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.

Between Each Breath by Adam Thorpe

between each breath.thorpeJack Middleton is a modernist classical composer and a fairly successful one. Arising from humble beginnings, he finds himself married to beautiful heiress Milly, living in a big house in Hampstead with as many lucrative commissions as he cares to accept. His life is thrown into turmoil when he encounters Kaja, a young student working in a cafe in Tallinn. He compartmentalises the encounter as a romantic interlude, affecting at the time but irrelevant to the main course of his life. But when this past indiscretion comes back to haunt him, the faultlines in his perfect existence begin to reveal themselves.

*

My heart thumped in my ears, but not from the exercise. I knew, somehow, as I pushed the cafe door’s loose handle down (it was a nicely old-fashioned French-style door), that I was doing the wrong thing, taking the wrong turn. But it excited me too because at some level it was a recognition that I was freer than I’d ever realised. (p 40)

Jack Middleton is the classic kind of English middle class sexist – the kind that has no idea that he is one. Both Milly and Kaja are made to look subtly ridiculous – Milly because she’s rich, ducks out of Oxford without getting her degree, and dresses up like Cleopatra whilst working to aid Palestinian refugees, Kaja by being made to look ten years younger than she is, by – in spite of her sexual allure – being made to seem naive and inexperienced in terms of relationships, by being foreign. Both women are gifted with intellectual capacities just sufficient to intrigue and captivate and surprise our ennui-laden hero, but never sufficient to outclass or scare him. Jack seems to have a Lawrence Durrell approach to women that sanctifies and patronises at the same time. It is intensely wearying.

Opening a book like this is always disconcerting. Is Thorpe aware of what Jack is like, or not? Is he incapable of writing women as equal human beings, or is he portraying them through Jack’s entitled eyes? In spite of any misgivings, I cannot help noticing that this is the best written book I’ve read since Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border.

The woman seemed to have a wind-billowing tent for a dress and something on her head, but she was in silhouette and the moonlight behind her was dimmer, now. She was crying. He couldn’t hear her crying but he knew she was because the whole dark room thrilled with it: the walls were – to put it in the way he was feeling it (almost as a visual thing) – running with her tears. There was nothing he could do: he knew it was a ghost, a spectral presence left over from some far-off time, like a means to an end that never came. He lay there looking at her and absorbing her sorrow. He felt he was helping her, simply by sharing the burden. (p 249)

Sudden irruption of the fantastic in a completely matter-of-fact way. There is no doubt here that the ghost is real, that Jack is seeing it. The book continues to be a mystery. Jack is the most selfish and entitled hero, squandering his talent in laziness and an ineffectual resentment of nothing very much. He has precisely nothing to say about music, his intellectual curiosity drowned in the ennui that comes from having too much and feeling vaguely guilty about it but not guilty enough to get off his arse and do better. And yet Between Each Breath is – almost unwittingly – one of the most accurate commentaries on turn-of-the-century Britain I’ve read, a pitch-perfect capture of a particular London milieu, the dire passivity of the middle classes. It chills because it’s so real. What to do? Thorpe’s writing is of a higher quality than anything McEwan has written since Enduring Love.

Jack was impressed by her history. She had somehow seen more than him. He couldn’t imagine it. (p 300) 

But Jack has seen NOTHING – and how can he believe even for a moment that he has? The way he patronises Kaja, even in his mind – for speaking English with a foreign accent, basically – is breathtakingly awful.

I’m paying for this too dearly. All I did was score with her. (p 300)

Makes me think of the review by Tibor Fischer in which he says that Thorpe ‘conjures up a whiff of the bunny boiler around Kaja’ and wonder if we’re still, genuinely in a situation where a woman’s aggrieved reaction to being lied to, patronised and emotionally deceived can be routinely described in this way. I admire Tibor Fischer and Adam Mars Jones tremendously both as writers and reviewers but really, their criticism of this novel does not even touch on these aspects and I find it lacking because of that. Are they both too immured within the social stratum Thorpe describes to see it objectively?

As he walked up the three flights to his eyrie, he thought of Kaja quoting Flaubert in French, his remark about the bracken caught in the stirrup. He was a complete pseud: he knew sod all about literature, French or otherwise. Or about much else.

All he knew about was music. In a sort of swollen, over-developed way. Parallel to life. Its own world. Like maths. 

But birds made music, didn’t they? (p 343)

Thorpe’s purpose begins to come clear as Jack’s world begins to fall apart. The novel is about the fundamental opposition between the world of capital and acquisition we inhabit, and the imperatives of art, and real thought. The latter is all but impossible in the context of the former. Jack has believed he can have both. He is being shown otherwise. Does he really love Milly, or the world that Milly has granted him access to? He is about to find out.

The drips in her arm, the bruises they made, the saline solution and waste bags around her like her innards pulled out on wires: he felt deadened to it all, to the horror of it. She’d once been a shop floor supervisor in a sausage factory, bustling about, giving orders, laughing and scolding in a white coat with a clipboard and beehive hairdo, looking like a doctor. He had to remember this. (p 349)

In his portrayal of Jack’s parents, and Jack’s mother’s decline and death, Thorpe captures with searing intensity the daily realities of a Britain – in contrast with the ludicrous excesses tussled over by sections of the capital – very much in decline. Donald and Moyna are deprived without knowing precisely how they are deprived. They are stoic, undemanding, ignorant, kind, casually, thoughtlessly racist, backward-looking, both grounded and lost. They soldier on until they absolutely cannot take another step. As a portrait of England this is testing and awful and achingly sad and real. This is everything Jack was desperate to escape – he loves his parents, he can never explain. But what has he escaped to?

As usual, despite flicking through his Selected Baudrillard beforehand in search of some killer phrase for any occasion, he found the others wittier and more intellectual, freighted with arcane, encyclopaedic knowledge about the history of music. Even the young Abigail Staunton defied her Top Shop look and sparkled with references to the Gerber Variable Scale, imperialist assumptions and her recent trip to Lebanon. Above all, they knew what they were doing when they composed. His reference to Shostakovich was mangled by nerves. If he’d been asked to spell him, he’d probably have got it wrong. (p 387)

Fascinating, how Thorpe has made Jack like this on purpose – ‘the Ulysses of subtopia’. Living with his dad in Hayes after his mother’s death, he has come full circle. ‘He would have to blow himself to smithereens and start again.’

And through all this the traffic moved steadily and with a sinuous heaped motion onwards towards no discernible place and for no discernible reason. Jack saw this through the spittled windscreen, or from the squeezed pavements of Hayes, and heard a harp. He had never heard a harp play what he was hearing it playing. It was playing the greyness of England. It was playing this weather. It was playing this English reality of ashen, utterly leaden futility. Of spoliation. Of flag-fluttering retail parks and commercial estates spread in a cancerous ring around every town. Of people with too much money and the people they’d taken it from, who no one cared a hoot about. Of the zillions that went into scuttling the green land and the clear air that must have existed once, not all that long a time ago. (p 391)

Brilliant, brilliant lines. Why do all the reviews of this book seem to concentrate on categorising it as a ‘reprise of the Hampstead novel’? In fact it is something far bleaker, far more serious, far more important. Thorpe is angry but it’s a very British, very embedded anger. What Thorpe is saying with this book does fire rage in me, and inspiration too.

Jack’s piece for St George’s Day is called ‘Grey Days’ – a complete shredding and reimagining of his former practice, which imposed all those ludicrous faux-modernist titles upon empty work.

On p 393, Jack finds himself. He finds the place he should always have started from. Everything Thorpe intended with this novel is revealed. And it is very, very good.

‘You know, it was like we…us two…we coincidenced,’ she said. (p 415)

Is that what it is? The stark reality of this story is about the necessity of Jack and Kaja meeting, in order that Jaan, who is exceptional, will be born? Jack, meddling once again in something he cannot understand, indirectly brings about a tragedy. Life never stands still. There is no happy conclusion – just the march of history.

I would love to know from Thorpe: at which stage in his writing did he decide to write that prologue?

*

I picked up this book because I’d been thinking about Adam Thorpe’s first novel Ulverton, the way it is structured, its intimate relationship with history and with the English landscape. I was drawn to Between Each Breath because it is a ‘music novel’, an area of literature I am irredeemably pulled towards and that feels particularly relevant to me now because of work I’m planning. As it turns out, music specifically has less importance for this novel than the idea of art – and of making art – in general. I was prepared to find this frustrating but it turned out not to matter. Between Each Breath is one of the most absorbing, skilfully worked and finally moving novels I’ve read in quite a while.

Thorpe plays a long game – this novel does not give up its secrets or its intent in five minutes, or even the first three hundred pages. But persistence is rewarded, and intensely so. This novel has more to say about the way we live now than so many of those insipid and rather smug ‘zeitgeist’ novels that have been incessantly and needlessly discussed in the broadsheet review columns – Ian McEwan’s pompous Saturday, for example, or Martin Amis’s ludicrous misfire Lionel Asbo. Thorpe’s is the kind of fiction that does so much more than take a sideswipe at newspaper headlines from a comfy armchair. It is a sustained act of imagining, and has true purpose. In every sense of the word, it is a great English novel.

You can read a superb interview with Adam Thorpe here.

#weird 2016: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

gold fame citrus,cvwatkins“I’ll fix it, I will. We’ll get the birth certificate, a clean ID. I’ll take care of everything.” That was what he’d been telling Ig, that he was going to get his shit together, that he’d be on top of every damn thing from here on out. Also how quickly one’s beliefs and values and principles and philosophies – all the biggies – could be reduced to a matter of paperwork. (p 60)

I began reading Gold Fame Citrus in the midst of a monster gale, Storm Imogen. We’re high up where we are, and the winds were strong enough to snap the arm off a nearby wind turbine. I wonder now if it was this – the sense of a landscape under assault, the sense that the weather could fly off into new normals, any time it wanted – that made me begin to change my attitude towards Watkins’s first novel.

I started out hating it – an ex-model named Luz trying on a mink coat in the blistering California heat while her ex-soldier boyfriend goes about the serious business of finding water – and wondering what on Earth Watkins could have been thinking, wanting to create a character like that – so lax, so ineffectual, so preoccupied with men’s desires – when she could have written Luz any way she chose.

Now I think I get it. She wrote Luz and Ray and their adopted daughter Ig because these are the people – the totally random people – her attention happened to fall upon. They could have been anyone – a grandmother with a career in the military behind her, a discredited scientist, a teenage runaway, a businessman run amok – but they’re Ray and Luz and Ig. We’re travelling with them because we just are.

The first thing I found myself loving was Luz’s dream-list about moving to Seattle, couched in language she probably wouldn’t have used (who would?) Too beautiful. Too writerly. But why not? Watkins is trying to convey something here, something that reaches past how characters ‘should’ be or how they should behave. Watkins doesn’t give a stuff about what she ‘should’ be writing. She writes as she writes, and I am drawn steadily deeper and deeper until I am caught.

“What the fuck?” said Ray. He pressed his foot to the felling thing and where he pressed the trunk collapsed, papery. Ig laughed like a hiccup. They investigated the broken stump and found it completely hollow, save for some dry, twiny marrow inside. 

Luz pushed carefully on the trunk of another towering yucca and it too crumpled to the ground, setting Ig agiggle.

“They’re dead,” Luz said. “All of them.” Dead, without moisture enough to rot.

“The groundwater’s gone,” said Ray, though he promised he wouldn’t. (p 87)

Devastating and terrifying. One of the most astute novelistic commentaries on climate change I’ve read and an essential addition to this particular canon of speculative literature. I feel enraged at Luz for leaving the top off the gasoline, for being so careless. That Watkins picks up on this kind of detail is something I noted with pleasure even as I felt horrified by it. Luz is sorry, like she always is. She meant no harm. The difference in my impatience with Luz now from the impatience I felt with her at the start of the novel is that now I like her. I envy her compassion, her unselfishness, appreciate how vulnerable she is. I think I even understand her, at least a little.

The pages where Luz and Ray are running out of gas are arid, desolate, hopeless. Brilliant. I find am loving every page of this book by this point.

Scraping wind, five-hundred-year wind, the desert’s primal inhale raking the expired floodplain, making a wind tunnel of California’s Central Valley. In came particulate, swelling simultaneously Dumont Dunes and their southerly cousins, Kelso Dunes. In barely a blink of desertification’s encrusted eye, the two conjoined across the eighty miles that had long separated them, creating a vast dune field over one hundred miles wide, instantly the longest dune in North America. (p 118)

The red centre of the novel, the dune sea, like Hokusai’s wave, in a great arch, overreaching everything. Luz and Ray are separated: Luz to be rescued by Levi Zabriskie and his ‘family’, Ray, we find out later, to wander and to be beaten senseless (who by? You’ll find out), to be incarcerated for months in the underground Sangatte of the Limbo talc mine. There are strange legends – mole men, nuclear storage dumps, generations of unregistered Mojavs being born underground. Levi tells Luz the US government plans to nuke the whole area. What else are they to do with it? Luz thinks Ray is dead. She thinks Levi is a prophet. The language, in places, mimics the blurred, hallucinatory flow, the skewed ever-present tense of drug addiction. You came here for predictive science fiction? Fuck that bitch.

When Ray visited later that day, he visited a dingy solar-powered school bus in a madman’s colony, an outpost in the cruel tradition of outposts, peopled by prostitutes and loners and rejects and criminals and and liars, their sheriff a con and a thief and surely worse. (p 312.)

And so everything, in the end, comes back to the Spahn ranch, the lies, the seductions, the isolation. Was any of it even real?

Luz chooses for herself, finally, as she goes under. Ray soldiers on.

*

Claire Vaye Watkins’s first book was called Batteborn, a collection of stories exploring the brutal and unforgiving landscape of her native Nevada, together with the story that lurks in the background of her own family, the dark legend of Charles Manson and his groupies, the deadly fantasy world he constructed for them out at the Spahn movie ranch, a fantasy they finally, brutally inflicted on the people they killed. I loved that book, I thought it was exceptional. When I heard that Watkins was writing a near-future science fiction novel set in the same kind of landscape, I was extremely excited.

If I imagined anything going in, I suppose I was expecting something a little like Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gold Fame Citrus is not like that novel, not in the least, though as speculative novels go I can see how they’re related through the importance they both ascribe to the role of language. But while Newman’s language serves her speculative conceit, Watkins’s undermines it. Constantly, determinedly. Ice Cream Star is a science fiction novel. Gold Fame Citrus exploits science fiction, but – searing commentary on environmental abuses and government cover-ups aside – it doesn’t give a damn about it.

Gold Fame Citrus is a novel affected by sunstroke. A hallucination. If it is about anything it is about the falsehoods and entrapments of communal folly, both in the private sphere and the political. About how one might wrestle free of such mental enslavement and what residual damage might exist, how it might still have the power to wreck lives and futures and thought processes long after it’s over.

I love the form this book takes: the wilful digressions, the embedded pamphlet, the theatrical interludes. I disagree totally with those reviewers who have suggested that this approach has sapped the energy of the central narrative. The central narrative is a tragedy, a predetermined sorrow. The accompanying threads of story are its Greek chorus. They’re also brilliantly compelling in their own right.

As a second work of fiction to follow Battleborn, I’d judge Gold Fame Citrus a step up in reach and ambition. Watkins has negotiated the leap to longer-length work with originality, dexterity, and equal intensity of focus. As story, the novel is scourging rather than satisfying because its sadness leaves us empty rather than full. As an exercise in the novel form, I would say it succeeds admirably, and with great inventiveness.

Where Watkins will go from here, it is impossible to guess.

(You can read an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins at Electric Literature here.)

New for spring…

occupy me. sullivanToday I’d like to say a few words about two brand new science fiction novels that I was lucky enough to have the chance to read in manuscript. The first is Occupy Me, by Tricia Sullivan. If I were to tell you that Occupy Me is the story of an angel discovering her true destiny, that would probably give you an extremely skewed idea of what this novel is actually like. If I were to tell you that Occupy Me is the story of a quantum being discovering the gateway to another universe, that might give you a better sense of the textures and themes you’ll find yourself experiencing if you pick up this book. Both statements would be true. Neither gives the whole picture.

“Most of the cabin class passengers are aware that they’re doing something extraordinary by flying. Even if they only let out a fleeting smile when looking out the window, or utter a silent prayer on landing, most of them sense that they are close to heaven. And heaven isn’t what you think it is. Heaven, even glimpsed side-on, is awesome. While folks are hurtling along at angel-altitude, their souls are open. Their hearts are accessible. Their minds can be touched. I’d like to think that a little nudge from me at the right moment on a flight can bring about long-term changes on Earth.”

I first read Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me in draft, in the summer of 2014, and I’m still trying to think of words that accurately describe it. ‘Adventurous’ and ‘ambitious’ don’t seem sufficient by themselves. ‘Experimental’ has to be in there somewhere, but I would hate to suggest that this novel doesn’t also deliver a blistering story. Occupy Me is skittish, fluid, unpredictable, rapturous, and wayward. There are so many ideas here – ideas on every page, jostling each other impatiently, like precocious children. I think the thing I love most about Occupy Me is that it feels so alive – as if those ideas are being created as you read about them, as if they’re still being thought about even as they plump down on the page. Nothing is fixed here – everything is up for grabs.

The voice of Occupy Me is alternately angry, tender, contentious and filled with wonderment. This is a novel in motion, and another thing I love about it is the way its language mirrors the mercurial fluidity of its thought processes. Sentence fragments, word cascades, thickets of imagery – this is a work in thrall to the power of the written word.

There need to be more science fiction novels like this: elusive, combative, curious, willing to take risks. Occupy Me is science fiction at its leading, not to say bleeding edge: there’s no formula for work of this kind. You won’t know exactly where you’re going until you get there.

It’s clear almost from the first that Occupy Me‘s central character Pearl is graft.2016working from a place of deep compassion. Compassionate would not be the first word that comes to mind when describing the various protagonists of Matt Hill’s thrilling second novel Graft – the book opens with a particularly brutal punishment shooting – but travel the road with them a little further and you might be surprised.  What Graft also has in common with Occupy Me is an interest in quantum dimensions and parallel futures – according to Hill as to Sullivan, these can be very dangerous places to wind up in.

For anyone who’s read Hill’s debut, the terse and wonderfully unpredictable The Folded Man, his vision of a future Manchester – cracked and bleeding – will be familiar as well as fascinating. But you don’t have to have read that first book to enjoy this new one. Graft is more immediately accessible than The Folded Man, but its concepts and characters are no less challenging, no less original. As with Occupy Me, what I admire most about this novel is its language, its wily construction. You’ll begin by wondering where you are and what the hell is about to happen. But within a short space of time you’ll be drawn into a story you won’t want to put down. Matt Hill is shaping up to be one of the most innovative and outspoken new writers of British science fiction currently on the scene. If you enjoyed Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, or Matthew di Abaitua’s The Red Men or If Then, then I’d strongly recommend you give Graft a read as soon as possible.

Beware the Manor Lord, though. And mind the Slope…

Graft is out any day now from Angry Robot. You’ll find an interview with Matt here at SFF World, and more on his insights and inspirations for Graft here at SF Signal.

Occupy Me is out now from Gollancz. Check out Tricia’s blog for more information on the science and even the music behind the novel, and listen to her in conversation with Mavesh Murad on the podcast Midnight in Karachi.

 

#weird2016: Run the GAMUT!

There’s a wonderful project up at Kickstarter at the moment and I’m personally urging anyone with an interest in horror and weird fiction to consider backing it, or just to spread the word if you possibly can. GAMUT looks like being the most interesting new magazine venture to have surfaced in years. It’s the brainchild of Richard Thomas, writer and editor. Richard has made literary quality a defining feature of all the projects he’s been involved with, and if you glance down the tables of contents of the anthologies he’s edited – The New Black, Burnt Tongues (which was a Stoker finalist) and The Lineup – you’ll see just what an innovative and ambitious approach to weird fiction he has.

Don’t listen to me – let Richard tell you more about Gamut himself:

Gamut will be accepting solicited submissions only for a time, but Richard fully intends to open the magazine up to new writers in due course. There will be non-fiction and commentary too.

I believe that Gamut is exactly the kind of webzine the genre landscape needs right now. Independent-spirited, innovative and just more willing to take risks than other venues. I hope to see it becoming a kind of meeting point, a hub for weird writers and readers of all persuasions. With the right support and enthusiasm, Gamut really could help to increase the profile of quality speculative fiction generally.

Please back Gamut now!

#weird 2016: Little Sister Death by William Gay

little sister deathWilliam Gay died in 2012. Little Sister Death was found with his papers, only partially typed up but still ostensibly complete in longhand draft. A group of Gay’s close friends and fellow writers put everything together in the right order. The novel was published late last year. I wrote about it as I went along, breaking off from my reading to record my thoughts.  The numbered sections below do not tie in precisely to the named parts of the novel, they are my own arbitrary divisions. Still, they make a kind of sense.

ONE

He had stopped wondering where he was. He knew from the crying of the whippoorwills that night had fallen. He knew that the ground was frozen, for he could hear the iron rims of the wagon wheels turning against earth frozen in icy whorls. He knew that he’d been in the woods; a branch had rapped him hard and cut his face, a trickle of blood had frozen, crusted like a scarlet slash from a solitary fingernail. (LSD p 6)

Little Sister Death opens in Tennessee, in the year 1785. Dr Mayfield has been kidnapped off the street in front of his house, taken by a man with muttonchop whiskers and his black servant to a log house in the middle of nowhere where he has been brought, as the black man tells him, to treat ‘sick people’. He’s never seen either of them before. He has no idea why he has been chosen, or what for. The man with muttonchop whiskers has some sort of mouth injury that has rendered him unable to eat or to speak clearly, though the doctor soon discovers that this is not the reason he has been taken.

I found the opening of this novel utterly compelling. There’s a sense of malice here – of trouble brewing – that makes you feel tense even as you’re reading. When the climax of this chapter comes – you’ll know when that is, believe me – it’s staggeringly horrifying, all the more so because although you’ve been waiting for something like this to happen, it still seems to erupt out of nowhere, just when you’ve started to think the doctor may be all right after all.

Gay’s writing is clear, direct, deceptively simple. Not a single word wasted and proving in spades that if you’re as good a writer as Gay you can do anything with straight narrative fiction – deliver any surprises and shocks you want.

TWO

‘He was watching the home place and he was pondering the nature of its evil, not wondering if there was evil indeed there but knowing it with an absolute certainty that he applied to very few things. What triggered it? he wondered. How did it work, and how did it ever come to be there? Something old and evil had happened here, so evil that came after was just echoes, just spreading ripples in the water so intense that Beale and his family had ultimately abandoned the house and rebuilt in the place he was now moving into. Though that didn’t help, did it, Old Jake? Binder thought. Whatever it was just walked across the ridge and knocked at your door. (p 41)

It’s now the 1980s. David Binder, a writer, has moved with his wife Corrie and young daughter Stephie from Chicago to Tennessee, and into the ‘Beale house’. Binder has acquired the house on the six-month lease. He intends to write a book about some notorious events there, a book that will be solidly commercial and make him some money. Already after just a couple of days on the property he seems too involved, already we are beginning to get the sense that this will not end well for him. Binder seems kind of selfish. He goes after what he wants and damn the consequences.  Corrie doesn’t seem to have much choice in anything. David doesn’t ever really confide in her. He thinks of her as ‘high strung’, and therefore not to be told certain things. The accidental killing of a rabbit is a bad omen, and reminiscent of the hare that dies under the plough at the beginning of John Fowles’s Daniel Martin.

This section initially lacks the magisterial gothic grandeur of the opening but this is not necessarily a bad thing as it creates an interesting duality between past and present. The present seems at first lighter, more disposable, but that texture gradually changes as we approach the Beale house itself. Seeing Binder watching the old property we get an echo of the feelings we experienced during the first chapter.

This is concise, intensely readable prose. It reminds me a little of some of the very best of Stephen King’s writing – the early chapters of ‘Salem’s Lot, for example – but entirely lacks that writer’s tendency to over-pad. There is a languid heat to the prose – nothing is hurried, not even the tension. One longs to hear this book read aloud in Gay’s southern accent.

THREE

Back to 1933. Owen Swaw, a sharecropper, is offered the tenancy of the Beale place in return for raising and harvesting the corn crop. He’s unexpectedly reluctant – there’s something about the place he doesn’t like – but his wife Lorene insists. They have four growing daughters and no space. The Beale place is enormous. The girls love it. Swaw begins to see things – odd things, odd people, a black dog – and his temper seems addled. Nothing pleases him – and then he is seduced by a ghost:

That’s my little sister yonder, the preacher said, pointing, and Swaw turned, so caught up in the snake that he was aware of the girl’s presence for the first time. She stood in the corner facing an isinglass window of the tent watching him and slowly turned. Swaw suddenly felt chilled, aware of the cold layers of wet clothing against his skin, and for a dizzy second he thought he was going to faint, for the world darkened and everything looked vague and far away. The preacher was still talking, but sounds had diminished and Swaw couldn’t understand him. (p 89)

This whole section is dry and airless, like the oppressive summer weather that pervades it. We sense the approach of disaster – the disaster we have had described to us in Binder’s first section – but our foreknowledge of what is to happen does not diminish it.

FOUR

He was obscurely happy, drawing comfort from sourceless and insignificant things he always took for granted: the work he was doing, the soft worn feel of the faded jeans he was wearing, the sounds of the night beyond the walls, the feeling of the peace they engendered, the chaos of the world walled out.

They ate the ice cream on the stone doorsteps, touched by a sense of closeness without having to voice it. It had been a long day, an unhurried purposeless day Binder had stolen from the book, like a day he had managed to hoard from his childhood, squander when the mood suited him. 

Later he would remember it as the last outpost of normalcy, a waystation to darker provinces. (p 111)

Things are weirding up on the Beale land. The haunting is taking hold. Binder is gripped – and not just by the book he is writing. It’s his family you fear for. The atmosphere is horrifying, a kind of polluted stillness. The plot is strongly reminiscent of the movie Sinister, though with none of that film’s determination to ruin itself through horror cliché.

Following the latest from Binder we have an extract from an earlier book on the Beale haunting, referred to frequently by Binder during the course of his research. Now we begin to learn more about the origins of the haunting, and the way these events mirrored themselves compulsively in what happened to Swaw.

FIVE

Sunday afternoon was more of the same, hot and clear and a mile long. The steady clack clack clack of the typewriter ceasing only when he paused to light a cigarette, make coffee, go to the bathroom. She was counting the days till Labor Day. (p 138)

As Binder becomes ever more deeply possessed by the rhythms and secret murmurings of the haunted dell, Corrie remembers other occasions when her husband was needlessly, destructively selfish. Binder stops watching TV and especially the news, anything that will remind him of the world beyond Beale Station, which comes to seem increasingly dreamlike, increasingly irrelevant.

On Labor Day weekend, Corrie’s sister Ruthie and her odious husband Vern come to visit. Binder can’t stand Vern, and feels increasingly annoyed with Corrie for not disliking him more. When they go to a local dance to celebrate the holiday, Vern is in his element. Binder is relieved to be out of the house for a bit. Then he sees someone in the crowd:

There was an eerie familiarity about her, as if she were a creation from his fantasies, from his dreams – or worse, he suddenly thought, fearing madness, from the book he was writing. The face was placid and smooth, seemed touched with the remnants of a lost, corrupt sweetness, a doomed innocence, and he knew irrevocably that he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anything. The book, Corrie, life itself. (p 176)

And Vern? I love this:

In the stark clarity of the moonlight his face looked vacuous and haggard, less like a bored housewife’s dream and more like a man drifting against his will aimlessly into middle age. (p 181)

Throughout this novel, Gay’s writing is strongest when he’s describing the gaunt and vaguely threatening beauty of the Tennessee landscape. The landscape is not to blame for the tragedy exactly, but it is complicit, it grants it asylum.

QUEEN OF THE HAUNTED DELL

We leave Binder hanging, arguing with Corrie in a hospital car park. Suddenly we’re in the present, and William Gay is recounting the true history of the Bell Witch haunting, on which Little Sister Death is based. We meet Chris Kirby, who now owns the Bell farm and who is obsessed with the story. The Blair Witch Project is referenced. Gay tells us about his own brush with the ghost. It’s a surprising and intriguing breach of the fourth wall and not surprisingly I find I like this aspect of the novel a lot. It makes the book feel strange, telescoped back into itself. What are we to make of it? The fact that it was published posthumously, reconstructed from Gay’s own longhand notes and typescript, makes us ask ourselves if it was finished, even.

In a sense, there are three books here: the grim southern gothic of the opening chapters, pulsing with life and cruel mysteries, the initially languid, steadily escalating horror of the Binder chapters, and finally the metafictional idea of a writer collating research material for that very novel. I like the resulting composite, a lot, though there is a part of me that still yearns for the novel that might have been, the novel we glimpse in that opening chapter, the kidnapped doctor on his fatal journey, the terrible act we see perpetrated in a remote farmhouse.

The problem with affect horror is its fatalism, the way its entire energy is directed towards generating an atmosphere of dread rather than pursuing the active forward momentum of a story. The opening sequence of Little Sister Death forms one of the most gripping and beauteously written passages of horror fiction I’ve read in a long time. Most of the rest of the book lacks that tension, because the law of affect horror tells us that David Binder is doomed from the beginning. There is nothing for us to do but sit around waiting for him to go crazy.

For me at least, the irruption of the metafictional into this scenario goes a long way towards mitigating the deadening effect of affect horror. It throws everything into question, even Binder’s eventual fate. If Gay had continued with Binder’s story we know exactly how it would have played out – he showed us already, with Owen Swaw. As things stand at the end, who knows? Perhaps Binder got lucky and got out. I know I like to think so.

A wonderfully engrossing read, with some enthralling writing, this is exactly the kind of novel we should be seeing on horror fiction awards shortlists, but rarely do. Little Sister Death is a valuable addition to the canon. Although its compact length is a refreshing and welcome change, I nonetheless find myself wishing this book had been longer. I miss the Binders.

#weird 2016: My Top Ten Horror Stories

An essay of mine went up at Strange Horizons yesterday, in which I mull over the state of British horror and where we might be going with it. As part of that mulling-over, I took issue with a certain horror editor’s Top Ten list of favourite horror stories. For me, it seemed staid and just a little bit dull, given the wealth and breadth of horror literature we have to choose from. I also acknowledged how difficult it is to compile such a list, given the wealth and breadth of horror literature we have to choose from. Should we pick the stories that happen to be our favourites right now, or should we actively tend towards the conservative, selecting the works that have haunted our memories for decades, those stories we return to imaginatively again and again when we think about what most delights us in horror fiction?

A little of both, maybe. And fair is fair – if I’m going to pick holes in someone else’s list, it’s only right that I put up a top ten list of my own, to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. There will doubtless be some who think I don’t go far enough in challenging the status quo here, just as there will be others who simply can’t believe I’ve not happened to choose one justifiably classic author or another. But that is exactly what these kind of lists are for, isn’t it? Discussing our choices, and hopefully challenging our perceptions of the subject in question. The main thing is that we have a conversation.

So who is my list for, primarily? At the most cursory level, I’d say it was for any horror reader or writer who feels curious about what kind of stuff another horror reader and writer happens to be into – you’ll get a pretty good idea of who I am as a horror fan from reading this list. I’d also say it’s for new writers: here is my best summary of the kind of work you need to be paying attention to if you want to get an idea of what horror is about and how you might fit into it. These ten works will give you a pretty good idea of the journey horror literature has been on and how it’s evolved. (It goes without saying that other fans, editors and writers might have differing opinions on exactly who is most important here and why.) I would also like to think that this list might be a starting point for people who think they don’t like horror: read the stories on this list, and perhaps you’ll end up with a pretty good idea of why you might have been wrong, and where you might go next to feed your growing enthusiasm.

Who knows – you might even end up compiling a list of your own…

And so here goes with my top ten. I’m going to try and lay these out in the order I might arrange them if I were editing an anthology:

  1. The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907). This is a classic work of English weird fiction. Two friends travel down the Danube in a rowing boat and become ever more fixated upon the landscape they pass through, convinced of its malignancy and possessed by it. An incredibly modern, prescient work of cosmic horror. Lovecraft admired this story tremendously and for me it signals the passage from the more buttoned-up, Jamiesian type of Victorian ghost story to the psychological idiom. A story that can be savoured time and again.
  2. The Ruins of Contracoeur by Joyce Carol Oates (1999). Joyce Carol Oates is thought of by most people as a mainstream literary writer. In fact, she’s one of the most important horror writers working today. A good chunk of her output – story collections such as Haunted, novels such as the Stoker-winning Zombie and the epic vampire novel Bellefleur – is specifically horror anyway, but more than that, everything she writes carries more than a touch of the gothic. Together with Iris Murdoch, I would have to cite JCO as the writer who lies closest to my heart, the writer I turn to when I want to regain a sense of where I stand as a writer. It’s hard to pick just one story to list here, but I’m going with this marvellous novella, a weird and unnerving offshoot from Bellefleur, because it’s the first Oates I ever read and it made me fall in love with her writing there and then. For a neat introduction to Oates and her importance to horror, I’d recommend this great little essay by Paula Guran.
  3. Welcomeland by Ramsey Campbell (1988). Arguably the most important British horror writer of the postwar era, Ramsey Campbell’s stories and novels carry echoes of the earlier weird fiction that has clearly worked a profound influence upon their author. Yet they are also grimly, often brutally of today: angst-ridden, bleak, alienated and genuinely terrifying. No one explores despair – both existential and circumstantial – like Campbell, and this story of a man returning to his home town bears all his trademark themes. Campbell’s layered use of language to create a sense of entrapment is pretty much unique in all of horror and I would say it’s essential for anyone interested in writing horror to read him. (NB: He can also be really funny.)
  4. At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1931). I’ve been thinking about Lovecraft a lot recently, and rereading him a bit, and I’m coming to the conclusion that this ‘terrible wordsmith’ business of which he is routinely accused is received opinion: people keep saying it, therefore it must be accurate. But whilst it’s true that HPL does not always know when to end a sentence, and he’s not so good on dialogue, when you go back to the writing itself, you’ll perhaps be surprised to find how evocative, precise and beautiful it often is. Take this passage here from At The Mountains of Madness: ‘The last lap of the voyage was vivid and fancy-stirring. Great barren peaks of mystery loomed up constantly against the west as the low northern sun of noon or the still lower horizon-grazing southern sun of midnight poured its hazy reddish rays over the white snow, bluish ice and water lanes, and black bits of exposed granite slope. Through the desolate summits swept ranging, intermittent gusts of the terrible Antarctic wind, whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible.’ Because so much of contemporary western horror literature arises from Lovecraft, I would say that insofar as anything is essential reading for anyone interested in horror fiction, Lovecraft is it. (And pssst – his stories are highly entertaining.)
  5. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948). As with Iris Murdoch’s early fiction, I’m always amazed when I’m confronted by the date-stamps on Shirley Jackson’s stories, because their ethos is so fiercely, so uncompromisingly modern. ‘The Lottery’ truly is a horror classic, and whilst its by no means the oddest or even the best of her stories, it’s a wonderful introduction to the art of a writer who could perhaps be described as the Katherine Mansfield of horror, bringing strange fiction out of the gentleman’s club and into the home. (In fact, Katherine Mansfield’s own 1912 story ‘The Woman at the Store‘ could itself easily qualify for inclusion on this list.) I’ve read this story more times than I can remember, yet it never loses its power to shock and delight. You can’t not love it.
  6. The Buffalo Hunter by Peter Straub (1990). Often seen as standing in Stephen King’s shadow, Straub has written fewer novels but their overall consistency – not surprisingly and for me at least – is finer. Ghost Story and Shadowland are colossi of the genre: novels both intellectual and visceral that you can read again and again and never quite come to the end of. I love his work. This novella is so weird and so disturbing and it showcases Straub’s writing and style to beautiful effect. In fact, go away and read the entire collection from which this story is drawn, Houses Without Doors – it’s one of my favourite story collections ever. For more on Straub, there’s an informative essay by Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer here.
  7. Riding the White Bull by Caitlin R. Kiernan (2004). I first read Kiernan – her story ‘Valentia” – in one of the Jones/Sutton Dark Terrors anthologies and, as with Oates, I knew at once that here was a writer who spoke to me directly. Her confessional style, combined with the beauty of her language, make her dear to my heart in a way that few other writers are. I wanted to include The Dry Salvages here, because it’s perfect and I wish I’d written it, but it’s another novella and I have the feeling I’ve sneaked in too many of those already. ‘Riding the White Bull’ contains many of the same themes as The Dry Salvages – alien contamination, existential dread, the end of the world as we know it – but for the purposes of this listing it has the advantage of being shorter.
  8. The Swords by Robert Aickman (1975). How to explain Robert Aickman? He’s often grouped together with M. R. James and Arthur Machen as a ‘master of the English weird tale’ and indeed Aickman does belong to – or rather issue from – this tradition. There’s more, though. His stories belong to a strange, indeterminate time for horror fiction, which unsurprisingly fell out of fashion after WW2, and did not truly arrive in its various modern incarnations until the publication of Stephen King’s Carrie in 1974. What permeates Aickman’s fiction most of all is a sense of disappointment, of washed-upness: the postwar ‘never had it so good’ utopia has failed to arrive. In Britain there’s a mood of confusion and displacement in the aftermath of empire. Where now? Aickman’s protagonists seem to be asking, and none more so than the travelling salesman who is the ‘hero’ of ‘The Swords’. In its depiction of decay and disillusionment, Aickman’s fiction provides something the English weird tale had never attempted up till then: a version of the dirty ‘kitchen sink’ realism we see in the mainstream novels and films of the period. It also directly paved the way for the weird fiction of writers from the so-called ‘mundane’ school such as M. John Harrison, Nicholas Royle and Joel Lane.
  9. The Devil in America by Kai Ashante Wilson (2014). It was this urgently compelling story, nominated for both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award, that introduced us to the art of a writer who promises to be genuinely important to the field. I’ve recently read his follow-up, the dark fantasy (you could almost call it horror) novella The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, and found it equally assured, even more innovative in terms of its language and construction. It’s always a joy to discover a writer this good, and ‘The Devil in America’ deserves all the praise it has garnered. A sort-of werewolf story, it exposes some of the darkness that lies at the heart of American history. It is also a very fine example of the new and more diverse writing that is starting to reinvigorate American fantasy.
  10. Her Deepness by Livia Llewellyn (2010). American horror fiction seems to be in a particularly healthy place at the moment, with a veritable tribe of newer writers such as John Langan, Laird Barron, Nathan Ballingrud, Damien Angelica Walters and Sarah Langan producing work of high literary quality and chilling depth of field. Of all these New Lovecraftians, perhaps the greatest is Livia Llewellyn. Her story ‘Horses’ is one of the starkest and most upsetting pieces of science fictional horror I’ve ever read, but I’m plumping for Llewellyn’s novella Her Deepness as my current favourite of her stories, because of the beauty of its language, the completeness of the world it evokes, and because it’s just fantastic. I’ve never read a duff sentence from Llewellyn. She is a major talent.

APPENDIX – BONUS MATERIAL: Stephen Jones added two extra Ray Bradbury stories to his top ten, so I’m damned if I’m not sneaking in two extra stories of my own!

  1. In a Falling Airplane by Otsuichi (2010). The Japanese horror tradition is a lifetime’s study in itself, and as a reader I’ve only just begun to brush the surface of it. There is something antic, something anarchic and deeply unsettling in the stories I’ve read thus far that leaves me definitely wanting more. We already know that japan leads the world in the jagged brilliance of its horror cinema, and there’s something of that same bizarro quality in Otsuichi’s fiction. His stories really ought not to be funny but they often are. They can also feel desolate, perched on the very edge of the abyss. I love the whole collection, Zoo, from which ‘In a Falling Airplane’ is drawn, and would recommend it as a starting point for getting to know what J-horror is all about.
  2. Pan by Bruno Schulz (1934). European horror, so dear to my heart, so utterly vital for the growth of the genre, so often forgotten in discussions of the literature. The best known writer of the European weird is probably Franz Kafka, but there are also amazing lesser known voices such as Friedebert Tuglas, Stefan Grabinski, Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard and Gabriele Wittkop who are equally worth getting to know, not to mention contemporary writers such as Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Anna Starobinets and Karin Tidbeck. The prince of them all is Bruno Schulz, whose stories are perfect gems of strangeness and ambiguity. It’s almost unbearable to read him, knowing how his life and career were cut short, knowing what we lost when we lost him, but at least we have the stories we have: luminous, humane, resplendent in their strangeness and beauty. ‘Pan’ is just a few pages long but no matter – once you’ve read it, I guarantee you’ll want to seek out everything Schulz ever wrote and make loud, obsessive noises about it to every other horror fan you meet.

What strikes me most harshly as I look back over this list is the writers who aren’t on it. How can I justify including both Caitlin Kiernan and Livia Llewellyn, when that means denying a place to Kelly Link, whose shivery brand of horror is one of the most unsettling and original around? How can I not have included Kaaron Warren and Margo Lanagan, who are two of my favourite horror writers working today? How could I not have found room for ‘Caterpillars‘, a weird little tale from E. F. Benson that I like better than a lot of M. R. James and that has equal rights to be here as representative of the classic ghost story tradition? There’s a fantastic novella by Tade Thompson that would absolutely have been on here but can’t be, because it hasn’t been published yet. Likewise any of the stories from Helen Oyeyemi’s new collection, which isn’t out until April. And what about the two magnificent anti-horror stories, each in its own way representative of metafictional horror and each adored by me, Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Colonel’s Son’ and Joe Hill’s ‘Best New Horror’? What about Thomas Ligotti’s lifelong, ongoing dialogue with H. P. Lovecraft? What about the densely interwoven, experimental horror fictions of Michael Cisco and J. M. McDermott? What about Nnedi Okorafor’s phenomenal ‘Spider the Artist‘? These exclusions hurt, and if you think that my mentioning them here is just a sneaky way of getting them in under the wire, you’d be right.

A top ten should be what it says it is though (or almost), so I’ll leave it at that. Anything else would be cheating. If you don’t like it – and even if you do – why not get down to business compiling your own?

Spindles: Short Stories from the Science of Sleep

(Editors: Penelope Lewis and Ra Page)

spindles.lewis.pageThis is the latest in Comma Press‘s series of short story anthologies exploring specific areas of science and scientific thought through the medium of fiction. Each writer is paired with a scientist working in the particular area they have chosen to investigate, with the scientist afterwards offering a commentary on the completed story. It’s a unique and intriguing concept – putting the science back into science fiction, you might say – and the afterwords here are without exception fascinating, offering a wealth of information and specific insights. The introduction to the anthology also, with its illustrative graphs and explanation of what our brains are actually doing while we sleep, is essential reading.

I must add though that for me personally, sampling the afterwords immediately after reading each story proved distracting, breaking the spell the story cast – rather like seeing an over-eager zoologist rushing to dissect the carcass of some small and beautiful animal, when as a naturalist, all I really wanted to do at that point was to observe the creature in its natural habitat. So whilst I’d recommend these afterwords wholeheartedly on their own terms, I’m not going to discuss them here, and would personally suggest saving them to read separately, once you’ve had time to properly appreciate these delicate morsels of fiction and the games they play.

And so then to the stories! In order of the Table of Contents, here we go:

  1. My Soul to Keep by Martyn Bedford (Afterword by Prof. Ed Watkins). Kim is a sleep technician, working in a sleep lab alongside Dr Aziz. They’re caring for and seeking information about Charlotte, a young woman diagnosed with Persistent Hypersomnic State. Charlotte has been suffering from depression and the amount of time she spends asleep has been gradually increasing. As the story opens, she’s just coming up for a full year without waking. As a ’21st Century Sleeping Beauty’ she has attracted a number of fans and acolytes, all of them women, who have taken up residence in a makeshift camp outside the sleep lab. “I log the data sets,” Kim informs us. “It’s what I do. What we do round the clock. Polysomnography, each 12-hour block of recorded information processed and analysed, every variation in the pattern and physiology of her sleep pored over for signs of change or clues to PHS. There never is any change, though. Charlotte’s sleep is as remorseless, as featureless as a desert.” I really liked this one. It’s a delicate, subtle story, exploring the lives and emotions of Kim, who has two sons of a similar age to Charlotte, and Charlotte’s mother Evelyn, who wants to withdraw her daughter from the program and take her home. There’s a restless, uneasy quality to Kim’s thoughts as she finds herself drawn ever deeper into Charlotte’s world. A meditation, perhaps, on how the stresses of the modern world impact upon our ability to process them.
  2. Left Eye by Adam Marek (Afterword by Dr Penelope A. Lewis). “Nancy puts her hand on Left Eye’s hot shoulder. The strength in him. That wizened baby’s face. Moments of wishing she wasn’t here.” We are in the near future. Nancy is an expert in Targeted Memory Replay, a technique whereby programming the sleeping brain to recall events or sensations experienced during waking hours can help to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD. Up until recently, Nancy has been working with soldiers returning from the combat zone. When a private company offers her a lucrative new job opportunity, she accepts with alacrity – only to discover that her new test subjects are being experimented upon without their consent. Anyone who has read Karen Joy Fowler’s novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will guess what the twist is here, and Marek’s story is equally devastating, equally morally complex, though on a smaller scale. A difficult, essential read, with no easy answers offered. The character of Nancy is brilliantly evoked in just a few short pages.
  3. A Sleeping Serial Killer by M. J. Hyland (Afterword by Isabel Hutchinson). A writer, Maria, explains to a psychotherapist she meets by chance in a cafe how she believes her violent nightmares are a kind of safety valve, siphoning off her rage and trauma and leaving her free to live a well adjusted life. ‘Even after an especially gruesome dream I wake in a mood of ‘lucid indifference’ and this cycle started when I was a child. From about the age of seven I was certain that I wouldn’t end up like ‘them’, my family, and that my nightmares weren’t a bad thing but a good and special trick that my brain played to make me tougher’, explains Maria. In her dreams she’s a serial killer, and that’s where this alter ego will safely stay. This is a fun one, a snarky little piece of metafiction – the story’s narrator and author share the same name – that nests its layers of unreality like glittery shreds of wrapping paper in a game of pass the parcel. There is serious intent here of course, but Hyland seems determined not to let us get too earnest about things by constantly undermining her clever little edifice with the worm of dark humour. I love the way this story is written.
  4. The Rip Van Winkle Project by Sara Maitland (Afterword by Prof. Russell G. Foster). The Greek gods Hypnos, Morpheus and Circadia call a meeting to discuss the worsening state of the world, which Circadia puts down to a wholesale human rejection of the dark. ‘It isn’t about money,’ Hypnos agrees. ‘They’re bullying each other into working inefficiently and for far too long for free. Even when they aren’t working they are up all night – shopping, something called ‘onlining’, even just staying awake to watch television shows they say are rubbish.’ Meanwhile, teenagers Sally Brampton and Matt Oliver go unwillingly to school, grouchy and resentful after being pulled from sleep by the demands of a world they are in no rush to join. Rooted in the natural world and spiritual contemplation, this witty and humorous story is everything we might expect from Sara Maitland. Rich in poetry and mythic imagery, this is a meditation on the restorative properties of sleep and the power of dreams – but not only dreams, as Circadia keeps reminding Morpheus – to return us to a state of energy and inspiration. A delightful piece.
  5. Benzene Dreams by Sarah Schofield (Afterword by Prof. Robert Stickgold). A potentially dangerous commercialisation of the techniques we witnessed in Adam Marek’s story, ‘Benzene Dreams’ tells us about Phil, a computer programmer who’s developed a new app called DreamSolve, which has the power to reinforce customer preferences or behaviours by learning and manipulating patterns of memory during sleep. Both big business and government are in a fiendish hurry to get their hands on DreamSolve, only there seems to be a problem – Phil won’t be bought. ‘You’re a wholly moral being, Philip, look at you. It’s adorable and terrifying all at the same time,’ says Diane, left-leaning government executive and supposedly the good guy. Phil soon learns that in this kind of race for primacy, no one is the good guy, and he is powerless. Schofield manages to make a chilling story very funny. I hope Phil gets his dog.
  6. Counting Sheep by Andy Hedgecock (Afterword by Dr Simon Kyle). ‘Fay flicked through sleep habit-tracker diagrams with their colourful spikes, spindles and histograms, explained the intelligent alarm clock function and demonstrated the sleep deficit indicators. “You put your phone under your pillow and it records tossing and turning, checks if you snore or talk in your sleep, and works out the best time to wake you with music, birdsong or whatever you like.”‘ A bunch of sociology lecturers at a FE college are encouraged to utilize the Dormouse app to regularise their sleep habits and up performance. Linden, scared of losing his job, complies with the guidelines. Lea is also scared of losing her job but is less prepared to put up with management bullshit. A shot across the bows from a writer who has clearly experienced this kind of corporate newspeak first hand and is rightfully angry. Linden is losing it – Hedgecock seems to be showing us a vision of what life might be like if the sleep app in ‘Benzene Dreams’ became a reality. I’m totally with Lea. Also contains Thea Gilmore reference. If this story doesn’t get you riled up you’re clearly already a pod person.
  7. Thunder Cracks by Zoe Gilbert (Afterword by Dr Paul Reading). ‘Now at thirteen years old, she is apprenticed to her father at the High Farm, where he makes workers of the wild horses and knocks the farm-born ones into good shape. Not the son he wanted but his eldest child, and he has no inkling how hard she has to try not to run away from those beasts, to be still when she looks at their rolling eyes, their twitching shoulders, She cannot harness their might, the way her father does.’ ‘Thunder Cracks’ feels a little like Whale Rider, only with horses. We are in an agrarian past, or possibly future. Madden is being schooled by her father to take over his work when he becomes too old to do it himself. Is it the storm that has caused Madden’s sleepwalking, or is she the emissary of forces beyond her control? Zoe Gilbert’s story, with its affecting poetry, its timeless setting, its stark illustration of how myth, magic and people are bound to a landscape, is easily my favourite of this anthology so far, at least partly because it seems so determined to take the original brief as inspiration only, to go its own wild way. I love it intensely.
  8. The Night Husband by Lisa Tuttle (Afterword by Stephanie Romiszewski), ‘A fantasy played out in my mind as I lay awake at home that night. Dr Bekar’s astonishment would lead to a more in-depth study which, although tedious, I must allow in the interests of science. Papers would be written, and I would be invited to appear at scientific conferences, and even on television. Others like me might come forward – how misunderstood we had been! – at last, our suffering was not in vain. Dr Bekar would write a book, and there would be a documentary made about my life, maybe even a docudrama, something like that one starring Robin Williams – Awakenings.’ A woman is plagued by sleep problems that started in childhood. She turns to a sleep clinician for advice, yet ends up finding answers much closer to home. This story has an intriguing premise, but for me it wore its research a little too openly on its sleeve. I think Tuttle would have been far better to dump the sleep lab stuff entirely and write more about the characters and their personal problems. To be honest, I’m coming to believe this is an issue that may be built into this particular format by default. Writing fiction is a intensely private process. There is a danger that having one’s research sources physically present in the form of a scientific collaborator might actively interfere with that.  I can see myself writing more about this problem in my summing-up.
  9. Narcolepsy by Deborah Levy (Afterword by Prof. Adam Zeman). ‘He reaches for a packet of chocolate and marshmallow biscuits called Wagon Wheels and unwraps the foil as he speaks.’ Why not: ‘He reaches for a packet of Wagon Wheels’? Is this story aimed at people from Mars, or is Levy simply afraid of being seen dropping brand names a la Stephen King? (I ate my first Wagon Wheel more than forty years ago, at my grandma’s caff in Nottingham. These things ain’t new.) The wagon wheels (lower case) reappear later on in the story so I guess this might count as a kind of oblique foreshadowing. Oh, and do look out for what Gayatri says to the flower seller about Ilya Kabakov – priceless. Reads like Rachel Cusk – in fact, this story brings back to me all the reasons I wrote this blog post. Oh, I get it, I get it, but this kind of writing makes me so tired. Which is probably appropriate, given the subject matter. I’m guessing that the story is an extended poetic metaphor created to mimic the ‘waking dreams’ of narcoleptics, and, my appalling sarcasm aside, my writing self admires it tremendously, even if only for the fact that it shoots the brief in the head and keeps on running.
  10. Voice Marks by Claire Dean (Afterword by Prof. Manuel Shabus). When we reached a particular gritstone crag, Dad always stopped and said, he’s still in there. This sleeping knight wasn’t one of Arthur’s army, Dad said he was from another time. Once, I asked him what the name was for the bright orange rings that spattered the stone. They’re voice marks, he said – the marks his voice leaves when he shouts out. Whenever I asked after that he said lichen, only lichen.’ A beautiful, resonant story about memory and loss, and how the names and faces of the dead are returned to us as we sleep. There is a whole novel in these couple of thousand words. A lovely piece of work, up there with the Gilbert for me.
  11. Trees in the Wood by Lisa Blower (Afterword by Prof Ed Watkins). ‘This leaves me in the kitchen with the twins, Margot and Henry, who have just turned five and are still in their school uniforms squabbling over jigsaw pieces under the kitchen table where they also now like to eat. I have told Mia that I don’t agree with them eating off the floor like dogs, but she says at least they’re eating and it keeps them quiet and I spot a few rubbery-looking pasta twirls on the floor and a dollop of what looks like hardened ketchup.’ Laura lives alone. She hasn’t been able to sleep since the death of her mother. She’s spending the night at Mia’s house on the advice of her doctor, that she should undergo a course of ‘sleeplessness with someone you trust’. Mia is a palliative care nurse with five-year-old twins, a teenage daughter, and a never-there husband. She’s completely exhausted. The two women share an evening. From between the cracks, secrets emerge. The details and textures of the women’s lives are utterly different – and yet there is something that each can give the other. An emotionally draining, hard-hitting story with an unexpectedly positive outcome. Brilliantly written.
  12. In the Jungle, The Mighty Jungle by Ian Watson (Afterword by Dr Thomas Wehr), ‘Our toxins quickly taught predators to ignore us. I can kill a lion who only touches me, sniffing. We can also induce a numbness that is more like inattention. Halfmoonlight striping darkbark branches bushing leaves. Does Du-du wear a thing upon Du-du’s head? Hard to see, hard to know.’ Alien entities communicate with prehistoric humans by entering their dream-space. There is the unspoken assumption that these aliens may have been the ‘missing link’ in human development. A curious, and curiously attractive story, experimental and lyrical at the same time, with a backward nod to the science fiction of the 1970s New Wave.
  13. A Careless Quiet by Annie Clarkson (Afterword by Dr Paul Reading). ‘I tried to list in my head any symptoms I could have noticed, all those instances when you dropped something, or stumbled or fell, or shook a little, or couldn’t keep up, or when your foot went to sleep that time a few months ago and the sleeping in the day and the dreams. I didn’t know what was just age or tiredness or coincidence, or something I could have picked out from everything else, and said, ‘Something is not right here, Carl, let’s get this checked out.” A married couple experience changes in their life as their daughters grow up and they approach retirement. But Carl is suffering from strange dreams. He’s talking to himself in his sleep, and striking out at people who aren’t there. ‘A Careless Quiet’ is sensitively written but it reads more like a piece of life writing and there’s no real story here. We guess the ending long before it arrives.
  14. The Raveled Sleeve of Care by Adam Roberts (Afterword by Dr Penelope A. Lewis). ‘A word here as to his appearance: I would not have cast him, were i filming a melodrama about a German doctor. He did not look the part: no wire-framed spectacles, no kettle-shiny bald forehead, no agitated precision of movement.’ Flicking over to see what was on the Horror Channel last night, I came in midway through a movie called Outpost: Black Sun – ‘a German scientist by the name of Klausener is working on a terrifying new technology that will create an immortal Nazi army’ – which seemed to consist mainly of Jeff from Coupling grappling with a zombified Eva Braun inside some sort of secret bunker. I switched off, immersing myself instead in this weirdly similar but markedly better written story by Adam Roberts, in which the allusions are clever and literary and the humour is wholly intentional. The plot is simple: a French Nobel laureate makes the acquaintance of a mad German doctor who is working on the ultimate weapon – sleeplessness. He is persuaded by some equally dodgy Americans to pursue the Herr Doktor out to his secret compound in Argentina. ‘There was a single image, a portrait photograph of exactly the person you would expect to find in Schlechterschlaf’s study.’ There’s fabulous stuff like this all the way through. The story is wonderfully, boisterously insane, and exquisitely written. I loved every moment. And who else but Adam Roberts is going to call his Nazi villian Doctor Badsleep?

There are some outstanding stories in this anthology – I would single out the Gilbert, the Dean, the Blower, the Roberts and yes, the Levy for particular mention. As with any themed anthology, there is a tendency towards repetitiveness, a problem I think has been particularly exacerbated by the presence of such detailed scientific guidelines. The number of stories here featuring sleep labs, for example, is far higher than what would normally occur. Spindles presents us with a conundrum: it is an anthology that explores its subject matter intensively and in depth. It is also an anthology that presents, in places, a curious uniformity of approach.  It will be noted that the stories that impressed me most were those that scampered, like recalcitrant schoolchildren, away from the brief.

I must also admit to having doubts about the overall wisdom of Comma’s ‘science into fiction’ concept. From the outside, the idea always seemed attractively intriguing. Now, having experienced it in close up, I am forced to conclude that this particular approach means that the stories are forever in danger of seeming merely like illustrations for the scientific afterwords. ‘Time to separate the science from the fiction,’ says Professor Robert Stickgold as he kicks off his afterword to Sarah Schofield’s story. You can almost hear him rubbing his hands together in his eagerness to get started on the dismantlement process. Sadly I couldn’t disagree more. By this point I was beginning to feel that these afterwords were having much the same effect as the electric light in Sara Maitland’s story: deadening the natural responses, destroying the secret rhythms of a mysterious and essential process.

I must stress that tolerance for such disruption may vary, and there will no doubt be many readers who relish the opportunity to get up close and personal with the scientific documents in the case. For these people, reading Spindles will provide an enthralling journey. Yet the ineluctable fact is, what scientists do and what writers do are two rather different things. That writers – and especially writers of science fiction – can, do and maybe even should draw upon the work of scientists in finding inspiration, direction, and a sturdy armature for their fiction is not in question. But to have the blinding interrogation lamp of fact shone directly – and so immediately – upon the fruits of their labours has had, for me at least, a seriously deleterious effect.

‘Like being shown a magic trick, and then having some other c**t walk out onstage immediately afterwards to show you how it was done?’ Chris suggested, when I was telling him about this. Yes, exactly like that.

And yet. It is impossible not to admire what Comma are doing here, and any project that innovates so intelligently is to be applauded. And so I would commend you to read this book. Immerse yourself in its contents and find out for yourself how you feel about them. I would expect science fiction readers and writers especially to come away invigorated and most likely inspired by the experience.

[DISCLAIMER: I received a review copy of this anthology direct from the publisher.]