#weird2016: Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore

death and the seaside mooreI didn’t plan it that way, but Alison Moore’s new novel seemed like an excellent choice of reading matter for my own trip to the seaside – visiting my mother down in Cornwall last week – and so it proved. Sarah Crown has written an insightful review for The Guardian in which she examines the significance of the novel’s title and its relationship to Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet, so I don’t need to repeat that parallel here. What I most definitely do want to repeat though is my previously expressed conviction that Alison Moore is one of the most gifted and interesting writers of weird fiction in Britain today.

Bonnie Falls has just turned thirty. After having abandoned her university degree, her life seems to have stumbled into something of a dead end. Until recently she has been living with her parents, but after they insist on her leaving home she finds herself working two cleaning jobs to pay the rent on a dingy ground floor flat that still seems locked inside the lives of its previous occupants. Into this stasis walks Sylvia Slythe, who owns the building Bonnie lives in and who seems uncommonly determined to take an interest in the wellbeing of her new tenant. When Sylvia learns that Bonnie once entertained ambitions of being a writer, she demands to see Bonnie’s manuscripts. When Bonnie proves reluctant to share them she steals them instead. What exactly is going on here? How does Sylvia happen to know Bonnie’s mother? The answers to these questions – like the set-up itself – are weird. There is an atmosphere of threat around Bonnie that is made all the more discomfiting by the fact that Bonnie herself seems utterly impervious to it.

What I noticed immediately about Death and the Seaside is its clear and direct relationship to Moore’s 2015 work ‘The Harvestman’, a short story published as a standalone chapbook by Nightjar Press. It is not that Death and the Seaside is an expanded version of ‘The Harvestman’, exactly – more that it spins off from it at a tangent, a happenstance I can understand perfectly as so many of my own works have bought their freedom in this self same manner. I enjoy both ‘The Harvestman’ and Death and the Seaside all the more because of it, this interlinking, this cousinage, which makes their universe feel bigger and deeper and more alive.

Like Anita Brookner’s heroines, you might assume that Bonnie would come across as pathetic. She does not. There truly is something heroic about her, something tenacious and completely grounded in the way she refuses to be defined by others’ assumptions. She’s living her life, puzzling things out – why the hell should she be the character that others imagine she is? There were passages in this book where Bonnie’s situation became so uncomfortable to read about that I found myself hurriedly flipping pages, just to make sure that – but no, that would be too spoilery. Let’s just say that even when she seems most in peril, Bonnie’s doggedness, her pragmatism in the face of danger seems to get her out of trouble every time. I really liked her, which is perhaps why for me at least the pay-off of Death and the Seaside was one of the most satisfying of the year so far.

And it is this Bonnie-like pragmatism that best characterises Alison Moore’s fiction as a whole. I’ve read all three of Moore’s novels to date, plus a good number of her short stories, and in all of them I find this unifying feeling of unspecified threat. Not ghosts exactly, nothing so concrete, so predictable – yet ghosts nonetheless, the ghosts we create ourselves, simply by living our lives, by having pasts and making mistakes and feeling regret.

Moore’s landscapes – her insistence on lived, inhabited reality – are achingly familiar: seventies housing estates, seaside promenades, motorway service stations, bits of waste ground in permanent danger of being tarmacked over. They are made strange by the heightened perceptions of her protagonists, and by the intimate personal knowledge of these same landscapes, these situations that we ourselves bring into the narrative by the act of reading it.

I’ve been thinking of Anita Brookner a lot recently – about how important her novels were to me when I first encountered them in my twenties, about how timeless they are, how defiant the vision, how exquisite the writing. Much of the modern fiction that seeks to inhabit a similar milieu seems clumsy and obvious and disingenuous by comparison. Less honest, more apologetic. Not so Moore’s. In many ways, Alison Moore might be counted as Anita Brookner’s natural heir, exploring many of the same concerns – Prufrockism, unfulfilled ambition, the conundrum of living alone – but with an extra edge of darkness, of horror that makes her fiction entirely of today, and of the weird.

Westcountry Weird at Waterstones Exeter

Next Thursday, August 11th, I will be joined by Catriona Ward and Aliya Whiteley in a discussion of weird fiction in the West Country. The conversation will be led by George Sandison, editor-in-chief at Unsung Stories.

All four of us have strong links to the West Country, and will be sharing our thoughts on why it is that this corner of the British Isles has exercised such a strong inspirational effect upon our writing. We will also be discussing war, climate change, the increasing importance of women in speculative fiction, and the rise of weird fiction generally in these unsettled times.

We’ll be answering audience questions, and of course there’ll be a chance to buy our books and have them signed. It would be wonderful to see you, so please, if you’re in the Exeter area, come along next Thursday evening and say hello.

The event begins at 18.30 pm at Waterstones Exeter (High Street branch). Tickets are £3. They can be purchased direct from Waterstones, reserved online or bought on the door on the night. Please visit the Waterstones site for more details.

rawblood.wardCATRIONA WARD Anyone who visits this site regularly or reads my reviews over at Strange Horizons will already know how much I admired Catriona Ward’s stunning debut Rawblood, a modern reincarnation of the gothic novel set on the wilder fringes of Dartmoor and currently shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award. The novel still sings in my imagination as a prime example of the weird fiction resurgence. I can’t wait to hear the author talking in person about this magnificent book, and hopefully we’ll learn a little more about her work in progress, too. Ward is a stunning writer, and I would urge anyone in the area to grab this chance to hear her speak.

ALIYA WHITELEY I firmly believe that Aliya Whiteley is one of the most original, missives.aliya.whiteleyinnovative and intelligent writers of speculative fiction working in Britain today. Her superb 2014 novella The Beauty – a powerful blend of literary horror and near-future science fiction – was shortlisted for the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award, among others, and If anything her newest work The Arrival of Missives, published earlier this summer by Unsung Stories (and currently on the longlist for The Guardian’s annual Not the Booker Prize – vote here!) is even better. Set in the immediate aftermath of WW1, Missives is British weird at its best, as well as being a moving examination of human relationships, and a powerful evocation of the landscape of West Somerset. That Missives is also a strongly feminist work, with much to say about the position of women in society then and now, is just more excellent grist to its mill. Don’t miss the chance to hear Aliya speaking in detail about her work and her sources of inspiration, and of course to secure your copy of The Arrival of Missives and have it signed.

the race cover (2)The new Titan edition of The Race will also be on sale, so come along and have one of those signed, too.

It should be a fascinating discussion. Hope you can make it!

Hardy of the Highlands

his bloody project gmbCrime blog: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Anyone who’s read a Hardy novel will know how his stories pan out: a fundamentally decent human being makes a mistake. This error might be rooted in a secret past, it might be an action forced upon them by adverse circumstance. Whatever it is, it snowballs. Far from being allowed to forget their youthful transgressions, our unfortunate protagonist sees their life sliding further and further beyond their control, resulting finally in a tragic denouement which, for Hardy fans, is all part of the painful pleasure of reading him. We know, almost from the first page, that things will not end well. What draws us on is Hardy’s evident sympathy for his characters, his passionate involvement in the human condition. He’s a good plotter, too – a characteristic of his fiction that isn’t mentioned enough.

And it was Thomas Hardy that kept coming to mind as I read Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Booker-longlisted novel His Bloody Project. Hardy’s first extant novel, Under the Greenwood Tree, was published in 1872, just a couple of years after the action of Macrae’s novel ostensibly takes place, but it’s not the books’ historical cousinage that draws the comparison so much as the doomed nature of things.

Macrae presents his narrative as a series of documents pertaining to a crime carried out in the Highland settlement of Culduie. The bulk of the text consists of a testament, written from prison by seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae, charged with the murder of Lachlan ‘Broad’ Mackenzie, the town constable, along with two other members of his family. Roddy does not deny his crimes – indeed, he turns himself in almost as soon as the butchery is over – but he has agreed, at his advocate’s suggestion, to put his case in writing: how did he come to commit these murders, and why?

Over the course of some hundred and fifty pages, Roddy Macrae tells the story of how his family fell deeper into debt and near destitution, small misunderstandings leading to grievous misfortune, all presided over by the hulking figure of Lachlan Broad, a man who seems bent on the destruction of the Macrae clan, and all for reasons unknown. What else is Roddy to do to save his father and siblings? What else can he do? As in all of Hardy’s great novels, the outcome seems inevitable, inexorable. But where Hardy chooses to tie up his narratives pretty firmly, securing his loose ends in traditional nineteenth century fashion, Macrae Burnet seats us, as readers, on the bench alongside the jury at Roddy’s trial. Just how accurate, how truthful, is the murderer’s testimony? The end of Roddy’s story is plain to see, yet the impulse that brought him to that end is not so certain.

Nature, or nurture? Choice, or circumstance? Was Roddy mad, or simply bad, and dangerous to know?

His Bloody Project is a tightly worked novel, beautifully crafted and compulsively readable. The language – understated, idiomatic, stark and elegant – is one-hundred percent fit for purpose. As well as the mystery surrounding the murders, the novel also has much to say about the social inequalities and class divides that characterised life in the Highlands at the time, many of them stemming directly from the Highland Clearances. The very real poverty and hardship sustained by ordinary crofters and working people is portrayed in a forthright, unsentimental manner that imparts a wealth of information without ever becoming overtly didactic, revealing great skill on the part of the author in and of itself.

All that being said, I have to admit to not fully understanding the novel’s selection for the Booker longlist. When I compare it with Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, for example, shortlisted for the Booker in 1996 and with a narrative roughly equatable with His Bloody Project, I would be forced to conclude that in terms of its depth, breadth and stylistic innovation, Alias Grace far outdoes His Bloody Project in terms of its reach and literary ambition. Whilst Macrae Burnet does provide us with a measure of dramatic irony, contemporary metafictionality and a fascinatingly unreliable narrator, I would ideally have liked to see all these aspects writ larger, deeper. Whilst wishing Macrae Burnet all the luck in the world – it’s fantastic to see a relatively new author published by a Scottish independent press making his mark in this way – I would have liked His Bloody Project to be bolder and more out there in its commitment to postmodernity.

Saying these things makes me feel somewhat churlish, however, because they are somehow beside the point. What gets on any award long- or shortlist is down to the judges, and should not take away from the fact that what Macrae Burnet has produced here is a good novel, sound in wind and limb, a shifting-sands kind of narrative that is never quite what you think it is. For anyone interested in crime writing, in Scottish writing, in a damn fine story, I would recommend His Bloody Project unreservedly.

The Art of Space Travel

art of space travel yanMy new novelette, ‘The Art of Space Travel’, is now live at tor.com. It can also be purchased in Kindle format for just 79 p!

The story is narrated by Emily, head of housekeeping at the luxury airport hotel that is to play host to two astronauts on the eve of their one-way journey to the planet Mars. As if the media frenzy weren’t enough to cope with, Emily has a seriously ill mother to care for, and a past she doesn’t know about that is about to catch up with her.

My inspiration for this story was Heathrow airport itself. Standing in the car park of the Renaissance Hotel a couple of Eastercons ago watching aeroplanes take off and land, I knew I had to write a story about the place, the transitional nature of life as it is lived there, the curiously blurry spaces between the airport and the villages that ring the perimeter.

‘The Art of Space Travel’ was the result. The beautiful artwork is by Linda Yan.

#weird2016: The Witch

the witch filmWell, this was interesting. I’d been looking forward to The Witch ever since seeing the trailer around this time last year. I missed seeing it in the cinema but finally caught up with it on DVD, a perfectly acceptable substitute when the need arises, but the unnerving, subtle beauty of the cinematography did leave me wishing I’d been able to experience this movie on the big screen as the director intended.

Cast out from their fledgling Puritan community in the backwoods of seventeenth-century New England (the film opens with a theological disagreement between church elders) William (Ralph Ineson getting his best Nedd Stark on) and Katherine (the always excellent Kate Dickie) take their five children to live in a remote farmstead on the edge of the forest. When the youngest of the children vanishes without a trace, William is determined to blame the tragedy on blind chance – a wolf must have taken the boy. Twins Jonas and Mercy have other ideas, though – everyone knows the woods are home to witches. Their brother’s disappearance must surely be the work of the devil. But who is the devil working through, and who will be his next victim?

It would be impossible to watch the first half of this film without thinking of Nicholas Hytner’s The Crucible, with Ralph Ineson in the Daniel Day Lewis role, a man of faith who is nonetheless determined to uphold the laws of reason in the face of a religious extremism that threatens to overturn the community and civilisation they have spent so long in building. Naturally blame for the devilish goings on is laid at the door of Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), William and Katherine’s adolescent daughter whose burgeoning sexuality has already begun to stir the senses of her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw). William won’t have it, though – Thomasin is ‘his girl’, intelligent, truthful and responsible. When she says the twins’ talk of her being a witch is nothing but a joke, he is prepared to believe her. But as tragedy after tragedy strikes the family, his faith in God and in his daughter is tested to the limit – and beyond.

As with The Crucible, it is emotional claustrophobia, the sense of creeping entrapment with no safe way out for anyone, that defines the action of this unusual and affecting film. The family, already under a severe strain from the harsh demands of their environment, seem besieged by misfortune, and the rising tide of horror seems all the more unbearable for taking place in such isolation, away from the sight and knowledge of anyone who might offer help. Of course it’s more or less impossible to know what life in a seventeenth-century New England village might ‘really’ have been like, but the period details here – the robust Puritan clothing, the mud, the candlelight, the sinister, encroaching forest and above all the sense of being acutely vulnerable in a vast and unknowable world, are rendered with a level of passionate commitment (I was reminded of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights) that makes them feel accurate and utterly convincing.

What surprised me most about The Witch was the ultimate direction it chose to take. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone by revealing too much about that, and even hours after seeing it I still can’t decide whether it was madness to go that way, or genius. What I do know is that The Witch is a beautifully crafted, richly imagined and intellectually worthwhile addition to your watch lists, and I would advise any fan of horror cinema – especially quiet horror cinema – to see this as soon as you can, if you haven’t already.

There’s a fascinating and informative interview with the film’s director, Robert Eggers, here. Suffice it to say this guy has definitely earned his horror credentials!

The Race goes live!

The brand new Titan edition of The Race is published today!the race cover (2)

And just in case you didn’t know, this definitive edition of The Race contains an 18,000-word appendix that was written specially for the reissue and that did not appear in the original 2014 release by NewCon. This appendix, entitled ‘Brock Island’, will hopefully bring pleasure (and a measure of closure) to anyone who might have been wondering what happened to Maree after she stepped ashore in Thalia.

I am utterly delighted by the finished book, and I want to extend enormous thanks to the brilliant team at Titan, and in particular my editor Cath Trechman, for making it happen.

There will be a number of interviews and reviews appearing online to mark the launch over the next week or so, so keep a lookout for those. To start us off, here’s an interview I did for The Qwillery, a pleasing review from Gary K. Wolfe in the Chicago Tribune, and here’s The Race appearing as part of Brooklyn magazine’s list of 100 Books to Read for the Rest of 2016. This genuinely eclectic and noteworthy list is well worth checking out, and with writers such as Indra Das, Teju Cole, Nell Zink and Claire Louise Bennett to keep me company I’m honoured, not to say daunted, to be included.

Edge-Lit 5

I’m a guest at Edge-Lit 5 in Derby this coming weekend. I’m delighted to be attending this mini-convention, and with guests like Alastair Reynolds and M. John Harrison in the line-up, it promises to be a great day all round.

I’ll be taking part in three panels, discussing subjects as diverse as the indie press revolution, the future of science fiction and the writing life. I’ll also be chairing a workshop in which I’m looking forward to having some good conversations about how we write – military campaign or abject chaos. You tell me!

Edge-Lit 5 will be taking place on Saturday from 10 am at Derby Quad. You will find the full line-up of amazing guests and programme items here. Please do come along if you can.

51pauAPtSYL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In another piece of good news, I was thrilled to see Aickman’s Heirs taking the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Anthology over the weekend. It really is a special book, highlighting the continuing influence and importance of Robert Aickman as a writer, whilst simultaneously showcasing new and emerging trends in horror and weird fiction on both sides of the Atlantic. Full kudos to editor Simon Strantzas for dreaming up this project and bringing it to life, and particular congratulations to Lynda Rucker, whose story ‘The Dying Season’ deservedly carried home the individual award for Best Short Story.

Nail, head.

TheCrossing.Miller“I had believed in fiction as a uniquely powerful way of speaking the truth about experience. I had believed that it was, like art in general, necessary, and that a society with no interest in reading serious fiction (serious meaning done with care, with love) was in some way damaged or on its way to being so. None of that, I realised, had really changed. What I had believed at 17 I still, by and large, thought true. But now there was something else going on, a chilly countercurrent, a hard-to-pin-down sense of frustration that seemed to organise itself around the idea that fiction – in novels, in films, on television – had become more competent than interesting, more decorative than urgent, more conventional than otherwise. I picked up novels and put them down again. They were not badly written, not at all, but after a page or two I felt I knew them, knew what, at the deeper level, they were up to. I slid off their surfaces. I struggled to care. I had precisely the same difficulty with my own work. Projects started; projects abandoned. Was this writer’s block? Or was it a hazy recognition that there might be some problem with “traditional narrative”? A set of assumptions that had become almost invisible but that shaped what we wrote?”

In a fascinating piece in The Guardian, novelist Andrew Miller writes about the problem of fiction in a way that is striking a particularly resonant chord with me right now. Is the manufactured, anodyne quality of so much of today’s fiction in some way a mirror to the political situation in which we now find ourselves? The literature of disengagement ultimately signalling a crisis-of-everything? These are some of the questions I’m thinking about – along with are we now reaching the end of the current political era?  I will certainly be reading Andrew Miller’s latest novel, The Crossing, which sounds pretty special and if it gets a good review from Kate Clanchy – who never pulls her punches – then that’s good enough for me.

I used to love this country but…

Perhaps it is impossible for a country that was once heavily involved in the slave trade, and that has spent a good part of the last two centuries oppressing other countries and sacking the world’s resources not to be racist, deep down in its very fabric.

Perhaps it is impossible for a country that has voted, time and time again, to trash its infrastructure and to devalue every ideal and idea of culture, social welfare, learning, faith and spirituality in favour of capital to understand the concept of internationalism and responsible husbandry of the Earth’s resources.

Perhaps it was irresponsible of our current government to abandon the future of that country to an electorate who appear to believe we’re still fighting the second world war.

Perhaps Scotland feels absolutely gutted to be shafted by England YET AGAIN.

There are millions of inspiring, generous, creative people here, as well as committed, proactive, tireless, inclusive grassroots politicians and activists. I know they are all as furious and as heartbroken as I am.

But there is no escaping the fact that the political culture of this country is rotten right through its weave.

Never has my Englishness felt so worthless and so debased.

#weird2016: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay

ana kai tangata s.nalligators – an effective little story, even if it isn’t particularly original. Russell is haunted by a recurring dream in which he sees his father falling, headless, into a quarry pit. The pit exists – his father used to take him and his brother Tommy on hikes there when he was a kid – but his father’s death was prosaic by comparison – cancer – and no one ever fell into the pit so far as Russell knew, those were just rumours. When an ex-girlfriend sends him a Fortean magazine with an article about the pit, citing its supposed connections to Satanic ritual, Russell decides to lay his ghosts once and for all. Pity he decides to take his two young daughters with him…

The sexual politics of this story are pretty dodgy – poor Russell’s had to ‘settle for’ his wife Wendy, who spends too much time being a mathematician and who also isn’t Navajo enough for his taste (having been adopted and not grown up on the Rez, presumably). He spends his idle moments lusting after Cassandra Manygoats, who was raised on the Rez and is also ‘single and hot as hell at 26. And oh, those legs. Not to mention that ass!’. Also. Russell’s mom is so racist she’s a walking cliché. It would help if Russell’s petty self-centredness were tied in more firmly with his eventual fate, but the connection isn’t made clear enough for us to be certain it’s what the author intended. More subtle characterisation would have been a plus all round. Never mind, though – the story is compelling, drawing you inexorably onward towards the inevitable denouement. This is where Nicolay’s writing is at its best, with his genuinely atmospheric descriptions of the ‘Satan pit’ showcasing some first rate use of language:

Across the pit he could see the phrase from the Weird NJ photo. The ‘T’ in ‘MEAT’ had faded some, and now resembled an ‘L’. The quarry walls were mostly pinkish, but nearer the top, rainwater had darkened long streaks to a muddy rose. Stretches stained by the black surface soil had the look of deep crusted burns or wounds. Faded boreholes marked the exposed rock surface at intervals. Nearer the water these scars were fresher and closer together. In some places, they looked very fresh. 

Good opener.

The Bad Outer Space – a short piece told from a child’s point of view. Child plays in park with (possibly imaginary) friend Sari, who teaches him how to see the ‘bad outer space’. Kid’s mom is messing around with bad men. Kid’s other (real) friend Vincent disappears suddenly. A deftly written short, but predictable and not really in a good way. More embedded misogyny. I don’t tend to like the child’s PoV trick unless it’s genuinely original (see Scott Bradfield’s brilliant first novel The History of Luminous Motion). ‘The Bad Outer Space’ reads like any number of similar magazine stories – nothing really wrong with it, but it didn’t do much for me.

Ana Kai Tangata – After a bad experience in New Mexico, spelunking enthusiast and archaeologist Max heads to Easter Island, tagging along as part of an expedition dedicated to researching the invertebrate life of the island’s cave systems. As with any small and isolated group, tensions between the various parties soon begin to escalate. Max feels himself very much the unpopular outsider. He is also still haunted by what happened to him – or more specifically what happened to his friend Brant – during his previous expedition, and finally confides in Cassie, whom he has the hots for:

He looked at Cassie across the table. Gray-green eyes, golden brown hair that curved into the base of her neck, lean, hard body below. Tits small, but high and hard. Yeah, he could tell her everything, anything. Fuck it.

Because of course the size and relative firmness of your tits is bound to be directly indicative of how good a confidante you are. Anyway, Easter Island seems to be having a weird effect on Max generally. Max’s friend and caving mentor Altazor has a theory about that:

“There is something very strange about this island, something no one has touched on, at least not in print. It changes everything: people, animals, even plants. What grows here tastes different from crops on other islands… I think there was something here before, something older than the Polynesians… This is something not human, something down in the substrate, in the very bedrock, down below the halocline where the salt water meets the fresh.”

There is a very nice sequence about almost getting lost inside a cave, and the fugue state that overcomes Max in the immediate aftermath of that experience is superbly rendered. On the whole though I found this story unsatisfying. Easter Island is made to feel like a convenient backdrop, an almost incidental exotic location for a pretty run-of-the-mill Elder Gods-type narrative. If there had been more focus on the invertebrate study – something to give any kind of genuine perspective on the island – this weakness might have been ameliorated. More women problems, and Max never really becomes interesting enough for us to give a damn about him being chased down by a giant trans-dimensional woodlouse at the end.

On the level of craft and readability the story is fine – I enjoyed it plenty. I think at least some of my adverse criticism is coming from the fact that this collection has been over-hyped, and I was expecting something vastly original as a result. At this stage, I’m finding Nicolay to be a solidly competent and highly readable writer with a good feel for language – but there’s nothing ground-breaking here in terms of subject matter or formal approach, at least not so far.

Eyes Exchange Bank – This is a weird one. After being dumped by his girlfriend Lisa, Ray journeys to the town of Lansdale to see his old mate Danny – he reckons they’ll have a few beers, talk about old times, set the world to rights. When he arrives though, things seem far from well. First he has a near-accident and damages his car. Then Danny – and Danny’s apartment – don’t seem at all as he remembered them. The town itself is horrible – a dead zone, depopulated and shot to shit. They head off to the mall for a pizza and (hopefully) a bit of action. Ray gets plenty of action, all right – but he sure ain’t coming back for more. Of anything.

For much of its length this story reads like an anxiety dream, and the gradual accumulation of sinister details and small things going wrong reminded me of Ramsey Campbell’s stories. Ramsey always nails a mean ending though, and in this case at least that is one thing Nicolay doesn’t do, relying on zombies ex machina to deal the killer blow. The ending fits the atmosphere, in a way, but there’s so much disjuncture here, and not in a good way. All the stuff about Poe feels like stage dressing, with the ‘premature burial’ tacked on opportunistically without having been earned. Is Danny a zombie too now? He tells Ray he has a ‘whole new way of seeing things’ – courtesy of his visits to the eponymous Eyes Exchange Bank, no doubt, but once again the idea feels half-baked.

There seems to be a theme developing here: some nice writing, a good sense of place, but with a hollowness at the centre that leaves you feeling cheated.

Phragmites – Austin Becenti is an archaeologist and a caver. His holy grail is the mysterious Cave 34, tucked away in the mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico state line and inaccessible as fuck. An archaeologist named Earl Morris discovered it in the 1920s, but he never wrote up his report and so far as anyone knows he never went back. All researchers have to go on are the seven human skulls Morris brought back with him, each of them displaying the marks of what looks like trepanning but can’t be – no one was into trepanning, not there, not then. When Austin receives a phone call from his cousin Dennison, telling him he’s found the cave and is willing to lead Austin to it, our intrepid explorer thinks the offer may be too good to be true. There’s bad blood between him and Dennison, who holds him in contempt for abandoning his Navajo heritage. Plus there was some trouble over a woman. Cave 34, though – how can Austin resist? And when he pulls up in the parking lot of the McDonald’s out by Shiprock, his cousin seems friendly enough. It’s a nice day, too. Everything’s looking good, and Austin’s almost prepared to let bygones be bygones. Trouble is, Dennison isn’t…

Well, this is a cracker. The sense of place in this story is scintillating, not to say resplendent. Here at last is the wealth of specialist detail relating to geology, landscape, even caving equipment that I would have welcomed more of in ‘Ana Kai Tangata’. Even the lead-in episode in the dodgy motel is brilliantly effective, and once we get into the endgame there is some solidly breathtaking writing on display:

The high pines gave way to open space, several broad ponds of lingering snowmelt sprawled across a shallow depression, every pool way more full than normal this late in the year. Dennison chose a route between the ponds and Austin followed. The entire basin must’ve been flooded in the spring since the ground was crazed with mud cracks, the thin interlocking crusts crumbling to dust beneath their steps. Jagged bands of leached alkali spread out around each pond. Approaching one he saw dead brown weed choking the wide lens of stagnant water, ranks of fuzzy fronds straining to reach the surface yet failing, the still pool fixed as a vast decrepit moss agate, dismal exercise in vegetal futility.

There’s loads of stuff like this, all of it directly relevant to the story, anchored to it with the strongest kind of caving rope, and Nicolay works tirelessly to make every detail count. Admirable, brilliant stuff. Austin and Dennison’s final miracle-nightmare traverse of the sheer rock face that is the only means of accessing the cave left me breathless with vertigo. When a writer pulls off a stunt like this it’s wonderful to see. Of course, we can make a solid guess at the ending as soon as we learn – pretty early on – that the Navajo name for Cave 34 is ‘the spider’s cave’ or something like it. But so what if we can see the monster coming? I enjoyed this story way too much have it spoiled for me by an ending that would be exceptionally difficult to navigate perfectly, in any case.

I started off thinking it was a miscalculation, to have two long stories about caves in a single volume, but ended up feeling just the opposite, that this kind of fixation is actually a selling point, rooting the drama in the writer’s own personal obsessions and areas of expertise. I loved it that there was a continuing character – a walk-on part for Altazor, whom we last saw hanging out in a bar and spinning yarns in ‘Ana Kai Tangata’, and who here, we learn, was also Austin’s adviser at UNM. ‘Too bad Altazor’s gone,’ Austin reflects. ‘He left UNM ’cause of some kind of scandal. Never found out what it was. He was just gone one day and no one would talk about it.’

It would be nice – it would be very nice – if Nicolay were to consider including even a single female character who didn’t slot into his ill-conceived archetypes of whore, bitch or eye-candy (frequently all three simultaneously) but that depressing caveat aside, ‘Phragmites’ is a great piece of writing.

The Soft Frogs – Jaycee used to be a bug nerd. Now he’s a fake punk with severely diminished college prospects, a rank day job and an insatiable sexual appetite. His favourite hangout is the Melody, a club with legendary music credentials and an ever-circulating supply of willing female company as an added bonus. Here he meets Eileen – a potentially interesting woman character at last from Nicolay, but no, wait, she turns out to be a monster. Literally.

Environmental pollution meets body horror meets boring male entitlement. Trite, slight and obvious. Honestly, Jason, you were far more interesting when you were a bug nerd. Ah well, too late now. Those damn frogs…

Geschaefte – Once again, we encounter almost (Ramsey) Campbellian twists of fate and truncated futures as we follow Cal into a hell of his own making. Or is it? Calvin is a college student, obsessed with setting up a poetry magazine to honour and emulate his hero, Jack Spicer, the poet of unknowing. Like other Nicolay ‘heroes’, Cal is a rampant misogynist and a bit of a scumbag. His odiousness finally catches up with him when his girlfriend Risa dies on Thanksgiving, in her parents’ garage, in circumstances that are more than just a little bit Cal-related. Consumed by guilt and self-pity, rejected by his family and unable to continue at college, Cal finds himself couch-surfing his way around the western United States, eventually ending up in the San Francisco apartment of a reluctant comrade, Jerrod. How did Cal first meet Jerrod? He can’t quite remember, and there’s weird shit going on in the apartment across the hall. As Cal’s perceptions become more twisted, so does the version of reality that envelops him. The stench of decay and bottled piss (read it and see) is tangible. We sense that things will not end well for Calvin, and they don’t.

The odd overwrought metaphor notwithstanding, this is one hell of a well written story. The Spicer connections – the unknowable nature of poetry, voices from the beyond (check out the link) – make ‘Geschaefte’ all the more fascinating and add an extra layer of meaning. As a study of mental breakdown, as a horror story, the piece is equally riveting. Of course, we have to put up with copious amounts of stuff like this along the way:

Whatever it is that clicks had clicked for him. Despite horn-rimmed glasses she wore as if actually shooting for the mousy look, her wide, bright eyes and her long, dark hair were anything but plain, and her worn grey sweater swelled with its high hard brace of tight bound breasts.

But then just a few paragraphs later we have this little snatch of brilliance, and plenty more besides:

Cal’s consciousness drifted fitfully down into REM with the rhythms of some flat hulk of marine debris seesawing into the depths. Soon he found himself as usual, in a sterile simulacrum of his current setting, dreaming he was laid out on the futon, dreaming he was dreaming. But then his vision inverted, so that rather than a lifeless replica of Jerrod’s apartment, he occupied a gray lit void in the shape of his own form. Within it he was become a diminished thing, size of a small bird or large insect, suspended somewhere in his own hollow and heartless torso. The lost moth of his soul blatted about the emptiness inside him, at first more disoriented than panicked, though a feeling of entrapment took hold of him almost at once.

I get it – or at least I think I get it: Cal is an appalling man-child and gets what he deserves. But I can’t help thinking – and I have to say I’m thinking it all the time as I read this collection – that the stories would work even better, would be more satisfying, more devastating, more intellectually rigorous, more artistically powerful, if Nicolay could bring himself to feel even a passing interest in the idea of women entering the narrative as characters rather than sex-toys. There’s a truly great, timeless story here in ‘Geschaefte’ just waiting to happen.  and it wouldn’t take much tweaking. As it is, we feel too easily justified in giving Cal the finger and moving on. Which is a shame – again – when so much of the writing here is so good.

Tuckahoe – What is it with weird fiction and cops wandering into stuff they don’t understand?

Not our luckless Sergeant Howie this time, but Detective Donny Cortu. Like our favourite Scottish policeman before him, Donny has happened upon something strange and is determined to get some answers. Had he known what kind of answers he was going to get, he may never have started his investigation in the first place…

Donny Cortu is a police detective. Following a shady incident involving witness protection, he’s been seconded to the backwoods of South Jersey, where instead of solving complicated murders, he spends his days picking up the pieces (literally) at the site of road traffic accidents near the nothing town of Tuckahoe (also a Native name for a species of edible underground fungus – this will become relevant later). Donny desperately wants out of there. He wants to regain the trust of his wife Martina. He wants job satisfaction. When a mysterious extra appendage (stick with me here) is brought in as part of the carnage from Tuckahoe’s latest highway fatality, Donny seizes the chance to investigate. His search leads him first to Carlsen, a cop from another squad room who has a bizarre story to tell, and then out to the broken down homestead of the inbred Storch family, which Donny comes to believe may harbour something more than ornery locals with a personal hygiene problem.

Guess what? He’s right.

Nicolay may well have stuck to his personal dogme in the strictest sense by not mentioning Cthulhu or Innsmouth or any other Mythos stuff by name, but Tuckahoe is pure Lovecraft, of course, with ‘The Dunwich Horror’ as its incestuous cousin. Not that this matters. ‘Tuckahoe’ is as engrossing and entertaining as it is predictable, with the partial use of the ‘club story’ format working perfectly to its advantage. Whilst I might quibble with the use of ‘ick’ and ‘glop’ as nouns outside of dialogue, this is a small gripe. The writing here is as polished and compelling as elsewhere in this collection, and how many words for repulsively oozing substrate are there anyway?

I was also extra-excited by this story, as I thought for a moment we might have an actual woman with an actual speaking part. Alyssa Campion may only be the pathologist’s assistant, but she’s certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to handling body parts. We might infer from this that she would have no problem telling a leering womaniser like Donny Cortu where to sling his hook, but what’s this?

“May I ask you a question, Detective?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Are you a faggot, Detective? Are you gay, or is there something else wrong with you?”

Donny spluttered at the receiver – “Hey! Waitta – ” – but she plowed ahead.

“You don’t act gay, but I don’t know, maybe it’s different for cops. But if you’re straight, maybe you can tell me why I waited the whole damn morning for you to put the moves on me and that creepy old man does it instead… Was that some kind of stunt you two worked out together? Because if it was I didn’t think it was very funny.’ 

Oh Christ, tell me this is not going to be some kind of sexual harassment suit. For once he’d controlled himself. He hadn’t even hit on her – that was all Bilo. “No! No. Nothing like that. It’s just -.”

“Yeah sure. Whatever. So now you’re going to make a girl do all the heavy lifting? I guess it really is true that chivalry is dead.”

Oh dear. This is wrong, not to say vastly embarrassing, on so many levels. And of course Alyssa turns out to know a hell of a lot more about the Storch place than she initially lets on.

This is the longest story in the book – it’s almost a short novel – and although it could easily be argued that it’s too long – altogether too many people telling other people what they heard once from someone else – I wouldn’t agree. I always enjoy stories like this, wheels within wheels, and this one rolled along for me without ever dragging.

Even so, though, ‘Tuckahoe’ could have been so much better – like all the other stories in the book – if Nicolay had refrained from piling on the dudebro attitude. It’s so repetitive, so dull. I know horror is supposed to be transgressive – but unfettered misogyny isn’t transgressive, it’s just tedious.

Am I beginning to see an attempt at a weird kind of inverse feminism at work in Ana Kai Tangata? All Nicolay’s protags are sexist arseholes, all end up devoured by forces from the beyond. In ‘Tuckahoe’ there’s even a (wholly unconvincing and uncharacteristically clunky – did someone persuade Nicolay to put this in, thinking it might help to ‘explain’ the general dudebroness?) monologue by Alyssa, talking about how it’s impossible to be a woman and survive around these parts without turning misogynist.

There are better ways around the problem. Such as writing women into the story properly and actually giving a damn about them being there.

*

Ana Kai Tangata is a good collection. All the stories, to varying extents, are intense and highly readable – it was never a hardship to return to this book and I frequently found myself mentally taking my hat off to the author for one ingenious reversal or another. The writing is of a consistently high standard and veers close to brilliance on many occasions. There are enough hallmarks of genuine originality – the caving, the arid, imposing landscape of New Mexico – to persuade me that Nicolay is deadly serious about his craft, enough for me to genuinely look forward to seeing what he writes next. (Psst – I hope it’s a novel. Nicolay’s story arcs lend themselves naturally and instinctively to the longer length, and I seriously think that this writer could pull off that rare thing: a full-length horror story that sticks the distance without dissolving into cliche.)

The one major downside – and excuse me for sounding like a broken record here – is Nicolay’s seeming inability to write about women. I wouldn’t mind so much if he simply admitted to himself that this was a weakness and stuck to writing bro-on-bro standoffs instead. (It’s no coincidence that in the most all-round effective story in this volume, the superb ‘Phragmites’, Nicolay is sensible enough to leave the women out of it.) Thinking about this issue, and judging by the all-round quality of the stories otherwise, I THINK what Nicolay is trying to do is offer some kind of commentary on the toxic nature of macho masculinity. You could say he succeeds – there’s certainly enough of it on show here. But to be a commentary, rather than simply a roll-call, we need more: more indication of intent on the part of the author, more subtext, more counterpoint. There is literally no counterpoint, and for me at least Ana Kai Tangata suffers for the lack of it. For the most part, I was able to set my grievances to one side – I was enjoying myself too much not to, and on the up side there ARE giant transdimensional man-eating woodlice on hand to dispose of some of these scumbags – but I would understand completely if other readers felt too pissed off by the general arseholeism of Nicolay’s characters to want to continue.

Would I recommend Ana Kai Tangata as a collection? Yes definitely, but with those caveats. And in the hope that Nicolay will work on these problem areas to produce an even better book next time out.