Shortlisted!

Pleased to announce that The Rift has made the shortlist for the British Science Fiction Awards in the Best Novel category.

With Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Ann Leckie’s Provenance also making the cut, that makes it a fascinating list to be on and hopefully one that will encourage discussion.

I’m especially delighted to report though that the Shadow Clarke project also made the shortlist, in the Non-Fiction category. This means a huge amount to me, not least because the individual Sharkes were so energetically committed to making this project a success and so clearly deserve this nomination, but also for what it means for science fiction criticism generally. This project truly has opened a new round of the conversation – we need only look at the wonderful personal intros from this year’s Sharkes to see how the project is evolving and opening out – and I’m thrilled to have been a part of that. Congratulations, Sharkes!

It should also be noted that, what with Anne Charnock hitting the shortlists again in the Shorter Fiction category for her beautifully crafted novella The Enclave, the west coast of Scotland isn’t making too bad a showing, either. Could the Isle of Bute be the most speculative spot in the UK right now? Voters, it’s over to you.

Many congratulations to everyone who made the shortlists. You can find the full line-ups here.

The Last Policeman

This year, the excellent people who organise the annual Bute Noir crime writing festival set a reading challenge for anyone who wants to join in: 30 crime books, 30 different categories. How many can you complete and which are your favourites? I’ve decided to give it a go, just for fun, and because I’m hoping it’ll lead me into areas of crime writing I’ve not explored before, or not explored for some time. I’m blogging some of my findings here as I go along. I’m also intending to write up the experience as a whole towards the end of the year.

The experiment is proving incredibly enjoyable and worthwhile so far. The category I’ve tackled most recently has been that of crime novel set in the future. I chose to read Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman firstly because I happened to have it already on my Kindle (it was going really cheap at one point, so I snapped it up) and secondly because I needed an antidote to the recent (bloody awful) BBC future-crime series Hard Sun, and a friend happened to mention that The Last Policeman utilised some of the same ideas but much better.

The novel takes place in the very near future, An asteroid is on a certain collision course with Earth. It will bring about a worldwide environmental catastrophe of extinction-level proportions. Society hovers on the brink of collapse. With basic infrastructure beginning to crumble, and a wave of suicides reaching epidemic proportions, the police have begun to turn their attention away from solving crimes and towards the more urgent business of enforcing order. In the city of Concord, New Hampshire, police patrolman Henry Palace has just realised the dream of a lifetime: he’s been made detective, early, and he intends to live that dream, asteroid or no asteroid. When the police are called to investigate a death at a local McDonald’s, Hank’s fellow officers are inclined to dismiss it as yet another ‘hanger’. Hank is not so sure. He believes Paul Zell has been murdered, and is determined to prove it.

This book surprised me in all sorts of ways, most of all in Winters’s skilled and original use of science fiction. If I was expecting anything at all, it was a rather clumsy, Armageddon-like action thriller. Instead, I was given a subtle, claustrophobic, believable pre-apocalypse that swapped deliberately ramped-up tension for genuine emotion, a slowly accumulating, all-pervasive dread that infects the reader’s system as the novel progresses. It infected this reader’s system, anyway – maybe it’s just Brexit.

But the true success of Winters’s approach lies in his ability to keep his science fiction at one remove. Palace’s obsessive temperament, his tendency towards isolation, his dogged sense of morality ensure that it is the murder investigation, and not the asteroid strike, that dominates the narrative. What we get is a detailed – detailed to a level that only Hank could provide – account of a crime in progress, a portrait of a town that Henry knows like the back of his hand. That Henry and the murdered man seem so alike is another piece of weirdness – and also fortunate in that it allows Henry privileged access to the mind of the victim. The plot is deftly worked and – unlike so many generic thriller plots – it does not degenerate into senseless melodrama towards the end.

The Last Policeman is a beautifully executed, intellectually satisfying police procedural. It is a novel of craft and assurance, in which a close-focus, personal account is played off against a world-changing political story arc to devastating effect. The writing – like the story itself – is understated and powerfully resonant. As science fiction. Winters’s novel worked better for me than anything I read for last year’s Sharke. As crime fiction, it is equally bold, introducing us to a detective we admire for his persistence rather than his brilliance. We understand his turn of mind – or maybe that’s just me…

In either case, I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy. The Last Policeman is a treat, albeit a bitter one. Recommended.

Guérillères

“He has enslaved you by trickery, you who were great strong valiant. He has stolen your wisdom from you, he has closed your memory to what you were, he has made of you that which is not, which does not speak, which does not possess, which does not write. He has made you a vile and fallen creature. He has gagged abused and betrayed you by means of stratagems, he has stultified your understanding, he has woven around you a long list of defects that he declared essential to your well being, to your nature.”

(Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères 1969)

This week saw the launch of the Staunch book prize, an award for the best crime novel or thriller ‘in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. Its founder, the screenwriter Bridget Lawless, has stated that the idea for the prize was born out of her increasing discomfort with the level of violence – and routine violence at that – meted out to women in crime thrillers, be they on TV, in film or in novels. ‘[Books] are a source for so much material,’ Lawless says, ‘and if I can have a tiny bit of influence there, it will help’.

In the kingdom of crime fiction there are many mansions, and plenty worth exploring. Personally, I enjoy crime fiction because I enjoy mysteries, and the description of painstaking forensic work that is frequently involved in solving those mysteries. I enjoy the close focus on particular individuals, their histories and motivations. I enjoy the way such close focus can often be used to reveal wider truths about our society and ways of seeing. All of this and more is the stuff of crime fiction, which is why I read a lot of it. It would be wrong of me not to concede also that crime stories can be thrilling, that the adversarial nature of the set-up, that ancient and timeless conflict between protagonist and antagonist – however you may wish to cast them – provides a story scenario so compelling it is hard to resist, no matter how many times you might have encountered it before.

One subgenre of crime fiction I tend to avoid, however, is the serial killer thriller. There will be notable exceptions of course, but most serial killer thrillers are for me the novelistic equivalent of the slasher film in horror: formulaic and unutterably pointless. these films and books are not so much frightening as tedious, the product of dull imaginations and brain-wearying in the extreme. In recent years, I have started to find these kind of crime novels not just boring but actively offensive. As Lawless suggests in her rationale for the Staunch prize, women in serial killer thrillers are all too often simply cannon fodder, not so much characters as tropes, an excuse for the depiction of, well, more violence against women. Now, whenever I see a book blurb describe ‘a series of brutal murders, all young women’, I know that nine times out of ten the book in question will be a lazy book, a book whose hackneyed plot I have encountered too many times before, a book that will waste my time and test my patience.

Perhaps the worst aspect of such ‘thrillers’ is how often they try and masquerade as paeans to social justice: ‘Gee, we’ve got to catch this monster before he kills again!’

On the other hand, when confronted with something like the Staunch prize, I find myself instinctively reacting against any kind of prescription for what writers should or should not be choosing as their subject matter. For me, Lawless’s contention that ‘how we see women depicted and treated in fiction does spread out to the wider world and how women are treated there’ treads perilously close to Mary Whitehouse territory, the scares about what video nasties were supposedly doing to youth in the 1970s, the City of Westminster banning Cronenberg’s innocuous adaptation of Ballard’s Crash back in 1996.

Fiction is surely a reflection of what is going on in the real world, not the other way around, and the point with subject matter is not what that subject matter is, but how it is used. When asked her opinion of the Staunch prize, the crime writer Val McDermid maintained that it is ‘entirely possible to write about [violence against women] without being exploitative or gratuitous… My take on writing [about this] is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed’.

The announcement of the Staunch prize this week happened to coincide with my reading of Cara Hoffman’s astounding 2011 debut So Much Pretty. Someone recommended Hoffman to me a couple of years ago, and now I’ve finally got round to reading her, my main feeling is one of frustration that she’s not better known. Hoffman based So Much Pretty on a real-life abduction case that she investigated while working as a journalist. The resulting novel is one of the most compelling and best executed crime novels I have read in recent years. It is also one of the most chilling. So Much Pretty is essentially the story of three women – a journalist, a gifted high school student, a waitress in a local diner – and the way their histories interweave. The novel is set in upstate New York, in a small and supposedly close-knit farming community that hides bitter social division and personal tensions. As much as anything, So Much Pretty is a characterisation of that community. Hoffman tells her story through a series of interviews, essays and personal accounts that build a detailed and intimate portrait of small town life and politics, the often arbitrary nature of the most horrific crimes, the habits of denial that allow such crimes to be perpetrated, the way such denial continues to shape and to define the social milieu in which we exist.

Although Hoffman chooses to depict very little violence on the page, the violence we glimpse between the lines is devastating. That anyone could come away from this book without sensing Hoffman’s anger at the violence – daily, routinely – done to women would beggar belief. As a polemic, So Much Pretty is excoriating. As a book – as a way of telling a story – it is brilliant. As a crime novel it is important. This is a book that needed to be written, a book people – and I’ll go one further here and say men especially – need to read. I would also say we need more novels of this calibre, that show this level of skill and bravery in tackling their difficult subject matter, not fewer.

I am not ‘against’ the Staunch prize, quite the opposite. As a book prize, it’s not trying to ban anything, but to draw attention to something. If it can draw attention to books that find new ways of telling crime stories – new ways of seeing, as Lawless hopes – then the endeavour will have been worthwhile.

For the writer though, the only duty is to tell the story they are drawn to telling as well as they can. To think about the subject matter they have chosen, and before they take that leap, to perhaps ask themselves why exactly they have chosen it.

Experiments in crime

There was a piece by Tim Lott in the Guardian recently in which he argued that in Britain at least ‘the form of storytelling and literary novel writing has become largely divorced’. How needlessly reductive can you get?  His argument seemed to me like a variation on the often rehearsed and entirely fake battle between genre fiction and so-called litfic, a ridiculous distraction from the job of proper criticism.

Writing is a peculiar business, and one aspect of writing that is rarely acknowledged is the fact that most writers have little control over what kind of writer they are. You are pulled inexorably, often mercilessly, in a certain direction. The writer of ‘literary fiction’ is no more necessarily an Oxbridge snob than the writer of popular spy thrillers is a money-hoovering philistine. The most successful bestsellers are written because the author loves and understands the form and wants to communicate their excitement to readers. Those writers who find themselves more drawn to exploring language are no different from the painters who, in the 1890s, began exploring the possibilities of paint itself – the medium, not the message. The work of Monet and even Cezanne hardly seems revolutionary to us now – we have absorbed it into our iconography, our collective understanding of what representational art can reach for and achieve. Fifty years later Krasner and Pollock, Frankenthaler and Motherwell would stretch the point further, doing away with representation almost entirely. Similarly, the paintings that outraged a generation of critics now adorn our coffee mugs and supper trays. We get it.

Writers write what they can and what they must. To insist that writing – arguably the most malleable of art forms – should universally strive for the ideals upheld by work that was no longer new even a century ago is just so much bunkum, just as it is bunkum to suggest that British literary fiction has ‘lost the plot’. Lott rightly cites Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (American, you see) as one of those works that appeal equally across supposed literary and commercial divides. I would raise him Barbara Vine’s Asta’s Book, Catriona Ward’s Rawblood, Helen Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project.  Some of these titles you will recognise from recent Booker shortlists. Many of them use elements of the thriller, detective fiction, horror fiction, science fiction to achieve their effects. All have propulsive plot lines. All reward a second, even a third reading.

Books, books, books. So much to read, so little time to waste arguing over what, exactly, writers should be writing. Lott would surely concede that the most interesting and rewarding works are to be found precisely at the margins of genre, where our expectations can be subverted and yet where – yes – we can continue enjoying the ideas and tropes of those stories and narrative archetypes that resonate with us most strongly. Yes, we are all still campfire dwellers. That does not mean we don’t enjoy it when the bard from another village wanders across to inform us we don’t know jack, that it’s really this story we should be listening to and so sit the hell down…

More interesting by far than Lott’s boringly prescriptive essay is Tony White’s choice of his Top Ten Experimental Thrillers, a piece that delves deep into why it is that we enjoy thrillers (I reckon Gertrude Stein for one would act pretty swiftly in calling out those who accuse crime writers of slumming it), as well as the ways in which detective fiction – perhaps the most enduringly popular of all literary genres – can still surprise us. Of course, any future ‘top ten’ list of postmodern crime fiction would have to include White’s own new novel, The Fountain in the Forest, which exemplifies his thesis pretty much perfectly, as well as killing Lott’s theory about British literary writing’s plotlessness stone dead.

By Lott’s reckoning, White’s interest in and practice of OULIPO techniques would place him firmly in the discredited ‘literary’ camp – read confusingly esoteric non-narrative with a snobbish insistence on obscurity – yet The Fountain in the Forest can be read with all the pleasure you might expect from a knotty police procedural, a knowledgeably detailed, intriguing and compelling police procedural at that. The story drives ever forward, even when it takes you backwards in time to take a look at the roots of the crime in question. Even when it flip-flops between two distinct time-streams and character identities within the space of a single sentence, the sense throughout is of a steady and satisfying accretion of significant information, i.e clues – exactly what you’d hope for from any good thriller.

The OULIPO stuff – elaborated upon in detail by White in his Afterword – is as significant to the narrative as you want to make it. You could read the novel with no knowledge of OULIPO and enjoy it just as well. Yet for those who feel like delving deeper, an examination of White’s methods and motives will reveal new layers, extra nuances and a background atmosphere that lends the novel an added eeriness and potency.

Anyone who enjoyed Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child or Nicholas Royle’s First Novel will love this book. Anyone who is into Ian Rankin or Denise Mina will love it, too.

For me, The Fountain in the Forest has been made especially enjoyable through a web of strange coincidences that seem none the less prescient for that: my own concerns over the gentrification of London, obscure parts of Exeter that I happen to know well, a string of places in the south of France that mark significant childhood memories, even salt-glazed ceramics – it’s all stuff from my own life, stuff I recognise and might write about. To find it turning up randomly and all together in someone else’s novel is a delightful surprise. And weird.

Above all, there is the joy inherent in a book well made: language expertly deployed, place wonderfully evoked, ideas, characters, memories, theories, political subtext brought vibrantly to life, a good story well told. The Fountain in the Forest would be a worthy contender for the CWA Gold Dagger. It is equally the kind of book that might win the Goldsmiths Prize. Read, and enjoy.

Books of 2017

This year has been a strange one, reading-wise. For me, the first seven months of 2017 were entirely dominated by the Shadow Clarke – thinking about it, reading for it, and of course writing for it, too. In terms of the experience it provided it exceeded every expectation, mainly on account of my fellow Sharkes, whose skills as thinkers, writers and critics cannot be overstated. As a group, I think I can say we enjoyed ourselves throughout, even when we didn’t – it was that kind of project. But while the experience of chairing the Shadow Clarke counts and will remain in the memory as one of the outstanding highlights of 2017, the reading landscape we were travelling through did – towards the end especially – begin to take on some of the characteristics of a blasted heath. Even in this respect, there were pluses: having to read and write detailed criticism of books one might not ordinarily have chosen to spend time with was a fascinating and worthwhile experience in and of itself. But by the end of July my reading brain felt battered and skewed by a ‘science fiction of 2016’ remit I needed to move on from. I was more than ready to take in new perspectives.

Having said all that, 2017 did deliver some outstanding reading experiences. My novel of the year is an easy choice to make. Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY is a short book, but it made a huge impact on me. I have seen some hardcore SF readers perplexed by it, feeling that as a portrait of dystopia it fails to offer anything substantially new. I think such a reading misses the point. Barker’s novel is not interested in the outward mechanics of dystopia. Rather it seeks, through a layering of narrative strands, conflicting ideas about ‘happiness’ and formal textual experimentation, to offer an inside perspective. How might it feel to be a citizen fundamentally out of step with the grounding principles of one’s own society? How might it feel to doubt one’s identity within a climate of absolute certainty? H(A)PPY was, for me, a fully immersive experience – textual, typographical, musical – of a wholly original stripe. It is a wonderful book. To see Barker win the Goldsmiths Prize for it was a happy moment indeed.

Close behind H(A)PPY comes Katie Kitamura’s A Separation.  This hard little gem of a novel starts out reading like a missing persons thriller but delivers so much more. The formal execution of the prose is nothing short of masterful, while the strange, open-ended story it relates is one that sticks in the memory for a long time and demands a reread (always my test for truly worthwhile fiction). Again, I loved this book. I loved the subtlety of its characterisation, its directness, its formal brilliance. It should have received a lot more attention than it did.

While I was in Paris I finally caught up with Daniel Kehlmann’s 2014 novel F, and what an extraordinary book it turned out to be. Like all the most interesting fiction it is hard to sum up in just a few words what F is ‘about’.  We have three brothers, an absent father, an interweaving of timelines and familial relationships that come together to make a story that is surprising, strange, moving, occasionally uncanny, and always, always brilliant. F turns out to stand for all manner of things: fame, fake, fear, forgery, faith, fraud, fat. If F reminded me of any book at all it was Bernhard’s The Loser, still an unassailable highlight of last year’s reading. I would also highly commend Kehlmann’s work from this year, the novella You Should Have Left. A screenwriter takes his wife and daughter to a mountain retreat so he can concentrate on his work in progress, a script that is proving more than a little intractable. The house they’re staying in has other ideas, though – rather like the Navidson place in House of Leaves. This is a creepy little work, genuinely unnerving, and I only wish Kehlmann had seen fit to expand it to novel length. I would have enjoyed learning more about these characters and their situation. And, of course, about that house…

A similarly unorthodox approach to the haunted house story, J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River was another fabulous book that deserved more attention. Lennon’s fiction is everything you want fiction to be: unarguably of our time but never trendy, satisfyingly, determinedly odd, tight as a drum in terms of its construction and use of language. Broken River contains moments of chill-inducing tension that will keep the most stalwart crime fiction fan happy, whilst providing the kind of narrative ambiguity and strength of characterisation that would make it equally compelling as story on a second or even a third reading.

I would also like to mention two not-so-recent novels, firstly Georgia Blain’s 1998 debut Closed for Winter. I first heard of Georgia Blain when I happened to read a moving memorial of her in The Guardian around this time last year. She sounded like such an interesting writer, her death at the age of 52 a genuine loss to Australian letters. What with the Shadow Clarke to keep me busy, it wasn’t until August that I finally found time to read her first novel, the story of a child that goes missing and the repercussions of the tragedy down the years. A true delight, I found Closed for Winter to be as close to perfect as this kind of short, interior ‘slice of life’ novel could hope to be. A wonderful achievement, and all the more so given that this was Blain’s debut. A wonderful writer, who deserves to be remembered.

Earlier this month and following a run of less-than-satisfying reads that shall remain nameless, I turned at last to Margaret Elphinstone’s 2003 novel Voyageurs, the story of Mark, a Northumberland farmer and Quaker who sets out to find his sister Rachel, missing thousands of miles away in the Canadian wilderness. The experience of reading Voyageurs immediately put me in mind of the experience I had about five years ago reading Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth. Coming in the wake of a similar ‘reading drought’, The Peppered Moth was like a miracle, a novel that in terms of its craft, its depth of field, its richness of perception far outshone anything I’d read all year. Voyageurs is like that: almost literally a transporting experience, the kind of novel that deserves to become a classic.

Away from the world of the novel, 2017 saw the publication of some notable collections of short fiction. First among them is of course M. John Harrison’s You Should Come With Me Now. Harrison’s first collection since 2000’s Travel Arrangements, YSCWMN presents a sequence of longer stories and flash fictions, woven together to form something significantly more substantial than the word ‘collection’ might suggest, yet simultaneously more wayward and less easily definable than a novel. While stories like ‘The Crisis’, ‘In Autotelia’ and the unforgettable ‘Entertaining Angels Unawares’ are standout events in themselves, this book is best appreciated as a continuum. YSCWMN is an extraordinary work, the most recent instalment of an oeuvre that is that rare thing: of lasting importance.

The stories in Camilla Grudova’s debut work The Doll’s Alphabet read like dispatches from a madhouse, or a magical realm. Some are fragmentary, some are longer pieces, all announce the arrival of a major new talent. Reading The Doll’s Alphabet put me in mind of how I felt when I first read Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, in which lyrical beauty rubs shoulders with shivery horror in what feels like a series of flashbacks from an unsettling dream. The stories are flawlessly crafted, and – as suggested above – have the feel of lost European fairy tales. I would love to see a novel from Grudova, especially as I can barely imagine what such a work would be like!

Another notable debut collection of 2017 was that of Malcolm Devlin, You Will Grow into Them. Devlin has been publishing short stories in Black Static and Interzone for several years now, and this collection marks a new high point in what he has achieved so far. In its preoccupation with character psychology and the uncanny, there’s a hint of Robert Aickman in Devlin’s fiction, but its political and social astuteness make it something else again and wholly Devlin’s own thing. As with Grudova, I’m looking forward to seeing more from Devlin. I’ve heard he’s currently at work on a novel, which is good news for all of us.

In film, I have loved and admired Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, Sally Potter’s The Party, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Trey Edward Shults’s It Comes at Night, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, and Paul King’s Paddington 2, which we saw last night and felt like the perfect new year celebration. Joint film honours though have to go to Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, which must surely count as a masterpiece and possibly Park’s greatest film yet, and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a horror film of startling originality and importance. The moment where the title words are spoken (or rather screamed) literally made my blood run cold. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you do.

If I have any reading goals for 2018, it is not to have ‘reading goals’. I want to read more books like Margaret Elphinstone’s, I want to feel less preoccupied with what’s coming out next month and more involved with the books that might be relevant to me personally. I want to be inspired and challenged, not frustrated and annoyed. I’m looking forward to bringing you news of my next novel, and beginning work on something entirely new.

Thanks to the very many friends, colleagues, readers and thinkers who have shared their time, insights, talent and fellowship throughout 2017. You are needed, and important, now more than ever.

A Happy New Year to everyone reading this, and here’s to turning the tide in 2018. .

Open borders

I cannot think of a more appropriate or timely piece to post this Christmas than Kevin McKenna’s article in today’s Observer about the twenty-four Syrian families who have come to make their home on the Isle of Bute. McKenna is at pains to highlight the ways in which the relationship between the island and the refugees is a reciprocal one: as the Syrian families have found safe harbour here, they in their turn have brought hope to the island, through their integration into the community, through breaking down barriers, through carrying with them a sense of the wider world, through their very presence. Bute needs the Syrian families – and more like them – to grow, to rediscover its energy, to be a part of a modern Scotland, where borders are permeable.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to a showing of The Barbers of Bute, a short film by Joe Steptoe that follows the story of Mounzer Al Darsani, who lost everything in his flight from Syria and who has now begun to rebuild his life – and his career – on the island. The film also focuses on a woman barber from Edinburgh who has similarly found sanctuary here, and the ways in which her story and Mounzer’s are the same. Our only regret was that the film wasn’t longer. The refugees’ stories would be an ideal subject for a full-length documentary and we very much hope that Joe will return to the island to make it.

It has been an enormous year for us. As I stepped off the ferry on Tuesday evening following a lunch with friends in Glasgow, I couldn’t help thinking about the strangeness of it all. A decade ago I was living in London. There is no way I could have predicted that ten years later I would be living on a Scottish island. If anything,, the island lifestyle has proved more compelling and more grounding than I could ever have imagined. The idea of not living on an island now seems downright weird. My frequent journeys to and from Glasgow this past year – to see friends, to participate in events, to catch movies at the GFT – have offered me access to the wider world, even as they have weathered the rhythms of the island more deeply into my system and my thought processes.

We love it here, and that includes the weather. Of course I have ambitions to write about the island, to bring something new to it as it has brought so much to me. Chris has already done so, and his new novel, An American Story, will be published next September. With the Pavilion project now fully underway, new businesses and new islanders and a renewed sense of purpose, this is an auspicious time for Bute. We are thrilled to be a part of it.

It has been impossible, this year as last, not to think about politics, all of the time. Finding the courage and energy to speak and write when both Westminster and Washington seem so divisively and – ultimately – pointlessly hell-bent on turning back the clock to outmoded ways of thinking, of governing and of relating to the world can feel difficult and dispiriting, yet there are fires of hope, even now, and being part of an outward-facing community with a stalwart heart is something to be celebrated indeed.

Happy Christmas everyone, and may our gods keep faith with us.

Tips for writers

“Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any. Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.”

William H. Gass 1924 – 2017

Our new neighbours!

Earlier this year, Anne Charnock and her husband Garry stopped over on Bute on their way north to Applecross. It was fantastic to see them, of course, and we spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon and evening touring the island and talking books.

We all agreed things would be even better if they decided to move to Bute permanently. And so they did!

We’re thrilled beyond measure to have them here. Above is a photo of me and Anne, taken by Garry in the only-just-furnished living room of their new home. If I remember rightly we were discussing the possible outcome of next year’s Clarke Award…

Return to Eden

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked as a writer is how I first became interested in horror fiction. The answer I usually give – because it’s true – is that I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in horror fiction. Some of my earliest memories involve me badgering my grandmother to invent stories for me – stories that featured (in no particular order) ghosts, skeletons, monsters, and giant robots. I was born with a love of the weird, in other words, a love that began struggling to find expression as soon as I could form coherent sentences.

There is one memory in particular though that feels central to my development as a horror writer, and once again it involves my grandmother. Gran lived by the sea, in a post-World War Two prefab bungalows that she resolutely refused to trade for bricks and mortar, and that had a strange, if not haunted then certainly resonant atmosphere all of its own. As a child, I loved visiting her there – and I loved being allowed to sort through the boxes and drawers of strange artefacts from earlier periods of her life: pieces of costume jewellery inherited from aunts and godparents, wooden mantelpiece ornaments brought back from her time in Kenya, the silver-plated cruet and biscuit barrel that once graced the sideboard of my great-grandparents’ house in Croydon, the half-hunter pocket watch that eventually became the inspiration for The Silver Wind.

My grandmother also had books. A whole host of them, many of them dating back to before the war. In one corner of her living room there stood a 1930s teak veneer bureau, the lower portion of which had glass sliding doors that were always difficult to open because of the books, crammed three layers deep on the shelves behind. It became one of my favourite pastimes while at my grandmother’s house to remove all the books from the bureau and then replace them in such a manner that they could be more easily seen. Of course they were always out of order again the next time I visited – but this only redoubled the pleasure of setting them to rights.

Many of the books in that bureau were mysterious to me – multi-volume family sagas, a subscription set of Dickens with minuscule print – and I never examined their contents, even while knowing their titles and cover blurbs by heart. Others – The Boy’s Bumper Book of Scientific Puzzles, Adventure Stories for Girls, The Wise Robin, a Tales from the Arabian Knights with pop-up illustrations – I read and reread until the stories and mottoes and intricate line drawings became as familiar to me as snapshots in a family album.

One book, more than the others, held me captive. It was called The Beach House, and I can only imagine it was the title that had appealed to my grandmother, or prompted one of her friends to give it to her as a gift – that random, ultimately spurious connection with the place she lived. Whether she had ever read it I never discovered. I felt shy of asking her, for some reason – I think because I did not want to reveal to her, or to anyone else, that I knew about the book, that I had read it. I think I was afraid someone might deem it ‘unsuitable’ and get rid of it without telling me.

The Beach House told the story of Simon Fletcher, a middle-aged man who retires to a run-down bungalow on the Sussex coast. We know little about him at first. He spends his days renovating the bungalow, only breaking off to undertake long walks along the beach that begins at the end of his road. Sometimes on his walks he encounters a woman in a black hat. Fletcher believes he has seen this woman before, somewhere, and as his obsession with her begins to take hold, we finally learn of the tragic events that brought Fletcher to the beach house in the first place.

The Beach House was not a long book, and yet the atmosphere it evoked – its vision of a lonely, self-deceiving protagonist trapped in a hell of his own making – exerted a powerful hold on me. I reread the book many times over the years, always returning it to its accustomed place in my grandmother’s bureau ready for the next time.

When Gran died I was away at university. I returned home briefly for the funeral, but by the time I next came home on vacation, my grandmother’s home had been dismantled. Together with most of the rest of her personal possessions, the books from the bureau, including The Beach House, had gone to house clearance.

I never saw the book again.  I have never been able to find another copy.

*

If you’d asked me at the time if I’d heard of the Eden Book Society I would have said no. The Beach House for me was simply The Beach House – a book I loved as a teenager and that nobody but me seemed to have heard of. It was only much later, when I began taking a professional interest in horror fiction, that I started seeing references to the Eden Book Society in horror magazines. I still didn’t twig the connection between the Eden books and The Beach House, and it was only when someone on a panel at the World Horror Convention at Brighton a couple of years back happened to describe the cover of The Beach House exactly – they remembered it was an Eden book, but not the title or author – that I was able to join the dots.

For me, one of the most fascinating things about the Eden Book Society is that even though it existed right through until the internet age, there is still remarkably little information about either the society or its authors to be found online. There is no complete list of titles, for example – and this in spite of the efforts of various ardent Eden fans to put one together. Virtually every reader or writer of horror fiction you run into at conventions or film festivals or book events will have a story to tell you about an Eden book that particularly affected them, or about a mad year they spent going round second hand bookshops trying to fill the gaps in their Eden collection. What is more surprising – and actually quite weird – is how rarely you will find their story or memory or snippet of Eden folklore overlaps with your own.

It is almost as if our memories of Eden occupy parallel universes, with a different list of titles for every one.

When I first heard that Dead Ink had acquired the rights to the Eden back catalogue, I almost – almost – felt a twinge of regret. Would this wondrous slice of British horror history finally after all these years lose its mystique? The idea was terrifying, and rather sad. But on reflection I have come to the conclusion that we have nothing to fear. The Eden Book Society is bound to create new mysteries about itself, even as the old ones – some of them, anyway – are revealed. That is and always has been its nature. Most importantly, the books themselves – all long out of print – will be returned to us, and at affordable prices.

Which will be your favourite?

 

Le retour

I’m now back on Bute after my month in Paris – a residency that saw me visit ten museums, innumerable places of interest and seven cinemas, culminating in a matinee at the St Andre des Arts, a unique and fantastic independent cinema just a five-minute walk away from Shakespeare and Company and within easy reach of a host of excellent bistros (but then again, that’s true of anywhere in Paris). To have seen Sally Potter’s new movie The Party – a film so British in nuance, in tone, in its political concerns – at this most Parisian of venues added up to a strange sense of cultural disjuncture. The film itself was brilliant: merciless, excoriating, stunningly shot and laugh-out-loud funny, even while providing a salutary reminder of everything I’d be returning to the following day…

What I did mostly in Paris, though, was write, and think about writing, both the project I was engaged in while I was there and what might come afterwards, the way those two entities seemed increasingly, as time progressed, to bleed into one. The piece of writing I completed – some 15,000 words of first draft – while staying at Les Recollets is a strange hybrid of pure fiction and detailed account of actual stuff I was actually doing, inspired by Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée, prompted by my own experience of being in Paris, expanded by thoughts on the novel I’m about to start writing. Indeed, I have started writing it: the piece I wrote in Paris, suitably edited and redrafted, will form the prologue.

This past month has been instructive and inspiring in ways that cannot – at this early stage – be fully articulated, and I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to all those involved in making my trip possible.

It is wonderful to be home. There is much to be done, with hopefully some more good news to report in the coming weeks.