The horror? Which horror?

We had friends to stay a weekend or two back. Most of our conversation, unsurprisingly, revolved around books. During the course of our discussions, one of our friends mentioned that she hadn’t read any horror fiction in quite a while and felt like getting back into it. “I’m not sure where to start, though,” she said. “What would you recommend?”

I relished her question, not just because it offered me the opportunity to make a list (I’m always up for that) but because when considered side-by-side with science fiction, horror is undoubtedly the Cinderella genre. A lot of the discussions and arguments I take part in on the subject of horror tend to centre around the question ‘is it even worth reading?’ Even if they don’t care for science fiction particularly, most people are able to gain a sense of why others might enjoy it and find it relevant – it speculates about the future, it deals with pressing social or environmental concerns, it explores the possibilities of the human mind, man and machine, computers, life on other planets. Horror though, what’s that about? Monsters, and murderers, people getting themselves killed in disgusting ways.

That’s rubbish, of course, as much of a tired and inaccurate shorthand as the one about science fiction being about squids in space (and no, I’m not having a go at Margaret Atwood here. Most everything Atwood’s written in the past decade has been SF, her next novel is SF, she’s one of the most important practitioners of SF currently writing – who gives a stuff if she got a bit muddled over our esoteric terminology?) Horror literature goes back as far as science fiction, possibly further (and if you’re going by the Gernsback dictum, definitely further). It’s not just a matter of who got there first, though. These two strands of literature are different from one another in fundamental ways. There’s a stimulating and persuasive argument around this to be found in John Clute’s mini-masterpiece The Darkening Garden, the ‘short lexicon of horror’ now happily available again as part of Clute’s most recent collection of essays, Stay. Even if you don’t agree with his thesis, it’s a fascinating read, one that will get you thinking and questioning yourself about exactly what horror literature is, and what it means to you.

For myself, I would argue that horror literature is, above all, the most deeply and strikingly personal of the genres. Horror is very revealing, not just of the writer, but of the reader, too. Not just regarding questions of what you might be afraid of, but what aspects of yourself might be frightening, or hidden. Horror literature, as works by H. P. Lovecraft or Ramsey Campbell powerfully demonstrate, is not revealed through a series of brutal actions, but through imagery, allusion, psychology, a slanted and peculiar vision, a personal worldview.  There’s nothing like reading or writing horror for putting you in the zone with yourself.

The death knell for horror literature is sounded roughly once every decade. But although the fashion for vampires or zombies (bless ’em) may come and go, horror literature lurks, stalwartly (can you lurk stalwartly? I’m going to go with a yes) on and always will. So long as a writer can sit alone in a room and then, for no reason at all, start worrying about what might be on the other side of the door, it’s here to stay.

Which still leaves us with the question of where to start with reading it. I was going to go with a top ten books, then realised how impossible that would be – way too restrictive – and so I’m going with ten favourite writers instead. There may yet be overspill. And no need to mention that this list is highly personal. I’ve tended to steer away from classic weird – Poe, Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, even my beloved Aickman – because there’s plenty of opinion and top ten lists built around these writers already. I’m concentrating on what’s being written now, and on the writers I personally return to, again and again. Horror was my first love. (And in no particular order) here’s why:

Joyce Carol Oates. Oates’s understanding of the gothic is sensitive, articulate and refined. Her enthusiasm for the gothic is brutal, breathtaking and no-holds-barred. The thing with Oates is that she is never going to write hackneyed, generic horror fiction – and yet boy, can she deliver on the ‘yeuccchhh’ factor when she’s in the mood for it. I’ve read a lot of horror fiction, and I mean a lot, and the closest I’ve come in recent years to not being able to finish a horror novel through sheer ‘no, this is too much’ discomfort with what I was reading was JCO’s Stoker-Awarded short novel Zombie. Do soldier on with it though, because it’s brilliant. There are at least three JCO short fiction collections devoted to horror stories of one stripe or another – I’d recommend any of them. For those who want to get stuck into a real JCO marathon, I’d recommend her masterpiece Bellefleur, her luscious, gorgeous, immortal take on the vampire novel, and The Accursed, which will reward your commitment – this is a long book and a tough climb in places – by giving you something lasting and extraordinary, including a Lovecraft-influenced chapter of sheer virtuosity.

Caitlin R. Kiernan. I first came across Kiernan’s work in a Best New Horror anthology towards the end of the nineties, and knew from the first moment of reading her that this was the kind of horror literature I had been looking for. If I were restricted to bringing one horror writer’s oeuvre to a desert island, it would be Kiernan’s. Her obsessive, inward-looking narrators, her natural instinct for the weird and above all, the eloquent beauty of her language makes Kiernan, for me, one of the most important horror writers of our time. I would recommend The Drowning Girl as the most accurate rendition of what it might actually feel like to be haunted, as well as the greatest horror novel of the last ten years. The Red Tree is almost as good. Or any of her short fiction, really.

Ramsey Campbell. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Ramsey Campbell, both to me and to British horror fiction generally.  For anyone interested, I wrote about my own discovery of Ramsey’s fiction in a short essay, Rediscovering the Fantastic. But for anyone starting out on their own journey, I would say that Ramsey Campbell is probably the most important post-war British writer of horror fiction, and that if you have any interest in the horror genre at all you need to read at least one of his novels. Campbell’s emphases lie firmly on character and place – specifically his native Liverpool – and it is his understanding and empathy towards those characters that make us care so much, as readers, about what happens to them. Which, be warned, is mostly not good. My favourite Campbell probably remains Midnight Sun, but The Long Lost and Incarnate are pretty special too, and as the first Campbell I ever read, The House on Nazareth Hill has a preferred place in my heart. For short fiction, go with Ghosts and Grisly Things, one of Campbell’s more recent collections and every story a classic. And if you’re after more material about horror fiction, Ramsey’s collection of essays and reviews, Probably, is essential reading.

Stephen King. It would be easy not to include Stephen King in this list. Everyone’s heard of King, no need to talk about him, right? Wrong. King really is too important to ignore. More than that, he’s too much of a pleasure to ignore. I would count Stephen King as the writer who, for me, has most consistently that most elusive quality: page-turnability. King can tell stories like no other in my universe, and I love his voice. Favourites? I’m going to be contentious here and suggest The Tommyknockers, which scared the shit out of me for some reason (most diehard fans consider it ‘bad King’), The Shining (of course) and my personal favourite Hearts in Atlantis. Another essential read from King is the non-fiction Danse Macabre, his personal history of twentieth-century horror literature and film. It’s as readable as any of his novels, packed with personal insights and wonderful reading suggestions. A kind of horror bible!

And while we’re on the subject of King, don’t forget to sample the work of his son, Joe Hill. Hill broke into the genre with his extraordinary debut collection Twentieth Century Ghosts and I bet his dad was damned proud.  You can see the family relationship, if you’re looking carefully, and Hill has certainly inherited his father’s raw storytelling talent. But Hill’s stories are very much his own – there’s a bizarreness, a quirky twistedness to them that’s very different from King Sr. I ripped through Twentieth Century Ghosts in a day and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Kathe Koja. I’d been meaning to read Kathe Koja for ages. Then towards the end of last year, I read her reissued first novel The Cipher and wondered why I’d waited so long. I loved everything about this book: bizarre, Roadside-Picnic-like scenario (the entire novel is about a hole in the floor, basically), spiky, difficult characters (and that’s putting it kindly) and throughout a kind of obsessive, steadily worsening compulsion to do the unwise thing. I love novels with a small cast of interesting characters that hint at larger issues beyond the book’s parameters, and The Cipher is this kind of novel, exactly. I love Koja’s writing, too – there’s an urgency to it, a flickering darkness, a unique disquiet. I’ll definitely be reading more of her. Read this book!

Robert Shearman. I happen to think that Rob is one of the most talented writers working in Britain at the moment, and as a horror writer his unique vision is exactly what the genre has been waiting for. Rob’s stuff is so much his own it’s difficult to find anyone to compare him with. As a writer who first found his feet in the theatre, he is a master of dialogue, of conflict, of dramatic tension. But there’s more – his ideas are just so off the wall, so delightfully surprising and often so downright scary you’re left almost literally biting your nails in anticipation of what might happen. But then, Rob’s stories are often laugh-out-loud funny, too. Start with Remember Why You Fear Me and They Do Things Different There. Inimitable, and readable verging on addictive.

Otsuichi. I can’t remember now how or where I first heard about Otsuichi’s first collection to be translated into English, Zoo, but I’ll never forget the thrill of delight I experienced when I read that first story and realised how brilliant it was. Another truly unique voice, Otsuichi’s stories have a deadpan, ironical cast to them that I find irresistible. More irresistible still is his prose, matter-of-fact and weirdly poetic at the same time. One of the things I love so much about Japanese horror cinema is that it doesn’t in the slightest rely on familiar Hollywood tropes, and Otsuichi’s fiction has that same offbeat edginess about it.

Helen Marshall. When I read Helen’s first collection, Hair Side, Flesh Side, I found it so complete and so achieved I could hardly believe it was the work of a debut writer. Her new collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, is even better, and it’s wonderful to know she has a novel in the works. These stories are dark – they’re full of thwarted passions and untimely deaths – but Marshall’s prose is so rich and so detailed, so beautiful, that the effect never becomes oppressive. There’s almost a Clive Barker-y feel to some of her writing – see ‘The Mouth, Open’ from Hair Side, Flesh Side, for example – but without the rampant bloodlust! (Oh, and talking of Barker, EVERY horror fan MUST read The Books of Blood – possibly the most important set of horror stories since M. R. James’s ghost stories and still astonishing in their power thirty years after they were first published.)

Joel Lane. Joel’s stories were a revelation to me when I encountered them, first through Year’s Best anthologies, and then in the magazine The Third Alternative. Joel was in the vanguard of the so-called ‘miserabilist’ fiction movement in the 1990s: writers who focussed their attention on what was happening in Britain in the wake of Margaret Thatcher, and who used the language and imagery of dark fantasy and horror fiction to highlight sense of place and the troubled inner states of their protagonists. The way Joel wrote about cities, and memory, and the yearning sense of displacement of the alienated individual within a deconstructed society, spoke to me so eloquently, as did the ambiguous, understated tone of his stories. For me, Joel’s writing will always epitomise the very British horror of my own generation, and I know I’ll feel forever in his debt. Joel’s work is quiet but tremendously powerful. If you can, get hold of his first novel, From Blue to Black, because I think it’s his masterpiece. Otherwise try his collections The Lost District and Where Furnaces Burn.

Kelly Link. This is a cheat really, because Kelly Link isn’t a horror writer as such. But she’s too good not to mention – and her stories do include vampires, and dead people, and plenty of other weirdness that has them leaning towards the dark side more often than not. Kelly Link has spawned a generation of imitators, but no one can touch her for sheer force of imagination and irresistible storytelling. Like King, she’s unputdownable and the only thing wrong with her fiction is that there isn’t enough of it! Start with her new collection, Get in Trouble.

Peter Straub. Straub’s fiction is magisterial in its weight and quality. He is one of those writers who is criminally overlooked by the mainstream, even now. There’s something Oatesian in his ambition, and his novels Ghost Story and Shadowland are landmark works for me. The first Straub I read after Ghost Story was his collection Houses without Doors, and that too is a classic (his story ‘A Short Guide to the City’ is a perennial favourite). One of those writers I could easily immerse myself in for months at a time.

Jeff VanderMeer. As with Kelly Link, VanderMeer isn’t strictly a horror writer, but much of what he does trespasses on horror territory. VanderMeer’s first novel, Veniss Underground, was a kind of warped, noir-future Orpheus and Euridice story. As a debut it still feels monumentally strong, and VanderMeer’s work has only got better since. The denseness and richness of his language is all-absorbing, and of particular interest to me is the way VanderMeer likes to play around with form, whilst never letting go of the drive to tell a story. I would count his most recent work, the three-part Southern Reach trilogy, as one of the most important contributions to speculative fiction so far this century. It’s science fiction, but there’s a horror vibe deep enough to satisfy the darkest appetite.

Livia Llewellyn. Together with Helen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side, Livia Llewellyn’s collection The Engines of Desire is one of the most impressive horror debuts I’ve ever read. I loved every story in the book, but two of them, the horrific post-apocalypse tale ‘Horses’ and the Lovecraftian novella ‘Her Deepness’ shone out for me not just as brilliant but important. The thing I love most about Llewellyn’s stories – aside from her wonderful use of language, that is – is their willingness to be really bleak. ‘Horses’ is one of the most powerful horror stories I’ve read in this regard – not a single punch pulled, and you end with this sense of ‘fuck’ that doesn’t go away. I do hope that we’ll see a new collection, or even a novel-length work, from Livia Llewellyn in the near future (because I want to read it).

Yoko Ogawa. ‘Long after I realised that my son would not be coming back, I kept the strawberry shortcake we were meant to have eaten together. I passed my days watching it rot. First, the cream turned brown and separated from the fat, staining the cellophane wrapper. Then the strawberries dried out, wrinkling up like the heads of deformed babies. The sponge cake hardened and crumbled, then finally a layer of mould appeared.’ (From ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ by Yoko Ogawa) Ogawa is the queen of disquiet. As in the above paragraph, she lets ordinary objects and everyday actions take on sinister aspects through context, setting up resonances and metaphors that spread out through the reader’s consciousness like small ripples on otherwise calm water. One of the things I love best about Ogawa is her own fondness for the linked story format, which for me has always been more interesting and flexible than straight linear narrative. Begin with the collection ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’ comes from, Revenge.

Well, I think I count more than ten there, but I warned you there might be overspill. (This list could have been twice as long, easily.) I hope these suggestions act as a good starting point for anyone curious about the horror genre – there really is something for everyone. If I were forced to select just five books that summed up everything I love about horror literature, they’d be (again, in no particular order): 1) Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl 2) Ramsey Campbell’s Midnight Sun 3) Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed 4) Clive Barker’s The Books of Blood and 5) Otsuichi’s Zoo. But then you’d be missing out on House of Leaves, North American Lake Monsters, Sourdough, The Beautiful Thing that Awaits us All, The Beautiful Red, The Secret Life of Houses, White is for Witching, Fugue State, The Barnum Museum, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, We Have Always Lived at the Castle, Don’t Look Now, Darkmans, Dr Haggard’s Disease… … … … … …

The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 7

I’m delighted to announce that my story for Interzone #254, ‘Marielena’, forms part of the selection for Allan Kaster’s The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 7. Here’s the rather wonderful line-up:

1.       “Marielena” by Nina Allan

2.       “Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear

3.       “The Magician and LaPlace’s Demon” by Tom Crosshill

4.       “Sadness” by Timon Esaias

5.       “Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages

6.       “Red Light, and Rain” by Gareth L. Powell

7.       “The Sarcophagus” by Robert Reed

8.       “In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds

9.       “Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick

10.     “The Colonel” by Peter Watts

What makes this anthology especially interesting and special for me is that it is an audio collection, bringing back happy memories of an old ‘Best Science Fiction Stories’ I had on tape some many years ago.  The percentage of fiction I ‘read’ on audio is relatively small, but I love being read to, and so I tend to listen to those audio books I do have many times over – I know sections of Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder (I adore Stephen King on audio best of all, for some reason, especially when King himself is the reader) more or less by heart. It’s the same with those old SF stories – Karen Joy Fowler’s ‘The Poplar Street Study’, Roger Zelazny’s ‘Permafrost’, John Varley’s ‘Options’, and a story by Joe Halderman about a painter and a law student (Rhonda?) and a murderous businessman whose title I can’t remember, though Halderman’s expert rendition of watercolour technique remains with me still.

There’s something deeply compelling about hearing a story read aloud, and I look forward to the release of this anthology with great anticipation.

On the side of the ogres and pixies

Ishiguro.buriedgiantMost people with even a passing interest in what we care to call the politics of genre will have been aware of the recent pseudo-spat between Ursula Le Guin and Kazuo Ishiguro. I say pseudo-spat because that’s exactly what it was. Le Guin reacted to something Ishiguro never said, or rather, he didn’t say it in quite the way she thought he meant it (he explains himself here). Two days later she apologises for any offence she might have caused, and then admonishes Ishiguro for taking her own words in vain. “Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc,” she says. “They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?”

Le Guin may have been a little hasty in ‘flying off the handle’, as she herself put it, but she is certainly justified in her assessment and condemnation of internet blood-lust. As Le Guin suggests, these kind of clickbait articles are annoying and pointless and increasingly tedious precisely because they polarise opinion so swiftly and so absolutely they shut off the opportunity for a more in-depth debate. Read what they’ve actually said and it’s quite obvious that Le Guin and Ishiguro have far more in common than divides them, and I for one would love to see a conversation between them in which they could discuss, as Le Guin suggested, the fictional validity of dragons versus pixies (and I’d lay money on Ishiguro being up for it, too). But then, so far as the internets is concerned at least, informed and reasoned discussion isn’t anywhere near as thrilling as gladiatorial combat.

Far from being dismissive, Ishiguro’s views on the uses of fantasy would appear to be cogent, inclusive and sophisticated.  In the original New York Times interview that sparked all the fuss, Ishiguro states the ‘barren, weird England’ of his fictional Dark Ages provides an ideal metaphorical landscape for the story of moral evasion and wilful forgetting he wanted to explore. In another interview for The Guardian, he explains his own magic system straightforwardly and without prevarication: “I didn’t want a fantasy world where anything weird could happen. I went along with what happened in the Samurai tales I grew up on. If it’s conceivable that the people of the time had these superstitions or beliefs, then I would allow it.”

I would say Ishiguro totally gets what fantasy is for and what it can do. So why the disinclination, in certain quarters, to admit that, even as a possibility?

The longlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced at midnight last night. It’s an odd one. It includes a number of books – historical, social-realist fiction – of the kind that I find least interesting, at least in outline. (Personally I much preferred Naomi Frisby’s hypothetical line-up at The Writes of Woman which, just in case you haven’t discovered it yet, is one of the best book blogs around.) But the list does include some outstanding writers (Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Grace McCleen) and it also includes six novels that are either blatantly speculative, or that contain strong speculative elements. Looking down the longlist for the first time, I found myself wondering whether novels such as Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Laline Paull’s The Bees, or Sandra Newman’s The Country of Ice Cream Star (I’m a big Station Eleven fan, but seeing The Bees and Ice Cream Star here pleases me especially because these two books have been excluded from SFF discussions more or less entirely) would have stood a chance of being selected even a decade ago. Does the appearance of such books here now signal a genuine shift in literary attitudes towards the leitmotifs (see, I’m deliberately eschewing the word ‘tropes’) and preoccupations of science fiction and fantasy, as Ishiguro seems to suggest, as Le Guin appears so reluctant to believe?

I don’t know if this question has an answer yet. But it’s worth putting out there.

Other doors than these

I came across this interesting post earlier today, in which book blogger David Hebblethwaite explains most eloquently how paper books will, for him, always trump the ebook as a reading experience:

When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me… If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.

David goes on to explain how with an ereader he finds himself ‘focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context’. I’ve heard this argument rehearsed before, or variants of it – that the ereader encourages a cursory, somehow surface reading, and that the experience, once completed, leaves no residue. Take this piece in The Independent for example:

One study showed that in a group reading the same book, e-readers had a lower plot recall, which was credited to a lack of “solidity”. When we can’t see the pile of pages growing on the left and shrinking on the right, the book is, apparently, less fixed for us.

I would once have sided with these kind of arguments absolutely. I have enjoyed a passion for physical books literally for as long as I can remember. Like many devoted readers, I can remember individual copies of specific books right back to my nursery school days. I feel saddened, even now, when I think of the way many of our public libraries have been semi-denuded of actual books, those heavy, plastic-jacketed hardbacks so particular to libraries, rank upon rank of them, with their particular, magical smell, the weight of them in your arms as you queued up at the desk to have them stamped and then hugged them to your chest as you carried them home. All memories, all precious. For me, the text of a book has often allied itself almost seamlessly with the physical substance of a particular copy – the book is the book, if you like, a form of imagic identification that I would venture to suggest attaches itself to books and books alone.

Because books are magic. I’m not ashamed to say it and I hope I never will be. I’m also one of those people who still buys CDs because I like the liner notes and the album covers and the lyrics sheets. I don’t actually own a stereo at the moment – I copy new albums on to my hard drive more or less as soon as I acquire them – but the idea of purchasing a download rather than the actual physical item? Not for me.

It’s just about twelve months now since I flew out to Australia. I looked forward to the flight as a time of reading, and packed accordingly. I should have known better. I need natural daylight or bright lamplight directly on to the page to read comfortably. Seated away from the window and with only the pallid, ambient light of the aeroplane cabin to see by, I was unable to read more than two or three pages for the whole twenty hours. (I had to content myself with Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire instead, just in case you’re wondering… ) As someone who finds it more or less impossible to sleep on planes, this was not a fun experience.

On arrival in Tasmania, the problems continued. Although perfect in every other way, the cabins and cottages we stayed in lacked any kind of adequate reading lamp, and I was instantly reminded of all the dozens of similar experiences I’d endured in hotels over the years, having to remove the lampshade from the pathetic bedside light in order to have even the faintest chance of reading before sleep. In Tasmania I was lucky. My mother, a convert to the ereader ever since her first trip to Australia some years before, generously lent me her Kindle, while she took over one of my physical books instead. What a revelation.

This was my first experience of using an ereader, believe it or not. I had no ideological objection to them – they just weren’t for me, or so I thought, which turned out to be pretty stupid, because the Kindle might have been designed especially for me.  Instead of struggling with closely packed .8 text on mottled, semi-translucent, poor quality paper, I had properly spaced .12 on a clear white background. Instead of having to sit right by a window or beneath an Anglepoise, I could read wherever I wanted to, up to and including an unlit room, because the Kindle would automatically adjust its light settings to my comfort level. It is difficult to express the delight this discovery brought me, and still brings.

Because of the steadily declining quality of most mass-market paperbacks, I’d already been purchasing second-hand hardbacks wherever I could, and failing that trade paperback editions, which are mostly better made and certainly better designed with the reader in mind. I’ve certainly no regrets about this – I’ve amassed some beautiful books this way, and given that the physical book is no less an object of veneration for me than it has always been, this is all to the good. But there were certain books I wanted very much to read, but put off reading because there was no decent hardback or trade paperback edition out there, and I knew the struggle with the blurry micro-text of the mass-market paperback would more than half-destroy any pleasure the book might otherwise have brought me. The most notable example here was Delany’s Dhalgren – the original mass-market paperback of this text is a tiny monstrosity, and even the new Gollancz Masterworks edition, with its closely packed, slightly blurry text, would have been a trial. Now, suddenly, Dhalgren and other books with similar print-quality issues were available for me to read in comfort. Far from losing concentration, my mind became liberated to contemplate the text. Suddenly I could read, rather than having to grind away at the difficulty of physically reading.

My reading speed went back up again, too. I’m not quite as fast as I was when I was in my twenties, but getting up there.

I still adore physical books – they’re piled all around me as I write. My experience of certain texts is still bound up in the memory of certain books, their physical presence, their weight, their smell, their specialness for other reasons. I am as emotional about books-as-things as I ever was. I think I may even subscribe to the belief that a book read electronically will never carry quite the same power and import, over time, as a book held in the hand, closed shut last thing at night. But I want to speak in passionate defence of the ereader also, for the freedom it has brought me, that it has no doubt brought to thousands of others, to enjoy books where physical limitations might have made them inaccessible.

And if I read something on my Kindle that turns out to be more than just a book I want to read – a book I want to keep, and hold, and flick back and forth in, run my fingers down its spine as I gloat over my amassed book-treasure – then I can look forward to the pleasure of buying it again in used-hardback format. A pleasure I’m looking forward to right at this moment with Hanya Yanagihara’s quite simply amazing The People in the Trees

The Race on special offer!

To celebrate the novel’s recent award nominations and in the run-up to Eastercon, NewCon Press has made The Race (ebook) available for the special bargain price of just £1.99! This offer will not last forever, so grab your copy now.

Kindle format here

Other formats here

therace.jacket

I guess the word is… tentacular?

I’m very proud and somewhat bemused to report that my novel The Race has today been shortlisted for the BSFA Award and the Kitschies (Red Tentacle).

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This leaves me in an odd position. Regular readers of this blog will know that there are few things I enjoy more than a good discussion/argument over an awards shortlist, only that would be weird now, so that’s a pleasure I’ll be leaving to others this year, for these awards anyway. I would just mention that I’ve read the majority of titles on both shortlists, and could not hope to be in finer company.

I can’t slink back behind my desk without mentioning that I am also part of the roundtable of writers and critics shortlisted for the BSFA Award in the non-fiction category for the Strange Horizons Symposium on the State of British SF and Fantasy, published this summer in the run-up to LonCon. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of this project, which provides a lasting snapshot of our genre in 2015 as well as some fantastic essays by wonderful people. I’d urge anyone with even a passing interest in British science fiction to get stuck into this at once, if you haven’t already.

In the meantime, you can find the full shortlists for the Kitschies here, and for the BSFA Awards here.

Crime blog #6

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright tony&susan.cover

Susan Morrow, comfortable if not entirely content in her marriage to hospital consultant Arnold, is contacted out of the blue by her first husband Edward. Edward always wanted to be a writer – indeed, his decision to abandon his law studies in pursuit of what Susan privately considered to be a hopeless dream was at least part of what led to the breakdown of their marriage. Now it seems that dream wasn’t so hopeless after all – Edward’s letter accompanies the manuscript of his first novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he wants Susan to read. ‘You always were my best critic’, he reminds her. Will she take a look at what he has written, and let him know what she thinks of it?

Of course Susan can’t resist. Was she right to dismiss Edward’s ambitions all those years ago, or does her ex have a genuine talent? Besides, with Arnold away at a conference, possibly with an old flame, Susan needs something to divert her. She begins reading more or less straight away – and finds herself propelled back into the past with disconcerting speed.

I honestly don’t know what I think of this book. I loved the concept, the way the book alternates between Susan-reading and what Susan is reading, i.e the story of Tony Hastings in Edward’s novel, Nocturnal Animals. Susan’s sections are both a commentary on that novel, and a story in their own right – the story of her marriage to Edward and her current suspicions about her second husband, the arrogant, unimaginative and rather blokish doctor Arnold.  The first chapters of Nocturnal Animals, in which Tony Hastings has his life torn apart while en route with his wife and daughter to their summer place in Maine, are without a doubt the most compelling part of the whole. At this point I felt a genuine sympathy for Tony, as well as a driving compulsion to discover what happened next. I admired the style of the narrative, pared down and terse yet still fascinatingly introspective. Susan’s sections worked brilliantly with the Tony chapters, providing an effective contrast and an intriguing counterpoint with the shocking events as they unfolded in Nocturnal Animals.

So where did it all go wrong? For me, I think Tony and Susan began to come unstuck as Nocturnal Animals began to turn from tragedy to farce. Tony-the-victim is a pitiable figure. One feels for his initial predicament – indeed one suspects that one might not have behaved much better in similar circumstances – and the horror of the immediate aftermath of that predicament is brilliantly described. Yet Tony-the-avenging-angel is ridiculous, annoying and frustratingly gullible. His acquiescence in what happens next – a crime almost as repulsive and wrong-headed as the crime that led him there – proves the final nail in the coffin of credibility. I’d be fine with all this if I were convinced Austin Wright meant us to feel this way, if Nocturnal Animals were intended as some kind of Dostoevskian comment on the criminal-as-us, but I’m not convinced this is the case. The whole thing feels clumsily handled, as if Wright – and through him, Edward – wasn’t entirely sure what he meant us to think of Tony, and by extension the novel as a whole.

And in the end, Susan’s own story isn’t interesting enough to compete with Tony’s. I’d be the last reader to demand melodrama, but I was left wanting more here, and not in a good way.

I would definitely recommend Tony and Susan, because in spite of the novel’s flaws, there’s a lot to enjoy.  There’s the form, for a start, so full of the potential to fascinate, which for a lot of the time it absolutely does. And whatever you think of the ending, or the characters for that matter, I absolutely guarantee you won’t be bored. You’ll keep on reading, turning those pages just like Susan, both excited and afraid of what you might find.

The Race – real-time review

Some of you may well be familiar with Des Lewis’s real-time reviews, which, rather than following the orthodox star-rated or synopsis-plus approach to literary criticism, offer instead something rather different: a personal journey through the book at the time of reading. Well, Des has been at it again, I’m happy to say, and reading his reactions to The Race has been a pleasure indeed. You can find his thoughts, reflections, explorations and discoveries at his live-blog here.

James Herbert Award – the inaugural shortlist

Well, it seems we have a new SFFH fiction prize to add to the excitement of the annual awards season. The James Herbert Award for Horror Writing is a juried award, with a prize of £2,000, set up with the purpose of showcasing excellence and diversity within the horror genre. Administered by Pan Macmillan and chaired by Tom Hunter, the award is open to novels written in English and published within the UK and Ireland within the given year. The inaugural shortlist is as follows:

The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey (Orbit)

The Troop by Nick Cutter (Headline)

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)

Bird Box by Josh Malerman (Harper/Voyager)

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (Tartarus)

An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman (Titan Books)

Initial thoughts? Unfortunately I haven’t read any of these, so I can’t comment on individual titles. (Indeed, this list brings home to me how much my reading has been dominated by science fiction recently – perhaps I need to do something about that and catch up on some horror?) But as someone who has a special fondness for Tartarus Press (my first professional sale was to Tartarus, my story ‘Terminus’) it’s lovely to see one of their titles on this list. And Frances Hardinge is an amazing writer – Cuckoo Song is already on my e-reader, ready and waiting.

For the most part, I’m one of those people who stand in favour of literary awards, mainly because I believe anything that gets people excited about books, and most importantly the discussion of books, cannot be a bad thing. So it’s nice to see a British award specifically for horror writing, something we’ve not had to date, and a prize that will, I hope, be a welcome alternative and complement both to the invariably and hugely US-dominated Bram Stoker Award.

Some questions occur, however. What’s this stipulation about works having to be ‘written in English’? Does this mean that translated works, appearing for the first time in English in the year in question, are to be actively barred, and if so, why? I would think the award would be the poorer for not admitting work by Johanna Sinisalo, say, or John Ajvide Lindqvist, or Otsuichi (one of the best horror writers working today, in my opinion), and that’s to name but three.

And then, all too quickly, we’re forced to confront yet again the accusation that horror as a field is narrow and blokish. I’m just going to come out and say that the Stoker preliminary ballot is horrifically male-dominated this year, and everyone knows that this has always been the rule rather than the exception. It’s sad to see, and YES, to anyone who still doubts it, this DOES matter.

Excluding translated works from the Herbert isn’t going to do much for its commitment to diversity, and neither is repeating the predictable and retrograde biases of the Stoker.

Of course, any new award is going to take a while to find its feet and discover its identity. I would wish the Herbert well, whilst hoping it actively seeks to develop the kind of imaginative insight and progressive approach that will enable it to properly live up to its stated ambitions.

That will be something to get people talking.

EDIT Feb 12: I’ve just heard from the James Herbert Award’s administrator, Tom Hunter, that there is no bar on translated horror fiction, and that any work appearing for the first time in English in the given year would be fully eligible for the award. Which is fantastic news. Here’s hoping we see some of the amazing European and World horror fiction that’s out there appearing on the Herbert shortlist in future years!

Nominating for the BSFA Awards – non-fiction focus

The non-fiction category of SF awards is often sorely neglected, not just in terms of the number and variety of nominations received, but in terms of overall discussion. We relegate this category at our peril, however, because an informed, rigorous and enthusiastic critical hinterland is what might be deemed a desirable necessity, crucial to the advancement and betterment of any field of interest, with science fiction being no exception.

As with short fiction, we are now in a position to access more information, speculation and argument about SF than ever before. Whilst some remain critical of the digital ‘democracy of opinion’, arguing that the sheer bulk of unedited, unsolicited and ill-informed commentary can have only a diluting and detrimental effect on the discourse, I am not one of them. I count universal access to critical platforms as unequivocally a good thing. The space available is infinite, ergo there is room for everyone and no ‘wasted space’. We should not forget that online magazines, forums, blogs and discussion boards have provided and continue to provide both platforms and entry points for those who might never have felt the confidence to submit articles to print magazines – magazines they might not have known about or could not have afforded to subscribe to in the first place. The diversification of commentary through digital media is one of the most welcome developments in our field in recent years. And if you happen to come across a piece of rhetoric that seems pointlessly aggressive, lacking in direction, badly written, offensive or just plain awful (as you surely will) it takes less than a second to exercise your discretion and close the window.

One criticism that I have some sympathy for is the claim that the current fashion for short, immediately assimilable ‘thinkpieces’ has led to a corresponding decline in sustained, quality criticism in online venues. Certainly, the perceived need for speed of response – to have one’s say on a current topic immediately and ahead of the rest – has tended to mitigate against essays that take longer than an hour to write or ten minutes to read. But surely this matter is in our own hands? Whilst it can be frustrating to see any number of half-arsed blog posts rattled off at the speed of light and before the author has given themselves time to form a properly constructed argument, there is no law that states that we ‘have’ to react, react, react, immediately and with venom. There is plenty of quality work out there, and we owe it to ourselves as readers, writers and critics to discover it, promote it, argue over it and contribute to it. One of the salient advantages of online criticism is the writer’s ability to link to other relevant works, thus bringing divergent voices and points of view simultaneously to the same arena. This is a whole new way of constructing criticism, and should not be downplayed.

Deciding what to nominate in the non-fiction category can be especially difficult because of the variety of what’s on offer and the differing modes in which it’s presented. How can we possibly decide between a full-length monograph, and a 1,000-word essay, for example? I’m not even going to try and answer that question at this point – that’s an argument for another day (or perhaps for two separate and distinct award categories..?) Rather I’d like to draw your attention to a number of non-fiction items, in various formats, that happened to catch my attention in 2014. In no particular order, then:

 

Call and Response by Paul Kincaid (Beccon Publications) This collection of essays on everyone from H. G. Wells to China Mieville showcases Paul Kincaid’s ongoing commitment to and engagement with science fiction literature to marvellous effect. The table of contents brings together essays culled from publications as various as Foundation, The TLS, Strange Horizons, the LARB and Vector, and includes all-new section introductions and a generous handful of previously unpublished pieces. Essential on every level.

Greg Egan by Karen Burnham (Modern Masters of Science Fiction, University of Illinois Press) I snapped this up when it was cheap on Kindle, because I enjoy Karen Burnham’s criticism and because I think Greg Egan is a writer I need to get to grips with, at entry level at the very least. I think this is a wonderful monograph. Burnham clearly knows Egan back to front at both a literary and a scientific level. She’s in sympathy with his ideals as a writer, but never lets her appreciation of what he’s up to blind her to the criticisms levelled against him. Her enthusiasm and knowledge bounce off the page, and if I wanted a travelling companion on the road to understanding a writer so unabashedly scientific in his approach to science fiction, I could not have asked for a better one. This book is entertaining, informative, and endlessly thought-provoking.  It has also left me with the resolution to read at least one Greg Egan novel this year.

Stay by John Clute (Beccon Publications) In common with the Paul Kincaid book, John Clute’s 2014 collection of essays boasts a new introduction, several previously unpublished pieces (including a never-before-seen short story) as well as updates and revisions to all previously published essays. John Clute is one of our greatest commentators bar none. His essays form some of the most astute and articulate literary criticism around; they are also works of art, and I live in a simmering state of outrage that he remains more or less unknown outside the genre. Included in Stay is ‘The Darkening Garden’, a ‘short lexicon of horror’ and one of the most persuasive and ingenious analyses of horror fiction I have ever read (even if you don’t agree with it, it’s still brilliant, and would be worth the cover price all by itself). Nor should we forget Clute’s irregular column for Strange Horizons, Scores. Particular highlights for me in 2014 would include his thoughts on Lucius Shepard’s Beautiful Blood and Jo Walton’s My Real Children and his side-by-side analysis of Howard Jacobson’s J and Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest.

Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens: a look at two new short fiction magazines – Jonathan McCalmont (Ruthless Culture) I truly don’t have enough good words to say about this piece. It’s a multi-part essay in which the two internally-linked sub-sections on the magazines in question (Terraform and Uncanny) form essential components. I don’t always agree with Jonathan on a point-by-point basis, but I admire his criticism enormously, and believe that if we had more commentators like him – rigorous, knowledgeable, engaged, and most importantly uncompromised by genre factionalism or the concerns thereof – the critical hinterland of science fiction would be in a much ruder state of health. In Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens, Jonathan discusses two seemingly opposed tendencies within genre short fiction (and one might argue within genre fiction as a whole), the reflection of said tendencies within the magazine culture and the implications for the vitality of new short fiction and emerging writers. Much of his concern is tied up in what he sees as the shifting of the centre ground of SF from a primarily ideas-based ‘branch of non-fiction’ towards a mulch of ‘over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotions’. He is just as keen to interrogate a literary landscape in which new science fiction stories are not so much a medium of communication with an audience as the currency of social advancement within the genre.

I remain undecided as to how much of Jonathan’s argument I agree with – all mulchy middle ground, me – but I find much that interests me in his viewpoint, and the gutsiness of his writing always leaves me feeling liberated and inspired generally. I feel wholeheartedly grateful that he has written this essay, as well as what might be deemed its companion pieces, Short Fiction and the Feels, and A Perspective on Perspectives. I am always genuinely shocked when I notice people feeling threatened by essays like these. If we are to evolve and compete as a branch of literature, objective, up-front criticism of this kind is what we need, and a lot more of it.

Transgressing Genre Boundaries and All That by Ethan Robinson (Marooned Off Vesta) Science fiction is a unique literature and a radical literature. Shouldn’t we be fighting to keep it that way? Like Jonathan McCalmont’s essay above, Ethan Robinson’s piece is an articulate and robust interrogation of the state of science fiction literature today, the direction it appears to be taking and whether the push towards the convergence of the science fictional and the mainstream is in any sense desirable. It’s a wonderful piece of polemic, one I’ve commented about before and recommend unreservedly. Whether you agree with it or not, Ethan’s argument is valuable, timely and absolutely necessary. More like this, please! (And if there’s any way we can group his ‘Sturgeonblogging’ series of essays under a single project heading, nominate that, too!)

Review: Interstellar by Abigail Nussbaum (Asking the Wrong Questions). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Abigail Nussbaum is shaping up to be one of our most knowledgeable and articulate critics. This essay on Nolan’s film is a fine example of what she does so brilliantly, commenting on the larger movements within science fiction by means of close focus on a single work or group of works. She’s such a good writer. Her piece Mad as Hell, Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin is also pretty much essential reading.

Random Snapshots of Book Hunting in Downtown Nairobi by Mehul Gohil. Exactly what it says on the tin. This is a wonderful piece, packed with insights, compelling writing and the love of science fiction. This was billed as Part 1, and though the essay is complete in itself I am still hoping Part 2 will appear at some point in the future.

The Unbearable Solitude of being an African Fangirl by Chinelo Onwualu (Omenana) A short piece, but an essential read.

Black Nerds , Black Cool, and Afrofuturism by Troy L. Wiggins is exactly the kind of longer, in-depth essay that is vital to the genre, to promoting diversity, understanding and exploration within the genre, and that I for one would love to see more of. Please read this.

China Dreams: contemporary Chinese Science Fiction by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld) Ken Liu is tireless in his promotion of Chinese science fiction, and it’s wonderful to see Clarkesworld taking the initiative here not just in bringing us more stories, but more information about them, too. This essay is a medium-length overview of the field as it currently stands. As Liu himself says upfront, giving anything like a comprehensive assessment of a literature so intrinsically diverse and multitudinous is pretty much impossible, but here at least is a place to start. A must-read.

I Love Writing Books – so I Need to Get Better at Writing Them by Kameron Hurley. I admire Kameron Hurley as a writer. I also like Kameron Hurley’s blog, and feel a generous measure of identification with the stuff she has to say about the writing process, emphasising the absolute necessity of consistent hard work and perseverance. She’s always worth reading, on any subject, and I admire her honestly. Her piece Some (Honest) Publishing Numbers, and (Almost) Throwing in the Towel is refreshingly candid about the whole getting-published-and-staying-published circus.

Me and Science Fiction: SF and Politics by Eleanor Arnason (Strange Horizons) “What I like about SF as a traditional category is that it has room for both slipstream and pop culture. It does not merely use pop culture, as a fine art writer might do, it includes it. The gamers and cosplayers and comic fans are not the subjects of our art. They are us.” Eleanor Arnason’s series of columns for Strange Horizons have been excellent and I hope there’ll be more of them. She has a way of inviting people into her writing, facing down challenging subjects in a dynamic and inclusive manner. Do also take a look at Me and Science Fiction: Books and the Death of the Middle Class, also in Strange Horizons.

Strange Horizons Bookclub: Tigerman by Niall Harrison, Aishwarya Subramanian and Maureen Kincaid Speller (Strange Horizons) A fascinating discussion of a book I thought I wasn’t going to get on with (because superheroes) but then did. (It’s stayed with me actually, far more than I thought it would.) The participants in this roundtable found plenty to talk about, and this article provides the perfect starting point for anyone wanting to get deeper into Tigerman, or simply to eavesdrop on an informed and entertaining analysis of some aspects of contemporary science fiction, beginning with the question of whether Tigerman can be considered properly science fictional in the first place.  These book clubs are a wonderful innovation at SH – I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing about Architecture by Nisi Shawl (Strange Horizons) This truly is an essential read for any reviewer, to be bookmarked and passed on at every opportunity.

Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn by Maureen Kincaid Speller (Paper Knife) The only thing wrong with MKS’s reviews is that we don’t see more of them! See also her review of Sarah Tolmie’s The Stone Boatmen at Strange Horizons, and let’s hope Maureen decides she’s up for blogging the Clarke again this year, because her 2013 posts were a highlight of the awards season.

Feminist World Building: Toward Future Memory by L. Timmel Duchamp (The Cascadia Subduction Zone) CZS is a fascinating periodical that really should be better known than it is. This essay blends the personal with the historical in an intricate and involving way and is exactly the kind of considered, informed non-fiction writing the genre needs more of. It’s powerfully argued and beautifully constructed. A keeper.

Biting Style: The Bone Clocks and Anti-Fantasy by Max Gladstone. This is a thoughtful and perceptive essay, arguing that Mitchell’s ham-fisted use of fantasy in The Bone Clocks was kind of intentional.  I was personally very disappointed by the novel, and (though I hate to admit it, even now) ended up coming down more on the side of James Wood’s less than generous analysis in the New Yorker. But I found Gladstone’s piece so fascinating and well argued that it almost – almost – persuaded me to reconsider. For an impassioned Joycean ‘yes!’ to The Bone Clocks (and an antidote to the Wood piece), see James Smythe’s affirmatory review at Strange Horizons.

The Expanding Borders of Area X: Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach in the Context of a Weird Renaissance by Scott Nicolay (Weird Fiction Review). A great little essay on the history of weird fiction, the reasons for its current flowering, and how Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal trilogy fits into that. It’s also worth noting that Nicolay’s own debut collection Ana Kai Tangata has received some great press and is a likely candidate for some awards of its own this year. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Writing is a Lonely Business: James McKimmey, Philip K. Dick and the Lost Art of Author Correspondence by Jason Starr (Los Angeles Review of Books) A lovely piece that takes an in-depth look at a set of letters written by Dick and McKimmey ‘when they were both young, emerging genre writers’. Starr’s essay also makes some more general observations about the value of correspondence as an insight into a writer’s life and work. As someone who has derived significant pleasure from reading published volumes of writers’ letters over the years, this subject interests me a great deal. Only time will tell if the form will survive the internet (I think it will – writers love writing to each other, and we’re going to carry on doing it; whether that’s physically or electronically is of lesser importance) but this sensitive and personal reminiscence does a good job of reminding us of why such letters are to be treasured.

Rambling, Offensive and Unbeatable: Beam Me Up, Old School Sci-Fi by Sandra Newman (The Guardian) “The average reader is no longer a mind-blown teen who will accept any unpleasantness in exchange for cool ideas. The average reader is the average reader. So editors are acquiring books according to criteria that were formerly incidental to the genre – quality, readability, plots that make sense. The twisted misogyny is gone, and with it the bracing misanthropy. The cool ideas are still there, but a certain anarchic power has been lost.” There was a dismaying and predictably knee-jerk reaction to Newman’s piece in some quarters, with people choosing to interpret it as a call either to excuse or, even more bizarrely, put back the racism and misogyny that dogs many of the science fiction texts that are considered by the orthodoxy as classic. This is so obviously not what Sandra Newman was saying. Like Jonathan McCalmont and Ethan Robinson above, what she’s talking about is the slide towards a new orthodoxy in SF, a bland kind of crossover that doesn’t really say much of anything, much less voice opinions that might be considered provocative. The piece may be roughly worded in places, but what it has to say about the maverick tradition in science fiction is well worth reading and considering.

 

Don’t forget that nominations for the BSFA Awards close on January 31st. Get yours in now!