Monthly Archives: October 2014

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…

Women in SF #5

The Dry Salvages by Caitlin R. Kiernan

What a gift of a book.

Kiernan’s novella The Dry Salvages was published as a standalone in 2004 by Subterranean. It won no awards, and so far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it wasn’t even nominated for any. I can only assume this was because its limited print run of 250 copies meant that it slipped under a lot of people’s radar, because this little work is as close to perfect as it is possible to come. If there was a better novella/long fiction published in that year I’d be hungry to read it.

The story takes place four hundred years in the future. Our narrator is Audrey Cathar, a palaeontologist specialising in alien fossils and last surviving crew member of a deep-space mission to investigate the remains of an abandoned alien mining operation on a moon named Piros. Now an old woman, she gathers her courage and her memories to finally put down in writing what happened to her and her colleagues when they set out to discover what became of those who landed on Piros before them. This is not a happy story. But it is deliciously compelling and joyous to behold in its formal accomplishment. It is also a page-turner. I was saying to Chris just the evening before I read Kiernan’s novella, how tiring and how tiresome it is sometimes, to be forever chipping away at other people’s fiction to find out what they’re doing, how they did it and where they went wrong. ‘What I’m looking for is the book,’ I said. ‘You know, the book that will make me forget I’m a writer, just for a bit, and have me chasing the story to the point where that’s all I want to be doing.’

You know, the way it used to be before you started writing for publication.

The Dry Salvages felt like exactly the book I’d been looking for. But the fact is, Kiernan’s fiction always makes me feel this way. She doesn’t make me forget I’m a writer, exactly – it’s more that I feel so instinctively in tune with what she’s doing that I don’t have to worry about it. I know the writing will be lovely, I know she will interrogate reality in a way that feels urgent, and real, that whichever direction she chooses to go in, I’m not going to be disappointed. I can leave all that stuff up to her. Me, I can just turn those pages and revel in a story that will remind me of the ambitions I nurtured when I decided I was going to take my writing seriously in the first place. And ‘revel’ is the word. It’s wonderful to be reading a writer this talented. It’s something to be cherished.

There’s nothing that you would call precisely ‘new’ in The Dry Salvages. You could point to the Alien tetralogy or even the inferior-to-Alien but highly watchable and sometimes hilarious (‘I don’t need eyes where I’m going’) Event Horizon as precursors of the ideas on display here. But what marks out Kiernan’s novella as exceptional is the superlative execution of those ideas, the economy and ease with which concurrent themes – posthumanism, gender stereotyping, environmental collapse – are interwoven and made a piece with the core narrative, the intricacy and beauty of its formal construction. This novella is ten years old now, yet it has not aged a day. There is nothing showy or ostentatiously ‘current’ about it, and in its exploration of contemporary themes it never makes the mistake of letting its guiding ideologies overbalance the story. Like all the best science fiction, The Dry Salvages is approachable by anyone, even if they’ve never read a word of SF in their life. Like all the most convincing science fiction, it takes its starting point as now: there’s no attempt to exoticise the future here, to give it strange accents or outlandish clothing. What we see here might be tomorrow, only with today’s certainties removed.

Kiernan is never afraid to let her literature grapple full-body-contact with genre – these stories are about monsters, they’re about otherworlds, they’re about the supernatural and they’re about people falling prey to powers beyond our realm. They don’t fanny about, these stories. They don’t hint at monstrosity, only to sidle away from the genre aspects at the last minute and afford us a ‘rational’ explanation for what has happened. Kiernan is quite prepared to speculate that sometimes the only rational explanation is that the monsters might really be out there. But equally and why the hell don’t more people try this? she is never afraid to let her genre be literature. She gives her monsters and the people that encounter them, the cities or lonely places or deep-space stations the literary weight such subjects demand to be convincing, the psychological insight that does them justice.

One of the unfortunate things about SF du jour is how quickly and how embarrassingly it dates – at least in part because it’s consciously speaking to a community of fans who are familiar with the issues, who know about the hierarchies, who kind of love the in-fighting. But when that particular cohort of fans and hangers-on moves on, or gets ousted by a new crowd, what are we to make of the fiction that ‘season’ engendered? All too often, not much.

The writers who tend to produce what we know as classics are usually a law unto themselves. I think The Dry Salvages could become a classic, the kind of story people will still be devouring with pleasure and amazement a hundred years from now, the way we still read The Time Machine, or The Yellow Wallpaper, or Frankenstein.

We read these stories because we are thrilled by them, and horrified. We return to them because in their language and their ideas there is always more to discover.

I happen to believe that Caitlin R. Kiernan is one of the greatest writers on the planet right now. I think it’s scandalous that she doesn’t get more recognition for that, and that few readers or writers outside of genre circles will even have heard of her.

Strange domains

M. John Harrison has a new Kindle Single out! It’s called ‘The 4th Domain’ and it’s fantastic. For me, it has a real feel of Course of the Heart about it – characters mired in their own disjuncture, deeply wrong goings on, a city on the slide towards inexorable decline.  This is a dark story of frayed edges and indeterminate conclusions. I loved it – it goes straight on to my ‘best of’ list for 2014 – and at only £1.53 on Kindle it would be ridiculous not to read it. You can buy it here.

And talking of sensible ways to spend your money this week, do please consider donating to the annual Strange Horizons fund drive. Strange Horizons continues to be one of the very best online SFF short fiction and review venues out there, and with its active commitment to increased diversity this magazine deserves every ounce of support you can give it. You can make your donation here. Every little helps!

Necessary drudgery

“Ninety years on from Virginia Woolf’s essay [Character in Fiction], the market into which novels get pitched is still deeply conservative: the choosing of what gets published, reviewed, wins prizes. But the novel is not ruled by the market. Kate Webb, reviewing Every Day is for the Thief in the TLS in July this year, suggested that Teju Cole’s work ‘occupies a now common ground of uncertainty in twenty-first-century writing, blending fiction, memoir, observation and conjecture’. Hari Kunzru, reviewing Ben Lerner’s 10:04 in the New York Times earlier this month, suggested that the book ‘belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer’. The precedents for this date back decades, but there seems now to be momentum, and this too I find liberating.”

So writes Charles Boyle, founder and director of CB Editions (and publisher of Will Eaves’s Goldsmith’s-shortlisted novel The Absent Therapist). in an elegant and necessary blog post that speaks of the need some novelists feel to break away from traditional forms and assumptions about what a novel should be and to turn instead to a mode of expression that actually interests them.

I’ve found much to inspire me here, and at Charles’s blog generally. I’ve been making new reading lists, setting myself new goals in reading for the months ahead. As always when I’m making new discoveries, I find it profoundly exciting to realise how many good writers are out there, doing the kind of work that interests me.

All this feels very timely, because I’ve just started work on a new novel. Strikingly different from anything I’ve attempted before, it incorporates ideas and formal approaches I’ve felt increasingly drawn to but never quite dared try. It seems that’s about to change. I’m 12,000 words in already, just trying to get down a working first draft so I can get the basic drift of where it’s going.

The process feels very different from how it felt when I was drafting The Race. I can see this book’s outlines more clearly, and I know (more or less) how it ends. But that’s a long way ahead. For now it’s all about stretching my abilities to match the potential of the idea, which is daunting, but exciting. Mostly exciting.

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.