Sunday, 19 August 2018

Two Things

A couple of quick things:

Best British Horror 2018, which features my story 'The Affair' as part of a frankly wonderful table of contents (Nicholas Royle, V.H. Leslie, Mark Morris etc. etc. etc.) is available to preorder now from NewCon Press. You can choose paperback or signed hardback editions. Oooh.

Secondly, I'm very pleased to say that I'm part of the bill for the inaugrial Other Worlds mini-convention at Nottingham Writers Studio, Saturday October 6th. Organised by the inexhaustible Alex Davis, there's lots of fine fantasy, science fiction and horror writers featured. Tickets available here - make sure you say hello if you do attend...

Monday, 30 July 2018

Recommendation: Black Shuck Shadows Double Bill

I recently had the pleasure of reading two volumes from the Black Shuck Shadows line: The Death Of Boys by Gary Fry and Broken On The Inside by Phil Sloman. Each book in this series features 3-6 stories from a single author, all based loosely around a theme.

The Death Of Boys was a fun collection of stories. I've read a lot of Fry's fiction by now, and I think it's fair to say that much of it consciously & deliberately 'announces' its thematic concerns—I don't mean this as a criticism, it's his style. But the stories here felt a lot more like Fry was just playing with horror tropes, having fun, writing his equivalent of a horror B-movie. (Again, not a criticism.) Which isn't to say that thematic concerns don't crop up—it's probably no surprise from the title that these tales focus on boyhood, parenthood, growing up, adulthood, and death. 'Zappers' is the story of a young boy apparently hit by lightning yet seeming to suffer no ill-effects (initially). 'Cat-B' concerns that most boyish/masculine obsession, cars, and seems to be Fry's version of Stephen King's 'bad car' stories Christine and From A Buick 8. As good as these two preceding stories were, it's the final tale, 'The House Of The Rising Son', that really impressed me. Again, it plays with some relatively standard horror tropes to begin with, but builds to something that's both nightmarish and thematically apt—indeed it seems to both sum up and interrogate the themes Fry has been exploring for the entire collection. Exhilarating stuff.

Phil Sloman's Broken On The Inside is a collection of stories based around the theme of mental health, or lack thereof, giving us five tales of people damaged, at odds with reality, hunted, haunted or just struggling to cope. Unfortunately, I can't say too much about one of the stories here, 'Virtually Famous'—not because it's not good (it's the joint-best here, IMO) but because it was first published in Imposter Syndrome so I'm biased. I've no reason to be biased about the rest of the stories though, and I can say that they are also bloody good. Sloman switches effortlessly between surreal black comedy—see especially 'Discomfort Food'—and more ambiguous, serious work. Both 'Virtually Famous' and my other favourite here, the title story, mix the psychological with a sort of near-future techno-horror, to produce narratives where the distinction between what is real and imagined blurs and fractures. 'Broken On The Inside' is a the story that has a touch of Cronenberg about it, a touch of Black Mirror about it, of Roald Dahl's adult stories and old-school sci-fi. It's well worth a read.

The Death Of Boys (UK | US)
Broken On The Inside (UK | US)

Friday, 20 July 2018

Size Isn't Everything

Really pleased to say that my story 'Size Isn't Everything' will be published in The Black Room Manuscripts IV, coming soon from The Sinister Horror Company. Edited by Justin Park and Tracy Fahey, the book will be released at Fantasycon 2018 and all proceeds will go to the charity Refuge. And just look at that lineup!

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Imposter Syndrome shortlisted for British Fantasy Award

Utterly delighted to say that Imposter Syndrome has been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Awards 2018 in the Best Anthology category. It's a huge surprise, and a real tribute to the brilliant stories each of the authors wrote for the book. All credit should go to them.

Big thanks to them, my co-editor Dan Howarth, Ross Warren & Anthony Watson at Dark Minds Press, Neil Williamson for the cover art, and of course all who voted for Imposter Syndrome. It's a very strong shortlist and it's a real pleasure to see Imposter Syndrome alongside such great books.

Best Anthology
· 2084, ed. George Sandison (Unsung Stories)
· Dark Satanic Mills: Great British Horror Book 2, ed. Steve Shaw (Black Shuck Books)
· Imposter Syndrome, ed. James Everington & Dan Howarth (Dark Minds Press)
· New Fears, ed. Mark Morris (Titan Books)
· Pacific Monsters, ed. Margret Helgadottir (Fox Spirit)

Imposter Syndrome (UK | US

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Music For Writers #10: Rosanne Rabinowitz

So, this is the final Music For Writers blog post - unless you all cheer so much that there's an encore. And what better way to end the set than with choices from a writer as good as Rosanne Rabinowitz? I was lucky enough to appear alongside Rosanne in the anthology The Outsiders and I can highly recommend her story there, as well as the novella Helen's Story (a retelling of a certain Weird classic) and pretty much everything else I've read of hers.

So, one more time. Take it away, Rosanne:

Many of my stories get their titles from songs, contain scenes at gigs or raves or have a significant soundtrack running through the background or even the foreground. So when James announced this series, I jumped at the chance. 

And now, many weeks later... I've just about finished dithering with my selection of six songs. It’s been tough to narrow it down. My writing music varies according to the piece I'm working on and the mood I want to express. If a story has a particular setting or historical period, I might go for music from that era or place. Or maybe not. I've listened to screaming punk classics while writing about head-banging medieval heretics. 

However, there is a common denominator to anything I listen to while writing. I look for music that helps me access emotions and images; a soundtrack that evokes the characters and worlds I seek to create. 

Some people find lyrics distracting while others find them inspiring. I've discovered a point between these poles – listening to music in another language. There's nothing like a human voice to express and provoke the feelings I want to portray in my fiction, but the language difference leaves blanks for filling in. Which brings us to Catherine Ribeiro...

Cette VoixCatherine Ribeiro
I took French in school, but my grasp of the language is bad enough to leave much to the imagination. When I was in Europe for the first time in 1977, a friend in Paris played this for me. I hadn't thought about Catherine Ribeiro (and I almost forgot her name as well) for years, then a month ago I was just wondering: 'so what was that music I heard in my first visit to Paris?' YouTube provided the answer. Her songs are passionate, kind of Piaf-like, but her voice comes across deeper and much more forceful. 

Here's some information about Ribeiro in case you're interested:

Wall of Shame – Screaming Blue Messiahs
Here’s another rediscovery, a song from the 1990s that has suddenly captured my imagination. I put it on frequently. It evokes lonely landscapes, distance, dysfunction and desire for some kind of redemption. It also brings to mind Trump's wall even though this song is almost 30 years old. 

Thesaurus Tuus – Daniel Hart (from A Ghost Story)
A Ghost Story was a powerful, strange and amazing film. I was expecting a post-mortem romance like Truly, Madly, Deeply but found something much more mind-expanding. The film moved from ghostly grief and romantic angst to real cosmic universe-time-and-spacey angst, desolation and yearning. This music expressed that mood perfectly as cities rose and fell on-screen.  

Nostalgia – Buzzcocks
"About the future I only can reminisce... I'm surfing on a wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come." For me this has always been a poignant song of paradox, time and undefined yearning  – central themes to my favourite fiction. I wasn't sure whether to play the Buzzcocks version or Penetration's cover. And you know what? As a hopeless and indecisive music geek, I insist on playing both! 

Scarlet Town – Gillian Welch
Gothic and weird folk/country has provided a soundtrack to much of my recent writing. In this vein, I'll end with a song that directly inspired the story I contributed to an Egaeus Press anthology, Murder Ballads. Gillian Welch's song made me see a dusty town hidden in the hills: a place of beauty and vibrant colour as well as chilling horror. But I think there might be many more stories in the making about where Scarlet Town could be and what happens there. 

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Music For Writers #9: Neil Williamson

Music For Writers this week features none other than Neil Williamson, a writer whose work I always both admire and enjoy. I recently read his BSFA-nominated novel The Moon King and (all to be predictably) loved it; you'd do well to check out his short story collection Secret Language too.

Based on the below his taste in music—and films, and creepy French TV shows—is spot on too.

Take it away, Neil:

As a writer who works mostly in public spaces, I started using writing music initially as a means of boxing my attention off from my environment. With the right music and noise cancelling earbuds, I find I can dial into the right mindset for thinking about my story and getting the words down on the page even when people are talking and doing things around me. It has to be the right kind of music though: something that in itself won’t be distracting (my best writing sessions are the ones where I’ve barely been aware of the music). This usually means no words and no huge dynamic or stylistic shifts. I used classical music for years, but these days I’m turning more and more to modern TV and film composers.

Here are some of the perennials on my Spotify playlist:

Olafur Arnalds - Only The Winds
Arnalds’ composing style is the perfect example of what I look for in writing music. It’s evenly tempered and paced with enough body to block out most background noise. It’s also heartbreakingly evocative. See also: his soundtrack to the TV show, Broadchurch.

This Will Destroy You - Dustism
For louder environments, I tend to turn to post rock. I first saw This Will Destroy You at Glasgow’s Art School at around midnight after a long day of watching various bands. They utterly melted my head. This track is typical of their ocean-like blend of layers of noise and musicality. Blast this up to 11 and nothing gets through.

Max Richter - The Departure Suite
Richter has rightly found favour in the genre community for his wonderful soundtracks for the likes of Arrival (along with Johann Johannson) and Black Mirror, but I really adore this soundtrack for the TV show The Leftovers. 'The Departure' is a recurring theme that turns up now and again in different arrangements and I find it really transportational. Maybe one day I’ll find time to watch the actual show.

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - Song For Bob
Several years ago I went to see a cowboy movie starring Brad Pitt. Several people left the cinema within the first half hour on realising that it wasn’t “a cowboy movie starring Brad Pitt”, it was The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, a nuanced indie movie about hero-worship featuring terrific performances from Pitt as well as Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell (who is never less than terrific in anything). One of the best things about the movie is the lonesomely plaintive soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (Cave actually turns up as a barroom troubadour late on in the film too.) I recommend both the film and the music wholeheartedly. 

Mogwai - The Messiah Needs Watching
Kind of coming back to post rock here, but not really. It’s been interesting watching Mogwai explore their composing chops in a succession of soundtracks in recent years. This is from the first one I heard them do, the spooky French TV show, Les Revenants. It was a toss up between this and Atomic. Both full of great music, absolutely band on the brief for their projects but still unmistakably Mogwai.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Music For Writers #8: Rhys Hughes

This week on Music For Writers, Rhys Hughes has given us something a bit different. Rather than just a straight list of tracks, Rhys has provided an essay on his evolving taste in music over the years, along with some great examples of what he was listening at each stage. So, let's get started shall we?

Take it away, Rhys:

Background Writing Music - Rhys Hughes

My background writing music is silence usually, but this has only been true in recent years. In fact, if I wanted to be clever, I could say that these days I listen only to John Cage’s composition 4’33’’ played on an endless loop. The truth is that I’ve rarely used classical music, especially modern(ish) classical music, to provide any aural or vibrational context to my writing sessions. A few Satie pieces, yes, maybe a Debussy or two, a dreamy Sorabji (as are they all, though they can be discordant) and perhaps a Reich, Adams or Glass or two. Harold Budd is the only classical composer of note, pun intended, to have regularly fuelled the accretion of my words on page or screen and that occurred rather a long time ago.

When I was younger I was much less fussy about silence and I enjoyed boisterous rhythms pounding away in the corner of the room while I sat and scribbled or typed. I wrote listening to Hawkwind, King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull and other space rockers and prog combos, nearly all of them from the previous decade, as if my ears were still in the 1970s even though the rest of me had crossed into the 1980s. I had a special fondness for Supertramp’s obscure first album, which is looser, more chaotic, organic and beautiful than their later work. Then I discovered fusion jazz and the delights of Return to Forever, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, complex music that manages to groove despite the intricacy of its arrangements, the odd time signatures and constant shifting of themes. But within a few years I began to find drums distracting and bass plucking intrusive. I wanted to focus my attention on music fully or not at all.

Yet I couldn’t conceive of writing without the help of music. It seemed to me that my ears were free during the act of creating a story, so why shouldn’t I employ them? I feared the waste of time and sensation if I wrote in a quiet room. I ought to point out that at this stage I was a terminally unaccepted writer who hadn’t sold a single short story or anything else to any publisher anywhere. I simply didn’t know anything about the market or the process of sending work to publishers. But I had hope, I had a determination that would never fade. I wrote a lot of fiction every day, and because I did this while listening to music, I listened to a lot of music. I also listened to music when I wasn’t writing, of course, so it can truthfully be said that I existed in a web of sound, like a fly trapped by jazz spiders.

Soundscapes are what I searching for, but I didn’t know this at the time. Yes, I had listened to Brian Eno albums and had appreciated the luminous and liminal sonorities of his ambient tracks (as if listening to light rather than sound), and there were gentle and almost vanishingly subtle tone poems aplenty on the albums of some fusion guys, but this still wasn’t exactly right. I didn’t want the music to retreat or dwindle, to be a thing easily forgotten. I wanted it to be there, upfront, obvious, imposed on the room, embedded in its atmosphere, and yet at the same time not prove to be distracting. My search seemed impossible, then one day in 1987 I walked into the flat I occupied with two other students and the most amazing, haunting and ecstatic music was playing on the record player. One of the students, Alan, a very tall man with an enormous stride, had obtained the music in London, but the musicians on it were Scottish, he informed me. I was desperate to know what this was.

It was ‘Throughout the Dark Months of April and May’ on the Victorialand album of the Cocteau Twins. It was as icy as that part of the Antarctica it was presumably named after, yet it shimmered with gorgeous colours, like the aurora australis. It was an iceberg of terror and love that sailed straight into my heart. Eccentrically, it was an LP that played at 45rpm. The voice that rose from it, the whoops and idiorhythmic swoops of Elizabeth Frazer, chilled me to the bone and boned me to the edge of joy and over it, where I fell helpless but happy into timelessness. Because the music did seem to be timeless, unlike other music in which form and content are one and the same. It seemed to exist in a mobile stasis.

Alan had other albums by the Cocteau Twins and I could hardly wait to hear them to learn how they compared. One was The Moon and the Melodies, mainly regarded as unimportant by the music critics of the day, but which is still perhaps my favourite album of the 1980s. It was a collaboration with composer Harold Budd, who played a cool melancholy piano on the sung tracks and provided the glacial sonic evolution of the unsung tracks. Soundscapes, gentle but not ambient. Not even gentle really, when one considers them properly. Spooky and thrilling and deeply odd and nothing at all like music a student was supposed to listen to back then, with comprehensible words, noodling guitars and standard song structures.

I went out and bought one of the albums Alan didn’t have. It was called Treasure and I regarded it as the best record I’d ever heard. Later I found out that the Cocteau Twins didn’t rate it highly, that Robin Guthrie actually referred to it as an “abortion”, and I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. It might have injured the divine integrity of the product like a gigantic dirty thumbprint on an infinite lake of ice. I played the album over and over and over again. I wore it out. Every track was absolutely perfect. As time went on, I began to discern flaws in a few, started to feel irritated by some, I even winced when hearing my least favourites, but that was later, much later. I played the album and decided to write as it was playing.

I got up regularly to flip sides every time it stopped. I was writing, but not a short story this time. No, I decided to attempt the construction of a chess problem. Chess is a game I had been playing for many years, so why not get involved in the art of chess problems? Of course, designing a chess problem is completely unlike playing a game of chess, but I wasn’t aware of how different until I made the attempt. It was difficult. It took an entire weekend, listening constantly to Treasure by the Cocteau Twins, but at the end of that Sunday my problem was ready and it worked. I typed it up, mailed it the next day to The Independent, one of the most widely circulated newspapers in Britain, and waited. I was expecting a rejection. But I received my first acceptance. It was a very small beginning to my published career, but it proved to be a turning point in the sense that it gave me vital encouragement.

That was in the summer of 1988. In following years I wrote more chess problems and also mathematical puzzles called ‘Brainteasers’ for The Sunday Times Magazine, some of which were little fantasy stories as well as puzzles, one concerning a gnome and titled ‘Metrognome’, which was a direct steal from the Camel song on the album Rain Dances, proving that I was still listening to prog rock as well as soundscapes. I continued listening this way until an event in the year 1998 changed my musical tastes forever. I was given an album of Cuban music for my birthday. I had owned a ‘world music’ album before, a musical meeting between Cheb Khaled and Safy Boutella, but I had regarded that as a one-off, not as the start of a global journey with no final destination. That particular album had been a false start of sorts, but the Cuban compilation had the effect of making all my previous musical loves seem to be only a part of my past. They were relegated to some other dimension. It was as if they no longer belonged to me but only to the person I no longer was. This included all the albums of the Cocteau Twins. Much of the fusion jazz made a comeback later, as did some of the prog rock, but I have no regrets.

I had finally found the kind of music intended for me all along. That was the big truth that was revealed to me. For a time I wrote listening to Cuban, Brazilian and other Latin American music, then afrobeat, bhangra, soukous (which is my favourite of all now) but gradually I began to feel that a separation was necessary, that writing and music should be separated the same way church and state are, that it is somehow compositionally unhealthy to merge the two experiences in a room at the same time. To replace sound came silence, and silence is exclusively what I listen to now, as much silence as I’m able to secure for myself in a busy and noisy world. Music has become a reward for after the writing and I prefer it this way. But we are what we are when we are, and no approach is objectively right.

And that’s the background to my life of background writing music.