Monthly Archives: January 2013

Winter trees, Newham

And The Who Shop, Barking Road, E6 – how many times a year do you find yourself walking randomly down the road, only to come face to face with a window full of Daleks?

We’re both working hard at the moment. Chris has completely recast the beginning of his new novel, I’ve been working on a substantial rewrite of What Happened to Maree. Over Christmas I began feeling increasingly dissatisfied with some aspects of the novel, and a week or so into January I made the decision to do a complete third draft. As well as all the usual benefits of redrafting, my aim is to restructure the novel, freeing up the flow of the narrative and removing some redundant material.

It was a big decision, but I’m glad I’ve made it. I’m now just over 50,000 words in, and already I’m feeling a great deal happier with things. The novel now feels less like four big chapters and more like one coherent entity. It’s an interesting process – the more familiar you become with your material the better you understand what you are trying to say. As I’ve explained to people many times, I used to hate the whole idea of intensive redrafting – now it feels like an essential part of the process, and one I cannot imagine not adhering to.

I hope to have the rewrite finished in a month or so.

I have ideas for two new stories I definitely want to write, but they will have to wait until Maree is done and dusted.

Still thinking about those recent awards shortlists, I am intrigued by how different they are. A lot of this is due I think to the fact that the BSFA list is very much a science fiction only shortlist, whereas the Kitschies shortlist is much broader and consequently it’s more exciting. It could almost be a Clarke shortlist – and a quality one at that. Like the Clarke, the Kitschies is a juried award, but its remit – ‘to reward the most progressive, intelligent and entertaining works that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic’ – is just that bit wider, thus cutting out the need for that whole ‘but is it truly SF?’ thing that in my view at least can so often be entirely beside the point.

On the whole, I’d say it’s a good thing that the four main UK genre awards (BSFAs, BFAs, Kitschies and Clarkes) are so different in character, if only for the simple reason that they tend to shine the spotlight on different works. It’s certainly going to be interesting to watch the discussion unfold around the Clarkes this year – roll on that list of nominations!

One work I’ll definitely be nominating when the BFA noms open is John Ajvide Lindqvist’s collection Let the Old Dreams Die, which I am reading at the moment. I’ve seen Let the Right One In three times, one of those occasions being the UK premiere, but this is my first encounter with on-the-page Lindqvist and I am impressed. These are odd stories, original stories, intimate and alienating at the same time, and once again they are proof that there are plenty of things you can still do with horror. I love Linqvist’s style, which is relaxed, quietly poetical, vernacular. Good stuff – makes me jealous, I would hope productively so.

First Novel

Nick Royle novels make train journeys pass more swiftly – fact. I spent most of my seven-hour cross-country haul from Truro to Hastings today reading Nick’s First Novel, which is not his first novel at all, but his eighth. I found it strange and rather pleasurable to note that the last time I made that journey it just happened to be in the company of Regicide, which is listed as Royle’s seventh novel but is actually his first. Odd coincidences like that are part of what First Novel is all about.

The book begins with a man in a room. Paul Kinder, a creative writing tutor with one indifferently received novel to his credit, sits in his office painstakingly deconstructing the Kindle he’s just been given free as a perk of the job. He arranges the innards of the small machine in neat rows on his desk according to size, reflecting that either he’ll be able to put the Kindle back together again, or he won’t. In the event he does not try – he sweeps the whole thing into the waste bin and carries on with his day as if nothing has happened.

There’s something curious, and curiously disconcerting, about all this. Kinder’s dispassionate narrative – delivered in the cool, minutely observational tone of the French Nouveaux Romans Royle is known to admire – is simultaneously alienating and compelling. We follow Kinder willingly enough, because we can’t help wanting to know where he’s leading us – and yet at the same time we’re looking off to the side, wondering what, exactly, we’re supposed to be doing here and where we’ll end up.

First Novel‘s early chapters reminded me very much of the dangerously wayward novels – Blind Date, Cockpit, Steps – of Jerzy Kosinski. They had that same seeming-objectivity, that same eerie amoral intensity. But the book soon twisted itself into something rather different as a multiplicity of narrative threads began to emerge, bewilderingly diverse at first, ultimately thronging together like the strands in a rope, becoming whole, becoming one, yet resisting any simple explanation. Are these storylines – sinister, diverting, affecting – the testimony of a madman, the inspired fictions of talented debutants, the solution to a mystery? They are all of these, and something more, something bigger yet. First Novel takes the concept of the unreliable narrator to a whole new level.

Oh, and it’s so beautifully written. There’s poetry here as well as madness. It’s an amazing novel – a fluid, dark river of a book and I loved it. It marks a new high water mark of Royle’s already considerable achievement as a writer, and if it doesn’t make this year’s Booker shortlist then the literary world is even more insane than we thought.

While I was in Cornwall I finished reading Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. It’s very different in tone from Royle’s work – the very opposite of dispassionate – and yet the two share a multitude of similarities: unreliable narrators, buried secrets, suicides and hauntings. I would consider The Drowning Girl to be the finest, most riveting and most actually disturbing evocation of a supernatural haunting I have ever read, and this novel is every bit as achieved, as shattering, as exquisitely rendered as is First Novel, one of those books that makes me anxious towards the end in case the close turns out not to be equal to the rest. In the case of The Drowning Girl, my anxiety proved entirely groundless. It’s a beauteous thing, as near to flawless as any novel could hope to be.

It is very rare indeed to read two such superlative fictions back to back.

Loads seems to have happened while I’ve been away. I had intermittent internet access only, but I did at least get to see the BSFA and Kitschies shortlists on their day of publication. Niall Harrison’s excellent summation is here.

Ghosts

The first Caitlin R. Kiernan story I ever read was ‘Valentia’, in the Jones/Sutton anthology Dark Terrors 5. That was all the way back in 2000, would you believe. I knew nothing about Kiernan prior to reading the story – this was at a time when I still knew relatively little about who was who in modern horror, and I took a great delight in simply grabbing a clutch of Year’s Bests and diving in. It was a period of great discovery for me, and I learned something from just about every story I read, but (and I think this would be true for every writer) there were a few stories that worked a different kind of magic, that spoke to me in a voice that said: this is the kind of thing you want to be writing.

The Joyce Carol Oates novella The Ruins of Contracoeur was one such story from this period – I am still in love with it – and the Kiernan story was most definitely another. What was it? The language, the oddness, the slow seepage of myth and dark magic into everyday life? All this and more. Put simply, I hadn’t known that horror could be like that, and I ached to write something that good. I read Caitlin Kiernan stories wherever I could find them, bought her first novel, Silk, when it finally turned up as an import in Forbidden Planet (it was so difficult to obtain US books back then – how annoying that was), continued to admire her.

I’m currently reading her most recent novel, The Drowning Girl, which is so skewed and so rich it’s like discovering her work all over again. When people bemoan the dearth of good contemporary horror fiction (as they frequently do), this is one place I would send them.  Flawlessly beautiful sentences, a twisted plot thorny as roses. Reading it today I kept thinking how much it reminds me of another great classic of modern horror, Peter Straub’s perennially magnificent Ghost Story. Like Kiernan’s, Straub’s prose and plots have that quality of entanglement that I’d not call abstruse, exactly, but certainly knotty. And knotted. There’s a drowning at the centre of each book of course. And (I realised with a chill) an Eva also.

Last week and before starting on the Kiernan I finished reading the third book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, The Waste Lands. I have to admit to a certain disappointment here. The careful interweaving of style and substance that was so much a feature of The Gunslinger is more or less absent from The Waste Lands. What we have instead is ‘just’ story, pure and simple. Because it’s King you’re never bored, which some might argue is achievement enough by itself, but I missed the mystery, sensing instead the inevitable problems a writer faces when trying to progress a series of this scope and length. We have action, but we lose intensity, which is just one of the reasons I’ve instinctively never been a fan of series fiction.

Well, I’m off down to Cornwall tomorrow, a trip that delivers pleasure even before I get there because of the long train journey – time enough to finish the Kiernan, and hopefully to get me started on Nicholas Royle’s much anticipated First Novel. I shall also be taking the book Chris bought for me at the weekend, Joyce Carol Oates’s new collection The Corn Maiden.

In anticipation of five days away I’ve been working hard this week on that third draft I mentioned earlier – more on that soon, I hope.

The Silver Wind crosses the Channel

Some exciting news this week – The Silver Wind is going to be published in France! I’ve just received the contract from Editions Tristram – just take a look at their incredible back catalogue and you’ll begin to understand how delighted and honoured I feel to be on their books – and all being well the French edition will be out in August.

As well as Sylvie Martigny and Jean-Hubert Gailliot at Editions Tristram, the person I have to thank for this is the translator Bernard Sigaud. Absolutely no stranger to British SF, Bernard has translated works by J. G. Ballard, Iain Banks, Paul McAuley and M. John Harrison among others, and first came into contact with my work when he translated my story ‘Microcosmos’ for the French SF magazine Lunatique. He subsequently made an enquiry about translating The Silver Wind, approaching the publisher personally and finally bringing the project to fruition in the latter stages of last year. I cannot thank Bernard enough for his commitment and enthusiasm – this literally would not have happened without him.

In addition to the five stories that make up the English edition, the French edition of The Silver Wind will also feature the story ‘Darkroom’, first published in Elastic Press’s Subtle Edens anthology in 2009. ‘Darkroom’ saw the first ever appearance of Martin Newland, the central character in the Silver Wind stories, and once again it was Bernard Sigaud who spotted the connection, and asked that this additional ‘Martin’ story be included. I was only too happy to agree!

While I’m here, just a quick note to add that you can now read an online extract from my story ‘Seeing Nancy’, which features in the Guest Writer spot over at Paul Kane’s website Shadow Writer. If you like what you see, you can find the rest of it in The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories by Women, edited by Marie O’Regan and featuring stories by Alison Littlewood, Sarah Pinborough. Kim Lakin Smith, Caitlin R. Kiernan and Lisa Tuttle among many others.

Working on: a third draft of something… (Going well, though, so it’s a happy third draft.)

Listening to: By the Blue, by Rosie Brown.

Just about to start reading: The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

Walking in: West Norwood Cemetery – just two of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ left to go now, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets.

Terror Tales of London

In October last year I was completely absorbed in working on a new story for a forthcoming anthology – for details of that one, watch this space – when I received an email from Paul Finch, asking if I’d like to write something for his new anthology, Terror Tales of London.

The piece I was already working on was turning out to be about twice as long as I’d originally envisaged, and the thought of another impending deadline made me panic a bit. But Terror Tales of London?? – how could I refuse? I would have felt like I was letting the old place down.

I’m happy to say that I accepted the challenge and wrote the story. It’s called ‘The Tiger’, and I would count it as one of the scariest pieces I’ve written to date (must have been the thought of that deadline). It’s also turned out to be one of my favourites – it’s set in SE12, after all. The anthology will be published by Gray Friar Press around Easter time. Paul has just released the full list of contributors, which you can find here. This is an impressive line-up, and I’m thrilled to be included in it.

The thing that makes Gray Friar’s Terror Tales series especially fascinating and original is that they come with ‘true’ stories of ghosts, hauntings and other dark happenings interspersed with the fiction, something which I think gives added depth and lustre to the sense of place that is these anthologies’ defining characteristic.

To get a taste of what I’m talking about, you can find details of previous releases in the series here, here, and here.

Fantastic covers, too – I can’t wait to see what the artwork for Terror Tales of London is going to look like!