Monthly Archives: March 2016

#weird2016: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

loney.hurleyOnly a few weeks ago he had watched them all coming out of the Curzon at midnight from some horror film that the paper said involved jack hammers and acid. They were laughing. The girls with their hands in the back pockets of the men. 

It had been the same night a homeless lady had been kicked to death under Waterloo Bridge. And while the two things weren’t connected in any literal sense, he felt certain that they occupied the same pool that had formed when the wall between sick imagination and the real world came down. (p 229-30)

This is the novel that lost out to Nick Cutter’s bracingly competent but predictable Cabin-Fever-boy-scout-shocker The Troop in the inaugural James Herbert Awards, then deservedly went on to be named best debut novel in the annual Costa Prize. And perhaps that was the best result all round: of all the novels on that Herbert shortlist, James Herbert would have loved The Troop best I’m sure – if you were to apply any epithet to this style of horror novel it would have to be Herbertian – whereas winning the Costa Prize has introduced Hurley’s more subtly unnerving, deeply personal work of the uncanny to a much wider audience than it would otherwise have enjoyed had it remained crammed up next to Herbert on the shelf marked Horror Fiction.

The Loney is flawed, but I don’t really care. There is something, as I say, so personal about it – the very outlandishness of some of the subject matter leaves you with the indelible feeling that this is a book Hurley desperately wanted to write. I’m delighted by the novel’s mainstream success, that it’s been optioned for film. I think it will adapt wonderfully to the screen, and in so doing will open up the novel to a still wider audience.

Take note of the book’s title, for The Loney is above all a novel about a place, a particular landscape, a stretch of coastline somewhere to the north of Lancaster and a part of Morecambe Bay, where the tides are well known to be treacherous and the weather unpredictable. The narrator is looking back on his adolescence, to the Easter of his sixteenth year, when he travelled on an annual church retreat to the eponymous Loney, together with his parents and his eighteen-year-old brother Andrew, known as Hanny. Hanny has been mute since birth. His mother is convinced that it is at the shrine to St Anne, located close to the house where they hold their retreats, that Hanny will find the grace of God, and finally speak. But there are other forces at work on the Loney, forces that have little to do with God, and everything to do with the clouded history of the place. With the former priest of St Jude’s, Father Wilfred, recently dead in an unexplained accident, the little community are accompanied on their mission by a new man, Father Bernard, whose more pragmatic approach in matters of life and faith proves unsettling for some and most especially for Hanny’s mother. As Easter Monday approaches, a chain of coincidences and eerie occurrences seem to point towards a tragic denouement. Looking back on these events from a distance of twenty years, our narrator still struggles to come to terms with the truth of what actually happened.

The Loney is a novel of opposing forces: man and nature, secular and sacred, pagan and Christian, outsiders and locals, past and present. Even the names of the two houses – Moorings, where the pilgrims stay, and Thessaly, where they are warned against going – are resonant in this respect. Moorings is a part of the mainland, a place of refuge. Thessaly is located on a narrow spit of land known as Coldbarrow, cut off from the mainland at every high tide. The house is supposed to be haunted, and its name, suggestive of Ancient Greece and the gods, monsters and pagan rites – frequently referenced in the text – which form a direct refutation of everything the Christian community of St Jude’s holds as sacred.

Never forgetting that St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. Somewhat unexpectedly, the strongest piece of characterisation in the novel belongs to Father Bernard, a forward-thinking priest dissatisfied with the entrenched, backward-looking attitude of the church he serves and determined to make his Christian faith more active and more relevant to the world around him. The mostly unspoken battle of wills between Father Bernard and Hanny’s mother, who yearns for the old certainties embodied in the person of Father Wilfred, is brilliantly handled, and forms the central argument of the novel as a whole.

The Loney contains an abundance of intriguing sub-plots – a heavily pregnant adolescent girl named Else, a previously undiscovered secret chamber behind the study at Moorlands, a rifle found beneath the floorboards in Hanny’s room, the aggressive, shifty locals, Parkinson and Collier – and for a while I felt worried that Hurley was just spinning these threads out there to add to the atmosphere, that he wasn’t going to make anything of them. He does bring everything together, just, and by the time the book ends you have all the pieces you need to make a complete picture of the Loney and exactly what happened there, although there were one or two storylines – the secret room and the anti-witch bottle especially – that I wish had been given a bit more welly. The sequence with the Pace Eggers was all a bit Wicker Man, and I think we could have done without the stuffed animals. I would also question Hurley’s decision to have his forty-year-old narrator continue to refer to his parents as ‘Mummer’ and ‘Farther’. This is what he would have called them when he was eight, names he might perhaps have clung to if he had never grown emotionally beyond the circumstances and limitations of the time before Father Wilfred’s death. But he has grown beyond them, he knows full well what happened out there on the Loney, and the infantile cadences of Mummer and Farther sit somewhat oddly within the emotional and literary sophistication of the narrative at large because of that.

These are small gripes, though, gripes the strength and clarity of Hurley’s writing makes short work of. The Loney, with its tenacious grounding in landscape, its evocation of a lost time, its insistence on hugging at least some of its secrets tightly to itself, is a beautifully bleak, intellectually rich and hauntingly memorable addition to the canon of English Weird.

Announcing Five Stories High

5 Stories High cover imageThis one’s been in the pipeline for a while, but now that Solaris have revealed the full line-up and cover art I can officially announce that I am one-fifth of Five Stories High, a new anthology project dreamed up by editor Jonathan Oliver and comprising five individual novellas, linked together by the idea of a house, the mysterious and sometimes dangerous Irongrove Lodge:

“Five Stories High explores one of the classic tropes of horror – the haunted house, but does so with five extraordinary writers who know how to stretch the bounds of genre to startling and terrifying effect. Irongrove Lodge welcomes you in, bids you stay a while, while secretly hoping you’ll never leave.”

Each writer’s vision of Irongrove Lodge will be unique to them, and with writers as distinctive as K. J. Parker, Sarah Lotz, Robert Shearman and Tade Thompson on the table of contents, the five journeys into the house’s shadowy interior are bound to be disturbingly different. My own novella, Maggots, is about Willy Randle, a character who was originally going to appear in The Rift, but who got squeezed out when the narrative took a different turn. I was fond of Willy though, and the story of what happened to him during his first term at university felt so compelling to me that I was reluctant to let go of him. When Jonathan Oliver invited me to come on board with Five Stories High I leapt at the chance, quickly realising that here was the perfect opportunity to give Willy a story all to himself.

After reading the completed novella, Jon had this to say:

“Magnificent. It has the feel of Richard Marsh’s The Beetle in places, and the darkness is tense as fuck.”

Which has to be my favourite cover blurb of all time!

Five Stories High is due for release later this year. You have been warned.

A conversation with Anne Charnock

Regular readers of this blog will know how much I’ve enjoyed and admired Anne Charnock’s first two novels, the Philip K. Dick Award- and Kitschies-shortlisted A Calculated Life, and Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind, which was published towards the end of last year. I found A Calculated Life to be one of the most fascinating and imaginative explorations of the post-human condition that I’ve yet read, and in Sleeping Embers especially, with its interwoven narrative threads and themes of art and memory, I sensed that Anne and I shared some common interests as writers. I was therefore delighted when Anne invited me to take part in an online ‘conversation’, the aim being to examine and hopefully illuminate some hidden aspects of what we write, and how we approach our chosen subject matter. Neither an interview nor a traditional Q&A, the conversation format allowed for a more free-flowing discussion, more approximate to what you might expect in a live panel event. As we both hoped at the outset, it threw up some unexpected insights. That it was a great pleasure to ‘talk’ to Anne should go without saying.

ANNE: Recently I read Stephen King’s On Writing and although he gives greatACharnockPortrait copy [458685] advice throughout, I was curious about one of his comments on the subject of theme. He feels that the theme of a novel is something that emerges in the first draft or after the first draft, and can then be enhanced in subsequent reworking. But for me the theme, or concept, comes first, before I start outlining and plotting a piece of fiction. How do you view the importance of theme? Does it vary from one writing project to another?

NINA: I love Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve read it several times, just for the pleasure of King’s voice, and it’s the one book I recommend unequivocally when people ask me if ‘how to’ guides for writers are any good. As a new writer, what On Writing offered me, most of all, was the permission to do things my way. Many of the writing guides I’d read previously – and yes, I did love reading them – seemed very keen on pre-planning, on writing chapter summaries and on knowing exactly what was going to happen before you started. This made me feel nervous because I instinctively felt that those methods weren’t going to work for me. What King seemed to be saying was ‘screw that – there are no rules. Do what feels right’. It was like a breath of fresh air.

I don’t remember King’s exact words on theme versus plot – but what I do know is that for me, plot has always been the element of narrative I try to think about least consciously, particularly when I’m making a start on a new piece of work. I’ve always started with character – or to put it more precisely, with a particular character in a particular situation. I name my character – character names are very important to me as they seem to form a nest of associations all by themselves – and I think about what might be worrying them, what problems they face, how they might react, who they might know. Theme tends to arise naturally from these thoughts, and from the situation. Theme is important to me, as an anchor – as the box everything fits inside, if you like. Plot is something I have to trust will attach itself to the theme as I go along. The more I write the more the plot begins to define itself. Often I won’t know how a story is going to work itself out until I’m at least half way through. But this is why second drafts are so important to my working process. When I start my second draft, I begin writing the book again from the beginning, essentially – only this time I know where it’s going, I know what the plot entails, I know how things end. Which means I can foreground certain details, strengthen certain narrative threads. I love second drafts! They are so much less scary.

How about your drafting process? Do you like to edit on the page, refining the narrative organically as you progress, or do you write right to the end and then second-draft everything from the beginning?

ANNE: Like you, Nina, I let the narrative unfold during the drafting process. This feels more natural to me. And because I ‘feel my way’ with the narrative, I now find I’m attracted to writing in present tense, as though I’m experiencing events alongside my characters. I edit at a sentence level as I go along—which can be very slow! However, this does mean that when I reach the end of the manuscript I don’t need to redraft from the beginning. I might add a scene or move a scene. But I’m mainly fine-tuning the characters and dialogue, making ‘fixes’ to the narrative, looking for inconsistencies, fact-checking and so on.

anne.charnock.embers

Throughout the drafting, I fill in a spreadsheet that summarises the narrative developments in each chapter. Sometimes the narrative develops in such a way that I know I’ll need to make adjustments in earlier chapters. I add notes on the spreadsheet to remind myself to make specific changes in the next draft. And I do enjoy this process of refinement.

In my current writing project, I’ve taken a different approach. I’m first-drafting this novel with less on-the-go editing. I’m conscious of my deadline with this project so I feel more comfortable pushing forward. I’m still keeping a spreadsheet of the narrative development, and this is really important because this novel has a highly fragmented structure. I expect I’ll write additional fragments when I’ve finished the first full draft. With each of my main characters in this novel, I’m interested in the specific events in his or her back-story that has moulded their character: nurture over nature, I suppose.

I know from your own writing, Nina, that you’re interested in fragmentation. I’d like to know what draws you to this type of structure.

the race cover (2)NINA: It’s going to be interesting for you to see how the quicker-first-draft method suits you! I imagine your spreadsheets to be a little like Nabokov’s famous index cards – a way of examining characters and events in isolation from their story. A fascinating approach.

I first encountered fragmented narratives through the work of Keith Roberts and his great novel Pavane, also Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. This would have been in my mid-teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction pretty indiscriminately. Most of the stuff I read then – Heinlein, Silverberg, Asimov, Pohl – has fallen by the wayside for me, but both Pavane and Roadside Picnic, and their authors, remain touchstone influences. Thinking about them now, I realise that when I first read these novels I didn’t think of them as ‘fragmented narratives’, I simply accepted this method of telling a story as something that was natural and intrinsic to those books, and got on with enjoying them. And yet they made a powerful impact – something about the thrill of discovery, the way my own imagination played a vital role in linking everything together. I wouldn’t have analysed it that way at the time, but I think I found something very satisfying in the idea of the reader interacting with the writer to create a complete picture.

Fragmented narratives are often described as being complex, and of course they can be, but I happen to believe that large numbers of readers actively enjoy the element of mental participation this approach encourages. Novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven have found immense popular appeal. Similarly, movies such as Paul Haggis’s Crash and Alejandro Inarritu’s Babel, which both involve intricately interlinking storylines, have enjoyed Oscar-winning success. I think readers can actually tolerate narrative complexity to a far greater degree than the publishing industry sometimes gives them credit for. One of the reasons crime fiction is so popular is because readers feel directly involved with what’s happening on the page, and I think the clue-hunting aspect of fragmented narratives performs this same function.

I loved the three-stranded structure you used in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. Did the experience gained in writing this novel help you in planning this next book? You say the structure of this new novel is ‘highly fragmented’ – can you tell me how it differs from the construction of Sleeping Embers?

ANNE: Thanks, Nina. I like the comparison you make with crime fiction! I do have fun introducing clues and connections when I’m drafting a fragmented novel. I’ve always liked writers who play around with structure. So the novels that come to mind are Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Specimen Days, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Adam Robert’s The Thing Itself, Sara Taylor’s The Shore, Louisa Hall’s Speak. When I start to list them—and I could list so many more—I begin to see how popular this form is among writers.

My work-in-progress already has a title—Dreams Before the Start of Time. I started drafting this novel some time ago, but I broke off to begin Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. So the influence happened in reverse; the fragmented structure of Dreams Before encouraged me to tackle Sleeping Embers as a novel set in three time periods—Renaissance, current day and twenty-second century—with the narrative oscillating between the three settings.

In contrast, Dreams Before the Start of Time is linear, moving forward from the very near future to a hundred years from now, and it follows the lives of two women who are close friends. A handful of chapters are written from their points of view, but most are told from the points of view of characters who are connected either closely or tangentially to the two women.

I don’t regard this new novel as a sequel, but one of my main characters is Toni Monroe who is a character in Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind. I still felt a strong connection to Toni, and her age fitted neatly with the setting of my new novel. This brings me on to say that one of my quests in writing speculative fiction is to create characters who engage the reader on an emotional level. I don’t want the reader to envisage the future in a detached way. For me, an exemplar novel—one that’s compelling in an emotional sense—is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I wondered if you could identify your own writing quest, and if there’s a single novel that would indicate your goal.

NINA: I love the sound of Dreams Before the Start of Time, and especially the idea of Toni as a continuing character. You mention David Mitchell here – a writer who is now well known for extending the life of his characters beyond the frame of a single novel – and indeed this is something I enjoy doing myself. I first experimented with recurring characters in my story cycle The Silver Wind, where the same characters crop up time and again, although not always in the same roles. (Stephen King has a lot of fun with a similar idea in his twinned novels Desperation and The Regulators, which are favourites for me amongst his work.) I’m currently working on a story that features a character from my first collection, A Thread of Truth, a character I hope to write about at greater length in a future novel.IMG_0056

As you say, it’s difficult to let go of these people sometimes!

Never Let Me Go is a fascinating choice for your ‘quest’ novel – humane and chilling and very much in the tradition of British speculative fiction – I’m thinking of novels like D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, a key novel of the SF New Wave which examines anxieties about future technological development through a very human lens.

I do like this idea of having a writing quest! I suppose if I had to pin down what it is that I’m going after with my writing, it would be the preservation of memories, of moments in time, and how memory is always this peculiar and sometimes problematic blend of objective ‘truth’ and subjective worldview, which is by its nature partial, and often unreliable. I am in love with the weirdness at the heart of mimesis, and the writer who encapsulates this in her writing most perfectly of all for me is Iris Murdoch. There is something exalted about her work, a sense of heightened reality that shines a light on ordinary objects and occurrences and reveals their hidden magic – and madness. If I had to choose one of her novels to take with me to a desert island it would be The Book and the Brotherhood, which I’ve read four times already and could start reading again tomorrow with equal enjoyment.

I would pair that novel with works like The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison and The Girl in the Swing by Richard Adams as examples of British Weird, a tradition that I feel is central to my own practice and allegiance. Do you think of yourself as being a particularly British writer? Or do you see yourself as having more in common with the new internationalism that is beginning to characterise contemporary science fiction?

ANNE: I suppose I do think of myself as a British writer. My speculative fiction fits pretty neatly with your comment on SF New Wave. But I’m not so keen on pinning these things down—I don’t wish to feel any obligation to carrying on doing what I’ve done before, if you see what I mean.

charnock calculated lifeI’m pleased you mention Iris Murdoch. I’m also a fan of Doris Lessing’s mainstream novels including The Fifth Child and its sequel Ben in the World. These are disorientating and distressing reads, almost fantastical, because as the narratives unfold you don’t know what or who to believe. It’s rather like the slipperiness of memory that you refer to. I feel these two novels anticipated Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin. We can’t seem to nail the truth in these novels.

So, you’ve chosen your books for the desert island! I played this game at my local book group’s Christmas party. I chose Michael Cunningham’s short novel, The Hours. I do regard this novel as a perfect example of a fragmented structure, linked as it is to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (I’d need to take her novel too!). I’d spend my time on the desert island working out all the connections between the two novels, and lapping up Cunningham’s beautiful writing style.

I know some writers don’t like to talk about their work in progress, but can you tell me about the novel you’ve recently completed, and any other fiction in the pipeline?

NINA: That’s an interesting point you make about the way Doris Lessing’s ‘Ben’ novels anticipate Shriver’s Kevin and I agree absolutely. An aspect of Lessing’s career that is not discussed anywhere near enough either within the mainstream or in genre circles is her lifelong fascination with speculative ideas. There are the two novels you mention, which as you say teeter on the brink of the fantastic, her Shikasta series, Briefing for a Descent into HellThe Memoirs of a Survivor (both of which are briefly discussed in my own novel The Race) and also later works such as The Cleftand Mara and Dan. I’ve noticed an unwillingness within genre communities to admit the importance of writers like Lessing and of course Margaret Atwood, to dismiss them as dabblers or ‘tourists’, an attitude which is frankly ridiculous when it could be argued that half of Lessing’s output is speculative, when Atwood has not only produced a novel – The Handmaid’s Tale – which will stand as one of the core works of the SF genre for decades to come, but has also, with the Maddadam trilogy and now The Heart Goes Last, dedicated the whole of the past decade more or less exclusively to writing science fiction. I could speculate for a long time upon the reasons for this kind of inverse genre snobbery, but suffice it to say that I think it needs to stop! Science fiction has much to draw from the mainstream in terms of depth and craft, just as mimetic literature is finding itself reinvigorated by speculative ideas – ideas a lot of mainstream writers wouldn’t have been seen dead trying out even two decades ago. Literature is reactive as well as proactive. As writers, we see something someone else is doing and immediately begin to consider how we might bring something like it into our own work. We’re magpies! Reading widely – and letting that reading have its way with us – is a large part of how we learn to advance as writers.

My second novel is called The Rift. It began as an alien abduction story, or something like that, but morphed into something different as I was writing. It’s the story of two sisters, Selena and Julie, who owing to unexplained circumstances have not seen one another for twenty years. When Julie unexpectedly returns, Selena is left feeling that the life she has lived since Julie’s disappearance has been a lie. It’s a novel about memory, and loss, but there is some weird alien stuff in there, too. The Rift is scheduled for publication in summer 2017. I’m currently in the early stages of thinking about my next book, which at the moment mainly consists of a file full of notes and a long list of books I need to read. I am, however, cautiously excited…

ANNE: On the subject of magpies, I agree! We advance by reading widely, and reacting to other writers’ work. Appropriation is a minor theme in Sleeping Embers—how all the arts are enriched and energized by revisiting the past, by borrowing from other art forms, and using other artists’ work as a springboard.

*

Well, Anne and I both agreed that this could have run and run, but we had to bring it to a close somewhere! For those of you planning to be at Eastercon, you can catch Anne in conversation for real on the Sunday at 4pm, this time with Matt Hill. They’ll be discussing the influence of Manchester on their writing, among many other things I’m sure. It’s bound to be a fascinating discussion. In the meantime, you can visit Anne’s blog here, and of course read her books!

Farewell, dear Max

One of the greatest British composers of our era, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has died. He was eighty-one.

With other members of the Manchester school, he arose to prominence as a leading light of the British avant garde. Even as Master of the Queen’s Music, he never lost that fighting spirit, that radical edge. He wrote for us of our landscape, our times, our history and our secrets. He told ghost stories and sang wedding songs. He never stopped growing as an artist. His music holds something for everyone.

Only last week I was listening to his symphonic ballet The Beltane Fire – I’m doing a lot of reading and researching and listening in the area of landscape and belief at the moment – and thinking what conviction, what passion his music always carries, whatever form it happens to be taking.

He was so generous with his time and his energy. His legacy is permanent, and timeless. Thank you for what you gave us, Max. Rest well.

And they’re off! Clarke Award submissions 2016

So – we now know that the total number of books submitted for this year’s Clarke Award was 113. You will find the full list here, together with some analysis of the figures. Personally I think it would be equally interesting and relevant, certainly in literary terms, to track the percentage of genre versus mainstream imprints. I find it fascinating to look at how far and how successfully science fiction is permeating the literary mainstream, and the effect this may be having – or not – on the genre heartlands.

With this in mind, I want to focus, firstly, on those books that immediately leap out as being the most interesting contenders for me personally – a personal longlist, if you like:

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury)

Acts of the Assassins – Richard Beard (Harvill Secker)

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind – Anne Charnock

If Then – Matthew De Abaitua (Angry Robot)

Speak – Louisa Hall (Orbit)

Wake – Elizabeth Knox (Corsair)

Dark Star – Oliver Langmead (Unsung Stories)

Signal to Noise – Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris)

The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder)

Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber)

SNUFF – Victor Pelevin (Gollancz)

The Dead Lands – Benjamin Percy (Hodder)

The Thing Itself – Adam Roberts (Gollancz)

The Shore – Sara Taylor (Heinemann)

The Weightless World – Anthony Trevelyan (Galley Beggar)

Find Me – Laura Van Den Berg (Del Rey)

The Fifth Dimension – Martin Vopenka (Barbican)

The Swan Book – Alexis Wright (Constable)

That’s eighteen books – enough to make three complete shortlists, in other words. Add to those the following – books that wouldn’t necessarily come top of my own reading list, but solidly worthy contenders that will almost certainly be featuring in any upcoming discussions among the judges:

The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit)

Mother of Eden – Chris Beckett (Corvus)

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder)

The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard (Gollancz)

Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)

Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie (Orbit)

The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu (Head of Zeus)

The Galaxy Game – Karen Lord (JFB)

Something Coming Through – Paul McAuley (Gollancz)

Luna: New Moon – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)

Planetfall – Emma Newman (Roc)

Touch – Claire North (Orbit)

Crashing Heaven – Al Robertson (Gollancz)

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit)

Glorious Angels – Justina Robson (Gollancz)

Regeneration – Stephanie Saulter (JFB)

The Promise of the Child – Tom Toner (Gollancz)

The Just City – Jo Walton (Corsair)

…and that gives us another eighteen. Which is thirty-six books in all, six shortlists’ worth, and a solid third of the overall number of submissions. For anyone interested in odd statistics of my own, I’ve been breaking down the shortlist in this way for about five years now and the percentage of what I think of as credible contenders has always been roughly the same. Anyway, I feel fairly confident in predicting that our winner is hiding amongst this lot somewhere.

Moving on to shortlist guesses. First off, my own personal choices – the books I would choose (as of this moment and not having read everything) if I were sole judge and jury:

ACTS OF THE ASSASSINS – Richard Beard. WHY? Philip Hensher liked this and I’ve seen several other people whose opinion I trust saying good things about it, too. I read the Kindle preview and found the style, approach and form immediately compelling. I felt eager for more, both of this book and from this writer.

SLEEPING EMBERS OF AN ORDINARY MIND – Anne Charnock. WHY? Charnock employs speculative ideas in a subtle and sensitive interweaving of three interconnected narratives. Almost like a mini Cloud Atlas, Sleeping Embers demonstrates how lives and futures remain connected, even at a distance of hundreds of years. It is a beautiful book and Charnock is a writer of real merit.

IF THEN – Matthew de Abaitua. WHY? Because I consider this to be one of the most complex and important works of British science fiction to have appeared in recent years.

THE SHORE – Sara Taylor. WHY? Because this is a superb work of literature from a seriously talented new writer. Because I loved this book unreservedly and still think about it often. Because the speculative elements are subtle and sensitively handled (one of the most interesting post-apocalyptic endings I’ve read). Because I’m already eager to read it again, less than a year after first encountering it. Because it’s a wonderful book in every way.

FIND ME – Laura Van Den Berg. WHY? This novel starts out reading like a conventional post-apocalyptic story but gradually morphs into something quite different: a meditation on outsider status and contemporary America that is powerful and moving. I loved the characters. I loved the weirdness. I loved the evocation of depleted landscapes.

THE SWAN BOOK – Alexis Wright. WHY? Because this is an important book from an important writer. Wright’s use of language is extraordinary. The Swan Book is speculative in every sense of the word. Although it was shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and the Stella Prize in its native Australia, it hasn’t received half the attention it should have here in the UK, especially within genre circles.

There’s no way the actual shortlist is going to look like that, obviously, not least because the actual Clarke jury is made up of five people, not one, and each with their various tastes and priorities coming into play. We know only too well that no one person’s interpretation of what is ‘best’ in science fiction is the same as another’s, and with this in mind, I’m going to hazard a guess of how the shortlist – revealed April 27th – might realistically line up (again with the proviso that I have not read all the books):

IF THEN – Matthew de Abaitua. WHY? Because, seriously, if this book doesn’t make the shortlist there’s something amiss.

SPEAK – Louisa Hall. WHY? I’ve not read this yet but it looks wonderfully interesting and I’m hoping the judges will put it forward.

EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT – Dave Hutchinson. WHY? Already shortlisted for the Kitschies, the second instalment of Hutchinson’s Europe trilogy is easily as weird, interesting and distinctive as the first. It’s good to see Hutchinson beginning to attain his rightful place within British science fiction, and I think there’s a good chance that Europe at Midnight will follow in the footsteps of its predecessor Europe in Autumn, thus landing him on the shortlist for a second year running.

THE THING ITSELF – Adam Roberts. WHY? Again, I haven’t read this yet but the premise is fantastic and I’ve heard almost unanimous praise for it among critics I respect. I was pleased to see it make the Kitschies shortlist and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it here, too.

AURORA – Kim Stanley Robinson. WHY? This book has garnered vast swathes of effusive outpourings among core SF readers, and Stan Robinson is one of the best stylists among core SF writers. This novel seems to appeal to most sections of the SF community on one way or another and I’d be amazed if it didn’t feature.

GLORIOUS ANGELS – Justina Robson. WHY? I started this, got about a third of the way through. Not really my thing, but I can see that it’s a complex, thoughtful and interesting novel and I think those judges who lean further towards core SF than I do will better appreciate its qualities. I have a hunch that this could be Robson’s year.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what actually surfaces – but then, that is the case every year, especially when all our best guesses are confounded…

#weird2016: Absentia

absentia.dvdI first came to hear of this film through an interesting list of rare and underrated horror movies compiled by Adam Nevill for The Quietus. Two of Adam’s choices were films I’d seen and ‘enjoyed’ already: the hideous masterpiece Snowtown and the really rather brilliant ghost story Lake Mungo, an ingenious and disturbing cross between Blair Witch and Black Pond. There was one I’d seen at FrightFest and hated: the Spanish movie Sleep Tight, which for me was just an inferior and exploitative update of Peeping Tom, the appalling punchline of which I saw bizarrely repeated recently in Joel Edgerton’s otherwise excellent thriller The Gift (stop using rape-of-an-unconscious-woman as an ingenious twist, boys, I mean seriously). No matter. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Adam’s list, not least because it mainly consisted of films I’d never seen or even heard of – welcome refreshment, when most ‘Top 10 Horror’ lists don’t contain even a single surprise. I was eager to get watching, and ordered a couple of Adam’s choices straight away.

First out of the box was Mike Flanagan’s 2011 movie Absentia. The film opens as Callie (Catherine Parker) arrives in Los Angeles to stay at the home of her older sister Tricia (Courtney Bell). Callie has been on the road, trying to sort out her life following a drug-addicted adolescence. Tricia’s life has been in stasis ever since her husband Daniel disappeared inexplicably seven years before. As Tricia files the paperwork to have Daniel declared legally dead, Callie is determined to help her move on, to find a new place to live, to put the memories and questions behind her.

Only they don’t seem to be alone in the apartment, and when Callie encounters a terrified homeless man in a nearby underpass, things begin to get even weirder.

This movie was funded by Kickstarter, and I’m sure the film’s many backers billygoats.grufffelt they’d more than got their money’s worth. This is a great little film, mainly because the two essential ingredients for satisfying cinema – a good script and wonderful acting – are firmly in place here. The writing is thoughtful, understated and naturalistic, and Parker and Bell are truly compelling as the joint leads – the chemistry between them is wonderful, they seem like real sisters. In fact, every single person in the cast list plays their part beautifully. I loved the low key suburban setting, the off-kilter oddness of everything, the bleached out colours. There were even – and because I’ve watched so many horror movies this doesn’t often happen – a couple of moments where I felt genuinely unsettled by what was happening and had to look away.

It’s easy to see that everyone involved with this film felt fully committed to it, and good on them. Personally I would have left out the fleeting glimpses of the ‘underneathers’ entirely because in horror less really is more – so far as I’m concerned, the first rule of horror cinema should be never show the monster! But that’s a minor gripe and a mistake easily forgiven when everything else about this movie is so right.

On an interesting side note, there is a lot in Absentia that reminds me uncannily of themes I’ve been working with in The Rift, right down to one of the character’s names…

Coincidences like that are ones I enjoy!

(And if you want to know what the hell all this has to do with The Three Billy Goats Gruff, go and watch the movie.)

ADDENDUM: I’ve now seen one more of Adam’s choices, The Pact, which is pact.2012equally worth watching. In terms of its themes of repressed grief and hidden memories, run-down suburban settings, bleached-out cinematography, and effective understatement, this film has plenty in common with Absentia and in an entirely good way. This is a movie where you start out thinking you know what you’re getting and end up (un)pleasnatly surprised. For fans of horror off the beaten track? Recommended.