Category Archives: events

Whoops (I Did it Again)

I spent part of this bank holiday weekend at London’s Frightfest. I know I swore I’d not go back, but the company of friends, the wonderful atmosphere of the Fest itself, and the hope that maybe – just maybe – I’d see something astounding tempted me to give the thing another go. I had a great time just being in town, and loved the experience of just being at FF as I always do. The films, though. I know it’s hardly fair of me to comment as time and expense (and, this year, a train strike) meant I only got to see a small percentage of the complete line-up, but oh dear. Aside from a highly commendable and hugely entertaining Mad Max homage called Turbo Kid (chopper bikes and old comics instead of war machines – an appealing aesthetic, I thought, as well as a lively, funny, knowing script that played out as if the writer actually gave a damn) none of the films I saw possessed so much as a scrap of originality or merit. Worse, much of what was on offer seemed to have a retrograde vibe in terms of its subject matter – and not in a good way.

Every so often we get bursts of discussion about conservatism within the horror genre: namely, whether horror is an inherently conservative form of storytelling – over-dependent on tired tropes, antediluvian social attitudes and plot-it-by-numbers stereotypes. Not enough discussion, evidently. Why is it that whenever I start to feel optimistic about a new era of horror cinema, along comes a film like Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click and pulls that particular rug right out from under my feet. And again, not in a good way. It’s a shame Bakhia (who was present for the screening and – of course! – seemed like a really nice guy) wasn’t doing a Q&A at the showing I went to because I did actually have a question I’d have been genuinely fascinated to hear the answer to:

“Mr Bakhia, don’t you think films in which the women characters exist solely to be humiliated, raped and finally killed – in which the women characters’ sole purpose within the plot is to provide fuel for an argument/feud/vendetta between characters of the male gender and where in fact there is no plot driver except that an adult woman happened to have consensual sex with another adult – don’t you think films like that are just a tiny bit eighties???”

I think what Bakhia might (and I say that very tentatively because he shot so wide of the target) have been going for was a kind of Euro/US spin on Park Chan-wook’s mighty Vengeance trilogy. Personally, I would count such a misguided homage as an insult to Park. Landmine Goes Click is pointless, tasteless, boring and one of the very worst films I’ve seen recently. Right from the start, the omens weren’t good. In the few words he did address to the audience prior to the screening, Bakhia suggested that the story idea had originally arisen out of a brainstorming session. What’s the betting that the participants in said session were all lads..?

More worrying still, the movie currently has a rating of 7.6 on iMDb.

What actually went through the writer/director’s head? What emotions did he want to arouse? Because aside from the movie’s inherent derivativeness, nothing about the film is remotely shocking. Does Bakhia think horror films are just for men? Does he think men don’t care about story, so long as they get to see one angry dude call his fiancee a whore and set her up to be raped?

I’m asking, because I’m genuinely curious.

I was mulling all this over (during the second, excruciatingly tedious half of yet another film in which demons/witches seemed rapaciously intent on robbing a teenage girl of her unborn baby) and asking myself for the umpteenth time: is it them, or me? Is it even possible to make a good, commercially viable horror film? Not namby-pamby arthouse horror (my favourite kind – sigh) but the full-on, genuine article with its roots stuck firmly in the genre and that anyone who regularly watches horror would be OK with naming as such?

If so, what is it about these films that lift them clear of the dross heap, and why aren’t there more of them?

It’s interesting to think about (more fun than watching Hellions, anyway, and to think the same guy directed Pontypool – what the actual fuck??) and in a pre-emptive strike I’m going to answer my own questions:

1) Yes, it’s possible.

2) A decent script.

3) Because way too many writers/directors think a promising idea is the same as an actual story.

I’m now going to illustrate my answers with some examples. It so happens that shortly before I went to FrightFest, I happened to see an article over at Movies Films and Flicks in which Mark Hofmeyer set out to canvas opinion on the top ten horror films of the 21st century – so far. He culled figures and ratings from many sources – you can see the full breakdown here and the whole article makes fascinating reading. Whilst I may not agree with all the placings (although Mark’s personal five aren’t a bad line-up, actually) I found it a fun game to play. I scribbled down my own list, which soon ballooned to twenty and I’m still fiddling around with it. Here (and I stress in no particular order) is where I am with it so far:

Kill List (Ben Wheatley). A returning soldier faces problems reintegrating himself with civilain society. A charismatic friend (read ‘bit of a dick’) offers to cut him in on a high-paying, er, contract he’s landed. After a long, slow build-up that has more in common with the cinema of Mike Leigh than anything you might expect to find in a generic horror film, things suddenly get very nasty very fast. This film is hard to watch but it is a stand-out.

Wake Wood (David Keating). Remembering the quiet and chilling elegance of this Wicker-Man-style movie (which received far less attention than it warranted) makes it all the more painful to learn that its director went on to make the derivative and valueless coven ‘chiller’ Cherry Tree as premiered at FrightFest this weekend.

Thirst (Park Chan-wook). A reimagining of Zola’s novel Therese Raquin – with added vampires! I was totally swept away by this when I saw it – but then it is Park Chan-wook, so you can’t go wrong really. Stunning and beautiful.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook). Park’s first English-language movie mixes familiar Hollywood horror tropes with Korean revenge drama and some of the most luscious cinematography ever to grace a screen. I’d watch this again in a heartbeat and you should, too.

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli). The best thing about this one is that it has the courage of its convictions. Not a lot happens – but the tension generated is mighty AND it stands up to repeated viewings. I thought this was going to be shit when I went to see it – the death throes of the Blair Witch movement – but I was more than happy to be wrong. The sequels get more and more stupid (as sequels tend to do) but whilst they’re moderately entertaining, the original first movie is actually worthy of a place in the canon.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook). Park’s use of music and colour (especially the colour red) in this film is astounding. Whilst a lot of people cite Oldboy as the jewel in the Vengeance crown, I would have to cite Lady Vengeance, the third instalment in the trilogy, as my personal favourite.

The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington). I’ve watched this about four times and I still love it. A quiet, slow, highly unusual ghost story about recovering from grief and predicting the future. Laura Linney, especially, shines. The final fifteen minutes provides a particularly glorious sequence, shot almost entirely without dialogue, which feels genuinely iconic.

The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm). Far and away the best of the spate of exorcism films that arrived seemingly out of nowhere between 2009-2012. The first half hour plays out like a real-life documentary about a boy-preacher growing up to become a professional exorcist. He’s mostly lost his faith but he still wants to help people. He’s called to a remote farm, where a young girl has been behaving strangely. The ending of this film is rather predictable, sadly, but there’s some great stuff along the way and several moments of genuine terror (all too rare in horror films these days).

Wolf Creek (Greg McLean). Four friends camping in the outback. Their van breaks down. Someone comes to ‘help’. Yeah, you know how it’s going to play out, but the first hour (in which nothing much happens apart from us getting to know the protagonists) sets this movie apart from its Texas-Chainsaw-wannabe cousins. It’s horrible. I don’t think I’d watch this again but it should be in the canon.

The Descent (Neil Marshall). Another one I’ve watched a lot. The first hour, in which backstory is established and relationships are set up, is brilliant. The moment when the women realise that no one knows where they are – a genuine frisson of terror. Amazing performances and some really good stuff in general. The third quarter – a lot of dashing through tunnels to escape monsters, basically – is too generic for my liking (less is more, people) but I still love this film. The ending is a hideous masterstroke. (A masterstroke that The Descent 2 seeks to obliterate, incidentally, which only proves the point that sequels – aside from the Alien tetralogy – only serve to weaken the original concept and are generally a bad idea.)

Byzantium (Neil Jordan). A common-or-garden vampire movie raised above the common by a gloriously measured, poetic script by Moira Buffini based on her own stage play. Lovely performances, plus it’s set in Hastings, which made it a real treat for Chris and me particularly. A perfect small film, and about a hundred times better than the disappointingly-scripted and laughably derivative Only Lovers Left Alive, which ended up hogging the bulk of the vampire-love the following year.

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn). There’s no good way to describe this other than ‘a bloodbath’, with Ryan Gosling playing an angsty gangster and Kristin Scott Thomas as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and the Countess Bathory. (Note: best screen death evah.) The body count is pretty much total but this movie has a stunning aesthetic and is just so in-yer-face you come away reeling. I like Winding Refn a lot – like an extrovert Von Trier, he just doesn’t give a stuff who he offends – but I do understand why some people don’t.

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro). Before he was famous. I like this riff on the vampire movie even better than I like The Devil’s Backbone. Stunning sense of place, gorgeous palette, great characterisation. I honestly have no idea why this isn’t better known.

Audition (Miike Takashi). It’s the needle scene that gets people talking and seeing as it’s one of the most uncomfortable sequences in horror cinema it’s not hard to see why. There is so much more to Audition, though. The way Miike plays tricks with time and chronology, for one. The nightmarish sadness of the story, for another. Mysterious and – dare I say it – beautiful, this film is a must-see for anyone interested in horror cinema. I’ve watched it three times now and it gets better each time. Be warned: it is genuinely scary.

The Box (Richard Kelly). Based on Richard Matheson’s ‘deal with the devil’ story ‘Button, Button’, no one seemed to like this when it came out. It gets a bit silly towards the end, but I actually think this movie is an overlooked gem. Weird, and weirdly compelling. One to see twice.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel). Based on true events. I found parts of this almost impossible to watch, but the characterisation, sense of place and raw, brittle style of the cinematography make it a powerful social indictment as well as a horrifyingly gripping examination of events in a small Australian community. Be careful with this one – it really is strong meat – but it’s an amazing piece of film making and should be recognised as such.

The Monk (Dominik Moll). An unusual, beautiful and completely engrossing cinematic experience. This film isn’t nearly as well known as it should be, and is a perfect demonstration of how familiar tropes can be made to seem original and to live again. Highly recommended.

Requiem (Hans Christian Schmid). The ‘real’ exorcist. You won’t get the crucifix masturbation or spider walk scenes with this one. But what you will get is the story of a devout and highly gifted young woman starting college, trying to make the adjustment from living in a small provincial community and assailed by forces – both emotional and spiritual – that seem beyond her control. This film is brilliant: quiet yet disturbing and highly affecting. Again, inspired by true events and a deeply personal examination of the tensions between the real and the imagined. I love this film.

The Silent House (Gustavo Hernandez). If you liked Paranormal Activity you’ll probably enjoy this, too. The film aroused a deal of curiosity and comment for being shot in a single take. But there’s more here than technical panache. There’s a fascinating mystery, a pile of raw tension and a genuine sense of unease about the whole thing. Does a great trick with timelines, too. Should be part of the canon.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley). Oh, this movie. Wheatley’s follow-up to Kill List, and I’m not even sure it can properly be called horror, although it is about a distinctly oddball couple who go on a killing spree whilst visiting a pencil museum and other esoteric visitor attractions in the north of England. I don’t care what you call it — it is brilliant, chilling and also very, very funny. Wonderful, wonderful script.

I’m still quibbling with myself over the inclusion of Wolf Creek, because it breaks a lot of my own rules for decent horror (in that anything belonging to the subgenre known popularly as torture porn is a lazy excuse for a horror movie and should earn instant disqualification from discussion on grounds of being complete crap). But the set-up was so good – the extended, dawdling exposition of the characters’ relationships to one another, the sense of place, the documentary feel that I always enjoy – and the movie had such a strong impact on me at the time of seeing that I’m letting it stay on there for now. Miike Takashi’s Audition of course is a cheat inclusion – it first aired in 1999 – but it is such a strong film and so close to being 21st century that it has to be on there, I think. (The Blair Witch Project, another notable 1999 entry, could well qualify on similar grounds.) You could easily argue that Snowtown isn’t a horror film at all, but true crime. However, as one of the most brilliant, authentic and genuinely horrific films I’ve ever seen, I felt compelled to put it forward. Both Requiem and Only God Forgives could be subject to similar quibbles but who cares – both make generous use of horror themes, and I think they’re both, in their very different ways, astounding pieces of cinema.

The others all easily qualify as straight-up horror, though. Looking at them as a group, I can see they fall into several distinct categories: social (Kill List, Sightseers, The Box, The Last Exorcism), mythic (Thirst, Cronos, Byzantium, Wake Wood, The Monk), hauntings (The Mothman Prophecies, The Silent House, Paranormal Activity) and secret past (Stoker, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Descent). Both supernatural and non-supernatural horror are represented, as are contemporary and historical settings. A good coverage of themes and approaches, then. But the one attribute shared by all is an emphasis on the revelation of plot through character.

I’m not going to try and argue that all horror has to be ‘quiet horror’ or that horror cinema will always leave more of an impact when the violence is kept off the screen. What I would argue though is that in order for horror films to be effective, they must offer us a story to become engrossed in. The shattering, look-away-now violence in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (one of FrightFest’s more noteworthy premieres) would be meaningless and therefore ineffectual without our knowledge of the characters, our nervous and wary investment in their story. We wouldn’t care half so much about what happens to Sarah at the end of The Descent if we hadn’t spent half the movie’s run-time getting to know her, following her backstory and learning about the intricate and uneasy web of relationships between her group of friends. Movies like Wake Wood, Cronos, Byzantium and The Monk are all based upon what you might call horror staples, but what raises them above hundreds of run-of-the-mill films that utilize the same tropes is the thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive way they are written.

More even than the stunning visuals, what distinguishes truly innovative and original horror movies like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and The Mothman Prophecies – making them new classics of the genre – are their intricate scripts.

This goes for all horror writing of course, not just films. Stephen King has always understood this in a way that James Herbert never did. In King, character (as revealed through backstory, interior monologue, interaction with other characters, engaged writing throughout) is always bigger than whatever ‘horror’ is coming down the line. King’s novels are about people, and how they deal with adversity, failure, change and the intervention of evil or trauma in their lives. Herbert’s novels, on the other hand, are mainly interested in the coming splatpocalypse. The characters in The Rats or The Fog – like the backpackers in the Hostel movies or Jigsaw’s victims in the Saw franchise – are being set up from page one to die in any one of a number of repulsive and excruciating ways, which is their main and only purpose in what passes for the story. Their backstories are brief and broadly generic. After all, why waste time explaining a character’s lifelong immersion in the works of Kierkegaard when they’re going to have their head removed with a buzz saw in just a moment?

I’m not sure what description to apply to stuff like this, but I would argue passionately that it isn’t horror. The best horror fiction (in whatever form) reveals to us something about the world, something about ourselves. We read Lovecraft because of his writerly conviction that the world we see around us is not the world that truly is. We watch American Horror Story (although this series also is far from perfect – more on that another day perhaps) because we are fascinated by the hidden connections between events and between characters, because we want to discover how the storylines are interwoven and what these intricate relationships will later reveal. We read Stephen King because we can imagine ourselves so easily into his milieu. We know his people and the small towns they live in. We probably went to school with some of them. We want to know what happens to them next.

A horror story narrative should be a whole thing, a tightly woven tapestry in which people and events are intricately interrelated. A parade of gruesome-death set pieces is not a narrative, it is a series of not very interesting events. Viewers who haven’t seen too many horror films might find themselves on the wrong end of a few jump-scares, to be sure, but keep feeding them this schlock and even the hitherto uninitiated will soon pick up the rules. Then they’ll be bored, buzz saw or no buzz saw. They will end up feeling that horror isn’t for them.

In giving Chris a (mercifully) brief resume of the films I’d seen at FrightFest, I expressed regret that (because of the train strike) I hadn’t been able to see the one movie I had been excited about – Bernard Rose’s new adaptation of Frankenstein. Rose has a good track record with horror films, most famously with Candyman (very nearly a very good film, and worth experiencing just for Philip Glass’s amazing score) and with his earlier, less well known movie Paperhouse, an adaptation of Catherine Storr’s novel for younger readers, Marianne Dreams. Marianne Dreams was a touchstone work for me from an early age, and telling Chris about the movie adaptation brought it all back to me: the immortal strangeness of a world in which the greatest horror might be expressed in an image of a house with no internal staircase, or a ring of sentient stones marking a boundary and blocking your exit. Thinking about this story – and Marjorie-Ann Watts’s haunting illustrations – still has the power to transport me back to a time when I would avoid reading sections of the novel too close to bedtime, because the anxiety they aroused in me was so intense.

(And not a buzz saw in sight.)

Those of us who love horror fiction love its archetypes: the haunted house, the ghost from the past, the road through the forest, the person you have been told you should never speak to. These archetypes – what are commonly called tropes but that are actually more than that, more powerful, more evocative, more like myths – are important, because they form a wellspring of story. We each have our favourites – those that resonate most with us – and the reason a favourite is a favourite will always be different.

And this is the key, really. The reason so many commercial horror movies fail at being horror is that they do not take the tropes as wellsprings – as inspiration – but dollop them on to our screens as the finished article. Horror movies written by committee – by brainstorming – will almost always be pallid reiterations of cliche, because a simple exposition of archetypes is not the same thing as an affecting story. Such archetypes can only be brought fully to life by personal response. Why am I drawn to this subject matter? What is my individual response to it? What is it that made me want to tell this story in the first place?

Why does it matter to me as a writer, in other words. If I cannot answer that question, the chances are the material I produce won’t be much cop.

ENDNOTE 1: If I do decide to throw Wolf Creek off my list, I’ll be replacing it with Philip Ridley’s Heartless. Here is a fine example of a film that takes a classic archetype – the Faustian bargain – and brings it superbly to new life through personal interpretation. Hardly surprising, from the writer/director who brought us the minor masterpiece The Passion of Darkly Noon and whose chief occupation is as a playwright. We should also note that Heartless was originally premiered at FrightFest, so those guys do get it right at least part of the time.

ENDNOTE 2: I feel it would be wrong to end this piece without at least acknowledging the catastrophic imbalance (in favour of male writers and directors) that still exists within horror cinema. The fact that this situation is perpetuated throughout cinema does not make it any better. I want to write more about this, and about what it means for the genre, but it is a huge subject, and needs more research. I’m therefore leaving it for another day. But it’s something we should all be thinking about in the meantime.

Mircon memories

Chris and I have just returned from Barcelona, where we spent the weekend as guests of Mircon, the 2014 Hispacon, which was held in the district of Montcada i Reixac, a short distance to the north of the city centre.

We had an amazing time. As with our trip to Aviles in 2013, we were made to feel incredibly welcome. The passion and commitment of the Spanish SF community is remarkable and inspiring. It was fantastic to see again some of the people we’d met on our previous visit, and we equally loved spending time with our fabulous fellow guests Karin Tidbeck and Aliette de Bodard. A highlight of the weekend for me was the panel I shared with Karin on New SF and New Weird. Another highlight was exploring the city of Barcelona itself – a stunning place, and instantly captivating, as all great cities are.

There are so many people to thank – Miguel and Gemma for taking care of the practicalities, Ian and Cristina for their conversation and comradeship as always, Angel Luis Sucasas for asking the questions (Angel interviewed me for El Pais back in July and it was wonderful to meet and talk with him in person), Carmen Torres and Laura Naranjo for their work in translating Maquinas del Tiempo (again, it was so lovely to meet them in person) and Sofia Rhei, for being there and for being amazing, and for making all this happen in the first place. I would like above all to thank Susana Arroyo and Silvia Schettin of Fata Libelli, and James and Marian Womack of Nevsky Prospects – you are fantastic people, and it is a privilege and a delight to work with you.

With Silvia Schettin (left) and Sofia Rhei

With Silvia Schettin (left) and Sofia Rhei

Anybody home..?

Anybody home..?

 

With James Womack on the New Weird panel

With James Womack on the New Weird panel

My LonCon schedule

I’ve packed seventy boxes of books this week, so please forgive brevity. The house-move is next Friday, so there is likely to be a blogging hiatus while we get ourselves sorted, but I’ll be looking forward to posting again as soon as I have a) internet and b) an office space that is halfway sane.

In the meantime, here is my schedule for the WorldCon. I have to say that from what I’ve seen so far (my own panel events, plus those of friends and colleagues I’ve been made party to) the programming for LonCon looks fantastic. The committee have clearly been working very hard to bring us a programme that is adventurous, relevant, diverse, entertaining and enjoyable to be involved with and I for one want to congratulate them on that.

I’m looking forward to LonCon. All the more so because I’m hoping we’ll have all our books out of boxes by then.

Friday 10:00 – 11:00 Don’t Tell Me What To Think: Ambiguity in SF and Fantasy

What does ambiguity (of setting, plot, identity, and so on) bring to a work of fantastic fiction? How is ambiguity created, and what effect does it have? Does it always work? Can a story be too ambiguous? The panel will discuss stories by Thomas M. Disch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and M. John Harrison, exploring exactly how they achieve their effects, and asking what divides a satisfyingly ambiguous story from an unsatisfying one.

(David Hebblethwaite, Nina Allan, Scott Edelman, Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

Friday 11.30 – 12.00 Reading (probably something from The Race)

Friday 16:30 – 17.30 NewCon Press launch event

This event will see the official launch of The Race, along with a thoroughly revised edition of Chris Beckett’s novel Marcher, Adam Roberts’s collection of reviews and essays Sibilant Fricative, and the new NewCon anthology Paradox. I’m very much looking forward to this. Do please come along, say hello and get your signed copies!

Saturday 10:00 – 11:00 The Lexicon Gap

Prose Stylings, Voice, and Narrative Structure: As a reader, why should I care? These terms are often thrown around, but what do they really mean? And more importantly how should a reader translate them in to something useful for evaluating what they read?

(Alistair Rennie, Nina Allan, James Patrick Kelly, Stanislaw Krawczyk, Gary Wolfe)

Sunday 13:30 – 15:00 The Wrong Apocalypse

Zombies, aliens, and monsters from the deep are all very well, but — unlike climate change and other ongoing environmental damage — they’re not actually likely to cause the downfall of industrial civilisation. Are contemporary TV and film neglecting the apocalypse-in-progress? Where can ecological perspectives be found in SF and fantasy on screen, and how are they portrayed? What are the strengths and weaknesses of visual climate narratives, compared to their prose counterparts?

(Ramez Naam, Nina Allan, Jeff VanderMeer, Tiffani Angus, Ivaylo Shmilev)

Sunday 16.30 – 18.00 The Darkening Garden

John Clute’s The Darkening Garden (2007) argues for horror as a core mode of twenty-first century fiction. It proposes a narrative “grammar” for horror stories that progresses from SIGHTING through THICKENING to the REVEL and then AFTERMATH. What implications does this structure have for our understanding of horror, as a commercial genre and as a literary form? What works escape its grasp, and why?

(Paul Kincaid, Paul March-Russell, Nina Allan, Lisa Tuttle, Jeff VanderMeer)

Memory Palace and other stories

“At the moment we seem to be in a place with narrative fiction where there are people quite happy to write very straight-up nineteenth century realist stuff and people who want to play Derridean language games exploring textuality. I would like to say that there is a third interesting thing that fiction writers can do, which is to take on, in a speculative realist way, scientific ideas about the self and to engage with social complexity: how memory constitutes itself. So for all these reasons thinking about the self is important to me.”

(Hari Kunzru, in an interview with 3am Magazine)

We were at the V&A on Friday, attending the exhibition of graphic arts, installation and text entitled Memory Palace, based around the 10,000-word novella of the same name by Hari Kunzru. The exhibition is something of a new concept. Instead of working with a pre-existing text, the expo’s curators, Laurie Britton Newall and Ligaya Salazar, commissioned Kunzru to write an original work, knowing from the outset that it was to form the basis of a collaboration between one writer and 20 visual artists. (The curators explain more about this process in an essay here.)

I’ve been keen to catch up with Kunzru’s fiction for quite some time now. I’ve read his journalistic non-fiction with great pleasure, and his novels come highly recommended by critics I trust. Also, Kunzru has a refreshingly open and constructive attitude to science fiction, a fact readily apparent from this piece he wrote about Michael Moorcock for The Guardian in 2011. As explicitly full-on SF, his novella ‘Memory Palace’ seemed the ideal place to start and I was keen to visit the expo. I purchased the book more than a month ago in readiness, but due to an insanely expanding list of reading commitments I found the day of our trip to the V&A dawning with the novella still unread.

As it turned out, this was a good thing, because it meant I finished reading the text just shy of London Bridge, and stepped into the world of the exhibition just a short while later with Kunzru’s story still headily intact in my mind. In this state of full receptiveness, the exhibits seemed like a natural extension of what I’d just read, a logical enhancement of the experience. The quality of the graphic art was superlative. That the artists involved in the project were excited and inspired by Kunzru’s words – that they found them relevant and provoking and significant in their own lives – was movingly apparent in every piece on show. The work was also very beautiful. ‘Memory Palace’ shows us a radically unpleasant, dangerous and intensely possible-seeming vision of the future – yet, tellingly, the overall sensation evoked by this exhibit is one of warmth and great humanity.

This exhibition has clearly made a big impression on people. Looking at the online write-ups though, the thing that strikes me is how little direct commentary there has been on the full text of Kunzru’s story itself. There seems to be a tacit acceptance of the curators’ assertion that ‘print … is losing its dominance as a deliverer of the written word’, that Memory Palace the exhibition – ‘a physically immersive illustrated story that explores the idea of an exhibition as a walk-in book’ – is in its way the determining experience, more complex and more complete than ‘Memory Palace’ the story that inspired it.

Personally, I would have to disagree. I loved the exhibition – but I know that I will remember it chiefly as a very beautiful illustration of Kunzru’s text. Walking among the exhibits was inspiring and exciting – but as an intellectual and creative experience it could not compare even remotely with my private, concentrated reading of Kunzru’s story as we rushed towards an early draft of the London he seemed to be describing.

For me, words on a page are still the most immersive and interactive of all media. Best of all, you don’t need a machine or even a power source to get involved with them – they can be produced and explored and made to shimmer by anyone armed with a pencil and a scrap of paper. Print losing its dominance as a deliverer of the written word? I have yet to be convinced, I’m afraid.

‘Memory Palace’ is set in London 500 years in the future. An electromagnetic event of seismic proportions has destroyed our digital present, plunging the world into a new version of the Dark Ages. London is ruled by the ‘Thing’, a class of warriors convinced that mankind’s only salvation lies in a return to the Edenic state. Technology is outlawed. The act of remembering is banned. As a member of a secret organization of ‘memorialists’, the narrator of ‘Memory Palace’ sits in prison awaiting interrogation. He believes it all but inevitable that his time in prison will end with his execution.

The table, the bed, the rivets in the metal door – nothing about this cell is specific. None of it carries a trace. I could be anywhere, at any time in history; there have always been places like this. One thing I know: the blankness is not an accident. It is the meaning of my cell, the message my captors want to convey to me. (p25)

‘Memory Palace’, with its taut, intense interchanges between prisoner and captor, instantly evokes memories of allied texts – Winston Smith’s conversations with O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984, Montag’s journey from law-enforcer to law-breaker in Fahrenheit 451, Ivan’s story of The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov – but in the power of its imagery, its elastically ironical, quicksand-silver use of language and the strength and originality of its London writing, this story gains through these resonances and is an essential and honourable addition to the core canon of science fictional dystopia. I tend to have a very physical reaction to writing I believe to be good, to be the real thing – and reading ‘Memory Palace’ made my heart rate increase, my breath quicken. To see a writer so perfectly achieve what he set out to do, to do it beautifully and with such conviction, is the greatest inspiration another writer could ask for.

I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to buy the book and read this story. I would also encourage those who do read this story and like it to remember to include it on their SF awards nominations ballots for 2014. There are always a good few complaints during awards season about the poor quality of short fiction available for nomination. There are plenty of private moments when I find myself thinking people don’t complain enough – but as with all categories, the quality work is out there, you just have to look for it, sometimes outside of the more obvious venues. I’ve already highlighted stories by Sofia Samatar, Elizabeth Knox and M. John Harrison (if you haven’t bought and read ‘Cave & Julia’ already, then do so NOW) as shining examples of stories that deserve support and recognition. Kunzru’s ‘Memory Palace’ is another, the kind of story I envy for its grace, its articulacy, its passion, both for the subject in hand and for the words used to explore it. This is the kind of SF I want to be reading – and to be writing.

(A quick afterword on the physical book. If you can’t get to London to see the exhibition itself, don’t worry, because Memory Palace the book is a stunningly lovely and readily portable version of many of the things you would see at the V&A, the exhibition in your pocket, as it were. It contains high quality reproductions of many of the graphic works, together witb preliminary sketches for the installations. Most importantly it contains the full text of ‘Memory Palace’ – the one thing the exhibition could not practically contain, but that is the rationale and pivotal component of the entire enterprise.)

Celsius 232

We’ve just returned from Aviles, in the Asturias region of Spain, after a very special weekend as guests of the festival of fantastic literature and film known as Celsius 232 (that’s Fahrenheit 451 in new money). We enjoyed a marvellous welcome from the festival’s organizers, and the level of interest and involvement on the part of those attending was exceptional. I was surprised and delighted to find that Stardust and Spin and The Silver Wind have all made their own small inroads into Spanish territory. German Menendez, who conducted the two-hander interview with me and Lauren Beukes on the Thursday, was amazingly well prepared and insightful, which made my first experience of appearing at an international festival a great pleasure as well as a privilege.

The highlight of the weekend for me though was meeting and talking with Spanish fans of my work and of fantastic literature generally, and I want to say a very special thank you to Yolanda, Sofia, both Susanas, Sergio, Felix and Pablo among many others for helping to make our time in Aviles so warmly memorable. (NB: you can read an interview I did with Yolanda Espineira here at Sense of Wonder.) Huge thanks also to Ian Watson and Cristina Macia for inviting us, and to our superhuman interpreter, Diego Garcia Cruz, without whom none of this would have been possible. It was a great gig.

After all, what could be better than watching Jason and the Argonauts on an open-air screen in a Spanish town on a summer’s evening, and finding out you’re still a little bit scared of Talos..?

 

 

 

Being interviewed by Yolanda - photo Chris Priest

70 years young

“We know him as a supporter of young writers, a stern critic of sloppy card tricks and cheap deceits. Just as we can never be certain when we are caught in his tricks, we can be certain of the man.”

(Which were just a few of Simon Spanton’s words to us after dinner.)

Today is Chris’s birthday, and on Friday evening a group of our wonderful friends and colleagues came together in a London pub to celebrate the occasion. We gathered at The Porcupine on Charing Cross Road, a venue we love for its friendliness, its great lunches, and its close proximity to some excellent bookshops and the Curzon cinema. It was a marvellous occasion – Chris deemed it easily his best birthday ever – and it was just fantastic to have so many of those who are most special to us all together in one very cheerful, very talkative throng. Simon Spanton and Al Reynolds made excellent and beautifully contrasting speeches, and when you realise that 2013 marks not just Chris’s 70th birthday, but also his fiftieth year as a writer and the publication of his thirteenth novel (fourteenth if you count The Dream Archipelago) it certainly seemed like there was much to celebrate. For Chris of course, but also for everyone who writes, works, reads, discusses and argues to make SFF the unique and uniquely stimulating literary landscape that it is. Once again, we’d like to offer our heartfelt thanks to those who turned out – some from quite some distance – to make the evening so hugely enjoyable and such a resounding success. It will live long in our memory. Our only regret is that we didn’t take more photos – but we were too busy talking!

Gerald and Georgie McMorrow

Helen and Ian Whates, Scott Bradfield, Paul McAuley, Al Reynolds

Erik Arthur, Paul Kincaid, Simon Spanton

John Berlyne, Marcus Gipps, Bella Pagan and a tiny bit of Emma Swift

Scott Bradfield, Judith Clute, Paul McAuley and I think that's the back of Maureen Mincaid Speller's head

Paul McAuley, Al Reynolds

Me, and of those not already mentioned, Simon Ings (foreground) and Sam Thompson (far end)

Launched!

We had a phenonmenal turnout for our joint PS/Eibonvale/Chomu launch last night. It was wonderful to see so many people, some of them writers I have known almost since the days of my first short story publications in Dark Horizons. Thanks to everyone who turned out – I know some of you travelled quite some distance  and it was thrilling to have you there – and thanks especially to Evie Wyld and her crew at the Review bookshop in Peckham, who provided such brilliant support and of course the excellent venue without which none of this would have been possible. You were amazing.

Fantastic Journeys

Rustblind and Silverbright is here! Every good book deserves a proper send-off, and I’m delighted to announce that Rustblind will be launched upon the world with all due ceremony – not to mention generous amounts of alcohol – at 7pm this coming Thursday, July 4th, from the excellent Review bookshop at 131 Bellenden Road SE15. That’s just 5 minutes’ walk from Peckham Rye station – head down Bellenden Road to the junction with Choumert Road. The bookshop is opposite The Victoria pub – you can’t miss it. Review is a wonderful independent and independently-minded bookshop, situated in a beautiful, tree-lined South London street (and any of you North Londoners out there about to protest that there is no such thing, just come along and see for yourselves!) with a designated events space and a selection of great cafes and pubs in the immediate vicinity. In short, it’s the perfect venue and we’re delighted that Review is hosting us.

Rustblind and Silverbright is David Rix of Eibonvale’s first solo editing project, and if this auspicious start is the way he means to go on, then the world of horror and slipstream is in for some fine treats in future, that’s for sure. I’ve had a sneak preview via the proof pdf, and I can tell you that the selection of stories on offer is really rather special. Clearly David is not the only one who keeps the subject of trains close to his heart, because the contributors to this railway-themed anthology flaunt their affection, fascination and obsession with the railways in every word they write. There have been railway anthologies before of course, but I seriously believe there’s never been anything quite like this one. Rix’s attention to detail in the original cover art, formatting and interior layout is the icing on the cake.

And that’s not all! This ‘evening of the uncanny’ will also see the official London launch of Quentin Crisp’s Defeated Dogs (Eibonvale Press), P. F Jeffery’s Jane (Chomu Press) together with two new titles from PS Publishing, Rosanne Rabinowitz‘s captivating Machen-themed novella Helen’s Story, and my own story cycle Stardust. In celebration of the launch, PS are currently offering a special deal on joint purchases of Helen’s Story and Stardust, so those who aren’t able to get to the event won’t miss out.

The evening will feature a series of readings by authors, who will be happy to answer your questions and of course sign your books! Please do come along and say hello, have a glass of wine with us and get involved in all things uncanny. We’ll look forward to seeing you on the night.

You can read more about the event at the Review’s events diary here.

 

 

Paris in the Spring

We’ve just returned from Paris, where I’ve spent the last couple of days meeting the press and having my photo taken as part of the run-up to the publication of the French edition of The Silver Wind at the end of August. I’ve just this morning received my author copies of the book – entitled Complications in French – and I for one think it looks fantastic. The cover design couldn’t be more beautiful or more appropriate!

And the initial response to the book has been overwhelming. I gave four in-depth interviews to four highly competent journalists – Christine Marcandier of Mediapart, Macha Sery of Le Monde, Frederique Roussel of Liberation, and Clementine Godszal of Les Inrockuptibles – all of whom had not only read the book very closely, but had interesting and insightful things to say and ask about it, too. I was blown away by their natural enthusiasm for speculative fiction in general and for Complications in particular. The experience of meeting and talking to them was deeply energizing.

Complications is being published by Editions Tristram, an independent imprint founded in 1988 by Jean-Hubert Gailliot under the slogan: ‘What changes literature is literature itself’. The people who run Tristram are in love with books and with ideas. They quite clearly see it as their mission to seek out and promote the work of writers who come at things from a different angle, who work at the boundaries of genre, who produce work that is an individual expression of an original or contrary worldview. To say that I am thrilled to be associated with them is an understatement, and when you look at their catalogue – which includes work by J. G. Ballard, Joyce Carol Oates, Arno Schmidt, Pierre Bourgeade and Patti Smith – you will very quickly understand why.

In the Cafe Les Editeurs, with Sylvie Martigny and Jean-Hubert Gailliot of Editions Tristram

While in Paris, Chris and I had the additional thrill of staying in the hotel La Louisiane on the Rue de Seine. Situated just a minute’s walk from the Boulevard Saint-Germain, this historic building has played host to many artists, musicians and writers – John Coltrane and Miles Davis, de Beauvoir and Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller to name just a few. (How amazing is that?? I’m still having difficulty taking it all in, to be honest. I was particularly thrilled to discover that in more recent times the hotel has also been the preferred Parisian overnight resting place of Quentin Tarantino… )

Finally though, I really must say a few words about my amazing translator, Bernard Sigaud. With translations of works by J. G. Ballard, M. John Harrison and Paul McAuley (among many others) in his portfolio, Bernard is no stranger to the world of British science fiction. His first encounter with my work came through reading my story ‘Microcosmos’ in Interzone, and it was Bernard who brought The Silver Wind to the attention of Editions Tristram in the first place. Without Bernard and his tireless enthusiasm for speculative fiction, this project would not be happening, and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. French readers might notice also that Complications has more pages than The Silver Wind, and this is because it contains an extra story. Here again it was Bernard who became interested in the peculiar sideways connections between my story ‘Darkroom’, first published in Elastic Press’s Subtle Edens anthology, and the stories that make up the original English edition of The Silver Wind.  When he emailed and asked me if ‘Darkroom’ might be included in the French edition I was happy enough to agree, but also surprised. It is true that I wrote ‘Darkroom’ while I was working on the other ‘Martin stories’, so I knew some material was likely to have seeped across. But it was only this last week, when I reread all the stories in preparation for the Paris trip, that I fully appreciated the wisdom and happy insight of Bernard’s idea. The connections between the stories are tight, and strange, and illuminating. I’m delighted to see ‘Chambre Noire’ lead off this wonderful venture, and pleased with the thought that future French readers of my work will be getting something a little different, something new.

With Clementine Godszal, Cafe de Flore

'Say cheese..!' Having my photo taken in Cafe de Flore

How time flies at Cafe Les Editeurs - all photos by Chris Priest

The marvellous Mr Hill

I first encountered Joe Hill’s fiction through a PS Publishing sampler – I’m pretty sure it was in a FantasyCon goodie bag – that featured his story ‘Best New Horror’. I read it more from curiosity than anything. This was just around the time that Joe was ‘outed’ as Stephen King’s son, and of course there was a lot of talk of the kind you might expect from those who don’t really know or understand the writing business, about how having a famous father would probably make things easier for Hill to get on in the world. I could hardly think of anything worse, personally. To be the child of the greatest and most successful horror writer in many generations – and then to have it dawn on you that you yourself wanted to be a horror writer? I couldn’t even begin to imagine the pressure that might exert.

The fact that Hill had broken through entirely anonymously, as it were, that he’d sent his stuff off to magazines just like any other beginning writer, that he’d been determined to make his name entirely on his own merits – this act of bravery signalled his seriousness and commitment right from the outset and earned him my immediate respect. But what of the writing? Did he have the chops? Could it be even remotely possible that Joe Hill could be anywhere near as good as his dad?

I respected him, but I was afraid for him, too.

I loved ‘Best New Horror’. I can still remember the sensation of delight that began seeping through me as I read it (I think it might have been on the train on the way back from that very convention), that feeling of ‘yes!’ that always rises up, like a shout, when I read something I know is good, a feeling of triumph almost, of solidarity with that writer. I loved ‘Best New Horror’ because it read like a dream, with that easy, swinging rhythm, that facility with dialogue common to the best American writing that I love all the more because I know I can never emulate it. There was more to ‘Best New Horror’ than pure reading pleasure, though. It was also a damn good horror story that knew about damn good horror stories. The way Hill played with the tropes, the way he had a ball with them – that story had me laughing out loud with pleasure at its nudge-wink self-awareness every bit as much as it held me in suspense. It was clever, it was artful, it was beautifully written. It showed skill, and pleasure in skill’s exercise. Most of all it showed that here was a writer who knew his own mind and had his own voice. I was so impressed by ‘Best New Horror’ that I immediately went out and bought Twentieth Century Ghosts, the collection that launched Hill’s career, published by PS long before anyone had a clue who Joe’s dad was.

And bugger me if the 14 other stories in there weren’t just as good! They showed a remarkable variation in tone colour, too. Magical realism, touches of SF, straight horror, weird horror, ghost stories – all demonstrating both a hand-on-heart love of the genre and a technical understanding of it that went way beyond the ordinary. My favourite? Probably the novelette ‘Voluntary Committal’, but ‘My Father’s Mask’ is amazing too, and I would be happy to see ‘Best New Horror’ re-anthologized from here into the next century.

Anyway, yesterday evening I had the pleasure of attending an event at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road to celebrate the launch of Joe’s new novel N0S4R2. Joe gave a reading from the book, followed by an interview and Q&A in which he showed himself to be as comfortable and generous with an audience as his father. (Perhaps having writing as your ‘family business’ does at least offer some help in dealing with the public aspects of the job.) He was great fun to be with, and I think the audience would have happily sat there and listened to him read for most of the night. Best of all though, he knew what he was talking about. Anyone still curious about the secret of Hill’s success need look no further than his insightful and hardworking attitude to both the art and craft of writing.

I was very pleased to report back to Chris (who sadly couldn’t be there last night because of a previous commitment) that ‘this man writes proper second drafts!’ (And third drafts, and fourth drafts.) When you hear a writer explaining how even work that might have seemed good to him first time round usually needs to be completely rewritten, you know he means business. I was especially impressed by Hill’s attitude to his early rejections, how he believed that his prentice manuscripts were ‘rejected for the right reasons’, and that it was those very rejections that helped him learn how to ‘finally write a book that other people would be excited about publishing.’

His acknowledgement that inspiration is only the start.

It was a marvellous evening, and one to remember. I am very much looking forward to reading N0S4R2.