Author Archives: Nina

Experiments in crime

There was a piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian recently in which he argued that in Britain at least ‘the form of storytelling and literary novel writing has become largely divorced’. How needlessly reductive can you get?  His argument seemed to me like a variation on the often rehearsed and entirely fake battle between genre fiction and so-called litfic, a ridiculous distraction from the job of proper criticism.

Writing is a peculiar business, and one aspect of writing that is rarely acknowledged is the fact that most writers have little control over what kind of writer they are. You are pulled inexorably, often mercilessly, in a certain direction. The writer of ‘literary fiction’ is no more necessarily an Oxbridge snob than the writer of popular spy thrillers is a money-hoovering philistine. The most successful bestsellers are written because the author loves and understands the form and wants to communicate their excitement to readers. Those writers who find themselves more drawn to exploring language are no different from the painters who, in the 1890s, began exploring the possibilities of paint itself – the medium, not the message. The work of Monet and even Cezanne hardly seems revolutionary to us now – we have absorbed it into our iconography, our collective understanding of what representational art can reach for and achieve. Fifty years later Krasner and Pollock, Frankenthaler and Motherwell would stretch the point further, doing away with representation almost entirely. Similarly, the paintings that outraged a generation of critics now adorn our coffee mugs and supper trays. We get it.

Writers write what they can and what they must. To insist that writing – arguably the most malleable of art forms – should universally strive for the ideals upheld by work that was no longer new even a century ago is just so much bunkum, just as it is bunkum to suggest that British literary fiction has ‘lost the plot’. Lott rightly cites Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (American, you see) as one of those works that appeal equally across supposed literary and commercial divides. I would raise him Barbara Vine’s Asta’s Book, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project.  Some of these titles you will recognise from recent Booker shortlists. Many of them use elements of the thriller, detective fiction, horror fiction, science fiction to achieve their effects. All have propulsive plot lines. All reward a second, even a third reading.

Books, books, books. So much to read, so little time to waste arguing over what, exactly, writers should be writing. Lott would surely concede that the most interesting and rewarding works are to be found precisely at the margins of genre, where our expectations can be subverted and yet where – yes – we can continue enjoying the ideas and tropes of those stories and narrative archetypes that resonate with us most strongly. Yes, we are all still campfire dwellers. That does not mean we don’t enjoy it when the bard from another village wanders across to inform us we don’t know jack, that it’s really this story we should be listening to and so sit the hell down…

More interesting by far than Lott’s boringly prescriptive essay is Tony White’s choice of his Top Ten Experimental Thrillers, a piece that delves deep into why it is that we enjoy thrillers (I reckon Gertrude Stein for one would act pretty swiftly in calling out those who accuse crime writers of slumming it), as well as the ways in which detective fiction – perhaps the most enduringly popular of all literary genres – can still surprise us. Of course, any future ‘top ten’ list of postmodern crime fiction would have to include White’s own new novel, The Fountain in the Forest, which exemplifies his thesis pretty much perfectly, as well as killing Lott’s theory about British literary writing’s plotlessness stone dead.

By Lott’s reckoning, White’s interest in and practice of OULIPO techniques would place him firmly in the discredited ‘literary’ camp – read confusingly esoteric non-narrative with a snobbish insistence on obscurity – yet The Fountain in the Forest can be read with all the pleasure you might expect from a knotty police procedural, a knowledgeably detailed, intriguing and compelling police procedural at that. The story drives ever forward, even when it takes you backwards in time to take a look at the roots of the crime in question. Even when it flip-flops between two distinct time-streams and character identities within the space of a single sentence, the sense throughout is of a steady and satisfying accretion of significant information, i.e clues – exactly what you’d hope for from any good thriller.

The OULIPO stuff – elaborated upon in detail by White in his Afterword – is as significant to the narrative as you want to make it. You could read the novel with no knowledge of OULIPO and enjoy it just as well. Yet for those who feel like delving deeper, an examination of White’s methods and motives will reveal new layers, extra nuances and a background atmosphere that lends the novel an added eeriness and potency.

Anyone who enjoyed Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child or Nicholas Royle’s First Novel will love this book. Anyone who is into Ian Rankin or Denise Mina will love it, too.

For me, The Fountain in the Forest has been made especially enjoyable through a web of strange coincidences that seem none the less prescient for that: my own concerns over the gentrification of London, obscure parts of Exeter that I happen to know well, a string of places in the south of France that mark significant childhood memories, even salt-glazed ceramics – it’s all stuff from my own life, stuff I recognise and might write about. To find it turning up randomly and all together in someone else’s novel is a delightful surprise. And weird.

Above all, there is the joy inherent in a book well made: language expertly deployed, place wonderfully evoked, ideas, characters, memories, theories, political subtext brought vibrantly to life, a good story well told. The Fountain in the Forest would be a worthy contender for the CWA Gold Dagger. It is equally the kind of book that might win the Goldsmiths Prize. Read, and enjoy.

Books of 2017

This year has been a strange one, reading-wise. For me, the first seven months of 2017 were entirely dominated by the Shadow Clarke – thinking about it, reading for it, and of course writing for it, too. In terms of the experience it provided it exceeded every expectation, mainly on account of my fellow Sharkes, whose skills as thinkers, writers and critics cannot be overstated. As a group, I think I can say we enjoyed ourselves throughout, even when we didn’t – it was that kind of project. But while the experience of chairing the Shadow Clarke counts and will remain in the memory as one of the outstanding highlights of 2017, the reading landscape we were travelling through did – towards the end especially – begin to take on some of the characteristics of a blasted heath. Even in this respect, there were pluses: having to read and write detailed criticism of books one might not ordinarily have chosen to spend time with was a fascinating and worthwhile experience in and of itself. But by the end of July my reading brain felt battered and skewed by a ‘science fiction of 2016’ remit I needed to move on from. I was more than ready to take in new perspectives.

Having said all that, 2017 did deliver some outstanding reading experiences. My novel of the year is an easy choice to make. Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY is a short book, but it made a huge impact on me. I have seen some hardcore SF readers perplexed by it, feeling that as a portrait of dystopia it fails to offer anything substantially new. I think such a reading misses the point. Barker’s novel is not interested in the outward mechanics of dystopia. Rather it seeks, through a layering of narrative strands, conflicting ideas about ‘happiness’ and formal textual experimentation, to offer an inside perspective. How might it feel to be a citizen fundamentally out of step with the grounding principles of one’s own society? How might it feel to doubt one’s identity within a climate of absolute certainty? H(A)PPY was, for me, a fully immersive experience – textual, typographical, musical – of a wholly original stripe. It is a wonderful book. To see Barker win the Goldsmiths Prize for it was a happy moment indeed.

Close behind H(A)PPY comes Katie Kitamura’s A Separation.  This hard little gem of a novel starts out reading like a missing persons thriller but delivers so much more. The formal execution of the prose is nothing short of masterful, while the strange, open-ended story it relates is one that sticks in the memory for a long time and demands a reread (always my test for truly worthwhile fiction). Again, I loved this book. I loved the subtlety of its characterisation, its directness, its formal brilliance. It should have received a lot more attention than it did.

While I was in Paris I finally caught up with Daniel Kehlmann’s 2014 novel F, and what an extraordinary book it turned out to be. Like all the most interesting fiction it is hard to sum up in just a few words what F is ‘about’.  We have three brothers, an absent father, an interweaving of timelines and familial relationships that come together to make a story that is surprising, strange, moving, occasionally uncanny, and always, always brilliant. F turns out to stand for all manner of things: fame, fake, fear, forgery, faith, fraud, fat. If F reminded me of any book at all it was Bernhard’s The Loser, still an unassailable highlight of last year’s reading. I would also highly commend Kehlmann’s work from this year, the novella You Should Have Left. A screenwriter takes his wife and daughter to a mountain retreat so he can concentrate on his work in progress, a script that is proving more than a little intractable. The house they’re staying in has other ideas, though – rather like the Navidson place in House of Leaves. This is a creepy little work, genuinely unnerving, and I only wish Kehlmann had seen fit to expand it to novel length. I would have enjoyed learning more about these characters and their situation. And, of course, about that house…

A similarly unorthodox approach to the haunted house story, J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River was another fabulous book that deserved more attention. Lennon’s fiction is everything you want fiction to be: unarguably of our time but never trendy, satisfyingly, determinedly odd, tight as a drum in terms of its construction and use of language. Broken River contains moments of chill-inducing tension that will keep the most stalwart crime fiction fan happy, whilst providing the kind of narrative ambiguity and strength of characterisation that would make it equally compelling as story on a second or even a third reading.

I would also like to mention two not-so-recent novels, firstly Georgia Blain’s 1998 debut Closed for Winter. I first heard of Georgia Blain when I happened to read a moving memorial of her in The Guardian around this time last year. She sounded like such an interesting writer, her death at the age of 52 a genuine loss to Australian letters. What with the Shadow Clarke to keep me busy, it wasn’t until August that I finally found time to read her first novel, the story of a child that goes missing and the repercussions of the tragedy down the years. A true delight, I found Closed for Winter to be as close to perfect as this kind of short, interior ‘slice of life’ novel could hope to be. A wonderful achievement, and all the more so given that this was Blain’s debut. A wonderful writer, who deserves to be remembered.

Earlier this month and following a run of less-than-satisfying reads that shall remain nameless, I turned at last to Margaret Elphinstone’s 2003 novel Voyageurs, the story of Mark, a Northumberland farmer and Quaker who sets out to find his sister Rachel, missing thousands of miles away in the Canadian wilderness. The experience of reading Voyageurs immediately put me in mind of the experience I had about five years ago reading Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth. Coming in the wake of a similar ‘reading drought’, The Peppered Moth was like a miracle, a novel that in terms of its craft, its depth of field, its richness of perception far outshone anything I’d read all year. Voyageurs is like that: almost literally a transporting experience, the kind of novel that deserves to become a classic.

Away from the world of the novel, 2017 saw the publication of some notable collections of short fiction. First among them is of course M. John Harrison’s You Should Come With Me Now. Harrison’s first collection since 2000’s Travel Arrangements, YSCWMN presents a sequence of longer stories and flash fictions, woven together to form something significantly more substantial than the word ‘collection’ might suggest, yet simultaneously more wayward and less easily definable than a novel. While stories like ‘The Crisis’, ‘In Autotelia’ and the unforgettable ‘Entertaining Angels Unawares’ are standout events in themselves, this book is best appreciated as a continuum. YSCWMN is an extraordinary work, the most recent instalment of an oeuvre that is that rare thing: of lasting importance.

The stories in Camilla Grudova’s debut work The Doll’s Alphabet read like dispatches from a madhouse, or a magical realm. Some are fragmentary, some are longer pieces, all announce the arrival of a major new talent. Reading The Doll’s Alphabet put me in mind of how I felt when I first read Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, in which lyrical beauty rubs shoulders with shivery horror in what feels like a series of flashbacks from an unsettling dream. The stories are flawlessly crafted, and – as suggested above – have the feel of lost European fairy tales. I would love to see a novel from Grudova, especially as I can barely imagine what such a work would be like!

Another notable debut collection of 2017 was that of Malcolm Devlin, You Will Grow into Them. Devlin has been publishing short stories in Black Static and Interzone for several years now, and this collection marks a new high point in what he has achieved so far. In its preoccupation with character psychology and the uncanny, there’s a hint of Robert Aickman in Devlin’s fiction, but its political and social astuteness make it something else again and wholly Devlin’s own thing. As with Grudova, I’m looking forward to seeing more from Devlin. I’ve heard he’s currently at work on a novel, which is good news for all of us.

In film, I have loved and admired Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, Sally Potter’s The Party, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, and Paul King’s Paddington 2, which we saw last night and felt like the perfect new year celebration. Joint film honours though have to go to Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, which must surely count as a masterpiece and possibly Park’s greatest film yet, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror film of startling originality and importance. The moment where the title words are spoken (or rather screamed) literally made my blood run cold. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you do.

If I have any reading goals for 2018, it is not to have ‘reading goals’. I want to read more books like Margaret Elphinstone’s, I want to feel less preoccupied with what’s coming out next month and more involved with the books that might be relevant to me personally. I want to be inspired and challenged, not frustrated and annoyed. I’m looking forward to bringing you news of my next novel, and beginning work on something entirely new.

Thanks to the very many friends, colleagues, readers and thinkers who have shared their time, insights, talent and fellowship throughout 2017. You are needed, and important, now more than ever.

A Happy New Year to everyone reading this, and here’s to turning the tide in 2018. .

Open borders

I cannot think of a more appropriate or timely piece to post this Christmas than Kevin McKenna’s article in today’s Observer about the twenty-four Syrian families who have come to make their home on the Isle of Bute. McKenna is at pains to highlight the ways in which the relationship between the island and the refugees is a reciprocal one: as the Syrian families have found safe harbour here, they in their turn have brought hope to the island, through their integration into the community, through breaking down barriers, through carrying with them a sense of the wider world, through their very presence. Bute needs the Syrian families – and more like them – to grow, to rediscover its energy, to be a part of a modern Scotland, where borders are permeable.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to a showing of The Barbers of Bute, a short film by Joe Steptoe that follows the story of Mounzer Al Darsani, who lost everything in his flight from Syria and who has now begun to rebuild his life – and his career – on the island. The film also focuses on a woman barber from Edinburgh who has similarly found sanctuary here, and the ways in which her story and Mounzer’s are the same. Our only regret was that the film wasn’t longer. The refugees’ stories would be an ideal subject for a full-length documentary and we very much hope that Joe will return to the island to make it.

It has been an enormous year for us. As I stepped off the ferry on Tuesday evening following a lunch with friends in Glasgow, I couldn’t help thinking about the strangeness of it all. A decade ago I was living in London. There is no way I could have predicted that ten years later I would be living on a Scottish island. If anything,, the island lifestyle has proved more compelling and more grounding than I could ever have imagined. The idea of not living on an island now seems downright weird. My frequent journeys to and from Glasgow this past year – to see friends, to participate in events, to catch movies at the GFT – have offered me access to the wider world, even as they have weathered the rhythms of the island more deeply into my system and my thought processes.

We love it here, and that includes the weather. Of course I have ambitions to write about the island, to bring something new to it as it has brought so much to me. Chris has already done so, and his new novel, An American Story, will be published next September. With the Pavilion project now fully underway, new businesses and new islanders and a renewed sense of purpose, this is an auspicious time for Bute. We are thrilled to be a part of it.

It has been impossible, this year as last, not to think about politics, all of the time. Finding the courage and energy to speak and write when both Westminster and Washington seem so divisively and – ultimately – pointlessly hell-bent on turning back the clock to outmoded ways of thinking, of governing and of relating to the world can feel difficult and dispiriting, yet there are fires of hope, even now, and being part of an outward-facing community with a stalwart heart is something to be celebrated indeed.

Happy Christmas everyone, and may our gods keep faith with us.

Tips for writers

“Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any. Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.”

William H. Gass 1924 – 2017

Our new neighbours!

Earlier this year, Anne Charnock and her husband Garry stopped over on Bute on their way north to Applecross. It was fantastic to see them, of course, and we spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon and evening touring the island and talking books.

We all agreed things would be even better if they decided to move to Bute permanently. And so they did!

We’re thrilled beyond measure to have them here. Above is a photo of me and Anne, taken by Garry in the only-just-furnished living room of their new home. If I remember rightly we were discussing the possible outcome of next year’s Clarke Award…

Return to Eden

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked as a writer is how I first became interested in horror fiction. The answer I usually give – because it’s true – is that I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in horror fiction. Some of my earliest memories involve me badgering my grandmother to invent stories for me – stories that featured (in no particular order) ghosts, skeletons, monsters, and giant robots. I was born with a love of the weird, in other words, a love that began struggling to find expression as soon as I could form coherent sentences.

There is one memory in particular though that feels central to my development as a horror writer, and once again it involves my grandmother. Gran lived by the sea, in a post-World War Two prefab bungalows that she resolutely refused to trade for bricks and mortar, and that had a strange, if not haunted then certainly resonant atmosphere all of its own. As a child, I loved visiting her there – and I loved being allowed to sort through the boxes and drawers of strange artefacts from earlier periods of her life: pieces of costume jewellery inherited from aunts and godparents, wooden mantelpiece ornaments brought back from her time in Kenya, the silver-plated cruet and biscuit barrel that once graced the sideboard of my great-grandparents’ house in Croydon, the half-hunter pocket watch that eventually became the inspiration for The Silver Wind.

My grandmother also had books. A whole host of them, many of them dating back to before the war. In one corner of her living room there stood a 1930s teak veneer bureau, the lower portion of which had glass sliding doors that were always difficult to open because of the books, crammed three layers deep on the shelves behind. It became one of my favourite pastimes while at my grandmother’s house to remove all the books from the bureau and then replace them in such a manner that they could be more easily seen. Of course they were always out of order again the next time I visited – but this only redoubled the pleasure of setting them to rights.

Many of the books in that bureau were mysterious to me – multi-volume family sagas, a subscription set of Dickens with minuscule print – and I never examined their contents, even while knowing their titles and cover blurbs by heart. Others – The Boy’s Bumper Book of Scientific Puzzles, Adventure Stories for Girls, The Wise Robin, a Tales from the Arabian Knights with pop-up illustrations – I read and reread until the stories and mottoes and intricate line drawings became as familiar to me as snapshots in a family album.

One book, more than the others, held me captive. It was called The Beach House, and I can only imagine it was the title that had appealed to my grandmother, or prompted one of her friends to give it to her as a gift – that random, ultimately spurious connection with the place she lived. Whether she had ever read it I never discovered. I felt shy of asking her, for some reason – I think because I did not want to reveal to her, or to anyone else, that I knew about the book, that I had read it. I think I was afraid someone might deem it ‘unsuitable’ and get rid of it without telling me.

The Beach House told the story of Simon Fletcher, a middle-aged man who retires to a run-down bungalow on the Sussex coast. We know little about him at first. He spends his days renovating the bungalow, only breaking off to undertake long walks along the beach that begins at the end of his road. Sometimes on his walks he encounters a woman in a black hat. Fletcher believes he has seen this woman before, somewhere, and as his obsession with her begins to take hold, we finally learn of the tragic events that brought Fletcher to the beach house in the first place.

The Beach House was not a long book, and yet the atmosphere it evoked – its vision of a lonely, self-deceiving protagonist trapped in a hell of his own making – exerted a powerful hold on me. I reread the book many times over the years, always returning it to its accustomed place in my grandmother’s bureau ready for the next time.

When Gran died I was away at university. I returned home briefly for the funeral, but by the time I next came home on vacation, my grandmother’s home had been dismantled. Together with most of the rest of her personal possessions, the books from the bureau, including The Beach House, had gone to house clearance.

I never saw the book again.  I have never been able to find another copy.

*

If you’d asked me at the time if I’d heard of the Eden Book Society I would have said no. The Beach House for me was simply The Beach House – a book I loved as a teenager and that nobody but me seemed to have heard of. It was only much later, when I began taking a professional interest in horror fiction, that I started seeing references to the Eden Book Society in horror magazines. I still didn’t twig the connection between the Eden books and The Beach House, and it was only when someone on a panel at the World Horror Convention at Brighton a couple of years back happened to describe the cover of The Beach House exactly – they remembered it was an Eden book, but not the title or author – that I was able to join the dots.

For me, one of the most fascinating things about the Eden Book Society is that even though it existed right through until the internet age, there is still remarkably little information about either the society or its authors to be found online. There is no complete list of titles, for example – and this in spite of the efforts of various ardent Eden fans to put one together. Virtually every reader or writer of horror fiction you run into at conventions or film festivals or book events will have a story to tell you about an Eden book that particularly affected them, or about a mad year they spent going round second hand bookshops trying to fill the gaps in their Eden collection. What is more surprising – and actually quite weird – is how rarely you will find their story or memory or snippet of Eden folklore overlaps with your own.

It is almost as if our memories of Eden occupy parallel universes, with a different list of titles for every one.

When I first heard that Dead Ink had acquired the rights to the Eden back catalogue, I almost – almost – felt a twinge of regret. Would this wondrous slice of British horror history finally after all these years lose its mystique? The idea was terrifying, and rather sad. But on reflection I have come to the conclusion that we have nothing to fear. The Eden Book Society is bound to create new mysteries about itself, even as the old ones – some of them, anyway – are revealed. That is and always has been its nature. Most importantly, the books themselves – all long out of print – will be returned to us, and at affordable prices.

Which will be your favourite?

 

Le retour

I’m now back on Bute after my month in Paris – a residency that saw me visit ten museums, innumerable places of interest and seven cinemas, culminating in a matinee at the St Andre des Arts, a unique and fantastic independent cinema just a five-minute walk away from Shakespeare and Company and within easy reach of a host of excellent bistros (but then again, that’s true of anywhere in Paris). To have seen Sally Potter’s new movie The Party – a film so British in nuance, in tone, in its political concerns – at this most Parisian of venues added up to a strange sense of cultural disjuncture. The film itself was brilliant: merciless, excoriating, stunningly shot and laugh-out-loud funny, even while providing a salutary reminder of everything I’d be returning to the following day…

What I did mostly in Paris, though, was write, and think about writing, both the project I was engaged in while I was there and what might come afterwards, the way those two entities seemed increasingly, as time progressed, to bleed into one. The piece of writing I completed – some 15,000 words of first draft – while staying at Les Recollets is a strange hybrid of pure fiction and detailed account of actual stuff I was actually doing, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée, prompted by my own experience of being in Paris, expanded by thoughts on the novel I’m about to start writing. Indeed, I have started writing it: the piece I wrote in Paris, suitably edited and redrafted, will form the prologue.

This past month has been instructive and inspiring in ways that cannot – at this early stage – be fully articulated, and I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all those involved in making my trip possible.

It is wonderful to be home. There is much to be done, with hopefully some more good news to report in the coming weeks.

A Hallowe’en trio

In some ways this is my least favourite time of the year – I hate it when the clocks go back, and I am already looking forward to the spring equinox – and so anything that brightens it up is welcome indeed. Whether or not it’s appropriate to talk of Hallowe’en ‘brightening things up’ I’ll leave for you to decide – but as a moment to take stock, to light the fire (metaphorically if not literally) and make lists of favourite horror fiction and film then yes, for me it is!

Horror fiction comes in many forms, and the kind of horror I associate with Hallowe’en tends to have an elegiac, sepia-tinted quality that has as much to do with autumnal mists and shorter evenings as with the pagan festival of Samhain itself. Ironically, this would decidedly exclude offerings like John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher flick Halloween (not to mention its ludicrous sequels), which seems part of another genre entirely and as father of the jump-scare has done horror cinema no favours at all.

Here then are three unequivocal Hallowe’en recommendations, all of them British, all of them excellent. I hope you enjoy them.

1. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman.

‘Two rooms on the ground floor remained before I once more reached the front door. In the first of them a lady was writing with her back to the light and therefore to me. She frightened me also, because her grey hair was disordered and of uneven length, and descended in matted plaits, like snakes escaping from a basket, to the shoulders of her coarse grey dress. Of course, being a doll, she did not move, but the back of her head looked mad. Her presence prevented me from regarding at all closely the furnishings of the writing room.’

One of Aickman’s longer works, this is a masterpiece among masterpieces, a horror story of uncommon power and disquieting political undercurrents, told in the restrained, deceptively quiet manner of the classic Victorian ghost story. It begins in an almost comedic manner:  an observant, intelligent child describes what happens when her father’s car breaks down, leaving the family stranded for a couple of hours in an unfamiliar place. The result of this mini-adventure – the acquisition of a sinister dolls’ house the obtuse if well-meaning father insists on calling Wormwood Grange – has far-reaching consequences. Dolls’ houses are one of my obsessions anyway, and even re-reading the above short extract is enough to make me breathe a little faster. Any Aickman story would make ideal Hallowe’en reading, but with this one you get more pages to feast upon.

2. Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

I happen to think Daphne Du Maurier is underrated. She’s world-famous, of course, with several of her novels adapted for film multiple times across multiple territories. She was a bestselling writer in her own lifetime, but what is not talked about so much – then or now – is what a good writer she is. As a highly successful woman, Du Maurier predictably found herself being type-cast as a writer of sensationalist suspense fiction, the kind of thing that was fine for entertaining the ladies but most definitely not to be taken seriously. Her novels make compulsive reading, yes – but they are also small masterpieces of narrative economy with a deftness of characterisation and style that reward repeated reading and warrant closer attention than they have often received*. Her short stories in particular are taut as drums. My first encounter with Du Maurier came through a dog-eared Penguin paperback of her collection The Blue Lenses. I was about thirteen at the time and I would say that my encounter with these stories formed a defining moment in my appreciation of horror fiction. I’m choosing Don’t Look Now as my Hallowe’en Du Maurier recommendation though because again, you get more story for your money, and because it exists with its 1973 film adaptation by Nicolas Roeg in a near-perfect equilibrium of mutual understanding. Could Roeg’s film be the greatest British horror film of all time? It’s certainly up there. Du Maurier’s original novella, a poignant and ultimately terrifying story of a married couple haunted by the accidental drowning of their young daughter, is not just a great horror story, it’s a sublime piece of English short fiction.

3. A Field in England dir Ben Wheatley screenplay Amy Jump

‘Quintessential’ is possibly the most over-used adjective ever among listmaniacs, but Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s 2013 film truly is the quintessential Hallowe’en watch. Set in the English Civil War, it tells the story of a bunch of common soldiers who flee the battlefield – in search of a pub, what else? – only to find themselves in mortal spiritual danger of the most uncommon kind. Shot entirely in black and white, A Field in England has in its jump-cuts and unscripted asides something of the quality of found-footage, but without any of the derivative and outworn tropes that have sadly become the defining features of that sub-genre**. This film is genuinely unnerving – some scenes made me go cold all over and that really doesn’t happen often when I’m watching horror films. It could be argued that Wheatley’s films kick-started the current renaissance in folk horror and A Field in England is, absolutely, the The Wicker Man of its generation.  There’s only one problem with this movie: it’s almost too frightening to watch alone…

 

* Probably my biggest beef with Roger Michell’s really-quite-OK film adaptation of Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is that for some totally inexplicable reason he decided to replace the unforgettable first line of the novel – ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not any more, though.’ – with some bland paraphrase of his own. Madness.

** Stupidly, the only horror film I thought to bring with me to Paris was John Erick Dowdle’s 2014 As Above, So Below which is at least Paris-set, a fact that doesn’t, on balance, make up for its general ridiculousness. That being said, I do have a guilty affection for it. Must be the catacombs…

“Where are all the women?”

In the courtyard of Paris’s Lycée Sophie Germain, where I met with some wonderful sixth formers last week to talk about my writing, there is a small but very beautiful bust of Germain, who was a mathematics prodigy and scholar and in her own way a revolutionary. The difficulties she experienced in being accepted as a mathematician lasted the whole of her life, and did not end even with her death. I first got to know about Sophie Germain through Judith French’s play A Spinster of No Profession, broadcast on Radio 4 in 1998. She has been a hero of mine ever since. ‘Spinster of no profession’ is what was recorded on Germain’s death certificate, in the space for ‘metier’.

The little blue book was rattling around in my purse. I took it out and turned to the last thing he had said (‘You stupid broad’, et cetera). Underneath was written Girl backs down – cries – manhood vindicated. Under ‘Real Fight With Girl’ was written Don’t hurt (except whores). I took out my own pink book, for we all carry them, and turning to the instructions under ‘Brutality’ found:

Man’s bad temper is the woman’s fault. It is also the woman’s responsibility to patch things up afterwards. 

There were sub-rubrics, one (reinforcing) under ‘Management’ and one (exceptional) under ‘Martyrdom’. Everything in my book begins with an M.

They do fit together so well, you know. I said to Janet:

“I don’t think you’re going to be happy here.”

“Throw them both away, love,” she answered.

(The Female Man, Joanna Russ 1975)

It’s weird. There seems to be a fair amount of commentary on Russ that would seek to portray this, her most well known novel as brilliant in its way yes, but still a bit of a seventies throwback. Encountering it this week – belatedly and for the first time – I don’t find it has dated at all. The slang is dated, sure, so is the fashion, but so what? The novel The Female Man reminds me of most – not in terms of form or writing style (though even here there is some kinship) but in terms of affect – is Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, published just last year. I have still to decide if this counts as empowering or depressing.

The Female Man is a blistering polemic. Like The Sellout, it is very funny, the point being that it shouldn’t be, that readers should be asking themselves exactly why they are laughing. It is also a masterpiece of postmodern fiction, and should be taught and talked about as such, rather than constantly being siphoned off into ‘1970s Feminist SF’ where it can be conveniently sidelined as a niche interest.

Russ has been by my side constantly this week. In the gobsmacking halls of the Musée d’Orsay, where one is surrounded by women, most of them naked, but where the masterpieces on display do not include even a single work by a female artist.

At the secluded and elegantly shimmering Villa des Brillants in Meudon, where you can see a number of Rodin’s sculptures in the place where they were created and where I thought mostly about Gwen John, who lived in Meudon for thirty years, creating an art that forms one of the most remarkable bodies of work of the pre-war era.

John died in desperate poverty and virtually unknown.

I was hoping to be able to visit the street where Gwen John lived, but for all its acres of coverage of Rodin, Google remains tacit on the subject.

(Photo Leslie Prudhomme)

Fairyland

I started reading Paul McAuley’s Fairyland because I’ve been wanting to catch up with a few more previous Clarke winners. I had no idea, when I began it, that the novel’s brilliant second section takes place in a future Paris. It feels wonderfully appropriate to have read it during my residency here.

I admire Fairyland, firstly for its creative ingenuity – rendering fairies as a science fictional conceit is a great idea and McAuley has a lot of fun with it – and secondly for its wealth of ideas: the socially divided, fragmenting Europe in which Fairyland takes place isn’t a million miles from Dave Hutchinson’s fractured Europe series and McAuley set out to explore it twenty years earlier. Its prescience – not of events so much as tone – is remarkable in places, a grubby, post-cyberpunk latent awareness of things to come. The biotech elements have so much potential, and my only gripe with Fairyland is that too much energy is wasted, in the end, on the ho-hum chase-and-find thriller plot. Your mileage may vary, of course – it’ll be no secret to regular readers of this blog that I find most quest plots excruciatingly tedious and much prefer the detective mystery template.

But Fairyland is well worth reading for Part 2 alone – a scintillating piece of writing, a magisterial novella in its own right, showcasing everything science fiction can do and should be.

Nano-fairies undermining Eurodisney. I think they’re already here.

*

Following the announcement of the Booker Prize on Tuesday, I’ve been thinking again about the decision, made back in 2013, to make American novels (albeit American novels published in the UK) eligible for the prize. I was an agnostic at the time, but now feel less sanguine. With two American winners in a row, we begin to see how our most celebrated literary prize might increasingly come to be dominated by American concerns, an American worldview, and most especially American modes of writing. Looking back at the shortlists these past three years, we see how interesting and diverse they are. We also see how an intangible something has shifted.

It’s not even about the winners and shortlistees, and least of all is it about Paul Beatty and George Saunders, both eminently worthy of winning prizes, both wonderful artists whose inclusive and dedicated approach to writing should be celebrated and promoted. It’s more about what happens further down the food chain, where – because of the necessary new rules restricting even further the numbers of books publishers are allowed to submit, and thereby concentrating submissions still more firmly into the hands of the more powerful players – ever fewer British and Commonwealth writers are going to have a chance to even have their book in contention. This will inevitably affect the texture of the prize, the overall outlook and – I have come to believe – not in a good way. Earlier this week I reread Philip Hensher’s piece for the Guardian, published shortly after the announcement that American novels were to be made eligible. At the time I thought it was a tad hysterical. Now I think that, although the Booker isn’t quite as doomed as Hensher suggests, he makes some pertinent points that are indeed being borne out by experience.

It’s a bit like Brexit, really: someone should have the guts to admit this was a mistake and press the reset button.

*

As a general rule, I wouldn’t normally be in the right place at the right time to observe an art world scandal as it unfolded but this week, by sheer force of happenstance, I was. Joep van Lieshout’s sculpture Domestikator, rejected by the Louvre on grounds of being a public obscenity, was erected (yup) on Monday in front of the Pompidou Centre instead. Pompidou patrons are more accepting than general strollers in the Tuileries, apparently. Our favourite Guardian arts commentator, Jonathan Jones, has got himself all in a lather about it, insisting that Domestikator is ‘nasty public art’ and that shoving people’s faces in it is an act of bullying. Which is a shame, given that he clearly understands the visual language and intent of the sculpture perfectly well:

“Van Lieshout is making an in-joke about architecture, mocking the Dutch tradition of utopian art and design. In the centenary year of the De Stijl movement, Domestikator resembles a De Stijl design gone badly wrong. It looks as if a socially responsible modernist architect has created a vision of an ideal habitation, only to accidentally make it look like a man penetrating a dog.”

Why the rest of his piece had to be so po-faced and self-righteous, I have no idea. Claiming that he believes van Lieshout’s statement to be ‘elitist’ is just Jones trying to position himself on the right side of the barricades. The sculpture is so abstracted it’s difficult to see how it could offend anyone unless – like Jones – they were deliberately setting out to be offended. Van Lieshout said on Monday that he was ‘disappointed’ by the Louvre’s decision to offload the sculpture. Well, he needn’t be. People at the Pompidou have been enjoying, chatting about and clustering excitedly around the piece all week. Dare I suggest they seem to have taken it to their hearts? It’s certainly getting a lot more attention than it would have done if the Louvre had simply put it up where it was originally supposed to be and kept stumm about it. As for Jonathan Jones, going on past form, he’ll no doubt pop up again in ten years’ time to tell us why Domestikator is actually the greatest piece of public artwork ever.

*

On Monday evening I took part in an event at La Maison de la Poesie, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of my French publisher, Editions Tristram. The honour of being onstage in such a venue cannot be overstated. As part of my segment of the evening, Tristram’s co-director, Sylvie Martigny read a short extract from the French edition of The Race, and it was brought home to me just what a marvellous translator Bernard Sigaud is. The words were in French, yet the weight and rhythm of the sentences, the emotional range and tone were inalienably mine. A small miracle had been performed, and it is precisely this kind of small miracle that the art of translation is all about. Once again, the privilege of having such passionate, committed, creative people working on my behalf cannot be overstated. Thank you, Tristrams. Thank you, Bernard.