#weird2016: Run the GAMUT!

There’s a wonderful project up at Kickstarter at the moment and I’m personally urging anyone with an interest in horror and weird fiction to consider backing it, or just to spread the word if you possibly can. GAMUT looks like being the most interesting new magazine venture to have surfaced in years. It’s the brainchild of Richard Thomas, writer and editor. Richard has made literary quality a defining feature of all the projects he’s been involved with, and if you glance down the tables of contents of the anthologies he’s edited – The New Black, Burnt Tongues (which was a Stoker finalist) and The Lineup – you’ll see just what an innovative and ambitious approach to weird fiction he has.

Don’t listen to me – let Richard tell you more about Gamut himself:

Gamut will be accepting solicited submissions only for a time, but Richard fully intends to open the magazine up to new writers in due course. There will be non-fiction and commentary too.

I believe that Gamut is exactly the kind of webzine the genre landscape needs right now. Independent-spirited, innovative and just more willing to take risks than other venues. I hope to see it becoming a kind of meeting point, a hub for weird writers and readers of all persuasions. With the right support and enthusiasm, Gamut really could help to increase the profile of quality speculative fiction generally.

Please back Gamut now!

#weird 2016: Little Sister Death by William Gay

little sister deathWilliam Gay died in 2012. Little Sister Death was found with his papers, only partially typed up but still ostensibly complete in longhand draft. A group of Gay’s close friends and fellow writers put everything together in the right order. The novel was published late last year. I wrote about it as I went along, breaking off from my reading to record my thoughts.  The numbered sections below do not tie in precisely to the named parts of the novel, they are my own arbitrary divisions. Still, they make a kind of sense.

ONE

He had stopped wondering where he was. He knew from the crying of the whippoorwills that night had fallen. He knew that the ground was frozen, for he could hear the iron rims of the wagon wheels turning against earth frozen in icy whorls. He knew that he’d been in the woods; a branch had rapped him hard and cut his face, a trickle of blood had frozen, crusted like a scarlet slash from a solitary fingernail. (LSD p 6)

Little Sister Death opens in Tennessee, in the year 1785. Dr Mayfield has been kidnapped off the street in front of his house, taken by a man with muttonchop whiskers and his black servant to a log house in the middle of nowhere where he has been brought, as the black man tells him, to treat ‘sick people’. He’s never seen either of them before. He has no idea why he has been chosen, or what for. The man with muttonchop whiskers has some sort of mouth injury that has rendered him unable to eat or to speak clearly, though the doctor soon discovers that this is not the reason he has been taken.

I found the opening of this novel utterly compelling. There’s a sense of malice here – of trouble brewing – that makes you feel tense even as you’re reading. When the climax of this chapter comes – you’ll know when that is, believe me – it’s staggeringly horrifying, all the more so because although you’ve been waiting for something like this to happen, it still seems to erupt out of nowhere, just when you’ve started to think the doctor may be all right after all.

Gay’s writing is clear, direct, deceptively simple. Not a single word wasted and proving in spades that if you’re as good a writer as Gay you can do anything with straight narrative fiction – deliver any surprises and shocks you want.

TWO

‘He was watching the home place and he was pondering the nature of its evil, not wondering if there was evil indeed there but knowing it with an absolute certainty that he applied to very few things. What triggered it? he wondered. How did it work, and how did it ever come to be there? Something old and evil had happened here, so evil that came after was just echoes, just spreading ripples in the water so intense that Beale and his family had ultimately abandoned the house and rebuilt in the place he was now moving into. Though that didn’t help, did it, Old Jake? Binder thought. Whatever it was just walked across the ridge and knocked at your door. (p 41)

It’s now the 1980s. David Binder, a writer, has moved with his wife Corrie and young daughter Stephie from Chicago to Tennessee, and into the ‘Beale house’. Binder has acquired the house on the six-month lease. He intends to write a book about some notorious events there, a book that will be solidly commercial and make him some money. Already after just a couple of days on the property he seems too involved, already we are beginning to get the sense that this will not end well for him. Binder seems kind of selfish. He goes after what he wants and damn the consequences.  Corrie doesn’t seem to have much choice in anything. David doesn’t ever really confide in her. He thinks of her as ‘high strung’, and therefore not to be told certain things. The accidental killing of a rabbit is a bad omen, and reminiscent of the hare that dies under the plough at the beginning of John Fowles’s Daniel Martin.

This section initially lacks the magisterial gothic grandeur of the opening but this is not necessarily a bad thing as it creates an interesting duality between past and present. The present seems at first lighter, more disposable, but that texture gradually changes as we approach the Beale house itself. Seeing Binder watching the old property we get an echo of the feelings we experienced during the first chapter.

This is concise, intensely readable prose. It reminds me a little of some of the very best of Stephen King’s writing – the early chapters of ‘Salem’s Lot, for example – but entirely lacks that writer’s tendency to over-pad. There is a languid heat to the prose – nothing is hurried, not even the tension. One longs to hear this book read aloud in Gay’s southern accent.

THREE

Back to 1933. Owen Swaw, a sharecropper, is offered the tenancy of the Beale place in return for raising and harvesting the corn crop. He’s unexpectedly reluctant – there’s something about the place he doesn’t like – but his wife Lorene insists. They have four growing daughters and no space. The Beale place is enormous. The girls love it. Swaw begins to see things – odd things, odd people, a black dog – and his temper seems addled. Nothing pleases him – and then he is seduced by a ghost:

That’s my little sister yonder, the preacher said, pointing, and Swaw turned, so caught up in the snake that he was aware of the girl’s presence for the first time. She stood in the corner facing an isinglass window of the tent watching him and slowly turned. Swaw suddenly felt chilled, aware of the cold layers of wet clothing against his skin, and for a dizzy second he thought he was going to faint, for the world darkened and everything looked vague and far away. The preacher was still talking, but sounds had diminished and Swaw couldn’t understand him. (p 89)

This whole section is dry and airless, like the oppressive summer weather that pervades it. We sense the approach of disaster – the disaster we have had described to us in Binder’s first section – but our foreknowledge of what is to happen does not diminish it.

FOUR

He was obscurely happy, drawing comfort from sourceless and insignificant things he always took for granted: the work he was doing, the soft worn feel of the faded jeans he was wearing, the sounds of the night beyond the walls, the feeling of the peace they engendered, the chaos of the world walled out.

They ate the ice cream on the stone doorsteps, touched by a sense of closeness without having to voice it. It had been a long day, an unhurried purposeless day Binder had stolen from the book, like a day he had managed to hoard from his childhood, squander when the mood suited him. 

Later he would remember it as the last outpost of normalcy, a waystation to darker provinces. (p 111)

Things are weirding up on the Beale land. The haunting is taking hold. Binder is gripped – and not just by the book he is writing. It’s his family you fear for. The atmosphere is horrifying, a kind of polluted stillness. The plot is strongly reminiscent of the movie Sinister, though with none of that film’s determination to ruin itself through horror cliché.

Following the latest from Binder we have an extract from an earlier book on the Beale haunting, referred to frequently by Binder during the course of his research. Now we begin to learn more about the origins of the haunting, and the way these events mirrored themselves compulsively in what happened to Swaw.

FIVE

Sunday afternoon was more of the same, hot and clear and a mile long. The steady clack clack clack of the typewriter ceasing only when he paused to light a cigarette, make coffee, go to the bathroom. She was counting the days till Labor Day. (p 138)

As Binder becomes ever more deeply possessed by the rhythms and secret murmurings of the haunted dell, Corrie remembers other occasions when her husband was needlessly, destructively selfish. Binder stops watching TV and especially the news, anything that will remind him of the world beyond Beale Station, which comes to seem increasingly dreamlike, increasingly irrelevant.

On Labor Day weekend, Corrie’s sister Ruthie and her odious husband Vern come to visit. Binder can’t stand Vern, and feels increasingly annoyed with Corrie for not disliking him more. When they go to a local dance to celebrate the holiday, Vern is in his element. Binder is relieved to be out of the house for a bit. Then he sees someone in the crowd:

There was an eerie familiarity about her, as if she were a creation from his fantasies, from his dreams – or worse, he suddenly thought, fearing madness, from the book he was writing. The face was placid and smooth, seemed touched with the remnants of a lost, corrupt sweetness, a doomed innocence, and he knew irrevocably that he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anything. The book, Corrie, life itself. (p 176)

And Vern? I love this:

In the stark clarity of the moonlight his face looked vacuous and haggard, less like a bored housewife’s dream and more like a man drifting against his will aimlessly into middle age. (p 181)

Throughout this novel, Gay’s writing is strongest when he’s describing the gaunt and vaguely threatening beauty of the Tennessee landscape. The landscape is not to blame for the tragedy exactly, but it is complicit, it grants it asylum.

QUEEN OF THE HAUNTED DELL

We leave Binder hanging, arguing with Corrie in a hospital car park. Suddenly we’re in the present, and William Gay is recounting the true history of the Bell Witch haunting, on which Little Sister Death is based. We meet Chris Kirby, who now owns the Bell farm and who is obsessed with the story. The Blair Witch Project is referenced. Gay tells us about his own brush with the ghost. It’s a surprising and intriguing breach of the fourth wall and not surprisingly I find I like this aspect of the novel a lot. It makes the book feel strange, telescoped back into itself. What are we to make of it? The fact that it was published posthumously, reconstructed from Gay’s own longhand notes and typescript, makes us ask ourselves if it was finished, even.

In a sense, there are three books here: the grim southern gothic of the opening chapters, pulsing with life and cruel mysteries, the initially languid, steadily escalating horror of the Binder chapters, and finally the metafictional idea of a writer collating research material for that very novel. I like the resulting composite, a lot, though there is a part of me that still yearns for the novel that might have been, the novel we glimpse in that opening chapter, the kidnapped doctor on his fatal journey, the terrible act we see perpetrated in a remote farmhouse.

The problem with affect horror is its fatalism, the way its entire energy is directed towards generating an atmosphere of dread rather than pursuing the active forward momentum of a story. The opening sequence of Little Sister Death forms one of the most gripping and beauteously written passages of horror fiction I’ve read in a long time. Most of the rest of the book lacks that tension, because the law of affect horror tells us that David Binder is doomed from the beginning. There is nothing for us to do but sit around waiting for him to go crazy.

For me at least, the irruption of the metafictional into this scenario goes a long way towards mitigating the deadening effect of affect horror. It throws everything into question, even Binder’s eventual fate. If Gay had continued with Binder’s story we know exactly how it would have played out – he showed us already, with Owen Swaw. As things stand at the end, who knows? Perhaps Binder got lucky and got out. I know I like to think so.

A wonderfully engrossing read, with some enthralling writing, this is exactly the kind of novel we should be seeing on horror fiction awards shortlists, but rarely do. Little Sister Death is a valuable addition to the canon. Although its compact length is a refreshing and welcome change, I nonetheless find myself wishing this book had been longer. I miss the Binders.

#weird 2016: My Top Ten Horror Stories

An essay of mine went up at Strange Horizons yesterday, in which I mull over the state of British horror and where we might be going with it. As part of that mulling-over, I took issue with a certain horror editor’s Top Ten list of favourite horror stories. For me, it seemed staid and just a little bit dull, given the wealth and breadth of horror literature we have to choose from. I also acknowledged how difficult it is to compile such a list, given the wealth and breadth of horror literature we have to choose from. Should we pick the stories that happen to be our favourites right now, or should we actively tend towards the conservative, selecting the works that have haunted our memories for decades, those stories we return to imaginatively again and again when we think about what most delights us in horror fiction?

A little of both, maybe. And fair is fair – if I’m going to pick holes in someone else’s list, it’s only right that I put up a top ten list of my own, to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. There will doubtless be some who think I don’t go far enough in challenging the status quo here, just as there will be others who simply can’t believe I’ve not happened to choose one justifiably classic author or another. But that is exactly what these kind of lists are for, isn’t it? Discussing our choices, and hopefully challenging our perceptions of the subject in question. The main thing is that we have a conversation.

So who is my list for, primarily? At the most cursory level, I’d say it was for any horror reader or writer who feels curious about what kind of stuff another horror reader and writer happens to be into – you’ll get a pretty good idea of who I am as a horror fan from reading this list. I’d also say it’s for new writers: here is my best summary of the kind of work you need to be paying attention to if you want to get an idea of what horror is about and how you might fit into it. These ten works will give you a pretty good idea of the journey horror literature has been on and how it’s evolved. (It goes without saying that other fans, editors and writers might have differing opinions on exactly who is most important here and why.) I would also like to think that this list might be a starting point for people who think they don’t like horror: read the stories on this list, and perhaps you’ll end up with a pretty good idea of why you might have been wrong, and where you might go next to feed your growing enthusiasm.

Who knows – you might even end up compiling a list of your own…

And so here goes with my top ten. I’m going to try and lay these out in the order I might arrange them if I were editing an anthology:

  1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907). This is a classic work of English weird fiction. Two friends travel down the Danube in a rowing boat and become ever more fixated upon the landscape they pass through, convinced of its malignancy and possessed by it. An incredibly modern, prescient work of cosmic horror. Lovecraft admired this story tremendously and for me it signals the passage from the more buttoned-up, Jamiesian type of Victorian ghost story to the psychological idiom. A story that can be savoured time and again.
  2. The Ruins of Contracoeur by Joyce Carol Oates (1999). Joyce Carol Oates is thought of by most people as a mainstream literary writer. In fact, she’s one of the most important horror writers working today. A good chunk of her output – story collections such as Haunted, novels such as the Stoker-winning Zombie and the epic vampire novel Bellefleur – is specifically horror anyway, but more than that, everything she writes carries more than a touch of the gothic. Together with Iris Murdoch, I would have to cite JCO as the writer who lies closest to my heart, the writer I turn to when I want to regain a sense of where I stand as a writer. It’s hard to pick just one story to list here, but I’m going with this marvellous novella, a weird and unnerving offshoot from Bellefleur, because it’s the first Oates I ever read and it made me fall in love with her writing there and then. For a neat introduction to Oates and her importance to horror, I’d recommend this great little essay by Paula Guran.
  3. Welcomeland by Ramsey Campbell (1988). Arguably the most important British horror writer of the postwar era, Ramsey Campbell’s stories and novels carry echoes of the earlier weird fiction that has clearly worked a profound influence upon their author. Yet they are also grimly, often brutally of today: angst-ridden, bleak, alienated and genuinely terrifying. No one explores despair – both existential and circumstantial – like Campbell, and this story of a man returning to his home town bears all his trademark themes. Campbell’s layered use of language to create a sense of entrapment is pretty much unique in all of horror and I would say it’s essential for anyone interested in writing horror to read him. (NB: He can also be really funny.)
  4. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1931). I’ve been thinking about Lovecraft a lot recently, and rereading him a bit, and I’m coming to the conclusion that this ‘terrible wordsmith’ business of which he is routinely accused is received opinion: people keep saying it, therefore it must be accurate. But whilst it’s true that HPL does not always know when to end a sentence, and he’s not so good on dialogue, when you go back to the writing itself, you’ll perhaps be surprised to find how evocative, precise and beautiful it often is. Take this passage here from At The Mountains of Madness: ‘The last lap of the voyage was vivid and fancy-stirring. Great barren peaks of mystery loomed up constantly against the west as the low northern sun of noon or the still lower horizon-grazing southern sun of midnight poured its hazy reddish rays over the white snow, bluish ice and water lanes, and black bits of exposed granite slope. Through the desolate summits swept ranging, intermittent gusts of the terrible Antarctic wind, whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible.’ Because so much of contemporary western horror literature arises from Lovecraft, I would say that insofar as anything is essential reading for anyone interested in horror fiction, Lovecraft is it. (And pssst – his stories are highly entertaining.)
  5. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948). As with Iris Murdoch’s early fiction, I’m always amazed when I’m confronted by the date-stamps on Shirley Jackson’s stories, because their ethos is so fiercely, so uncompromisingly modern. ‘The Lottery’ truly is a horror classic, and whilst its by no means the oddest or even the best of her stories, it’s a wonderful introduction to the art of a writer who could perhaps be described as the Katherine Mansfield of horror, bringing strange fiction out of the gentleman’s club and into the home. (In fact, Katherine Mansfield’s own 1912 story ‘The Woman at the Store‘ could itself easily qualify for inclusion on this list.) I’ve read this story more times than I can remember, yet it never loses its power to shock and delight. You can’t not love it.
  6. The Buffalo Hunter by Peter Straub (1990). Often seen as standing in Stephen King’s shadow, Straub has written fewer novels but their overall consistency – not surprisingly and for me at least – is finer. Ghost Story and Shadowland are colossi of the genre: novels both intellectual and visceral that you can read again and again and never quite come to the end of. I love his work. This novella is so weird and so disturbing and it showcases Straub’s writing and style to beautiful effect. In fact, go away and read the entire collection from which this story is drawn, Houses Without Doors – it’s one of my favourite story collections ever. For more on Straub, there’s an informative essay by Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer here.
  7. Riding the White Bull by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2004). I first read Kiernan – her story ‘Valentia” – in one of the Jones/Sutton Dark Terrors anthologies and, as with Oates, I knew at once that here was a writer who spoke to me directly. Her confessional style, combined with the beauty of her language, make her dear to my heart in a way that few other writers are. I wanted to include The Dry Salvages here, because it’s perfect and I wish I’d written it, but it’s another novella and I have the feeling I’ve sneaked in too many of those already. ‘Riding the White Bull’ contains many of the same themes as The Dry Salvages – alien contamination, existential dread, the end of the world as we know it – but for the purposes of this listing it has the advantage of being shorter.
  8. The Swords by Robert Aickman (1975). How to explain Robert Aickman? He’s often grouped together with M. R. James and Arthur Machen as a ‘master of the English weird tale’ and indeed Aickman does belong to – or rather issue from – this tradition. There’s more, though. His stories belong to a strange, indeterminate time for horror fiction, which unsurprisingly fell out of fashion after WW2, and did not truly arrive in its various modern incarnations until the publication of Stephen King’s Carrie in 1974. What permeates Aickman’s fiction most of all is a sense of disappointment, of washed-upness: the postwar ‘never had it so good’ utopia has failed to arrive. In Britain there’s a mood of confusion and displacement in the aftermath of empire. Where now? Aickman’s protagonists seem to be asking, and none more so than the travelling salesman who is the ‘hero’ of ‘The Swords’. In its depiction of decay and disillusionment, Aickman’s fiction provides something the English weird tale had never attempted up till then: a version of the dirty ‘kitchen sink’ realism we see in the mainstream novels and films of the period. It also directly paved the way for the weird fiction of writers from the so-called ‘mundane’ school such as M. John Harrison, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane.
  9. The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson (2014). It was this urgently compelling story, nominated for both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award, that introduced us to the art of a writer who promises to be genuinely important to the field. I’ve recently read his follow-up, the dark fantasy (you could almost call it horror) novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, and found it equally assured, even more innovative in terms of its language and construction. It’s always a joy to discover a writer this good, and ‘The Devil in America’ deserves all the praise it has garnered. A sort-of werewolf story, it exposes some of the darkness that lies at the heart of American history. It is also a very fine example of the new and more diverse writing that is starting to reinvigorate American fantasy.
  10. Her Deepness by Livia Llewellyn (2010). American horror fiction seems to be in a particularly healthy place at the moment, with a veritable tribe of newer writers such as John Langan, Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, Damien Angelica Walters and Sarah Langan producing work of high literary quality and chilling depth of field. Of all these New Lovecraftians, perhaps the greatest is Livia Llewellyn. Her story ‘Horses’ is one of the starkest and most upsetting pieces of science fictional horror I’ve ever read, but I’m plumping for Llewellyn’s novella Her Deepness as my current favourite of her stories, because of the beauty of its language, the completeness of the world it evokes, and because it’s just fantastic. I’ve never read a duff sentence from Llewellyn. She is a major talent.

APPENDIX – BONUS MATERIAL: Stephen Jones added two extra Ray Bradbury stories to his top ten, so I’m damned if I’m not sneaking in two extra stories of my own!

  1. In a Falling Airplane by Otsuichi (2010). The Japanese horror tradition is a lifetime’s study in itself, and as a reader I’ve only just begun to brush the surface of it. There is something antic, something anarchic and deeply unsettling in the stories I’ve read thus far that leaves me definitely wanting more. We already know that japan leads the world in the jagged brilliance of its horror cinema, and there’s something of that same bizarro quality in Otsuichi’s fiction. His stories really ought not to be funny but they often are. They can also feel desolate, perched on the very edge of the abyss. I love the whole collection, Zoo, from which ‘In a Falling Airplane’ is drawn, and would recommend it as a starting point for getting to know what J-horror is all about.
  2. Pan by Bruno Schulz (1934). European horror, so dear to my heart, so utterly vital for the growth of the genre, so often forgotten in discussions of the literature. The best known writer of the European weird is probably Franz Kafka, but there are also amazing lesser known voices such as Friedebert Tuglas, Stefan Grabinski, Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard and Gabriele Wittkop who are equally worth getting to know, not to mention contemporary writers such as Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Anna Starobinets and Karin Tidbeck. The prince of them all is Bruno Schulz, whose stories are perfect gems of strangeness and ambiguity. It’s almost unbearable to read him, knowing how his life and career were cut short, knowing what we lost when we lost him, but at least we have the stories we have: luminous, humane, resplendent in their strangeness and beauty. ‘Pan’ is just a few pages long but no matter – once you’ve read it, I guarantee you’ll want to seek out everything Schulz ever wrote and make loud, obsessive noises about it to every other horror fan you meet.

What strikes me most harshly as I look back over this list is the writers who aren’t on it. How can I justify including both Caitlin Kiernan and Livia Llewellyn, when that means denying a place to Kelly Link, whose shivery brand of horror is one of the most unsettling and original around? How can I not have included Kaaron Warren and Margo Lanagan, who are two of my favourite horror writers working today? How could I not have found room for ‘Caterpillars‘, a weird little tale from E. F. Benson that I like better than a lot of M. R. James and that has equal rights to be here as representative of the classic ghost story tradition? There’s a fantastic novella by Tade Thompson that would absolutely have been on here but can’t be, because it hasn’t been published yet. Likewise any of the stories from Helen Oyeyemi’s new collection, which isn’t out until April. And what about the two magnificent anti-horror stories, each in its own way representative of metafictional horror and each adored by me, Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Colonel’s Son’ and Joe Hill’s ‘Best New Horror’? What about Thomas Ligotti’s lifelong, ongoing dialogue with H. P. Lovecraft? What about the densely interwoven, experimental horror fictions of Michael Cisco and J. M. McDermott? What about Nnedi Okorafor’s phenomenal ‘Spider the Artist‘? These exclusions hurt, and if you think that my mentioning them here is just a sneaky way of getting them in under the wire, you’d be right.

A top ten should be what it says it is though (or almost), so I’ll leave it at that. Anything else would be cheating. If you don’t like it – and even if you do – why not get down to business compiling your own?

Spindles: Short Stories from the Science of Sleep

(Editors: Penelope Lewis and Ra Page)

spindles.lewis.pageThis is the latest in Comma Press‘s series of short story anthologies exploring specific areas of science and scientific thought through the medium of fiction. Each writer is paired with a scientist working in the particular area they have chosen to investigate, with the scientist afterwards offering a commentary on the completed story. It’s a unique and intriguing concept – putting the science back into science fiction, you might say – and the afterwords here are without exception fascinating, offering a wealth of information and specific insights. The introduction to the anthology also, with its illustrative graphs and explanation of what our brains are actually doing while we sleep, is essential reading.

I must add though that for me personally, sampling the afterwords immediately after reading each story proved distracting, breaking the spell the story cast – rather like seeing an over-eager zoologist rushing to dissect the carcass of some small and beautiful animal, when as a naturalist, all I really wanted to do at that point was to observe the creature in its natural habitat. So whilst I’d recommend these afterwords wholeheartedly on their own terms, I’m not going to discuss them here, and would personally suggest saving them to read separately, once you’ve had time to properly appreciate these delicate morsels of fiction and the games they play.

And so then to the stories! In order of the Table of Contents, here we go:

  1. My Soul to Keep by Martyn Bedford (Afterword by Prof. Ed Watkins). Kim is a sleep technician, working in a sleep lab alongside Dr Aziz. They’re caring for and seeking information about Charlotte, a young woman diagnosed with Persistent Hypersomnic State. Charlotte has been suffering from depression and the amount of time she spends asleep has been gradually increasing. As the story opens, she’s just coming up for a full year without waking. As a ’21st Century Sleeping Beauty’ she has attracted a number of fans and acolytes, all of them women, who have taken up residence in a makeshift camp outside the sleep lab. “I log the data sets,” Kim informs us. “It’s what I do. What we do round the clock. Polysomnography, each 12-hour block of recorded information processed and analysed, every variation in the pattern and physiology of her sleep pored over for signs of change or clues to PHS. There never is any change, though. Charlotte’s sleep is as remorseless, as featureless as a desert.” I really liked this one. It’s a delicate, subtle story, exploring the lives and emotions of Kim, who has two sons of a similar age to Charlotte, and Charlotte’s mother Evelyn, who wants to withdraw her daughter from the program and take her home. There’s a restless, uneasy quality to Kim’s thoughts as she finds herself drawn ever deeper into Charlotte’s world. A meditation, perhaps, on how the stresses of the modern world impact upon our ability to process them.
  2. Left Eye by Adam Marek (Afterword by Dr Penelope A. Lewis). “Nancy puts her hand on Left Eye’s hot shoulder. The strength in him. That wizened baby’s face. Moments of wishing she wasn’t here.” We are in the near future. Nancy is an expert in Targeted Memory Replay, a technique whereby programming the sleeping brain to recall events or sensations experienced during waking hours can help to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. Up until recently, Nancy has been working with soldiers returning from the combat zone. When a private company offers her a lucrative new job opportunity, she accepts with alacrity – only to discover that her new test subjects are being experimented upon without their consent. Anyone who has read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will guess what the twist is here, and Marek’s story is equally devastating, equally morally complex, though on a smaller scale. A difficult, essential read, with no easy answers offered. The character of Nancy is brilliantly evoked in just a few short pages.
  3. A Sleeping Serial Killer by M. J. Hyland (Afterword by Isabel Hutchinson). A writer, Maria, explains to a psychotherapist she meets by chance in a cafe how she believes her violent nightmares are a kind of safety valve, siphoning off her rage and trauma and leaving her free to live a well adjusted life. ‘Even after an especially gruesome dream I wake in a mood of ‘lucid indifference’ and this cycle started when I was a child. From about the age of seven I was certain that I wouldn’t end up like ‘them’, my family, and that my nightmares weren’t a bad thing but a good and special trick that my brain played to make me tougher’, explains Maria. In her dreams she’s a serial killer, and that’s where this alter ego will safely stay. This is a fun one, a snarky little piece of metafiction – the story’s narrator and author share the same name – that nests its layers of unreality like glittery shreds of wrapping paper in a game of pass the parcel. There is serious intent here of course, but Hyland seems determined not to let us get too earnest about things by constantly undermining her clever little edifice with the worm of dark humour. I love the way this story is written.
  4. The Rip Van Winkle Project by Sara Maitland (Afterword by Prof. Russell G. Foster). The Greek gods Hypnos, Morpheus and Circadia call a meeting to discuss the worsening state of the world, which Circadia puts down to a wholesale human rejection of the dark. ‘It isn’t about money,’ Hypnos agrees. ‘They’re bullying each other into working inefficiently and for far too long for free. Even when they aren’t working they are up all night – shopping, something called ‘onlining’, even just staying awake to watch television shows they say are rubbish.’ Meanwhile, teenagers Sally Brampton and Matt Oliver go unwillingly to school, grouchy and resentful after being pulled from sleep by the demands of a world they are in no rush to join. Rooted in the natural world and spiritual contemplation, this witty and humorous story is everything we might expect from Sara Maitland. Rich in poetry and mythic imagery, this is a meditation on the restorative properties of sleep and the power of dreams – but not only dreams, as Circadia keeps reminding Morpheus – to return us to a state of energy and inspiration. A delightful piece.
  5. Benzene Dreams by Sarah Schofield (Afterword by Prof. Robert Stickgold). A potentially dangerous commercialisation of the techniques we witnessed in Adam Marek’s story, ‘Benzene Dreams’ tells us about Phil, a computer programmer who’s developed a new app called DreamSolve, which has the power to reinforce customer preferences or behaviours by learning and manipulating patterns of memory during sleep. Both big business and government are in a fiendish hurry to get their hands on DreamSolve, only there seems to be a problem – Phil won’t be bought. ‘You’re a wholly moral being, Philip, look at you. It’s adorable and terrifying all at the same time,’ says Diane, left-leaning government executive and supposedly the good guy. Phil soon learns that in this kind of race for primacy, no one is the good guy, and he is powerless. Schofield manages to make a chilling story very funny. I hope Phil gets his dog.
  6. Counting Sheep by Andy Hedgecock (Afterword by Dr Simon Kyle). ‘Fay flicked through sleep habit-tracker diagrams with their colourful spikes, spindles and histograms, explained the intelligent alarm clock function and demonstrated the sleep deficit indicators. “You put your phone under your pillow and it records tossing and turning, checks if you snore or talk in your sleep, and works out the best time to wake you with music, birdsong or whatever you like.”‘ A bunch of sociology lecturers at a FE college are encouraged to utilize the Dormouse app to regularise their sleep habits and up performance. Linden, scared of losing his job, complies with the guidelines. Lea is also scared of losing her job but is less prepared to put up with management bullshit. A shot across the bows from a writer who has clearly experienced this kind of corporate newspeak first hand and is rightfully angry. Linden is losing it – Hedgecock seems to be showing us a vision of what life might be like if the sleep app in ‘Benzene Dreams’ became a reality. I’m totally with Lea. Also contains Thea Gilmore reference. If this story doesn’t get you riled up you’re clearly already a pod person.
  7. Thunder Cracks by Zoe Gilbert (Afterword by Dr Paul Reading). ‘Now at thirteen years old, she is apprenticed to her father at the High Farm, where he makes workers of the wild horses and knocks the farm-born ones into good shape. Not the son he wanted but his eldest child, and he has no inkling how hard she has to try not to run away from those beasts, to be still when she looks at their rolling eyes, their twitching shoulders, She cannot harness their might, the way her father does.’ ‘Thunder Cracks’ feels a little like Whale Rider, only with horses. We are in an agrarian past, or possibly future. Madden is being schooled by her father to take over his work when he becomes too old to do it himself. Is it the storm that has caused Madden’s sleepwalking, or is she the emissary of forces beyond her control? Zoe Gilbert’s story, with its affecting poetry, its timeless setting, its stark illustration of how myth, magic and people are bound to a landscape, is easily my favourite of this anthology so far, at least partly because it seems so determined to take the original brief as inspiration only, to go its own wild way. I love it intensely.
  8. The Night Husband by Lisa Tuttle (Afterword by Stephanie Romiszewski), ‘A fantasy played out in my mind as I lay awake at home that night. Dr Bekar’s astonishment would lead to a more in-depth study which, although tedious, I must allow in the interests of science. Papers would be written, and I would be invited to appear at scientific conferences, and even on television. Others like me might come forward – how misunderstood we had been! – at last, our suffering was not in vain. Dr Bekar would write a book, and there would be a documentary made about my life, maybe even a docudrama, something like that one starring Robin Williams – Awakenings.’ A woman is plagued by sleep problems that started in childhood. She turns to a sleep clinician for advice, yet ends up finding answers much closer to home. This story has an intriguing premise, but for me it wore its research a little too openly on its sleeve. I think Tuttle would have been far better to dump the sleep lab stuff entirely and write more about the characters and their personal problems. To be honest, I’m coming to believe this is an issue that may be built into this particular format by default. Writing fiction is a intensely private process. There is a danger that having one’s research sources physically present in the form of a scientific collaborator might actively interfere with that.  I can see myself writing more about this problem in my summing-up.
  9. Narcolepsy by Deborah Levy (Afterword by Prof. Adam Zeman). ‘He reaches for a packet of chocolate and marshmallow biscuits called Wagon Wheels and unwraps the foil as he speaks.’ Why not: ‘He reaches for a packet of Wagon Wheels’? Is this story aimed at people from Mars, or is Levy simply afraid of being seen dropping brand names a la Stephen King? (I ate my first Wagon Wheel more than forty years ago, at my grandma’s caff in Nottingham. These things ain’t new.) The wagon wheels (lower case) reappear later on in the story so I guess this might count as a kind of oblique foreshadowing. Oh, and do look out for what Gayatri says to the flower seller about Ilya Kabakov – priceless. Reads like Rachel Cusk – in fact, this story brings back to me all the reasons I wrote this blog post. Oh, I get it, I get it, but this kind of writing makes me so tired. Which is probably appropriate, given the subject matter. I’m guessing that the story is an extended poetic metaphor created to mimic the ‘waking dreams’ of narcoleptics, and, my appalling sarcasm aside, my writing self admires it tremendously, even if only for the fact that it shoots the brief in the head and keeps on running.
  10. Voice Marks by Claire Dean (Afterword by Prof. Manuel Shabus). When we reached a particular gritstone crag, Dad always stopped and said, he’s still in there. This sleeping knight wasn’t one of Arthur’s army, Dad said he was from another time. Once, I asked him what the name was for the bright orange rings that spattered the stone. They’re voice marks, he said – the marks his voice leaves when he shouts out. Whenever I asked after that he said lichen, only lichen.’ A beautiful, resonant story about memory and loss, and how the names and faces of the dead are returned to us as we sleep. There is a whole novel in these couple of thousand words. A lovely piece of work, up there with the Gilbert for me.
  11. Trees in the Wood by Lisa Blower (Afterword by Prof Ed Watkins). ‘This leaves me in the kitchen with the twins, Margot and Henry, who have just turned five and are still in their school uniforms squabbling over jigsaw pieces under the kitchen table where they also now like to eat. I have told Mia that I don’t agree with them eating off the floor like dogs, but she says at least they’re eating and it keeps them quiet and I spot a few rubbery-looking pasta twirls on the floor and a dollop of what looks like hardened ketchup.’ Laura lives alone. She hasn’t been able to sleep since the death of her mother. She’s spending the night at Mia’s house on the advice of her doctor, that she should undergo a course of ‘sleeplessness with someone you trust’. Mia is a palliative care nurse with five-year-old twins, a teenage daughter, and a never-there husband. She’s completely exhausted. The two women share an evening. From between the cracks, secrets emerge. The details and textures of the women’s lives are utterly different – and yet there is something that each can give the other. An emotionally draining, hard-hitting story with an unexpectedly positive outcome. Brilliantly written.
  12. In the Jungle, The Mighty Jungle by Ian Watson (Afterword by Dr Thomas Wehr), ‘Our toxins quickly taught predators to ignore us. I can kill a lion who only touches me, sniffing. We can also induce a numbness that is more like inattention. Halfmoonlight striping darkbark branches bushing leaves. Does Du-du wear a thing upon Du-du’s head? Hard to see, hard to know.’ Alien entities communicate with prehistoric humans by entering their dream-space. There is the unspoken assumption that these aliens may have been the ‘missing link’ in human development. A curious, and curiously attractive story, experimental and lyrical at the same time, with a backward nod to the science fiction of the 1970s New Wave.
  13. A Careless Quiet by Annie Clarkson (Afterword by Dr Paul Reading). ‘I tried to list in my head any symptoms I could have noticed, all those instances when you dropped something, or stumbled or fell, or shook a little, or couldn’t keep up, or when your foot went to sleep that time a few months ago and the sleeping in the day and the dreams. I didn’t know what was just age or tiredness or coincidence, or something I could have picked out from everything else, and said, ‘Something is not right here, Carl, let’s get this checked out.” A married couple experience changes in their life as their daughters grow up and they approach retirement. But Carl is suffering from strange dreams. He’s talking to himself in his sleep, and striking out at people who aren’t there. ‘A Careless Quiet’ is sensitively written but it reads more like a piece of life writing and there’s no real story here. We guess the ending long before it arrives.
  14. The Raveled Sleeve of Care by Adam Roberts (Afterword by Dr Penelope A. Lewis). ‘A word here as to his appearance: I would not have cast him, were i filming a melodrama about a German doctor. He did not look the part: no wire-framed spectacles, no kettle-shiny bald forehead, no agitated precision of movement.’ Flicking over to see what was on the Horror Channel last night, I came in midway through a movie called Outpost: Black Sun – ‘a German scientist by the name of Klausener is working on a terrifying new technology that will create an immortal Nazi army’ – which seemed to consist mainly of Jeff from Coupling grappling with a zombified Eva Braun inside some sort of secret bunker. I switched off, immersing myself instead in this weirdly similar but markedly better written story by Adam Roberts, in which the allusions are clever and literary and the humour is wholly intentional. The plot is simple: a French Nobel laureate makes the acquaintance of a mad German doctor who is working on the ultimate weapon – sleeplessness. He is persuaded by some equally dodgy Americans to pursue the Herr Doktor out to his secret compound in Argentina. ‘There was a single image, a portrait photograph of exactly the person you would expect to find in Schlechterschlaf’s study.’ There’s fabulous stuff like this all the way through. The story is wonderfully, boisterously insane, and exquisitely written. I loved every moment. And who else but Adam Roberts is going to call his Nazi villian Doctor Badsleep?

There are some outstanding stories in this anthology – I would single out the Gilbert, the Dean, the Blower, the Roberts and yes, the Levy for particular mention. As with any themed anthology, there is a tendency towards repetitiveness, a problem I think has been particularly exacerbated by the presence of such detailed scientific guidelines. The number of stories here featuring sleep labs, for example, is far higher than what would normally occur. Spindles presents us with a conundrum: it is an anthology that explores its subject matter intensively and in depth. It is also an anthology that presents, in places, a curious uniformity of approach.  It will be noted that the stories that impressed me most were those that scampered, like recalcitrant schoolchildren, away from the brief.

I must also admit to having doubts about the overall wisdom of Comma’s ‘science into fiction’ concept. From the outside, the idea always seemed attractively intriguing. Now, having experienced it in close up, I am forced to conclude that this particular approach means that the stories are forever in danger of seeming merely like illustrations for the scientific afterwords. ‘Time to separate the science from the fiction,’ says Professor Robert Stickgold as he kicks off his afterword to Sarah Schofield’s story. You can almost hear him rubbing his hands together in his eagerness to get started on the dismantlement process. Sadly I couldn’t disagree more. By this point I was beginning to feel that these afterwords were having much the same effect as the electric light in Sara Maitland’s story: deadening the natural responses, destroying the secret rhythms of a mysterious and essential process.

I must stress that tolerance for such disruption may vary, and there will no doubt be many readers who relish the opportunity to get up close and personal with the scientific documents in the case. For these people, reading Spindles will provide an enthralling journey. Yet the ineluctable fact is, what scientists do and what writers do are two rather different things. That writers – and especially writers of science fiction – can, do and maybe even should draw upon the work of scientists in finding inspiration, direction, and a sturdy armature for their fiction is not in question. But to have the blinding interrogation lamp of fact shone directly – and so immediately – upon the fruits of their labours has had, for me at least, a seriously deleterious effect.

‘Like being shown a magic trick, and then having some other c**t walk out onstage immediately afterwards to show you how it was done?’ Chris suggested, when I was telling him about this. Yes, exactly like that.

And yet. It is impossible not to admire what Comma are doing here, and any project that innovates so intelligently is to be applauded. And so I would commend you to read this book. Immerse yourself in its contents and find out for yourself how you feel about them. I would expect science fiction readers and writers especially to come away invigorated and most likely inspired by the experience.

[DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of this anthology direct from the publisher.]

#weird 2016: Schalcken the Painter

schalckenSchalcken the Painter, based upon an 1839 short story by Sheridan Le Fanu, is an extraordinary gem of a film that amply proves the power of the classic ghost story to shock and haunt.

The DVD, recently reissued by the BFI, was given to me by Chris as a gift this Christmas. I’d never heard of the film before, though Chris remembers it from when it originally aired, as part of the BBC’s Omnibus series, appropriately enough at Christmas in 1979.

The story is a simple one: Godfried Schalcken (who is real, by the way – Le Fanu’s story doubles as an insightful commentary on his art) is apprenticed to the master painter Gerrit Dou in the Dutch town of Leiden. Schalcken is fiercely talented, but penniless. When he falls in love with Dou’s niece, Rose, he has little hope that they’ll be allowed to marry, a prospect that is entirely dashed when Dou effectively sells Rose to the enigmatic Mijnhir Vanderhausen of Rotterdam. Dou is uneasy about the contract, especially since he knows nothing about the mysterious suitor, nor has even seen his face, but when faced with the sheer splendour of Vanderhausen’s riches, he finds he cannot refuse.

When it is revealed to Rose that her future husband is ugly to the point of deformation, she begs Schalcken to run away with her. He refuses, pleading poverty – a moment that shocked me back to the fateful conversation between Natasha and Rudin in Turgenev’s Rudin – a decision which is to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Schalcken makes some desultory efforts to find Rose, but when these fail he is quick to seek solace in the tavern and in the brothel – also in his newly found fame as an artist, which is increasing rapidly. He is given one chance to redeem himself – and fails miserably. Dou never quite gets over the devil’s bargain he has made either, and goes to his grave still in agony over the unknown fate of his niece. Alone in the church after the funeral, Schalcken is finally granted the answers he has sought for so long – and wishes he hadn’t been.

The form the film takes is a gloriously simple recitation (by Charles Gray) of Le Fanu’s text, with the sparse dialogue spoken by the actors in a deliberately studied manner. The cinematic art that accompanies the words is incandescent. Every frame echoes a Dutch painting – the magisterial still-lifes, portraits and vanitases of Vermeer and van Hoogstraaten are referenced both directly and indirectly, to include extraordinary tableaux vivants as Dou and Schalcken clothe and arrange their models in scenes of allegory. The technical skill in achieving the colour and ambience of these paintings – the effect is sometimes so striking as to be uncanny – must have been considerable.

The moment of quiet horror when Vanderhausen’s visage is first revealed is sensational, reminding me of the equally pivotal and terrifying moment in Lynch’s Lost Highway when Fred turns over in bed and sees not the face of his wife looking back at him.

Le Fanu’s narrative accomplishes a tremendous amount in a relatively few pages. Fictions inspired by real works of art are always intriguing. That ‘Strange Episode in the Life of Schalcken the Painter’ manages to combine its percipient art criticism with an equally sharp critique of the position of women in Dutch society at the time makes it all the more compelling. Leslie Megahey’s film brings the text to glowing life in a manner that will amaze and delight anyone interested in art, or horror, and hopefully both. Very highly recommended.

Dann sind wir Helden…

My first encounter with David Bowie’s music came in 1975, when my brother and I purchased the single of ‘Space Oddity’ with our joint pocket money. My brother was seven, I was nine. We had this thing where we would sing and act out the lyrics. He was always Major Tom. I was Ground Control, and the background narrator. The helmet was a washing up bowl. We played the song endlessly. It was a game for us, a sort of party piece we would perform for our parents (who I’m sure became tired of it far more quickly than they let on).

It was something else too, though. From a very young age, I was obsessed with song lyrics (Middle of the Road’s ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, which I thought was about a baby bird who had lost its mother, used to fill me with horror even as I enjoyed singing along to it) and the story told by Bowie’s song was a source of dread and wonderment to me.  I know there are theories that the lyrics are actually code for taking drugs (aren’t all song lyrics?) but for me it was always simply about this astronaut, this internationally feted yet infinitely lonely man who was left floating in space, knowing he was doomed to die and yet was somehow OK with that. ‘And I think my spaceship knows which way to go’ – the line seemed unutterably sad to me.

I never spoke of these feelings. The song still seems both heroic, and unutterably sad.

I didn’t think much about David Bowie after that until the early eighties, when someone – I can’t for the life of me remember who it was – played me ‘Life on Mars’ as part of a compilation tape they’d made (remember those?) and that song has remained part of my personal lexicon ever since. Something about the chord changes, the aching swings from major to minor, and of course those lyrics. For me, the lyrics seemed to sum up everything about the nineteen eighties, even though I could never have said precisely what they meant. If I happened to hear the song playing on the radio I’d stop what I was doing to listen. When I hear it now, it seems to speak of a past I know we can never recapture.

I had a 12″ single of the German version of ‘Heroes’. My mum found it for me in our local record store. Even now when I think of that song, it’s the German lyrics I think of first.

Chris and I were talking about Bowie only last week, when we were driving back from doing the weekly shop and I was telling Chris about a glorious ranty send-up I’d heard somewhere or other, of the lyrics to ‘Starman’. (‘He’s come all this way, he has the power to cure global warming and cancer but what comes top of his list of priorities? Let the children boogie.’) Although I was never anything more than the most casual Bowie fan, when I turned on the radio first thing this morning and heard the news of his death I found myself harbouring the fleeting hope that it was all a hoax. David Bowie was one of those artists who seem timeless, who we come to think of as almost immortal. Then they are gone, and the world is, somehow, just a little bit changed.

2016: My Year of Reading Weird

I remember saying at the end of 2014 that I was dissatisfied with what I’d read. Not with the books, or not with all of them by any means – when I look back at my books-read list for 2014 and see it included Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed and Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines, I feel an instant wave of nostalgia for those sublime moments of discovery – but with my own disjointed approach to the reading year. Just a bunch of books, basically, and no order, system or overall plan to distinguish my choices.

Not that one should feel obligated to have a plan – choosing what to read next can be a decision as personal, random and fortuitous as the reader’s heart desires – but I like the idea of being headed somewhere, of ending the year with the sense that I have moved forward as a reader, that my default choices have been challenged in some way, that my reading has given me new ideas about where I want to go as a writer. When I happened to come across Jeff VanderMeer’s Epic List of Favourite Books Read in 2015, I was struck by its sense of cohesion, the sense that these were books you could return to again and again for new insights. They made sense as a group, somehow. Also they seemed so refreshingly, blessedly different from so many of the books on most of the ‘Year’s Best’ lists that are currently doing the rounds.

In 2015, as in 2014, I don’t feel I’ve achieved anything like that. I’ve read some astounding books and some indifferent books and some really rather bad books. I’ve read books that have surprised me and books that have disappointed me and books that have inspired me. On the whole though, I feel that my reading experience has been circumscribed by its randomness. I think at least part of the problem – maybe even the larger part – is the pressure one feels these days, as a reader, to be current. To be up with what’s coming out and down with the various literary prize shortlists. To have what passes for a relevant opinion – on a bunch of books that just happen to have been published in a given year.

I’ve come to believe that these pressures have been working against what I want to do, what I need to gain from reading, as a reader and as a writer. Awards shortlists may be lots of fun to dissect, but as arbiters of anything other than themselves, they are confining.  Which is why I want to pay less active critical attention to them in 2016. Unless an awards shortlist seems particularly relevant to my interests, I won’t be rushing to read it or even comment on it.

I’ve seen various book bloggers talking recently about an ongoing online community project called the Classics Club – members select a personal list of 50 books, to be read and blogged about over the course of five years. The only rule is that all books selected should be at least twenty-five years old – other than that, it’s completely up to individual members how they choose books, and which books they choose. I think it’s a fascinating idea – once you’re freed from the need for everything you read to be ‘new and upcoming’, your choices are almost bound to be more challenging and, in a strange way, more personal. Take a look at David Hebblethwaite’s newly complied list and you’ll see what I mean.

Thinking around these ideas, I came up with one of my own that feels even more right for me at the moment – My Year of Reading Weird 2016. There are no hard and fast rules – I’m too good at finding excuses to break them. I’m not banning myself from reading 2016 books either – but I do want to try and ensure that a good proportion of the novels I read this year are novels that were published before this year, to include at least a couple that really are ‘classics’, published a century ago or more.

The overall aim of the challenge? To increase my knowledge of weird and horror fiction. I’ve always thought of horror as the area of speculative fiction I understand best, and yet I know I’ve been neglecting it somewhat in recent years. There are new writers and books I’m very aware I’ve not read yet – as well as the many, many gaps in my knowledge of historical and classic weird. My goal is to make a move towards putting that right, and I think I’ll be gaining a lot as a reader and as a writer in the process.

It goes without saying that I’ll be looking for the weird in some unexpected places. While I might be rereading The Tales of Hoffmann, I might also be finally getting around to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which has to count as horror, more than anything else. I definitely want to include more literature in translation, and I’ll probably be including some films and individual short stories along with the novels. Weird also might simply refer to the way a book is written – the form a book takes is often as interesting to me as its content, if not more so.

I’m hoping to blog as many of my weird and horror reads as I possibly can, providing not so much book reviews as a kind of running commentary on my experience. I might, occasionally, get ranty.

And you know, I’m looking forward to this already.

Two for the road – best of British

ifthen.mdaBonfire night in Hastings always left me wanting to rush home and write about it. It’s an elaborate and thrilling affair, an hours-long spectacle of mime, mummery, music and street artistry, prepared for many weeks in advance and attended upon by thousands. It has the feel of a pagan carnivale, which I suppose Guy Fawkes night is, in a way. The costumes, pipes and drums certainly put fire in the blood and I for one found the whole thing exciting and strangely moving, the kind of public ceremonial that leaves you feeling intrinsically linked to history in a mysterious way. I’ve not attended the bonfire parade in the almost-neighbouring town of Lewes, but from what I understand it is taken at least as seriously as the one in Hastings and is at least as ornate.

There’s an extended sequence towards the beginning of Matthew de Abaitua’s Lewes-set novel If Then that just has to have been inspired by the bonfire ceremonials – I’d eat my proverbial hat if it wasn’t. It’s a fantastic scene, diabolic and weird, and though on the face of it it has nothing to do with a bonfire party, I couldn’t imagine anyone capturing the spirit of the thing so vividly and in such brightly sinister colours as de Abaitua.

What are they celebrating then, de Abaitua’s Lewesians? Eviction Night of course – and we all must know where the germ of that idea came from. The horrifying scenes in If Then now seem to cast a backward shadow over the whole of the 2000s, all those ridiculous Friday nights, waiting to see who would leave the Big Brother house (and who cares about that now for even a microsecond?)

De Abaitua has certainly got his own back on Davina.

When you think about post-New Wave novels of the Cold War such as Christopher Priest’s A Dream of Wessex and Richard Cowper’s The Road to Corlay, what comes to mind is a kind of uneasy dreaming, a communal self-deception in the face of oncoming disaster. These novels – and there are others we might add to their number: Keith Roberts’s Pavane of course, D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe – have a languorous, pastoral quality that belies their urgency. Written in the shadow of the Bomb, subsumed by the brasher and seemingly more contemporary colours of cyberpunk, they are important to British SF in a way that is not always paid due diligence. Now we have de Abaitua’s If Then, whose themes and concerns and sense of place echo those of the post New-Wave in a manner almost shocking in its resonance.

Not the Bomb, but the bomb, not the Cold War, but the mass-produced, soul-grinding exigences of late capitalism. If Then shows us – in the murky mud-green tones of John Singer Sargent’s great World War One painting ‘Gassed’ – how the capitalist experiment is failing. It also provides an equally horrific illustration of the perils we face in finding a route out of it, something that might fill its vacuum without destroying the lot of us – and the planet – in the process.

If Then starts out reading like metaphor. The deeper you penetrate its interior, the more you come to understand that it is documentary. This isn’t really the future, or indeed the past. These things are happening now, to real people. I found the first quarter of this novel to be some of the most gauntly terrifying SF I have ever read.

If Then may be one of the most important works of British SF to appear in recent years. It is sinewy, tough meat at times, but then so is any decent intellectual discussion. It is stunningly original and superbly well written. For those who care about such things, it is firmly of SF, not the literary mainstream – yet it is technically as complex and well executed as any modernist novel you may meet on your Booker travels. I hope this book will be discussed and debated and praised, for it deserves all three sorts of attention in generous measure. If Then is the opposite of the literature of reassurance, it is everything science fiction should be aiming for, and it is wonderful to see de Abaitua back on the scene.

“Do you think that an artist imagines the final painting in an instant? Thatanne.charnock.embers the painting composes itself through a moment’s inspiration? The artist must have a strategy every bit as cunning as the commander of a great army. Like Nicolo di Tolentino, here, in this painting. Remember that.” (p 65) 

In this scene, not far from the start of Anne Charnock’s second novel Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, the Renaissance artist Paolo Uccello tutors his daughter Antonia in the art of composition. Using his drawings for ‘The Battle of San Romano’ as examples, Uccello prompts Antonia to describe the many ways in which the panting not so much allows itself to be looked at as gives the viewer quiet instructions in ways of seeing. Through the careful use and positioning of key symbols and images, Uccello’s work does not just set a scene, it tells a story. That this scene conveys with such beautiful economy the signs and symbols – a lance, a wooden chest, the plague, a portrait, a battle, a nunnery – that Charnock herself has used to stitch together her own three-stranded narrative is but one reason among many that this quiet, lovely and exquisitely crafted novel is itself a masterclass in composition.

There are traumas hinted at in these pages – the untimely death of a parent, the cataclysmic loss of life in war, the entry of a thirteen-year-old girl into a life of permanent seclusion in a convent – but these are meditated upon rather than graphically described. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind is a contemplation of history, of the ties that bind us and the losses that define us. The stories of three women – a young painter in Renaissance Italy, a teenage girl working on a history project in contemporary London, an art historian living one hundred years from now – intertwine to form a narrative that moves us and surprises us in equal measure. As in her debut novel A Calculated Life, the clarity and refined elegance of Charnock’s prose is a significant achievement.

In the Acknowledgements section of Sleeping Embers, Anne Charnock states how much she enjoys the research portion of writing a novel, and indeed this enjoyment, Charnock’s love of and fascination in her subject matter, shines through on every page. Charnock’s research is expertly deployed, inviting us in to discover more about her subjects rather than fencing us out behind a barrage of facts. I’m passionately interested in painting myself, and so will often naturally gravitate towards novels that include the visual arts as a core subject matter. For every novel that knows what it’s doing (Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, Russell Hoban’s My Tango with Barbara Strozzi, or The Bat Tattoo, or indeed anything by Hoban) there seem to be a dozen that simply appropriate art as a handy bolt-on ‘subject of interest’, a problem I find annoying and disappointing in equal measure. What a joy then, to relinquish myself to Charnock’s Quattrocento, to contemplate her analysis of the relationship between the work of Bernard and Gauguin, to be made party to that final scene with Antonia, bright as an icon, in which she discovers that colour, that paint itself is capable of telling a story that transcends mere realism, a discovery that may have exerted a seminal influence on future generations of artists far in her future. That Charnock knows what she’s doing is never in doubt. When I found myself looking up the specific works by Uccello that Charnock references in her text, I knew I’d been thoroughly seduced by this novel. And for all that Antonia Uccello’s portrait of her mother at prayer is a beautiful yet entirely fabricated construct, one cannot entirely let go of the feeling that the painting is in fact out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

You can find out more about the inspirations behind Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind at Anne Charnock’s Pinterest page, here.

Needless to say, both If Then and Sleeping Embers will be getting my vote for next year’s BSFA Award.

Happy New Year, everyone. Gods bless 2016, and all who sail in her.

The countdown has begun…

With the new year rapidly approaching, it’s lovely to see that the new and expanded Titan edition of The Race has made the Barnes & Noble SFF blog’s list of the 42 Most Anticipated novels of 2016!

the race cover (2)

While in B&N’s follow-up article detailing the 2016 Books SFF Editors Want You to Read, the wonderful Cath Trechman has this to say:

“As soon as I finished reading The Race I wanted to press it into the hands of everyone I know. Much like Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, it’s science fiction that packs an emotional punch—subtle and layered but at the same time compelling and very readable. It is set partly in a future scarred by fracking and ecological collapse, and partly in modern times, and tells the story of four damaged people whose lives are inextricably linked—and a child’s kidnaping with consequences that reach across worlds. The Race has already been nominated for several awards and the Titan edition features a brand-new chapter, which I think completes the book even more effectively than before. I love this book, it still haunts my dreams.”

What a beautiful accolade – thanks, Cath! With ARCs of The Race currently in preparation, it truly feels as if the book is almost here.

In the meantime, it’s well worth checking out both of the above lists. There are some fascinating novels on the way.