Monthly Archives: August 2015

Whoops (I Did it Again)

I spent part of this bank holiday weekend at London’s Frightfest. I know I swore I’d not go back, but the company of friends, the wonderful atmosphere of the Fest itself, and the hope that maybe – just maybe – I’d see something astounding tempted me to give the thing another go. I had a great time just being in town, and loved the experience of just being at FF as I always do. The films, though. I know it’s hardly fair of me to comment as time and expense (and, this year, a train strike) meant I only got to see a small percentage of the complete line-up, but oh dear. Aside from a highly commendable and hugely entertaining Mad Max homage called Turbo Kid (chopper bikes and old comics instead of war machines – an appealing aesthetic, I thought, as well as a lively, funny, knowing script that played out as if the writer actually gave a damn) none of the films I saw possessed so much as a scrap of originality or merit. Worse, much of what was on offer seemed to have a retrograde vibe in terms of its subject matter – and not in a good way.

Every so often we get bursts of discussion about conservatism within the horror genre: namely, whether horror is an inherently conservative form of storytelling – over-dependent on tired tropes, antediluvian social attitudes and plot-it-by-numbers stereotypes. Not enough discussion, evidently. Why is it that whenever I start to feel optimistic about a new era of horror cinema, along comes a film like Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click and pulls that particular rug right out from under my feet. And again, not in a good way. It’s a shame Bakhia (who was present for the screening and – of course! – seemed like a really nice guy) wasn’t doing a Q&A at the showing I went to because I did actually have a question I’d have been genuinely fascinated to hear the answer to:

“Mr Bakhia, don’t you think films in which the women characters exist solely to be humiliated, raped and finally killed – in which the women characters’ sole purpose within the plot is to provide fuel for an argument/feud/vendetta between characters of the male gender and where in fact there is no plot driver except that an adult woman happened to have consensual sex with another adult – don’t you think films like that are just a tiny bit eighties???”

I think what Bakhia might (and I say that very tentatively because he shot so wide of the target) have been going for was a kind of Euro/US spin on Park Chan-wook’s mighty Vengeance trilogy. Personally, I would count such a misguided homage as an insult to Park. Landmine Goes Click is pointless, tasteless, boring and one of the very worst films I’ve seen recently. Right from the start, the omens weren’t good. In the few words he did address to the audience prior to the screening, Bakhia suggested that the story idea had originally arisen out of a brainstorming session. What’s the betting that the participants in said session were all lads..?

More worrying still, the movie currently has a rating of 7.6 on iMDb.

What actually went through the writer/director’s head? What emotions did he want to arouse? Because aside from the movie’s inherent derivativeness, nothing about the film is remotely shocking. Does Bakhia think horror films are just for men? Does he think men don’t care about story, so long as they get to see one angry dude call his fiancee a whore and set her up to be raped?

I’m asking, because I’m genuinely curious.

I was mulling all this over (during the second, excruciatingly tedious half of yet another film in which demons/witches seemed rapaciously intent on robbing a teenage girl of her unborn baby) and asking myself for the umpteenth time: is it them, or me? Is it even possible to make a good, commercially viable horror film? Not namby-pamby arthouse horror (my favourite kind – sigh) but the full-on, genuine article with its roots stuck firmly in the genre and that anyone who regularly watches horror would be OK with naming as such?

If so, what is it about these films that lift them clear of the dross heap, and why aren’t there more of them?

It’s interesting to think about (more fun than watching Hellions, anyway, and to think the same guy directed Pontypool – what the actual fuck??) and in a pre-emptive strike I’m going to answer my own questions:

1) Yes, it’s possible.

2) A decent script.

3) Because way too many writers/directors think a promising idea is the same as an actual story.

I’m now going to illustrate my answers with some examples. It so happens that shortly before I went to FrightFest, I happened to see an article over at Movies Films and Flicks in which Mark Hofmeyer set out to canvas opinion on the top ten horror films of the 21st century – so far. He culled figures and ratings from many sources – you can see the full breakdown here and the whole article makes fascinating reading. Whilst I may not agree with all the placings (although Mark’s personal five aren’t a bad line-up, actually) I found it a fun game to play. I scribbled down my own list, which soon ballooned to twenty and I’m still fiddling around with it. Here (and I stress in no particular order) is where I am with it so far:

Kill List (Ben Wheatley). A returning soldier faces problems reintegrating himself with civilain society. A charismatic friend (read ‘bit of a dick’) offers to cut him in on a high-paying, er, contract he’s landed. After a long, slow build-up that has more in common with the cinema of Mike Leigh than anything you might expect to find in a generic horror film, things suddenly get very nasty very fast. This film is hard to watch but it is a stand-out.

Wake Wood (David Keating). Remembering the quiet and chilling elegance of this Wicker-Man-style movie (which received far less attention than it warranted) makes it all the more painful to learn that its director went on to make the derivative and valueless coven ‘chiller’ Cherry Tree as premiered at FrightFest this weekend.

Thirst (Park Chan-wook). A reimagining of Zola’s novel Therese Raquin – with added vampires! I was totally swept away by this when I saw it – but then it is Park Chan-wook, so you can’t go wrong really. Stunning and beautiful.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook). Park’s first English-language movie mixes familiar Hollywood horror tropes with Korean revenge drama and some of the most luscious cinematography ever to grace a screen. I’d watch this again in a heartbeat and you should, too.

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli). The best thing about this one is that it has the courage of its convictions. Not a lot happens – but the tension generated is mighty AND it stands up to repeated viewings. I thought this was going to be shit when I went to see it – the death throes of the Blair Witch movement – but I was more than happy to be wrong. The sequels get more and more stupid (as sequels tend to do) but whilst they’re moderately entertaining, the original first movie is actually worthy of a place in the canon.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook). Park’s use of music and colour (especially the colour red) in this film is astounding. Whilst a lot of people cite Oldboy as the jewel in the Vengeance crown, I would have to cite Lady Vengeance, the third instalment in the trilogy, as my personal favourite.

The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington). I’ve watched this about four times and I still love it. A quiet, slow, highly unusual ghost story about recovering from grief and predicting the future. Laura Linney, especially, shines. The final fifteen minutes provides a particularly glorious sequence, shot almost entirely without dialogue, which feels genuinely iconic.

The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm). Far and away the best of the spate of exorcism films that arrived seemingly out of nowhere between 2009-2012. The first half hour plays out like a real-life documentary about a boy-preacher growing up to become a professional exorcist. He’s mostly lost his faith but he still wants to help people. He’s called to a remote farm, where a young girl has been behaving strangely. The ending of this film is rather predictable, sadly, but there’s some great stuff along the way and several moments of genuine terror (all too rare in horror films these days).

Wolf Creek (Greg McLean). Four friends camping in the outback. Their van breaks down. Someone comes to ‘help’. Yeah, you know how it’s going to play out, but the first hour (in which nothing much happens apart from us getting to know the protagonists) sets this movie apart from its Texas-Chainsaw-wannabe cousins. It’s horrible. I don’t think I’d watch this again but it should be in the canon.

The Descent (Neil Marshall). Another one I’ve watched a lot. The first hour, in which backstory is established and relationships are set up, is brilliant. The moment when the women realise that no one knows where they are – a genuine frisson of terror. Amazing performances and some really good stuff in general. The third quarter – a lot of dashing through tunnels to escape monsters, basically – is too generic for my liking (less is more, people) but I still love this film. The ending is a hideous masterstroke. (A masterstroke that The Descent 2 seeks to obliterate, incidentally, which only proves the point that sequels – aside from the Alien tetralogy – only serve to weaken the original concept and are generally a bad idea.)

Byzantium (Neil Jordan). A common-or-garden vampire movie raised above the common by a gloriously measured, poetic script by Moira Buffini based on her own stage play. Lovely performances, plus it’s set in Hastings, which made it a real treat for Chris and me particularly. A perfect small film, and about a hundred times better than the disappointingly-scripted and laughably derivative Only Lovers Left Alive, which ended up hogging the bulk of the vampire-love the following year.

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn). There’s no good way to describe this other than ‘a bloodbath’, with Ryan Gosling playing an angsty gangster and Kristin Scott Thomas as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and the Countess Bathory. (Note: best screen death evah.) The body count is pretty much total but this movie has a stunning aesthetic and is just so in-yer-face you come away reeling. I like Winding Refn a lot – like an extrovert Von Trier, he just doesn’t give a stuff who he offends – but I do understand why some people don’t.

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro). Before he was famous. I like this riff on the vampire movie even better than I like The Devil’s Backbone. Stunning sense of place, gorgeous palette, great characterisation. I honestly have no idea why this isn’t better known.

Audition (Miike Takashi). It’s the needle scene that gets people talking and seeing as it’s one of the most uncomfortable sequences in horror cinema it’s not hard to see why. There is so much more to Audition, though. The way Miike plays tricks with time and chronology, for one. The nightmarish sadness of the story, for another. Mysterious and – dare I say it – beautiful, this film is a must-see for anyone interested in horror cinema. I’ve watched it three times now and it gets better each time. Be warned: it is genuinely scary.

The Box (Richard Kelly). Based on Richard Matheson’s ‘deal with the devil’ story ‘Button, Button’, no one seemed to like this when it came out. It gets a bit silly towards the end, but I actually think this movie is an overlooked gem. Weird, and weirdly compelling. One to see twice.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel). Based on true events. I found parts of this almost impossible to watch, but the characterisation, sense of place and raw, brittle style of the cinematography make it a powerful social indictment as well as a horrifyingly gripping examination of events in a small Australian community. Be careful with this one – it really is strong meat – but it’s an amazing piece of film making and should be recognised as such.

The Monk (Dominik Moll). An unusual, beautiful and completely engrossing cinematic experience. This film isn’t nearly as well known as it should be, and is a perfect demonstration of how familiar tropes can be made to seem original and to live again. Highly recommended.

Requiem (Hans Christian Schmid). The ‘real’ exorcist. You won’t get the crucifix masturbation or spider walk scenes with this one. But what you will get is the story of a devout and highly gifted young woman starting college, trying to make the adjustment from living in a small provincial community and assailed by forces – both emotional and spiritual – that seem beyond her control. This film is brilliant: quiet yet disturbing and highly affecting. Again, inspired by true events and a deeply personal examination of the tensions between the real and the imagined. I love this film.

The Silent House (Gustavo Hernandez). If you liked Paranormal Activity you’ll probably enjoy this, too. The film aroused a deal of curiosity and comment for being shot in a single take. But there’s more here than technical panache. There’s a fascinating mystery, a pile of raw tension and a genuine sense of unease about the whole thing. Does a great trick with timelines, too. Should be part of the canon.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley). Oh, this movie. Wheatley’s follow-up to Kill List, and I’m not even sure it can properly be called horror, although it is about a distinctly oddball couple who go on a killing spree whilst visiting a pencil museum and other esoteric visitor attractions in the north of England. I don’t care what you call it — it is brilliant, chilling and also very, very funny. Wonderful, wonderful script.

I’m still quibbling with myself over the inclusion of Wolf Creek, because it breaks a lot of my own rules for decent horror (in that anything belonging to the subgenre known popularly as torture porn is a lazy excuse for a horror movie and should earn instant disqualification from discussion on grounds of being complete crap). But the set-up was so good – the extended, dawdling exposition of the characters’ relationships to one another, the sense of place, the documentary feel that I always enjoy – and the movie had such a strong impact on me at the time of seeing that I’m letting it stay on there for now. Miike Takashi’s Audition of course is a cheat inclusion – it first aired in 1999 – but it is such a strong film and so close to being 21st century that it has to be on there, I think. (The Blair Witch Project, another notable 1999 entry, could well qualify on similar grounds.) You could easily argue that Snowtown isn’t a horror film at all, but true crime. However, as one of the most brilliant, authentic and genuinely horrific films I’ve ever seen, I felt compelled to put it forward. Both Requiem and Only God Forgives could be subject to similar quibbles but who cares – both make generous use of horror themes, and I think they’re both, in their very different ways, astounding pieces of cinema.

The others all easily qualify as straight-up horror, though. Looking at them as a group, I can see they fall into several distinct categories: social (Kill List, Sightseers, The Box, The Last Exorcism), mythic (Thirst, Cronos, Byzantium, Wake Wood, The Monk), hauntings (The Mothman Prophecies, The Silent House, Paranormal Activity) and secret past (Stoker, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Descent). Both supernatural and non-supernatural horror are represented, as are contemporary and historical settings. A good coverage of themes and approaches, then. But the one attribute shared by all is an emphasis on the revelation of plot through character.

I’m not going to try and argue that all horror has to be ‘quiet horror’ or that horror cinema will always leave more of an impact when the violence is kept off the screen. What I would argue though is that in order for horror films to be effective, they must offer us a story to become engrossed in. The shattering, look-away-now violence in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (one of FrightFest’s more noteworthy premieres) would be meaningless and therefore ineffectual without our knowledge of the characters, our nervous and wary investment in their story. We wouldn’t care half so much about what happens to Sarah at the end of The Descent if we hadn’t spent half the movie’s run-time getting to know her, following her backstory and learning about the intricate and uneasy web of relationships between her group of friends. Movies like Wake Wood, Cronos, Byzantium and The Monk are all based upon what you might call horror staples, but what raises them above hundreds of run-of-the-mill films that utilize the same tropes is the thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive way they are written.

More even than the stunning visuals, what distinguishes truly innovative and original horror movies like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and The Mothman Prophecies – making them new classics of the genre – are their intricate scripts.

This goes for all horror writing of course, not just films. Stephen King has always understood this in a way that James Herbert never did. In King, character (as revealed through backstory, interior monologue, interaction with other characters, engaged writing throughout) is always bigger than whatever ‘horror’ is coming down the line. King’s novels are about people, and how they deal with adversity, failure, change and the intervention of evil or trauma in their lives. Herbert’s novels, on the other hand, are mainly interested in the coming splatpocalypse. The characters in The Rats or The Fog – like the backpackers in the Hostel movies or Jigsaw’s victims in the Saw franchise – are being set up from page one to die in any one of a number of repulsive and excruciating ways, which is their main and only purpose in what passes for the story. Their backstories are brief and broadly generic. After all, why waste time explaining a character’s lifelong immersion in the works of Kierkegaard when they’re going to have their head removed with a buzz saw in just a moment?

I’m not sure what description to apply to stuff like this, but I would argue passionately that it isn’t horror. The best horror fiction (in whatever form) reveals to us something about the world, something about ourselves. We read Lovecraft because of his writerly conviction that the world we see around us is not the world that truly is. We watch American Horror Story (although this series also is far from perfect – more on that another day perhaps) because we are fascinated by the hidden connections between events and between characters, because we want to discover how the storylines are interwoven and what these intricate relationships will later reveal. We read Stephen King because we can imagine ourselves so easily into his milieu. We know his people and the small towns they live in. We probably went to school with some of them. We want to know what happens to them next.

A horror story narrative should be a whole thing, a tightly woven tapestry in which people and events are intricately interrelated. A parade of gruesome-death set pieces is not a narrative, it is a series of not very interesting events. Viewers who haven’t seen too many horror films might find themselves on the wrong end of a few jump-scares, to be sure, but keep feeding them this schlock and even the hitherto uninitiated will soon pick up the rules. Then they’ll be bored, buzz saw or no buzz saw. They will end up feeling that horror isn’t for them.

In giving Chris a (mercifully) brief resume of the films I’d seen at FrightFest, I expressed regret that (because of the train strike) I hadn’t been able to see the one movie I had been excited about – Bernard Rose’s new adaptation of Frankenstein. Rose has a good track record with horror films, most famously with Candyman (very nearly a very good film, and worth experiencing just for Philip Glass’s amazing score) and with his earlier, less well known movie Paperhouse, an adaptation of Catherine Storr’s novel for younger readers, Marianne Dreams. Marianne Dreams was a touchstone work for me from an early age, and telling Chris about the movie adaptation brought it all back to me: the immortal strangeness of a world in which the greatest horror might be expressed in an image of a house with no internal staircase, or a ring of sentient stones marking a boundary and blocking your exit. Thinking about this story – and Marjorie-Ann Watts’s haunting illustrations – still has the power to transport me back to a time when I would avoid reading sections of the novel too close to bedtime, because the anxiety they aroused in me was so intense.

(And not a buzz saw in sight.)

Those of us who love horror fiction love its archetypes: the haunted house, the ghost from the past, the road through the forest, the person you have been told you should never speak to. These archetypes – what are commonly called tropes but that are actually more than that, more powerful, more evocative, more like myths – are important, because they form a wellspring of story. We each have our favourites – those that resonate most with us – and the reason a favourite is a favourite will always be different.

And this is the key, really. The reason so many commercial horror movies fail at being horror is that they do not take the tropes as wellsprings – as inspiration – but dollop them on to our screens as the finished article. Horror movies written by committee – by brainstorming – will almost always be pallid reiterations of cliche, because a simple exposition of archetypes is not the same thing as an affecting story. Such archetypes can only be brought fully to life by personal response. Why am I drawn to this subject matter? What is my individual response to it? What is it that made me want to tell this story in the first place?

Why does it matter to me as a writer, in other words. If I cannot answer that question, the chances are the material I produce won’t be much cop.

ENDNOTE 1: If I do decide to throw Wolf Creek off my list, I’ll be replacing it with Philip Ridley’s Heartless. Here is a fine example of a film that takes a classic archetype – the Faustian bargain – and brings it superbly to new life through personal interpretation. Hardly surprising, from the writer/director who brought us the minor masterpiece The Passion of Darkly Noon and whose chief occupation is as a playwright. We should also note that Heartless was originally premiered at FrightFest, so those guys do get it right at least part of the time.

ENDNOTE 2: I feel it would be wrong to end this piece without at least acknowledging the catastrophic imbalance (in favour of male writers and directors) that still exists within horror cinema. The fact that this situation is perpetuated throughout cinema does not make it any better. I want to write more about this, and about what it means for the genre, but it is a huge subject, and needs more research. I’m therefore leaving it for another day. But it’s something we should all be thinking about in the meantime.

Helsinki 2017

Well, it’s now official: the 2017 Worldcon will be held in Helsinki. This is a cause for massive celebration, not least for the Helsinki bid team, who have been tireless in promoting their bid, and thoroughly deserve this excellent result. It could also be argued that the Helsinki win is the most positive thing to have arisen – be it directly or indirectly – from this year’s Puppy debacle. The site selection voting process is quite complicated – something that may have deterred voters in the past. If events this year spurred people on to be that little bit more focussed, that little bit more determined to see things play out differently in the future, then I for one count that as a net gain.

The statistics speak for themselves, in any case – the number of ballots cast for site selection came close to being an all-time record. We’re very much planning on being in Helsinki for the 2017 Worldcon and from the looks of things it’s going to be a great one. Truly an event to look forward to and we can’t wait.

As for this year’s Hugo Awards, whilst I’m happy to join the host of well-wishers stepping forward to congratulate Noah Ward, who swept the Hugos in five separate categories and left the opposition reeling  (3,000 votes to 500 is quite a rout, after all – I mean, it’s as bad as what happened to the Lib Dems!) I would also want to remember and commiserate with those fine writers and editors who were denied their shortlist placings and possible Hugo wins because of the slate voting tactics employed by the Puppy factions. The official voting stats have now been released, and people have been putting together alternative ballots, showing what the shortlists might have looked like in the absence of Puppy pooping.

It’s painful to contemplate. For those who lost out, of course, but also for the rest of us. Perhaps the best thing we can take away from this is a RESOLUTION TO NOMINATE in the 2016 Hugos. If all the people who voted in this year’s Hugos take the time and trouble to nominate for next year’s, it won’t really matter much if Sad Puppies 4 kicks off or not, because their chances would be stuffed anyway. Resolutions to amend the voting procedure in a manner that would hopefully prevent wholesale slate nominations in the future are already in process, and although we’ll have to wait a number of months to see whether these resolutions are ratified, the determination of the Worldcon as a whole to effect change can be seen as a positive development in itself.

In the meantime, I’d like to point readers towards this interview by Ken Liu (translator of Liu Cixin‘s Hugo-winning novel The Three Body Problem, and whose own novella The Regular would and should have been on the shortlist in a slate-free world), these two short stories by Aliette de Bodard and Amal El-Mohtar (likewise) and in particular Kai Ashante Wilson‘s novelette The Devil in America, which I count as one of the finest (and most important) pieces of SFF short fiction from the whole of last year. That it lost out on a shortlist place, and thus wider recognition, is a great loss for everyone.

And not forgetting Abigail Nussbaum, Natalie Luhrs, Mark Oshiro and Liz Bourke in the Best Fanwriter category. If not for the Puppies, this category would have looked and felt very different, and would have offered us, you know, some actual fan writing to celebrate…

Dead Letters

A little under two years ago, I received an email from Conrad Williams inviting me to submit a story for a new project he was involved with:

“I’m putting together a themed anthology (working title DEAD LETTERS) dealing with all the parcels and post cards and love letters we send but never arrive, or end up at the wrong address or sometimes come back to us, slashed open and changed somehow… 

Each contributor will be sent a mystery parcel from the dead letter zone: a trinket or photograph, an aide-memoire, a promise… or a threat… of fidelity. How you respond to this visual stimulus is up to you, but I’m looking forward to shaping a very dark, very inventive cluster of stories…”

I love anything to do with stamps and letters and the post in general, so this was an irresistible challenge, to which I agreed immediately. The project was only in the planning stage at that point, and I understood that it would be a while before my package arrived. As I was deep into final edits and revisions on The Race, I put all thoughts of Dead Letters on hold until after the London Worldcon.

At that point, something odd happened. Conrad was pretty amazing in the way he put the ‘dead letter’ packages together. When mine arrived, the whole thing was just so weirdly convincing that for a couple of minutes I found myself wondering what the hell the thing was, even though Conrad had pre-warned everyone the day he sent them out. Once I twigged, I found myself so instantly captivated by the story possibilities on offer it was difficult to decide which one to go with.

Nina Dead letter 96

 

And then I started writing and couldn’t stop. I’m not good at writing ‘short’ short fiction at the best of times, but it wasn’t long before I had 30,000 words and no end in sight. It was at this point I realised that what I was writing wasn’t a short story at all, but my next novel. An exciting discovery, except for the fact that I believed my Dead Letters story was doomed, that I was going to have to write to Conrad and withdraw from the project.

I hated the thought of doing that – the anthology had been part of my thought process for quite some time by then, I didn’t want to let Conrad down, and I loved the idea of Dead Letters as much as ever. I wanted to be a part of it. I carried on drafting the novel – a loose initial draft that would soon become the bedrock of The Rift – and hoping that I’d find a way to perform a detour, go back and complete the Dead Letters story – a different story – after all.

I used the Christmas/New Year hiatus as a springboard to do that. By then, I knew so much about the characters in my novel and the problems they were facing that I thought I could take a risk, write a story that ran off at a tangent from them but that was not itself part of that main theatre of action. I am not the kind of writer who thrives on having several projects on the go simultaneously – in order to write to my strengths I need to be totally immersed in whatever it is I’m currently working on. One workaround that does seem productive for me though is to write linked stories. That way, I keep the mental connection with the main project whilst giving myself the freedom to work in territories adjacent to it.

This is how ‘Astray’ was written. One of the main characters from The Rift does make an appearance, but ‘Astray’ is not her story.

I was pleased (and extremely relieved) to be able to deliver the story to Conrad before the deadline…

The full table of contents for Dead Letters has now been released. You can see why I’m pretty chuffed to be a part of it:

 

The Green Letter                          Steven Hall

Over to You                                   Michael Marshall Smith

In Memoriam                                Joanne Harris

Ausland                                         Alison Moore

Wonders to Come                       Christopher Fowler

Cancer Dancer                             Pat Cadigan

The Wrong Game                        Ramsey Campbell

Is-and                                            Claire Dean

Buyer’s Remorse                         Andrew Lane

Gone Away                                  Muriel Gray

Astray                                           Nina Allan

The Days of Our Lives               Adam LG Nevill

The Hungry Hotel                      Lisa Tuttle

L0ND0N                                      Nicholas Royle

Change Management              Angela Slatter

Ledge Bants                              Maria Dahvana Headley & China Miéville 

And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere           Kirsten Kaschock

 

Dead Letters: an anthology of the undelievered, the missing, the returned will be unleashed upon the world in April 2016 by Titan Books.

The World Before Us

When Jane sits back down to her files and notes, we gather around her again, though sometimes she reads too fast for us to follow because even a quick glance at a word like button seller can call to mind a shop with a wall of oak drawers along its length; the smell of the wood polish applied every morning before the doors were opened for business. We see teacher or joiner or clock repairer and suddenly some of us can feel the grit of chalk dust, see holes bored into wood, hear a broken chime drag its heels across the hour – some version of our selves appearing in these notices, a hint of relation, though the details are so scant they don’t make room for the person we were starting to feel we were; someone who may have taken delight in snowfall or a child’s curtsey, the canter of a horse or the efficiency of stamps, or the rough ardour of a washerwoman. These files say nothing of generosity, playfulness, the wing-collared jacket one of us believes he preferred, the bowl of ripe fruit one of us remembers painting in art class, a fly sitting on the leaf of the strawberry. (The World Before Us p 195)

hunter 2The act of remembering, the action of time upon memory – twin subjects, twin preoccupations, and the central concern of my new novel The Rift, not to mention pretty much everything else I’ve ever written.

I remember when my own memory changed. Not the exact day or even the year, but at some point during my thirties I realised that my own past wasn’t available to me the way it once had been. Up until that point, my life appeared to me as a continuous passage, in both the literal and metaphorical senses of that word. I was walking along the passage, occupying the ever-shifting end-point and with only a fraction of a moment’s glimpse into the space beyond the space I currently occupied. But at any time I could, if I chose, turn around and look back down the passage, opening up a vista that encompassed an almost infinite number of moments, all equally fresh, all equally real. In the manner of H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, I could travel in time through the action of memory. It was an ability I took entirely for granted.

At some point, that changed. Although I was still able to travel back in time, the passage was not continuous, as it had been before. It was as if I’d turned some kind of corner, and now when I looked behind me there was a wall. There was still a door in that wall through which I could pass, but I had to think about it, make a decision, turn a key. The memories behind the door were no longer part of a continuum, but instead had transformed themselves into something else: something more distant, something behind glass, something that could definitively be labelled ‘the past’.

I found this frightening and I still do. More than any physical signs of ageing imposed by time upon my body, it is my most concrete, constant reminder of getting older.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is one of the most beautifully achieved and penetrating examinations of memory that I have read. Its protagonist, Jane, is a museum archivist who begins to research the disappearance of a young woman, N. from a Victorian mental asylum in the 1870s. This story would be fascinating enough on its own, but Hunter has provided her readers with a delicate tracery of interlinked narratives, threads of memory weaving in and out of one another, a tapestry of knowing. Jane’s interest in the asylum reaches beyond the academic and deep into the personal, for the adjoining woodland where N. went missing was also the site of the traumatic event that defined Jane’s adolescence. Jane is accompanied on her quest by a chorus of ghosts, inmates of the asylum and others closer in time, all bent on recapturing, through Jane’s enquiry, their own memories of who they were and how they came to be there.

I thought at first that I would find Hunter’s ‘ghost chorus’ annoying, an over-ambitious affectation, an imposition of whimsy upon a narrative that would have been just as compelling – and better conceived – without it. I was wrong, though. Hunter handles her ghosts beautifully. They add to, rather than detracting from, the story in hand – their memories form an inextricable part of what is happening to Jane, and one quickly grows used to and looks forward to their presence. Their whispered confidences fuse the novel to a seamless whole.

I would probably never have encountered this novel, were it not for thishunter 1 insightful review at Strange Horizons. I loved the sound of the book, and ordered a copy more or less immediately. The copy I ordered was second hand, and turned out to be an advance proof. The cover image is formed by the 1877 letter sent by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to the governor of a local lunatic asylum and Hunter’s original inspiration for the novel. I found the idea of this proof cover quite beautiful, and wish the publishers had retained it for the final version.

Hunter’s writing in the book about objects, and specific or special objects as touchstones of memory, is especially insightful and to me, driven as I am by similar obsessions, beautiful and moving. Needless to say, my own copy of the book has now become an object-memory in its own right: nearing the end of the novel, I thought I’d go outside to read the last few chapters. I placed the book on the area of concrete hardstanding near our back door while I went to make a cup of tea. While I was doing this, Chris mock-threatened one of our cats with the length of hosepipe attached to the cold water tap next to our log store. The game over, he laid the hosepipe down, and unbeknown to him, a residue of water left in the hose crept out on to the concrete. By the time I returned to my book a few moments later, the water had snaked up to it, soaking the back cover and the last thirty pages right through.

It dried out fine, and the accident was no one’s fault, but it left the book marked, the back cover slightly torn from where it came up off the concrete, the last sixth of the book permanently wrinkled in a wave pattern. I find it sad to look at this damage to what was a beautiful object, but at the same time there’s something magical and almost lucky about it – part of that time, the specific details of that afternoon, captured within a physical object for as long as that physical object itself exists.

I’m kind of glad it happened. I’m very glad I discovered the work of Aislinn Hunter, a writer of true insight and powerful vision. Her prose is quiet but it cuts deep. I loved this book.

(You can read an interview with Aislinn Hunter here. Recommended.)

Titan(ic) news!

Well, this is all very exciting.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve recently signed a 2-book deal with Titan Books. Titan have acquired rights to my novel The Race, which they will be publishing in a new and expanded edition in both the UK and the US next summer. They will also be publishing my second novel, The Rift, in 2017.

Cath Trechman, Titan’s Senior Fiction Editor, has been incredibly enthusiastic and supportive, and I’m delighted to be working with her. She and her team are dedicated to building Titan’s fiction list by bringing in fresh and innovative work across the SFFH genres and I’m proud to be a part of that.

When Cath suggested that we should make the Titan edition of The Race truly new by including some extra material, I was only too happy to agree. The new edition of The Race will include a brand new novella-length appendix, ‘Brock Island’, which I’ve just finished writing. ‘Brock Island’ is not supposed to be read as a new ending, but it does expand our knowledge of the characters and their world, so anyone wanting ‘more’ will not be disappointed! Creating this extra material was a real challenge -‘Brock Island’ not only had to work as a story in its own right, it also had to complement the metafictional aspects of the main text – but it was also hugely rewarding to re-enter the book’s atmosphere and find new things there.

As for The Rift, I’ll have plenty more to say in due course. For now, I can tell you that it’s a science fiction mystery about a woman named Julie who believes she’s been abducted by aliens. The first draft is written – in fact I’ve begun work on the second draft just this afternoon. I don’t mind admitting that this is absolutely the most addictive story I have worked on to date and it’s wonderful to know that the book has found such a good home.

I’ll be telling you more about The Rift, and about the new edition of The Race here before too long. In the meantime I just want to say thank you to Cath and to Natalie and to the whole Titan team for bringing me on board and making me feel so welcome.

You can read Titan’s official announcement at booktrade.info here.