Category Archives: writers

Crime blog #8

What She Left by T. R. Richmondwhat she left.richmond

The books that annoy me most are usually those I feel most let down by. When I first heard about What She Left I couldn’t wait to read it. The novel was billed as a crime story with a difference, an account of a death and the solution to a mystery, pieced together from emails, letters, diary extracts, online forums and newspaper reports. I like found documents, I like mosaic novels, I like non-linear narratives. I was expecting to like this novel very much. In fact, the experience of reading it was like watching Broadchurch or Missing. You know that point about half way through the series when you know you’ve been duped into thinking this would be good (less pointless, more strongly characterised and better written than all the other crime dramas you’ve become unwillingly addicted to over the years) when it patently isn’t, when you wish you had the willpower to end your relationship with the programme right now but you can’t quite do it? Reading What She Left feels just like that.

The plot is pretty simple: on an icy February morning in 2012, the body of a young journalist, Alice Salmon, is found floating in a river in Southampton. Alice, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Southampton some eight years before, was by all accounts a lovely person: adored by her friends, admired by her colleagues, cherished by her family and boyfriend. Who could possibly have wanted to kill Alice? And surely her life had too much going for it for her to consider suicide? Her death must have been an accident – she was drunk, the bridge was icy, she slipped and fell… But of course there are secrets in Alice’s past, as there are in everyone’s. Enter Professor Jeremy Cooke, a TV anthropologist, lecturer at Southampton University, ex-mentor of Alice. We soon learn that Cooke was once intimately acquainted with Alice’s mother, Liz, and has more than a passing interest in the case. Newly diagnosed with prostate cancer, he sees it as his final mission to discover what really happened to Alice, to set the truth on record in the form of a written account. The book he eventually publishes, compiled from the various documents Cooke has gathered together and its conclusions a secret until now, is ostensibly the book that you are holding in your hands.

Which would all be great, if only, well, so many things. If only Richmond had taken more care in the creation of his various found documents, for a start. As it is, we have letters and diary entries that read pretty much like standard narrative prose, complete with conventionally formatted dialogue and extended flashbacks. Of course it would be OK for the writer to take some liberties here, it would be impossible not to, but no one writes letters like this, it just doesn’t happen. It’s as if Richmond enjoyed the idea of constructing an epistolary novel, then found out how difficult it would be to convey a whole story in that way and decided that no one would notice if he cheated. The blog entries and emails are, if anything, worse. The blog posts are nothing like the kind of blog posts anyone would actually publish. Richmond tries to get around this problem by having the point of view character (in this case Alice’s best friend Megan) make self deprecating remarks along the lines of ‘only six people read this blog anyway, so who cares what I write here?’ which do nothing to mitigate the unfitness of said entries for stated purpose. Indeed, Richmond’s conception of ‘internet language’ is a problem generally. The novel contains numerous self conscious instances of young people making jokes about the cluelessness of old people on the internet, couched in language that already sounds like old people on the internet. Does anyone use the term ‘bestie’ except ironically? Did they ever? When employed by those writers with a decent ear for it, the language of the internet (like any other spoken or written language variant) can take on the characteristics of poetry. In What She Left it is tepid at best and more often a matter for squirming embarrassment. This book was already dated before the publisher hit ‘print’.

But there are other problems, too. If you’re writing a thriller, you need either an amazing plot or compelling characters. Ideally you’ll have both, but all writers have their different strengths and if you skew more naturally towards one of these key ingredients that need not matter. If you write your favoured key ingredient well enough, your reader may well not notice that the other is lacking. But they are certainly going to notice if you people your completely banal standard-issue yuppie thriller plot with completely banal standard-issue yuppies. Professor Cooke is your typical kind of lecherous middle-aged lecturer, still ogling his students, still looking back nostalgically to the days when his ogling actually got him somewhere, still regretting that he was never as brilliant as his (off-page) brilliant best friend. He reminisces about roaring around the Hampshire lanes in his TR7. (Who ever heard of a university lecturer driving a TR7? A beat-up Fiat Uno was more par for the course when I was at uni.)  He’s a dick, in other words, but he doesn’t even have the consideration to be a dick in an interesting way. His narrative is egregious, self-serving, and above all dull. The character of Alice fares no better in Richmond’s hands. She too is dull, and Richmond gives us no reason to care about her or be interested in her, save for the fact that she is dead. Her narrative voice veers excitably all over the dial from too-young to too-old, she’s meant to be into hard-line vigilante crime journalism but her portions of the narrative – the unconvincing diary entries, mostly – give us no sense of this other than her feeling sorry for old ladies on the tube or whatever. Her much-vaunted interest in Sylvia Plath is a clichéd not to say lazy touch, put there for the sole purpose of advancing the plot (in a really corny way – but you’ll get to that).

It should also be noted that the novel is sexist in a dozen unthinking, low-level, predictably depressing ways. Alice is there to be ogled and stalked, Megan is there to be treacherous and crazy, Liz is there to be alcoholic and unbalanced. Professor Cock, sorry Cooke is there to analyse these scintillating facts for us, to patronise literally every single woman who walks into the narrative and to normalise the ogling and objectification. I don’t automatically go around checking whether works of fiction pass the Bechdel test, but does this one? No, of course it doesn’t.

Do I even need to add that the eventual denouement is preposterous?

This novel made me want to weep for the opportunities lost. It doesn’t have to be this way, I wanted to say. Take the time to make this book how you imagined it would be, I wanted to say. I suppose what this all boils down to is that characters in thrillers are people too, and the thriller writer should take the trouble to reveal them as such. To give them interests and passions and character traits rather than spurious motives and annoying quirks. To portray them in language that reveals a hinterland and not just a surface. Give them something to say, in other words. It gives me no pleasure to state this, but this book had nothing to say.

dirty weekend.zahaviFor a crime novel with plenty to say and some to spare, might I suggest you turn instead to Dirty Weekend, by Helen Zahavi. This novel, first published in 1992, caused something of a stir in its day. The Observer called it ‘more offensive than pornography’. Salman Rushdie, writing for the Independent on Sunday, called Dirty Weekend a ‘hideous, kinky little revenge-novel of violence done to men’. Unfortunately the book came out just before the days of universal internet archiving, and so I haven’t been able to source Rushdie’s review in its entirety. Which is a shame, because I’d have liked to have pulled it apart more. As it is, I feel confident in saying that his words reveal far more about Rushdie and his attitudes than about Helen Zahavi’s barnstorming debut.

This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough.

She’s no one special. England’s full of wounded people. Quietly choking. Shrieking softly so the neighbours won’t hear. You must have seen them. You’ve probably passed them. You’ve certainly stepped on them. Too many people have had enough. It’s nothing new. It’s what you do about it that really counts.

Thus the novel’s opening lines encapsulate the entirety of what is to come. To put it simply, Bella goes on a killing spree. Her targets are not random. We as readers are made a party to everything that happens. I should warn you that this book is violent. It’s right out there. What it is not is gratuitous, pointless, exploitative, hideous or kinky. It is dark, powerful, angry, brutal, piercingly intelligent and brilliant. Most of all, there is the language. Helen Zahavi writes with such thrilling assurance it leaves you breathless. Being trapped inside Dirty Weekend is like being on a roller coaster – you scream as you laugh, laugh as you scream. The rhythmic potency of Zahavi’s language – like rap, like hip-hop – had me wanting to read whole pages aloud. Her dialogue is exceptional, and hilarious. Kathy Acker puts it best:

Above all Dirty Weekend is a novel composed of language so gorgeous, so precise and witty, that I found myself laughing and thought, I should be crying instead.  Nothing pleases me more than to be surprised into consciousness.

Dirty Weekend made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. It also had me wanting to hide my face from what was going on on the page. A novel like this does not come along every day. What it says about the world we live in needs to be read. What it does in terms of language and structure needs to be shouted about. It also has a brilliant sense of place – this is Brighton after lights out, make no mistake. It’s a tough book but absolutely worth your time. I would also recommend you read Helen Zahavi’s essay, written for The Guardian, on answering the critics.

 

Ghost in the machine?

“The Familiar is a sprawling mess of a book, and it’s hard to find anything positive to say about it besides that it’s printed beautifully,” says Michael Schaub in his review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s long-awaited new novel for The Guardian. “But a novel that appeals chiefly to people who like to look at books rather than read them isn’t a meaningful contribution to the world of literature, and it’s hard to imagine why Danielewski would release a book so impenetrable and willfully obtuse.

I’ve not read The Familiar – I don’t even own a copy (yet) – but reading Schaub’s highly entertaining and voluble review yesterday evening reminded me of what I did already own: a copy of Danielewski’s novella The Fifty Year Sword, purchased on impulse on my first visit to the new Foyles last year and as yet unread. It’s a fat little book – 284 pages in all – but there aren’t many words on each page (or even on all of the pages) and Mr Schaub’s review made me feel like sampling some Danielewski there and then. (Negative reviews are like that sometimes, especially when they’re as well constructed as Schaub’s and present a contentious argument – they egg me on.)

If you glance at the online reader reviews you’ll see that The Fifty Year Sword divides opinion (as it divides everything else, apparently) which is pretty much par for the course with Danielewski. Some have loved the book, revelling in Danielewski’s obsession with innovative formats (as well as the ‘stitched’ illustrations, The Fifty Year Sword utilizes a system of differently coloured quotation marks to differentiate between the – allegedly – five distinct narrators of this single story) and his everywhere-evident love of the book-as-object. Others have thrown it aside in disgust, dismissing it as a gimmick and a con, a mostly uninteresting short story tortuously stretched to ten times its natural length.

It took me a little under half an hour to read The Fifty Year Sword. Here are the notes I made (I’ve taken to doing that this year) immediately after finishing it:

I know I shouldn’t, but I loved this. So much depends on the book-as-object, that is clear, but this is also a perfect and gorgeous piece of poetry as it stands. A book from a true original. Wonderful story!

Thinking about the book again this morning – well, there you go, I’m still thinking about it. Pared back to its basics as a horror story, The Fifty Year Sword is short and simple and packs a fair punch: a woman unwillingly attends a Hallowe’en party where, to her horror, someone from her past is also present, someone she very much does not want to see. She is tempted to leave right away, but stays on out of politeness, and so as not to disappoint the children, five orphans under the care of the very old and, one supposes, very rich host. A story teller arrives, ostensibly a Hallowe’en entertainment for the children. Ancient-Mariner-like, the bard recounts his tale. The adults are sceptical, the children enthralled. A horrific, and touching, and persuasive denouement ensues.

‘Here,’ he blinked quickly at a blade at least four feet long tapering to a blunt tip. ‘This one took me three winters to make. It kills the taste of salt. The one next to it kills the smell of Wild Lupine, Blackberry Lily and lush Evening Primrose. There’ – turning to a fat blade suspended in the buzzing grey – ‘that one kills the colour green.’ 

Shorn of the unusual formatting and intricate illustrations, this would still be a great little story, a tale with a classic feel, rather like ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ or something similar.  But it wouldn’t particularly stand out. What makes The Fifty Year Sword into something special is Danielewski’s transformation of the text into an art installation. And like most conceptual art, its success or failure depends on how far the reader – the viewer – is prepared to enter into a personal relationship with it. This is how all art functions, of course – a work that leaves you unmoved (whether to joy or to anger or to perplexity is of lesser importance) has fallen short. But in the case of Danielewski, it is not just his words you must fall in love with, but the way he has chosen to arrange them. Those coloured quotation marks – do they tempt you, even slightly, to go back through the text and read each strand of narrative in isolation, as the author has hinted you should? I’m tempted, but I haven’t done it yet – if I were writing a paper on Danielewski I suppose I’d have to. For the moment – and because the narrative works perfectly well without having to dissect it in this way – I’m content to feel intrigued that the option is there.

It should perhaps be noted at this point that The Fifty Year Sword the physical book is a beautiful artefact. It is gorgeous to hold, to weigh in your hand. The paper is of a refined and lovely quality. The illustrations – all taken from actual embroideries designed by Danielewski and stitched by Regine Gonzalez, Claire Kohne and Michele Reverte of Atelier Z – are stunning to behold. The book even has a red stitching in the binding, glimpsed periodically as you turn the pages. This book is a privilege to own, and I don’t know precisely how I feel about that. My own tendency is to believe that text should stand without adornment, that a book could and should make as much of an impression as a plainly bound ARC as it does in its sleekly jacketed finished state. But there’s also no doubt in my mind that The Fifty Year Sword the book does something to you. It reminds you of what a ‘book’ actually is, metaphorically, symbolically. It reminds you of the unique magic of turning pages. It reminds me, in particular, of how I felt when I was eight years old, turning the pages of a beautifully illustrated pop-up book of The Arabian Nights my gran used to own. Of how the book was a treasure chest, of how the stories inside were more than just the text, they were the text plus my own questions and wondering about it, the acceleration of my heartbeat when I came to the fold-out illustration of the elephant and the tiger.

If The Fifty Year Sword the book allows me to feel those things again, can that be a bad thing? Absolutely not.

I picked up Danielewski’s House of Leaves (in the old Oxford Circus branch of Borders, if you want to know) completely by chance shortly after it was published, not because I was aware of the hype surrounding it – I wasn’t online much in those days and had literally no idea the book even existed – but because it looked to me like a big fat horror novel of the kind I might enjoy and because the cover quote from Brett Easton Ellis lured me in. Since then, I have made three separate attempts to read it. each time grinding to a halt about half way through, not because I’m not enjoying it (I love what I’ve read), but because I find the book so uncomfortable to read. Not psychologically uncomfortable, but physically. The sheer heft of the volume, combined with pages and pages of text that’s too small for me to read without magnification, acres of Courier New and other fonts I find difficult, make House of Leaves something of a visual assault course. I am committed to completing it, though – next time I set out on this journey I am determined to see it through to the end. Not just because I’m stubborn, but because the imaginative landscape of this novel – lost letters, embedded texts, faded polaroid photographs, Johnny Truant, the Navidson Record, Zampano and his insane footnotes – has remained in my mind, important to me even in this, its incomplete state, a book I wish I’d thought of and dared to compile and that I feel glad exists.

There’s this thing with the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Some people look at the smears and splashes and fountains of raw colour and say: that’s just paint flung at a wall. A child could do that.  They say the same of late Picasso also and it just isn’t true. To create works such as these, which appear to have been flung together in moments, Pollock and Picasso (and Joan Mitchell and wonderful Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, who is a much better painter than her husband Jackson Pollock, in my view) had first to develop a relationship with paint, with light, with composition, that was so flexible, so felt, so much an embedded part of them that it allowed them to throw all their shit at the wall (that’s paint I’m talking about here, not literal excrement, although I’m sure some artists have conducted experiments in that direction) and make something new.

Writing demands exactitude, intent, perhaps more so than painting even. And yet so much of writing is feeling, in spite of that. Danielewski has legions of fans, readers prepared to follow him anywhere, who expend pages of thought and deductive effort trying to untangle what it is he really meant by such-and-such, what his novels stand for. He has, I would think, an equal number of anti-fans, perhaps more, people who dismiss him as an unbearable pseud and his books as so much MFA bullshit.

I feel that Danielewski has a relationship with words – with text – that lifts him beyond that. When I read his sentences I get a charge from them, the same charge I get from poetry, the sense that this writer has personally selected this or that word for a reason, that he has placed it next to another, equally specific word for a reason. That I might not immediately be able to discern that reason, or that the reason I imagine for myself is not the same reason as the artist’s, is of lesser importance.

Danielewski has his imitators, of course, and if many of the works that aspire to ‘be’ House of Leaves fall short of that ambition, it is because they are so busy in trying to imitate its surface textures that they entirely fail to grasp the most essential thing: the centrality of the author’s relationship with words. The JJ Abrams/Doug Dorst construct, ‘S’, was just that – a construct, a bunch of surface, Lost in book form. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes was just plain annoying (can’t be bothered to write anything new this year? Why not cut up one of Bruno Schulz’s books instead?) Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, a novel I had high hopes for, turned out to be all surface also, a poor copy of Danielewski’s tropes without any of his genuine weirdness or imaginative reach. Night Film does the imaginative equivalent of leading you down the rabbit hole into a shopping precinct. Dressed up in post-po-mo clothes, the actual story in Night Film is as banal and retrodden as any Monday night ITV crime drama.  Night Film angered me deeply, not so much because I felt I’d been conned as because the novel broke my heart in not living up to its potential. Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Tests on the other hand I loved very much. It also has the advantage of being a novel you can read without recourse to a magnifying glass. Hall loses his nerve a bit towards the end though, doesn’t he? Putting it bluntly, Raw Shark could have done with being weirder.

I love what Danielewski does, because it is clear to me that he loves words. The weight and heft of them, the way they look on paper, the resonances they set up with the objects and feelings they represent, the harsh intimacy of their relationship with memory. The thing is, I think he means it, which makes his work, and what it’s doing, interesting to me. Am I planning to read The Familiar? I haven’t decided – there’s twenty-seven volumes of the thing, for goodness’ sake. But I do know I’m glad it’s out there. When Schaub quotes from The Familiar in his review he seeks to mock it as being sub-Joycean, rip-off Joyce, in fact:

“How to get at the whole pluvial thing, another Anwar beaut, which Xanther remembered, pluvial, because it was like this … rainstorm going Plooey! to a town, a ville, a … Plooooooeyville!”

I’m sorry, Mr Schaub, but I kind of like it. I like the idea of a rainstorm going Plooey! to a town. It’s something I can feel, and hear. It’s the sound of a downpour, and a character’s feelings about a downpour, expressed in words I’ve not seen used before, and I like that a lot. In a recent interview for The Atlantic, Danielewski said the following:

It’s easy for any mode of writing to calcify into received tradition. When we come across something that works, we repeat it, and ultimately institutionalize it—even though it might come at the expense of other things that might be witnessed or participated in. But one of the joys of literature is that we can always push back against established ways of speaking and seeing—and nothing has to be blown up. No one has to be dispensed with. Huge tracts of land don’t have to be obliterated. By means of these fragile panes of paper, or lighted technological tablets, we start to mingle with other possibilities.

I like that, too. You can read the rest of this very interesting interview here.

Ruth Rendell 1930 – 2015

I was first introduced to Ruth Rendell’s work in 1985 by Dr Lindsey Hughes, later to become Professor of Russian History at SSEES, then head of the soon-to-be defunct Russian department at the University of Reading. Lindsey was a great woman, a brilliant scholar, and a lasting inspiration. She died of cancer in 2007 and as I have just discovered I still find it difficult to talk or write about her without becoming upset at the ridiculously early age of her passing away. Lindsey first told me about Rendell in the front living room of her house in Donnington Road, the unofficial hub of Reading’s small but vibrant Russianist community and the site of many a late-night election debate (over vodka, of course) or folk singing session. “You have to read her,” she said to me of Rendell. “Her books are completely addictive.” She was certainly right about that, as she was about many things. I remember a couple of years afterwards, thanking Lindsey for her recommendation and enthusing over The Bridesmaid, Rendell’s then most recent novel and for me at least a continuing favourite. I must have listened to the 1995 Radio 4 adaptation a dozen times and more. I enjoyed Claude Chabrol’s 2004 film of the same book, but for me it lacked an essential something, that quality of eccentricity that made Rendell’s work such a vital and permanent cornerstone of the English crime canon.

I loved Rendell because I found her unputdownable but also enduring. Her keen literary sensibility, combined with her clear and obvious passion for telling stories, made many of her books classics even as they appeared.  I’ve raced through many Rendells two pages at a time on first reading in a fever of longing to know what happens, only to savour the novel at a more leisurely pace on a second or even third reading, discovering new details and – and just remind yourself at this point how rare this is with crime thrillers – a pleasure that is absolutely equal with that first enthralled encounter with the plot.

Among my favourites of Rendell’s work would have to be the Barbara Vine novels. “Nobody in their senses is going to call me a first-class writer”, Rendell said of her own talent. Like PD James, I would have to disagree. In the superb Asta’s Book (1993), No Night is Too Long (1994) and The Brimstone Wedding (1995) Rendell did things with character, psychology and sense of place that make many contemporaneous so-called literary novels appear pallid and insubstantial by comparison. Her underappreciated 1987 novella Heartstones is a classic of the form. Her short stories are masterclasses of concision and suspense. I hope Rendell knew that her work will still be being read and enjoyed a hundred years from now, and counting.

Her legacy is evident equally in the inspiration she offered to other artists. I find it especially interesting that the most eloquent and startling film adaptations of Rendell’s work have come not from British but from European directors. I think Chabrol’s 1995 film La Ceremonie, an unnerving and visually stunning adaptation of A Judgement in Stone, is even better than his adaptation of The Bridesmaid. Almodovar’s 1997 movie Live Flesh is as idiosyncratic and watchable and brilliant as anything he’s done. Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001), a free adaptation of Rendell’s 1984 novel The Tree of Hands, is so good it’s a crime (ha!) that it’s not better known.  It’s strange that thus far British directors haven’t responded to Rendell’s oeuvre with anything approaching the same levels of originality and depth. The small-screen adaptations of the Wexford novels, whilst deservedly popular, do not offer anything beyond the usual run-of-the-mill TV entertainment, and I can only hope that in time, one of our many talented British film makers – Andrea Arnold or Ben Wheatley, for example, I could see doing great things – will take a look at the treasure trove of material Rendell has laid in store for them and make some magic of their own.

Whatever happens though, we have her books. Thank you, Ruth Rendell, for the perennial thrill we find in discovering and then rereading them.

Clarke Award 2015 – what’s in a shortlist?

Having now read all six novels on this year’s Clarke Award shortlist, and with just two weeks to go before the award ceremony itself, I thought I’d try and bring some order to my thoughts on the books in contention. What’s interested me most about this year’s shortlist is the almost overwhelmingly positive reception it has received. People like this shortlist – I don’t think I’ve seen a single dissenting opinion or online rant (yet – it could be that people have been too preoccupied with Puppygate), which must be a first in itself. So what is it about this list that sets it apart?

I think the word that sprang to mind first for me as an adjective to describe this list was cohesive. In a way that few of the more recent shortlists have done, the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist seems to present a unified vision, a statement of intent: here is a snapshot of science fiction in 2015, make of it what you will. It also has an air of balance about it. Gender parity, for a start, also an interesting mix of novels from both genre and mainstream literary publishers. (Niall Harrison has more to say about this in his characteristically excellent and fair-minded write-up at Strange Horizons.) There is a sense that books on this list really could reach across the genre/mainstream divide and win new readers for science fiction. Several of the titles – The Girl with all the Gifts and Station Eleven in particular – have already enjoyed considerable commercial success.

So this list is popular, balanced, cohesive, appealing and commercial. It showcases a science fiction that is inclusive and gregarious, a literature that is lively and engaged. What could possibly be wrong? Well, nothing, and I’m not going to be the Jeremiah who steps forward to proclaim this a baaaad shortlist (oh Jeremiah, where are you when I need you?) But even as the six books were unveiled, I couldn’t help feeling that the Clarke Award shortlist 2015 could just as easily be defined by the books that don’t appear on it as by those that do. 2014 was – and I think we’re all agreed on this – an exceptional year for science fiction. The judges could easily have picked four or five completely different and equally acceptable shortlists from the books on offer. I do find I have to ask myself: why this one?

For me, this is a shortlist of two halves. On the one hand we have Europe in Autumn, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, and Station Eleven. I like and admire all three of these books, for various reasons, and I think any of them could make a worthy winner. On the other hand we have The Girl with all the Gifts, Memory of Water, and The Book of Strange New Things, all books I dislike, somewhat vehemently, for equally differing reasons. But once again it’s interesting to note how little distance, in terms of tone, ambition and execution, there is between them really.

girl.careyI know a lot of readers have loved M. R. Carey’s The Girl with all the Gifts, and I can understand why. This is a zombie story with a difference – a zombie point of view, in fact – and unlike some authors of the slash ’em and burn ’em school, Carey has taken care not only to provide us with a story that is rooted in character but that also comes complete with a convincing scientific rationale for his zombie apocalypse. I get that, but I hated it anyway. Not only did the semi-intriguing opening act rapidly give way to your typical small-band-of-survivors-make-their-way-through-the-zombie-infested-wastes-exploring-their-cliched-and-ultimately-irrelevant-backstories-as-they-go kind of book (and why did the junkers swamp the army base with zombies in the first place? Because the plot needed them to, that’s why), but I later discovered that the part of the book I admired most – the carefully detailed scientific explanation behind the zombie plague – had actually been explored before, via a multi-million-selling computer game. A lot of digital ink has been spilled over the sensitivity of the writing in The Girl with all the Gifts, but although I found it perfectly serviceable for the most part, the too-frequent intrusion of embarrassingly clunky and overworked metaphors really wasn’t a plus, to say the least. The characters, with the possible exception of Melanie herself, are blandly plot-bound. The Girl with all the Gifts is a highly readable, skilfully executed piece of commercial genre fiction – just the thing for a long train ride, and that ending is unexpected.  But given what the judges had to choose from, I honestly have no idea how or indeed why it ended up on the shortlist for an award charged with finding the best SF novel of the year.

I reviewed Memory of Water for Arc magazine, so there’s no need for me to memory.itarantago over old ground by explaining why this novel didn’t work for me. Again, other readers have loved it – for an opposite view to my own, please do seek out Katherine Farmar’s review at Strange Horizons – and Itaranta is clearly a thoughtful and painstaking writer with her heart in the right place. I am genuinely interested to see what she does next – but for me, Memory of Water still only makes sense for me as YA, the kind of book I know I would have enjoyed as a younger reader but that feels tentative, unformed and insipid to me now, and with no clear direction.

bosnt.faberThe Michel Faber. Well, I think I voiced my feelings about that one clearly enough in my review at Strange Horizons! Safe to say I wasn’t keen. The thing is and for all my personal dislike of it, I’m finding myself respecting the judges’ choice of this book more, because for all its faults and failings (of which there are many) The Book of Strange New Things is so clearly an ambitious attempt to do something (though I’m still not clear what) by a writer I’ve loved in the past and hope to see a lot more of in the future (Faber’s moratorium on novels for the time being does not, we would hope, extend to short fiction). You never know what you’re going to get with Faber, which is part of the joy of him. He keeps pushing himself, which is what all writers should do. And I’m intrigued and provoked by the fact that the judges took this (impossible white elephant of a) book to their hearts and thence to the shortlist.

Like The Girl with all the Gifts, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August presents us harry.northwith a skilfully written, commercially successful slice of pure genre. But oh, did I prefer Harry August.  This novel is narrated entirely from the eponymous Harry’s point of view, so whether or not you’re going to like it will depend at least in part on how well you get on with him. I loved Harry’s knowing style, his death-black humour, his ironical wit. I also loved the way the book extrapolates the grandfather paradox to its logical conclusion, the expertly woven plot threads and time streams, the novel’s overall cohesion. As I was reading, I kept thinking (not without some sorrow) that Harry August is exactly what Doctor Who could and should be like, if only the people in charge of that particular juggernaut had the balls to commission and produce some decent science fiction stories instead of the timey-handwavy claptrap they continue to foist upon us. Harry August is smart, well-made, and – in spite of the slew of ‘repeated lives’ novels we’ve been seeing recently – original. If i have a criticism, it is that the book drags in the third quarter. Overall it is about a hundred pages too long. Some judicious cutting of repeated information would have improved the pace of the story no end.

autumn.hutchinsonWith its wit, irony and black humour, Europe in Autumn shares many positive traits in common with Harry August, and in overall tone and general smartness of attitude, these two novels reminded me of each other quite a lot. I loved Rudi’s glum stoicism as I loved Harry’s arch ironies. I similarly enjoyed the wonderfully evoked post-Soviet ambience and the central conceit – parallel Europes this time, and with a secret map to boot. If Europe in Autumn has the edge over Harry August for me it’s because it’s just a little rougher around the edges, a little less slick, a little less calculated. I actively enjoyed the way the novel wanders, in seemingly unconnected segments, over the continent. In contrast with some readers, I had no problem with the lateness of the reveal. There was plenty to keep me happy along the way, and the central premise, when it finally becomes clear, is well worth waiting for.  This is British science fiction of a kind – cerebral, funny, eccentric and vaguely glum – we need more of. I like this book. A lot.

Of all the novels on this year’s Clarke shortlist, Station Eleven is, for me, the station eleven.mandelmost complete and satisfying as a work of literature. The story as such is pretty conventional in terms of its science fiction: superflu pandemic escapes from a medical laboratory somewhere in Europe, 99% of the world’s population dies, the survivors struggle to make a new world amongst the ruins. So far, so yawn-inducing. (In fact when I describe it like that, I almost begin to hate it myself.) Where Station Eleven finds its strength though is in the depiction of the inner lives and minor struggles of the central cast of characters in the years before the final catastrophe. The characterisation, the interweaving web of people and circumstance, is so finely, so expertly wrought that it arguably makes Station Eleven, of all the books on this shortlist, the novel that would most reward a rereading.  It’s a beautiful book, and largely deserving of the critical attention it has received. If there’s a but, in terms of its Clarke nomination at least, it has to be centred around the business of its science fiction. Even as someone who rates this novel, I am bound to admit there’s nothing particularly new here. For a more robust discussion of the pro and contra of Station Eleven, you should check out the heartfelt disagreement between Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond at The Writer and the Critic. Great listening.

So that’s the shortlist we’ve got. But what of the shortlist we could have had? For my money, the most incomprehensible omission from this and from other awards shortlists this year has been Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Even leaving aside the business of whether the Southern Reach trilogy could or should have been considered as a single work (and I for one believe that VanderMeer’s awards chances have been compromised by confusion over this very point), Annihilation is, by itself, one of the most significant SFF novels of 2014 and the idea that The Girl with all the Gifts, say, could have been prioritised over it provokes, in me at least, a moment of genuine ‘whaaafuuu??’

And what of Monica Byrne? Even if I felt a little disappointed that the masterful worldbuilding and original science fictional concepts that so beautifully characterise the ambience of The Girl in the Road were not foregrounded a little more in the novel’s plot development, there isn’t a smidgen of doubt in my mind that Byrne’s debut is an exceptional work of literature. Even where there are vague conceptual similarities – both books present visions of a near future – The Girl in the Road‘s use of language, breadth and depth of vision, daringness in terms of ideas, its sense of direction and overall cohesiveness all set it on a different plane entirely when set alongside Memory of Water, say. Another ‘whaaafuuu???’ moment for me, then, not to mention the sense of a missed opportunity: just imagine, for a moment, a shortlist that swapped Carey and Itaranta for VanderMeer and Byrne.

Personally I’d go one further and swap an old hand for a new kid – Michel Faber for Hanya Yanagihara, if we want to name names (and yes, of course we do). If I had to sum up The Book of Strange New Things in a single phrase, I would describe it as a wonderful idea that went woefully awry. The People in the Trees, on the other hand, is a debut so strong it’s difficult to believe that it is a debut. The science fictional conceit – a tribe of people who have inadvertently discovered the secret of eternal life – runs like a silver thread through this novel, which foregrounds subjects key to contemporary near-future science fiction such as aggressive colonisation, environmental degradation and the exploitation of indigenous societies to meet Western needs. Yanagihara’s narrator is one of the most loathsome and compelling voices I have encountered in literature recently, brilliantly realised, and the somewhat Nabokovian introduction and footnotes by a ‘frame narrator’ were just the icing on the cake for me. In sum, the inclusion of Yanagihara would have made for an edgier, more propulsive feel to the shortlist that would have been most welcome.

In fact, if I were to define what it is, precisely, that feels absent from this year’s Clarke shortlist it would be that sense of edginess, of risk. Taken as a whole, the six books we have make up a solid group that no one, least of all the judges, should feel ashamed of. But that’s the word, isn’t it? Solid. Am I alone in feeling I’m missing the raw edges of Simon Ings’s Wolves, the wild speculation of Adam Roberts’s Bete, the uneasy post-colonial meditations of Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman, the antic anger of Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming, the linguistic panache of Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, the manic experimentalism of Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon? Aside from the minor narrative discontinuities of Europe in Autumn and the alternation between present day and flashback sequences in Station Eleven, we have nothing on the shortlist-as-is that so much as hints at formal experiment, or challenges us in terms of language, or discomfits our sense of what science fiction might be for.

It all feels a bit safe to me, in terms of both audience expectations and market demands. And the last thing science fiction needs is to be safe. It should be radical and it should be provocative. I think we’ve missed a trick here, and that is a shame.

My vote for May 6th, for what it’s worth, goes to Europe in Autumn, easily the most subversive book on the list and all the more rewarding for those tricky sharp bits.

Günter Grass 1927 – 2015

We formed a triangle. My throbbing tooth went quiet – because Mahlke’s Adam’s apple, to the cat at least, had become all mouselike. The cat was so young, and that thing of Mahlke’s was bobbing like mad  – in any case, the beast went for his throat.  Or one of us grabbed the cat and dumped it on his neck. Or I did, with or without my toothache. Lured the cat over and showed it Mahlke’s mouse. And Joachim Mahlke screamed. And yet all he had to show for it were a few puny scratches.

(From Cat and Mouse, 1961. Translation mine.)

grass.katzundmausCat and Mouse takes place in Danzig, Günter Grass’s home city, a microcosm of greater Europe that affected his whole outlook, as a human being and as a writer. Our narrator Pilenz, as might be inferred from the extract above, is as unreliable as they come. He tells us anecdotes about Joachim Mahlke – school misfit, daredevil diver and champion masturbator. Between the cracks of his story, Hitler comes to power and the boys become soldiers. The cat is awake, the mouse is on the run. Outrages are perpetrated, speeches are made. But who was it that set the cat on Mahlke’s mouse?

Cat and Mouse was one of the first novels I read by a major European author and quietly, devastatingly it transformed my vision, my ideas about what a book might be for. Grass’s language, or rather Pilenz’s, with its odd angularities and unintentional acts of poetry, was something of a struggle for me at first, its complexities hidden, as the language of teenagers often is, by a looseness of expression that can be hard to decipher. But once I fell into its rhythm I found myself entranced, horrified, aghast at what was happening, among this group of boys in Danzig and in the world beyond. This short novel, which I read for the first time more than thirty years ago, has stayed with me, taut as a scar, right through to the present, and I love it dearly. I loved The Tin Drum after it, and then another Danzig novel, the quietly moving Unkenrufe.  I bought and read Im Krebsgang when it first came out, in 2002, and although it lacked the youthful urgency and rawness of Katz und Maus (as of course it would) I found it to be a blistering, brilliant, deeply angry novel that inspired and affected me in equal measure.

You might not always agree with Günter Grass, but who the hell cares. Grass’s commitment to life, to the act of writing, to literature, to the personal search for truth and the unearthing of unwelcome but necessary realities remained absolute. He was everything a Nobel laureate should be. He increased the sum of who we are by what he wrote, even when what he wrote veered wildly off-beam. I love him for the example he set us, as writers, in always treating the words we choose to set down with the utmost seriousness. He rocked my world and I’ll never forget that.

An era is over.

Crime blog #7

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ngeverything.ng

If there’s one sub-section within the crime genre that I have a particular fondness for, it’s crime novels in which no actual crime takes place. Ng’s novel opens not with a death, but with the knowledge of a death – Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. A family sit together having breakfast, filled with their own concerns and immersed in routines so familiar they perform them on autopilot with no idea that these moments of normality are about to end. This feels so familiar, the opening of so many crime novels and TV series. A body will be discovered, the family, devastated, will be plunged into a new routine of suspicion and counter-suspicion, dark secrets will be uncovered as we, along with them, seek insight into the identity of the murderer.

This novel is different, however. Ng selects an omniscient third person point of view to tell her story, a choice that is not only unusual these days, but – to my mind at least – the most difficult to engineer successfully. I felt discomfited by it at first – multiple viewpoints in a single paragraph, I thought, ugh – but it wasn’t long before I was entirely seduced by Ng’s storytelling. Her writing has an honest, unfettered quality that is compelling. She tells instead of shows whenever she damn well feels like it, and I was cheering her on. It would seem that what matters most to Ng is not to appear clever, to demonstrate virtuosity or fireworks or how much she knows about how to write, but to tell this story about these five (six, if you count Jack, which you should) characters, to allow us access to the hidden corners of their lives.

Other readers have spoken about this book as a social novel, a novel about racism, about women’s emancipation, about the 1970s, about family. It is all of those things. The feminist and race issues are sensitively handled – one experiences sympathy for both Marilyn and James as a dull ache, an echo of their own isolations and anxieties – and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about family that so wonderfully evokes the tangled skein of relationships and resentments, fears and conflicting loyalties that exist between people who have become estranged but who nonetheless are bound together, indivisibly, by love. But there’s more than that here, and there’s nothing even remotely ‘worthy’ about this novel, which is, fundamentally, a story about individual people struggling to find their way.

It’s a book about mistakes, and regret, and accommodation. There are moments of pure linguistic wonder, observations and feelings so perfectly, so effortlessly caught, it’s like watching a film.

the fever. abbottWhile I was reading I couldn’t help comparing this novel with The Fever, by Megan Abbott, another ‘odd’ crime novel (my favourite kind) that I read last month. Abbott’s mastery of the teenage mind is amazing – I’ve not read so accurate a transcription of the madness and malice and vulnerability of schoolgirls in a long time – and her use of language is superb. I’d say that The Fever is ‘better written’ than Everything You Never Told Me – Abbott’s turns of phrase are sublime, disturbing, and difficult to ignore – but that it is Ng’s book you will best remember, and enjoy, and recommend to others. In spite of everything, it ends well, it ends beautifully. A quietly resounding success.

The Clarke Award submissions list is out!

There seems to have been some debate this year as to the value of posting the ACCA submissions list – do people really care, does discussion of what’s actually on the list get derailed in a bluster of conspiracy theories about which books have been omitted, and why? I would answer yes and no to these two questions, respectively, and I’m happy to see that the Clarke Award’s director, Tom Hunter, would appear to have drawn a similar conclusion about the value of revealing the submissions to public scrutiny:

“Keen award watchers could get a better overview of exactly what was and wasn’t in consideration, and people could also enjoy trying to guess ahead and predict the judges’ decisions. Trust us, it’s tougher than it looks to turn over 100 books into a list of just 6.

It’s also a brilliant way to show an overview of the UK publishing scene, who is publishing the most books, which imprints are new on the scene, what’s the gender split of titles across the list (we checked that one, it’s about 1 in 4, same as the last few years) and how many past winner and shortlistees have new books in contention.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I’m delighted to see that debate has started already. The full submissions list can be found here, and as always it throws up some interesting surprises. Normally I would enjoy making a list of my own shortlist predictions, but with a book on that submissions list myself this year, I think it would be… weird for me to do that. But what I’d like to do instead and to celebrate the official opening of Clarke season is highlight a few of the titles that weren’t on my radar before, but that now, thanks to the submissions list, most certainly are.

1) Babayaga by Toby Barlow (Atlantic). Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a werewolf novel in epic verse, is a work of genius, the kind of writing that makes all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end at its joyous brilliance. I hadn’t known he had a new book out. and this one – a Cold War story set in Paris, with witches – looks truly fantastic.

2) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (Granta). I’m fibbing here, because this has been on my radar for months. I can’t resist mentioning it though, just in case anyone reading this hasn’t heard of it yet. I love the premise – a video adventure game bleeds over into the real world – and I love the writing. In fact the only reason I haven’t read Wolf in White Van already is because I feel I know in advance that I’m going to love it. If that makes sense.

3) The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (Weidenfeld & Nicholson). I vaguely heard word of this ages ago, before it was published, but had completely forgotten about it. This novel – set in a world oppressed by technology where the written word is being phased out – looks as if it might have themes and concerns in common with Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, which is reason enough to recommend it to me all by itself.

4) The Monster’s Wife by Kate Horsley (Barbican Press). I’ve just read the preview for this and it looks really interesting. A mysterious Dr Frankenstein arrives on a remote Scottish island. His intent? To create a wife for the creature he has already unleashed. The most obvious comparison is with Valerie Martin’s wonderful Mary Reilly, but this book would seem to have a flavour and texture and language all its own. Definitely want to read this.

5) God’s Dog by Diego Marani (Dedalus). Marani is familiar to me from his previous novel, New Finnish Grammar, but again, I had no idea he had a new book out. A crime novel set in a future theocracy, with Vatican spies? Literary science fiction asking these kind of big questions is always welcome on my shelves. Great to see Dedalus sending stuff in, too.

6) After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail). Another fib, because I’ve not only heard of this, it’s actually on my Kindle, ready to read. Sarah Perry would seem to be one of the most promising and original new writers around at the moment, someone who’s interested in tackling speculative themes in a serious and thought-provoking way. I think such writers should be promoted and supported wherever possible, and I’m delighted to see her debut on the list of Clarke submissions.

7) Indigo by Clemens J. Setz (Serpent’s Tail). Another one from Serpent’s Tail, and this was the first of my ‘unknowns’ to immediately catch my attention and make me want to write this post. A metafictional European mystery set in the future with found documents and the author as one of the characters? That is so totally my kind of book. Wish I’d written it myself!

8) Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla (The Friday Project). And yeah, I knew about this one already too (indeed I’ve just bought it), but Shukla is such a wonderful writer I couldn’t not mention him. Plus it’s a postmodern novel about internet doppelgangers. How could I resist?

These are the kind of books science fiction needs to push its envelope. It’s wonderful to see them making their way on to the submissions list of one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards.

 

The Wolf Border

sarah hall the wolf borderSarah Hall has been on science fiction’s radar ever since 2008, when her third novel The Carhullan Army, a feminist re-imagining of the near-future dystopia, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Those hoping for a similarly explicit exploration of speculative themes in Hall’s new novel The Wolf Border may find themselves disappointed. Yes, the book is set in an alternate near-future, but the differences between this world and our own – or at least those differences Hall chooses to show us – appear undramatic: the Scottish referendum results in a ‘yes’ vote, pound notes still exist. Such divergences aside, the world as we know it today continues unchanged.

Hall’s process is more subtle than that, however. The stories in her recent collection The Beautiful Indifference could fairly be classified as ‘realistic’ – as mainstream literary fiction, in other words. And yet. There is a sense of something other there, too, the intercession of the numinous, the speculative, the raw nerve endings of the horrific (I would count her story ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, which contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, as one of the greatest horror stories I have read in recent years).  It is to this realm of the speculative – mysterious, unstated, instinctive – that The Wolf Border belongs. As a writer, Hall seems to be growing stronger with each book she publishes. The Wolf Border is unsensationally sensational.

The novel tells the story of Rachel Caine, a woman in her early forties who has devoted her life to the study and conservation of wolves in the wild. She has spent the past ten years in Idaho, tracking the migrations of the native wolves to and from the Canadian forests. Being in America suits Rachel just fine, not only because of her work on the reservation but because her native Cumbria has become a place of regret, family disagreement and troubling echoes from the past. A new job offer, plus a sudden and dramatic change in Rachel’s circumstance brings her home at last. The novel charts Rachel’s personal journey towards a new beginning as naturally as it charts the passage of the seasons. There is drama and there is conflict, there are hidden secrets and reawakened griefs, there is heart-stopping joy. All these things feel real, as the weather of Cumbria feels real and the plight of the wolves feels real. The plot reveals itself as the subset of character, rather than (as so tediously often) the other way around. There is no sense here of artificially upping the ante for the sake of ‘narrative drive’ or ‘jeopardy’ or some other, similarly treacherous commercial convention.

Instead, there are moments of true wonder, and what The Wolf Border reveals most tellingly is the magic that exists in the world, in our own private dialogue with existence, in our relationship with the landscapes that mark us, in the necessity of working out who we are and what we are for. I’m being deliberately unspecific about this novel, because I loved it so much. The most helpful thing I feel I can say about it is that I cannot remember the last time I cared so passionately, so personally, about a story’s outcome. The Wolf Border is the perfect fusion between fiction and reality, between the speculative and the mimetic. Hall brings insight to the commonplace, illuminating and ambushing the real with the revelatory spotlight of hyper-reality. It is such insistent modes of being and seeing that, for me, help to define the core of what speculative fiction is mostly about.

The horror? Which horror?

We had friends to stay a weekend or two back. Most of our conversation, unsurprisingly, revolved around books. During the course of our discussions, one of our friends mentioned that she hadn’t read any horror fiction in quite a while and felt like getting back into it. “I’m not sure where to start, though,” she said. “What would you recommend?”

I relished her question, not just because it offered me the opportunity to make a list (I’m always up for that) but because when considered side-by-side with science fiction, horror is undoubtedly the Cinderella genre. A lot of the discussions and arguments I take part in on the subject of horror tend to centre around the question ‘is it even worth reading?’ Even if they don’t care for science fiction particularly, most people are able to gain a sense of why others might enjoy it and find it relevant – it speculates about the future, it deals with pressing social or environmental concerns, it explores the possibilities of the human mind, man and machine, computers, life on other planets. Horror though, what’s that about? Monsters, and murderers, people getting themselves killed in disgusting ways.

That’s rubbish, of course, as much of a tired and inaccurate shorthand as the one about science fiction being about squids in space (and no, I’m not having a go at Margaret Atwood here. Most everything Atwood’s written in the past decade has been SF, her next novel is SF, she’s one of the most important practitioners of SF currently writing – who gives a stuff if she got a bit muddled over our esoteric terminology?) Horror literature goes back as far as science fiction, possibly further (and if you’re going by the Gernsback dictum, definitely further). It’s not just a matter of who got there first, though. These two strands of literature are different from one another in fundamental ways. There’s a stimulating and persuasive argument around this to be found in John Clute’s mini-masterpiece The Darkening Garden, the ‘short lexicon of horror’ now happily available again as part of Clute’s most recent collection of essays, Stay. Even if you don’t agree with his thesis, it’s a fascinating read, one that will get you thinking and questioning yourself about exactly what horror literature is, and what it means to you.

For myself, I would argue that horror literature is, above all, the most deeply and strikingly personal of the genres. Horror is very revealing, not just of the writer, but of the reader, too. Not just regarding questions of what you might be afraid of, but what aspects of yourself might be frightening, or hidden. Horror literature, as works by H. P. Lovecraft or Ramsey Campbell powerfully demonstrate, is not revealed through a series of brutal actions, but through imagery, allusion, psychology, a slanted and peculiar vision, a personal worldview.  There’s nothing like reading or writing horror for putting you in the zone with yourself.

The death knell for horror literature is sounded roughly once every decade. But although the fashion for vampires or zombies (bless ’em) may come and go, horror literature lurks, stalwartly (can you lurk stalwartly? I’m going to go with a yes) on and always will. So long as a writer can sit alone in a room and then, for no reason at all, start worrying about what might be on the other side of the door, it’s here to stay.

Which still leaves us with the question of where to start with reading it. I was going to go with a top ten books, then realised how impossible that would be – way too restrictive – and so I’m going with ten favourite writers instead. There may yet be overspill. And no need to mention that this list is highly personal. I’ve tended to steer away from classic weird – Poe, Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, even my beloved Aickman – because there’s plenty of opinion and top ten lists built around these writers already. I’m concentrating on what’s being written now, and on the writers I personally return to, again and again. Horror was my first love. (And in no particular order) here’s why:

Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s understanding of the gothic is sensitive, articulate and refined. Her enthusiasm for the gothic is brutal, breathtaking and no-holds-barred. The thing with Oates is that she is never going to write hackneyed, generic horror fiction – and yet boy, can she deliver on the ‘yeuccchhh’ factor when she’s in the mood for it. I’ve read a lot of horror fiction, and I mean a lot, and the closest I’ve come in recent years to not being able to finish a horror novel through sheer ‘no, this is too much’ discomfort with what I was reading was JCO’s Stoker-Awarded short novel Zombie. Do soldier on with it though, because it’s brilliant. There are at least three JCO short fiction collections devoted to horror stories of one stripe or another – I’d recommend any of them. For those who want to get stuck into a real JCO marathon, I’d recommend her masterpiece Bellefleur, her luscious, gorgeous, immortal take on the vampire novel, and The Accursed, which will reward your commitment – this is a long book and a tough climb in places – by giving you something lasting and extraordinary, including a Lovecraft-influenced chapter of sheer virtuosity.

Caitlin R. Kiernan. I first came across Kiernan’s work in a Best New Horror anthology towards the end of the nineties, and knew from the first moment of reading her that this was the kind of horror literature I had been looking for. If I were restricted to bringing one horror writer’s oeuvre to a desert island, it would be Kiernan’s. Her obsessive, inward-looking narrators, her natural instinct for the weird and above all, the eloquent beauty of her language makes Kiernan, for me, one of the most important horror writers of our time. I would recommend The Drowning Girl as the most accurate rendition of what it might actually feel like to be haunted, as well as the greatest horror novel of the last ten years. The Red Tree is almost as good. Or any of her short fiction, really.

Ramsey Campbell. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Ramsey Campbell, both to me and to British horror fiction generally.  For anyone interested, I wrote about my own discovery of Ramsey’s fiction in a short essay, Rediscovering the Fantastic. But for anyone starting out on their own journey, I would say that Ramsey Campbell is probably the most important post-war British writer of horror fiction, and that if you have any interest in the horror genre at all you need to read at least one of his novels. Campbell’s emphases lie firmly on character and place – specifically his native Liverpool – and it is his understanding and empathy towards those characters that make us care so much, as readers, about what happens to them. Which, be warned, is mostly not good. My favourite Campbell probably remains Midnight Sun, but The Long Lost and Incarnate are pretty special too, and as the first Campbell I ever read, The House on Nazareth Hill has a preferred place in my heart. For short fiction, go with Ghosts and Grisly Things, one of Campbell’s more recent collections and every story a classic. And if you’re after more material about horror fiction, Ramsey’s collection of essays and reviews, Probably, is essential reading.

Stephen King. It would be easy not to include Stephen King in this list. Everyone’s heard of King, no need to talk about him, right? Wrong. King really is too important to ignore. More than that, he’s too much of a pleasure to ignore. I would count Stephen King as the writer who, for me, has most consistently that most elusive quality: page-turnability. King can tell stories like no other in my universe, and I love his voice. Favourites? I’m going to be contentious here and suggest The Tommyknockers, which scared the shit out of me for some reason (most diehard fans consider it ‘bad King’), The Shining (of course) and my personal favourite Hearts in Atlantis. Another essential read from King is the non-fiction Danse Macabre, his personal history of twentieth-century horror literature and film. It’s as readable as any of his novels, packed with personal insights and wonderful reading suggestions. A kind of horror bible!

And while we’re on the subject of King, don’t forget to sample the work of his son, Joe Hill. Hill broke into the genre with his extraordinary debut collection Twentieth Century Ghosts and I bet his dad was damned proud.  You can see the family relationship, if you’re looking carefully, and Hill has certainly inherited his father’s raw storytelling talent. But Hill’s stories are very much his own – there’s a bizarreness, a quirky twistedness to them that’s very different from King Sr. I ripped through Twentieth Century Ghosts in a day and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Kathe Koja. I’d been meaning to read Kathe Koja for ages. Then towards the end of last year, I read her reissued first novel The Cipher and wondered why I’d waited so long. I loved everything about this book: bizarre, Roadside-Picnic-like scenario (the entire novel is about a hole in the floor, basically), spiky, difficult characters (and that’s putting it kindly) and throughout a kind of obsessive, steadily worsening compulsion to do the unwise thing. I love novels with a small cast of interesting characters that hint at larger issues beyond the book’s parameters, and The Cipher is this kind of novel, exactly. I love Koja’s writing, too – there’s an urgency to it, a flickering darkness, a unique disquiet. I’ll definitely be reading more of her. Read this book!

Robert Shearman. I happen to think that Rob is one of the most talented writers working in Britain at the moment, and as a horror writer his unique vision is exactly what the genre has been waiting for. Rob’s stuff is so much his own it’s difficult to find anyone to compare him with. As a writer who first found his feet in the theatre, he is a master of dialogue, of conflict, of dramatic tension. But there’s more – his ideas are just so off the wall, so delightfully surprising and often so downright scary you’re left almost literally biting your nails in anticipation of what might happen. But then, Rob’s stories are often laugh-out-loud funny, too. Start with Remember Why You Fear Me and They Do Things Different There. Inimitable, and readable verging on addictive.

Otsuichi. I can’t remember now how or where I first heard about Otsuichi’s first collection to be translated into English, Zoo, but I’ll never forget the thrill of delight I experienced when I read that first story and realised how brilliant it was. Another truly unique voice, Otsuichi’s stories have a deadpan, ironical cast to them that I find irresistible. More irresistible still is his prose, matter-of-fact and weirdly poetic at the same time. One of the things I love so much about Japanese horror cinema is that it doesn’t in the slightest rely on familiar Hollywood tropes, and Otsuichi’s fiction has that same offbeat edginess about it.

Helen Marshall. When I read Helen’s first collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side, I found it so complete and so achieved I could hardly believe it was the work of a debut writer. Her new collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, is even better, and it’s wonderful to know she has a novel in the works. These stories are dark – they’re full of thwarted passions and untimely deaths – but Marshall’s prose is so rich and so detailed, so beautiful, that the effect never becomes oppressive. There’s almost a Clive Barker-y feel to some of her writing – see ‘The Mouth, Open’ from Hair Side, Flesh Side, for example – but without the rampant bloodlust! (Oh, and talking of Barker, EVERY horror fan MUST read The Books of Blood – possibly the most important set of horror stories since M. R. James’s ghost stories and still astonishing in their power thirty years after they were first published.)

Joel Lane. Joel’s stories were a revelation to me when I encountered them, first through Year’s Best anthologies, and then in the magazine The Third Alternative. Joel was in the vanguard of the so-called ‘miserabilist’ fiction movement in the 1990s: writers who focussed their attention on what was happening in Britain in the wake of Margaret Thatcher, and who used the language and imagery of dark fantasy and horror fiction to highlight sense of place and the troubled inner states of their protagonists. The way Joel wrote about cities, and memory, and the yearning sense of displacement of the alienated individual within a deconstructed society, spoke to me so eloquently, as did the ambiguous, understated tone of his stories. For me, Joel’s writing will always epitomise the very British horror of my own generation, and I know I’ll feel forever in his debt. Joel’s work is quiet but tremendously powerful. If you can, get hold of his first novel, From Blue to Black, because I think it’s his masterpiece. Otherwise try his collections The Lost District and Where Furnaces Burn.

Kelly Link. This is a cheat really, because Kelly Link isn’t a horror writer as such. But she’s too good not to mention – and her stories do include vampires, and dead people, and plenty of other weirdness that has them leaning towards the dark side more often than not. Kelly Link has spawned a generation of imitators, but no one can touch her for sheer force of imagination and irresistible storytelling. Like King, she’s unputdownable and the only thing wrong with her fiction is that there isn’t enough of it! Start with her new collection, Get in Trouble.

Peter Straub. Straub’s fiction is magisterial in its weight and quality. He is one of those writers who is criminally overlooked by the mainstream, even now. There’s something Oatesian in his ambition, and his novels Ghost Story and Shadowland are landmark works for me. The first Straub I read after Ghost Story was his collection Houses without Doors, and that too is a classic (his story ‘A Short Guide to the City’ is a perennial favourite). One of those writers I could easily immerse myself in for months at a time.

Jeff VanderMeer. As with Kelly Link, VanderMeer isn’t strictly a horror writer, but much of what he does trespasses on horror territory. VanderMeer’s first novel, Veniss Underground, was a kind of warped, noir-future Orpheus and Euridice story. As a debut it still feels monumentally strong, and VanderMeer’s work has only got better since. The denseness and richness of his language is all-absorbing, and of particular interest to me is the way VanderMeer likes to play around with form, whilst never letting go of the drive to tell a story. I would count his most recent work, the three-part Southern Reach trilogy, as one of the most important contributions to speculative fiction so far this century. It’s science fiction, but there’s a horror vibe deep enough to satisfy the darkest appetite.

Livia Llewellyn. Together with Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side, Livia Llewellyn’s collection The Engines of Desire is one of the most impressive horror debuts I’ve ever read. I loved every story in the book, but two of them, the horrific post-apocalypse tale ‘Horses’ and the Lovecraftian novella ‘Her Deepness’ shone out for me not just as brilliant but important. The thing I love most about Llewellyn’s stories – aside from her wonderful use of language, that is – is their willingness to be really bleak. ‘Horses’ is one of the most powerful horror stories I’ve read in this regard – not a single punch pulled, and you end with this sense of ‘fuck’ that doesn’t go away. I do hope that we’ll see a new collection, or even a novel-length work, from Livia Llewellyn in the near future (because I want to read it).

Yoko Ogawa. ‘Long after I realised that my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, then finally a layer of mould appeared.’ (From ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ by Yoko Ogawa) Ogawa is the queen of disquiet. As in the above paragraph, she lets ordinary objects and everyday actions take on sinister aspects through context, setting up resonances and metaphors that spread out through the reader’s consciousness like small ripples on otherwise calm water. One of the things I love best about Ogawa is her own fondness for the linked story format, which for me has always been more interesting and flexible than straight linear narrative. Begin with the collection ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ comes from, Revenge.

Well, I think I count more than ten there, but I warned you there might be overspill. (This list could have been twice as long, easily.) I hope these suggestions act as a good starting point for anyone curious about the horror genre – there really is something for everyone. If I were forced to select just five books that summed up everything I love about horror literature, they’d be (again, in no particular order): 1) Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl 2) Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun 3) Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed 4) Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood and 5) Otsuichi’s Zoo. But then you’d be missing out on House of Leaves, North American Lake Monsters, Sourdough, The Beautiful Thing that Awaits us All, The Beautiful Red, The Secret Life of Houses, White is for Witching, Fugue State, The Barnum Museum, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, We Have Always Lived at the Castle, Don’t Look Now, Darkmans, Dr Haggard’s Disease… … … … … …

On the side of the ogres and pixies

Ishiguro.buriedgiantMost people with even a passing interest in what we care to call the politics of genre will have been aware of the recent pseudo-spat between Ursula Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro. I say pseudo-spat because that’s exactly what it was. Le Guin reacted to something Ishiguro never said, or rather, he didn’t say it in quite the way she thought he meant it (he explains himself here). Two days later she apologises for any offence she might have caused, and then admonishes Ishiguro for taking her own words in vain. “Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc,” she says. “They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?”

Le Guin may have been a little hasty in ‘flying off the handle’, as she herself put it, but she is certainly justified in her assessment and condemnation of internet blood-lust. As Le Guin suggests, these kind of clickbait articles are annoying and pointless and increasingly tedious precisely because they polarise opinion so swiftly and so absolutely they shut off the opportunity for a more in-depth debate. Read what they’ve actually said and it’s quite obvious that Le Guin and Ishiguro have far more in common than divides them, and I for one would love to see a conversation between them in which they could discuss, as Le Guin suggested, the fictional validity of dragons versus pixies (and I’d lay money on Ishiguro being up for it, too). But then, so far as the internets is concerned at least, informed and reasoned discussion isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as gladiatorial combat.

Far from being dismissive, Ishiguro’s views on the uses of fantasy would appear to be cogent, inclusive and sophisticated.  In the original New York Times interview that sparked all the fuss, Ishiguro states the ‘barren, weird England’ of his fictional Dark Ages provides an ideal metaphorical landscape for the story of moral evasion and wilful forgetting he wanted to explore. In another interview for The Guardian, he explains his own magic system straightforwardly and without prevarication: “I didn’t want a fantasy world where anything weird could happen. I went along with what happened in the Samurai tales I grew up on. If it’s conceivable that the people of the time had these superstitions or beliefs, then I would allow it.”

I would say Ishiguro totally gets what fantasy is for and what it can do. So why the disinclination, in certain quarters, to admit that, even as a possibility?

The longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night. It’s an odd one. It includes a number of books – historical, social-realist fiction – of the kind that I find least interesting, at least in outline. (Personally I much preferred Naomi Frisby’s hypothetical line-up at The Writes of Woman which, just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, is one of the best book blogs around.) But the list does include some outstanding writers (Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Grace McCleen) and it also includes six novels that are either blatantly speculative, or that contain strong speculative elements. Looking down the longlist for the first time, I found myself wondering whether novels such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laline Paull’s The Bees, or Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (I’m a big Station Eleven fan, but seeing The Bees and Ice Cream Star here pleases me especially because these two books have been excluded from SFF discussions more or less entirely) would have stood a chance of being selected even a decade ago. Does the appearance of such books here now signal a genuine shift in literary attitudes towards the leitmotifs (see, I’m deliberately eschewing the word ‘tropes’) and preoccupations of science fiction and fantasy, as Ishiguro seems to suggest, as Le Guin appears so reluctant to believe?

I don’t know if this question has an answer yet. But it’s worth putting out there.