Crime blog #9

In the Woods by Tana French

in the woods frenchThis is very much a book of three halves.

For the first fifty or so pages, I thought I’d discovered that holy grail I seem to spend a fair amount of my reading life searching for: the crime novel that works equally well as literary fiction. A lot of Patricia Highsmith’s oeuvre is up there, of course, as are a generous handful of Barbara Vine’s, James Ellroy’s, David Peace’s. All too often though, genre crime novels tend to exhibit the same core flaw that plagues genre horror fiction: amazing set-up, shit denouement. The biggest problem with In the Woods isn’t so much its denouement (although it is kind of shit) as the complete-arse status of its narrator-protagonist, Rob Ryan.

As readers of this blog will already know, I have no problem with arsehole protagonists – indeed I rather enjoy them. My problem with Ryan is that it is not sufficiently clear from the text whether French knows him as the dick he is, intends him to be a dick in fact, or whether it’s more ‘ooh, poor Rob, his tortured past, his damaged feeeelings’.

There’s just not enough definition here. And that lack of focus, for me, made the book very disappointing indeed, all the more so because In the Woods begins so promisingly.

Rob Ryan was once Adam Ryan, whose childhood was defined first by his friendship with Peter and Jamie, who grew up alongside him on a Dublin estate, and then by Peter and Jamie’s disappearance in nearby woods when the kids were twelve. Rob is recovered alive but traumatised, and with no memory of what happened to his friends. Rob’s parents moved away to England, and Rob went to boarding school and then to university. After bumming around London for a couple of years, he realises that his vocation lies with the Dublin Murder Squad. He makes a success of his chosen career, and is happy in his work. Our story opens as Rob is chosen to head up an investigation into the murder of another pre-teen, Katy Devlin, who grew up on that same Knocknaree estate where Ryan, Peter and Jamie once lived and played.

French’s set-up is not just intriguing but beautifully written. This opening segment of the novel contains so many insights, so many wry and clever observations, so many passages of lovely prose  that I frequently found myself smiling with pleasure at the fluency and sagacity of French’s invention. The first instances of Rob’s sexism came as a bit of a shock because I’d been enjoying the story, the writing and, let me add, Rob’s narration so much I just wasn’t expecting him to be that guy. That was the point where the narrative lost some of its shine for me. Instead of being marvellous, it settled down into what was a perfectly acceptable police thriller with above average writing. I was still enjoying myself – it was just that I had to readjust my expectations.

But things kept getting worse. I tried to convince myself that French was making some kind of statement about sexism in the police force and in murder investigation units in particular. Not a bad idea at all – I’m sure there’s plenty of sexism in the police force (!) and what more absorbing and intricate task for a writer to set herself than to create a protagonist who is a very good detective but so flawed in his attitudes that he eventually misses out on solving a case because of them? That’s a book I’d make a grab for. But Rob isn’t complex enough for that. He’s just a sexist who doesn’t realise he is one (almost the worst kind) who treats his (investigations) partner appallingly (I honestly cannot bring myself to find one mitigating clause in Rob’s behaviour towards Cassie) and who has this pig-annoying habit of searching for princesses to rescue. I suppose one could argue that the princess-rescuing thing does turn out to be the main reason Rob doesn’t spot the criminal mastermind on his first throw of the dice (and why he makes even more of an idiot of himself than he has done already) but it’s not enough, it’s too loose. Rob’s thoughts and actions remain insufficiently interrogated by the text itself.

And while we’re on the subject of the criminal mastermind, I’m bound to say that [-] was one of the most unconvincing – nay, downright ridiculous – pieces of characterisation I’ve ever found amongst the pages of a novel by someone who can obviously write. Who can write rather well, in fact – which makes the lousy, stupid portrayal of [-] even more unforgivable and baffling.

I mean, that whole sequence where Cassie is wearing the wire and [-] does their ‘I will kill you, Mr Bond, but first let me explain exactly how and why I decided to bring about your eternal damnation’ spiel. Just. No.

The entire final quarter of the novel is irrevocably marred by this lazy reliance on tropes, the kind of imaginative failure that ruins many a genre novel, and most Hollywood movies. And I just don’t get why a writer would do this to themselves. An intricately plotted crime novel is a skilful thing, a beautiful thing that takes time to invent and accomplish. So why not go that extra mile and invent a plausible antagonist and motive, rather than settle for having the thing play out like an indifferent TV cop drama?

I love crime novels. For pure reading pleasure, it would be a crime novel for me every time. Which is why I want them to be not just OK but great. Keith Ridgway gets this point better than anyone:

I do read crime fiction. Usually in binges. I enjoy crime fiction a great deal. Or two thirds of it. By which I mean the first two thirds of each book. The last third of a crime book usually pisses me off. I love the exposition, getting everything set up and into position, and then the cranking out of the mechanics that are going to get the thing to dance. But in the last third it seems to always end up in a sort of badly choreographed dogfight and the pacing goes haywire and there’s so much chasing after loose ends that it ceases to have anything to do with our experienced world and becomes more a sort of fantasy of resolution, a kind of neurotic tidying of life’s mess, like sport.

(I think I may have pointed up this interview before but the points Ridgway makes here are just so spot on.)

Ridgway gets around this beautifully by refusing to write a conventional crime novel and I applaud him for it. But wouldn’t it be great if, every now and again, one could find a ‘real’ crime novel that didn’t spiral downwards into lunacy?

The thing is though, I will probably be giving Tana French another chance, 1) because in spite of everything I say above I still enjoyed the hell out of reading this and 2) I think she has it in her to produce a crime story that is properly special. I’m tempted to try the second in the Dublin Murder Squad series, because I know it’s about Cassie (even though we only ever get to see her through Rob’s self-pitying male gaze, it is abundantly clear that Cassie is by far the best character in In the Woods) but I may leap forward to the most recent book in the series first, just to see if French has learned from her mistakes. Here’s hoping.

Booker shortlist 2015

Well, that was a surprise. The two longlisted books I most wanted to get on to the Booker shortlist actually made it. I’d previously thought that Satin Island in particular wouldn’t have a chance of being selected – too terse, too prickly, too abstract to be a Booker book, and I had the feeling that A Brief History of Seven Killings wouldn’t make it either, mainly because the judges – who were definitely going to wave A Little Life straight through the starting gate – might baulk at shortlisting a second 700-page epic (the 2013 shortlist wasn’t big enough to include both The Kills and The Luminaries, after all, and although both are outstanding novels, for me The Kills still stands the test of time as the more outstanding of the two).

Well, I’m intending to read at least two more of the contenders before the final announcement, so I’ll report back once I’ve done that and give my final guess as to which of these six novels might actually win.

At the moment, I still have the feeling it might end up being A Little Life. As discussed in my previous post, I think that novel is all over the place in all kinds of ways and should definitely not take the prize. But, for reasons that elude me, it seems to have gathered a momentum that makes it unstoppable. And as I said before, it has Booker book written all over it.

A Little Life – altogether too small?

littlelife.yanagA Little Life, the 700 pp second novel from Kitschies Golden Tentacle nominee Hanya Yanagihara, has been greeted by ecstatic reviews, in the US especially. Even in the UK, where the book’s reception has been a little more muted, the critics seem to be in broad agreement that, in spite of its flaws, the novel is something of a masterpiece. A Little Life is currently the bookies’ favourite to take the Booker prize, and readers especially have warmed to the book, losing themselves in its extended narrative like rabbits in a warren. I’ve seen a large number of reader reviews stating that for them, A Little Life is one of the most affecting books they’ve ever read.

I don’t get it. As someone who loved Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, A Little Life was one of the novels of 2015 I was most looking forward to. To say I’ve been disappointed would be something of an understatement. The People in the Trees was characterised, above all, by its author’s masterful control of her material: a heinously unreliable narrator, brilliantly drawn, a grasp of form, of the novel as a conceit that has not at all ridiculously been compared with Nabokov’s, a sense of place so vibrant and detailed the reader leaves the book convinced of the reality of everything in it, and a story so compelling it remains with me still as one of the literary highlights of last year. Yanagihara has stated that The People in the Trees took her more than a decade to write and it shows: her passionate attachment to the manuscript is visible at every juncture, and the result – a provoking, terse, brilliantly observed narrative of speculation – is entirely worthy of the time investment, both hers as writer and ours as reader.

A Little Life, on the other hand, took just eighteen months to write, and again, it shows. What we have here, it seems to me, is more like a vast, working outline for a novel, a ream or two of notes. Enthusiasm for the project blazes through, and occasionally we are caught up in the rush of that enthusiasm, but this is not the finished article. Not the superbly finished article that The People in the Trees was, at any rate. In short, it’s a decent enough first draft – decent enough to catch the interest, worth reworking definitely, but no one (unless you’re Joyce Carol Oates) can complete a 720-page behemoth of a book in just eighteen months and hope for it to be her best work.

I’m not going to go overboard in rehashing the plot here – plenty of people have done so already – but briefly what we have is the story of four friends, room-mates in college, who progress from renting scuzzy apartments in Lower Manhattan to forging conveniently meteoric success in their chosen careers, namely art, architecture, acting and law. Things toddle along for a while. The boys get richer and go to more parties. We gradually discover that two of the four (Malcolm and JB) are pretty much sidekicks, that the story (such that it is) is mostly about Willem and Jude, and Jude in particular. In spite of his success as a lawyer, and his universal belovedness among his friends, Jude has a troubled past, and injuries to both body and mind that have left him crippled. A Little Life presents the gradual uncovering of Jude’s secrets.

The whole ensemble would have been improved a millionfold by making everyone in it less offensively, less boringly rich. The easy accession to success, to wealth, to an entirely unconflicted symbiosis with the jet-setting, gourmet-fed, gorgeously housed capitalism of the highest-end American glossies robs the novel’s ongoing present of agency, tension or of anything more than a passing, disconsolate curiosity. Is this meant to be inspirational, allegorical, what?? It certainly isn’t cautionary – the text seems as at ease with its prevailing attitudes as do the characters that populate it. Everyone loves these guys. everyone knows them or wants to know them. Is this the American Way? For a tiny minority, maybe. But to put it in context for UK readers, how would you feel about a novel in which the four protagonists were a corporate lawyer who specialised in exonerating multinational corporations from allegations of environmental vandalism, an architect hell-bent on levelling large parts of the East End to make way for luxury apartment complexes, an artist who made it his life’s work to portray – uncritically – members of the economic elite, and – let’s say Jude Law? (No offence to JL but his persona as a cypher for Willem’s fits more or less exactly.)

If you were me, you’d probably want to punch everyone in it. Moreover, the whole endeavour would be doomed to instant cultural irrelevance, not to say ridicule.

It would have been so simple to make these guys ‘normal’, to introduce some genuine struggle and conflict into their lives. Not to do so seems one of the oddest authorial decisions I’ve ever encountered.

The lack of any discernible story, conflict or point is not A Little Life‘s only problem, however. For me, the manner in which it is told – endless swathes of the most colourless, tedious form of exposition, punctuated by desultory minor episodes of what passes for action – is the most telling indication of what I’ll call first draft syndrome: the author telling herself what the novel is about (fine) and then forgetting to shape, refine, and above all prune, prune, PRUNE the damn thing into the form of an actual novel. The excess of padding in A Little Life could comfortably fill several king-sized (ideal for one of Malcolm’s boutique apartments in fact) sofas. ‘This happened, then that happened, then the other happened. Then Jude remembered he had a friend who had a private plane, so he wouldn’t be late for their reunion dinner in Paris after all’. Whatever.

Some critics have commented on the novel’s atemporality, the fact that there’s precious little sense of place, no mention of politics, presidents, AIDS, 9/11, indeed anything that might have given A Little Life a greater cultural, geographical or sociological resonance, so I won’t repeat those observations here except to say amen.

I could write a whole separate essay on the portrayal of women in A Little Life (or at least I could if I’d been arsed to take proper notes as I went along). I don’t think it would be unfair to state that women have been almost entirely erased from Yanagihara’s narrative. Where they do exist, women are either saintly helpmeets (Julia, Ana, Sophie) or comical walk-on lesbians. If the male homosexual relationship is the main focus of interest (one reviewer even refers to A Little Life as ‘the great gay novel‘ – I think they’re completely wrong, I think A Little Life shoots as wide of the mark here as it does in other respects, but that discussion lies beyond the scope of this essay) that’s one thing, but it in no way explains why the novel goes in for such wholesale belittling of lesbians and lesbian relationships. ‘A certain kind of moustachioed lesbian’, ‘like a certain kind of lesbian couple’, ‘i knew it would only be a matter of time before you two ended up like a pair of old lesbians – the only thing missing is the cat’. I stress I’m quoting from memory here, but there really is a lot of stuff in precisely this vein, and I’m asking why??? I for one got roundly sick of it. Indeed the book seemed strewn with the kind of casual sexism that left me blinking in bemusement. I might not have noticed it so much, had the four central male characters been more interesting or more compellingly written. But they just weren’t.

There is some good stuff here. The scenes following the traumatic event described on p 627 (I’m avoiding spoilers here, because what happens at this point genuinely did surprise and affect me and I wouldn’t want to deny that unexpectedness to anyone else) and dealing with the nature of grief, the psychological motivations and self-controlling mechanisms behind anorexia, self-harm and suicidal depression are very well drawn indeed: unflinching, convincing and necessary. As everywhere in this novel, the potential for greatness is strikingly evident. Which makes it all the more of a pity that the block of marble has only been rough-cut, and not fully sculpted.

I do get why readers have enjoyed this novel. The experience of reading A Little Life is not unlike watching a TV miniseries. Once you get even a little bit invested in the characters, the whole thing rolls along more or less unassisted and it’s difficult to opt out. For a novel of this length, the hours you put in (I made sure I read fifty pages a day, just to make sure the book didn’t dominate my life for weeks and weeks) pass surprisingly quickly. The relationship between Willem and Jude is touching and – in places – well drawn. At the level of simply reading, even the stodgy exposition can work reassuringly, being reminiscent of the feeling you might remember from being read aloud to as a child. Readers like to follow characters through the course of their lives and travails – that’s why the Bildungsroman is a classic form and still popular. A Little Life, in its way, is a classic family saga.

Nothing wrong with any of that, and there is no denying the book is, even if only for its bizarre missteps, memorable. But there is, I feel, something wrong with the unequivocal praise that has been heaped upon this novel. It is ambitious, but it mostly fails in its ambition. It believes it has a remarkable story to tell, but for a greater proportion of its run-time it does not tell it very well, thus rendering it, ironically, unremarkable. In sum, I don’t think A Little Life is anywhere near as good as people seem to think it is, certainly it’s not as good as Yanagihara’s first novel. It does have ‘Booker book’ written all over it, though, so the bookies at least are on to a winner…

Two futures

charnock calculated lifeAnne Charnock‘s debut novel, A Calculated Life, was shortlisted for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle last year. I remember thinking that it looked like one of the most interesting books in contention, but by the time I finally got around to reading it (last weekend) I found I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about it. This turned out to be a good thing, a wonderful thing, even. I’m one of those people who takes pleasure in information-gathering, and usually when I sit down to read a novel I’ve already consumed at least half-a-dozen reviews of it. I know, broadly, what to expect, and whilst I’ve never found my enjoyment of a text to be impaired by this kind of advance preparation – if a film or a novel genuinely can be spoiled by spoilers, it probably didn’t have that much substance in the first place – it’s great to be reminded of how surprising and thrilling it can be, to go into a book completely blind.

I found the first dozen or so pages of A Calculated Life to be curiously affectless. The prose seemed rather blank and toneless, the point of view character – a young woman named Jayna, working for some kind of faceless corporation in a vaguely futuristic Manchester – rather flatly drawn. The story was oddly hypnotic, though – I think I may have previously mentioned that I always enjoy reading about work – and so I kept reading. My initial feelings of vague frustration with the text were soon replaced by admiration and increasing pleasure as the narrative became more complicated, its particular use of language entirely comprehensible, and I discovered what Charnock was really up to.

It turns out that Jayna is a construct, an artificially grown simulant, one of many thousands leased out to (read ‘owned by’) high-end businesses that make use of their superior abilities – in calculation, in business modelling, in predicting future patterns in behaviour and trade – in the race to get ahead.  Jayna has been designed to be perfectly happy with her life, the small freedoms she is allowed giving her – and the rest of her kind – just enough of a sense of independence to stop her demanding more.  Something is changing, though. Jayna is curious – more curious than perhaps she should be – about the unexpected results of some of her calculations. Her investigations lead her in a risky direction.

I’m aware that in giving this brief outline I’m making A Calculated Life sound like Bladerunner, or 1984, even. But although it shares aspects in common with these two SF masterpieces, Charnock’s novel is entirely and definitively her own. It is lovingly crafted, beautifully made in the economical, expert way a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture is made – pure lines, and perfectly suited to its intended purpose. In the spare, clean language of her novel, Charnock makes a valid and convincing attempt to imagine how a person – for of course she is a person – like Jayna would think and feel. I found Charnock’s writing about mathematics, and pattern recognition especially to be – well, the only words that come close for me, paradoxically, are moving and beautiful.

Additionally, I found Charnock’s AI community a great deal more involving and realistic-seeming than Ann Leckie’s portrayal of Breq in Ancillary Justice, the novel that eventually won the Golden Tentacle and just about everything else that year. I’m not knocking Ancillary Justice here – it’s a different book, with different aims – but I do feel that A Calculated Life has been very hard done by in comparison, and should have received a great deal more attention than it did.

Anne Charnock is clearly a gifted and sensitive author of acute intelligence, writing science fiction of a kind – quiet, intense, thoughtful – we could do with more of. I’m looking forward to her second novel, Sleeping Embers of An Ordinary Mind, with some anticipation. It’s published on December 1st, and I’ve already pre-ordered it.

The future depicted in Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s story in the latest edition of Clarkesworld, ‘The Occidental Bride’, is several degrees harsher and yet displays some striking parallels to the one we find in A Calculated Life. The continent of Europe has literally been shattered, devastated by some new and terrible kind of weapon. One of the engineers of that weapon, a woman named Kerttu, has more in common with Charnock’s Jayna than we might initially imagine: sold by her mother at the age of six, she becomes the property of the state, indentured intellectual labour with no rights to her own life. At the beginning of the story, we see Kerttu being purchased again, this time by Heilui, a woman living on the other side of the world both politically and geographically. Heilui seems to hold all the cultural and material advantages, but as we discover, she too is the prisoner of political forces, and has her own deadly service to perform.

I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the things I admire most about Sriduangkaew’s stories is their complete lack of sentimentality, their willingness to be dark in a way that picks at the soul. Although there is always a temptation to refer to her language as ‘lyrical’ – because it’s so descriptively intense, I suppose – the more I read of her the less this word seems to jibe with what’s on the page. Sriduangkaew’s visions are too fraught, too disturbing for that, and even the word ‘haunting’ does not wholly convey the discomfort that comes to sit with you as you read them. As with many of Sriduangkaew’s protagonists, both Kerttu and Heilui are brittle, driven characters who exude the sense of having only just survived their memories. The beautifully polished, artfully rendered surface of the story is like mirror glass – bouncing our own gaze back at us, attracting our attention away from the shattering realities that lurk in the depths beneath before revealing them full force.

Heilui monitors Kerttu’s progress, trying to use the map of her wife’s virtual wanderings to create an image that would pierce the inscrutable, remote shell. A crucial piece that would make the Kerttu she is seeing cohere with the Kerttu the mass murderer who created weapons that destroyed the shattered continent, the war criminal. Often she thinks of asking, Did you understand what you were doing? At the beginning, she mustn’t have, a prodigy whose supple intelligence was exploited, whose mind was slowly conditioned to regard her work as normal.

The keenest pleasure of this story is the disquiet it engenders. The cultural commentary – on terrorism, on exotification, on the whole concept of mail order brides – is fiercely articulate and uncompromising. Sriduangkaew’s science fiction is radical in a way we don’t see often enough: it is angry – about the past, about the future that past is forcing upon us – and it is unapologetic in insisting that we should know it.

I would rate ‘The Occidental Bride’ as Sriduangkaew’s finest story since her 2014 ‘Autodidact’. It makes me hungry to see more longer-length work from her and I’m hoping it won’t be too long before we do.

Whoops (I Did it Again)

I spent part of this bank holiday weekend at London’s Frightfest. I know I swore I’d not go back, but the company of friends, the wonderful atmosphere of the Fest itself, and the hope that maybe – just maybe – I’d see something astounding tempted me to give the thing another go. I had a great time just being in town, and loved the experience of just being at FF as I always do. The films, though. I know it’s hardly fair of me to comment as time and expense (and, this year, a train strike) meant I only got to see a small percentage of the complete line-up, but oh dear. Aside from a highly commendable and hugely entertaining Mad Max homage called Turbo Kid (chopper bikes and old comics instead of war machines – an appealing aesthetic, I thought, as well as a lively, funny, knowing script that played out as if the writer actually gave a damn) none of the films I saw possessed so much as a scrap of originality or merit. Worse, much of what was on offer seemed to have a retrograde vibe in terms of its subject matter – and not in a good way.

Every so often we get bursts of discussion about conservatism within the horror genre: namely, whether horror is an inherently conservative form of storytelling – over-dependent on tired tropes, antediluvian social attitudes and plot-it-by-numbers stereotypes. Not enough discussion, evidently. Why is it that whenever I start to feel optimistic about a new era of horror cinema, along comes a film like Levan Bakhia’s Landmine Goes Click and pulls that particular rug right out from under my feet. And again, not in a good way. It’s a shame Bakhia (who was present for the screening and – of course! – seemed like a really nice guy) wasn’t doing a Q&A at the showing I went to because I did actually have a question I’d have been genuinely fascinated to hear the answer to:

“Mr Bakhia, don’t you think films in which the women characters exist solely to be humiliated, raped and finally killed – in which the women characters’ sole purpose within the plot is to provide fuel for an argument/feud/vendetta between characters of the male gender and where in fact there is no plot driver except that an adult woman happened to have consensual sex with another adult – don’t you think films like that are just a tiny bit eighties???”

I think what Bakhia might (and I say that very tentatively because he shot so wide of the target) have been going for was a kind of Euro/US spin on Park Chan-wook’s mighty Vengeance trilogy. Personally, I would count such a misguided homage as an insult to Park. Landmine Goes Click is pointless, tasteless, boring and one of the very worst films I’ve seen recently. Right from the start, the omens weren’t good. In the few words he did address to the audience prior to the screening, Bakhia suggested that the story idea had originally arisen out of a brainstorming session. What’s the betting that the participants in said session were all lads..?

More worrying still, the movie currently has a rating of 7.6 on iMDb.

What actually went through the writer/director’s head? What emotions did he want to arouse? Because aside from the movie’s inherent derivativeness, nothing about the film is remotely shocking. Does Bakhia think horror films are just for men? Does he think men don’t care about story, so long as they get to see one angry dude call his fiancee a whore and set her up to be raped?

I’m asking, because I’m genuinely curious.

I was mulling all this over (during the second, excruciatingly tedious half of yet another film in which demons/witches seemed rapaciously intent on robbing a teenage girl of her unborn baby) and asking myself for the umpteenth time: is it them, or me? Is it even possible to make a good, commercially viable horror film? Not namby-pamby arthouse horror (my favourite kind – sigh) but the full-on, genuine article with its roots stuck firmly in the genre and that anyone who regularly watches horror would be OK with naming as such?

If so, what is it about these films that lift them clear of the dross heap, and why aren’t there more of them?

It’s interesting to think about (more fun than watching Hellions, anyway, and to think the same guy directed Pontypool – what the actual fuck??) and in a pre-emptive strike I’m going to answer my own questions:

1) Yes, it’s possible.

2) A decent script.

3) Because way too many writers/directors think a promising idea is the same as an actual story.

I’m now going to illustrate my answers with some examples. It so happens that shortly before I went to FrightFest, I happened to see an article over at Movies Films and Flicks in which Mark Hofmeyer set out to canvas opinion on the top ten horror films of the 21st century – so far. He culled figures and ratings from many sources – you can see the full breakdown here and the whole article makes fascinating reading. Whilst I may not agree with all the placings (although Mark’s personal five aren’t a bad line-up, actually) I found it a fun game to play. I scribbled down my own list, which soon ballooned to twenty and I’m still fiddling around with it. Here (and I stress in no particular order) is where I am with it so far:

Kill List (Ben Wheatley). A returning soldier faces problems reintegrating himself with civilain society. A charismatic friend (read ‘bit of a dick’) offers to cut him in on a high-paying, er, contract he’s landed. After a long, slow build-up that has more in common with the cinema of Mike Leigh than anything you might expect to find in a generic horror film, things suddenly get very nasty very fast. This film is hard to watch but it is a stand-out.

Wake Wood (David Keating). Remembering the quiet and chilling elegance of this Wicker-Man-style movie (which received far less attention than it warranted) makes it all the more painful to learn that its director went on to make the derivative and valueless coven ‘chiller’ Cherry Tree as premiered at FrightFest this weekend.

Thirst (Park Chan-wook). A reimagining of Zola’s novel Therese Raquin – with added vampires! I was totally swept away by this when I saw it – but then it is Park Chan-wook, so you can’t go wrong really. Stunning and beautiful.

Stoker (Park Chan-wook). Park’s first English-language movie mixes familiar Hollywood horror tropes with Korean revenge drama and some of the most luscious cinematography ever to grace a screen. I’d watch this again in a heartbeat and you should, too.

Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli). The best thing about this one is that it has the courage of its convictions. Not a lot happens – but the tension generated is mighty AND it stands up to repeated viewings. I thought this was going to be shit when I went to see it – the death throes of the Blair Witch movement – but I was more than happy to be wrong. The sequels get more and more stupid (as sequels tend to do) but whilst they’re moderately entertaining, the original first movie is actually worthy of a place in the canon.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook). Park’s use of music and colour (especially the colour red) in this film is astounding. Whilst a lot of people cite Oldboy as the jewel in the Vengeance crown, I would have to cite Lady Vengeance, the third instalment in the trilogy, as my personal favourite.

The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington). I’ve watched this about four times and I still love it. A quiet, slow, highly unusual ghost story about recovering from grief and predicting the future. Laura Linney, especially, shines. The final fifteen minutes provides a particularly glorious sequence, shot almost entirely without dialogue, which feels genuinely iconic.

The Last Exorcism (Daniel Stamm). Far and away the best of the spate of exorcism films that arrived seemingly out of nowhere between 2009-2012. The first half hour plays out like a real-life documentary about a boy-preacher growing up to become a professional exorcist. He’s mostly lost his faith but he still wants to help people. He’s called to a remote farm, where a young girl has been behaving strangely. The ending of this film is rather predictable, sadly, but there’s some great stuff along the way and several moments of genuine terror (all too rare in horror films these days).

Wolf Creek (Greg McLean). Four friends camping in the outback. Their van breaks down. Someone comes to ‘help’. Yeah, you know how it’s going to play out, but the first hour (in which nothing much happens apart from us getting to know the protagonists) sets this movie apart from its Texas-Chainsaw-wannabe cousins. It’s horrible. I don’t think I’d watch this again but it should be in the canon.

The Descent (Neil Marshall). Another one I’ve watched a lot. The first hour, in which backstory is established and relationships are set up, is brilliant. The moment when the women realise that no one knows where they are – a genuine frisson of terror. Amazing performances and some really good stuff in general. The third quarter – a lot of dashing through tunnels to escape monsters, basically – is too generic for my liking (less is more, people) but I still love this film. The ending is a hideous masterstroke. (A masterstroke that The Descent 2 seeks to obliterate, incidentally, which only proves the point that sequels – aside from the Alien tetralogy – only serve to weaken the original concept and are generally a bad idea.)

Byzantium (Neil Jordan). A common-or-garden vampire movie raised above the common by a gloriously measured, poetic script by Moira Buffini based on her own stage play. Lovely performances, plus it’s set in Hastings, which made it a real treat for Chris and me particularly. A perfect small film, and about a hundred times better than the disappointingly-scripted and laughably derivative Only Lovers Left Alive, which ended up hogging the bulk of the vampire-love the following year.

Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn). There’s no good way to describe this other than ‘a bloodbath’, with Ryan Gosling playing an angsty gangster and Kristin Scott Thomas as a cross between Margaret Thatcher and the Countess Bathory. (Note: best screen death evah.) The body count is pretty much total but this movie has a stunning aesthetic and is just so in-yer-face you come away reeling. I like Winding Refn a lot – like an extrovert Von Trier, he just doesn’t give a stuff who he offends – but I do understand why some people don’t.

Cronos (Guillermo del Toro). Before he was famous. I like this riff on the vampire movie even better than I like The Devil’s Backbone. Stunning sense of place, gorgeous palette, great characterisation. I honestly have no idea why this isn’t better known.

Audition (Miike Takashi). It’s the needle scene that gets people talking and seeing as it’s one of the most uncomfortable sequences in horror cinema it’s not hard to see why. There is so much more to Audition, though. The way Miike plays tricks with time and chronology, for one. The nightmarish sadness of the story, for another. Mysterious and – dare I say it – beautiful, this film is a must-see for anyone interested in horror cinema. I’ve watched it three times now and it gets better each time. Be warned: it is genuinely scary.

The Box (Richard Kelly). Based on Richard Matheson’s ‘deal with the devil’ story ‘Button, Button’, no one seemed to like this when it came out. It gets a bit silly towards the end, but I actually think this movie is an overlooked gem. Weird, and weirdly compelling. One to see twice.

Snowtown (Justin Kurzel). Based on true events. I found parts of this almost impossible to watch, but the characterisation, sense of place and raw, brittle style of the cinematography make it a powerful social indictment as well as a horrifyingly gripping examination of events in a small Australian community. Be careful with this one – it really is strong meat – but it’s an amazing piece of film making and should be recognised as such.

The Monk (Dominik Moll). An unusual, beautiful and completely engrossing cinematic experience. This film isn’t nearly as well known as it should be, and is a perfect demonstration of how familiar tropes can be made to seem original and to live again. Highly recommended.

Requiem (Hans Christian Schmid). The ‘real’ exorcist. You won’t get the crucifix masturbation or spider walk scenes with this one. But what you will get is the story of a devout and highly gifted young woman starting college, trying to make the adjustment from living in a small provincial community and assailed by forces – both emotional and spiritual – that seem beyond her control. This film is brilliant: quiet yet disturbing and highly affecting. Again, inspired by true events and a deeply personal examination of the tensions between the real and the imagined. I love this film.

The Silent House (Gustavo Hernandez). If you liked Paranormal Activity you’ll probably enjoy this, too. The film aroused a deal of curiosity and comment for being shot in a single take. But there’s more here than technical panache. There’s a fascinating mystery, a pile of raw tension and a genuine sense of unease about the whole thing. Does a great trick with timelines, too. Should be part of the canon.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley). Oh, this movie. Wheatley’s follow-up to Kill List, and I’m not even sure it can properly be called horror, although it is about a distinctly oddball couple who go on a killing spree whilst visiting a pencil museum and other esoteric visitor attractions in the north of England. I don’t care what you call it — it is brilliant, chilling and also very, very funny. Wonderful, wonderful script.

I’m still quibbling with myself over the inclusion of Wolf Creek, because it breaks a lot of my own rules for decent horror (in that anything belonging to the subgenre known popularly as torture porn is a lazy excuse for a horror movie and should earn instant disqualification from discussion on grounds of being complete crap). But the set-up was so good – the extended, dawdling exposition of the characters’ relationships to one another, the sense of place, the documentary feel that I always enjoy – and the movie had such a strong impact on me at the time of seeing that I’m letting it stay on there for now. Miike Takashi’s Audition of course is a cheat inclusion – it first aired in 1999 – but it is such a strong film and so close to being 21st century that it has to be on there, I think. (The Blair Witch Project, another notable 1999 entry, could well qualify on similar grounds.) You could easily argue that Snowtown isn’t a horror film at all, but true crime. However, as one of the most brilliant, authentic and genuinely horrific films I’ve ever seen, I felt compelled to put it forward. Both Requiem and Only God Forgives could be subject to similar quibbles but who cares – both make generous use of horror themes, and I think they’re both, in their very different ways, astounding pieces of cinema.

The others all easily qualify as straight-up horror, though. Looking at them as a group, I can see they fall into several distinct categories: social (Kill List, Sightseers, The Box, The Last Exorcism), mythic (Thirst, Cronos, Byzantium, Wake Wood, The Monk), hauntings (The Mothman Prophecies, The Silent House, Paranormal Activity) and secret past (Stoker, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Descent). Both supernatural and non-supernatural horror are represented, as are contemporary and historical settings. A good coverage of themes and approaches, then. But the one attribute shared by all is an emphasis on the revelation of plot through character.

I’m not going to try and argue that all horror has to be ‘quiet horror’ or that horror cinema will always leave more of an impact when the violence is kept off the screen. What I would argue though is that in order for horror films to be effective, they must offer us a story to become engrossed in. The shattering, look-away-now violence in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (one of FrightFest’s more noteworthy premieres) would be meaningless and therefore ineffectual without our knowledge of the characters, our nervous and wary investment in their story. We wouldn’t care half so much about what happens to Sarah at the end of The Descent if we hadn’t spent half the movie’s run-time getting to know her, following her backstory and learning about the intricate and uneasy web of relationships between her group of friends. Movies like Wake Wood, Cronos, Byzantium and The Monk are all based upon what you might call horror staples, but what raises them above hundreds of run-of-the-mill films that utilize the same tropes is the thoughtful, intelligent and sensitive way they are written.

More even than the stunning visuals, what distinguishes truly innovative and original horror movies like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and The Mothman Prophecies – making them new classics of the genre – are their intricate scripts.

This goes for all horror writing of course, not just films. Stephen King has always understood this in a way that James Herbert never did. In King, character (as revealed through backstory, interior monologue, interaction with other characters, engaged writing throughout) is always bigger than whatever ‘horror’ is coming down the line. King’s novels are about people, and how they deal with adversity, failure, change and the intervention of evil or trauma in their lives. Herbert’s novels, on the other hand, are mainly interested in the coming splatpocalypse. The characters in The Rats or The Fog – like the backpackers in the Hostel movies or Jigsaw’s victims in the Saw franchise – are being set up from page one to die in any one of a number of repulsive and excruciating ways, which is their main and only purpose in what passes for the story. Their backstories are brief and broadly generic. After all, why waste time explaining a character’s lifelong immersion in the works of Kierkegaard when they’re going to have their head removed with a buzz saw in just a moment?

I’m not sure what description to apply to stuff like this, but I would argue passionately that it isn’t horror. The best horror fiction (in whatever form) reveals to us something about the world, something about ourselves. We read Lovecraft because of his writerly conviction that the world we see around us is not the world that truly is. We watch American Horror Story (although this series also is far from perfect – more on that another day perhaps) because we are fascinated by the hidden connections between events and between characters, because we want to discover how the storylines are interwoven and what these intricate relationships will later reveal. We read Stephen King because we can imagine ourselves so easily into his milieu. We know his people and the small towns they live in. We probably went to school with some of them. We want to know what happens to them next.

A horror story narrative should be a whole thing, a tightly woven tapestry in which people and events are intricately interrelated. A parade of gruesome-death set pieces is not a narrative, it is a series of not very interesting events. Viewers who haven’t seen too many horror films might find themselves on the wrong end of a few jump-scares, to be sure, but keep feeding them this schlock and even the hitherto uninitiated will soon pick up the rules. Then they’ll be bored, buzz saw or no buzz saw. They will end up feeling that horror isn’t for them.

In giving Chris a (mercifully) brief resume of the films I’d seen at FrightFest, I expressed regret that (because of the train strike) I hadn’t been able to see the one movie I had been excited about – Bernard Rose’s new adaptation of Frankenstein. Rose has a good track record with horror films, most famously with Candyman (very nearly a very good film, and worth experiencing just for Philip Glass’s amazing score) and with his earlier, less well known movie Paperhouse, an adaptation of Catherine Storr’s novel for younger readers, Marianne Dreams. Marianne Dreams was a touchstone work for me from an early age, and telling Chris about the movie adaptation brought it all back to me: the immortal strangeness of a world in which the greatest horror might be expressed in an image of a house with no internal staircase, or a ring of sentient stones marking a boundary and blocking your exit. Thinking about this story – and Marjorie-Ann Watts’s haunting illustrations – still has the power to transport me back to a time when I would avoid reading sections of the novel too close to bedtime, because the anxiety they aroused in me was so intense.

(And not a buzz saw in sight.)

Those of us who love horror fiction love its archetypes: the haunted house, the ghost from the past, the road through the forest, the person you have been told you should never speak to. These archetypes – what are commonly called tropes but that are actually more than that, more powerful, more evocative, more like myths – are important, because they form a wellspring of story. We each have our favourites – those that resonate most with us – and the reason a favourite is a favourite will always be different.

And this is the key, really. The reason so many commercial horror movies fail at being horror is that they do not take the tropes as wellsprings – as inspiration – but dollop them on to our screens as the finished article. Horror movies written by committee – by brainstorming – will almost always be pallid reiterations of cliche, because a simple exposition of archetypes is not the same thing as an affecting story. Such archetypes can only be brought fully to life by personal response. Why am I drawn to this subject matter? What is my individual response to it? What is it that made me want to tell this story in the first place?

Why does it matter to me as a writer, in other words. If I cannot answer that question, the chances are the material I produce won’t be much cop.

ENDNOTE 1: If I do decide to throw Wolf Creek off my list, I’ll be replacing it with Philip Ridley’s Heartless. Here is a fine example of a film that takes a classic archetype – the Faustian bargain – and brings it superbly to new life through personal interpretation. Hardly surprising, from the writer/director who brought us the minor masterpiece The Passion of Darkly Noon and whose chief occupation is as a playwright. We should also note that Heartless was originally premiered at FrightFest, so those guys do get it right at least part of the time.

ENDNOTE 2: I feel it would be wrong to end this piece without at least acknowledging the catastrophic imbalance (in favour of male writers and directors) that still exists within horror cinema. The fact that this situation is perpetuated throughout cinema does not make it any better. I want to write more about this, and about what it means for the genre, but it is a huge subject, and needs more research. I’m therefore leaving it for another day. But it’s something we should all be thinking about in the meantime.

Helsinki 2017

Well, it’s now official: the 2017 Worldcon will be held in Helsinki. This is a cause for massive celebration, not least for the Helsinki bid team, who have been tireless in promoting their bid, and thoroughly deserve this excellent result. It could also be argued that the Helsinki win is the most positive thing to have arisen – be it directly or indirectly – from this year’s Puppy debacle. The site selection voting process is quite complicated – something that may have deterred voters in the past. If events this year spurred people on to be that little bit more focussed, that little bit more determined to see things play out differently in the future, then I for one count that as a net gain.

The statistics speak for themselves, in any case – the number of ballots cast for site selection came close to being an all-time record. We’re very much planning on being in Helsinki for the 2017 Worldcon and from the looks of things it’s going to be a great one. Truly an event to look forward to and we can’t wait.

As for this year’s Hugo Awards, whilst I’m happy to join the host of well-wishers stepping forward to congratulate Noah Ward, who swept the Hugos in five separate categories and left the opposition reeling  (3,000 votes to 500 is quite a rout, after all – I mean, it’s as bad as what happened to the Lib Dems!) I would also want to remember and commiserate with those fine writers and editors who were denied their shortlist placings and possible Hugo wins because of the slate voting tactics employed by the Puppy factions. The official voting stats have now been released, and people have been putting together alternative ballots, showing what the shortlists might have looked like in the absence of Puppy pooping.

It’s painful to contemplate. For those who lost out, of course, but also for the rest of us. Perhaps the best thing we can take away from this is a RESOLUTION TO NOMINATE in the 2016 Hugos. If all the people who voted in this year’s Hugos take the time and trouble to nominate for next year’s, it won’t really matter much if Sad Puppies 4 kicks off or not, because their chances would be stuffed anyway. Resolutions to amend the voting procedure in a manner that would hopefully prevent wholesale slate nominations in the future are already in process, and although we’ll have to wait a number of months to see whether these resolutions are ratified, the determination of the Worldcon as a whole to effect change can be seen as a positive development in itself.

In the meantime, I’d like to point readers towards this interview by Ken Liu (translator of Liu Cixin‘s Hugo-winning novel The Three Body Problem, and whose own novella The Regular would and should have been on the shortlist in a slate-free world), these two short stories by Aliette de Bodard and Amal El-Mohtar (likewise) and in particular Kai Ashante Wilson‘s novelette The Devil in America, which I count as one of the finest (and most important) pieces of SFF short fiction from the whole of last year. That it lost out on a shortlist place, and thus wider recognition, is a great loss for everyone.

And not forgetting Abigail Nussbaum, Natalie Luhrs, Mark Oshiro and Liz Bourke in the Best Fanwriter category. If not for the Puppies, this category would have looked and felt very different, and would have offered us, you know, some actual fan writing to celebrate…

Dead Letters

A little under two years ago, I received an email from Conrad Williams inviting me to submit a story for a new project he was involved with:

“I’m putting together a themed anthology (working title DEAD LETTERS) dealing with all the parcels and post cards and love letters we send but never arrive, or end up at the wrong address or sometimes come back to us, slashed open and changed somehow… 

Each contributor will be sent a mystery parcel from the dead letter zone: a trinket or photograph, an aide-memoire, a promise… or a threat… of fidelity. How you respond to this visual stimulus is up to you, but I’m looking forward to shaping a very dark, very inventive cluster of stories…”

I love anything to do with stamps and letters and the post in general, so this was an irresistible challenge, to which I agreed immediately. The project was only in the planning stage at that point, and I understood that it would be a while before my package arrived. As I was deep into final edits and revisions on The Race, I put all thoughts of Dead Letters on hold until after the London Worldcon.

At that point, something odd happened. Conrad was pretty amazing in the way he put the ‘dead letter’ packages together. When mine arrived, the whole thing was just so weirdly convincing that for a couple of minutes I found myself wondering what the hell the thing was, even though Conrad had pre-warned everyone the day he sent them out. Once I twigged, I found myself so instantly captivated by the story possibilities on offer it was difficult to decide which one to go with.

Nina Dead letter 96


And then I started writing and couldn’t stop. I’m not good at writing ‘short’ short fiction at the best of times, but it wasn’t long before I had 30,000 words and no end in sight. It was at this point I realised that what I was writing wasn’t a short story at all, but my next novel. An exciting discovery, except for the fact that I believed my Dead Letters story was doomed, that I was going to have to write to Conrad and withdraw from the project.

I hated the thought of doing that – the anthology had been part of my thought process for quite some time by then, I didn’t want to let Conrad down, and I loved the idea of Dead Letters as much as ever. I wanted to be a part of it. I carried on drafting the novel – a loose initial draft that would soon become the bedrock of The Rift – and hoping that I’d find a way to perform a detour, go back and complete the Dead Letters story – a different story – after all.

I used the Christmas/New Year hiatus as a springboard to do that. By then, I knew so much about the characters in my novel and the problems they were facing that I thought I could take a risk, write a story that ran off at a tangent from them but that was not itself part of that main theatre of action. I am not the kind of writer who thrives on having several projects on the go simultaneously – in order to write to my strengths I need to be totally immersed in whatever it is I’m currently working on. One workaround that does seem productive for me though is to write linked stories. That way, I keep the mental connection with the main project whilst giving myself the freedom to work in territories adjacent to it.

This is how ‘Astray’ was written. One of the main characters from The Rift does make an appearance, but ‘Astray’ is not her story.

I was pleased (and extremely relieved) to be able to deliver the story to Conrad before the deadline…

The full table of contents for Dead Letters has now been released. You can see why I’m pretty chuffed to be a part of it:


The Green Letter                          Steven Hall

Over to You                                   Michael Marshall Smith

In Memoriam                                Joanne Harris

Ausland                                         Alison Moore

Wonders to Come                       Christopher Fowler

Cancer Dancer                             Pat Cadigan

The Wrong Game                        Ramsey Campbell

Is-and                                            Claire Dean

Buyer’s Remorse                         Andrew Lane

Gone Away                                  Muriel Gray

Astray                                           Nina Allan

The Days of Our Lives               Adam LG Nevill

The Hungry Hotel                      Lisa Tuttle

L0ND0N                                      Nicholas Royle

Change Management              Angela Slatter

Ledge Bants                              Maria Dahvana Headley & China Miéville 

And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere           Kirsten Kaschock


Dead Letters: an anthology of the undelievered, the missing, the returned will be unleashed upon the world in April 2016 by Titan Books.

The World Before Us

When Jane sits back down to her files and notes, we gather around her again, though sometimes she reads too fast for us to follow because even a quick glance at a word like button seller can call to mind a shop with a wall of oak drawers along its length; the smell of the wood polish applied every morning before the doors were opened for business. We see teacher or joiner or clock repairer and suddenly some of us can feel the grit of chalk dust, see holes bored into wood, hear a broken chime drag its heels across the hour – some version of our selves appearing in these notices, a hint of relation, though the details are so scant they don’t make room for the person we were starting to feel we were; someone who may have taken delight in snowfall or a child’s curtsey, the canter of a horse or the efficiency of stamps, or the rough ardour of a washerwoman. These files say nothing of generosity, playfulness, the wing-collared jacket one of us believes he preferred, the bowl of ripe fruit one of us remembers painting in art class, a fly sitting on the leaf of the strawberry. (The World Before Us p 195)

hunter 2The act of remembering, the action of time upon memory – twin subjects, twin preoccupations, and the central concern of my new novel The Rift, not to mention pretty much everything else I’ve ever written.

I remember when my own memory changed. Not the exact day or even the year, but at some point during my thirties I realised that my own past wasn’t available to me the way it once had been. Up until that point, my life appeared to me as a continuous passage, in both the literal and metaphorical senses of that word. I was walking along the passage, occupying the ever-shifting end-point and with only a fraction of a moment’s glimpse into the space beyond the space I currently occupied. But at any time I could, if I chose, turn around and look back down the passage, opening up a vista that encompassed an almost infinite number of moments, all equally fresh, all equally real. In the manner of H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller, I could travel in time through the action of memory. It was an ability I took entirely for granted.

At some point, that changed. Although I was still able to travel back in time, the passage was not continuous, as it had been before. It was as if I’d turned some kind of corner, and now when I looked behind me there was a wall. There was still a door in that wall through which I could pass, but I had to think about it, make a decision, turn a key. The memories behind the door were no longer part of a continuum, but instead had transformed themselves into something else: something more distant, something behind glass, something that could definitively be labelled ‘the past’.

I found this frightening and I still do. More than any physical signs of ageing imposed by time upon my body, it is my most concrete, constant reminder of getting older.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter is one of the most beautifully achieved and penetrating examinations of memory that I have read. Its protagonist, Jane, is a museum archivist who begins to research the disappearance of a young woman, N. from a Victorian mental asylum in the 1870s. This story would be fascinating enough on its own, but Hunter has provided her readers with a delicate tracery of interlinked narratives, threads of memory weaving in and out of one another, a tapestry of knowing. Jane’s interest in the asylum reaches beyond the academic and deep into the personal, for the adjoining woodland where N. went missing was also the site of the traumatic event that defined Jane’s adolescence. Jane is accompanied on her quest by a chorus of ghosts, inmates of the asylum and others closer in time, all bent on recapturing, through Jane’s enquiry, their own memories of who they were and how they came to be there.

I thought at first that I would find Hunter’s ‘ghost chorus’ annoying, an over-ambitious affectation, an imposition of whimsy upon a narrative that would have been just as compelling – and better conceived – without it. I was wrong, though. Hunter handles her ghosts beautifully. They add to, rather than detracting from, the story in hand – their memories form an inextricable part of what is happening to Jane, and one quickly grows used to and looks forward to their presence. Their whispered confidences fuse the novel to a seamless whole.

I would probably never have encountered this novel, were it not for thishunter 1 insightful review at Strange Horizons. I loved the sound of the book, and ordered a copy more or less immediately. The copy I ordered was second hand, and turned out to be an advance proof. The cover image is formed by the 1877 letter sent by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to the governor of a local lunatic asylum and Hunter’s original inspiration for the novel. I found the idea of this proof cover quite beautiful, and wish the publishers had retained it for the final version.

Hunter’s writing in the book about objects, and specific or special objects as touchstones of memory, is especially insightful and to me, driven as I am by similar obsessions, beautiful and moving. Needless to say, my own copy of the book has now become an object-memory in its own right: nearing the end of the novel, I thought I’d go outside to read the last few chapters. I placed the book on the area of concrete hardstanding near our back door while I went to make a cup of tea. While I was doing this, Chris mock-threatened one of our cats with the length of hosepipe attached to the cold water tap next to our log store. The game over, he laid the hosepipe down, and unbeknown to him, a residue of water left in the hose crept out on to the concrete. By the time I returned to my book a few moments later, the water had snaked up to it, soaking the back cover and the last thirty pages right through.

It dried out fine, and the accident was no one’s fault, but it left the book marked, the back cover slightly torn from where it came up off the concrete, the last sixth of the book permanently wrinkled in a wave pattern. I find it sad to look at this damage to what was a beautiful object, but at the same time there’s something magical and almost lucky about it – part of that time, the specific details of that afternoon, captured within a physical object for as long as that physical object itself exists.

I’m kind of glad it happened. I’m very glad I discovered the work of Aislinn Hunter, a writer of true insight and powerful vision. Her prose is quiet but it cuts deep. I loved this book.

(You can read an interview with Aislinn Hunter here. Recommended.)

Titan(ic) news!

Well, this is all very exciting.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve recently signed a 2-book deal with Titan Books. Titan have acquired rights to my novel The Race, which they will be publishing in a new and expanded edition in both the UK and the US next summer. They will also be publishing my second novel, The Rift, in 2017.

Cath Trechman, Titan’s Senior Fiction Editor, has been incredibly enthusiastic and supportive, and I’m delighted to be working with her. She and her team are dedicated to building Titan’s fiction list by bringing in fresh and innovative work across the SFFH genres and I’m proud to be a part of that.

When Cath suggested that we should make the Titan edition of The Race truly new by including some extra material, I was only too happy to agree. The new edition of The Race will include a brand new novella-length appendix, ‘Brock Island’, which I’ve just finished writing. ‘Brock Island’ is not supposed to be read as a new ending, but it does expand our knowledge of the characters and their world, so anyone wanting ‘more’ will not be disappointed! Creating this extra material was a real challenge -‘Brock Island’ not only had to work as a story in its own right, it also had to complement the metafictional aspects of the main text – but it was also hugely rewarding to re-enter the book’s atmosphere and find new things there.

As for The Rift, I’ll have plenty more to say in due course. For now, I can tell you that it’s a science fiction mystery about a woman named Julie who believes she’s been abducted by aliens. The first draft is written – in fact I’ve begun work on the second draft just this afternoon. I don’t mind admitting that this is absolutely the most addictive story I have worked on to date and it’s wonderful to know that the book has found such a good home.

I’ll be telling you more about The Rift, and about the new edition of The Race here before too long. In the meantime I just want to say thank you to Cath and to Natalie and to the whole Titan team for bringing me on board and making me feel so welcome.

You can read Titan’s official announcement at here.

Man Booker Longlist 2015

Awards again, and after days of heady anticipation at what might be on there, I found myself scanning this year’s Booker Prize longlist as it was revealed yesterday with something approaching gloom. The more I looked the more disappointed I felt, and yet I found it difficult to articulate clearly why this might be. There was no book (well, perhaps one) I could point to that I felt shouldn’t be on the list. The line-up was, as some commentators have pointed out, one of the most encouraging in terms of diversity and gender parity that we have so far seen from the Booker. So why did the longlist leave me underwhelmed?

I could of course point to the list’s very low speculative fiction quotient as a source of dissatisfaction. There is only one novel of SFF interest in evidence, and that novel, Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, is one of the most disappointing I’ve read all year. Smaill is clearly a gifted and sensitive writer but as a novel The Chimes is as weak as water, a book that is completely overshadowed by its derivative second half. What with the exceptional novels of literary SF that could have been chosen instead – Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, Laura Van Den Berg’s Find Me, Sara Taylor’s The Shore to name but three – I couldn’t help asking myself which of the judges had insisted on pushing The Chimes. One who loved the use of musical terminology and who by some fluke happened never to have read a single dystopia or YA novel? Some readers will know what it costs me to say this, but I would rather have seen Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things on the Booker longlist than The Chimes. I couldn’t stand the Faber but I couldn’t mistake its ambition either. The Chimes is just bland.

[EDIT: someone has very kindly pointed me towards this fascinating review at Locus, in which Paul di Filippo (very convincingly I might add) compares Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island with PKD and particularly with Ballard, which reminds me that I really should have mentioned Tom McCarthy in this discussion. Booker junkies will well remember 2010, when McCarthy’s C made the shortlist and was hailed as a great modernist gamechanger for doing so. I remember C with great affection – the prose is superb, refined and clear and pure as Caithness crystal – and looking back on that 2010 shortlist now it seems the best book on there by a marathon’s distance and obviously should have won. Which brings me to the point about Tom McCarthy and the Booker, and the reason I subconsciously sidelined him in my thinking: Satin Island is clearly the sacrificial lamb on this longlist, the single curt nod to modernism the judges felt compelled to deliver or else fall foul of the usual criticisms about the Booker being hidebound and conservative. Satin Island stands proud from the overall tone and tenor of the shortlist as a whole like a pulled stitch in an elaborate tapestry. McCarthy will not be allowed to win any more than he was in 2010. I doubt he will even be allowed to progress to the shortlist this time. Still, the prompting towards di Philippo’s review has reminded me that I need to read Satin Island – in fact I’ve just ordered it – and here’s hoping I’ve been totally wrong and unfair in prejudging the judges!]

It would be wrong to put my disappointment down to SF-related disgruntlement alone though, especially given that the Booker could hardly be described as a prize that centres its attention on speculative fiction. The more I thought about it, the more I realised the main reason I felt disappointed was simply because the longlist was not the longlist I would have chosen. It was the same with the Clarke earlier this year. Plenty of people loved that list. I found it stolidly centrist, a representation not of the hardscrabble edgelands of the genre but of its commercial heartland. The progressive edge of that heartland, to be sure, but still nothing you could point to (except, ironically, the Faber!) as actively adventurous. I suppose my feelings about this particular Booker longlist are somewhat similar, compounded by the fact that the Booker submissions process is now so tortuous and preferential that we cannot even be sure which novels were allowed to be in contention in the first place. I know that Clarke Award chairman Tom Hunter has sometimes agonized over publishing the Clarke Award submissions list: does anyone really gain anything from seeing this list, or does it just open another big can of worms? I assure you, Tom, the transparency surrounding the Clarke’s award process is one of its strongest attributes and should not be compromised.

My disappointment with the Booker longlist list is certainly no more valid than anyone else’s excitement. It does, however, serve as a reminder that all juried prize selections are a compromise at some level, the sum of a small number of personal proclivities and a healthy dose of mutual horse-trading. It has often occurred to me that most prize selections are probably more instructive in retrospect, offering an overview of a literary scene whose trends and peculiarities become properly visible only with distance. Within the context of its given year, the Booker longlist is always going to look pretty random.

Which is all the more reason to get as many random snapshots as we possibly can. Rather than be depressed by a prize selection, how much more interesting and productive to use it is a starting point for exploration and discussion. As ordinary readers we don’t have the resources to award writers the lucrative prize monies that the Booker, for example, is able to offer. What we can do though is share our passion for the books and writers that excite us. Which is why I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and put up my own personal preferred Booker longlist just for the fun of it, as selected from those of the eligible novels I’ve read, those I have sampled and others that I’ve heard about and can’t wait to get stuck into.

1) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. One from the official longlist, one I think will almost certainly make the shortlist, and one I definitely intend to read before the winner is announced. ‘I don’t think it was a book that anyone loved’, said Yanagihara in a recent interview of her first novel, The People in the Trees. Well, she’s wrong in at least one instance, because I did love that novel. I loved the form it took – fictional (auto)biographies are a favourite of mine, especially when combined with fictitious footnotes by a fictitious editor, and recounted by an unreliable narrator as superbly drawn as Yanagihara’s odious Norton Perina. For me The People in the Trees remains firmly on my favourites list for 2014. Yanagihara’s follow-up, A Little Life has had some of the most rapturous reader reviews I’ve seen in 2015 and with the excellence of Yanagihara’s writing in mind I can’t say I’m surprised. The premise doesn’t grab me nearly as much, I have to say – from where I’m sitting now, the novel seems to have a little too much of The Goldfinch about it for my liking, a baggy-monster-y, Franzen-y, conventional-narrative-y kind of a novel, the kind that all too often has me thinking:  this is great to read but what’s the point?? My curiosity has the better of me, though, and I’m going to have to read it just so I can make up my own mind. We’ve already pre-ordered it, so watch this space.

2) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Another from the official longlist, and a book that grabbed my attention from the moment I first started reading about it, when was it, around March time? This takes me back to 2013, when the two books from the Booker longlist I felt most determined to read also happened to be the two longest: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Richard House’s (utterly superb and still under-appreciated) The Kills. I emerged enriched by the experience, though, and I’m hoping and expecting I will do so again this year.

3) The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. As a reader, you can never predict with absolute certainly what books you’re going to love the most, and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border is the proof of that for me. As I become more and more enmeshed in my own weird little corner of literature, the more difficult I find it (much to my regret) to become ensnared by what might be described as a ‘straightforward’ linear narrative. Which makes it all the more magical when it does happen, and I can honestly say that I haven’t loved a book as much as I loved The Wolf Border in the way I loved The Wolf Border in quite some time. I identified strongly with the protagonist, I cared passionately about the outcome, I found the sense of place exquisite and hugely important, with Hall’s writing flawless to the point of invisibility. Hall missed out on a Baileys listing and her non-appearance on the Booker longlist is incomprehensible to me. Please read this book.

4) Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. I have a review of this coming up in Strange Horizons, which I don’t want to pre-empt too much by saying: go out and buy this stunning debut novel right now!

5) Rawblood by Catriona Ward. So excited for this, as the grammatically mangled but colloquially compelling saying goes. It’s set on Dartmoor, it has intertwined narratives, it has a haunted house vibe. The opening pages are wonderful and I can’t wait to read it.

6) The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Another book that caught my attention earlier in the year. Another one from the official longlist, too, so maybe that official longlist wasn’t so bad after all…

7) Green Glowing Skull by Gavin Corbett. I bought this on the strength of John Self’s review and the Kindle preview. I adored what I read and this may very well be next up on my TBR.

8) The Making of Zombie Wars by Alexandar Hemon. I love and admire everything Hemon writes, and his new novel features ideas for imaginary zombie movies. How could I not want this right now? Pre-ordered.

9) The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood. I’m choosing Atwood for my ‘big hitter/previous shortlistee’ spot, because she’s a personal hero of mine, because this novel is full-blown SF (seriously, when are people going to stop saying that Atwood is a dabbler? Most of her output for over a decade has been science fiction) and because the word on the street is that it’s her best novel in years. Seriously excited for this.

10) The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips. An intertwining of narratives featuring Emily Bronte, the character of Heathcliff and a woman in the twentieth century struggling with issues of sanity, family and identity. I read reviews of this and loved the premise immediately. The prose is mouthwateringly good. TBR asap.

11) Book of Memory by Petina Gappah. A woman on death row in Harare writes an account of what brought her there. Petina Gappah is one hell of a writer, as evidenced by her first book, the story collection An Elegy for Easterly. This is her first novel and I can’t wait.

12) The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen. This novel fills my ‘devil’s advocate’ slot (or the Wil[Sel]f Slot as we call it in this house – perhaps we should start calling it the Tom slot instead…) Cohen’s novel has divided opinion pretty much equally between those who say it’s the funniest, cleverest book of the year and those who say that everyone in it is a dick and that the author must be a dick to have written it, and a pretentious dick, too. Certainly everyone in the book seems to be an absolute arsehole, but since when has that put me off reading anything? I love metafiction, and I can’t help feeling intrigued and attracted by what Cohen is doing here. In spite of myself, I want to read it. Only time will tell if I come to regret that desire.

13) The Weightless World by Anthony Trevelyan. Coming in on the indie ticket we have a novel from Galley Beggar, who brought us Eimear McBride’s multi-award-winning A Girl is a Half-formed Thing in 2013. Galley Beggar have published some remarkable books already, and I have heard such wonderful things about Trevelyan’s debut. It comes with a fantastic speculative conceit, too.

So that’s the fantasy longlist out of my system. And my on-the-spot predictions for the actual Booker shortlist? Based purely on personal hunches, I’m going with:

A Little Life


The Year of the Runaways

The Fishermen

The Illuminations

The Green Road

We’ll find out what the judges thought on September 15th.