Monthly Archives: May 2016

#weird2016: Slade House by David Mitchell

slade house.mitchellThe events of this short novel begin in 1979, when Nathan Bishop and his mother Rita arrive at the eponymous Slade House in response to an invitation from its châtelaine, Lady Norah Grayer. Rita is there to play the piano at one of Lady Norah’s soirées. Nathan, a complicated, lonely boy, is shown the grounds by Norah’s son Jonah, who suggests they play a game of tag called Fox and Hounds. Slade House is hard to find – Nathan and Rita pass by the gate twice without seeing it – and the place seems frozen in time somehow, a faerie landscape too perfect to be true. In the manner of all decent fairy tales, this turns out to be the case. Norah and Jonah have an ulterior motive in inviting the Bishops into their domain. That neither of them get to leave would seem par for the course.

I’m nonplussed by Slade House, in pretty much the same way I was nonplussed by The Bone Clocks. You don’t have to have read The Bone Clocks to make sense of this book, although how much you enjoy it may depend on how much you enjoyed – or would enjoy – the earlier novel. We’re back in the land of soul vampires, of the eternally warring clans of Anchorites and Horologists. As in The Bone Clocks, the fantasy tropes Mitchell employs are of the most predictable kind, the most basic of base metals. That Mitchell chooses to essentially repeat his basic plot – an Engifted individual arrives at the house, finds their most earnest desires fulfilled, and then gets their soul sucked through a straw (kind of literally, actually) by devious semi-immortal twins – through the first four of these five interlinked short stories could be read as either daring or desperate, depending on your point of view. Oh, and then Marinus turns up. Whether this pleases you or pisses you off will, once again, be down to how deeply you’re in love with David Mitchell’s concept of the mega-novel and the characters that recur within its endlessly expanding galleries and corridors.

It’s a weird one, isn’t it? Would we even be talking about this book if it weren’t by David Mitchell? In terms of its invention and originality it is fairly weak beer. Mitchell has to employ vast tonnages of exposition to make sense of everything, and had this been the first manuscript Mitchell ever turned in I don’t think he’d have got all that far with it. But Mitchell is a part of our literary landscape now, and – as is inevitably the case when an author becomes enshrined in this way – everything he writes is considered to be interesting at some level.

Which Slade House  – undoubtedly and against all greater logic – still is. What makes me draw back from giving this book an emphatic thumbs down is – as with The Bone Clocks – its glorious readability. There are slips and slides even here: Mitchell seems to have fallen into the habit of making everyone talk in Noughties Estuary, even when it’s not appropriate to the character in question (I don’t think the seriously posh Chloe Chetwynd would naturally talk about ‘legging it’, for example). Nathan Bishop is an engaging character and I enjoyed the chauvinistic cop Gordon Edmonds as I tend to enjoy all Mitchell’s bad guys. But elsewhere the characterisation tends towards the broad-brush – see the students in ‘Oink Oink’ in particular. It would be pedantic and boring of me to mention the ‘how can these narratives be possible when the narrator ends up dead???’ thing, though not mentioning it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. But Mitchell’s command of the English language is so effortless, so welcoming. Mitchell is a natural storyteller – you can’t help but follow where he wants to take you.

As a writer I have always felt a great affinity with Mitchell’s shopworn, 1970s-housing-estate Britain – I am deeply attached to Black Swan Green in particular – and there’s plenty of that on display here.  I have serious criticisms of this book. It is difficult to understand how Mitchell’s cartoonish use of fantasy archetypes might be taken seriously – I think I’d be more sympathetic to the enterprise if the whole thing were a send-up, but I don’t think it is. There’s too much (cough) soul-searching for that, too much clunky tying-in of this story’s somewhat black-and-white morality with realworld politics. It’s all a bit of a junkyard. Some nice stuff here but what to make of it?

And yet (as with The Bone Clocks) I can’t help but admit I thoroughly enjoyed reading Slade House. How do you explain that, except by saying that by worming his way so deeply and so fatally into our subconscious, Mitchell is – like his Anchorites – still capable of genuine magic. Not sure whether to recommend this book or not. But I guess if you’re a Mitchell fan you’ll own a copy already.

#weird2016: Furnace by Livia Llewellyn

furnace.llSomewhere in the real world, the merchant bolts the second choice to her flesh, using living metals that flicker as they vibrate between one dimension and the next. The pain lightning-strikes its way up her torso, and the roots of the metal object follow like rivers of mercury, burrowing into her brain. He is welding her to a darker universe. When he is finished, he says, her body will be a pipeline to hell. 

He’s not opening a gate, Wasp thinks as she grimaces and howls. He’s just widening the road. (‘Wasp and Snake’)

This short extract from ‘Wasp and Snake’ exemplifies everything that is both excellent and disappointing in Llewellyn’s second collection, all the ways in which it has proved – for this reader at least – inferior to her first. ‘Wasp and Snake’ opens brilliantly. A woman strikes a devil’s bargain with some kind of hellish engineer of body and soul – shades of Clive Barker’s Cenobites – and sallies forth on an equally devilish mercenary mission: to assassinate a named target and claim her reward. The language involved in telling this story is as gorgeously rich and decadent as anything we previously encountered in Llewellyn’s debut, Engines of Desire. The story, though, proves a bit of a let-down: the denouement too simple and too pat for its elaborate and compelling set-up. We find ourselves wishing it had been more complicated, that the characters had been given a broader stage to act upon. Our disappointment is especially acute given our suspicion that, had ‘Wasp and Snake’ belonged to the era of Engines of Desire, they would have been.

I unequivocally loved Engines of Desire. I admired Llewellyn’s considerable ability with language, her obvious love for the horror genre, her willingness to take risks in bending it to her will. I found ‘Horses’ to be one of the most genuinely upsetting pieces of short fiction I’d ever read, Her Deepness to be a profound reordering of Lovecraftian tropes into a feminist Mythos, stories like ‘Jetsam’ and ‘Omphalos’ brilliant in their perplexing ambiguities.

Llewellyn is a gift to horror, a writer of seriously exceptional abilities. As such, her second collection Furnace was one of my most-anticipated books of 2016. How sad I was to discover that, in spite of some glorious writing at the sentence level, Furnace is a collection defined above all by a quality of sameness, of reiteration, by stories that feel less driven by the unpredictable internal impulses of the writer and more produced in response to the external demands of a horror market hungry for a repetition of earlier success.

There comes a point in the career of every promising new horror writer when they begin to receive more anthology invites than they can possibly fulfil. The thrill of having editors ask you for work is undeniable, but the truth is you have to learn to say no, at least sometimes. If you do not say no, then you will see more personal projects placed on the back burner as you find yourself subject to a forever advancing accumulation of story deadlines, your subject matter and direction increasingly moulded by the arbitrary dictates of themed anthologies. Rather than pushing yourself to try new things, you’ll be desperately seeking out yet another variation on the Lovecraft story, the zombie story, the alien invasion story.

It is a treadmill I suspect few on the consuming end of such anthologies ever guess at. But it exists. Thus the collections that eventually appear formed from stories produced primarily for themed anthologies have the rag-bag feel of compilations rather than studio albums. If you’re a Spotify kind of person this might not matter to you. If you are someone who regularly buys CDs and listens to albums in track order, it matters a great deal.

The quality of the writing in Furnace is unerringly consistent and usually very high. And – don’t get me wrong – the collection does contain some standout stories. The action of ‘Cinereous’, for example, takes place in Paris in the year 1799, and tells the story of one Olympe Leon, a young woman who, through her assistance at the site of some brutal and bizarre experiments, hopes to secure her fame as a pioneer in the field of human biology. It’s a brilliant conceit, so disturbing one is forced to look away at certain points (surely the highest compliment for a horror writer) and one would never guess at its origins in an anthology of zombie stories. Similarly ‘Yours is the Right to Begin’ might be described as an ardent love poem to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, whilst at the same time augmenting and even transcending its source material. Both ‘Allocthon’ and ‘Furnace’ showcase themes of corrupted, static, male-dominated societies and women’s discontent and horror at their position within them. ‘Allocthon’ in particular reads like a horrific car crash between Pamela Zoline’s ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. The Ligottian claustrophobia of ‘Furnace’ highlights the tensions between mother and daughter, a theme enlarged upon in ‘The Last Clean, Bright Summer’, although this latter is a less original story, too clear a reiteration perhaps of Llewellyn’s earlier story ‘Take Your Daughters to Work’. As a portrait of suburbia gone to the devil, ‘It Feels Better Biting Down’ is more surreal and more original.

But while I loved ‘Panopticon’ for the glimpse it afforded of Llewellyn’s Lovecraftian megalopolis Obsidia, I found ‘Lord of the Hunt’ and ‘In the Court of King Cupressaceae, 1982’ – Llewellyn’s language aside – to be pretty run of the mill Mythos variants. ‘Wasp and Snake’, as mentioned previously, is ended before it’s properly begun. whilst ‘The Unattainable’, although it does bring a feminist twist to the traditionally male-dominated cowboy story, is otherwise a fairly pointless piece of mild erotica. Least successful of all is ‘Stabilimentum’ – a tale of urban alienation that takes so little account of actual spider behaviour that it was never going to win many brownie points with me.

There is nothing wrong with any of these stories, and anyone coming to Livia Llewellyn – or indeed horror literature – for the first time will no doubt find plenty to entertain and freak them out. Speaking for myself though, I missed the longer, more obviously personal stories that so brilliantly characterised Llewellyn’s first collection, and while her writing is clearly in rude – in every sense of the word – health, I for one am hoping that her next outing will provide a deeper and more complex statement of her future intent.

#weird2016: the terrifying weirdness of Philip Ridley

reflecting skin.ridleyOver the weekend I finally managed to catch up with, via the recently reissued DVD of the film, Philip Ridley’s first feature The Reflecting Skin (1990).

On the face of it, this is a simple coming-of-age story. Our eight-year-old hero Seth is growing up in rural Idaho in the early 1950s. WW2 is still a recent memory. Seth’s parents, Luke and Ruth, cope with the absence of their elder son Cameron, who is with the US armed forces in the Pacific, largely by ignoring each other, scraping by on the proceeds from their one-pump gas station. When one of Seth’s young friends turns up murdered, the local sheriff seems determined to point the finger at Luke, who was once cautioned for ‘indecent behaviour’ with a seventeen-year-old youth. Seth has other ideas. A near-neighbour, Dolphin Blue, harbours fantasies of violence and keeps mementoes of her deceased husband Adam – dead from suicide – in a locked box. Having been told about vampires by his father, himself an avid reader of pulp magazines, Seth believes the seductive Dolphin to be the true face of evil at the heart of their tiny community. As the recently returned Cameron falls ever more deeply in love with Dolphin, Seth becomes increasingly desperate to warn his brother of the danger he faces.

In the naivete of its child protagonist and its unintended tragic consequences, we might draw strong comparisons with such movies as Losey and Pinter’s 1972 classic The Go-Between and Joe Wright’s more recent Atonement and we would be right to do so. In their portrayal of misplaced jealousy, burgeoning sexuality, terror and envy of the adult world and the febrile intensity of the juvenile imagination, these films form a natural trilogy almost. That they all take place under the heat of ‘that last summer’, a span of time that seems destined to forever change the lives and futures of those who pass through it, draws such comparisons still tighter.

Interestingly though, Ridley’s film stands alone here in taking place in ‘real time’ rather than through the clarifying lens of hindsight. We can only guess at how the adult Seth might be affected in future – not just by what has happened, but by his own particular part in it. This is a dark tale, richly informed by Dick Pope’s superb cinematography, Nick Bicat’s ravishing score (fun fact: Bicat also wrote the music for the 2002 TV adaptation of Ian McEwan’s ‘Solid Geometry’) and Ridley’s own inimitably concise and emotive screenwriting. The imagery on display here – Dolphin’s memory box, Cameron’s photos, the mummified foetus, the nuclear sunsets, the teddyboy ‘vamps’ in their black Cadillac – is of a high and potent order. The only word that seems to fit this film is ‘Ridleyesque’.

I first encountered the work of Philip Ridley when I saw, completely by chance, his 1995 feature The Passion of Darkly Noon on late-night TV. Always on the lookout for interesting and out-of-the-way horror cinema, I was blown away by it. I also could not understand why so few people seemed to have seen this film or even heard of it. The themes were serious and deep, the vision complex, the writing and acting superb. The fact that this unique film has still never had a UK DVD release is a source of abiding mystery to me.

Ridley clearly likes to take time over his work, and it was more than a decade after Darkly Noon before he returned to the screen with the brilliant Heartless. Ridley’s third movie presents an equally disturbing journey into the heart and mind of an isolated young protagonist, with a destination no less terrifying than the end-point of his first. Particular shout-outs here should go to Eddie Marsan – the price of the DVD (easily obtainable this time, thankfully) is worth it for his Weapons Man alone – and to Clemence Poesy, who you will no doubt remember for being brilliant in In Bruges.  Again, this film has been more or less overlooked by the horror community, yet for me, Ridley’s movies are as equally deserving of attention as Ben Wheatley’s. What’s going on?

Could it be that Ridley’s themes – his preoccupation with religious belief, faith, sin and self-destruction – are seen by some as contentious and unfashionable, maybe off-putting to viewers? If so, then that’s just Ridley doing his job! He does not simply recycle old tropes – vampires, demons, ghosts – to sanitized formulas as so many more commercial directors are wont to do. He takes the tropes apart, examines them for substance, shows us what might happen when dangerous ideas are followed through to their logical conclusion. If you’re seeking comparison, think Guillermo del Toro before he went Hollywood – the del Toro of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone. Philip Ridley is as good as that, perhaps better. He is a master of the weird, and I just hope we don’t have to wait another decade to see his next masterpiece.

Clarke discussions ongoing

“Once upon a time, the space between authors and readers was large enough to support robust critical discussion of the books that publishers were trying to sell. However, since publishing companies were bought out by multinational corporations demanding greater returns on their investments, genre publishers have started putting more pressure on authors and encouraging them to act as their own publicists. Authors have responded to this pressure by using social media to develop a more intimate relationship with their readers meaning that a space once devoted to critical discourse has now become a space devoted to a combination of direct marketing and self-promotion. Any attempt to address these structural changes in genre culture is immediately shut down in the name of inclusivity and any attempt by fans to defend their own spaces is treated as a grotesque imposition on humble professionals merely trying to do their jobs.” 

This from Jonathan McCalmont’s Thought Projections 2, which (scroll towards the bottom of the page) includes a substantial rumination on the current state of the critical hinterland of genre literature. A more robust and well articulated grasp of the situation would be hard to imagine, and I would recommend anyone with even a passing interest in these matters to read McCalmont’s piece in its entirety.

Meanwhile,  critic and former Clarke juror Martin Petto has been gathering his own thoughts in a series of posts on the structure and administration of the award, the composition and reception of its shortlists, and how the Clarke functions as a barometer of British SF publishing. Parts 1 and 2 are already up and well worth your time.

EDIT: Add to the above this wonderful post by Gareth Beniston at Dancing on Glass. Almost gives you hope for the future, doesn’t it..?

#weird2016: Frozen

frozen mckoenI found a reference to this film quite by chance, while I was looking for something else – isn’t that what always happens on the internet? And no, I’m not talking about Elsa and Anna and ‘Let it Go’, nor the by-the-numbers 2010 trapped-on-a-ski-lift-with-wolves-beneath horror movie either. This is something quite different – and it’s exquisite. It is also, so far as I can tell, almost completely unknown.

Kath works in a fish factory in the town of Fleetwood, on the edge of Morecambe Bay. Following the unexplained disappearance of her sister Annie two years before, Kath falls into depression and attempts suicide.  She is referred to a counsellor, a local parish priest, who helps her begin to talk through her feelings of abandonment. Kath is not prepared to give up on her sister, however. She pays a visit to the police, demanding to see the video clip taken from a security camera that shows the last recorded sighting of Annie down by the docks. Kath watches the film obsessively, searching for any tiny detail that the police may have missed. When she retraces her sister’s last known movements in an attempt to draw closer to the truth, she experiences something extraordinary. What she sees convinces her that Annie – wherever she is – is trying to get a message to her. Desperate to be believed, she turns to Father Noyen, landing them both in a situation that neither has foreseen.

This is a slow-burn, quietly effective ghost story with an immaculately realised sense of place and a genuine frisson of terror at its heart. Stumbling upon it unexpectedly like this makes it seem all the more magical somehow, like being made party to a secret. Shirley Henderson and Roshan Seth are outstanding in the lead roles, but everyone involved with this movie has done a marvellous job. The stark simplicity of the screenplay is a joy. The writer and director, Juliet McKoen, made this film in 2005 and so far as I can tell she’s made nothing else since. This seems a criminal shame to me and I sincerely hope we see more from her in the future. Fans of Andrea Arnold and Mike Leigh, the English ghost story and especially The Loney should all seek out this gem as soon as possible. Watch out for the moment with the roller coaster. It made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end – and that’s something you’ll never come close to getting from more commercial horror.

Superb little indie movie and most highly recommended.