Category Archives: year of reading weird

An intermission

A tourist – almost by definition, a person immersed in prejudice, whose interest was circumscribed, who admired the weathered faces and rustic manners of the local inhabitants, a perspective entirely contemptible but nonetheless difficult to avoid. I would have irritated myself in their position. By my presence alone, I reduced their home to a backdrop for my leisure, it became picturesque, quaint, charming, words on the back of a postcard or a brochure. Perhaps, as a tourist, I even congratulated myself on my taste, my ability to perceive this charm, certainly Christopher would have done so, it was not Monaco, it was not Saint-Tropez, this delightful rural village was something more sophisticated, unexpected.

(Katie Kitamura, A Separation)

Feeling desperately in need of a different kind of reading experience after a surfeit of Sharke reading, I sneaked a brief but delicious forty-eight hours with Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation. I’ve been meaning to read Kitamura for a while and goodness, what a writer. I found A Separation to be pretty much a perfect novel, if there is such a thing.  By sheer coincidence it also forms a fascinating dialogue with Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground.

Reading some of the reaction to Kitamura’s novel, I was struck by how often the question of inappropriate marketing raised its head. A sizeable constituency of readers seem aggrieved by having bought the book under what they consider to be false pretences: marketing blurbs suggested that A Separation might be described as ‘the literary Gone Girl‘. They were expecting a thriller, in other words – a mysterious disappearance, an investigation, twists, turns and revelations. They didn’t get them, or at least not in the way they had been led to believe.

Whilst I would find it churlish to blame readers for feeling disappointed – whatever A Separation is, the literary Gone Girl is not it – I always feel a particular admiration for those who, in spite of finding the novel they read to be substantially different from the novel they imagined, were prepared to give that novel its head and wound up liking it anyway.

Even while I would never describe A Separation as a thriller, I did find it thrilling, simply at the level of its prose, its adventurousness in disdaining ordinary adventure, its cutting honesty. It has all the poise and elegance of Rachel Cusk’s Outline combined with – yes – the mystery of Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, which makes it the ideal book for me.

Add to that the personal weirdness of it being set in Gerolimenas, a remote fishing village in the Mani I happened to spend time in a couple of years ago while visiting my father, and my satisfaction was complete.

I especially appreciated Kitamura’s enquiry into the nature of the female narrator – what she should do, how she should be. How refreshing and what a relief, to encounter a woman protagonist whose intellect, above all, is allowed centre stage. Though I enjoyed reading Alexandra Schwartz’s review in The New Yorker – it’s a good piece of criticism – I disagree strongly with its conclusions. Kitamura’s narrator may be unnamed but she is certainly not nothing. Like so many male narrators before her, she guards her privacy. If she overturns reader expectations of how a woman should react – how she should think, even – then that is just one more glittering facet of a solid gold book.

Highly recommended.

#weird2017: The Year of Our War

I have a complicated relationship with immersive fiction. As a reader, it’s the ultimate pleasure: to be so thoroughly absorbed in a world, a landscape, a cast of characters that the world you happen to be living in recedes for a while, that there’s nothing you’d rather be doing than reading that book, that returning to it after each forced separation is like hurrying down cellar steps into a lighted, secret domain of intrigue and wonder.

The greater part of what you stand to lose in becoming a writer is the natural, instinctive access to that domain that you enjoy as a reader. You can go there all right, but you run the risk of not giving a shit. Of shrugging your shoulders and sneering ‘yeah, and?’ Of so consistently, so predictably demanding the text teach you something that you forget the joy of story altogether.

I remember when I left home to go to university, being worried about not having access to a piano. I was never what you’d call a real pianist, but my daily contact with the instrument, with my dog-eared collection of beloved sheet music, with the practice of playing, was of such importance to me that I could not imagine a life in which that contact did not form a key component and the very idea of losing it terrified me.

As it happened, there was no problem getting access to pianos at university and I was able to book practice sessions – at the music department in Upper Redlands Road, Reading, then at lovely Knightley, Exeter University’s music department (now closed – another crime against higher learning in Britain) – whenever I wanted. It was only later, when I moved out of higher education and into accommodation where housing a piano would have been difficult to impossible, that the instrument and I began to lose our connection. In sailing so far out into another life, I watched the lights of the old one recede and then disappear. I don’t play now, because I haven’t played in so long I would be appalled to discover the full extent of what I have lost. And so it goes.

For a writer, losing that instinctive and unthinking connection to story is a little bit the same.

I don’t read immersive fantasy because a lot of it is ‘just’ story: there is little for me to learn from it except what happens next. If I’m honest, it has most likely been my too-ready adherence to this prejudice that has formed the core reason it’s taken me so long to get around to reading Steph Swainston’s Castle books. I’ve been aware of the series since the publication of this first instalment back in 2004, even to the extent of knowing broadly who the characters are and what happens to them, but I somehow always managed to put off the actual reading ‘until later’. I finally picked up The Year of Our War just before we moved house, firstly in an attempt to make good that gap, and secondly because after a seven-year hiatus a new Castle book was finally published in December of last year. I felt curious about Fair Rebel as a possible Clarke contender and thought I’d better read at least one of the earlier Castle novels as preparation.

The bare bones of its synopsis might cast The Year of Our War as standard fantasy:  the allied kingdoms of the Fourlands are under attack from ferociously invasive giant insects. The people’s only hope are the Eszai, a higher caste of immortals of immense and specific talent, sequestered at the Castle and ruled over by the Emperor, who is himself immortal and not always consistent in his judgements. But to think of Swainston’s novel in such basic terms would be a little like dismissing War and Peace as a family saga.

The Year of Our War was a joy to read. Not just for its story, which I found thoroughly engrossing in a way I’ve not experienced much recently, but for its clear and striking commitment to itself, its willingness to be not ‘quirky’ (a horrid word, which suggests slightness, lack of intellectual depth) but odd. There is coherent worldbuilding here – hardcore fantasy fans need not be disappointed – but the novel constantly subverts itself, shifting its emphasis as the author’s vision demands, pulling the rug from beneath the feet of cosy expectations. There is an acerbic, decidedly offbeat humour, a preoccupation with metaphysics, with contemporary politics, with the off-kilter inner workings of intelligent minds. Swainston’s use of language is deft, imaginative, colourful and so intrinsically fit for purpose you barely stop to notice how breathtakingly lovely it can be and often is.

This is a writer so thoroughly in command of her materials that she knows exactly how and when to break the rules, which is often and inventively and with evident delight.

There is something else, too, a rawness of purpose, an unvarnished quality that is seriously on the endangered list in the increasingly homogenised, sanded-down SFF published by genre imprints. The narrative darts this way and that, veering off at a tangent here, chasing off down a side street there, picking up the thread of the story only fifty pages later. These are the supposedly dodgy habits, the intrusive mannerisms, the blurring of the narrative line that many agents and editors insist are deal-breakers. Gods be thanked then they survive intact here. The Year of Our War is fiction that is meant and felt, fiction that is entirely the product of the author’s vision. Fantasy fction as original as this – as wayward as this – is rarer than you think. While reading The Year of Our War I frequently found myself wondering if any editor working for one of the larger imprints today would have allowed the manuscript to get anywhere near the copy-editing stage without having its wings clipped.

I experienced also a mounting sense of disbelief, that Steph Swainston and the Castle series are not better known. Swainston began publishing just as China Mieville was gaining ascendancy as the premier writer of the so-called ‘New Weird’. There was then and still is now plenty of discussion around whether the New Weird was really a thing, or simply a marketing tactic. Personally I tend towards the belief that it was a thing, and that as a means of talking about the burst of metafictional and conceptual innovation that irrupted into the genre, the novels and writers that defined the field in the early years of the new century, the New Weird was as good a label as any. But could it be that the attention given to Mieville, the overweening emphasis on Mieville sucked the oxygen out of the nascent movement and stopped it actually going anywhere? That less publicised writers like Swainston were sidelined simply by not being China, then found themselves further disadvantaged as Mieville himself became less visible and the excitement around the New Weird began to diminish?

None of this is Mieville’s fault, of course, and difficult to prove either way. What is plainly evident though is that Steph Swainston is one of the most creatively and intellectually ambitious writers working in genre, and – after being faced with this heartbreaking article in 2011 – we should feel thankful and delighted that she is writing again. Not that the industry seems to have learned much in the interim: Fair Rebel was published at the dog-end of the year to little fanfare.  And for the record, the whole guff about Swainston’s earlier Castle novels being rejected by awards juries as ‘not science fiction’ is plainly idiotic: if Perdido Street Station could be shortlisted for (and go on to win) the Clarke, why not The Year of Our War? And when are those same juries going to admit that novels featuring wars with giant insects are no less echt SF than novels about generation starships? If it’s a question of which is more likely to happen in a foreseeable future, I know which of the two I’d place my bet on, at any rate…

(You can read a fascinating interview with Steph Swainston about the world of Castle here.)

Best of the Year 2016 Edition

The end of the year is an odd moment at the best of times, bringing with it that sense of insecurity and flux that comes with darker days and longer evenings, with the idea of passing from one delineated period of time into another. Normally it feels helpful to collate a roll-call of the best books of the year, a kind of time capsule of literature that might define the year in some way, whilst simultaneously becoming a memento of it.

2016 feels different though. The Brexit vote at the end of June served to snap the year in two, creating a decisive break with the first half and forming for many a permanent dividing line between the country, the political culture, the beliefs and systems and values they grew up with and thought they understood and the retrograde, embittered, still-colonialist-minded, defensive surveillance state we appear to be living in now. Naively perhaps, I always believed in England and the English as a haven of pragmatism. Not the most cultured nation in the world, as Isiah Berlin once said, but among the most civilised. Above all, a bastion of eccentric, streetwise, compassionate common sense.

I don’t know any more. Truly, I don’t. Among my many core reasons for voting to remain in the European Union was a lack of trust in our own irresponsibly short-termist political culture – both Labour and Tory – in its desire or ability to properly uphold and administer a sustainable and just system of human rights legislation, environmental protection, social welfare, working conditions, energy regulation, protection and help for immigrants and asylum seekers. The building blocks of a sustainable future, in other words, and the founding principles on which the very idea of a European Union is based.

None of these matters was significantly discussed by any of the key players during the run-up to the referendum. The paucity of properly engaged debate and the poisonous, hateful mendacity of what did occur are still profound griefs to me, scars on our body politic I still find it difficult to speak about without tears or rage. I hold the passive-aggressive abdication of responsibility displayed by the leader of our so-called opposition almost equally in contempt. Holding the moral high ground becomes an act of meaningless arrogance when what you’ve actually done is doom the electorate to a decade (and probably more) of Tory rule and with it the possible dismantling of whatever fragments of social infrastructure we still have left.

To have these nightmare scenarios repeated, almost beat for beat, less than six months later in the US Presidential election was an experience I might have described as surreal, in the true and original sense of the word, were the moment not so abjectly serious, so morally grievous, so actively terrifying to so many, such an incipient and ongoing threat to everyone that breathes, even those that don’t realise it yet.

I have found it difficult, these past months, to write about literature, about science fiction, even as I continue to passionately care about it. Neither have I wanted to pointlessly sound off about politics, to repeat the same things others are saying but less articulately, to dive full tilt into a situation we do not – cannot – properly understand yet. I do not personally remember the political atmosphere of this country being so charged since the fall of Thatcher – and that felt, or at least it did for a while, like a good time, a time in which positive change was not simply possible but actively on its way. These past six months have been of another order entirely, and my creative and intellectual energies have been directed towards trying to understand how I, as a writer of fiction, might and should respond. Whether work already in progress before these happenings is still relevant, still finishable, and if not, where to turn instead. That I have not worked out the answers to these questions anywhere near fully should go without saying.

Having said all that, it would feel completely wrong of me not to highlight some of the fine writing I’ve encountered this year, a year in which, hopefully, we have begun to remember the very real importance and value of writing not just as a weapon but as an act of resistance.

My favourite novels of this year have been Little Sister Death by William Gay, The Life Writer by David Constantine, The Border of Paradise by Esme Weijun Wang and Infinite Ground by Martin McInnes. It can hardly be called a coincidence that the main theme of all four is memory, its duplicity and solace. As regards more obviously SFnal works, I would like to keep my powder dry a little longer. There are plans afoot for more extended commentary on the science fiction of 2016 – more on that in the New Year – but for now I’d like to give a shout-out to Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan and The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts, both works of genuine and far-reaching quality, literary and speculative, and an essential addition to the reading list of genre commentators.

I have always been an enthusiast for the novella form, and 2016 has brought us some fine examples. My favourite might have to be Carole Johnstone’s Wetwork, published in Black Static, a monstrous hybrid – in Johnstone’s own words – of True Detective and World War Z and (in my opinion at least) easily as good as the both of them put together. The glory of Wetwork is Johnstone’s use of language, the gnarly textures of Doric and Glasgow Scots, with Johnstone’s ear for dialogue one of the key features of her deeply felt writing. Close on its heels comes The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley, a novella I fell in love with from the moment I encountered it. A story told against the aftermath of World War One, the eerie weirdness of Missives is surpassed only by Whiteley’s sense of place, the rural hamlets and farmsteads of western Somerset where the action takes place. Shirley and Mr Tiller are unforgettable characters, and Whiteley’s ability to combine a personal coming-of-age story with a politically resonant and significant narrative is as reliable as ever. Most recently we have A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson’s gloriously imagined, linguistically exuberant follow-up to last year’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.  Along with Sofia Samatar, Wilson is for my money one of the most gifted and significant of the newer American writers, with his work rapidly becoming essential reading for anyone with an interest in speculative fiction. Wilson recently gave a podcast interview with Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan of the Coode Street Podcast, with his views on literature, aesthetics, political engagement and science fiction now as thoughtful and inspiring as anything he’s put on the page. Recommended listening, definitely.

I didn’t get round to reading anywhere near as much short fiction this year as I would have liked, but that doesn’t leave me short of recommendations. 2016 saw the publication in Interzone and Black Static of four new stories by Malcolm Devlin, a writer who has been floating just under the radar until now but who is certain to win greater notice in 2017 with the publication of his debut collection by Unsung Stories. For now, I would recommend you get ahead of the game by reading the magnificent ‘Dogsbody’ and ‘The End of Hope Street’, which showcase Devlin’s understated, bleakly humorous and shiningly original writing to perfection. Devlin’s collection, like Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney before it, is set to become one of the decade’s landmarks of English weird, so be ready to order your copy for early next summer. Speaking of Unsung Stories, one of their editors, Gary Budden, has a story out with Galley Beggar Singles, ‘We Are Nothing But Reeds’, the poignant and unsettling tale of a young couple who try to escape the crushing demands of a life in London for the depleted and mist-laden coastline of East Anglia. Budden’s writing is sparse, terse even, but perfectly suited to the landscapes of dislocation and alienation that are his natural milieu. A new discovery for me, Irenosen Okojie’s collection Speak Gigantular is a work of rare confidence, luminous imagery and full of hidden sharp edges. There are few things that bring greater joy in reading than coming upon a talent so delightful, so penetrating, so scandalous. Okojie’s stories are magical in all the most interesting senses of that word: devious, enthralling, unexpected. I would hope and expect to see Speak Gigantular shortlisted for awards next year. Helen Marshall’s ‘One-Quarter Dreaming, Three-Quarters Want’ in Liminal Stories and inspired by a set of photographs showing the stark social conditions prevalent in post-communist Romania, has the feel of a previously undiscovered Grimm brothers tale, but with a somewhat more hopeful ending. Benjanun Sriduangkaew had a great crop of new stories out this year. My favourite is probably ‘The Finch’s Wedding and the Hive that Sings’ in Clockwork Phoenix 5, showcasing Sriduangkaew’s characteristically opulent, metaphor-rich language in a story that reminded me a little of Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, only much less predictable and more hard-hitting. Vajra Chandrasekera has also been busy in 2016, and his use of metafiction and instinctive, disruptive feel for language are always going to put his stories high on my list of favourites. Start with ‘Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes’ at Strange Horizons. Also at Strange Horizons we have Sarah Tolmie’s ‘The Dancer on the Stairs’, a story that first appeared as part of her duology Two Travelers earlier in the year. Tolmie has a careful, controlled, poised style that is the epitome of elegance – a kind of literary dressage, or dancing, in fact. Her poetical investigations into human rituals, creativity and modes of belief make her fiction some of the most interesting new work around at the moment. For further insights into her process, I recommend this interview with her, conducted by Maureen Kincaid Speller.

Within the realms of non-fiction, I must again recommend Tartarus Press’s volume of Joel Lane’s essays This Spectacular Darkness, edited and introduced by Mark Valentine, which truly is essential reading for everyone with an interest in weird fiction. Sticking with the weird, Big Echo have published Jonathan McCalmont’s extended essay Nothing Beside Remains: a History of the New Weird. An invaluable resource, McCalmont’s essay not only provides in-depth analysis of key writers and key movements in speculative fiction in the first half of the 2000s, but also links to key sources – in particular the TTA discussion forums – that tracked the development of the New Weird at the time. Another invaluable resource, Geoff Ryman’s 100 African Writers of SFF for tor.com (Part 1 and Part 2) is a fascinating and essential guide to what’s new and what’s happening in Afro-SF, both on the continent and in diaspora. The only downside to these pieces is the number of books you’ll want to buy as a result of reading them! I also want to mention Grady Hendrix’s Freaky Fridays at tor.com. This ongoing series of posts, in which Hendrix dissects the more bizarre extremities of 1970s/80s horror literature, is not only a treasure trove of horror esoterica, it’s flat-out entertaining too, providing me with many laugh-out-loud moments in a year that needed every laugh-out-loud moment it could get.

Not SF, but important to me this year have been Lara Pawson’s This is the Place to Be, a memoir that manages to be anti-memoir, a slim volume that examines the problematic nature of writing about the self, about war, about falling in love with a country that is not your own. Pawson’s writing is driven, nervy, never still. I read this book in one sitting over one long train journey and it is with me still. If I were to take one book away from this year to read again and again, it would probably have to be Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, which has resonated as deeply and as lastingly for me as Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border the year before. The inevitable backlash against ‘nature writing’ has already started, and as with any genre I guess there is some self-indulgent, self-serving writing out there. H is for Hawk is neither of those things. It is tough, passionate, deeply invested in its subject matter and destined to become a classic.

Some of the best books I read this year were not published this year. Alasdair Gray’s mighty Lanark is a novel of lasting importance and genuine stature, probably the most substantial work of fiction I’ve read in some time. Adam Thorpe’s Between Each Breath is a novel I know I’ll be reading again from a writer whose excellence has yet to be fully appreciated. Andrew Miller’s The Crossing turned out to be every bit as affecting and surprising as I hoped it would be – how it wasn’t shortlisted for awards in its year of publication is beyond me. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser contains all the frustrations, contradictions and ravishing delight of pure genius, and though I’ve come late to Alan Garner’s Red Shift, that hasn’t prevented it from being the most important-to-me book I’ve read all year.

I would like to wish everyone reading this a very happy new year, and strength, courage and renewed determination in the months ahead. We shall be rethinking, regrouping, and looking to new projects. With The Rift now safely in the production pipeline I have the first draft of a new novel written, a book that is close to my heart and that I look forward to returning to work on in the coming weeks.

Here’s to 2017 and all who sail in her. The fightback starts here.

A question of adaptation

#weird 2016: Arrival

arrival-posterWe went to see Denis Villeneuve’s new movie Arrival last night. He’s an interesting director. His 2010 Incendies was outstanding, his 2013 Prisoners as well executed and chilling an essay in the serial killer thriller genre as you might hope (or not hope) to find. Enemy, Villeneuve’s take on a Jose Saramango novel starring Jake Gyllenhaal, was weird and slightly dull but still interesting, a film I’d like to see again after having read the work it is based upon. 2015’s Sicario, the movie widely regarded as Villeneuve’s breakout, I found sprawling and messy and unkempt, and not in a good way, mainly because the screenplay was so appalling. I’d still go and see anything Villeneuve puts out though. Like another similarly flawed director, David Fincher, he’s clearly serious about his art, and that’s what counts.

What then to make of Arrival, the film of Ted Chiang’s multiple-award-winning novella Story of Your Life (screenplay by Eric Heisserer)? In a sentence: I was expecting so much more. The reviews were great, seeming to agree that Chiang’s story, which some had initially deemed ‘unfilmable’, had been justly served, thus bringing the author’s work to a whole new audience. It would be great if that were so – yet after seeing Arrival for myself, I tend towards the belief that it will be chalked up as just another dutiful spin on Close Encounters, with most audiences remaining completely unaware of the movie’s infinitely superior source material.

It could be argued that Ted Chiang represents the Platonic ideal of the science fiction writer, the perfect fusion of reason and emotion, of form and idea. His language is candid, unfussy, absolutely fit for purpose, the extensive preparation Chiang undertakes before embarking on a story rendered invisible in its careful and relentlessly considered execution. The word that springs most insistently to mind when I consider the resolution, the unveiling of Story of Your Life is beautiful, not so much because of any ‘message’ the story might convey, but because of its author’s careful and painstaking attention to an idea. Story of Your Life is perhaps most readily comparable with Mieville’s Embassytown – stripped of that novel’s rococo excesses and clunky final third. At roughly one-sixth of the length, it’s a David-and-Goliath scenario with Goliath well and truly struggling to maintain his footing.

What spoiled Embassytown irreparably for me was its surrender to conventional outcomes: a trite ‘final battle’, a resolution that, after the more pleasingly abstract expositions of the first half, seemed disappointingly pat. And it is this – this damnable Hollywood obsession with conflict and resolution, with jeopardy, for goodness’ sake – that made Arrival feel limited to me, and finally derivative. There is no ‘conflict’ in Story of Your Life – the joy and satisfaction in that story lie in working out what is going on, the sudden realisation, the beauty of certain ideas about language, time and non-linearity – it’s like a literary game of chess. Arrival is all about deadlines, time running out, a constant threat of violence, soldiers setting up cordons and dashing about with guns. Amy Adams is the still centre, compelling and powerful in her role and a joy to watch. Yet still, there she is, in her impossibly beautiful waterside house (how d’you get that on an academic’s salary?) with her impossibly beautiful doomed child (even here the stakes have to be upped as Louise is made ‘responsible’ for the child’s doomed-ness – it’s not like that in the story) the One who can fix the world with a single phone call.

I don’t know, perhaps I’m being uncharitable. Arrival is a thoughtful, interesting film narrowly skirting the edge of something special. Perhaps it’s simply that in the light of ongoing political events I was simply not in the mood to see yet another film about the American military threatening to destroy anything they don’t understand, and where China is once again painted as the inscrutable, implacable villain with their finger on the nuclear button.

I don’t think it’s China people are worried about at the moment, actually. Jeopardy indeed.

#weird2016: Lanark by Alasdair Gray

lanark-gray“What’s worth saying, three decades on, is that Lanark , in common with all great books, is still, and always will be, an act of resistance. It is part of the system of whispers and sedition and direct communion, one voice to another, we call literature. Its bravery in finding voice, in encouraging the enormous power of public, national, artistic, sexual and political imagination, is not something to take for granted.”

(Janice Galloway, ‘Glasgow Belongs to Us‘, The Guardian 2002)

In the Epilogue to Lanark, which can be found somewhere towards the latter quarter of this behemoth text, Gray directly references both Orwell’s 1984 and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon – ‘mostly conversations between disappointed Socialists’ – as key influences upon the novel. As Darkness at Noon, which I read at least four times between the ages of fifteen and twenty-one, was the work that most influenced me away from dogmatic socialism, and 1984, which I read for the first time probably in the very same year I first read Darkness at Noon, was one of the key works that introduced me to the vast radical intellectual potential of science fiction, Gray’s direct-to-reader irruption into his own novel raised more than a frisson of fellow feeling.

Lanark is so much more than this, though – so much more than excited underlining of key passages and thinking bloody hell, this could have been written yesterday. Interwoven with and inseparable from the blistering political commentary on our own times – and yes, Lanark truly is so prescient, so relevant to today’s political crisis it feels newly minted – are passages of such emotional and imaginative power they raise the whole from the merely important to the truly great.

I loved this book. Lanark is the kind of novel one emerges from with a renewed and evangelical appreciation of what writing is for.

*

In his engaging and candid introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Lanark, the novelist William Boyd describes his first encounter with the monster – he was commissioned to review it for the TLS when it was first published – and recalls his confusion regarding the novel’s fantastical elements:

“I know now why I didn’t respond with wholehearted enthusiasm to the allegorical story of Lanark in the city of Unthank. I was positioning myself, as all writers unconsciously do – and particularly as a first novelist whose first novel had just been published — using criticism of others to evaluate and proclaim what I myself stood for. I was and am a realistic novelist and I felt strongly then that fable, allegory, surrealism, fantasy, magic realism and the rest were not my literary cup of tea.  But I think that in my 1981 review I unconsciously prefigured aspects of my recent, late reading of the book.  The structure of Lanark – the small naturalistic novel embedded in a large eclectic one – is, it seems to me now, precisely the reason for the book’s enduring success.  I realize now that, for Alasdair Gray, the last thing on earth he wanted to achieve in Lanark was to write, and be hailed for writing, ‘a minor classic of the literature of adolescence’…[That] could never have been enough: every ambition that Gray had for his long-gestating book obliged him to create something larger, more complex, more difficult, more alienating. Gray needed the overarching machinery of allegory and fable to make Lanark transcend its origins.”

A fair enough analysis, one might think, and at least experience has brought Boyd a deeper understanding of Gray’s intentions. Yet – like so many writers and critics who disdain the fantastic or at the least entertain grave suspicions about its fitness to be included within the canon of ‘great literature’ – we still see Boyd stumbling about, stubbing his toe on concepts such as ‘allegory’ and ‘fable’, reminding us in the process of much of the inept debate that attended the publication of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant just a year or two ago.

Personally, I think it’s a mistake to view Lanark in terms of it being split into two ‘realistic’ books and two ‘science fiction’ books. The point and the glory of Lanark – and of much of the greatest science fiction – is that the two are inseparable. One of the most powerful passages in the entire novel – Duncan Thaw’s descent into madness at the end of the ‘realistic’, Glasgow-set Book 4 – bleeds seamlessly into the wire and workings of the nightmarish dystopia of Glasgow’s shadow-self, the city of Unthank. Thaw is Lanark, Lanark Thaw. There is little to be gained in seeking to pigeonhole them and certainly not clarity. Towards the end of this sequence, Glasgow begins to morph very visibly into Unthank: the scant trickle of river, the towering municipal building, the ‘tomb-rotten pile’ of the necropolis:

He remembered a stone-built city of dark tenements and ornate public buildings, a city with a square street plan and electric tramcars…but below a starless sky this city was coldly blazing. Slim poles as tall as the spire cast white light upon the lanes and looping bridges of another vast motorway. On each side shone glass and concrete towers over twenty floors high with lights on top to ward off aeroplanes. Yet this was Unthank, though the old streets between towers and motor lanes had a half-erased look, and blank gables stood behind spaces cleared for car parks.

There is a sense of utter desolation and loss, the sense of life and creative freedom slipping away under the foul iron hand of central planning, monetary imperatives, coercive control.  When talks are prepared and essays are written about the key works of social science fiction written in Britain over the past hundred years – works that have come to define our science fiction century – we are all used to hearing about Brave New World and 1984, Lord of the Flies and The Island of Dr Moreau. We are less used to hearing about Lanark. which seems to me to be a dire and almost laughable oversight. Lanark is a towering achievement in terms of its creative expression, its social comment but also its science fiction. Gray seizes the levers of science fiction with an uncanny natural ability, driving the machine forward with instinct and purpose. Gray is no science fiction tourist. He makes himself a part of the conversation not by covertly seeking admittance but by barrelling into the room and raising a storm. His science fiction feels intense and sophisticated – a polemic in the European tradition of argument-making and ideas-formation – and yet at the same time urgent, rough-hewn, so raw it is bloody.

*

Again and again, Duncan/Lanark finds himself crushed beneath the absolute incompatibility of creativity and capitalism, freedom of thought and the money-making impulse. At its heart, Lanark is a portrait of the artist as a young man – another of the key texts referenced directly by Gray in his crafty (and very funny – Lanark is funny, folks) Epilogue.  As every serious artist before him, Duncan Thaw has first to win the trust and admiration of the system before rejecting it utterly:

“This exam is endangering an important painting. It would be blasphemy to waste my talent making frivolous decorations for a non-existent liner. But I see your difficulty. You must uphold the art school, while I am upholding art. The solution is simple. Do not award me this diploma. I promise not to feel offended. The diploma is useless, except to folk who want to be teachers.”

This realisation – that like every great artist he is essentially on his own in uncharted territory – is both exhilarating and terrifying. In one of my favourite passages in Lanark, Duncan Thaw feels furious with an art school assignment – ‘Washing Day’ – for being so tame, so lacking in relevance, that he is minded not to attempt it. Then he finds himself swept along, subverting the notion of quaintness in a stark, ecstatic expression of his own vision, his own Glasgow:

His pen paused above the page then descended and sketched the tree on Sauchiehall Lane, making it larger, and leafless, and among the tenements and back greens of Riddrie. Around it three dwarfish housewives were stretching ropes between iron clothes poles, and he drew them from a memory of a home help who had looked after the house while his mother was dying. They wore headscarves, men’s boots, and big aprons covered their chests and skirts giving them a sexless, surgical look. At the top of the picture the tree’s highest branch stuck into a strip of sky among the tenement chimneys. He remembered a Blake engraving of a grey ocean with an arm sticking out of a wave, the hand clutching at the empty sky. Another Blake engraving showed a tiny pair of lovers watching a small frenzied figure set foot on a ladder so thin and high that the top rested in the sickle of a moon. A caption said, “I want! I want!” Thaw drew a moon in the sky above the treetop.

*

Lanark is a simple and in some ways familiar story: a young boy growing up in Glasgow in the years after the second world war discovers he is unlike other boys, that he loves reading and painting. To the consternation of his parents and teachers, he refuses to let his creative ambition be defined by the demands of a system geared towards making money. Thaw goes to college and there begins to find friends who are at least partially of the same mind, though his continuing difficulties in forming relationships with the opposite sex, coupled with chronic illness and an obsessive, irascible temperament, combine to plunge him into a spiral of depression and poor physical health from which he fails ultimately to escape. Thaw dies tragically, in a kind of accidental suicide, and then seems to pass into a hell that proves to be nothing more than a starker, darker portrayal of the world he has left.

Is Unthank one of Duncan’s murals, a kind of John Martin-like vista of horror revealing the corruption and wrongheadedness of the contemporary political landscape? Is Unthank a warning – a doomsday scenario – or merely an accurate depiction of the world as we currently experience it? Alasdair Gray’s Lanark has been described as the novel that kickstarted the Scottish literary renaissance – James Kelman, Alan Warner, Janice Galloway and Irvine Welsh all cite him as a life-changing influence. Scotland’s makar, Jackie Kay, insists that it was meeting and talking with Alasdair Gray as a teenager that gave her the confidence to think of herself as ‘a writer’. We should also note that it was an Englishman and a science fiction writer – Anthony Burgess – who first hailed Lanark as ‘a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom’.

Lanark is important to Scotland, important to science fiction, important to modernism. It is novels of of such passionate ambition that reinvigorate the whole idea of literature for a new generation. Some of them – Lanark, for example – will continue to do so, for one generation after another.

#weird2016: Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#weird2016: The Witch

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

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

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

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

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

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

#weird2016: Ana Kai Tangata by Scott Nicolay

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

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

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

Good opener.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guess what? He’s right.

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

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

“May I ask you a question, Detective?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

#weird2016: ‘The Devil is in the Coincidence’: two American horror stories

TL;DR: Buy these books. Read them now.

AHFOG.TremblayThe first indication that anything is wrong in the lives of the two sisters in Paul Tremblay’s 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts is when the older girl, Marjorie, begins telling scary stories. Meredith, known to everyone as Merry, is used to playing story-games with her beloved big sister, but she’s never heard anything like this before. Instead of adapting fairy tales in her usual manner, Marjorie tells Merry all about the Great Molasses Flood in Boston in 1919. When Merry, horrified, asks her if the story is something she found on the internet, Marjorie insists the details of the disaster were lodged inside her all along:

‘I don’t know. I woke up yesterday and just sort of knew the story, like it was something that’s always been there in my head. Stories are like that sometimes, I think. Even real ones. And I know this one was a horrible, terrible, no-good story, but I – I can’t stop thinking about it, you know? I wonder what it was like to be there, what it was like to be Maria, to see and smell and hear and feel what she felt right that second before the wave got her. I’m sorry, I can’t explain it well, but I just wanted to tell you, Merry. I wanted to share it with you. Okay?’

Later that same day, there is a disturbing scene at the dinner table when Marjorie and her mother Sarah start talking about an ‘appointment’ that Merry knows nothing about. The girls’ father, David, insists they say grace – something else that has never happened before. We learn that David has recently lost his job, that the whole family has been under stress as a result. But it soon becomes obvious that more sinister forces are at work here, something to do with Marjorie, and that the adults are increasingly in conflict over what to do about it. Sarah feels sure that her daughter is suffering from some kind of mental illness, and that the conventional methods – medical treatment and psychiatric counselling – are the best way forward. David, with time on his hands and resentment brewing, has come to believe that his daughter’s sickness is the devil’s work, that a demon is living inside her and that the only way to dislodge it is through God’s intercession. He begins consulting a priest, Father Wanderley, who offers the Barratts a way forward, an opportunity to remove the demon and rid themselves of their financial worries at the same time. Against her better judgement, Sarah agrees. As the atmosphere inside the house darkens, and the truth about what is going on becomes ever more confused, Marjorie herself seems desperate to communicate her predicament to the only person she still trusts – her sister Merry:

‘I’m not well, Merry. I don’t mean to frighten you, I’m sorry… You have to remember that story about the two sisters. You have to remember all my stories because there are – there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out, but you have to remember the story about the two sisters especially. Okay? You have to. Please say “okay”.’

Marjorie’s terrifying experiences are brilliantly conveyed at one remove. Because Merry is only a child, she finds it difficult to tell where fantasy begins and reality leaves off. Eight-year-old Merry barely understands how bad the situation really is – but her older self knows, and as Tremblay has skilfully interwoven the first-hand observations of child-Merry with the insights of Merry-grown-up, we as readers are better able to appreciate the ambiguity of what actually occurred. These narrative sections are intercut with two extended interjections from a horror blogger, detailing and analysing the TV series based around the events at the Barratt home. That Tremblay’s fictional horror fan carries the same name as a real blogger and is liberally based – with her full consent – around her online personality is a further breaking of the fourth wall in a novel that is continually inventive and surprising, playing with our expectations and then subverting them again. There is no doubt that Tremblay is fully in command of his genre materials. He is also a very good writer. A Head Full of Ghosts has everything one could wish for in a horror novel, keeping faith with the tenets of the genre whilst remaining fully aware of itself as a literary entity:

I wondered what [this Father Wanderley] looked like. Was he young or old, tall or short, skinny or fat? Then I focussed on more particular and peculiar details, like what if he had big knuckles on his hands, or what if one leg was shorter than the other. Could he touch the tip of his nose with his tongue like my friend Cara could? Did he like pickles on his cheeseburgers? Did his smile crinkle up the skin around his eyes? Would he yawn if he watched me yawn? What did his voice sound like that Dad would like him so much?

It is this intricate level of characterisation that is missing from so many generic horror novels, much to their detriment. And it is largely due to writing like this – vivid, imaginative, grounded as hell – that Tremblay’s novel remains genuinely frightening right the way to the end. We’re scared because we care, because Tremblay’s skill as a writer has allowed us to entirely suspend our disbelief. That he keeps us guessing about the truth even beyond the final page is the icing on the cake.

It is impossible to read this novel and not think of The Exorcist, but Tremblay utilises his references so cogently, so knowingly, that they are definitively a feature and not a bug. As Catriona Ward’s recent debut Rawblood makes use of classic gothic tropes to create a novel that is simultaneously traditional and thoroughly modern in its affect and scope, so A Head Full of Ghosts turns its spotlight upon the works, themes and imagery of the 1970s/80s horror boom to reveal a multilayered metafiction that is also wholly satisfying as story. Those readers who are unreasonably devoted to the current North American horror scene will no doubt enjoy checking off the personages Tremblay has chosen to name-check – Stephen Graham Jones and Ian Rogers turn up in unexpected places, as does a certain Dr Navidson, whilst Tremblay also nods to himself in the mirror in passing – but for those with healthier reading habits, these self-referential games will neither impede nor intrude upon the action. It is more important to note the subtler reference, through Tremblay’s protagonist Merry, to Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another story of two troubled sisters in which a certain Merricat Blackwood proves to be a similarly unreliable narrator.

This book is a keeper, one to own in hardback if you can. And the good newsDADR.Tremblay is that Tremblay’s new novel is hardly less impressive. Another moving portrait of family life, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock deals with the aftermath of the sudden and unexplained disappearance of fourteen-year-old Tommy Sanderson from a patch of local wilderness known as Devil’s Rock. Tommy was a good kid, popular with his friends and loved by his family. He was doing well at school, had no known problems with drugs or alcohol, and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. The friends who were with him on the night he went missing initially have no explanation for what has happened, and it is down to Tommy’s mother Elizabeth and his younger sister Kate, both still in shock, to delve deeper into the mystery of Tommy’s recent private life. As pages from Tommy’s journal make increasingly disturbing reference to an older boy named Arnold, so Kate in particular becomes convinced that Tommy’s friends, Luis and Josh, must know far more about Tommy’s whereabouts than they are letting on. Meanwhile, Elizabeth investigates what she believes may be a physical manifestation of Tommy’s ghost. When the truth of what happened that night finally comes out, it is more tragic and more horrifying than anyone involved in the search has hitherto suspected.

This is a sad and often harrowing story, eloquently told. As the boys’ fascination with and dependency on Arnold increases, I found myself more and more reminded of a recent and tragic case in Britain in which a gifted and well-loved teenager was groomed online and finally murdered by a psychopathic youth, now serving a life sentence for the crime. Whether Tremblay knew of or was inspired by this case is finally irrelevant. What is most striking here is his intricately chilling depiction of what is essentially a seduction of the innocent by the corrupt.

When he first met Arnold, Josh had thought the whole seer shtick was exactly that, and Josh had pretended otherwise because it was fun and it was what their summer had become… Now he wasn’t so sure that there wasn’t something off or unsettling about Arnold, the repetition and sameness of their meeting place and discussions and beer drinking felt purposeful, like they were being worked on or worn down.

That Tremblay is able to give an unshrinking depiction of the monstrousness of Arnold’s deeds without simply dismissing their broken and previously abused perpetrator as a monster himself is entirely to the novel’s advantage. Tremblay’s writing shines throughout, giving a depth of characterisation and sense of place that raises Disappearance at Devil’s Rock far above the ordinary tensions of the missing-child thriller:

Allison pulls into Elizabeth’s driveway, as far up as she can go, and parks next to Janice’s car. The headlights flood her backyard. Busy moths and gnats float in the electric light above the tall and sagging grass. She shuts the car off, the spotlight disappears, and the secret nocturnal life of the backyard retreats into darkness again.

I also appreciate the fact that – as with A Head Full of Ghosts – Tremblay leaves room for Disappearance At Devil’s Rock to still be a novel of supernatural horror, if that’s the book the reader wants to be reading, thus proving once again that having literary values doesn’t mean selling out to the literary mainstream. Just because there’s a lot of schlock horror out there does not mean that horror is, by its nature, schlock.

It’s always risky to make generalisations, but if British horror fiction can be characterised as the literature of the outcast seeking its kind, it is interesting to see how we might think about American horror fiction as its polar opposite: the literature of the normal under siege. A quintessentially British horror narrative will typically feature a solitary, sometimes persecuted protagonist, seeking refuge from the world in an out-of-the-way and often creepy place, usually with uncanny results – think of Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, Alison Littlewood’s A Cold Season, Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood and almost anything by Joel Lane or Robert Aickman. British horror films adhere strongly to the same template – have a look at Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (based on a story by Robert Graves) or Philip Ridley’s Heartless for examples. What we find in American horror fiction, time and time again, is the story of an ordinary family living a contented life, whose equilibrium and wellbeing is suddenly thrown off kilter by an intrusion – often a supernatural intrusion – from outside. This model is particularly prevalent in American horror cinema – we think at once of now classic movies such as Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, Halloween, the first season of the TV drama American Horror Story and yes, The Exorcist. Reams and reams of criticism have been written about American horror cinema as a reflection of social anxiety, of post-Vietnam angst and Cold War (now post-9/11) paranoia. Much of this is interesting – see Adam Simon’s 2002 documentary The American Nightmare as an example – but whilst Paul Tremblay’s two novels do fit very snugly into the American canon of ‘bad things happening to good people’ stories, I would argue that A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock give us much more to think about than the oversimplified ‘middle classes in peril’ narratives presented by other, inferior works of horror literature and film, mainly because Tremblay writes about families and in particular teenagers from a position of deep empathy. The boys in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock are captured at a moment of traumatic change, not just in their outward circumstances but in their inner being. Flaunting the behaviour of adults, they are still nonetheless just children, and thus all the more vulnerable to adult duplicity:

On the video, Josh seems like an impostor, usually so at ease and charming around adults, he is barely audible, speaks carefully in small complete sentences, at times sounding dull-witted, and is asked to repeat an answer more than once. Luis was normally such a lovable wiseass, always willing to play that teen vs adult obfuscation game, you can ask but you won’t get anything out of me, but still make you smile and shake your head at the same time. In his interview, Luis is painfully polite and (unlike Josh) eloquent, expansive and detailed in his responses.

In both novels, we see the middle class family in crisis: gathering in the living room to watch a TV news bulletin, scanning the internet for clues, sending out for Chinese food because no one can summon the energy to cook, deferring instinctively to the police in all matters. Teenagers put in their headphones, blocking out stress and unwelcome instructions with the sound of music. Above all, each person migrates to their own room, staking out a defined piece of private territory as a means of survival. This is crisis behaviour we all recognise, practised by people who feel disempowered, in thrall to an often ineffectual authority, bludgeoned by information yet unable to extract anything of use or significance from it, reduced to being onlookers in their own lives. We do not scorn or laugh at these people, because we are these people. Tremblay makes it easy for us to feel their distress, because what he has in fact painted is a pretty convincing picture of our own worst nightmares. When something bad happens, what is there left for us to do but retreat online and wait?

#weird2016: Slade House by David Mitchell

slade house.mitchellThe events of this short novel begin in 1979, when Nathan Bishop and his mother Rita arrive at the eponymous Slade House in response to an invitation from its châtelaine, Lady Norah Grayer. Rita is there to play the piano at one of Lady Norah’s soirées. Nathan, a complicated, lonely boy, is shown the grounds by Norah’s son Jonah, who suggests they play a game of tag called Fox and Hounds. Slade House is hard to find – Nathan and Rita pass by the gate twice without seeing it – and the place seems frozen in time somehow, a faerie landscape too perfect to be true. In the manner of all decent fairy tales, this turns out to be the case. Norah and Jonah have an ulterior motive in inviting the Bishops into their domain. That neither of them get to leave would seem par for the course.

I’m nonplussed by Slade House, in pretty much the same way I was nonplussed by The Bone Clocks. You don’t have to have read The Bone Clocks to make sense of this book, although how much you enjoy it may depend on how much you enjoyed – or would enjoy – the earlier novel. We’re back in the land of soul vampires, of the eternally warring clans of Anchorites and Horologists. As in The Bone Clocks, the fantasy tropes Mitchell employs are of the most predictable kind, the most basic of base metals. That Mitchell chooses to essentially repeat his basic plot – an Engifted individual arrives at the house, finds their most earnest desires fulfilled, and then gets their soul sucked through a straw (kind of literally, actually) by devious semi-immortal twins – through the first four of these five interlinked short stories could be read as either daring or desperate, depending on your point of view. Oh, and then Marinus turns up. Whether this pleases you or pisses you off will, once again, be down to how deeply you’re in love with David Mitchell’s concept of the mega-novel and the characters that recur within its endlessly expanding galleries and corridors.

It’s a weird one, isn’t it? Would we even be talking about this book if it weren’t by David Mitchell? In terms of its invention and originality it is fairly weak beer. Mitchell has to employ vast tonnages of exposition to make sense of everything, and had this been the first manuscript Mitchell ever turned in I don’t think he’d have got all that far with it. But Mitchell is a part of our literary landscape now, and – as is inevitably the case when an author becomes enshrined in this way – everything he writes is considered to be interesting at some level.

Which Slade House  – undoubtedly and against all greater logic – still is. What makes me draw back from giving this book an emphatic thumbs down is – as with The Bone Clocks – its glorious readability. There are slips and slides even here: Mitchell seems to have fallen into the habit of making everyone talk in Noughties Estuary, even when it’s not appropriate to the character in question (I don’t think the seriously posh Chloe Chetwynd would naturally talk about ‘legging it’, for example). Nathan Bishop is an engaging character and I enjoyed the chauvinistic cop Gordon Edmonds as I tend to enjoy all Mitchell’s bad guys. But elsewhere the characterisation tends towards the broad-brush – see the students in ‘Oink Oink’ in particular. It would be pedantic and boring of me to mention the ‘how can these narratives be possible when the narrator ends up dead???’ thing, though not mentioning it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. But Mitchell’s command of the English language is so effortless, so welcoming. Mitchell is a natural storyteller – you can’t help but follow where he wants to take you.

As a writer I have always felt a great affinity with Mitchell’s shopworn, 1970s-housing-estate Britain – I am deeply attached to Black Swan Green in particular – and there’s plenty of that on display here.  I have serious criticisms of this book. It is difficult to understand how Mitchell’s cartoonish use of fantasy archetypes might be taken seriously – I think I’d be more sympathetic to the enterprise if the whole thing were a send-up, but I don’t think it is. There’s too much (cough) soul-searching for that, too much clunky tying-in of this story’s somewhat black-and-white morality with realworld politics. It’s all a bit of a junkyard. Some nice stuff here but what to make of it?

And yet (as with The Bone Clocks) I can’t help but admit I thoroughly enjoyed reading Slade House. How do you explain that, except by saying that by worming his way so deeply and so fatally into our subconscious, Mitchell is – like his Anchorites – still capable of genuine magic. Not sure whether to recommend this book or not. But I guess if you’re a Mitchell fan you’ll own a copy already.