Monthly Archives: May 2014

“Science fiction allows us the possibility of transgression.”

“To read good speculative fiction from multiple perspectives is to get a little drunk on unfamiliar liquors, so that one can no longer walk straight and oblivious through the pathways of one’s unexamined assumptions.  We need to intoxicate the imagination.  How else than through speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy that has realized its transgressive potential?”

If you read one new thing today, make it this scintillating essay on Alternate Visions by Vandana Singh. Inspiring, inclusive, positive and constructive, it should be absorbed and considered by everyone and anyone in the field of SFF, and beyond.

Bloghop: three things I don’t write (& three things I do)

OK, so people have been stepping into summer with this latest writers’ meme. I was tagged by Douglas Thompson – you can find his typically forthright and entertaining (watch out, vampires) post here.

So what don’t I write about? This is actually a harder question to answer than it first appears. because I’d like to think that nothing is off limits. Off the top of my head, I’d say I don’t write space opera. But then that isn’t because I don’t want to – it’s more that I don’t know how. I haven’t yet found a way into it that will compliment the way I write and the way I think about things. I don’t tend to think in terms of intergalactic conflict – I prefer a smaller canvas, because detail is important to me. But the idea of creating fictions with a vast reach and universal implications presents an enormously attractive challenge, and if and when I feel I have something to say in this subject area, it’s a genre I’d love to have a go at overturning.

Similarly, although I have no great love for genre staples such as vampires, zombies, satanists, werewolves, I also consider that these tropes are there to be subverted. There are always new ways of telling a story, and I’d like to believe there’ll be life in these old favourites for as long as there are new writers to write about them. And as for the Cthulhu Mythos, I don’t care how often people rework it, add to it, embroider it, because I love it. There’s always room for one more Mythos story, somehow, and if I’ve not ventured into these unhallowed grounds myself, it’s simply because I consider that I Am Not Yet Worthy. One day, though, definitely. In fact, I already have plans…

And although I’m almost prepared to wager I’ll never write secondary world high fantasy because (along with its boring twin brother, sword and sorcery) it’s probably the area of the fantastic I’m least interested in, I can’t alter the fact that Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter – a blistering and beautiful subversion of high fantasy tropes – has long been and will doubtless remain one of my favourite works of fantastic fiction. Which only goes to show you should never say never.

What do I write about, then? As a writer, I often find I’m too close to my subject matter – too wrapped up in its minutiae – to be able to coherently state what it’s ‘about’. Readers are often much better at such summing up than writers, actually. But if pressed, I’d say that the main subject of a lot of my fiction is probably creativity, and by extension the nature of obsession. People don’t just write things in my stories, they paint, take photographs, compose music, conduct experiments, make gloves, collect stamps, play chess, train racing pigeons. The pursuit of the creative impulse – God in man, as Nabokov would have it – is the driving force of these characters’ lives, and they’ll do anything to safeguard that freedom. A recent example of this kind of character is Layla in my novella Spin, a science fictional re-enactment of the Arachne myth, but really just a story about what it means to give your life to art. But these characters are everywhere in my fiction. I suppose to a greater or lesser extent they’re all versions of me.

Place, and how human beings relate to a landscape, a city, a house, even, has always been a defining characteristic of my fiction. Why? Because for me, place has always been as important as character in the role of story’s prime generator. Place automatically suggests history, both real and imagined. For me, writing about a place is the only possible way to make sense of it – and once I’ve written about a place, I will always feel some residual attachment to it. There’s no such thing as a ‘boring’ place – ask Nicola Barker.  Even an empty room suggests a narrative (what’s outside, why is it empty, what was there before?) and every writer will interpret a landscape differently. I cannot think of a single story of mine that is not somehow concerned with a sense of place. It’s a touchstone for me. My forthcoming novel The Race had its beginnings primarily in my reaction to moving from London to the south coast of England in 2011, and my subsequent reworking of that landscape into an alternate future version of itself. It’s what I like to do!

Memory, and the passing of time, are not just important subjects in my fiction, they also form a key element in the way my fiction tends to be structured. I have always enjoyed non-linear forms of storytelling – linked sets of stories, multilayered narratives, alternating time streams – and by coincidence (or otherwise) these modes of narrative also provide a fascinatingly tangible reflection of their own subject matter. My story cycle The Silver Wind, which plays out in a manner that somewhat resembles a musiscal theme and variations, is itself a literal representation of the duplicitous nature of time, the unreliability of memory. My most recent collection, Stardust, is based around its characters’ memories of a central but barely seen character that none of the rest of them really know. I don’t intentionally set out to play games with form – I just happen to gravitate naturally to this very fluid kind of storytelling, narratives that always leave room for doubt, or for an alternate explanation. I find the idea of a straight beginning – middle – end-type narrative a little scary, to be honest, because I’m not sure I could sustain my own belief in it. I think I’d constantly be looking for the second, secret story hidden behind the apparent outward reality.

Well, that’s me done. Now it’s over to my brave tag-ees. Firstly Rhys Hughes, who just happens to be one of the most original and imaginatively gifted short fiction writers currently working. His stories are so unique, so technically accomplished, they blow my mind every time. The only thing that’s certain about his ‘three things’ is that they’ll be very different from mine. Go Rhys! And secondly Carole Johnstone, whose superbly chilling novella Cold Turkey is out now from TTA Press. Read this one and you’ll never light up a cigarette again (or buy an ice cream from one of those weird little vans, either… )

Hab’ mir’s gelobt…

Take a look at this YouTube footage of  the Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, talking about her experiences of performing at a gala concert, and proving in just a few short moments of onstage coverage that a more stunningly vivacious, intelligent and communicative singer would be hard to find. The desire, as she puts it herself, to ‘tell stories’ through her music just explodes out of her. Her singing voice, it goes almost without saying, is effortlessly sublime.

To think of a musician of such high calibre and such obvious personal charisma having to read reviews of her recent Glyndebourne performance as Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and see herself described – and this in the broadsheets – by people who are considered to be some of this country’s top music critics, variously as ‘a chubby bundle of puppy fat’ (Andrew Clark, FT), ‘a dumpy girl’ (Michael Church, Independent – only there’s no point in my linking to that review, because it has since been reworded), and ”unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing’ (Richard Morrison, The Times), is utterly shameful. ‘It’s hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy women’s plausible lover’, insists Andrew Clements of The Guardian.

As Jessica Duchen says in The Independent, ‘why shouldn’t the women in [Octavian’s] life be attracted to personality rather than height? Richard Jones’s production offers a bright, sassy, postmodern approach, ditching every one of its tradition’s sacred cows – Octavian included.’ She goes on to point out that ‘opera’s men do not face the same problem. Take the eponymous hero in Wagner’s Siegfried. Like Octavian, he is probably meant to be about 17. But we don’t generally hear complaints about the hefty Heldentenors who sing him not looking like petulant adolescents. Consider this at leisure.’

The sexist abuse – because I’m afraid that’s what it is – handed out to Erraught is distressing to read. It also highlights the continuing problem of sexism in classical music generally. It’s only a couple of months since we heard Vasili Petrenko, chief conductor of the RLPO, insist that ‘when women have families it is difficult to be as dedicated as is required in this business’ and ‘a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else’. There’s something seriously rotten in the fabric of the classical music world when a musician in such a senior role – and in all other respects immensely talented – feels that it’s normal and OK to express opinions that, had he actually stopped for a moment to think them through, he would surely have realised were not only offensive but poorly informed.

Similarly, I felt upset and dismayed when, just a couple of days ago, I happened to pick up a classical music magazine from a station news stand and the first thing to strike my eye was a double-page photo of the trumpet player Alison Balsom, in a gold off-the-shoulder dress, reclining on a sofa, hugging her instrument. Balsom is an amazing musician. Why then is she being marketed as a sexual commodity? Why are things like this still happening in classical music, not just occasionally but as a general rule?

Is classical music turning out to be one of the last bastions of this kind of conservatism, an arena in which it’s still perfectly permissible to criticise a woman for being too old, too heavy, not photogenic enough? As someone for whom classical music has been a hugely important part of her life since the age of twelve, I find that thought profoundly appalling. If classical music wants to stop being thought of by most of the world as a weird, stuffy, outmoded culture where everyone speaks in plummy accents, where you have to know all the secret passwords to gain access, and that no one under the age of sixty is even remotely interested in anyway, then it’s time for its movers and shakers to damn well wise up.

Some lovely news to share

I’m very happy indeed to announce that my story The Gateway (Stardust/PS Publishing) has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in the Best Novella category.

Every year I look to the Shirley Jackson Awards shortlists for a year end summary of the best in horror and dark fiction, checking to make sure there’s nothing I’ve missed, feeling pleased that the judges have taken note of works that have particularly impressed me. If you look back at the nominations slates since the award’s inception in 2007 you’ll find they include much of the most original and accomplished contemporary horror being written, and the list of winners is more or less a who’s who of modern dark fantasy. To find my own work being acknowledged in this way is nothing short of mind-blowing.

This year’s lists highlight some fantastic works, as always. It’s particularly lovely to see my PS and TTA Press cohort Rosanne Rabinowitz being nominated for her Machen-inspired novella Helen’s Story, the amazing Rob Shearman for his short story ‘That Tiny Flutter of the Heart’, and the perennially brilliant Tanith Lee for her novelette ‘A Little of the Night’. (Indeed, British talent makes a grand showing across the board this year.) Other favourites among the nominations include Kit Reed’s collection The Story Until Now, Ramsey Campbell’s novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, Nathan Ballingrud’s collection North American Lake Monsters, Livia Llewellyn’s short story ‘Furnace’, and in the novel category I shall be rooting particularly for Joyce Carol Oates’s resplendent The Accursed. But really, every nominee deserves a special mention because they are all such amazing and inspiring writers, every one.

Congratulations and good luck to all.

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.