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Favourite Hallowe’en reads

I’ve seen a lot of people posting their best-loved Hallowe’en reads this week, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few of my own.

1) Peter Straub – Ghost Story.

A modern classic, and rightly so. Straub’s stories are always complex, lush with detail, and multi-layered. You’re already deep into the story before you fully realise what’s going on, that wandering-in-the-forest feeling epitomises everything a Hallowe’en read should be. Anyone who lists slasher movies or serial killer thrillers among their Hallowe’en favourites is missing the point. Hallowe’en – All Hallows Eve – is the night when spirits traditionally walk abroad. This is a time for exploring spirituality – both of the dark side and the light – for coming to terms with hard truths, for delving into the secrets of the past and perhaps uncovering something less than pleasant in the process. For the four ageing members of Straub’s Chowder Society in Ghost Story, this is a time of facing up to the consequences of their past actions – big style. I adore this book. I adore Straub’s erudite, meandering and occasionally obscure style. I’m also very fond of John Irvin’s 1981 film based on Ghost Story which, though it cannot hope to convey all the subtleties of the original novel, seems to me to be the epitome of what a great Hallowe’en movie should be: quiet, reflective, mysterious and chilling at the core.

2) Helen Oyeyemi – White is for Witching

One of my very favourite ghost stories of recent years, this short novel plays out big issues on an intimate stage. Its evocation of a particular milieu – the English seaside town – is perfectly executed, its portrayal of relationships, the closeness and distance between people, is razor sharp in its accuracy and pathos. White is for Witching is equally a tense family drama and a forthright examination of the divisions within contemporary British society. I read this in a single sitting. Haunting and masterful.

3) Joyce Carol Oates – Bellefleur

Ah, Bellefleur! This is sumptuous, gorgeous, genius, the vampire novel that dare not speak its name. The language, the irony, the beauty, the madness, the STORY! Oates’s intuitive understanding of the gothic is both articulate and sublime. For those who don’t have time to sink themselves into a 600-page epic just now, try the stories in Haunted instead. This exemplary collection was my first introduction to Oates and she’s been right there at the centre of my personal pantheon ever since.

4) Ramsey Campbell – The House on Nazareth Hill

I honestly do think this could be the perfect Hallowe’en read. It’s a haunted house story, basically, and as my first encounter with Ramsey Campbell’s fiction I’ll never forget the impact it made on me. I couldn’t put it down, and kept reading it far later into the night than I should have done. The central character, Amy, remains with me still as a powerful presence. And that inner room with no windows – brrrrr!

5) Clive Barker – The Books of Blood

Seminal works in the field of British horror literature, Clive Barker’s two collections of stories contain everything from ghosts to monsters to ur-beasts to mad obsessives in the best Dr Frankenstein tradition. Particular favourites among the stories include ‘The Forbidden’, ‘In the Hills, the Cities’, ‘The Skins of the Fathers’, ‘Son of Celluloid’ and how could I forget ‘Rawhead Rex’?? But by far the best way of reading The Books of Blood is to start at Book 1 and read the whole lot through chronologically. Although the stories aren’t linked as such, their cumulative effect is considerable and their overall ethos is such that they demand the concentrated reading you might lavish on a novel. The Books of Blood were groundbreaking in their time and they have lost none of their power. Anyone – and I mean anyone – interested in writing horror fiction should and must read these stories.

And what will I be watching tomorrow evening? The Haunting (Wise’s 1963 version) is perhaps the quintessential Hallowe’en entertainment, and is pretty faithful to the original Shirley Jackson masterpiece into the bargain. If it’s atmospheric ghost stories you’re into then Amenabar’s The Others is pretty good, too.  I have a crazy, perfect love for the 1993 portmanteau film Necronomicon, the third segment of which scared me so badly the first time I saw it that I couldn’t sleep for a weekend (I tried it out on some friends a few months later – they were not amused, and I ended up having to bring a duvet downstairs for them all to hide under). My favourite film adaptation of Dracula is still the Coppola, no matter what anyone says. And for a dose of sheer Hallowe’en madness – with flying head-drillers and trans-dimensional dwarfs – what about Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm?

On balance though, I think tomorrow evening might be the perfect time to revisit a little-remarked-on but for me unforgettable adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Released as a TV movie in 1973 and starring James Mason as Polidori and David McCallum as Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein – the True Story is lush and overlong and over-the-top and with enough of the earnestness and passion of the original story to make it compelling. I first saw this in 1974, on the night ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’. My parents were having a Eurovision party downstairs (they were young, they were foolish) and my brother and I were treated to an unlimited supply of Twiglets and the free use of the black-and-white portable TV in their room upstairs. I was nine years old, my brother only seven, so I’m really not sure if Frankenstein was the kind of viewing Mum and Dad had in mind, but we watched it anyway. It seemed to go on for hours, and I was mesmerised throughout. It was many years before I saw it again, but I still remembered whole scenes perfectly and, perhaps because it was one of those so-important early influences, it had lost none of its power for me. Jane Seymour’s night at the ball, Elizabeth in the ice, the final pursuit to the cave. When I saw that Frankenstein – the True Story was to be released on DVD, I pre-ordered it at once. And having talked this out here I’m decided – tomorrow at around 9pm I’m going to unleash the monster from its cellophane wrapping…

Digging for gold

The shortlist for the Goldsmith’s Prize – inaugurated last year specifically for ‘fiction at its most novel’ – has just been announced:

Outline by Rachel Cusk (Faber & Faber)
The Absent Therapist by Will Eaves (CB Editions)
J by Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin)

Interesting perhaps that one-third of the Goldsmith’s shortlist happens to overlap with the Booker’s – does this mean that the Booker is actively striving to include more innovative fictions in its choices, or simply that the shortlist reflects, as all jury-selected shortlists must, the individual proclivities of a set of judges? The latter, probably. I’m beginning to think that the only way of getting around this problem lies in greater clarification of what any given prize is actually for. The Goldsmith’s jury is actively looking for novels that are interested in some kind of innovation, whether it be in the language, the form, the approach, the subject matter or all the above – an advancement in the novel project, in other words. Or to put it more simply, the Goldsmith’s Prize is interested in writers who are ‘genuinely inventive’, who are engaged to some degree in literary experiment. The Booker, on the other hand, is vaguely in pursuit of ‘the best’. ‘Best’ is notoriously difficult to define – indeed it is a word that can only be defined subjectively. Hence the more muddled, rag-bag kind of shortlists we have come to expect from it.

It’s the same with the Clarke versus the Kitschies, incidentally. The Clarke shambles off in pursuit of ‘the best’ science fiction novel of the year, whilst the Kitschies encourages its judges – and its wider readership – to think about speculative novels that are ‘progressive, intelligent and entertaining’. A more definitive brief gives the judges something concrete to focus on, and in the years since the award’s inception has given the readership an increasingly purposeful-looking set of shortlists to investigate.

I love the idea of the Goldsmith’s Prize, and I hope it will garner increasing critical and media attention in the coming years. So far as I’m concerned at least, this prize is already way ahead of the Booker in its attitudes and goals. And the one thing I notice immediately about this year’s Goldsmith’s shortlist is that all the books on it are of interest to me. Not just one or two, as with most prize shortlists, but all of them.

I note with interest that Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline, passed over by both the Booker and the Bailey’s, is here, which is pleasing to see. Cusk is a writer who has aroused hostility, frequently of the most appallingly sexist kind, and I was fascinated earlier this summer by an interview in which Cusk attempted to analyse the source of this:

“I think it is because I’m not interested in the group, only in the individual. What happens is my message enters the conflicted person reading it who is half self, half society but does not know where one begins and the other ends. I light up that conflict and it makes people angry.”

I have not always been a fan of Cusk’s work, but what I have always admired, unstintingly, is her bravery: her refusal to compromise, her commitment to absolute honesty as a writer. Personally I think it’s this – her honesty, which is not so much confessional as forensic – that makes people uncomfortable. Especially men. And here we are, back to it: when we think of the kinds of words often used to describe Cusk’s writing and even Cusk herself – excoriating, ruthless, furious, lacerating, brutal, self-obsessed – we inevitably rub up against the dictum that female writers aren’t really supposed to be like this.  And nor are their books. It’s interesting to wonder if Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novelistic memoirs would have been half so popular with both critics and (male) readers had their author been not Karl, but Kari. Are men allowed to be more daring, more progressive, more outspoken as writers (think Hemingway, Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis, Frey, Knausgaard, the list could go on forever) while those women who venture into similar territory (Plath, Sexton, Kavan, Frame, Zelda Fitzgerald) are only acceptable when there is a tragic and self-dooming aspect to their endeavour?

While male writers are encouraged to be innovative, outspoken, avant garde, are women writers still being told, either directly (through not having their books published) or indirectly (through an underhum of hostility in the press and in society at large) that they should stick to ‘women’s issues’ or shut the f**k up?

Is it harder to be a woman in the avant garde?

I overheard a fascinating conversation on Twitter the other day about women writers and the avant garde and how experimental or ‘cult’ writing is still largely seen by the industry as a male preserve. This led me in turn to a brilliant two-part essay by the writer Sam Mills (please do read this), examining the ways in which “cult female novelists are usually forgotten or ignored, whilst male cult authors, from Burroughs to Hunter S. Thompson, remain literary icons that are cherished by the public imagination.” Mills picks out the Women’s Prize for Fiction for particular censure, pointing out how although the prize has done plenty to promote ‘big themes’ in writing by women, it has still tended to shy away from writers who take a more experimental approach, whose work is not so readily assimilable by a mainstream audience:

“In recent years, whenever I have picked up a Women Fiction’s Prize winner, I have to come to expect a novel that will be brilliant but traditional. It seemed that the Women’s Fiction prize had settled into a pattern of celebrating our more conservative female writers and ignoring the avant-garde ones. This year, though, the revolution happened. Eimear McBride’s experimental A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, published by the very small press Galley Beggar after all the main publishing houses had turned it down, took the crown. That said, whilst the win is wonderful, I still fear it will be the exception rather than the norm, given the number of cult and avant-garde authors the prize has ignored over the years.”

Mills consolidates her argument in the second part of the essay, which shows (as mentioned above) how experimentalism in women’s writing has often been equated with madness. After reading Mills’s essay I took a look at the list of previous shortlistees for the Women’s Prize and was dismayed to see how right she is. It is a source of perennial disappointment to me that Nicola Barker is almost invariably passed over not only for the Booker, but for the Orange/Baileys Prize too. It’s not just Barker though. What about Helen Oyeyemi (how could Mr Fox not even have been longlisted)?  Janice Galloway? Scarlett Thomas? A. L. Kennedy? Even Jeanette Winterson, for goodness’ sake? And given that the Women’s Prize has allowed Americans in right from the start, it is inconceivable to me that neither Jennifer Egan nor Helen DeWitt has thus far made it on to the shortlist.

Even the Women’s Prize, it would seem, prefers to promote women as great storytellers rather than great thinkers. Whilst I would never argue that this problem is exclusive to women – persuading the industry that readers are open to fiction that does things other than ‘just’ telling a story is a devil’s bargain, whatever your gender – I think it is almost certainly harder for women writers who are perceived as ‘difficult’ in some way to get their work taken up and discussed in a manner befitting their literary and intellectual achievement. You only have to look back on the coverage of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries last year to see how quickly discussion of Catton’s masterpiece descended into remarks about her age, dress or appearance, barbed comments on the suitability of the zodiac as a formal template for a serious novel, or whether The Luminaries was in fact serious at all, as opposed to some sort of elaborate hoax, a tedious piece of nineteenth-century pastiche. Some of the press Catton received would have been laughable if it weren’t so shameful. “Male writers get asked what they think, women what they feel,” Catton affirmed in an interview for The Guardian. There’s nothing wrong with writing a negative review (in fact literature would probably benefit from more of them) – it is the tone of derision that leaves one reeling. I don’t think there’s any mileage in pretending that any of this would have happened had Catton been a 27-year-old man.

2013 saw Canadian novelist and professor David Gilmour totally unapologetic about his exclusion of stories written by women from his university teaching schedule, the inference being that fiction by women could not possibly stand up to the kind of rigorous scrutiny Gilmour goes in for. This arrogant, almost cursory kind of sexism is a world away from the more hesitant, intricate soul-searching demonstrated by the British writer Jonathan Gibbs in a blog post he made this February, wondering why it is that he doesn’t read more women:

“Do I cut male writers more slack than women, or do I genuinely prefer male writers to women (my personal pantheon of contemporary writers, as I said before, starts with Geoff Dyer, Javier Marías, Knausgaard, Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker… and goes through a few more, probably, before it hits Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis.”

Gibbs is a writer of huge talent (please read him). It would appear that he is also a writer who genuinely wants to understand his attitudes, and is taking active steps to change his perceptions. Both Gilmour’s stance and Gibbs’s though share a tone of mistrust, the sense that whilst novels written by women might be all right for some people to read – other women, probably – they are by definition never going to be able to compete – philosophically, intellectually – with work created by men. Gilmour’s grudging admiration for Virginia Woolf carries with it the hidden subtext that Woolf is a fluke, a quantity of one. Gibbs’s grappling towards an understanding of his ‘instinctive’ preference for male writers for the thing that it is – cultural brainwashing – still cannot quite bring itself to fully acknowledge how bizarre it is that he is still tending towards a view of women writers that lumps us all together as one group, with specific ‘concerns’ and ways of writing that inevitably reveal themselves as female and therefore less durable, less serious.

How peculiar it would seem to these men, how blinkered, if I were to write a blog post explaining how my favourite writers – the writers I most looked up to – all happened to be female (Iris Murdoch, Joyce Carol Oates, Ali Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan) and that although I had read Nabokov and D. H. Lawrence and George Orwell and David Foster Wallace, I still found they didn’t really speak to my concerns.

As if the spectrum of ‘concerns’ and range of styles and approaches among male writers were not as diverse as exists among writers who happen to be female. Talking about ‘women writers’ in this way is as bizarre as automatically equating Dan Brown with Umberto Eco.

I would have thought that men who pride themselves on their intelligence and cultural refinement would feel a bit more uncomfortable in letting themselves be so readily prompted, guided and defined by a set of societal directives they would hotly deny allegiance to if presented to them in the abstract. “I don’t have a racist, sexist or homophobic bone in my body,” David Gilmour asserts, whilst still insisting the only writers he finds worthy of teaching are “guys – serious, heterosexual guys.”

It serves only to demonstrate the thoroughness of Gilmour’s brainwashing that he seems genuinely not to understand that he has a problem.

Flesh and Bones

“Kevern, look. I don’t know when your mother did these, but they are of another time. Art has changed. We have returned to the primordial celebration of the loveliness of the natural world. You  can see there is none of that in what your mother did. See how fractured her images are. There is no harmony here. The colours are brutal – forgive me, but you have asked me and I must tell you. I feel jittery just turning the pages. Even the human body, that most beautiful of forms, is made jagged and frightful. The human eye cannot rest for long on these, Kevern. There is too much mind here. They are disruptive of the peace we go to art to find.” (J, p 272)

 

When the longlist for the Man Booker prize was announced two months ago, I expressed delight that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks had been selected – a choice that could only, I suggested, be good for speculative fiction’s relationship with the Booker – and surprise at the inclusion of Howard Jacobson. Not that the choice of Jacobson himself was anything out of the ordinary – he’s won the prize once already – but that in J he had produced a work that everyone seemed to agree was science fiction. I felt curious about that, to put it mildly, and thought it might be interesting in the run-up to the prize to read both works and compare them, to discover how two such outwardly dissimilar writers had chosen to approach speculative themes, to see which – if either – eventually made it through to the shortlist.

We now know the answer to that last – Jacobson’s J made the cut, Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks didn’t. But what of the books themselves? Mitchell’s novel was the bookies’ favourite right through the longlist period, with both mainstream and SFF critics expressing strong opinions about it, and its disinclusion came as something of a shock. Conversely, no one seemed to be talking much about J, and the previously Booker-crowned Jacobson appeared something of an outsider. At the time of the shortlist announcement I was about halfway through The Bone Clocks, and planning to move on to J as soon as I’d finished. Having now read them both. I think it’s safe to say that my opinions coming out of this particular reading experience are pretty much the opposite of what I expected. That in itself has made this mini-project worthwhile.

I went into The Bone Clocks from the position of having read all Mitchell’s previous works bar one (The Thousand Autumns) and considered them all well above average, both in terms of the writing itself and in terms of what Mitchell was trying to achieve with it. I had a particular fondness for Black Swan Green, and thought both the concept and execution of Cloud Atlas close to miraculous. I was expecting big things of The Bone Clocks, especially given that it had been widely tagged as Mitchell’s most openly speculative novel to date.

That is true – it is – but that goes no way towards mitigating the fact that in my opinion it is also Mitchell’s weakest novel by quite some distance. The mainstream critics who thought the novel was let down by its ‘plunge’ into fantasy in the fifth segment pointed to the rest of the novel – its five realworld sections – as proof of Mitchell’s gifts as a storyteller and a wordsmith. If only he’d ditch all this awful genre nonsense, they seemed to be saying, we might actually have a decent writer on our hands. Many of those same critics have pointed to Mitchell’s characterisation – and his portrayal of his central character Holly Sykes in particular – as the chief strength of the novel, but for me it felt patchy at best, bland for the most part, and dire at worst. Far from being a brilliantly realised creation Holly is something of a cipher, acting out the roles Mitchell requires for her rather than taking on any discernible life of her own. We learn little, if anything, of Holly’s interests or ambitions. As she appears in ‘A Hot Spell’ (the novel’s first long segment) she is deliberately set up to be a ‘typical’ fifteen-year-old girl, enamoured of the wrong boyfriend and looking for any excuse to cut loose from her parents. I found Mitchell’s realisation of the teenage mind unconvincing. He deliberately sets out to make Holly as ‘average’ as possible, scattering her speech with contractions and ‘causes, but his portrayal of her is inconsistent – he has Holly referencing Radio 4’s Thought for the Day at one point, and her stroppiness and decision to become a runaway feel like bolt-on elements, exercises in youthful alienation rather than the real deal. In contrast with the beautifully evoked, deeply felt ambience of Black Swan Green, the whole of this part one seems strangely flat, a recapitulation stripped of weight and personal investment. The checklist of references to contemporary politics and music has all the verisimilitude of stage decoration for a 1980s theme party. As the book progresses Holly becomes even less her own person, dragooned into action first as a winning waif pursued by an amoral serial seducer, then as the pissed-off partner of an obsessive war reporter (some of the dialogue that is given to Holly in that section is just awful) and as ‘mysterious other’ for a morally bankrupt author later on. We are asked to see Holly as ‘special’ – yet aside from the fact that she hears voices, we know nothing about her specialness, because we know next to nothing about her. We are interested in her because our attention is caught by the way she keeps cropping up throughout the book – but shorn of the forward momentum granted to her by the plot, there is remarkably little substance to Holly Sykes. She is wooden throughout, a narrative placeholder. When you consider the wonderful characterisation we saw in Cloud Atlas – the Sixsmith/Frobisher section contains some of the finest writing Mitchell has yet produced – and the brilliant portrayal of the teenager Jason in Black Swan Green, this is still more of a pity.

The most consistent character-building we find in The Bone Clocks comes in ‘Myrrh is Mine, its Bitter Perfume’ (the novel’s second segment) and ‘Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet’ (its fourth). The ‘hero’ of the former is Hugo Lamb, who gave a cameo appearance as Jason’s loathsome cousin in Black Swan Green and who appears here as an even more loathsome Cambridge undergraduate and amateur-soon-to-turn-professional sociopath. Hugo’s attitudes and behaviours are worse than vile, and he is brilliantly written. Equally so is Crispin Hershey, an embittered novelist who takes his revenge on a literary critic with appalling results. (In a recent interview on Radio 4’s Front Row, Mitchell insisted that the character of Hershey was not based on Martin Amis. Dessicated Embryos, he reminded us, was the title of a piano work by Erik Satie, not a backhanded reference to one of the younger Mr Amis’s early successes. But Red Monkey? Hal ‘The Hyena’ Grundy?? Come on.) Both Lamb’s portion of the narrative and Hershey’s are dynamic and vigorous, enlivened by moments of genuine comedy and, in Hershey’s case, pathos. A shame then that ‘The Wedding Bash’, part three of the novel and potentially just as interesting as the two sections that bookend it, turns out to be another misfire. Its protagonist Ed Brubeck was interesting in ‘A Hot Spell’ – intelligent, mature beyond his years and a bit of a loner, he came off the page far more forcefully than Holly. But when he reappears as a war journalist in ‘The Wedding Bash’, it seems to be for the sole purpose of expounding Mitchell’s views on Western intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not that one disagrees with Ed’s views – indeed the section might have been a lot more interesting if one had – but that they would appear to have zero importance to or impact on the novel as it progresses. I initially believed that Mitchell was playing a long game, that he would be bound to link this realworld war in some ingenious way with the ‘secret history’ that is revealed two hundred pages later. As it turns out, no – Ed Brubeck is just the author having a go at Tony Blair. Not a bad thing in itself, but not relevant to the story either.

Which brings us to the crux of this novel, or its downfall, depending on your point of view. In ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’, part five of the novel and its longest section, we learn that Holly has been a pawn in a larger game all along, a centuries-long battle between two opposing groups of immortals, the Horologists (the goodies) and the Anchorites (the soul-sucking baddies). It is these meddlesome demigods who variously ‘stole’ Holly’s brother, co-opted her lover to the dark side, helped her to find her missing daughter and plagued her with invisible voices from the age of seven. Now is the time of final reckoning, a fight to the death between the Blind Cathar and his Forces of Evil and our plucky band of Scoobies, outmanned in numbers but not in moral strength.

Where do we even start?? In his review for The New Yorker, the critic James Wood stated the following:

As soon as the fantasy theme announces itself…the reader is put on alert, and is waiting for the next visitation, which arrives punctually. Gradually, the reader begins to understand that the realism – the human activity – is relatively unimportant.

I earlier wrote a lengthy criticism of Wood’s essay, because it seemed and still seems to me that to equate ‘the human activity’ solely with the realist mode is to denigrate a mode of literature – the fantastic – whilst remaining ignorant of its capabilities. I stand by that assertion, and would go further in saying that Wood’s main purpose in this essay seems to lie in using The Bone Clocks as a proof of the inherent crapness of speculative fiction generally. I think he’s got it the wrong way round – one bad book is no proof of anything, and he doesn’t go anywhere near far enough in putting a rocket up The Bone Clocks for the direness of that fantasy section.

It is the imbalance that is so embarrassing, the use of the kind of broad brush gestures and clichéd dialogue that would and should not be taken seriously in any literary context. Contrary to what Wood says in his review, the best speculative fiction works precisely because the writer sees no inherent difference, in fictional terms, between the quotidian realm and the fantastical, and approaches the writing of each – characterisation, sense of place, the use of language – with equal care and weight. In terms of a story’s seriousness, whether the ‘human case’ to be examined resides in a fictional Glasgow or a fictional Gormenghast should be of little importance. Mitchell himself clearly understands this – even if some of the science fiction in Cloud Atlas feels a little clunky, there can be no doubt that Mitchell fought hard for the soul of that book and won. The central SFnal sections feel as integral to the whole as the outer, realworld sections, and in formal as well as plot terms each thread of the story leads logically and elegantly from one to the next. In ambition and execution, Cloud Atlas as a novel project more than measures up to Mitchell’s formidable talent as a storyteller.

Why then is ‘An Horologist’s Labyrinth’ so rife with genre cliché – decades-old genre cliché at that? Why does Hugo Lamb, so brilliantly realised in part two, reappear speaking like a badly-written Bond villain in part five? Why does Holly suddenly start bellowing about FAHMLY in upper case? I sought desperately for some ironical, authorial awareness of just how ham-fisted this section is, but failed to find it. It felt like being trapped in a particularly dreadful episode of Doctor Who.

The sixth section, ‘Sheep’s Head’, is not much better. We’re into science fiction territory now, so of course everyone starts capitalising their nouns: Convoy, Cordon, Village. Then someone says: ‘There’s a link between bigotry and bad spelling, I’ve met it before’ (p542), the Chinese are blamed for slaughtering the last elephant herds for the luxury goods market, and Holly wonders what it’s going to be like for her granddaughter Lorelei, being raped by born-again Christians and forced into servitude in some even-worse version of Saudi Arabia. The novel’s eventual denouement is so lazy and so – I hate to use the word of a writer like Mitchell – trite it barely merits discussion. One reader review I happened upon suggested that the Horologists are ciphers for writers, that the novel’s ending is a wishful rewriting of ‘the Script’. This could have been an interesting idea, but there is little evidence that this is what Mitchell intended, and if it is, then he has fumbled the execution so badly that it scarcely matters. Ian McEwan performed that trick better at the end of Atonement, and I say that as someone not keen on praising McEwan at the best of times.

I think the best word to describe my feelings about The Bone Clocks is baffled. Here we have six loosely linked novellas struggling to find a core narrative. Here we have a use of genre tropes so hackneyed and two-dimensional they would feel out of place and old hat even in a more conventional core genre urban fantasy. What is Mitchell trying to tell us here, what was he trying to do? Was it simply that he struggled with this book for so long that it finally overmastered him? I can empathise with that situation, one-hundred percent. But no amount of fellow feeling, or admiration for the talent that still bursts suddenly and unexpectedly to life in parts of even this book, will prevent The Bone Clocks from being anything other than a baggy, directionless mess.

I fully expected to love The Bone Clocks. I thought this might be the year Mitchell won the Booker. I came away thinking that he’d have to pull something pretty special out of the bag to make me trust him again. Howard Jacobson’s J was another matter entirely. Jacobson is one of those writers whose flagrant self-regard seems so unwieldy it is almost comedic. I went into the book assuming I would hate it, that it would be both useless at being SF and so up itself as to be more or less unreadable. I was prepared for almost anything but what I actually found: a work that is unlike anything else I have ever read, a book that has nothing do to with science fiction but that is nonetheless fascinating in the way it approaches speculative materials, a novel that will remain with me long after the discussion of the current Booker Prize shortlist is over and no matter what the result.

J has been widely described as a dystopia, bearing comparison with classics of the subgenre such as 1984 and Brave New World. I personally think this is misleading, and anyone picking up J expecting a gory slice of police brutality and the perils of being a subversive in an authoritarian State with a capital S is going to find him or herself confounded almost immediately. No doubt there will be complaints in some quarters – indeed I’ve already encountered a few – that Jacobson shows no interest in what I would reluctantly describe as worldbuilding, in constructing a quid pro quo equivalent of a fully realised dystopian universe complete with depleted landscapes, alternate technologies and carefully delineated chart of alternate history. I would argue that Jacobson’s scattershot attempts at worldbuilding – there is a thing called a utility phone that will only accept local calls, the internet has been deconstructed or abolished, the names of places and people have been rearranged – are kept deliberately vague, because worldbuilding was the last thing on Jacobson’s mind (he has probably not even heard of the concept and would doubtless sneer at it if he had). Unlike other mainstream dabblers, Jacobson does not fail at science fiction, because he wasn’t trying to write science fiction in the first place. Where mainstream writers trying their hands at SF so often go wrong is in concentrating so hard on reconstructing what has already been done that they lose control of the central thrust of their idea – or else discover that they never had one (see above). The resulting texts often feel pallid, an emotional or intellectual void. Gutless. Once the second hand trappings of dystopia or post-apocalypse or whatever have been stripped away, there is nothing to see. Jacobson has provided us with something to see, a thought-experiment so effective and so original that there is only one way to read this book: forget SF, forget dystopia, forget any preconceived ideas you might have about Jacobson and read the book for what it is.

In steep contrast with The Bone Clocks, J is not an easy reading experience. I don’t just mean the content, I mean the style, which is terse, undramatic, frequently wordy, sometimes opaque. It is, as they say, hard to get into. But if there is a secret to reading J, it is not to try to get into it, but instead to let it get into you. Let it possess you. See what happens. Although evasion – not saying things, not clarifying, not noticing – forms the very fabric of J, the novel is not in the end evasive, and its central characters, though rendered elliptically in muted tones and without any of Mitchell’s gestural verismo, become insistent in their reality, terrifying in their vulnerability. They linger in the mind. In the very best sense of the word they are durable. For all Jacobson’s reticence in revealing her, Ailinn Solomons turns out to be just about a hundred times more convincing and important than Holly Sykes.

Another misconception about J is that it is ‘about’ the Nazi Holocaust. Although the fictional event at the centre of the novel – referred to throughout as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED – concerns the massacre of Jews, Jacobson has said in interview that J is not about antisemitism or the Holocaust specifically:

The Jews happen to be the group that I know about, so it is informed by antisemitism, but the point is that if you get rid of ‘the other’ you then have an absence; an absence of irony, an absence of disputatiousness. No argument should ever win that completely.

To ‘write what he knows’ has been a sound decision for Jacobson, because the sense of quietly determined, indeed passionate personal investment that permeates this text allows it to be transformed all the more forcibly into the universal. In essence, J is about all othering – scapegoating, politicised hatred, the corruption of a whole society by the sense that there are ‘some people’ who it is all right to ostracise, blame, dispose of because they don’t really belong, who are ‘not like us’. What J does most effectively is to deprive us of the ‘just obeying orders’ defence, as put forward by concentration camp functionaries and SS officers at Nuremberg. J shows us a society sanctimoniously in mourning for itself, even while the cells of resurgent hatreds – hatreds that have never in fact gone away – bubble like septic sores just beneath the surface. The atmosphere of unease, of dread – especially in the more openly fantastical ‘Necropolis’ section of the book, which reads like a half-remembered nightmare – is palpable. The complacency of individuals – the bland smiles, the bland music – becomes ever more chilling as the book progresses. In the end you realise – as our protagonist has suspected all along – that you are standing on ground that looked solid, but that has been fatally undermined and is about to collapse:

‘What will it take? The same as it has always taken. The application of a scriptural calumny…to economic instability, inflamed nationalism, an unemployed and malleable populace in whom the propensity to hero-worship is pronounced, supine government, tedium vitae, a self-righteous and ill-informed elite, the pertinaciousness of old libels… Plus zealotry. Never forget zealotry, that torch to the easily inflamed passions of the benighted and the cultured alike. What it won’t take, because it won’t need – because it never needs – is an evil genius to conceive and direct the operation. We have been lulled by the great autocrat-driven genocides of the recent past into thinking that nothing of that enormity of madness can ever happen again, not anywhere, least of all here. And it’s true – nothing on such a scale probably ever will. But lower down the order of horrors, and answering a far more modest ambition, carnage can still be connived at – lesser bloodbaths, minor murders, butchery of more modest proportions.’ (J p 292)

In his New Yorker review, James Wood argues that the fantasy element of The Bone Clocks is so overbearing it renders its human protagonists impotent – in fact the central issue with Mitchell’s novel is that the fantasy element is actually meaningless, a paper tiger, a bit of cheap decoration pinned on to a story that doesn’t have a clear idea of what it’s trying to do. The novel wears its fantasy on its sleeve like a row of brass buttons polished to mirror brightness but does nothing with it. The Bone Clocks is easy and often enjoyable to read, but when you ask yourself what it is about, you are forced to conclude: not a lot. By contrast, J takes those elements of speculative fiction that make it so versatile and so important – the idea of disjuncture, of discomfiture, of imagining – and fashions from them something that is both remarkable in terms of its concept and vital in terms of what it is saying. The novel is meticulously crafted, a concentrated amalgam of thought and emotion that entirely repays the effort of getting to grips with it. It is a resolute book, a tough book. Is it valuable as literature? Yes. Should Jacobson feel proud of what he has achieved here? Certainly.

Who’s Bookered?

The 2014 Man Booker shortlist has just been announced:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

J – Howard Jacobson

The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee

How to Be Both – Ali Smith

At first sight, I would say a lot of horse-trading has been going on here. There seems no overall form to this shortlist, no statement, no ideology, no plan. It’s a mixed bag of the judges’ personal favourites. What it says more than anything else is: ‘Here are some books we liked – please take one.’ A bit like this year’s Clarke shortlist, in fact. Disappointing.

The only book I’m unequivocally delighted to see on this list is Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, and I hope it goes on to win. Ali Smith is one of the most important and interesting writers working today. She’s never afraid to experiment, but she’s never afraid to be readable, either. She’s interested in story, in delivering words that people want to read – but she’s also deeply immersed in literature, as a project, as a vocation, as an ongoing and evolving commitment. Go, Ali!

I’m disappointed but not entirely surprised to see David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks miss out on a shortlist place. I think it’s a book that would have split the jury down the middle, and thus it fell through the gap. I very much wanted to see it on the shortlist, for all kinds of reasons – but I didn’t think it should win. I intend to write more about why in the near future.

Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has been one of my favourite books of the year so far – but I think Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World goes further and deeper and would have made more of an impact on this shortlist. The Blazing World is the kind of book you would find yourself wanting to read again and again and getting more from it each time, and I’m not sure that We Are All Completely… is. So Fowler’s inclusion is a win one, lose one situation for me.

I’ve not read Howard Jacobson’s J yet, but Chris has. He finished it just the other night and did not like it at all. I told him I’d read it to keep him company if it made the shortlist, and so that’s the book I’ll be tackling next. My guess is that I’m going to find it far more interesting to compare Mitchell’s approach to SFF with Jacobson’s than to bother with trying to pick the eventual winner from the actual Man Booker goodie bag. So it goes.

On reflection

Writer and arts project manager Irenosen Okojie had this to say in today’s Observer about the Booker Prize longlist:

“If the panel was more diverse, then perhaps the list would be more inclusive. Here’s a radical idea – next time, perhaps the panel could be made up of an equal number of men and women as well as a few non-white people.”

Reading her piece, which is forthright, well argued and above all passionate, it seems to me that she is right on just about every level. Because although many of the individual titles on the Booker longlist may have strong literary merit and a reason for being, there is without a doubt something irredeemably safe about the list as a whole. What is it saying, exactly, this list? Is it saying that literature is ring-fenced, the property and prerogative of a narrow, self-replicating caste not so much of reader but of judge?

More than careful consideration, literature needs passion. Literature should not be in a vitrine, it should be out there. We need books to be authentic, raw, interrogative, questing, angry.

I was brought up short by what Sergio de la Pava said in a recent interview about the process of submitting his manuscript (A Naked Singularity) to agents and publishers:

“Replies varied. Some said ‘not interested’, others said ‘sounds great, send it to me’. I think what I found most dispiriting was that quite a few people were into the concept of a book about criminal justice, but when confronted with something that was complicated and not easily quantifiable, that interest disappeared. It was humiliating. It was horrifying.”

I felt so angry on de la Pava’s behalf, that a writer of such obvious passion and fierce originality faced with such hidebound attitudes should almost have been put off writing altogether. A book is allowed to be entertainment. A book might even be allowed to be an elegant intellectual bagatelle – provided of course that you’re reasonably well established as a writer – but complex and difficult? Hell no.  Eimar McBride came up against almost identical obstacles here in the UK:

“I really don’t think they have tied everything up neatly. I’m not interested in irony and I’m not interested in clever. I’m interested in trying to dig out parts of human life that cannot be expressed in a straightforward way, that don’t fit neatly into the vocabulary and grammar that are available. To do that you have to make language do something else. I didn’t really know how to do it, I just tried and that’s what happened… I didn’t want to crush what I liked about the book, which was the rawness of it. The one idea that I brought the whole way through was that I wanted to try to give the reader a very different type of reading experience.”

Should this – a very different type of reading experience – not be precisely what the judges of the Booker Prize are looking for?

My initial enthusiasm for the 2014 Booker longlist stemmed mainly (as with this year’s Clarke) from relief, that at least there was some good stuff on it. The good stuff is still good stuff, but on reflection, I think that in terms of literary discomfort, this year’s Booker longlist is falling short. As a writer, I have always found my greatest strength in looking to those writers who have gone before me, who have marked out some of the ground I nurture the ambition to encroach upon. As Okojie suggests, it would be wonderful indeed to think of new writers from any and every background being able to look at the Booker longlist and see their own personal champion in amongst it, marking out the territory, providing that secret kick up the arse to get them moving. That can’t happen with this list, or at least not nearly as much or as widely as it should.

The only discomfort the 2014 list provides lies in its seeming exclusivity. What are we doing?? Things need to change. Let’s hope at the very least that next year’s judging panel comes closer to the ideal that Okojie suggests above.

Booker’s Dozen

The longlist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize was announced yesterday:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)
Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

 

My initial impressions are that I am liking it quite a lot. I feel a little disappointed that there are not more women on the list – but the women that are there are fantastic. I never got around to blogging about how much I loved Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a book that succeeds in being original, moving and fiercely important all at once. I’m delighted also to see Booker recognition for Siri Hustvedt, compellingly drawn to this her most recent novel, and indeed The Blazing World is already on my Kindle, demanding to be read. (For those who want to find out more about it – and you should – do please read this very special review by Amal El-Mohtar here.) And as for Ali Smith, what can one say except that she’s one of the most inventive and original writers working in Britain today.

How could I not be excited about seeing David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks on the list? It’s a book I’ve been looking forward to all year in any case, and as Mitchell’s most SFnal work to date, this can only be good for speculative fiction’s relationship with the Booker. Richard Powers is another writer I admire hugely – for the bold reach of his intellectual ambition as a novelist, for his fascination with music (unlike so many, Powers can actually write about music in a way that feels real), his wholehearted willingness to adopt speculative ideas into his personal lexicon.

Howard Jacobson? Science fiction? Two concepts I would never previously have included in the same paragraph in a million years. Jacobson is a relentlessly clever writer – the fact that he clearly knows it is the piece of evidence that counts most heavily in the case against him. Still, it’s interesting that the Booker judges have selected another science fiction work and I’ll be eager to see what Jacobson has come up with.

I’ve not read Joshua Ferris at all yet, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about him, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour has received especially favourable press. Again we see a nominally mainstream writer fencing around speculative ideas, with issues of identity theft and the double coming to prominence. I want to read this.

Paul Kingworth’s The Wake is notable for having been crowd-funded (it’s the only indie press title on this year’s longlist – as with the paucity of women writers, this seems a bit of a shame) and sounds like a Riddley Walker/Harvest mash-up. Fascinating.

Of the remaining longlistees, it’s nice to see Aussie Richard Flanagan up there – and he’s a Tasmanian to boot. Flanagan’s writing is always exemplary and I can’t see this being anything other than excellent.

The only novel I feel irrationally prejudiced against is David Nicholl’s Us. This is probably very wrong of me, but I can’t get my head past the warehouse-sized supermarket piles of One Day, or the gruesomely mawkish film adaptation of same, which qualified as my most finger-down-the-throat awful cinema-going experience of its given year. (It’s worse even than Richard Curtis’s About Time, and that’s saying something.) The brief plot summary in The Guardian’s longlist rundown describes Us thus: “Douglas Peterson faces life alone, as his son is about to leave for college, and his wife for good. But Douglas is devising a plan to use a family holiday around Europe to win back their love.” Heaven help us. I can’t help feeling there must be fifty titles more worthy of a place on the Booker longlist.

Still, every jury should be entitled to its moment of madness. Going by past performance, it’s in the nature of the game.

Women in SF #4

Shadowboxer, by Tricia Sullivan

I love hearing about other people’s trades. We were in a cabinet maker’s workshop yesterday, hearing a young craftsman tell us about how his father, a former train mechanic, turned to working with wood when he was made redundant from the railways. I still remember an evening spent in a car park in Bedford, waiting for the AA to turn up after we inadvertently drove over a nail. The guy who dealt with our call-out changed the tyre in a matter of minutes, all the while recounting hair-raising stories of performing similar tasks on the hard shoulder of the M1 while huge juggernauts rushed past every ten seconds. I find specialism of any kind urgently compelling, and I could have listened to that AA mechanic all evening.

Knowing this, it won’t come as a surprise that I love books that feature work as a strong component. And the first section of Tricia Sullivan’s new YA novel Shadowboxer is all about work – the work of being a fighter. Jade Barrera is seventeen years old. She is a troubled teenager with a heavy baggage of personal and family problems. She is also a talented practitioner of mixed martial arts, just beginning to make her mark on the sport. When she lets her temper get the better of her (again), her trainer gives her an ultimatum: get smart or get out. He also offers her the chance to spend some time training in an authentic MMA gym in Thailand. Jade is given to understand that saying no to this opportunity is not an option.

I found the whole first third of the book spellbinding. A favourite novel of mine is Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit, large portions of which consist of little more than move-by-move descriptions of chess games, and I loved this initial section of Shadowboxer for much the same reason. Tricia Sullivan knows her MMA and her passion shows to wonderful effect. Jade herself is so well drawn that we enter her world with ease. Shadowboxer is being marketed as a YA novel but rich in detail and sophisticated in psychology as it is, I think this is a book that readers of any age would relate to.

The fantastical component is also strong. While she is in Thailand, Jade stumbles into a supernatural world of treachery and child trafficking, populated by human monsters and Buddhist deities. Her guide and confidante is Mya, a young Burmese girl who has been forcibly separated from her family and enslaved by Richard Fuller, a vile and corrupt individual who wishes to utilize Mya’s special talents for his own evil gain.

Mya’s sections are rich in imagic detail, chilling and beautiful and intensely felt. I actually wanted more of Mya, her story and background, more about what happened to her family and what brought her into contact with Richard Fuller. Of Fuller himself we learn less still, and if I have a criticism of Shadowboxer it is that the interleaving of the two stories – Mya’s and Jade’s – feels overly hurried. I think there is enough material here for Mya to have a book all to herself – and I suspect that readers (this one included) would have welcomed a measure of background information on the Himmapan Forest and its mythical beasts.

That being said, Shadowboxer is a very special book, partly because it feels so personal and so deeply felt, partly because of the very lovely quality of the writing. There is nothing artificial or cynical or manufactured about the art of Tricia Sullivan. What you find when you read her is originality, spontaneity, a deal of beauty and above all a spirit of enquiry that – truly – is what speculative fiction is all about.

Shadowboxer is published by Ravenstone/Solaris in October 2014.

Back in the Lot

While boxing up books this week, I’ve had Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot on audiobook to keep me company. I think I’m right in saying that SL is actually the first of King’s novels I ever had contact with – not through the text, but through Tobe Hooper’s 1979 TV adaptation, starring David Soul and James Mason. I was thirteen at the time, and I don’t think I’m the only one who had the bejeezus scared out of me by the image of little Danny Glick, scraping at the window to be let in. I don’t know what it says about me that I forced myself against my will to watch Part 2, just to prove to myself that I could do it, but that’s how it was.

It was another twenty years before I read the novel. I remember being impressed by it, especially by King’s evocation of American small town life. Listening to the audiobook this past week I’ve found this aspect of the novel, if anything, even more impressive. In his essay on SL for his Rereading Stephen King series for The Guardian, James Smythe says:

When I was younger, it was the second half that enraptured me: the rush of the hunt (on both sides); the thrill of not knowing who would and wouldn’t survive; and the pain of how much this affected the characters… Now, it’s the start that I love most. It’s the slowest of slow burns, all hints and drip-feed. King infuses it with descriptions that start you thinking about vampires before they even factor in the novel. “She dipped her head to suck at the straw,” goess one passage, describing the drinking of a root beer. “Her neck was beautifully muscled.” Another, during a kiss, reads: “She thought: he’s tasting me.” When the chaos finally unfolds, it’s a real payoff. You care.

You certainly do. So much so that I’m still undecided about King’s decision to have Susan Norton turn vamp. Dramatically of course he has to – she’s the Lucy Westenra figure – but emotionally I still feel nooooo that’s so unfair. Such personal involvement on the part of the reader is a sure sign of a writer doing their job.

It’s more than that, though. This time around, I was even more captivated by some of King’s writing about the town – those little prologues at the beginning of each section, depicting the town waking up, or the Marsten house on its hill as the sun goes down. There are passages here that feel galvanised by inspiration, feverish with it. It’s the real deal.

King wrote this novel – his second – when he was just twenty-eight years old. His approach to vampires – the heavy Catholic iconography, the rigid adherence to the Stoker version of the mythos – feels dated now, but that’s not King’s fault. SL was published in 1975, decades before the vampire industry kicked into gear. At the time, what he was doing – recreating a nineteenth-century classic in a truly modern idiom – must have seemed very new to him, as indeed it was. The fact that the writing itself still stands up in spite of the narrative showing its age a little is sure proof of its quality.

Salem’s Lot is a novel of passion – for the story, and for the craft of story. This is what most communicates itself to readers, what makes the novel endure. We need more books like this. More twenty-eight-year-old writers with guts enough to slam down their soul on the table and dare us to take it or leave it, because that’s how it is.

Various updates

So – in just a couple of weeks we’ll be moving house.

We began this process back in February, and it’s been the predictable combination of acute stress and not much happening for ages, but finally we’re set to go and about to begin packing our books into boxes.

We’re both tremendously excited. It’s a new chapter, a new landscape, new sources of inspiration. More on all of this in due course.

Since my return from Australia back in April, I’ve been concentrating on short fiction – I’ve had some commissions pending, and also the whole house-moving thing has been so distracting that I decided to leave off working on the new novel until after the move has been completed. I’m itching to get back to it – and I have the feeling this short hiatus will have proved actively beneficial. In the meantime I’ve written two brand new stories (both should be out later in the year) and rediscovered a rather interesting novella that I’m currently in the process of redrafting. This has been an exhilarating experience – I’d forgotten how fascinatingly unpleasant the protagonist is – and I’m hoping to have the work complete by the end of this week.

After that, it’ll be time for some serious book-packing. We are in the interesting predicament of actually owning more books by weight than furniture by quite some distance…

Just a couple of random updates:

My story ‘Higher Up’ is being reprinted in Salt Publishing’s Best British Fantasy 2014, edited by Steve Haynes. This story was originally written for my limited edition collection Microcosmos, for NewCon Press. The ToC hasn’t been officially released yet, but I’ve seen the list, and with writers like Tim Maughan, Carole Johnstone and E. J. Swift in the lineup there’s no doubting it’s a fine selection, with a good balance between science fiction and fantasy as well. The book is due out in July.

I can also announce that I have a story in Solaris Rising 3, edited by Ian Whates. Similarly, the ToC hasn’t been officially released yet, but with Adam Roberts, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Ken Liu. Ian R. MacLeod. Aliette de Bodard and Rachel Swirsky among the contributors it looks like being a fascinatingly varied, thought-provoking anthology with some truly diverse interpretations of where science fiction is at in 2014. The book will be launched on August 13th, at Foyles bookstore on Charing Cross Road, and with a second launch event at LonCon just a day or two later.  I’m delighted to be a part of this one – my story, ‘The Science of Chance’, has a significant relationship with the novel-in-progress, which makes it a special story for me.

Talking of novels, ARCs of The Race are currently being sent out, pending the book’s official launch, also at LonCon, on August 15th. It was a deeply strange moment, finally holding the book in my hands, and seeing the stories of these characters – Jenna, Christy, Alex and Maree – take on reality in the world beyond my hard drive. I’m very excited about the launch, and about LonCon in general. I’ve just received my draft schedule, and this, together with various bits of info I’ve gleaned from friends and colleagues, leads me to believe that the organisers have come up with a once-in-a-lifetime-calibre programme. Can’t wait to get stuck in.

Finally and belatedly, just to mention that I have two nominations in the British Fantasy Awards, both in the novella category, for ‘Spin’ and for ‘Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle’. It’s thrilling news of course, and it’s particularly pleasing to see that Rustblind and Silverbright, the railway-themed anthology that David Rix edited for Eibonvale Press and Vivian Guppy’s original home, has also been shortlisted in the Best Anthology category. In her year’s summation for Best Horror of the Year 6, Ellen Datlow describes Rustblind as ‘a terrific anthology’ and notes that ‘the interstitial material by editor David Rix is consistently fascinating.’  For me personally, Rustblind demonstrates a quality of cohesion, of thematic intent, that is all too often lacking in anthologies. The stories that David has selected feel like they belong together, and each is strengthened and accelerated, if you like, by the others’ presence. Too many anthologies end up having a disparate, ‘rag bag’ feel – you don’t know where to start, and all too often you lay the book aside long before the finish. Rustblind is the opposite of that – you sense you’re being taken on a journey, which to my mind is the whole point of the format, and in a book about railways especially so.

The full list of BFA nominees can be found here.

The devil you know all too well

It would seem contrary and perhaps churlish to abandon a 600-page novel a mere 120 pages before the end. Yet this is precisely what I almost did with Marisha Pessl’s second novel, a voluminous horror epic entitled Night Film. I did soldier on to the end – more for reasons of fairness than out of any hope that the book might, after all, turn out to have been worth my time. I knew already in my gut that the enterprise was doomed, the one unanswerable question remaining: what was she thinking???

I was keen to read Night Film from the moment I first heard about it – a ‘serious’ horror novel about a fictional director of horror movies, examining ideas of truth and fiction and making use of a metafictional format, what’s not to like? Plenty, according to Steven Poole of The Guardian, although his  unequivocally damning review made me even more curious, if anything. Horror is a woefully misunderstood genre. Perhaps Poole’s review was yet one more instance of a mainstream critic getting it wrong. I loved the look of the book as object – all those found-footage-style embedded texts and general stuff.  I wondered if Night Film was, after all, the horror novel of the year that everyone had missed.

The short answer is: no, it isn’t. I’d say the only thing wrong with Poole’s review is that it doesn’t go far enough in unmasking an essay in genre that is flat, unconvincing, derivative and, most of all, in no way justifies its length. It’s ludicrous that a book that finally contains so little should run on for so long. I ask again: what was she thinking???

Horror film is an irresistible subject, both for horror readers and for horror writers. We might point to Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images and The Grin of the Dark, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, Theodore Roszak’s masterful Flicker, the late, great Joel Lane’s superb novella The Witnesses are Gone as examples of novels that delve into the idea of the ‘lost film’ or the ‘mad’ director whose work embodied the concept of the forbidden, the transgressive, the Bad Genius. I love books like this – both because I’m a (not so closet) horror film fan myself, and because the theme of the ‘lost text’ offers countless possibilities for the kind of fascinatingly complex narrative structure I particularly enjoy.

Night Film begins promisingly enough. Ashley Cordova, the daughter of notorious and reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova, is found dead at the bottom of a lift shaft of a derelict warehouse. Her death looks like suicide, but for journalist Scott McGrath, whose career was wrecked by a discredited investigation into the satanic mysteries of Cordova some years before, it also provides the perfect opportunity for him to reclaim his reputation.

Cordova’s films are extreme in nature, at least as scary as his devout legions of fans. Pessl’s narrative is interspersed with newspaper reports, police files, and screenshots taken from the underground internet fan site The Blackboards. (‘You shouldn’t be here – Get Out.’) For the first third of the novel I was entranced, convinced that Pessl’s reams of unnecessary italics and the dorkish sensibilities of her protagonist would turn out to contain some kind of ironic subtext, that the novel was setting itself up as a straightforward and increasingly predictable ‘hunt’ narrative only for the deliberate purposes of knowingly undermining itself later.

Why else would Scott McGrath be such a retrograde knob? Why else would each and every so-called witness, all desperately elusive only in fact not, commit the sin of the ‘you will die horribly, Mr Bond, but not until I have outlined for you in painstaking detail my dastardly plan for world domination’ trope, one after the other? Why else would the book be so… goddamned… long???

The answer is: I don’t know. The story revealed by Night Film is wholly unoriginal, itself a retread of so many bog standard Hollywood horror movies. Pessl’s pretty textual gimmicks turn out to be nothing more than stage decoration. An accusation commonly levelled at so-called ‘literary SF’ is that it insists on reinventing the wheel. In eight cases out of ten I wouldn’t find much to argue with in such a statement, only that the literary merit of some of these offerings makes them at least worthy of further discussion. In the case of Night Film, we have a novel that in terms of its contribution to horror literature is less than negligible. And while Pessl’s writing is competent and demonstrates some nice turns of phrase, these in no way justify the appalling bloat you have to wade through to get to them.

My advice to the author? Get out there and read some decent horror before you try writing any more. My advice to readers? This book is a time-thief – don’t go there.

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