Günter Grass 1927 – 2015

We formed a triangle. My throbbing tooth went quiet – because Mahlke’s Adam’s apple, to the cat at least, had become all mouselike. The cat was so young, and that thing of Mahlke’s was bobbing like mad  – in any case, the beast went for his throat.  Or one of us grabbed the cat and dumped it on his neck. Or I did, with or without my toothache. Lured the cat over and showed it Mahlke’s mouse. And Joachim Mahlke screamed. And yet all he had to show for it were a few puny scratches.

(From Cat and Mouse, 1961. Translation mine.)

grass.katzundmausCat and Mouse takes place in Danzig, Günter Grass’s home city, a microcosm of greater Europe that affected his whole outlook, as a human being and as a writer. Our narrator Pilenz, as might be inferred from the extract above, is as unreliable as they come. He tells us anecdotes about Joachim Mahlke – school misfit, daredevil diver and champion masturbator. Between the cracks of his story, Hitler comes to power and the boys become soldiers. The cat is awake, the mouse is on the run. Outrages are perpetrated, speeches are made. But who was it that set the cat on Mahlke’s mouse?

Cat and Mouse was one of the first novels I read by a major European author and quietly, devastatingly it transformed my vision, my ideas about what a book might be for. Grass’s language, or rather Pilenz’s, with its odd angularities and unintentional acts of poetry, was something of a struggle for me at first, its complexities hidden, as the language of teenagers often is, by a looseness of expression that can be hard to decipher. But once I fell into its rhythm I found myself entranced, horrified, aghast at what was happening, among this group of boys in Danzig and in the world beyond. This short novel, which I read for the first time more than thirty years ago, has stayed with me, taut as a scar, right through to the present, and I love it dearly. I loved The Tin Drum after it, and then another Danzig novel, the quietly moving Unkenrufe.  I bought and read Im Krebsgang when it first came out, in 2002, and although it lacked the youthful urgency and rawness of Katz und Maus (as of course it would) I found it to be a blistering, brilliant, deeply angry novel that inspired and affected me in equal measure.

You might not always agree with Günter Grass, but who the hell cares. Grass’s commitment to life, to the act of writing, to literature, to the personal search for truth and the unearthing of unwelcome but necessary realities remained absolute. He was everything a Nobel laureate should be. He increased the sum of who we are by what he wrote, even when what he wrote veered wildly off-beam. I love him for the example he set us, as writers, in always treating the words we choose to set down with the utmost seriousness. He rocked my world and I’ll never forget that.

An era is over.

The 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist

The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. Carey (Orbit)
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber (Canongate)
Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta (HarperVoyager)
The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North (Orbit)
Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel (Picador)

So finally we have our shortlist! With its emphasis on well-styled, immersive, strongly narrative soft science fiction novels with a mainstream crossover appeal, this would appear to be the most cohesive Clarke line-up we’ve had in some time. Although more than half the shortlist has already featured on other awards lists – Europe in Autumn on the BSFA, Memory of Water on the Kitschies, The Girl with all the Gifts on the Herbert, Station Eleven on the National Book Awards – none of the writers selected has ever competed for the Clarke before, which makes this list notable all by itself.

It’s also interesting to note that none of the six shortlisted titles would appear to place much emphasis on the ‘science’ part of science fiction. With two alternate realities, two post-apocalypse novels, one zombie novel and… the Michel Faber, it could be argued that this shortlist is something of an indicator for current trends in science fiction.

But that’s all I’m going to say for now. I’ve already read four out of the six shortlisted works. I intend to read the remaining two before putting some thoughts together at greater length. Until then, congratulations to all the nominees. I know who my money’s on!

You can read more about the nominees, including Tom Hunter’s full statement on the publication of the Clarke shortlist here.

Crime blog #7

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ngeverything.ng

If there’s one sub-section within the crime genre that I have a particular fondness for, it’s crime novels in which no actual crime takes place. Ng’s novel opens not with a death, but with the knowledge of a death – Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. A family sit together having breakfast, filled with their own concerns and immersed in routines so familiar they perform them on autopilot with no idea that these moments of normality are about to end. This feels so familiar, the opening of so many crime novels and TV series. A body will be discovered, the family, devastated, will be plunged into a new routine of suspicion and counter-suspicion, dark secrets will be uncovered as we, along with them, seek insight into the identity of the murderer.

This novel is different, however. Ng selects an omniscient third person point of view to tell her story, a choice that is not only unusual these days, but – to my mind at least – the most difficult to engineer successfully. I felt discomfited by it at first – multiple viewpoints in a single paragraph, I thought, ugh – but it wasn’t long before I was entirely seduced by Ng’s storytelling. Her writing has an honest, unfettered quality that is compelling. She tells instead of shows whenever she damn well feels like it, and I was cheering her on. It would seem that what matters most to Ng is not to appear clever, to demonstrate virtuosity or fireworks or how much she knows about how to write, but to tell this story about these five (six, if you count Jack, which you should) characters, to allow us access to the hidden corners of their lives.

Other readers have spoken about this book as a social novel, a novel about racism, about women’s emancipation, about the 1970s, about family. It is all of those things. The feminist and race issues are sensitively handled – one experiences sympathy for both Marilyn and James as a dull ache, an echo of their own isolations and anxieties – and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about family that so wonderfully evokes the tangled skein of relationships and resentments, fears and conflicting loyalties that exist between people who have become estranged but who nonetheless are bound together, indivisibly, by love. But there’s more than that here, and there’s nothing even remotely ‘worthy’ about this novel, which is, fundamentally, a story about individual people struggling to find their way.

It’s a book about mistakes, and regret, and accommodation. There are moments of pure linguistic wonder, observations and feelings so perfectly, so effortlessly caught, it’s like watching a film.

the fever. abbottWhile I was reading I couldn’t help comparing this novel with The Fever, by Megan Abbott, another ‘odd’ crime novel (my favourite kind) that I read last month. Abbott’s mastery of the teenage mind is amazing – I’ve not read so accurate a transcription of the madness and malice and vulnerability of schoolgirls in a long time – and her use of language is superb. I’d say that The Fever is ‘better written’ than Everything You Never Told Me – Abbott’s turns of phrase are sublime, disturbing, and difficult to ignore – but that it is Ng’s book you will best remember, and enjoy, and recommend to others. In spite of everything, it ends well, it ends beautifully. A quietly resounding success.

The Clarke Award submissions list is out!

There seems to have been some debate this year as to the value of posting the ACCA submissions list – do people really care, does discussion of what’s actually on the list get derailed in a bluster of conspiracy theories about which books have been omitted, and why? I would answer yes and no to these two questions, respectively, and I’m happy to see that the Clarke Award’s director, Tom Hunter, would appear to have drawn a similar conclusion about the value of revealing the submissions to public scrutiny:

“Keen award watchers could get a better overview of exactly what was and wasn’t in consideration, and people could also enjoy trying to guess ahead and predict the judges’ decisions. Trust us, it’s tougher than it looks to turn over 100 books into a list of just 6.

It’s also a brilliant way to show an overview of the UK publishing scene, who is publishing the most books, which imprints are new on the scene, what’s the gender split of titles across the list (we checked that one, it’s about 1 in 4, same as the last few years) and how many past winner and shortlistees have new books in contention.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I’m delighted to see that debate has started already. The full submissions list can be found here, and as always it throws up some interesting surprises. Normally I would enjoy making a list of my own shortlist predictions, but with a book on that submissions list myself this year, I think it would be… weird for me to do that. But what I’d like to do instead and to celebrate the official opening of Clarke season is highlight a few of the titles that weren’t on my radar before, but that now, thanks to the submissions list, most certainly are.

1) Babayaga by Toby Barlow (Atlantic). Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, a werewolf novel in epic verse, is a work of genius, the kind of writing that makes all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end at its joyous brilliance. I hadn’t known he had a new book out. and this one – a Cold War story set in Paris, with witches – looks truly fantastic.

2) Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (Granta). I’m fibbing here, because this has been on my radar for months. I can’t resist mentioning it though, just in case anyone reading this hasn’t heard of it yet. I love the premise – a video adventure game bleeds over into the real world – and I love the writing. In fact the only reason I haven’t read Wolf in White Van already is because I feel I know in advance that I’m going to love it. If that makes sense.

3) The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (Weidenfeld & Nicholson). I vaguely heard word of this ages ago, before it was published, but had completely forgotten about it. This novel – set in a world oppressed by technology where the written word is being phased out – looks as if it might have themes and concerns in common with Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, which is reason enough to recommend it to me all by itself.

4) The Monster’s Wife by Kate Horsley (Barbican Press). I’ve just read the preview for this and it looks really interesting. A mysterious Dr Frankenstein arrives on a remote Scottish island. His intent? To create a wife for the creature he has already unleashed. The most obvious comparison is with Valerie Martin’s wonderful Mary Reilly, but this book would seem to have a flavour and texture and language all its own. Definitely want to read this.

5) God’s Dog by Diego Marani (Dedalus). Marani is familiar to me from his previous novel, New Finnish Grammar, but again, I had no idea he had a new book out. A crime novel set in a future theocracy, with Vatican spies? Literary science fiction asking these kind of big questions is always welcome on my shelves. Great to see Dedalus sending stuff in, too.

6) After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail). Another fib, because I’ve not only heard of this, it’s actually on my Kindle, ready to read. Sarah Perry would seem to be one of the most promising and original new writers around at the moment, someone who’s interested in tackling speculative themes in a serious and thought-provoking way. I think such writers should be promoted and supported wherever possible, and I’m delighted to see her debut on the list of Clarke submissions.

7) Indigo by Clemens J. Setz (Serpent’s Tail). Another one from Serpent’s Tail, and this was the first of my ‘unknowns’ to immediately catch my attention and make me want to write this post. A metafictional European mystery set in the future with found documents and the author as one of the characters? That is so totally my kind of book. Wish I’d written it myself!

8) Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla (The Friday Project). And yeah, I knew about this one already too (indeed I’ve just bought it), but Shukla is such a wonderful writer I couldn’t not mention him. Plus it’s a postmodern novel about internet doppelgangers. How could I resist?

These are the kind of books science fiction needs to push its envelope. It’s wonderful to see them making their way on to the submissions list of one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards.

 

The Wolf Border

sarah hall the wolf borderSarah Hall has been on science fiction’s radar ever since 2008, when her third novel The Carhullan Army, a feminist re-imagining of the near-future dystopia, was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Those hoping for a similarly explicit exploration of speculative themes in Hall’s new novel The Wolf Border may find themselves disappointed. Yes, the book is set in an alternate near-future, but the differences between this world and our own – or at least those differences Hall chooses to show us – appear undramatic: the Scottish referendum results in a ‘yes’ vote, pound notes still exist. Such divergences aside, the world as we know it today continues unchanged.

Hall’s process is more subtle than that, however. The stories in her recent collection The Beautiful Indifference could fairly be classified as ‘realistic’ – as mainstream literary fiction, in other words. And yet. There is a sense of something other there, too, the intercession of the numinous, the speculative, the raw nerve endings of the horrific (I would count her story ‘She Murdered Mortal He’, which contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, as one of the greatest horror stories I have read in recent years).  It is to this realm of the speculative – mysterious, unstated, instinctive – that The Wolf Border belongs. As a writer, Hall seems to be growing stronger with each book she publishes. The Wolf Border is unsensationally sensational.

The novel tells the story of Rachel Caine, a woman in her early forties who has devoted her life to the study and conservation of wolves in the wild. She has spent the past ten years in Idaho, tracking the migrations of the native wolves to and from the Canadian forests. Being in America suits Rachel just fine, not only because of her work on the reservation but because her native Cumbria has become a place of regret, family disagreement and troubling echoes from the past. A new job offer, plus a sudden and dramatic change in Rachel’s circumstance brings her home at last. The novel charts Rachel’s personal journey towards a new beginning as naturally as it charts the passage of the seasons. There is drama and there is conflict, there are hidden secrets and reawakened griefs, there is heart-stopping joy. All these things feel real, as the weather of Cumbria feels real and the plight of the wolves feels real. The plot reveals itself as the subset of character, rather than (as so tediously often) the other way around. There is no sense here of artificially upping the ante for the sake of ‘narrative drive’ or ‘jeopardy’ or some other, similarly treacherous commercial convention.

Instead, there are moments of true wonder, and what The Wolf Border reveals most tellingly is the magic that exists in the world, in our own private dialogue with existence, in our relationship with the landscapes that mark us, in the necessity of working out who we are and what we are for. I’m being deliberately unspecific about this novel, because I loved it so much. The most helpful thing I feel I can say about it is that I cannot remember the last time I cared so passionately, so personally, about a story’s outcome. The Wolf Border is the perfect fusion between fiction and reality, between the speculative and the mimetic. Hall brings insight to the commonplace, illuminating and ambushing the real with the revelatory spotlight of hyper-reality. It is such insistent modes of being and seeing that, for me, help to define the core of what speculative fiction is mostly about.

The horror? Which horror?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year’s Top Ten Tales of Science Fiction 7

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

1.       “Marielena” by Nina Allan

2.       “Covenant” by Elizabeth Bear

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

4.       “Sadness” by Timon Esaias

5.       “Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages

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

7.       “The Sarcophagus” by Robert Reed

8.       “In Babelsberg” by Alastair Reynolds

9.       “Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick

10.     “The Colonel” by Peter Watts

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

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

On the side of the ogres and pixies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other doors than these

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Race on special offer!

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

Kindle format here

Other formats here

therace.jacket