Thursday, 17 April 2014

Recommendation: The Elvis Room by Stephen Graham Jones

elvis-room-coverAs regular readers will know, I'm fascinated by how many good horror stories are set in hotels, and the latest This Is Horror chapbook is another one to add to my list. The Elvis Room by Stephen Graham Jones is a gripping story about a psychic researcher who stays in many such strange hotels, investigated the so-called 'Elvis Room' effect - all hotels, he's learnt, nearly always hold back one room even when they say they are full, just in case a celebrity should turn up - and rumour has it that if that room is taken by a guest, someone in the hotel will die during the night...

It's an intriguing concept, and enough for most writers to hang a whole story off, but here it's just one idea amongst many. From the researchers initial fall from academic grace (triggered by finding evidence of the supernatural that he was trying to refute, but being treated like a crank by his colleagues anyway), to why passing strangers in hotels might be more sinister than you suspect, to the conflict between science and the supernatural, to just why the narrator might be on his third wife already.... there's a hell of a lot going on here, and it's a tribute to Jones skill that it never feels strained, that all the ideas dovetail naturally with each other and tie together at the story's end. Like the TARDIS, this one feels bigger when you're inside reading it than when outside observing it's slim page count. And like the TARDIS there's a kind of magic to that.

The teller of the story, in classic unreliable narrator fashion, tells us he is just wanting to know the truth... but he might be deluding himself even more than he, or we, realise at the start. There's enough subtlety around this element to make it pleasingly ambiguous, and make the story highly rereadable.

Oh, and ace cover art, too.

I've never read anything by Stephen Graham Jones before, and if The Elvis Room is anything to go by that's been a decidedly poor choice on my part. One of the best things I've read this year.

The Elvis Room (Amazon UK | US)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

"... a strange place indeed..."

"James Everington's world is a strange place indeed."

An accurate* start to Colin Leslie's review of Falling Over, which after some comparisons to Ligotti and Samuels (yes, yes I'm showing off for once; don't worry I'll feel embarrassed about it later) ends "This is a fine collection of Weird fiction for those who love their horror well written, intelligent and liminal."

You can read the full review over on The Wanderer In Unknown Realms.

* Actually, not accurate at all; I was just saying that for effect. My life, outside of what I read & write, is actually quite pleasingly boring and normal. I save the weird creeping paranoia stuff for the writing.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Recommendation: The Road Through The Wall by Shirley Jackson

I doubt I'm winning any awards for originality when I say that Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite authors. The Haunting Of Hill House, The Beautiful Stranger, We Have Always Lived In The Castle, The Lottery, A Visit… classics one and all: original, chilling, and written with a distinctive Jackson intelligence and flair.
So it’s always been a particular annoyance that her earlier work has not been easily available in the UK. Fortunately that’s an omission that Penguin are now putting right, starting with Jackson’s first novel The Road Through The Wall.
First impressions: The Road Through The Wall begins with a paragraph which is, in its own way, equal to the celebrated openings to Hill House and We Have Always Lived In The Castle:
"The weather falls more gently on some places than on others, the world looks down more paternally on some people. Some spots are proverbially warm, and keep, through falling snow, their untarnished reputation as summer resorts; some people are automatically above suspicion..."
It's probably not giving away too much to reveal that the characters in this book who are viewed by the world as being "above suspicion" don't deserve such a thing. Unlike much of Jackson’s more well-known work The Road Through The Wall is a realistic story, about a number of families in ‘respectable’ Pepper Street in suburban America. It has an episodic structure, with scenes of everyday life for both the adults and children on the street revealing the snobbery, egotism, bigotry, and petty envy behind the respectable fa├žade. Then the wall that separates Pepper Street from its less bourgeois neighbours is breached by a new road,  things comes to a head, and the community experiences a dreadful double tragedy.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I didn't buy a copy with this hilariously inappropriate cover design from the 1950s. "A married woman prowls the back streets"....!
There’s a lot of characters for such a small book, and sometimes they are hard to keep track of, but that seems almost the point – nearly everyone on the street ascribes to a kind of middle-class Groupthink, a suburban hive-mind that sometimes seems to stifle and paralyse them – they read each other’s diaries, they constantly reaffirm each other’s attitudes, they cannot make a decision about the pettiest of things , such as which local shop to direct a newcomer to, without worrying if it's the correct thing. And during key scenes towards the end, Jackson ceases to describe them as individuals, but as a crowd on the hunt for someone to blame for what has happened:
 "The people in the street [...] had gathered so close together than it was impossible to single out any of them [...] they were so close together that there were no names for any of the faces, and the hands might be clasped together tight in the hands of strangers. " 
Readers of The Lottery will already know how well Jackson understands mob-think and the punishment of scapegoats.
It’s a slighter book than some of her later work, but A Road Through The Walls is a splendid book in its own way, and shows how damn good a writer Jackson was right from the start.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Fictional Emotions; Emotional Fictions

'I Hated This Book!' - it was one of those arguments on Goodreads where both sides had become entrenched before I even saw the thread. Arguing about whether a book was any good or if it "sucked". The whole thing was completely impenetrable unless you'd read the YA book in question, but the arguments seemed the same as a thousand other similar threads and reviews: "I didn't like the main character one bit!"; "I finished this book and I felt nothing..."

I felt nothing - that was said as if it should end all discussion (although no arguments are ever won or lost on Goodreads) which seems reasonable enough. Isn't that why we read - to feel? But it got me thinking - what exactly do we mean when we say this? It seems to me there are a whole range of ways books can create an emotional response, and many of the endless and tedious arguments about reading are caused by a failure to acknowledge one or more of them.

I've put some very loose and blurry definitions of different types of emotion response to fiction below; no doubt these are biased towards my own reading and writing preferences. Comments, criticism and additions very much welcomed below the line.

1. Experiencing the emotions the main character(s) are experiencing

This is probably what most people think of when they think of an emotional response to a story: the main character is excited and so you feel a vicarious excitement, the main character is conflicted and hence so are you. Much commercial and YA fiction is written to create just this kind of response, and it seems to me to be the driving force behind the idea that a story should have a POV character that is sympathetic; that there shouldn't be too much of an emotional leap required from the reader.

Much so-called literary fiction claims to be more 'sophisticated' than commercial fiction merely because the character you are invited to emotionally identify with for the duration of the story is unattractive or abnormal in some way: a murderer (The Outsider), a child murderer (Beloved), a child lover (Lolita). And this seems a good thing to me; one of the reasons reading is a valuable activity is precisely because it allows you to emotionally experience the world from someone else's perspective, which may be radically different to your own. And it's the reason I find the commercial insistence that the central character of a story should be someone the reader can easily identify with so dispiriting. 

2. Experiencing different or conflicting emotions to what the main character(s) are experiencing

Sometimes the emotional response the reader feels to what a character is going through is conflicting or at odds with what the character themselves would be feeling. Put simplistically, if a chapter about a villain's downfall is told from the villain's point of view, the reader will be experiencing some kind of positive reaction to the villain's own frustration and woe. More interestingly, someone like Jane Austin is great at writing scenes where the characters appear, even to themselves, to be acting civilly and rationally but the reader can perceive the more human and subjective reasons, such as pride (and, um, prejudice) for their behaviour underneath. In Austin's case this doesn't necessarily stop us from also empathising with the characters, but in a book like Carrie it might, at least to an extent. Carrie's actions are in one sense perfectly understandable, and in another monstrous; and the different points of view in the story dramatise this paradox.

3. Atmosphere 

Of course, emotions don't have to have anything to do with characters at all; it's an odd fact about writing that almost anything, no matter how inanimate, can be be described emotionally. This is especially important in horror writing, where a sense of dread is frequently achieved by describing everyday locations in such de-familiarising ways that they seem full of portent and threat. Think of the brilliant opening to The Haunting Of Hill House - the sense that something is very wrong about the house is palpable but there is no viewpoint character to be experiencing this; it's all in our heads. And of course this kind of effect is not just limited to fear or tension; a good writer is selecting every detail to evoke whatever mood is desired.

4. The thrill of well-written sentence

Being able to actual write well is of course key to evoking any emotional responses in the reader. But separate and beyond that, I think, is the way a well crafted sentence can evoke an emotional response like a piece of music can - by the way it sounds:
"And I said I do, I do.So daddy, I'm finally through [...]If I've killed one man, I've killed two—The vampire who said he was you."

Or if poetry's too much for you on a blurry Saturday morning, how about this from Douglas Adams:
“He turned slowly like a fridge door opening.”
I'm not sure there's much point in trying to explain that - you either get it or you don't. Either feel the rightness of those words in that order, or you don't. Subjective, sure. But as much a part of the reading experience as anything else.

5. Game-playing, Plotting, and Climaxes

The plot of a book drives much of the character's emotional responses, but we as reader's can respond to it on an entirely different level as well - because we know it is a plot. This is best described as that feeling we get at a 'twist' ending to a story, or when the murderer is revealed at the end of a whodunit. In a sense, the author and the reader have been playing a game, the reader trying to guess the ending, the writer trying to stop them (whilst still playing fair and leaving enough clues). There's something pleasurable about being tricked by something like The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd and then having that trick explained to us at the end. And that 'Aha!' moment of realisation is an emotional response that came only come from a story, not from life, which doesn't play games.

More broadly, just knowing a story is nearing its end shapes our emotional responses to what occurs. We don't have to think, for example, about what the events of Romeo &Juliet mean to the poor sods who are left to pick up the pieces in the months and years afterwards because we're already back outside of the theatre, blinking in the light.

6. Intellectual Emotions

I read somewhere that we all belong to one of two camps with regard to facts: those people who think it's only worth knowing something if it's of use, and those who value knowledge for its own sake regardless of its usefulness. The fact that I've remembered this, when it's never been of the slightest use in my life, probably shows what type of person I am.

I think for at least some people the use of intellectual ideas in a piece of fiction triggers a peculiar kind of emotional response, one which is hard to describe (we really should have a specific word for it). Novels like Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot work almost entirely because of this play of intellectual ideas - and that's the best way I can describe it, as "play". Like the music of a piece of poetry, this is one you either get or you don't, I think. 

7. Fill In The Blanks

I'm pretty sure we all know that as readers we bring our own emotional baggage and experiences to a piece of fiction. And some books play on this by presenting events in such a flat, blank canvas way that we are tempted to fill in the void. We ascribe motivation, beliefs and emotions to characters based on their actions without any textual justification for doing so. Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis (indeed, nearly all of Easton Ellis's books) seems to me to work at least in part because of this - it presents to us scenes so flat it's like an itch we can't quite scratch. 

And of course, if what you're after from a book is a likeable hero or heroine with whom you can share their ups and downs, this itch might drive you to close the covers before you finish it. Which is fine; it would be a boring world if we were all the same. But on that principle maybe avoid ranting about how you couldn't relate to the characters at all! on Goodreads. If only because, no arguments are ever won or lost on Goodreads.

8. And Finally, One For The Authors:

That crippling sense of bitter envy and self-doubt when you read something so bloody good it makes any talent of your own seem insignificant and counterfeit in comparison. That.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

A nice double-bill review of both The Shelter and The Other Room on the Amazing Stories website today. Lots of nice things said, with especial praise for a few stories including A Writer's Words ("a very strong, terrifying piece of conceptual horror") and The Other Room itself ("an effective and unsettling nightmare").

Amazing Stories review.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Recommendation: Ghostwriting by Eric Brown

Ghostwriting is a collection of stories by Eric Brown, who is normally a science-fiction writer. As the title suggests, this collection brings together Brown's occasional forays into the world of supernatural horror and the ghost story.
In his introduction, Brown wonders why an avowed rationalist like himself is occasionally drawn to such subject-matter (it's something I've written about in the context of my own stories in the post A Drunken Conversation About Ghost Stories). You can read his thoughts for yourself, but what struck me as interesting was how many of his characters in these stories echoed the same thoughts as they found themselves wrapped up in the irrational and supernatural; for example in the first story (the fabulous The Man Who Never Read Novels) the central character has this to say to the decidedly non-rationalist titular character he meets on a train:

“I'm a rationalist,” Russell said, “a believer in science. I'm also a novelist.”

And of course, the point where Russell says this is exactly at the point where the reader is beginning to doubt the rationality of this particular novelistic world; and at the point, too, where maybe Russell is beginning to doubt it himself... It's a sentence echoed by many of the other characters in these stories. And is it really that odd? Surely the irrational is more frightening for a believer in science, messing as it does with the very fulcrum of his or her beliefs? (Much as The Exorcist is presumably more frightening for a Christian reader.)

Regardless, Ghostwriting is a fine collection of stories, nearly all of which can be read in different ways - as explorations of characters haunted either by the supernatural or purely by their own mental demons. Particular favourites of mine were the aforementioned The Man Who Never Read Novels; Li Ketsuwan, a tale of compulsion and comeuppance set in Thailand; and the superb The Disciples Of Apollo, a story of someone who goes to a remote island facility after being diagnosed with a fatal disease, and which plays it's cards very close to its chest until its explosive last line... 

A strong and thought-provoking book, I wolfed this down during a single-train journey, and I am still thinking about many of the stories afterwards. Let's here it for the rationalist horror writers.

Ghostwriting is out now from Infinity Plus - sales links here.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Horror Fields and Amazing Stories

I'm pleased to say that my story, Across The Water, is out now in the Morpheus Tales Rural Horror Special - The Horror Fields. Mine is a jolly little tale about prejudice, strange insects, and lock-keeping.

There's some great authors featured, including Richard Farren Barber and Rosalie Parker, so I'm really looking forward to reading this one myself. The cover art is really cool too.

The Horror Fields is available now in paperback from Lulu and ebook from Smashwords, with Amazon coming soon.

Also, I've been interviewed by Gary Dalkin on the Amazing Stories website - one of the most enjoyable interviews I've done to date. You can read it here.