Not us, guv

In a minor victory in the war on arse, Hastings voters, at least, manage to ditch their only UKIP councillor.

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Hab’ mir’s gelobt…

Take a look at this YouTube footage of  the Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, talking about her experiences of performing at a gala concert, and proving in just a few short moments of onstage coverage that a more stunningly vivacious, intelligent and communicative singer would be hard to find. The desire, as she puts it herself, to ‘tell stories’ through her music just explodes out of her. Her singing voice, it goes almost without saying, is effortlessly sublime.

To think of a musician of such high calibre and such obvious personal charisma having to read reviews of her recent Glyndebourne performance as Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and see herself described – and this in the broadsheets – by people who are considered to be some of this country’s top music critics, variously as ‘a chubby bundle of puppy fat’ (Andrew Clark, FT), ‘a dumpy girl’ (Michael Church, Independent – only there’s no point in my linking to that review, because it has since been reworded), and ”unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing’ (Richard Morrison, The Times), is utterly shameful. ‘It’s hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy women’s plausible lover’, insists Andrew Clements of The Guardian.

As Jessica Duchen says in The Independent, ‘why shouldn’t the women in [Octavian's] life be attracted to personality rather than height? Richard Jones’s production offers a bright, sassy, postmodern approach, ditching every one of its tradition’s sacred cows – Octavian included.’ She goes on to point out that ‘opera’s men do not face the same problem. Take the eponymous hero in Wagner’s Siegfried. Like Octavian, he is probably meant to be about 17. But we don’t generally hear complaints about the hefty Heldentenors who sing him not looking like petulant adolescents. Consider this at leisure.’

The sexist abuse – because I’m afraid that’s what it is – handed out to Erraught is distressing to read. It also highlights the continuing problem of sexism in classical music generally. It’s only a couple of months since we heard Vasili Petrenko, chief conductor of the RLPO, insist that ‘when women have families it is difficult to be as dedicated as is required in this business’ and ‘a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else’. There’s something seriously rotten in the fabric of the classical music world when a musician in such a senior role – and in all other respects immensely talented – feels that it’s normal and OK to express opinions that, had he actually stopped for a moment to think them through, he would surely have realised were not only offensive but poorly informed.

Similarly, I felt upset and dismayed when, just a couple of days ago, I happened to pick up a classical music magazine from a station news stand and the first thing to strike my eye was a double-page photo of the trumpet player Alison Balsom, in a gold off-the-shoulder dress, reclining on a sofa, hugging her instrument. Balsom is an amazing musician. Why then is she being marketed as a sexual commodity? Why are things like this still happening in classical music, not just occasionally but as a general rule?

Is classical music turning out to be one of the last bastions of this kind of conservatism, an arena in which it’s still perfectly permissible to criticise a woman for being too old, too heavy, not photogenic enough? As someone for whom classical music has been a hugely important part of her life since the age of twelve, I find that thought profoundly appalling. If classical music wants to stop being thought of by most of the world as a weird, stuffy, outmoded culture where everyone speaks in plummy accents, where you have to know all the secret passwords to gain access, and that no one under the age of sixty is even remotely interested in anyway, then it’s time for its movers and shakers to damn well wise up.

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One year old…

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Some lovely news to share

I’m very happy indeed to announce that my story The Gateway (Stardust/PS Publishing) has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award in the Best Novella category.

Every year I look to the Shirley Jackson Awards shortlists for a year end summary of the best in horror and dark fiction, checking to make sure there’s nothing I’ve missed, feeling pleased that the judges have taken note of works that have particularly impressed me. If you look back at the nominations slates since the award’s inception in 2007 you’ll find they include much of the most original and accomplished contemporary horror being written, and the list of winners is more or less a who’s who of modern dark fantasy. To find my own work being acknowledged in this way is nothing short of mind-blowing.

This year’s lists highlight some fantastic works, as always. It’s particularly lovely to see my PS and TTA Press cohort Rosanne Rabinowitz being nominated for her Machen-inspired novella Helen’s Story, the amazing Rob Shearman for his short story ‘That Tiny Flutter of the Heart’, and the perennially brilliant Tanith Lee for her novelette ‘A Little of the Night’. (Indeed, British talent makes a grand showing across the board this year.) Other favourites among the nominations include Kit Reed’s collection The Story Until Now, Ramsey Campbell’s novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, Nathan Ballingrud’s collection North American Lake Monsters, Livia Llewellyn’s short story ‘Furnace’, and in the novel category I shall be rooting particularly for Joyce Carol Oates’s resplendent The Accursed. But really, every nominee deserves a special mention because they are all such amazing and inspiring writers, every one.

Congratulations and good luck to all.

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The devil you know all too well

It would seem contrary and perhaps churlish to abandon a 600-page novel a mere 120 pages before the end. Yet this is precisely what I almost did with Marisha Pessl’s second novel, a voluminous horror epic entitled Night Film. I did soldier on to the end – more for reasons of fairness than out of any hope that the book might, after all, turn out to have been worth my time. I knew already in my gut that the enterprise was doomed, the one unanswerable question remaining: what was she thinking???

I was keen to read Night Film from the moment I first heard about it – a ‘serious’ horror novel about a fictional director of horror movies, examining ideas of truth and fiction and making use of a metafictional format, what’s not to like? Plenty, according to Steven Poole of The Guardian, although his  unequivocally damning review made me even more curious, if anything. Horror is a woefully misunderstood genre. Perhaps Poole’s review was yet one more instance of a mainstream critic getting it wrong. I loved the look of the book as object – all those found-footage-style embedded texts and general stuff.  I wondered if Night Film was, after all, the horror novel of the year that everyone had missed.

The short answer is: no, it isn’t. I’d say the only thing wrong with Poole’s review is that it doesn’t go far enough in unmasking an essay in genre that is flat, unconvincing, derivative and, most of all, in no way justifies its length. It’s ludicrous that a book that finally contains so little should run on for so long. I ask again: what was she thinking???

Horror film is an irresistible subject, both for horror readers and for horror writers. We might point to Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images and The Grin of the Dark, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions, Theodore Roszak’s masterful Flicker, the late, great Joel Lane’s superb novella The Witnesses are Gone as examples of novels that delve into the idea of the ‘lost film’ or the ‘mad’ director whose work embodied the concept of the forbidden, the transgressive, the Bad Genius. I love books like this – both because I’m a (not so closet) horror film fan myself, and because the theme of the ‘lost text’ offers countless possibilities for the kind of fascinatingly complex narrative structure I particularly enjoy.

Night Film begins promisingly enough. Ashley Cordova, the daughter of notorious and reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova, is found dead at the bottom of a lift shaft of a derelict warehouse. Her death looks like suicide, but for journalist Scott McGrath, whose career was wrecked by a discredited investigation into the satanic mysteries of Cordova some years before, it also provides the perfect opportunity for him to reclaim his reputation.

Cordova’s films are extreme in nature, at least as scary as his devout legions of fans. Pessl’s narrative is interspersed with newspaper reports, police files, and screenshots taken from the underground internet fan site The Blackboards. (‘You shouldn’t be here – Get Out.’) For the first third of the novel I was entranced, convinced that Pessl’s reams of unnecessary italics and the dorkish sensibilities of her protagonist would turn out to contain some kind of ironic subtext, that the novel was setting itself up as a straightforward and increasingly predictable ‘hunt’ narrative only for the deliberate purposes of knowingly undermining itself later.

Why else would Scott McGrath be such a retrograde knob? Why else would each and every so-called witness, all desperately elusive only in fact not, commit the sin of the ‘you will die horribly, Mr Bond, but not until I have outlined for you in painstaking detail my dastardly plan for world domination’ trope, one after the other? Why else would the book be so… goddamned… long???

The answer is: I don’t know. The story revealed by Night Film is wholly unoriginal, itself a retread of so many bog standard Hollywood horror movies. Pessl’s pretty textual gimmicks turn out to be nothing more than stage decoration. An accusation commonly levelled at so-called ‘literary SF’ is that it insists on reinventing the wheel. In eight cases out of ten I wouldn’t find much to argue with in such a statement, only that the literary merit of some of these offerings makes them at least worthy of further discussion. In the case of Night Film, we have a novel that in terms of its contribution to horror literature is less than negligible. And while Pessl’s writing is competent and demonstrates some nice turns of phrase, these in no way justify the appalling bloat you have to wade through to get to them.

My advice to the author? Get out there and read some decent horror before you try writing any more. My advice to readers? This book is a time-thief – don’t go there.

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The Wind in Spain

I’m thrilled to announce that The Silver Wind is coming to Spain!

The Spanish title will be Maquinas del Tiempo and the translation, underway as we speak, is by Carmen Torres and Laura Naranjo. The publisher is Nevsky Prospects, a small team of independent booklovers who are demonstrably passionate about weird fiction and committed to bringing new and international voices to a Spanish audience. One of their most recent publications is Karin Tidbeck’s brilliant debut collection Jagannath, which gives you an immediate indication of what an exciting vision these people have. Their books are also things of great beauty.  I’m delighted and excited that Maquinas del Tiempo will have such gifted and caring custodians on Spanish soil.

The book will feature an introduction by the writer and weird fiction devotee Sofia Rhei, who brought The Silver Wind to the attention of Marian and James at Nevsky in the first instance. The gorgeous cover design by Eva Ramon (who also designed the cover for Jagannath) has just been unveiled, and I for one couldn’t be happier with it.

Maquinas del Tiempo is due for release later this year. Watch this space for further details.

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Spin to win!

The last half hour has brought me emails and phone calls from various lovely people currently at Eastercon, with the news that my novella Spin has won the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction. To say I am thrilled, honoured and utterly gobsmacked would be an understatement. This post is just to thank everyone who voted for Spin. I feel deeply touched that members of the BSFA and of Eastercon – my home team! – have granted my work this fine accolade. I’m just sorry I couldn’t be in Glasgow to celebrate the award in person.

Huge thanks also to Andy Cox of TTA Press, who made the book a reality. I’m feeling very happy right now.

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The Race – cover artwork revealed!

I’m thrilled to be able to reveal the cover artwork for my novel The Race, out this summer from NewCon Press. The image is by Ben Baldwin, and I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that it is stunning.

Ben has illustrated my stories many times, and when he enquired about designing the cover artwork for The Race I was delighted. Ben prefers to read a work in full before beginning to think about how he might illustrate it, and his understanding of what I write has always been so intuitive and so accurate I knew I would love whatever he came up with. I was not wrong.

Like all Ben’s work, the cover for The Race has a lyrical and haunting quality that meshes perfectly with the novel’s main themes. I asked Ben if he would design a wraparound cover, because I have a particular liking for them. The design draws inspiration from the work of Escher, with its dance-like, repeating rhythms.

Thank you, Ben. I love it.

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Back to Blighty

That is one long flight.

Including the initial ‘hop’ from Launceston back to Sydney, I spent all of Friday and part of Saturday in the air, basically, and in spite of it offering the more or less unique opportunity to see Sydney Harbour Bridge and the blazing lights of Singapore from the air that is not an experience I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone.

But what a trip.

The past three weeks have been inspiring and transformative in a multitude of ways. The chance to begin to know Australia and specifically Tasmania feels no less important to me and to my writing than the months I spent in Russia in the late 1980s – although of course the two experiences could hardly have been more different. It’s hard to sum up my thoughts in any coherent way here – I’m still very much in the process of absorbing what I’ve seen – but I will say that I feel so lucky to have visited Australia at what feels like precisely the right time for me, a time when particular sets of ideas and imagery have been recurring and expanding, needing a setting and a context that Tasmania’s spaces and history have allowed me to imagine.

I did try to blog – just once – from Cradle Mountain, where there was no phone signal but (bizarrely) there was WiFi. Sadly that WiFi was too erratic to deal with much, so I gave up on it. I made notes though – loads of notes – and the ideas for a story I’ve been wanting to write have coalesced and strengthened. It’ll be a while before this work sees the light of day – there are other things in the queue ahead of it, and in any case, the process of reading and thinking and storymaking is only just beginning – but I hope that when I’m eventually ready to write it, this (novel?) will recapture and shape and quantify at least a small part of what my time in Tasmania has given me.

It would be impossible to name everyone individually who helped to make the trip so memorable and so marvellous – there are many whose names we never even learned – but it would be wrong to end this post without thanking the people of Tasmania generally, some of the friendliest I’ve ever met, whose openness, welcoming attitude and lively engagement with and commitment to their landscape, heritage, and natural and social history I found liberating and life-changing.

My mum has all the best photos – she’s a better photographer than I am, which makes me a lazy and inconsistent one – so I might post some of hers when she gets around to emailing them across. In the meantime, here are just a few I have here on my hard drive.

'Matrix' waterfall, Sydney (photo by Peter Allan)

On Bondi Beach (photo by Peter Allan)

Descending from Marion's Lookout, Cradle Mountain National Park

Button Grass and Snow Gum

Cradle

Hazard's Beach

The Nile Chapel, Deddington

Old house, Deddington

Cataract Gorge, Launceston

 

 

 

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Intermission

This is just to let everyone know that my blog may go quiet for the next couple of weeks. This does not mean I’ve resigned my interest in things science fictional – it means I’m in Australia.

My mum turned 70 this year, and as a special birthday present to herself, decided she wanted us to go on a trip together, first to visit my brother in Sydney, and then on to Tasmania to explore the wilderness parks there. So that’s what we’re doing. We fly out this evening, return on April 11th/12th. This truly is the chance of a lifetime, a journey I could never have afforded to make without my mum’s generosity, so big thanks to her.

We’ll be staying in and around Mole Creek, Cradle Mountain, and St Mary’s on the northeast coast. I’m hoping to record my experiences in a sort-of journal day by day, and already have ideas for stories I might want to write later. I’m sure these will evolve and change as I go along.

What I’m not sure about though is what my internet access is going to be like – some of the places we’re travelling to are pretty far-flung. I will blog from Tasmania if I possibly can – otherwise bear with me, I’ll be posting updates and photos and news as soon as possible after April 12th.

Similarly, if any of you happen to email me over the next couple of weeks and I don’t get back to you as quickly as I would like to, don’t worry – normal service will be resumed asap.

In the meantime, why not provide me with some good old-fashioned awards scandals to get me incensed about on my return..?

See you on the other side.

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