Monthly Archives: August 2011

We copy!

Today is something of a red letter day as Chris finally received his author copies of The Islanders, and I almost fell down the stairs in the rush to open the door to the courier.

The book looks amazing. The first promotional gig has been organised by AltFiction and will take place at QUAD in Derby on Wednesday September 14th. Chris will be reading from The Islanders, followed by an interview and questions, and there will also be a special screening of The Prestige.  The London launch will be at Foyles bookshop on Thursday September 29th, and then it’s off to FantasyCon, where there will be a Q&A and signing in Bar Rogue on Saturday September 30th at 1pm. Chris will also be interviewing Brian Aldiss in the Russell Room at 4pm, which should be a lot of fun for both of them.

It has been a joy and a rare privilege to see this novel take shape, and watching it leave the nest is so exciting but it is odd too, because the book is no longer private. It belongs to everyone now.

The Islanders is like nothing Chris has ever written before. It plays games with form that set the heart racing. It spins the idea of the crime novel around until it’s breathless. It takes you into territory you thought you knew and then leaves you wondering. It contains prose that shimmers with beauty and the clear, limpid light of the Dream Archipelago.

It also has giant insects in it. It’s a wonderful book. Come and say hello and get your copy signed at one of the gigs.

FrightFest, London Rain, and Daniel Kehlmann

FrightFest is a force I feel powerless to resist. At some point during the long weekend of the August bank holiday I will inevitably be seen marching towards the Empire Leicester Square like an eloi obeying the summons siren of the morlocks. What is worse, now that I’m writing a monthly column for Starburst magazine I have a professional excuse to go. Fatal. For those of you who enjoy the sound of spleen being vented you’ll have to wait until the October issue of Something Rotten in the State of Denmark, where I’ll be airing my thoughts on the films I saw and the state of horror cinema generally.

Whatever the issues surrounding that, it felt wonderful to be waking up in Bloomsbury, and walking through Russell Square in the early morning I felt intoxicated by the smell of London rain, that insistent clarity after it, not just of the air itself but of one’s own visions.

The light in London after rain is the colour of chalcedony. As I left the city, trundling out of Charing Cross and on through Southwark, St John’s, Hither Green (my own beloved south eastern corner of the metropolis I saw deliciously described the other day as resembling an old dressing gown) I watched the skies darken as the train nosed gently into Sussex, the Downs with cobalt clouds heaped up behind them like darker and more distant hills, thinking why can’t someone make a film about that?

In the main, I shall remember this week not so much for the film festival as for reading Daniel Kehlmann in Bloomsbury Square.

I originally bought Kehlmann’s novel Fame for Chris, after reading a review of it here and having a persistent interest in German writers. I was right in thinking it would be his kind of thing. Now that I’ve finally caught up with it myself, I have to agree wholeheartedly that Fame is a special book by a special writer.

There’s an almost Bowlesian moment at the end of Chapter 5 of Fame when the crime writer Maria Rubinstein experiences an epiphanic realisation of the precariousness of personal identity:

For a moment she thought about her husband. Suddenly he seemed a stranger, like someone whom she’d known long ago, in another world or a past life…. With astonishing clarity she knew that such moments were rare and she must be very careful. One false move and there would be no way back, her former life would be gone, never to return.

Abroad on a book tour as a subsitute for a more famous writer, Maria has come adrift from her existence as she previously knew it. By a series of unforseen incidents and bureaucratic accidents (all too believable to anyone with any experience of travelling in the Eastern bloc before 1989) she is separated from her group, can find no one who understands her language and – worst of all – she has forgotten her phone charger. She has no way of making contact with the outside world, and so she is forced to consider how she might rebuild herself from scratch. The humour and terror of Maria’s situation is the essence of Fame, which at just 170 pages is not a long novel but is a masterpiece nonetheless. Like a cordon bleu soufflé, the lightness and delicacy of its achievement belies the dexterity, experience and artistic maturity needed to produce such an article. And Kehlmann’s flavours are refined and sublime throughout.

I should emphasise that Fame is also glorious fun to read. This is a book in which philosophy, novelistic gamesmanship and social comment keep outbidding each other like insane poker players – and yet is also so compelling as story that I simply could not leave it alone. Works that are tagged as masterpieces risk getting dragged down by the weight of their own ponderousness; Fame is effortlessly playful, a joyous and direct act of literary communication. This is a novel in which the writer colludes with the reader instead of lecturing him, letting him in on the joke as opposed to making him feel stupid.

The structure of the novel – in the original German it is subtitled A Novel in Nine Chapters – means that in narrative terms there is no 19th century continuum. Characters appear for a while, then disappear entirely for fifty pages, only to return as someone’s brother, or on a cinema poster, or as a missing persons report. None of this is remotely confusing. As a reader you race ahead, eager to discover what the hell happened to him? Sometimes Kehlmann will tell you, and sometimes he won’t. You won’t mind though, because the book’s internal logic is overriding, even when the novel has no ending in the conventional (and therefore restrictive) sense of the word.

I want to add that Fame is a novel of beauty, pathos and great compassion. For all the absurdity of their situations (of the very societal cul de sac in which we find ourselves living) Kehlmann treats all his characters with sympathy and grace. With the exception of Miguel Auristos Blanco, the uniquely self-satisfied author of a dozen or more manuals of cod Eastern wisdom and who, for reasons unknown to me, I kept imagining as a phyiscal double of Andre Rieu, these are people we feel we know and would probably like. Blanco can’t even blow his own brains out properly. but the eponymous heroine of the chapter ‘Rosalie Goes off to Die’ has a more combative approach to death. Not satisfied with the story she has been given, she takes the whole thing up with the author – and gets away with it!

For like Rosalie I cannot imagine that I am a nothing if I am not being observed by somebody else, and that my only half-real existence ends the moment that somebody takes his eyes off me – just as, now that I’m finally ending this story, Rosalie ceases to exist. From one moment to the next. Without any death throes, pain or transition. At one moment an oddly dressed girl in a state of happy confusion, now a mere undulation in the air, a sound that echoes for a few seconds, a memory that bleaches itself from my mind and yours as you read this paragraph.

What remains, if anything, is a street in the rain. Water pouring off two children’s ponchos, a dog over there lifting its leg, a yawning street sweeper, and three cars with unknown number plates rounding the corner as if they were coming from a long way away: out of another unknown reality or at least out of another story altogether.

Glorious writing. This is what the modern novel should be about.

(Quotations taken from Fame by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, Quercus 2010 9781849163767.)

'It's a bit like Mum and Dad.' Patrons discuss the latest at London's FrightFest

House of Fear goes live!

The new Solaris anthology House of Fear will be launched at Foyles bookshop on Tuesday September 27th. The event is free, and will offer you a chance to buy a copy of the book signed by all attending contributors. There should be plenty of us there. The launch of Solaris’s metro-themed anthology End of the Line last year went off very well indeed. The venue was packed and the panel discussion of ‘terror on the Underground’ was highly entertaining. All of which bodes well for this year’s event.

House of Fear is an anthology of haunted house stories. There’s something about the haunted house tale that makes it perennially interesting for both readers and writers. There’s a lot of noise made about the relationship between the age of so much of Britain’s housing stock and our obsession with ‘dark places,’ and I’m sure there’s a lot in that. But not all haunted houses have to be old. Given the right collection of circumstances even a room in a Travelodge can emit bad vibes. (Now there’s an idea…. ) I think our love of these stories stems mostly from the fact that all of us, at some time or other, have experienced something that might be described as a haunting, even if only in the shape of a vague unease.

I’ve never seen a ghost, at least not to date, but certain places, certain houses, have engendered in me moments of extreme and unexplained foreboding, the need to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Everyone I’ve ever asked can describe a similar experience. The chief fascination of the haunted house story is its universality.

My contribution to House of Fear, ‘The Muse of Copenhagen’ was first conceived during a visit to the Blackwater country in the late summer of 2010, and more particularly a walk at sunset along the promenade at Maldon to where John Doubleday’s magnificent statue of Earl Brithnoth commands the surrounding marshes and commemorates the heroic men of Essex who strove – without success – to repel the Danes from these shores in the August of 991. One of the things I most treasure about England is its unexpectedness, its hidden places. I like picking a spot on the map I’ve never visited before and just heading out to see what is there. On that trip I found the beach at East Mersea where my mother used to paddle as a child. I found wetland bird reserves and more of the pastel-painted beach huts that have obsessed me since I was four. I also found this story.

I’ve seen the proofs and I can tell you there are some great stories in House of Fear. And though they share a common theme, no two stories in the anthology are remotely alike. That’s the infinite versatility of the haunted house story for you – there are as many variations as there are houses to haunt, and that’s precisely what I most love about it.

It’s easy to reserve your ticket for the launch. Just click on this link here and then ‘add to basket.’ It should be a great evening.

Brythnoth statue, Maldon, by John Doubleday

(Photo by Oxyman)

The Silver Wind

I have a steampunkish obsession with things that work. I’m as enslaved by my computer and my smartphone as the next person, yet I am uncomfortable with the way we take them for granted, without having the least idea of how we might get them up and running again if they suddenly stopped. I can’t put together a wireless set or a combustion engine either, but I can look at the diagrams with all those arrows and pointers, connect bits of wire on a circuit board and feel at least half way convinced that given the time and the necessity a basic level of mechanical engineering is something that I could conceivably learn. I can see where the parts interlock, grasp the laws of physics that govern that movement. When I was at school doing ‘O’ Level Physics and Mathematics I tended to let this stuff glide over my head, memorizing (just barely) the requisite facts to get me through the exam but nothing more.

More recently I’ve found that has changed. I find comfort and security in the basic laws of physics. I have become fascinated by the habits of simple machines. One day about five years ago I found myself looking into a jeweller’s window in Blackheath at the wristwatches displayed there and feeling an unaccountable sadness that they were all and without exception battery operated. My first watch, given to me for my birthday when I was eight, was a Girl’s Timex Wristwatch and a perfect miracle of clockwork engineering. All watches were mechanical then. We took it completely for granted that they actually ticked. I remember the first child in my class who came in wearing a Casio digital watch being instantly surrounded by his friends, all of them eager to try out the alarm (a very first, primitive version of the ringtone), to see the little light that came on when you pressed a button at the side, to watch the numbers click over from 12:55 to 13:00.

I suppose I was fascinated too but I still thought the thing was ugly. I didn’t want one, I remember that. It never occurred to me that what I was looking at was the future.

After staring at those Blackheath watches for a while I went back to my flat and ran (yes) a computer search for mechanical watches. The first thing I wanted to know was how a watch worked. I printed out a lot of diagrams and in the end I got a sense of it, the sequence of mechanical processes that allows the second hand of a clock to tick off those seconds. In terms of story it was like a window opening, a way of seeing time as a material thing, something you could weigh and measure and perhaps even alter, rather than something that simply passed, or even passed simply.

I also began to learn about the great watchmakers, men like Breguet and Harrison and Lange who really were the rocket scientists of their day. To my delight, I discovered that there are still people out there making bespoke mechanical watches, timepieces, objects of both beauty and (as William Morris stipulated) an inherent and integral usefulness. There is even an academy for such maniacs, the AHCI (or Academie Horlogere des Creaturs Independants) which at approximately 30 members must count itself one of the most exclusive clubs in the world.

I couldn’t not write about this. The obsessive quest for perfected achievement is what drives a writer or a watchmaker or any artist, and as such it is an area I come back to again and again in my own writing. A watch is a thing of tiny parts, and yet the subject seemed so large and so…. complicated to me that I didn’t know at first what to do with it. It therefore felt logical to create a hero who felt the same. I had his uncle give him a watch for his birthday, as I had been given my little gilt Timex by my parents, and waited to see what might happen.

I ended up with a lot of material, which gradually and over time I began to separate into particular stories, or episodes, chapters that seemed to form the parts of a larger whole. I did other work in between, but Martin Newland and his time-slippages kept drawing me back. I had a couple of the stories published as standalones, but something insisted that wasn’t the end of it.

Finishing ‘Rewind’ a month or so ago was an important moment for me because it meant the ‘Martin stories’ finally formed a kind of circularity. They belonged together, and thanks to David Rix at Eibonvale they could be published together. Some of my friends have suggested that The Silver Wind is actually a novel. I can see what they mean, but I don’t think I altogether agree with them. The stories in this book may be about the same people and places, but they were written months and in some cases years apart, and each functions independently of its companions. The Afterword, the shortest segment in the book but the hardest to write, is a piece of fictionalised memoir. But if Wind isn’t a novel then neither is it a straightforward collection of stories. In truth, I don’t know what it is. I’d rather just call it a book.

It’s been a bit of a back-and-forth, this one, and there were times when I thought that most of this material might be doomed to languish on my hard drive forever. But finally the book is here, and it is with great pleasure that I can announce that it is further enhanced by an introduction from Tricia Sullivan. I first met Trish at EasterCon this year, and her support for and thoughts on The Silver Wind have been a huge compliment to me, and a marvellous encouragement.

The book’s official launch will be at FantasyCon in Brighton over the weekend of September 30th – October 2nd, where I will be giving a reading and signing copies. But for those of you who can’t be there, you can pre-order a signed copy as of today from the Eibonvale Press website. David Rix has also blogged about the book here.

I might also add that Martin’s story might not yet be over. There’s one last sizeable chunk of work on that hard drive, a novella that deals with the childhood and apprenticeship of my own mad watchmaker Owen Andrews. It needs redrafting, and it’s far from ready. But I can’t quite bear to throw it away….

Ruby jewel bearings used for a balance wheel in a mechanical watch movement

(Image by Hustvedt)

The horror?

I came across an interesting review in The Guardian last weekend, of a novella entitled The Necrophiliac by a writer I wasn’t aware of, Gabrielle Wittkop. The review mentioned Nabokov, likening Wittkopp’s Lucien to VN’s Humbert Humbert. My attention was caught immediately and I bought the book the same day.  It’s a beautiful edition. Published by ECW Press of Montreal, with the first UK import consignment already sold out, the grey-brown mottled covers and the parchment-coloured paper within give the sense that

the book itself might have been stolen from a tomb. It’s the kind of book that’s nice to hold because it feels singular.

To say that I’ve enjoyed this book hugely might sound a bit strange. To say that it’s frequently made me laugh out loud sounds even stranger. Both statements, however, are true. I have enjoyed the concise excellence of the writing, which is tactile as poetry whilst maintaining the taut lines and nervous energy of the best Patricia Highsmith. I have laughed aloud with pleasure at the writer’s audacity, which goes beyond audacity into the realms of pure individualism, that European sang-froid that simply declares itself, that doesn’t give a damn about what the reader thinks or even if the reader exists. I read three books by Emmanuel Carrere towards the end of last year (I Am Alive and You Are Dead, The Adversary and the truly brilliant My Life as a Russian Novel) and reading Wittkop brings a similar exhilaration. If anything Wittkop goes further. I don’t believe she wrote this book to shock people – she wouldn’t have cared. She wrote it because she wanted to.

Something that did shock me about The Necrophiliac was that I found it filed in the Horror section. At first glance perhaps it might seem strangely appropriate to find a work so explicit in its graveyard humour shelved next to The Mammoth Book of Vampires and Zombie Apocalypse, but I fear that it found its way there more by accident than design. As with so much of the finest and most challenging fiction, the people charged with selling it weren’t entirely sure of what it was.

Shocking also is the fact that although The Necrophiliac was written in 1972 this is its first appearance in English. From what I have been able to glean from the internet, Gabrielle Wittkop lived a life as singular and full of risks as her writing. I feel lucky to have discovered her, and proud to share a birthday with her. She died in 2002, with the words: ‘I intend to die as I have lived, as a free man.’ Gabrielle Wittkop’s obituary in The Independent is here.