying), but they always had charm and imagination. This won’t be the work of Professor Sir Terry Pratchett OBE, but of Terry Pratchett, a modest press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board, a former journalist who wrote the occasional sci-fi novel on the side. But in his head ideas were coming together and a world was forming. Ideas that would have slipped on to the page of these stories. I can’t wait to have him back so we can find out more.