Monthly Archives: May 2013

The marvellous Mr Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His acknowledgement that inspiration is only the start.

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

B-Side

For anyone who’d like a free taste of Stardust, PS Publishing have generously posted the first story in the collection, ‘B-Side’, as the latest in their regular ‘Something for the Weekend’ feature at their website. The story will be free to read online all this week.

‘B-Side’ had an interesting genesis. It started life as a much shorter story, and the ending was starkly eliptical, even for me. I was never entirely satisfied with it, and when I eventually showed it to Chris he said he felt the ending came out of nowhere and that I’d have to do something about it. I remember the discussion well (we were stuck in a traffic jam on the M25 at the time, so not the best venue for a reasoned exchange) – knowing there was more than a sackful of sense in what Chris was saying, yet at the same time feeling protective of my story and not wanting to lose the threatening sense of mystery I knew it should contain.

I did the best thing I could think of in the circumstances – I left the story entirely alone and did not return to it until I felt I could see it objectively, without any of the attendant baggage of who had been ‘right’ about that ending. Letting work ‘rest’ in this way always has the constructive advantage of dissociation – as if it’s someone else’s work you’re reading, and therefore much easier to criticise honestly – and when a few months later I did read ‘B-Side’ through again it seemed immediately obvious to me that what I had was the bones of a story, the beginnings of a longer piece awaiting completion. Once I had that clear in my mind it was a matter of great satisfaction to me to excavate the full story that lay waiting beneath the visible surface.

And what lay waiting was bigger even than I realised at first, because ‘B-Side’ turned out to be not just a longer story in its own right, but the beginning of my idea of Stardust as a whole. I knew right away that ‘B-Side’ and ‘The Lammas Worm’ were linked through the travelling players, and that the young chess player in ‘B-Side’ had a counterpoint in an unfinished but closely treasured fragment called ‘Stardust’ that I had written and then laid aside about a year before. As these things became apparent, I knew I had a book on my hands. I won’t say that the other stories wrote themselves – ‘Wreck of the Julia’ especially took a long time to get right – but I did at least know where they belonged, and that they belonged together.

Chris always refers to ‘B-Side’ as ‘the highwayman story’, in remembrance of that rather robust discussion we had about the ending. The highwayman he refers to appears in the story now but fleetingly, a mention only – but in a very real sense the collection would not exist without him.

Perhaps a second dedication is in order!

Another quick note…

… to point the way towards DF Lewis’s real-time review of Spin here. A deeply personal response, as one would always expect from Des, and much appreciated. I am very taken with the images he has chosen to illustrate his words. Also his own spin on the music of Xenakis…

Terror Tales of London – full ToC

Just a quick line to let you know that the latest anthology in Gray Friar Press’s acclaimed ‘Terror Tales’ series, Terror Tales of London, is now available for preorder, shipping in June.

The anthology features stories by Nicholas Royle, Rosalie Parker, Adam Nevill, Barbara Roden and Christopher Fowler among others, as well as my own story ‘The Tiger’.

You’ll find the full Table of Contents here.

They’re here!

I’m delighted to report that my author copies of Stardust were delivered this morning, and that the book is now officially out in the world! I have to say I’m seriously happy about that. There’s always something a bit weird about finally seeing work in print – the sense, perhaps, that the stories no longer belong to you – but in the case of Stardust this is very much good weird. I finished working on the collection right at the end of 2010, and there are some big stories in there – at 27,000 words ‘Wreck of the Julia’ is actually my longest published piece of fiction to date, and ‘The Gateway’ is pretty much the same length as my TTA novella, Spin – stuff I’ve been longing to share with readers, and now I can do that. Ben Baldwin’s cover art looks amazing – just as importantly for me, it also looks exactly right for the book. It speaks truly of what’s inside, somehow, and this makes me not just excited about and proud of the book, but comfortable in its presence, too. Thank you, Ben.

My thanks once again also to Pete and Nicky Crowther for making this happen.

There’s going to be a London launch event for several books including Stardust at the beginning of July. It’s shaping up to be an interesting evening, and I look forward to announcing more details in the near future. Watch this space!

And as if that wasn’t excitement enough, I received my author copies of Spin this week, also! At the risk of gushing all over everthing, I do have to say that it too looks amazing, and once again I’m thrilled with Ben’s cover, not to mention Andy Cox’s brilliant efforts in bringing this novella to publication. I’m happy to say that as well as the print edition, Spin is also now available as a Kindle eBook for just £3.69 – you can get a sneak peek here.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’ve been thinking about new projects (big new projects) and working on a brand new story, which I’m hoping to have finished by the middle of next week. This has been one of those bastard stories where the first draft was a total mess – just a bunch of words tipped out on the page, basically – and so it’s taken me three complete redraftings to get it into a state where I can think about feeling happy with it. And sometimes – when you’ve just redrafted 5,000 words at one sitting, for instance – the only way to recharge the batteries is to stare at the cinema screen entranced while a burning spaceship ploughs its way through the atmosphere and collides with the planet’s surface in a smoking great impact.

That was Star Trek: Into Darkness. And yes, I know how silly it is, I know the bromance is in danger of transgressing the boundaries of self-parody, and that they had Uhura fighting Khan in an effing satin mini-dress, but for yesterday evening at least it rocked my world…

Fearing a credibility malfunction, Chris stayed at home.

Thought for the day

“Cultures change and the ceaseless churn builds empires just as easily as it razes kingdoms. There is always some part of a culture that is dead, dying or lying dormant in wait for the right person to come along with the right set of ideas and the right type of audience. Complaints about the exhaustion of the field have always been with us and will hopefully always be with us as they are a sign that the world of written SF is still complex and vibrant enough to contain multiple factions with different ideas about what SF ought to be doing. The only time people should really start to worry about the exhaustion of SF is when people stop complaining about it as that means that people have stopped disagreeing and when people stop disagreeing it’s generally a sign that people have also stopped caring.”

(Jonathan McCalmont, ‘Cycles of Exhaustion’)

On and off the rails

In the run-up to the publication of the slipstream railway anthology Rustblind and Silverbright, the Eibonvale Press blog will be running a series of guest posts by some of the contributing authors, talking about their stories and how they came to be written or just train stuff in general. My own piece has just gone up, it’s called ‘Haunted by Rail’, and it lets slip a couple of clues about the genesis of ‘Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle’.

Eibonvale should be releasing more news about a launch gig for the anthology soon, so watch this space!

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

It’s impossible to stop reading this novel once you have started it.

It’s not science fiction though.

I liked Zoo City quite a lot. It was written with passion and sincerity, the writing was punchy and personable, and some of the scenes (the flashbacks to Zinzi’s tragedy, and the brief strand where Zinzi helps to con the American couple in particular) were highly memorable and very well executed. That the book felt a bit rough around the edges in patches was actually part of its appeal – there was a real sense of process going on and that sense of a writer’s still-visible involvement is always something I enjoy in a novel. I felt excited about reading The Shining Girls, firstly because I wanted to see how far Beukes had progressed in her writing since Zoo City, and secondly because I felt certain that its much-advertised premise – a time travelling serial killer – would have to make it a contender for next year’s Clarke Award.

The book is certainly well written – there are parts that are very well written indeed, especially in the first half of the novel, where the groundwork of the plot is still being laid. The descriptions of 1930s Chicago bring the narrative wonderfully alive, exposing the reader to a wide range of smells, sounds and sensations and building up a genuine sense of menace and mystery. The slight hesitancy one found in Zoo City is entirely gone – this is the work of a rapidly maturing, well practised professional writer who seems to hold the whole of her narrative in the palm of her hand. Occasionally the dialogue is a little too pat, a bit too TV-cop-show for my personal taste, but in the main Beukes captures the voices of the various characters remarkably well.

The pages fly by. It feels imperative to find out what happens. As I said at the beginning of this write-up, it would be a strong soul indeed who could open this novel and lay it aside half-read.

But this book has problems, too, which is such a shame. The first of these might not impinge on many readers, indeed will only occur to you if you were expecting The Shining Girls (as I was) to be a science fiction novel. It isn’t. It’s a thriller. Full stop. Yes, there is a killer who travels through time, who manages to evade police capture for sixty years because he can do so. But it turns out that the time travel is just a gimmick. There is no attempt to explore the reasons or possible science behind the phenomenon – which in The Shining Girls might instead be summed up by the simple disclaimer that The House Did It – and indeed the novel might very easily have been written without the time travel element and been just as sucessful within its own remit. Yes, it’s a neat variation on a theme, a clever addition to the serial killer thriller cabinet of macabre curiosities, but it’s no more science fiction than The Time Traveller’s Wife.

It does have more murder in it, though, which leads me on to the second problem I found with the book, which I’m regretfully going to have to call the James Herbert Problem. Beukes’s writing is about a thousand times better than Herbert’s, and her imaginative range is on a whole different planet. But the further I got into the book and as the murders mounted up the more I couldn’t help remembering James Herbert’s The Fog, which I read when I was about fourteen, and which followed the same formula for pretty much the whole of its length: we’re introduced to a character, we learn a little of their backstory, we jog along inside their head for a while, learn the world from their angle – and then they’re murdered. Always brutally, in media res, as the inevitable culmination of that particular section of narrative. Then we skip to the next character, soon-to-be-victim, and so on until the Final Confrontation.

I’m afraid The Shining Girls follows pretty much the same programme of action.

Of course, there is a lot more reason and sense in Beukes’s character vignettes. Each takes place at a different point in time, offering us glimpses of Chicago as a city-kaleidoscope of progress and dissolution, brutality and enlightenment. The ‘shining girls’ of the title are all special and talented women – a research biologist, an architect, a doctor, a dancer, a social worker, a shipbuilder, an artist – all at the beginning of their adult lives and the start of their careers, all latent possibility for women’s advancement across the twentieth century. Many of these character studies – the story of Margot, the junior doctor in the 1970s who works for Jane How, an association offering free abortions to women desperate for help is one I found particularly affecting and powerfully written – are little masterpieces of invention, insight and characterisation. But as the novel progresses, and we realise that none of these engaging characters is destined to survive more than a couple of pages, both the brutality of the action and the inherent tedium of the format inevitably takes its toll. In the end, I began to feel like a voyeur. The murder scenes are violent and explicit. I have no beef with that – murder is violent and explicit, and in exposing the truth behind violence that some writers shrink from Beukes is being true to her subject and exposing the reality of the atrocities the media seem so readily expert at converting into slick Saturday night entertainment. But in the end I was left feeling uncertain whether this novel was weighty enough in other ways to merit such a repetitious and gaudy bloodletting.

In Roberto Bolano’s magnum opus 2666, there is a – let’s see – 300-page section that catalogues a brutal series of murders of women in the fictional Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Ciudad Juarez, where such a series of murders actually took place and where the killer/s are still at large. This section of the novel is hard to read, to be sure, but it constitutes one part of the narrative only, there is a lot more to the novel than these brutal murders, and Bolano’s weaving together of diverse narrative strands is a literary achievement of significant accomplishment. The Shining Girls does make a valiant attempt to move beyond the mere depiction of murder and into valid social commentary, but I’m not sure, in the end, if it succeeds in doing so. We are given hints of the killer Harper Curtis’s disturbed mentality – as a child he follows the familiar sociopathic model of practising violence upon animals before moving on to close family members – but his background is just that, a background, lightly sketched and inconsequential in terms of the plot. He kills. That’s all. Why he’s fixated upon the ‘shining girls’ as his victims we never discover.

Kirby, the ‘victim that got away’ is a credible and sympathetic protagonist. I liked her – I liked especially the opening chapter, which depicts her first genuinely chilling encounter with her would-be murderer when Kirby is just seven years old, and I thought her relationship with her mother, Rachel, was particularly well drawn. But as the plot gains momentum, the characterisation suffers. The scenes between Kirby and her ‘first love’ turned total jerk Fred, who wants to make a sex film of Kirby, supposedly as proof of how she’s bounced back from her ordeal (!) are painfully misjudged, and the bit where the cop assigned to one of the murders and the chief of the paper Kirby is working for read her the riot act comes across like one of those boringly predictable scenes in The Killing where (yet again) Sarah Lund gets taken off the case.

The problem with so many page turners is that so much depends on the resolution, and once you know what the resolution is there is little left to make you want to read the book again. Perhaps that’s OK – there is a place, after all, for the well executed story that is simply that, a story, to be enjoyed and discussed with your friends the following day the same way you might enjoy or discuss an exciting but ultimately unchallenging movie. I totally get that, and perhaps my lack of love for easy thrillers is my own loss. The narrative of The Shining Girls is addictive and the writing demonstrates a neat step upwards for Beukes in terms of technique and taken on these terms I would recommend the book. But I can’t help feeling regret – for the paucity of new ideas, for the lazy mishandling of the novel’s science fictional element, for the novel this might so easily have been.

I suppose I hoped that a writer of Beukes’s character and calibre would offer us more.