Category Archives: books

Experiments in crime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to Eden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Which will be your favourite?

 

A Hallowe’en trio

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

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

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

1. The Inner Room by Robert Aickman.

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

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

2. Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Where are all the women?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(The Female Man, Joanna Russ 1975)

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

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

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

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

John died in desperate poverty and virtually unknown.

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

(Photo Leslie Prudhomme)

H(A)PPY by Nicola Barker

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time so I’m just going to say it: if Nicola Barker were a man, she would immediately become Significant, hailed as one of most exciting and innovative British writers of the postmodern era. As things stand, she is more usually sidelined into ‘quirky’, ‘whimsical’, ‘difficult’ or ‘depressing’. She has ‘a devoted cult following’, of course she does, and anyway, she was shortlisted for the Booker, so what does she have to moan about?

Why then is she still not discussed alongside Pynchon, Foer, Amis, Rushdie or even Mitchell? Barker’s oeuvre is remarkable in its depth of field, its social comment, its capacity for formal innovation. Her dialogue is incisive and brilliantly funny. The stories she tells offer an often excoriating commentary on the way we live now. Yet Barker is only ever discussed as an anomaly, a domestic comedian, an acquired taste. Why is this? The answer seems more depressingly clear with each new novel: women writers (still) aren’t expected to do this kind of stuff, so the narrative they get written into becomes subtly twisted.

“I know that piece.” The Stranger – Savannah – nodded towards ****, but his eyes remained fixed on me. “There are three parts to it. The Prelude was written long after the other two movements, but now it sits at the start. It is wistful, melancholy. There are bells ringing throughout. And an organ plays Bach. The composer – Augustin Barrios – was of indigenous blood. A great Romantic. A genius.”

“He died, in poverty, of syphilis,” **** sneered. “What possible romance is there in that?”

Nicola Barker’s new novel H(A)PPY is remarkable in many ways.  The dystopia it portrays is all the more chilling because it is presented as a utopia: there are no mass killings, no persecution, no banned books. All that is understood to be in the past. The social coercion that exists – to be perfect, to be happy, to discard the depressing march of history in favour of universal progress – exists because it has been chosen, because people accede to it willingly. No one is hungry, confused or in need. For Mira A, her desire to find out about a particular figure from the past – the Paraguayan musician and composer Augustin Barrios – is dangerous only in that it throws her preconceptions – her notion of happiness – into doubt. Like turning back the corner of a rug to reveal the dirty floor beneath, one small revelation can lead to a greater, more far reaching revelation that has huge implications. So it is for Mira A. So it is with H(A)PPY. So it is for the question over the reception of Barker’s writing.

In H(A)PPY, even the choice of the guitarist as hero is significant. The guitar has often been looked down upon as a folk instrument, an instrument lacking in subtlety, flexibility or repertoire, insignificant precisely because of its accessibility. The great novels of music have tended to place their focus upon the piano or the violin – glamorous and complicated, the instruments of record for tortured, glamorous, misunderstood males. Barker’s choice of the guitar – available to everyone, easily portable, a ready accompaniment and partner to the human voice, the natural instrument of protest – is in itself an act of rebellion, a way of smuggling subversive ideas between the cracks of cultural orthodoxy.

I scowl and turn again to the native – the performer – the patriot – the humiliation – the farce. Which of these two should I address? I wonder. Which do I prefer? Both are unreal. Both have been so carefully, so painstakingly constructed. Can these two – the one so civilised, so polite, so careful: the other so fearless and ridiculous and romantic – be merely one entity? Is that feasible? How might I conceivably hope to address them when I am not even able to unite them successfully within my own consciousness.

The native Barrios sits down on a pew and begins to play. The kneeling Barrios covers his ears. 

Here Barker illuminates the duality of Barrios, a natural genius forced to adopt Western models of excellence in order to be taken seriously as a composer, whilst simultaneously being driven to perform his nationality in order to enhance his stage persona. As she is drawn to examine Barrios’s inner conflict in greater depth, so Mira A discovers a similarly corrosive dichotomy within herself.

H(A)PPY addresses Barker’s recurring concerns – class, celebrity, capitalism, the slippery, explosive power of the written word – whilst also exploring questions of power inequalities between citizens and state, Western nations and indigenous peoples. I found in H(A)PPY some of the same quietly oppressive quality that characterises Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka, a chilling vision of the alternate near future that is all the more effective for being so understated.

As science fiction, H(A)PPY is brilliant: inventive and thought provoking and unlike anything you’ll have read so far this year. In the games it plays with scrambled fonts and typographic art, you will probably be reminded of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, always a good thing in my book. Barker recommends reading H(A)PPY whilst listening to the music of Barrios, a ploy some might dismiss as a gimmick but that I would go along with, one hundred percent. In fact it’s a shame the publisher couldn’t have gone the extra mile and included a CD recording tucked into the back flap. Luckily you don’t have to search far to find what you’re looking for. As a novel about music, H(A)PPY is one of the most imaginative and powerful I’ve ever read.

In many ways, this is the novel I wanted Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality to be. H(A)PPY is more successful for me as science fiction through being more explicit, and Barker’s writing about Augustin Barrios was never not going to resonate. I love this book. I think Nicola Barker is a genius. Should H(A)PPY end up on the Clarke shortlist in 2018? Hell, yes.

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys (1960)

The first piece of fiction I ever read by Algis Budrys was his 1958 short story ‘The Edge of the Sea’. My memory was that I’d encountered it as part of Brian Aldiss’s Penguin Science Fiction anthology, but looking down the table of contents I see this is not so: Budrys’s contribution to that anthology is the better-known ‘The End of Summer’, a story I also loved, but that did not perplex and captivate me to quite the same extent as ‘The Edge of the Sea’, a weirdly abstract tale in which a lone man struggles to retrieve a weighty and perhaps alien artefact from the incoming tide. In many ways, ‘The Edge of the Sea’ could be read as a sketch for the longer, more complicated novel that was to follow two years later and that is probably Budrys’s best-known work: a man alone, big dumb object, existential horror.

The premise of Rogue Moon is simple: a mysterious Formation has been discovered on the moon, some sort of alien artefact in the form of a labyrinth. From the outside, the dimensions of this object appear finite – passing through and out the other side should be a simple matter. For scientific genius Ed Hawks, the object on the moon has become a life’s obsession. As the inventor of a matter duplication process, he has provided the US navy with the perfect means not only for sending men (the idea that women might also make suitable astronauts is not even considered here) into space, but also for discovering the ultimate purpose of the lethal Formation. Explorers subjected to Hawks’s process are placed into a kind of lucid sleep, while their digital twin is projected to a remote location – in this case the moon – to complete the mission. As the novel opens, none of these duplicated explorers have managed to survive inside the labyrinth for more than a couple of minutes. What is more, the shock of experiencing their own death, even by proxy, has in every instance propelled the surviving astronaut back on Earth into a catatonic stupor.

Hawks is in despair at finding a solution. But now the project’s chief PR man Vincent Connington claims to have discovered the perfect candidate, a man whose relationship with fear falls somewhere between addiction and disdain. Al Barker is a professional daredevil with a jaded attitude to life and to humanity. He doesn’t care much about the ethical implications of being duplicated – just show him the labyrinth, people. But as both Barker and Hawks will discover, new technology often comes with unforeseen side effects, and how those side effects are dealt with often lies closer to the heart of the story than the outward premise.

In Rogue Moon, Budrys was trying out what was then a wholly new approach to science fiction. Budrys’s novel constantly shifts the action – the astronauts, the moon, the labyrinth – into the background, while insisting that the human concerns – the antagonism between Connington and Hawks, the nascent relationship between Hawks and the young fashion designer Elizabeth Cummings, Al Barker’s spiritual nihilism – are placed front and centre. It is not until the final sequence – Hawks’s and Barker’s joint journey into the Formation – that the sense of wonder that is implicit in Rogue Moon‘s premise is allowed to surface.

In its foregrounding of philosophy and such novelistic concerns as literary realism, Rogue Moon can reasonably be argued as an important precursor of science fiction’s New Wave. Budrys is clearly seeking to show new ways in which science fiction can be radical, and for this reason alone the novel is interesting. Budrys clearly struggles with the long form though, and there are portions of Rogue Moon that come over as clunky and obvious: heavy philosophical discussions delivered in the manner of a lecture, vast tracts of exposition, characters firing off deeply meaningful soliloquies as if their interlocutor existed solely as a repository for information rather than as a participant in the drama.

The gender politics of Rogue Moon are also pretty much unsalvageable. Budrys tries hard to grapple with The Question of Woman, yet still cannot resist having Al Barker’s girlfriend Claire Pack – callously vampish in a Ballardian kind of way – deliver most of her dialogue while clothed in a bikini, and sets Hawks up as being immediately, irresistibly attractive to a woman half his age and with no purpose in the narrative other than to sympathise with her hero’s existential agony and make him nourishing meals. Hawks – like Budrys – obviously wants to be better at this stuff than he is, but keeps coming off like Boris Johnson trying to get to grips with racism in modern Britain:

“Women have always fascinated me. As a kid I did the usual amount of experimenting. It didn’t take me long to find out life wasn’t like what happened in those mimeographed stories we had circulating around the high school. No, there was something else – what, I don’t know, but there was something about women. I don’t mean the physical thing. I mean some special thing about women, some purpose that I couldn’t grasp. What bothered me was that here were these other intelligent organisms, in the same world with men, and there had to be a purpose for that intelligence. If all women were for was the continuance of the race, what did they need intelligence for? A single set of instincts would have done just as well. And as a matter of fact, the instincts are there, so what was the intelligence for? There were plenty of men to take care of making the physical environment comfortable. That wasn’t what women were for. At least, it wasn’t what they had to have intelligence for… But I never found out. I’ve always wondered.” (RM p 124, Masterworks edition)

You see what I mean? Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that when I went in search of better discussions of gender equality in 1960s fiction I struggled to find any – or at least any written by men. I started out thinking that the gender issues in Rogue Moon must be a science fiction problem, but no, just a men problem. It turns out that for any real insight into societal attitudes towards women at the time Rogue Moon was published – women as individuals or as artists or indeed any aspect of gender politics – you’re going to need to read some women writers.

The unthinkingly human-centric (and for that read Western-centric) aspect of Rogue Moon is also troubling, especially now. Budrys seems unable to imagine a universe whose fate is not to be conquered by the Right Stuff, striding out to the stars and all that, just as Hawks and Connington cannot imagine not taking the moon Formation apart (and thereby destroying it) to see how it works. It would be another ten years before Arkady and Boris Strugatsky explored the event site in Roadside Picnic, suggesting in the process that for a species in its existential infancy, a policy of ‘look, don’t touch’ might be a more prudent approach to the exploration of our environment.

And yet. Although as a novel Rogue Moon is only partially successful, it is still worth reading, perhaps even because of its own inner contradictions and turmoil, In Algis Budrys we see – always – a writer who cares about his subject matter, We sense that Hawks’s struggle with questions of mortality, eternity and identity are also his own. This is a vital book – a book in which the ideas are alive and evolving and of ongoing importance to the writer. In a work like this – as in much ground-breaking science fiction – the rough edges and raw nerve are part of the appeal. Novels should not be perfect artefacts – the best remain, almost inevitably, works in progress.

The core ideas in Rogue Moon have clearly been influential on other writers – the Strugatsky brothers in Roadside Picnic, Stanislaw Lem in Solaris, even Christopher Priest, more than thirty years later, in The Prestige. More than that, though, when Rogue Moon hits the mark we are offered glimpses of a literary approach that is unique to science fiction, both marvellously timeless and fascinatingly of its time. The passages dealing with Hawks’s and Barker’s entry into the labyrinth show Budrys at his best – and present us with a vision that is unearthly and breathtaking:

The wall shimmered and bubbled from their feet up into the black sky with its fans of violet light. Flowers of frost rose up out of the plain where their shadows fell, standing highest where they were furthest from the edges and so least in contact with the light. The frost formed humped, crude white copies of their armour, and, as Hawks and Barker moved against the wall, it lay for one moment open and exposed, then burst silently from steam pressure, each outflying fragment of discard trailing a long, delicate strand as it ate itself up and the entire explosion reluctantly subsided. (RM p 161)

In spite of its flaws, I became rather fond of Rogue Moon. A full fortnight after reading, it’s still very much present, which leaves Budrys’s mission as a writer successfully accomplished. I’ll be returning to Budrys’s work, no question, and hope to report my findings here in due course.

Obsolescence

This morning I happened upon this superbly articulate and, I would say, essential essay by McKenzie Wark, and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Quite apart from the admiration one would obviously feel for the way it is written – such an engaging and dynamic arrangement of arguments – it seems to me that this piece presents one of the most cogent defences of science fiction I have ever read. Wark shows SF to be not just radical but necessary as a means of exposing the derangement of our present age:

Ghosh thinks that this strategy of introducing chance or the strange or the weird or the freaky into the novel is to risk banishment. But from what? Polite bourgeois society? The middle-brow world of the New York Review of Books? Perhaps it’s not the end of the world to end up exiled in genre fiction, with horror, fantasy, romance, melodrama, gothic, or science fiction. Frankly, I think there’s far more interesting readers to be found reading there.”

The essay seemed to come as an answer to the question of why I feel an almost inevitable unease – discomfort even – in the presence of a novel like Ben Lerner’s 10:04, one of the most perfectly realised studies of interiority I have encountered recently with not a word out of place or superfluous, and yet there is that dis-ease, all the same. It seemed to chime with feelings of sadness at the death of Brian Aldiss, one of our most insatiably curious writers, and devoted to SF almost at his own peril. Along with others whose comments I’ve seen in response to the various online memorials, I could come close to arguing that my intellectual life was kick-started by Aldiss’s great Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, and the vision it presented of SF as a distinct literature, a movement almost.

I feel fortunate in reading Wark’s essay precisely now, as I contemplate new work, new directions. I have a pile of notes already for the next book and I think it would be fair to say that I’m excited about it but even more so after today, with all these new thoughts about what the novel is for still in my mind.

Most of the book industry conspires against such a vision but that only makes it more exciting, more necessary.

*

Currently reading: Denise Mina’s The Long Drop, which is spare, chilling and excellent. It is also on the shortlist for the Gordon Burn Prize, which by accident rather than design I happen to have read most of, as well as several other titles that appeared on the longlist.  I’ve been so impressed by the Gordon Burn Prize – its ethos, its juries’ choices – that I am seriously considering reading and reviewing the full longlist next year, as a planned reading project. As for this year, I was lucky enough to hear Denise Mina talk about The Long Drop at the recent Bute Noir crime writing festival right here in Rothesay, an event that has proved to be one of the highlights of our first summer here, a miniature Bloody Scotland with every seat taken and everyone already looking forward to more of the same in 2018.

“In the future they will think they remember this moment because of what happened next, how significant it was that they found Mr Smart’s car, but that’s not what will stay with them. A door has been opened in their experience, the sensation of being in a car with friends, the special nature of being in a car; a distinct space, the possibility of travel, with sweets. Because of this moment one of them will forever experience a boyish lift to his mood when he is in a car with his pals. Another will go on to rebuild classic cars as a hobby. The third boy will spend the rest of his life fraudulently claiming he stole his first car when he was eight, and was somehow implicated in the Smart family murders. He will die young, of the drink, believing that to be true.”

*

The summer is well advanced, but still so full of things. Chris and I will be guests of Fantasticon, in Copenhagen, at the end of this month. At the end of next month there’s FantasyCon, and after that I’ll be in Paris on a writing residency, and hopefully writing. The new book will be set in Rothesay, or rather versions of Rothesay, with the novel that brought me on my first visit here more than a decade ago now – Andrew O’Hagan’s ravishing Personality – standing over me like an admonishment…

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.

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.