Monthly Archives: November 2015

Brief updates

Firstly, I’m delighted to announce that Nevsky Prospects will be publishing a Spanish edition of The Race, currently scheduled for spring 2017. Huge thanks to Marian and James Womack for their continuing commitment to my work. I’m thrilled that this is happening.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I’m currently hard at work on the third draft of The Rift. I’m very excited about the book now. It’s now just over a year since I first began writing it, although the basic idea (and some of the characters) had been floating around inside my head for quite a bit longer. At this stage, the novel feels fully formed and really here.

Immediately prior to starting in on this third draft, I had a lot of fun first-drafting a horror story – quite a long and involved one – which I’ve been commissioned to write as part of a project that should be seeing the light of day sometime next year. It’s been quite a while since I wrote any horror – the story I wrote for Aickman’s Heirs in the summer of 2014, in fact – and I don’t mind admitting it felt great to be back in that territory. In fact, it’s inspired me to read, write and blog more horror next year. Plans are already afoot, so watch this space!

L’Adieu

J’ai cueilli ce brin de bruyère
L’automne est morte souviens-t’en
Nous ne nous verrons plus sur terre
Odeur du temps Brin de bruyère
Et souviens-toi que je t’attends

(Guillaume Apollinaire)

Come in Howard, your time is up

Cthulhu BarneyChris’s ‘Howard’ was awarded to him in 1996, for The Prestige. Although he was delighted to accept the award itself, he always considered the trophy to be a thing of unsurpassed ugliness, and until I went up there to fetch it so he could take this photograph, the unfortunate effigy was residing in our loft.

POINTS WORTH REMEMBERING THIS WEEK:

  1. The trophy is hideous – there’s no denying it.
  2. The World Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award trophy are not the same thing. The former is a highly regarded juried award, designed to recognise the year’s most outstanding works of fantasy literature. The latter is a pewter statuette on a wooden base.
  3. Changing the form of the latter does not in any way diminish, impugn or invalidate the worth of the former.
  4. H. P. Lovecraft was a horror writer, and a niche horror writer at that. He rarely travelled anywhere and when he did he didn’t enjoy the experience. His literary output was similarly restricted. He also held racist views that would be considered extreme by most standards. The idea that Lovecraft can be an appropriate emblem for ‘world fantasy’ is wrongheaded, and that’s putting it mildly.
  5. Given that an increasing number of readers, critics and above all World Fantasy Award nominees are becoming uncomfortable with the idea of Lovecraft’s image being used as the figurehead for the World Fantasy Award, it is difficult to understand how anyone who truly cares about the award as a standard-bearer for world fantasy can themselves remain comfortable with it.

A dear friend of mine won a Howard this week. Many other good friends and esteemed colleagues have either won or been nominated for Howards in previous years. I understand nostalgia – I’m British, for goodness’ sake, our engines run on the stuff. What I don’t understand is why there are people who seem to be conflating the current physical representation of the World Fantasy Award – Gahan Wilson’s bust of H. P. Lovecraft – with the award itself. Why many of these same people seem determined to read the recent WFCB decision to retire the Howard as an attack on Lovecraft’s literary legacy is beyond me.

I’m not a Lovecraft expert but I have read him. I consume his work sparingly these days – too much at once and the overblown, repetitive drone of it can become tedious – but there are things about his oeuvre that I find consistently inspiring. His disturbingly persuasive conception of ‘cosmic horror’, of course, but for me personally as a writer, Lovecraft’s obsessive portrayal of introverted scholars ferreting their way through dusty libraries and untold reams of obscure documents in their feverish search for evidence of Elder God involvement in human affairs awakens more than a shiver of horrified excitement each time I revisit him. Lovecraft’s influence on weird fiction is far-reaching and ongoing. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the kind of wilful negation of documented fact that tries to insist that Lovecraft the man wasn’t really a racist, but a product of his time.

H. P. Lovecraft was certainly a complex, conflicted and frequently misanthropic individual. There is an argument to be made that some of the more outlandish expressions of his racist views arose either directly or indirectly from his general loathing and mistrust of the human condition. But to pass off the views themselves as anything but egregious, to soft-soap them as little more than the ubiquitous background racism that was then endemic is an act of self-delusion, or to put it less kindly, a lie.

“The New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! … How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. … There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare … In New England we have our own local curses … in the form of simian Portuguese, unspeakable Southern Italians, and jabbering French-Canadians. Broadly speaking, our curse is Latin just as yours is Semitic-Mongoloid, the Mississippian’s African, the Pittsburgher’s Slavonic, the Arizonian’s Mexican, and the Californian’s Chino-Japanese.”

(Letter from Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926. More here if you can stomach it.) 

We can choose to call this ignorance, we can choose to call this paranoia, we can choose to call this heightened sensitivity to social change. We MUST call it racism. It’s contemptible and vile and cannot be gainsaid. Admitting these things does not mean we have to consign Lovecraft’s oeuvre to the cultural scrapheap. Those who feel the need to constantly apologise for Lovecraft would be advised to ask themselves why they rush to do that. His work stands by itself – it doesn’t need our apologies. There can be no apology or excuse for the views on display in that letter to Belknap Long. These two facts stand side by side and we have to live with them. Any discussion of Lovecraft’s work that does not acknowledge the problematic nature of Lovecraft’s racist worldview is incomplete.

Far more worrying, at this point in time, than Lovecraft’s racism – Lovecraft died almost eighty years ago, remember, he’s beyond pamphleteering – is the number of notable voices in the field of horror fiction who clearly consider it more important to retain a particular incarnation of an award trophy than to work towards any kind of true understanding of why an increasing number of readers, writers and critics now find the signal that trophy sends inappropriate and offensive. That certain authors and editors should abuse the platform they are privileged to occupy by dismissing people’s rightful anger and discomfort with the Howard as shrill whining or malicious censorship is, quite frankly, appalling.

It is also the most urgent demonstration of the need for change.

ON LOVECRAFT: Against the World, Against Life by Michel Houellebecq. Houellebecq could hardly be cited as the most reliable witness in the case of Lovecraft’s racism, to say the least, but as one writer exploring his passion for another there’s no doubt that Houellebecq’s extended essay makes for mesmerising reading. As a bonus, it also includes an introduction by Stephen King and two HPL originals.

ON THE NEED FOR CHANGE: Lovecraft’s Racism and the World Fantasy Award Statuette by Nnedi Okorafor, winner of the WFA for Best Novel 2011:

“I too am deeply honored to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. It feels so so so right and so so good. The awards jury was clearly progressive and looking in a new direction. I am the first black person to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel since its inception in 1975. Lovecraft is probably rolling in his grave. Or maybe, having become spirit, his mind has cleared of the poisons and now understands the err of his ways. Maybe he is pleased that a book set in and about Africa in the future has won an award crafted in his honor. Yeah, I’ll go with that image.”

World Fantasy Awards – what did I say? by Sofia Samatar, winner of the WFA for Best Novel 2014:

“I just wanted them to know that here I was in a terribly awkward position, unable to be 100% thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and that many other people would feel the same, and so they were right to think about changing it.”

THE NEXT GENERATION: Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has provided inspiration for new writers even from the time HPL was still in the active process of creating it. Indeed, Lovecraft encouraged and welcomed the idea of others working in his universe. The Mythos is, if anything, more popular than ever before, with writers such as Ramsey Campbell, Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, Livia Llewellyn and Caitlin R. Kiernan producing works that – to be perfectly honest – often outshine ‘the master’ in their psychological acuity and stylistic virtuosity. There is a lifetime’s worth of superb material to be explored here, but for new voices it’s worth checking out Paula Guran’s anthology New Cthulhu and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s recent all-women anthology She Walks in Shadows (gorgeous cover, too). For those seeking an instant online tentacular fix, Ruthanna Emrys’s ‘The Litany of Earth’ is a fine example of how skilfully Lovecraft’s prejudices can be turned on their head. The tale is of of one Aphra Marsh, and some deeply traumatic memories of a town called Innsmouth… Another favourite recent story comes from Michael Cisco, one of the most brilliant and consistently underrated writers in the field of weird. It’s actually an excerpt from a work-in-progress, Unlanguage, but reads perfectly well as a standalone short story. The Mythos isn’t referenced directly but it doesn’t need to be. Needless to say I am eager to read Unlanguage in its entirety.

The Race – cover reveal!

I’m delighted to be able to reveal the brand new cover for the brand new Titan edition of The Race, which will see its official launch date next July.

the race cover (2)

I am so thrilled with this! Julia Lloyd has created a beautiful design, strongly contemporary and yet also timeless, an image I could never have imagined beforehand, and yet one that felt perfectly right from the instant I saw it.

You can read the official press announcement – as well as an excerpt from Chapter One – over at Tor.com.

Crime blog #11

Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates

To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
burning
(T. S. Eliot The Waste Land)

carthage oatesIt still amazes me, how critics still seem not to ‘get’ Joyce Carol Oates, how often her prodigious talent is spoken of dismissively, in belittling terms – ‘oh, Joyce Carol Oates, there’s just so much of it!’ – as if her very prodigiousness, the prolific expression of her talent could be a reason to reject it as something freakish and therefore unworthy in some way. 

‘She writes so much – is any of it any good?’

I’ve heard this said, seen it written. It often crosses my mind, and seems increasingly clear to me, that were Joyce Carol Oates a man her position as a ‘great American novelist’ would be assured. The broadsheets and the book blogs would all have been arguing over Carthage this summer instead of Purity. I wish they were. I wish they would. I think Oates is one of the greatest writers currently working, and I think that all the more because her books are not perfect. To me, each new novel (and I’ve probably read about half her output) feels like the next chapter, the next essay in an ongoing experiment, an ongoing project to discover the possibilities of the modern novel.

Some of these chapters are ragged, some are too long, some are just astounding. All are meant, involved, and acutely intelligent, the most complete expression of her intent the writer could manage at the time. All are worth reading, and all will stay with you, a quality which, surely, is one of the defining factors of great literature.

Fans of speculative fiction and horror in particular will be familiar with Oates’s interest in the gothic. Her most recent essay in the horror genre, 2013’s The Accursed, was a masterpiece of ambition and reach, spanning an American century, examining the guilt and tarnish at the heart of American privilege. I’ve written about the ‘Lovecraft chapter’ in The Accursed before, and it remains a shining memory.  I don’t think I’ve yet mentioned the book’s sharp and canny mirroring of a perhaps-best-forgotten yet nonetheless fascinating horror novel of the 1970s, John Farris’s All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, turning the embarrassingly misused tropes of that novel against each other, like wild dogs.

But Oates is just as interested in crime fiction as she is in horror, and it’s precisely novels like Carthage – ambiguous, labyrinthine, incautious, imprecise – that I’m forever bemoaning the scarcity of in the genre.

Some of those who care to examine Carthage as a work of crime fiction might be tempted to define it as one of those (always intriguing) works – Patricia Highsmith made a speciality of them – which pose as crime fiction but lack its defining element: that is, a crime. This is one way of looking at the book, but I would counter that Carthage is a story about a murder – just not the murder that is foregrounded.

The crime is fully described. A person is arrested and imprisoned. These two events are not connected in the way that they should be.

Carthage tells the story of Cressida Mayfield, a precocious and alienated nineteen-year-old who goes missing from her home in Carthage, upstate New York. We learn of the desperate search for this lost young woman, of the violence that appears to have precipitated her disappearance, the parents, the sister, the suspect (who happens to have been engaged to the sister), the half-truths and evasions, the blank spaces in memory and chronology that form the core material of such addictive mysteries. Fans of Oates will instantly be catapulted back to her earlier examination of this subject – the devastating impact of violent crime upon a previously stable and contented household – in her 1996 masterpiece We Were the Mulvaneys.

This first section of the novel is then cut off in mid-stream, with no resolution in sight. We tun the page and the jolt of unexpected revelation is physically palpable. What follows is strange, and much less easy to define: hundreds of pages of back-and-forth story. Gradually we learn everything, and perhaps more than we felt we needed to know, about Cressida Mayfield and what happened to her. The last people to find out what we have come to accept as the facts of the case are those most directly affected: those whose lives these facts have ripped apart.

I loved this book, even when I wasn’t loving it, even when I was wishing Oates would get to – or rather get back to – the point. I loved it because it is the kind of text that reminds readers that literature can aspire to be more than simply a pastime, an entertainment. That it should ask questions to which the answers are not always knowable or uncontested. That it should present itself in forms that can appear unfinished, as if the writer were still working on the manuscript up until the point where it needed to be delivered, still enmeshed in the world of those characters and the moral and psychological problems they represent.

Texts like these – where the writer’s engagement with the subject remains visible to the reader – I find to be amongst the most rewarding and significant.

I also found it odd, reading Carthage. There’s some stuff in it that overlaps, quite a bit, with what I’ve been writing myself these past eighteen months. I’ll never be Oates, of course, and the backgrounds of our work – American, British – are so very different. But I can’t help but feel that pulse of an interest simultaneously shared, a synchronicity that is disconcerting as much as it is satisfying.

Mainly though, I’m just left wanting to read more Oates.