I guess the word is… tentacular?

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


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

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

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

Crime blog #6

Tony and Susan by Austin Wright tony&susan.cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Race – real-time review

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

James Herbert Award – the inaugural shortlist

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

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

The Troop by Nick Cutter (Headline)

Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (Macmillan)

Bird Box by Josh Malerman (Harper/Voyager)

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (Tartarus)

An English Ghost Story by Kim Newman (Titan Books)

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

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

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

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

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

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

That will be something to get people talking.

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

Nominating for the BSFA Awards – non-fiction focus

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nominating for the BSFA Awards – short fiction focus

Nominations for this year’s BSFA Awards close on January 31st. In order for the awards to be truly representative of what’s going on in science fiction right now, we need as many people who are eligible to nominate, to nominate. Even if there’s just one SF novel you read last year that you feel passionate about, nominate that. If you’re a member of the BSFA, or a member of this year’s Eastercon, get your nominations in before the deadline here!

I haven’t decided on my final BSFA ballot quite yet. There are a couple more books I’m hoping to get read before the deadline (including this one – guess who purloined my copy!) I am still reading 2014 short fiction. too, and it’s short fiction I want to concentrate on in this post. I’ve felt quite depressed in recent years, looking at short fiction awards shortlists which have tended to privilege, again and again, a same few overhyped stories (some of them excellent, but that’s not the point) at the expense of – well, variety, urgency, originality, bizarreness. I can also point to myself as part of the problem – I haven’t been reading anywhere near enough short fiction, which means firstly that I’ve been missing out and secondly that I’ve been over-reliant on the recommendations of other, more valiant souls who I’ve been depending on to do the spadework for me.

The constant refrain at the moment is that there is now so much short fiction published each year that no one has a hope of keeping up with it all.  While it is undoubtedly true that the annual volume of short fiction now makes a comprehensive overview an ideal rather than an obtainable reality, I’ve noticed a dismaying trend recently to meet the impossibility of forming an objective judgement with a round dismissal of everything that’s out there.

I understand this reflex, believe me. What often makes me uneasy about the state of SFF short fiction is not so much the content but the context. I find magazines and anthologies difficult – all too often there’s that rag-bag effect that runs the danger of levelling everything down to a kind of flavourless mush – and I actually prefer reading short fiction within the context of a single-author collection, where you can gain a better sense of the writer’s overall purpose and character. On the other hand,  SFF is unique in offering a level literary playing field within the short fiction market and whatever the inherent problems, our magazine heritage, wherein new writers can and do regularly share ToC space with masters of the field, should not be discarded or denigrated lightly. Rather, this evolving democracy is something we should be proud of, and celebrate.

Just before Christmas I had an epiphany: what if every BSFA Awards voter (and Hugo voter) were to read just twenty pieces of new short fiction every year? Surely this would have at least some impact, not just upon individuals’ knowledge of the field but on their sense of investment in the awards process. Whether through random online reading (one of the most radical advancements in the field in recent years has been the increasing quality and availability of free short fiction online) or through the purchase of magazine subscriptions would be down to individual inclination and cash available, but I honestly do think the twenty-shorts-per-year formula would have a considerable effect on the discourse around short fiction.

Why not try it and see? It’s certainly what I’m going to be doing from now on. I would hope to read a whole lot more than twenty new stories, but I’m setting that as a lower boundary and intend to stick to it, both in the current year and beyond.

For now, I would like to share my thoughts on some of the 2014 short fiction that has caught my attention. One thing that is certain: the field is very far from dead, and with a more informed and passionate discussion we can all help to make it even more exciting. Here goes then with my recommendations to date and in no particular order:



‘The Innocence of a Place’ by Margaret Ronald (Strange Horizons). One of my year’s favourites, this story about an investigation into the disappearance of a group of young women kept reminding me of one of my favourite films, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. I loved the ‘true crime’ style, something  I’m really into at the moment, combined with the personal insights of the narrator. Very much recommended.

‘Never the Same’ by Polenth Blake (Strange Horizons). A woman outcast from her community looks for ways to save it. I liked the narrative voice of this story so much I immediately looked for more fiction by the same author. I found ‘On Shine Wings’ at the Journal of Unlikely Entomology and was not disappointed. This story also features a beautiful illustration by the author, and be sure to check out the interview with Polenth Blake here.

‘Autodidact‘ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Clarkesworld).  Another favourite. ‘On Srisunthorn Station, the corpses of conquered stars are nurtured into ships.’ A survivor of genocide learns to bond with one of these world-ships – but where does her unusual talent really stem from? What I admire most about Sriduangkaew’s work is her own unusual talent for bonding quite spectacular feats of linguistic invention with hi-tech science fictional concepts. Her approach to space opera and urban fantasy is so refreshingly word-based, so tactile. The worlds she creates are harsh – what tenderness there is, is ultimately to be found in the language. You might also like ‘When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice‘ (Solaris Rising 3)

‘Ogres of East Africa’ by Sofia Samatar (Long Hidden).  Another brilliant story from Sofia Samatar. ‘Ogres’ is presented in the form of a series of catalogue entries on the ogres of East Africa, with another story entirely unfolding in the notes scribbled in the margins by the catalogue’s complier. Equally powerful is Samatar’s future dystopia ‘How to Get Back to the Forest’ (Lightspeed) which revisits some of the concerns voiced in ‘Selkie Stories are for Losers’, although this is a very different story.

”Help Me Follow my Sister into the Land of the Dead’ by Carmen Maria Machado (Help Fund My Robot Army). I enjoyed this story so much.  It’s presented in the form of a Kickstarter campaign, with accompanying user comments and FAQs. Humour, horror and great sadness, inventively portrayed. I love stories that do things with form and I love Machado’s writing.

‘The Eleven Holy Numbers of the Mechanical Soul’ by Maria Theodoridou (Clarkesworld). I encountered this story while blogging the Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, and was struck by its technical accomplishment and use of actual science. I have to commend the author’s courage in bringing us a story that is almost one-hundred percent pure bleakness.  This is a story that’s stayed with me. Genuinely original and throught-provoking.

‘The Hymn of Ordeal, No 23′ by Rhiannon Rasmussen (Lightspeed). One of those occasions where you fall completely in love with a story for its imagery and language. A war involving millions condensed into a prose-poem about a brother and sister. There’s stuff here that reminds me of the worlds conjured in Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s stories. You can read this in fewer than ten minutes, but this story’s power will remain with you far longer.

‘A Dweller in Amenty’ by Genevieve Valentine (Nightmare Magazine).

‘You’d think some sins would taste heady, forbidden. Worth it. An affair would be sharply sweet, a murder would taste of panic and lurching triumph, a lie would taste like escape, or spring.

If it did, there would be more of us.

A love affair is stale breath. A murder is sweat. A lie is a fingernail of dirt.’

I’ve been a fan of Genevieve Valentine ever since reading her debut novel, the marvellous Mechanique, and ‘A Dweller in Amenty’ is a powerful little horror story indeed. Based around the legend of the Sin Eater, the dubiously ‘gifted’ individual tasked with taking upon themselves the sins of the deceased in order that their cleansed souls can progress to the afterworld, this is what character-driven horror is all about. The narrator of this story could sustain a whole novel, easily.

‘The Mao Ghost’ by Chen Qiufan (Lightspeed). Ken Liu has done powerful things with the translation here, subtly conveying to non-Chinese speakers such as myself how a single word might carry several meanings, depending on intonation and context. This is a powerful story about a young girl coming to terms with the fact that her father is dying, and learning about what her parents’ generation went through during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Also cats.  This left me eager to read Chen Qiufan’s first novel in English translation, The Waste Tide. Ken Liu describes this as ‘a cyberpunk thriller set in China’s e-waste processing hub’. (Slated for release this year, apparently – I can’t wait.) Check out the author spotlight with Chen Qiufan here, and while you’re at it, do please read Ken Liu’s essay on Chinese SF, ‘China Dreams’, here.

‘One Day I Will Die on Mars’ by Paul Ford (Terraform). An ultra-short snapshot of a future where one particularly rapacious company controls all business – and through that, personal – life in New York and by implication the world. It’s horrific, humorous and prescient all at the same time. Packs a lot into a small space and well worth a read.

‘Targeted Strike 2: Judgement Database’ by Adam Rothstein (Terraform). Another ultra-short, smart piece, this time about censorship, violence and the exercise of power. I particularly liked the cut-up narrative style of this one, and again, there’s a savage amount of content conveyed in a relatively few words. Doesn’t seem right to call this enjoyable but it is.

‘The Damaged’ by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Interzone). An original and beautifully written take on the Frankenstein archetype, ‘The Damaged’ tells the story of Robin Kirkland, a bio-technician who works for a corporation that specializes in the production of AIs known as Playmatez. A playmate is designed to fulfil its owner’s wishes in every conceivable way. Only some of them come out damaged. Robin, damaged in her own way from the fallout of a failed relationship, becomes obsessed with finding out why. There’s a Bladerunner vibe to this story, which contains enough interesting material to fill a novel.

‘Black Paintings’ by James Smythe (Jurassic). This story, inspired by the titular Black Paintings by Goya, utilizes only the barest traces of the speculative, and tends more towards horror than SF, but I found it so good I had to include it. Its amoral businessman protagonist reminded me uncannily of John Law, the antihero of Tobias Hill’s 2004 near-future quasi-thriller The Cryptographer.

‘Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus’ by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Solaris Rising 3). What you’d call a ‘list story’ creating its narrative through a number of individually detailed snapshots of a future journey into space. MacFarlane is shaping up to be a very fine writer, boldly inventive in her use of both language and form. You may also enjoy her lushly evocative ‘Because I Prayed this Word’ (Strange Horizons) and another of her distinctive list stories, ‘Pocket Atlas of Planets’  at Interfictions Online.

‘Storytelling for the Night Clerk’ by JY Yang (Strange Horizons). A short and beautifully evocative piece, set in the future. Memories are a precious commodity, but who gets to choose whose memories are preserved for the rest of us? I especially loved the way this story shifted focus at the end.

‘The Final Girl’ by Shira Lipkin (Strange Horizons). A short piece that explores similar territory to Daryl Gregory’s short novel We Are All Completely Fine, also out this year. I admired Shira Lipkin’s sideways approach to a story in her contribution to The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, and I admire it again here.  A nice piece of work.

‘The Fisher Queen‘ by Alyssa Wong (F&SF). A story of mermaids, and family history, and the Mekong river. It bites. I loved this from the first sentence. Superb.



‘The Devil in America’ by Kai Ashante Wilson (tor.com). If you only have time for one piece of new short fiction this month, please make it this one. A stunning piece of writing, ‘The Devil in America’ explores issues of racism, community, belief and spiritual heritage in post-Civil War America. It’s a riveting read. I hesitate to use the word ‘magical’ to describe a work that had me in tears at the brutality of the events portrayed, but that’s what it is. It’s not just about the past, either, as some recent events in America have shown. For me personally, the little touches of meta-fiction in the form of ‘tutor’s notes’ lifted this story even higher. For clearer insights and more information about this story, do read this interview with Kai Ashante Wilson at Rochita Loenen Ruiz’s books blog. (And Mr Wilson, please write us some more stories. Write a novel.)

‘A Litany of Earth‘ by Ruthanna Emrys (tor.com). How lovely to see the Cthulhu mythos turned on its head! Aphra Marsh is one of the few who survived the state action to purge the town of Innsmouth of its Elder families… Now, living what passes for a normal life in 1950s America, she is doing her best to remain unobtrusive and to put the worst of her memories behind her. But FBI agent Ron Spector has other ideas… This is a beautifully written piece of alt-mythos that is solidly entertaining as story and a deft piece of social (and literary) comment to boot. I enjoyed it a lot.

‘The 4th Domain’ by M. John Harrison (Kindle Single). Vintage MJH, simply stunning. If you liked The Course of the Heart you’ll love this.  End-times London, end-times narrator, seriously disturbed people. Rotting canal barges. Oh, and there’s some mythos-y-type stuff here, too, if you want to read it that way. Whichever way you read it, it’s a gem.

‘Reborn’ by Ken Liu (tor.com). This story is more ‘out there’ science fictionally than others I’ve read by Liu, and I liked it a lot. Liu’s style relies quite heavily on exposition, but there’s no harm in that when his stories are as compulsively readable as they are. ‘Reborn’ is a very deft story about colonization, and the ownership of one’s own memories and actions, be they good or bad. There are plenty of ideas in here, but the story also feels exciting to read, in a classic SF-thriller kind of way. Makes me eager to read Liu’s debut novel The Grace of Kings, which is due for release in April. You may very well also enjoy Liu’s alt-history short story  ‘The Long Haul’, which explores some related themes in a different way.



The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories). This is what I mean about works that get overlooked. Many more people should be talking about this novella. One of the most original and downright weird pieces of fiction I’ve read in ages, The Beauty is the story of what happens to men when women disappear from the world, victims of a mysterious fungal infection that leaves the surviving males aware that they will be the last of their kind. The novella focuses upon a small group, living as an alternative community in the Valley of the Rocks in North Devon. Our narrator, Nathan, is the community’s bard. He tells them stories about themselves, about the women they’ve lost, about the world as it was and will be. When that world begins to change in a manner not one of them could have imagined, he must chronicle that, too. Whiteley’s considerable skill as a writer is fully on display here – her language is simple but perfectly poised, there’s a kind of mythic reach, an oral history feel to it that brings it close to song. The story itself is simple too – and yet so complex, so layered and so ambiguous that it would take many pages to unpack it adequately. This novella should win stuff. Seriously, just read it.  Original work is being done. Here’s proof.

Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine (Wyrm). It seems I have a thing for doomed spaceship stories at the moment because I thought this was wonderful. Reminded me a lot of Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Dry Salvages, which I read and loved in the autumn. Also Alien, although in this case the threat is more cousin-to-HAL than xenomorph. Amadis Reyes wakes from deep sleep aboard the Menkalinan. The rest of the crew are dead, she’s a full five years away from the ship’s pre-programmed destination, with insufficient supplies. Something is very wrong. This is a tense, compelling read, gorgeously written.

Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (Immersion). If anything, Sriduangkaew’s use of language here is even more luxuriously dense and textured than in the two short stories I mentioned above. An urban fantasy different from any you’ll read this year, Scale-Bright is set in a Hong Kong where reality may reinvent itself in a second, and where ancient enmities between mythical beings are being fought out under the noses of the mortals who go unknowing about their daily business. Julienne is caught between those worlds – as well she might be, when her aunts are goddesses. The colours flare off the page. Like poetry, the text is intuited first through the senses, and only then understood through the lens of reason. Just superb writing.

The Last Log of the Lacrimosa by Alastair Reynolds (Subterranean). This novella is actually a fascinating counterpart to Dream Houses. With its classic SF vibe, it’s highly entertaining and the kind of story that reminds me of why I started reading science fiction in the first place. A shuttle has crash-landed on a more or less deserted ice-planet. Three adventurers (and a monkey – don’t forget the monkey because it’s important) answer a distress signal… Sounding familiar yet? Reminded me in every good way of Reynolds’s earlier novella Diamond Dogs, which was the first piece I read by him. Just the thing for a winter evening. (I was convinced they’d feed the captain to the Borg-monster at the end, though. Seriously.)

I’ve very much enjoyed immersing myself in short fiction these past couple of weeks, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing other people’s recommendations and ballots as Hugo season approaches.

In the meantime, don’t forget to nominate for the BSFA!

Into 2015

lagoon.nnediI’ve just finished reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, and what a surprising, inventive and above all enriching text it is. It took me a while to get into this novel, but suddenly it all started coming together for me and by the end I felt literally breathless with excitement at what I’d read. This is a story – with its jump cuts, tessellations and chaotic crowd scenes, Okorafor encourages us to view it as a film – about aliens invading the city of Lagos, but such a bald summary seems too straightforward for a book that will feel unlike any other alien invasion story you’ve ever read. Science fiction cohabits with fantasy in the most relaxed, devil-take-it manner, producing a vigorous, gorgeous mutation, a runaway train of speculation that is, well, exactly what the book-doctor ordered. It’s fearless.

Predictably, it was the deft post-modernist touches that, for me, lifted the novel beyond the good and towards outstanding. I loved the ‘I was there’ chapters – non-linear snapshots of narrative from random people caught up by events – and those ‘wink’ moments when Okorafor steps out of the text to ask her readers: ‘How would you have felt?’ Of course I’m going to love the Spider the Artist sections, and indeed all the chapters narrated by non-human characters (a swordfish, a bat, a tarantula, a man-eating road) were pure narrative joy. I loved the ‘deleted’ chapter set in Chicago, too – there are so many memorable moments and ideas. Oh, and did I mention the richness of the language, the textures of languages, plural, that permeate this book? I could go on and on.

I am lost in admiration of Okorafor’s creativity, the way she seizes her themes, weaving humour and beauty and stark political commentary seamlessly together. I especially appreciate what Lagoon has to say about instinct and logic, how both are important and indeed essential – to art, to science, to a balanced view of the world, to life.

SFF like this – SFF that obeys no pre-set archetypes and invents its own rules – is such a breath of fresh air. It reminds us of the limitless possibilities of the genre, encourages us to try writing (or indeed reading) something new and inimitably personal to us.

What a wonderful book, and what a perfect start to my reading in 2015. How it surprised me. I love it when this happens.

For the year ahead, there are still some 2014 titles I want to read before I start turning my attention to what’s coming out this year – 2014 seems to have been an exceptional year for SFF novels, I think, which should hopefully make things interesting as awards season rolls around. I’m also intending to shore up some of the gaps in my SFF knowledge in 2015 by making a conscious effort to read more back catalogue SF – I’ve not read A Canticle for Leibowitz, for instance, or Dhalgren, The Female Man, Kindred and that’s just for starters.

And what about 2015 titles I am looking forward to? I’m sure there are loads I don’t know about yet, hopefully with many exciting discoveries among them. But of those I do know about, books I’m especially looking forward to include Kelly Link’s new collection Get in Trouble, China Mieville’s new collection Three Moments of an Explosion, Catherynne Valente’s Art Deco Hollywood-in-space novel Radiance (if it’s anything like as wonderful as ‘The Radiant Car thy Sparrows Drew’ it’s going to be fantastic), Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Anna Small’s The Chimes and Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (both these last sound really intriguing). Looks like a good year to me!

A new year, a new Europe…

His life had been erased like his books, set alight, reduced to ash and scattered. It no longer existed. But then, all lives were ultimately extinguished,  and in their passing nothing remained of the person who’d been – their dreams, their thoughts, who they loved, what they’d hated – from Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon and down the ages to Jews.

Yet Shomer lives still.

(A Man Lies Dreaming p79) amld.ltidhar

I loved Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. In terms of both content and form that novel presents a bold statement, and its recognition in the World Fantasy Awards was the ‘yes!’ vote of its year. I was less fond of Tidhar’s follow-up, The Violent Century. Unlike some others, I found no problem with the author’s decision to eschew speech marks, and the terse rhythms of the narrative, styled to mimic the speech bubbles of a graphic novel, worked fine by me. It was the narrative itself that never won me over. Twentieth-century history with added superheroes? The Bond-style plot is paper thin, the bolt-on romance seriously unconvincing. As a deconstruction of the superhero mythos, Nick Harkaway’s more recent Tigerman, for me at least, does a far more interesting job.

Tidhar’s latest novel, A Man Lies Dreaming displays not only a return to form but a solid improvement. This is a brave book. Any writer as intelligent as Tidhar will be well aware of the near-impossibility and inherent foolhardiness of taking on a subject of the magnitude and gravitas of the Nazi holocaust as a material for fiction. So many have been there before him. Some have flailed around embarrassingly, others have exploited shamefully, a few have succeeded in increasing the sum of the world’s literature with grace and fervour. That Tidhar dares to go there is one thing. That he has managed to create a work that is original, and funny, and angry, and moving, and significant, beautiful even – these are achievements he should be proud of. Bravo.

Shomer, a Jew, a father, a writer of pulp fictions, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. He imagines a reality in which the communists won the 1933 elections, in which Hitler was expelled from Germany and forced to make his living as Wolf, a private detective in a London populated by his erstwhile comrades, all now similarly reduced in circumstance, scraping along the best they can, reviled as immigrants by Oswald Mosley’s ascendant Blackshirts.

Wolf’s farcical exploits and sexual misadventures are the stuff of pulp fiction – Shomer’s pulp fiction. It’s all very funny and very repulsive at the same time. But there’s more to it than that.  The alternate history in A Man Lies Dreaming kept reminding me of the real history in Menno Meyjes’s 2002 film Max, in  which John Cusack plays Max Rothman, a wealthy Viennese art dealer who feels a strange comradeship with the disaffected war veteran Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). This 1919 Hitler is history in embryo, an embittered ex-corporal still torn between his former yearning to be an artist and his newly found visibility on the political stage. Max shows us a glimpse of what might have been, a turning point in history where had circumstances been minutely otherwise, Hitler might have remained what he was at the time: a nonentity with pretensions.

He had begun to perceive the great conspiracy behind all things; perhaps even then, so early, he knew it was his destiny to fight it; and yet, in the final tally, he had lost. The Fall had made a mockery of Wolf. Imagine if he had succeeded, if Germany was his, its military and its citizens, to wield as he saw fit: what would have happened to the Jewish people then?

(A Man Lies Dreaming p 99)

And of course we as readers, living in the alternate world of Shomer’s imagination, know the answer to that question all too well.

The way Tidhar tackles his subject – linking it with contemporary issues such as American expediency politics, the casual (and not so casual) racism that continues to permeate British political culture, demonstrates how it is still not only possible but necessary for us to keep writing about the Nazi holocaust, that this task can still be accomplished with impact and originality and (perhaps most difficult of all) personal commitment. As Howard Jacobson does, rather differently, in his meta-dystopia J, Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming shows us the holocaust as part of a historical continuum. It is not over, it is certainly not nearly enough to speak of it in hushed tones and then promptly forget about it. Given the airtime currently being lavished upon certain would-be members of parliament in our midst, the material relating to Oswald Mosley’s theoretical election victory near the end is particularly hard to read:

‘[Communism] has flooded our country with refugees. We have opened our borders, our arms, our homes to them, in friendship. And they came, in their thousands, in their thousands of thousands. Our cities reek of their cabbage! Their children speak foreign tongues in our schools. They are draining our country of its resources, they are taking the very bread from our own people’s mouths!’ (p238)

Tidhar’s novel also shares with Jacobson’s J the sense of being not just an exercise in possibility but a deeply personal, deeply committed statement by the author. This is what drives the book beyond mere cleverness and towards significance. (There is information relevant to this in the Historical Note at the end, but it is important to note that the novel stands perfectly well without it.)

And it is precisely because Tidhar has such fluent command of the non-fiction behind his fiction that he is able to play with it, to bend it so successfully into such bizarre shapes. There are hundreds of jokes in here – asides, quotes, comments, unmaskings, language-plays, amusing truisms about writing, there’s even an Elder Gods reference in amongst it all – the kind of tricks that only a writer who has fully assimilated their source material could pull off. As with any successful meta-text of this type, it is so soundly constructed as story that a reader who is less familiar with the history, politics or cultural background will be able to enjoy this novel perfectly well without having to consult a history book at every other page. For those who come to it more fully prepared, it will be a tour de force of ferocious ingenuity. It is also worth noting how splendid this book is as science fiction, and as a subversion of science fiction. Here again Tidhar knows his stuff, and lets it sing:

Eleven, old Ben struck, and the second stretched and stretched and in its expectant silence Wolf saw the city as he had never seen it, rising before him like a metropolis dreamed of by Fritz Lang: huge shining buildings rose amidst the squalor of old London, by London Bridge a shard of glass taller than the pyramids pierced the sky. From the City of London there rose a phoenix egg of metal and glass, and a giant wheel spun and spun on the south bank of the Thames like a mandala. This city of the future was brighter, brasher, awash in an electric glow which faded as he watched, the ghostly outline of this futuristic could-have-been slowly washing away. Wolf held his breath and Big Ben tolled, twelve, and one day ended, and a new day began. (p237)

I was worried when I first started reading that A Man Lies Dreaming was going to be too much like Osama, that in redrafting some of the narrative assumptions and stylistic techniques of the earlier novel, Tidhar was going to run the risk of making his own highly successful innovations look old hat. As I progressed through the novel I was relieved to find those apprehensions to be misplaced. Yes, A Man Lies Dreaming draws on the repertoire of techniques that laid the foundations in Osama, but it expands upon them, too – there’s a load of new stuff here, and a new fluency.  Tidhar isn’t just trying his strength any more – he’s grown into a mature writer who knows what he’s doing and why he is doing it. This is a good book. It deserves to be talked about, and Tidhar deserves to be praised.


autumn.hutchinsonFollow that, Dave Hutchinson! Remarkably, he does. If A Man Lies Dreaming hides its artifice behind the facade of our recent past, Europe in Autumn revolves around the lodestone of our possible future. If Tidhar knows his stuff, then so does Hutchinson. I have rarely seen the ambience of middle and Eastern Europe more succinctly and accurately captured by a British writer. This isn’t your usual kind of mitteleuropaeische Wehmut, though, this is a post-Soviet Europe, ravaged by stag weekends and fin-de-siecle exhaustion.  It’s superbly realised, with almost Scandinavian levels of deep irony and an economy of style that I (as a writer who tends to obsess over minutiae) found laudable and convincing. No fuss, no fannying about, just seriously good writing.

In a near-future Europe disenchanted with Schengen and fractured into a profusion of micro-states (each with its own hyper-evolved bureaucracy), Rudi is a chef minding his own business. How he manages to get co-opted into a secret pan-European organisation of spies and information traffickers is a mystery even to him. But there are bigger mysteries in store, and Rudi’s life will soon be in danger – as will the life of anyone associated with him…

To pigeon-hole this fabulous, tightly constructed, expertly wrought little masterpiece of science fiction merely as a spy caper would be to do it a serious injustice – yet the spy caper stuff is great, too. Funnier than James Bond, written with a level of literary understanding and invention that far surpasses anything muddled together by John Le Carre, Europe in Autumn is massively entertaining. It’s also the kind of SF one longs to see more of, the speculative materials used not merely as ornament but as backbone, handled with the lightness of touch that signals a continuing serious engagement and long, fond familiarity. I adored the reveal, the core concept. I’m not normally one for sequels, but I can understand how Europe in Autumn almost demands one.

Both these books are a joy to read, the kind that serve as markers along the road of SF’s great journey. Recommended.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

The successful ghost story puts the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’

M. R. James


What is it with the British and their Christmas ghost stories? Despite resurgence in its popularity here in recent years, the Americans still do Hallowe’en better than us. Come midwinter though we are in our element. The idea that Christmas – and Christmas Eve in particular – should be the perfect time for gathering around the fire and taking it in turns to terrify the assembled company with ghoulish anecdotes seems so deeply rooted in British culture that it’s difficult to pin down exactly where it came from.

The most famous exponent of the tradition has to be M. R. James, the Cambridge don and antiquarian scholar who developed a passion for ghost stories and started writing his own to amuse himself and entertain his friends. It wasn’t long before his Christmas Eve readings – enlivened by some enthusiastic acting – became a highlight of the Cambridge year. The stories themselves are now seen as the mother-lode of English weird fiction, the standard by which all ghost writers since have been judged and often found wanting. M. R. James even had an adjective named after him: Jamesian, a word often used to describe a story characterised by an unsettling atmosphere of understated menace.

The Christmas ghost story didn’t start with M. R. James, though. His American namesake Henry James wrote his novella The Turn of the Screw in 1898, a full thirty years before the first publication of Montagu James’sCollected Ghost Stories. Henry James may have hailed from New York City, but he was an Anglophile at heart and eventually became a British citizen. The Turn of the Screw could be said to be the quintessential English ghost story and has probably been adapted for radio and screen more times than any other piece of weird fiction. It tells the story of an English governess and her battle to save her young charges from two particularly nasty apparitions. But the tale begins with a group of friends, gathered around the fire on Christmas Eve, telling each other ghost stories.

In other words, this business has been going on for centuries. There are those who insist it was Charles Dickens who started it all with his Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who first appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol in 1843. Personally, I doubt it. Christmas is an odd time of year. There’s nothing like the claustrophobia of enforced jollity to bring a family feud bubbling to the surface, and the staff on duty at police stations and hospitals over the festive season will tell you that there are more murders, drunken brawls and relationship breakdowns at Christmas than at any other time of year. What else can you expect when people who don’t normally see each other from one end of the year to the next are shut up together for days on end with nothing to keep them from each others’ throats but the Queen’s Speech and the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special?

The whole baby Jesus business is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in festival terms, anyway, and entirely the invention of the clerics. Before the Christian church got involved the traditional end-of-year junket used to be pagan, a kind of midwinter bacchanalia designed to deflect the Grim Reaper from his seasonal rounds. Could it be that our darker midwinter yearnings are actually a modern echo of this ancient custom? It’s interesting when you think about it: the very things that can make Christmas difficult – the cold, the dark, the glacial passage of time – are often dwelled upon in Christmas ghost stories and turned to creative advantage. Certainly the one thing that unites all members of a family, regardless of their age, gender or propensity to eat turkey, is the love of a good ghost story.

Weird fiction is a weird business, and it’s always fun to speculate about exactly where it came from and exactly why it does what it does. You won’t be surprised to learn that I love ghost stories, and that one of the things I still look forward to about Christmas is the wealth of ghost-related entertainment that’s usually on offer. I can’t remember precisely how old I was when I first discovered that along with the pigs-in-blankets and chestnut stuffing, Christmas also offered a televisual feast of ghoultide delicacies; I do know that no one else got so much as a glance at the special double issue of the Radio Times until I completed my investigations into what ghosts were haunting the schedules and when.

One has to get one’s seasonal priorities in order, and if any is more pressing than making sure The Hauntingisn’t going to clash with The Innocents I haven’t discovered it.

One thing you can say about the Christmas spirits: they tend to be a better class of ghost; if it’s vampires and werewolves you’re after, you’d better try Hallowe’en. When in 2002 the BBC commissioned a series entitledGhost Stories for Christmas, the format couldn’t have been simpler or more classic: Christopher Lee, seated in an armchair before an open fire, reading selections from M. R. James by the light of a guttering candle and not a staking or decapitation in sight. What’s more, it was a huge success. What the British have come to expect from their Christmas ghost stories is not buckets of blood but that indefinable frisson of Jamesian terror: footsteps in the snow, the wind moaning in the chimney, lamplight in an upstairs window. At the time M. R. James wrote them, his ghost stories were remarkable for featuring contemporary protagonists in modern settings. It is only with the passing of time that we have come to see them as deliciously romantic: the solitary professor, monk-like in his rooms, unwisely delving into arcane matters that would generally be best left alone… The haunted mezzotint, the copperplate handwriting on yellowed parchment, the repression of all rages and lusts behind a mask of punctilious Englishness – what most characterises the Christmas ghost story is an air of nostalgia.

In other words, we prefer our yuletide hauntings to be retro, with long shadows, and preferably in black-and-white.

Of course, childhood itself casts a long shadow, and those things that delighted and terrified us when we were younger can sometimes appear lacklustre and even dull when we encounter them again as adults. While thinking about and reading for this article I inevitably began to recall those films that were special for me, special because I’d never seen anything like them before, and with that irresistible taste of the illicit because I was only allowed to watch them in the first place because it was Christmas. Would they, could they possibly stand the test of time, and the burden of emotion they had been prevailed upon to carry? The only way to find out was to see them again, a venture I undertook with some misgivings. The nights were longer in childhood, and the films weredefinitely scarier. I wasn’t sure I wanted that illusion to get debunked.

My first encounter with M. R. James came when I was about eleven, when I saw Jacques Tourneur’s film Night of the Demon as part of a Christmas double bill of scary movies. Night of the Demon was made in 1957, so I suppose to my concerned parents it seemed pretty safe. The movie it was paired with, Freddy Francis’s 1975 film The Ghoul, was another matter. It was in colour, for a start, and it went on until well after midnight. It was agreed that seeing as it was Christmas I could stay up and watch Night of the Demon just as long as I went to bed straight afterwards.

Never one to go down without a fight, I made a huge fuss about not being able to see Peter Cushing as the mad Egyptologist with a cannibal son locked in the attic (what’s not to like?) but the truth is I was glad to have a get-out clause. I saw the trailer for The Ghoul more than once in the run-up to Christmas, and the sequence showing Don Henderson’s bloodstained feet creeping down the attic stairs was in and of itself enough to give me nightmares. Night of the Demon, with its country-house setting and clipped bourgeois accents, did seem safer, and in a good way.

At any rate, I reckoned I could handle it.

I’d reckoned without the Jamesian influence. In his foreword to the 1924 anthology Ghosts and Marvels, MRJ makes no secret of his personal formula for a successful ghost story:

Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way. Let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings, and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

This is the very essence of ‘Casting the Runes’, the original MRJ story Night of the Demon was based on. In fact James doesn’t let you see the demon at all except as a lithographic illustration. Luckily for both film-lovers and weird fiction enthusiasts, Jacques Tourneur had both the sense and sensibility to similarly understate his case when he made Night of the Demon. I don’t think I properly appreciated the cleverness of the story at the time of that early first encounter, but I do know that the atmosphere of the film, the sense of the not-quite-seen, the insistently threatened, the horror just around the corner terrified and transfixed me long before the final revelatory sequence on the railway line.

I had fond, fond memories of this film, and when I viewed it again recently I was delighted to discover that Tourneur’s Night of the Demon lived up to every one of my recollections and even surpassed them. Dr John Holden, the classic Jamesian sceptic, is personified with dapper brilliance by Dana Andrews as he pursues his ill-advised scholarly enquiry into the nature of evil, and Peggy Cummins shows a lot more backbone than the average fifties heroine as Joanna Harrington, the niece of the demon’s first victim. The script, rich in the dramatic conventions of the day, is finely wrought, and the central message of the story – that it is impossible to outrun your fate once it has singled you out – is conveyed with conviction and evident enjoyment of the ideas at stake. There are some genuinely frightening moments. Night of the Demon is not just a good scary movie; it is a great film, full stop.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw the Ealing Studios movie Dead of Night. I know only that it was during the Christmas holidays, and that the ‘haunted mirror’ segment scared the bejesus out of me. I hadn’t read Borges then, and the story’s premise – that a mirror might be more than just a sheet of window glass silvered with mercury, that it might be the gateway to a world of nightmare – was new to me and horrifying.

I’m ashamed to say that perhaps because this one sequence had made such an impression on me I could barely recall what happened in the rest of the movie. The surprise when I saw it again was therefore all the more marvellous.

Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1945 film Dead of Night was the first of what came popularly to be known as ‘portmanteau’ horror films, movies that take the form of a set of shorter, separate stories-within-the-story linked together by a framing narrative. Portmanteau horror is most (in)famously exemplified in the films of Amicus Studios, makers of the late, great Asylum, but this fascinating little subgenre has proved something of an unquiet spirit, revived in 1993 with Necronomicon and still more recently in the super little triptychs of Asian horror, Three Extremes andThree Extremes 2Dead of Night though was the original, and in many ways it remains the best. This film is now getting on for seventy years old, yet I was thrilled by its freshness, its vigour, its deft touches of modernism and ironic sense of humour. The movie looks superb, and showcases some fine acting, that of the young Michael Redgrave in particular. His portrait of a man on the edge of madness in the ‘ventriloquist’s dummy’ sequence is 24 carat.

One of the nicest things about Dead of Night is that as well as being a masterpiece of British cinema it is an archetypical reformatting of the classic Christmas ghost story. Here we have a group of friends, comfortably ensconced in the elegant drawing room of an English country house, telling each other scary stories as they attempt to unmask the secrets of the supernatural. A stranger arrives with the warning that they are all in danger, while a professional sceptic – Frederick Valk as redoubtable psychiatrist Dr van Straaten – seeks to reassure them of the omnipotence of science.

It seems curiously in keeping with the spirit of Christmas that its ghost stories often have a philosophical slant: do ghosts exist, is there life after death, is it possible to predict the future? There is almost as much talking as action in Dead of Night, a characteristic that is, once again, typically Jamesian.

The British are famous for their love of tradition, and woe betide those foolish enough to try messing with it. Christmas especially is a time when repetition tends to dominate over innovation, and perhaps that is why, where scary movies are concerned, we tend to keep recycling old favourites instead of experimenting with contemporary adaptations. There’s nothing wrong with the old favourites – as we have seen, quite the opposite – but to close the door on a haunted house simply because it’s new and therefore different would be to fossilize the canon, which would be a tragedy. The modern reworking of The Turn of the Screw screened for Christmas 2009 came under fire for being too explicit in its handling of the subject of child abuse. While it’s true that some might have to read Henry James’s original novella two or three times before grasping the darker implications of the story, it is also true that the molestation of minors does form the central tenet of that story, and I would have thought that one of the chief advantages of living in the modern age is that we are more accustomed to artists who say what they mean. I myself thought Sandy Welch’s adapted screenplay was inventive and thought-provoking.

I was similarly impressed by the new adaptation of what is perhaps M. R. James’s most famous story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, commissioned by the BBC for Christmas 2010.  Whistle and I’ll Come to You was scripted by Neil Cross, who worked on the BBC TV MI5 drama series Spooks, and directed by Andy de Emony, who also directed the two classic Red Dwarf episodes ‘Rimmerworld’ and ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’. It upset a lot of devout Jamesians, mainly because it deviated rather substantially from the original text. There are more characters, for a start. You don’t find many women in M. R. James stories (it’s easy to forget that women were not made full members of Cambridge University until 1947, and MRJ’s college did not admit women until the 1970s) but Cross’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You gave Gemma Jones a central role as Alice, wife to John Hurt’s melancholic Professor Parkin and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this adaptation is that it gives its protagonist, James Parkin, a proper backstory. MRJ’s professors tend to exist in monastic seclusion. We cannot imagine them having families or sex lives, and the most interesting thing about them is their talent for stirring up ghosts. Hurt’s Parkin is a man with a past, grieving the loss of his life’s companion and racked by guilt for having to put her in a nursing home. The ghosts he stirs up are as much his own demons as the disembodied wraiths that, if we are to believe Monty James at least, are worryingly common along Parkin’s particular stretch of the Suffolk coast. The terror he experiences is all the more appalling for having its roots in Parkin’s personal reality.

I read the reviews of de Emony’s film with interest. I was delighted at the continuing passion expressed by so many viewers for the work of MRJ and for the tradition of the Christmas ghost story in general. But I have to say I had little sympathy for their proprietary insistence on textual rigidity. It’s important to remember that even the most controversial adaptation is just that: an adaptation, and does not affect the integrity of the original in the slightest. James’s stories never set out to be comfortable, and I found Neil Cross’s reworking to be beautifully imaginative, genuinely frightening (watch out for the bit when Alice’s hands come under the door!) and replete with a sense of elegiac Englishness that made it a truly satisfying dramatic experience. What I thought it proved – and far more convincingly than Jonathan Miller’s stiflingly dull 1968 adaptation of the same story – was how versatile the English ghost story is, and how timeless. James’s story is more than a hundred years old now, yet it is as popular today as it always was and perhaps more so. The fact that a screenwriter might choose to reinterpret it for our own time rather than slavishly reconstructing it as a period drama is in my view a measure of the love and respect still felt for these stories within our literary culture. I think M. R. James himself would be pleased and intrigued, to see how his work has endured and expanded in our collective imagination.

But it’s time to stoke up the fire now, I think. Our guests will be arriving soon, and I feel certain one of them at least will have a story to tell…

Happy Christmas, everyone!


(This piece was originally written for and appeared at the Starburst magazine website, December 2011.)

Aickman’s Heirs

I’m delighted to announce that my brand new story ‘A Change of Scene’ will be featuring in the anthology Aickman’s Heirs, edited by the very talented Simon Strantzas and to be published in the spring by Undertow Press.


When Simon first emailed me to ask if I’d like to submit a story for an Aickman tribute anthology he was putting together, I was thrilled. I was also a touch nervous – if there’s one writer I would mark out as an inspiration in the canon of what you might call ‘classic weird’, that writer would be Robert Aickman, and his stories are perfect as they are. They need no comment, no postscript – they need only to be read. What could I possibly have to add? I approached with caution.

In the event, ‘A Change of Scene’ was one of those rare stories that came to me almost complete, more or less as soon as I started to think about what I might write. No story writes itself, and I for one always tend to think that getting the initial idea is the easy part – pinning the bugger down on paper is where the real work lies. Even so, I counted myself lucky this time around as the two main characters seemed to create the story as they went along, simply by talking and interacting with one another. (It turns out there was a lot of buried history to be uncovered.) And there was the added bonus of knowing pretty much from the start how I wanted things (pretty much) to end.  Insofar as any story can be fun to write, this one was – very. I hope readers enjoy it.

I scarcely need add that most of the groundwork had already been done for me, by Aickman himself. As any Aickman fan will immediately see, ‘A Change of Scene’ is closely inspired by a particular story of Aickman’s, a story that is and always will be very close to my heart because it was my first introduction to his work. I hope I’ve done him proud – and if not that, then I hope at least I’ve done enough to make him chuckle…

I feel fortunate to be a part of this anthology. The full (and very fine) table of contents for Aickman’s Heirs is below:


Nina Allan – “Change of Scene”

Nadia Bulkin – “Seven Minutes in Heaven”

Michael Cisco – “Infestations”

Malcolm Devlin – “Two Brothers”

Brian Evenson – “Seaside Town”

Richard Gavin – “Neithernor”

John Howard – “Least Light, Most Night”

John Langan – “Underground Economy”

Helen Marshall – “Vault of Heaven”

Daniel Mills – “The Lake”

David Nickle – “Camp”

Lynda E. Rucker – “Drying Season”

Lisa Tuttle – “The Book That Finds You”

D.P. Watt – “A Delicate Craft”

Michael Wehunt – “A Discreet Music”