Monday, 11 December 2017

Recommendation: A Suggestion Of Ghosts (ed. J.A. Mains)

A Suggestion Of Ghosts is an important (and I don't use that word lightly) new anthology from Black Shuck Books—edited by J.A. Mains, it brings together fifteen ghost stories by women first published between 1854 and 1900. None have been republished since, meaning you're pretty unlikely to have read any of them before. It's a book that sheds interesting new light on the 19C ghost story and a lot of research and dedication has obviously gone into it, which the results fully justify. For this is no mere academic curio; these newly uncovered stories are not just intellectually interesting but as emotionally engaging and creepy as the best Victorian supernatural fiction.

As Lynda E. Rucker makes clear in her fascinating introduction, lots of female authors wrote ghost stories during this period (and still do) but somehow the big names that are remembered are the men: Henry James, MR James, Dickens et al. A Suggestion Of Ghosts provides a welcome corrective. The book is a treasure trove of stories from authors that will be new to even the most well-read horror aficionado (Mains's brief introductions to each story give useful biographical context for each writer.) The trappings and plots of many of these stories might sound familiar: cursed families, bleak landscapes, gothic dwelling places, and haunted rooms. But what's interesting is how these traditional tropes are made new and sinister by the different perspective the authors bring to them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the theme of female friendship features in many of the tales, and the spectres and beings that stalk these pages are often defeated not by male daring-do or action, but by female love and compassion.

Every story collected here is worth reading and rereading, for the new angles they provide on the ghost story. But naturally everyone will have their own subjective favourites. Personally, I loved the opener 'A Veritable Ghost Story' by Susanna Moodie in which a collection of motley characters in a tavern warn a traveller about an awful looking being that appears on a lonely road at the dead of night. And I must mention 'A Speakin' Ghost' by Annie Trumbull Slosson for its exceptionally skilful use of first-person vernacular, to tell a ghost story from a Christian point of view. And I especially loved the wonderful 'The Spectral Rout' by Francis Power Cobbe, in which the fear of poverty, of 'going down in the world' is at least as scary as the ghosts that haunt a pair of sisters in a house in Dublin. The evocation of their living conditions, their efforts to avoid the poorhouse, speaks to us across the generations about the fear that subconsciously fed into this scary and resonant tale.

You'll no doubt have your own favourites, if you read A Suggestion Of Ghosts. Which I highly, highly recommend that you do.

A Suggestion Of Ghosts (pre-order)

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Five Things #7

More things that I liked, and you might too.

1. Michael McDowell Interview, Fangoria 1984 - Too Much Horror Fiction
Some scans of an old interview with the horror author Michael McDowell, author of many brilliant novels, including the stunningly good The Elementals. A great find.

2. Don't Get To The Point - Michael Wehunt
On his blog, another great writer called Michael takes a hatchet to the currently prevalent idea that a piece of horror/supernatural fiction must introduce the uncanny element of the story early and obviously. An idea which, like most over-simplified writing 'rules', is cobblers. But don't just take my word for it, read this piece.

3. This Is Horror Podcast - SP Miskowski
SP Miskowski is one of my favourite writers currently working, and this episode of the TIH podcast features an interview with her. Do I need to say anymore? Oh, go on then: it's the first part of three...

4. Her Hands Like Ice - KT Bryski
I know nothing about the author of this short story, or the place it's been published (Bracken). Indeed, I can't even think how I stumbled across it, but I'm glad I did. A lyrical, surprising take on grief and the trope of the returning dead. I'll be coming back for more.

5. In Conversation: Martin Carr - Clash Magazine
An interview that's interesting not just because Carr is a great songwriter, but because of its insights into creativity and its fickleness. Check out the video for the brilliant 'Damocles' while you're reading.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Imposter Syndrome - Launch & First Reviews

Imposter Syndrome was formally released at Sledge-lit yesterday, with a launch alongside the marvellous Fox Spirit books. Four of the authors were in attendance: Phil Sloman, Tracy Fahey, Stephen Bacon and Gary McMahon. In keeping with the imposters theme, each author read from a story other than there own, keeping the audience in the dark about who the author actually was. In a nice touch for a horror book launch, a kid kept screaming like they were being murdered outside, too. It was a really fun launch and the book seemed to sell well.

Big thanks to Lisa Childs for all her help on the day.

The book has started to garner some reviews. David Longhorn at Supernatural Talereviewed each story individually, saying in conclusion:

"...a very good read. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the many facets of what is termed horror (or weird) fiction these days. Judging by the contents of this book the field is in fine fettle."

Meanwhile, Chad Clark also gave the book a positive review, saying "I was thrilled with all the stories here."

And last (for now) but certainly not least, Des Lewis has started one of his inimitable real-time reviews over on his site.

Imposter Syndrome (UK | US)

'Backstage' at the launch

Friday, 24 November 2017

Daniel Braum Nightscript III Interview

My story 'The Affair' recently appeared in Nightscript III, along with stories by many talented authors of the weird and strange. One of them is Daniel Braum, who got in touch and suggested we conduct a joint interview with each other about our respective stories. (Daniel has also organised a night of readings from Nightscript III at the Lovecraft Bar, New York, featuring authors David Surface, Julia Rust & Inna Effress.)

Tomorrow, I'll be answering questions on his site about 'The Affair'; below you can see his answers to my questions about his Nightscript tale, the wonderfully creepy 'Palankar'. (I'd never read any of Braum's work before, but 'Palankar' single-handedly convinced me that I needed to rectify that; since then I discovered his story 'A Girl's Guide' which you can and should read here. I'll be checking out his other stories pronto.)

So without further ado...

JAMES: So firstly I wanted to ask you what kind of writer you consider yourself and what kind of story you think 'Palankar' is: do you think of it as a ‘weird tale’, an heir of Aickman’s ‘strange stories’, just plain horror? Or do you think this micro classification of literature is pedantic noise?

DANIEL: I don’t think the micro-classifications are pedantic. I can see so many ways why they don’t matter and for a very long time I knew little of them. Lately I’ve found they can be helpful in terms of my education and efforts to bring stories to readers.

As a writer relatively new to the larger category known as weird fiction, in the course of my recent journey of education I’ve been thinking a lot about “what makes a kind of story that kind of story” for many reasons.

I’ve found one of the more exciting things about ‘weird tales’ and strange stories and horror is how often and how well these stories co-exists with other genres within a single given story. I recognize that any classification varies from reader to reader or author to author. Now that 'Palankar' has been published in Nightscript 3 I feel more confident calling the story a ‘weird tale’ or a strange stories in the spirit of Robert Aickman’s work. I could easily go down a rabbit hole of a discussion entirely about classification. Are weird tales a subset of horror? Are strange tales a subset of weird fiction? Perhaps any classification is an artificial restraint. What I do know is that stories of the kind that Robert Aickman wrote and that appear in Nightscript 3 could easily classify as weird fiction, fantasy, science fiction and or horror and or simultaneously exist alongside any of these labels, which is one of the many reasons these kinds of stories excite me. Even now, knowing a lot more about craft and genre, I still find it helpful to not think about genre when writing- at least not when writing a first draft or the “creation” stage of a story. I feel this helps avoid placing limits on a story and avoids caging it into a notion of what it can or can not be.

So what kind of a story do I think 'Palankar' is?

When I set forth to write 'Palankar' I was attempting to dramatize a notion. I started with this goal not a genre in mind. I wanted to write a story that illustrated a concept or observation on my mind—the notion was that we as humans can only go so far in trying to help or rescue others, particularly those we love, or risk the danger of “drowning” with whom we are trying to help. Thinking about genre didn’t come until very, very late in my process. Often the last part of my creative process is getting peer feedback. When I finally showed the story to others was the first discussion of just what kind of a story it was and what, if any genre it might fit into. Thinking about genre at that time helped me have confidence in my ending.

Right around the time of getting my peer feedback (late 2015) I had recently heard Peter Straub talk about Robert Aickman. Peter Straub’s views on how a Robert Aickman story operates was my gateway to both Aickman’s work and to weird fiction in general. This experience made me realize that my work had a classification or a home after a long time of feeling like it never quite squarely fit as science fiction, fantasy, or horror. 
The short story 'The Swords' was the story Peter Straub used to demonstrate “an Aickman story”. The story was heavily on my mind during the time I was revising 'Palankar'. I spent a lot of time thinking a lot about why the ending of 'The Swords' works and what kind of story operates in these ways.

Learning that a story not only could be “ambigious” but that there was a whole genre and movement that worked with this concept was exciting and eye opening and provided me with some of the confidence that I could (or in general one could) end a story on a certain point of ambiguity.

JAMES: I thought the ending of your story was very well done: it took the point of view of the brother to the end of his character arc but left so much untold and ambiguous as well. Did you always plan to end the story with unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions?

DANIEL: I didn’t plan it that way. Early on in drafting it I knew the end point of the story would be where my character would have to make a choice—a choice to cross over to a point of danger in his quest to help a loved one.

As I worked with and spent time with the story I realized both the outcome of his attempts to help, his choice, and any “reveal” as to the nature of the phenomenon he experience in the story was not needed to serve or achieve my aim in presenting what I wanted to present in the story.
From what I’ve learned about Robert Aickman it appears that the creation of his stories is an organic process and closely tied to his dreams. For me it is the product of thought and decisions about the characters and a lot of drafting

JAMES: I’m a big fan of ambiguous endings myself (if done right) but do you worry some readers will find them frustrating?

DANIEL: I think the reason I do not worry is because I accept it as cold, hard fact that many (if not most) readers are categorically frustrated with and do not prefer ambiguous endings. Perhaps this is why Aickman is not widely appreciated? 

I think this is where classification might come in to play. Classification helps match up readers with kinds of stories they prefer. I think the ending to the movie It Follows is a brilliant ending to a brilliant movie. I would call it a cinematic ‘strange tale’ in the spirit of Robert Aickman. The movie’s ambiguous elements and ending frustrated many viewers. Viewers I spoke with preferred that stories “wrap up” or operate with defined logic and rules as opposed to the “night time logic” the felt but not consciously-known aspect element of Aickman stories, some weird fiction, and certainly the movie It Follows functions on.

I think ambiguous endings work when night time logic is in play throughout the story; when the story operates by rules but they are not overtly given. Stories that avoid traditional structures yet have an emotional ending point, even if that point is a sense of disquiet or something unsettled, I think still operates to feel dramatically satisfying.

I think the ambiguity in your story is a wonderful example of this. It places emphasis on the emotional reality and reactions of the characters and away from overcoming or defeating any antagonist or monster or any defined phenomenon. Returning to the notion of classification, this is one reason the distinction of the strange tale being a type of story all of its own, is both warranted and useful at times.

JAMES: Since both of our stories deal with doubles and duality, it feels apt that our questions should echo each other as well. So what is it about the theme of the double and the twin that appealed to you as a writer? And have you written other stories based on the same trope?

DANIEL: While I wasn’t consciously thinking of doubles or twins when drafting 'Palankar' the notion of two of the same thing or person is fascinating to me. I think there is a wealth of opportunity to show and explore the differences of and importance of choice and choices made. And the notion of the “evil twin” while just being plain fun also lends itself to explore these things. Perhaps the notion of duality is a hallmark or at least familiar ground for weird fiction. In my short stories 'Sumo 21', 'Emperor of Mist' and 'Between Our Earth and Their Moon' ( forthcoming in the anthology Would But Time Await) all explore the consequeneces of meeting / interacting with/ and knowing about one’s otherworldly “double”.

So while I was not consciously thinking of it while drafting 'Palankar' it is something I think about so it makes sense it manifested in the story. Maybe there’s a bit of the Aickman’s subconscious method in me yet!

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Recommendation: Things We Leave Behind by Mark West

This is Mark West's second collection of short stories, featuring 18 tales: two new, the rest published in various anthologies over the years. As such, it contains a number of West's stories that I've already read and admired, including 'Come See My House In The Pretty Town' (folk horror plus scary clowns), the genuinely creepy 'Mr Stix' and 'The Witch House', and the surreal 'Time Waits...' Special mention here must go to 'The Bureau Of Lost Children', possibly West's finest tale, a panic-inducing story about a father losing his son in a crowded shopping centre.

Lots of the stories in Things We Leave Behind feature father/son relationships, or are about family more generally. The majority of West's protagonists are fathers and husbands, and the supernatural forces they face are scary not just because they are dangerous but because they risk disrupting the family unit. This is particularly clear in the stories 'Last Train Home' and 'Fog On The Old Coast Road'; in both, the protagonist is trying to get home to his family and is stopped from doing so by the horrors of West's fiction. I particularly liked the latter of these two pieces: a creepy ghost story with a fantastic last line.

I was rereading some of Stephen King's early short stories at the same time as reading Things We Leave Behind and there's a clear influence at work, transposed to these shores and made very British. It's there in the everyman/woman protagonists that populate his work; there too in the fact West writes wonderfully well about childhood and being a kid.  But there's a seedier, gorier side to his fiction as well, as shown in 'The Taste Of Her' and 'The Zabriskie Grimoire'. These are stories not ashamed to acknowlege horror's seedier roots; indeed in 'The Glamour Girl Murders' to relish in it.

A final theme, like so much horror fiction, is the past and its influence on the present. It informs 'Mr Stix' in which a childhood terror passes from mother to daughter, 'What Gets Left Behind', a superb story about a man returning to the site where his childhood friend died, and my favourite of the stories new to me here: 'What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking'. This is a superbly realised piece about the past, childhood, and a haunting that feels both Jamesian and contemporary at the same time. Like the book as a whole, it's highly recommended to all horror fans.

Things We Leave Behind  (UK | US)

Monday, 23 October 2017

Imposter Syndrome launched!

It’s here! 

Imposter Syndrome is the second anthology edited by myself and Dan Howarth; it's published by Dark Minds Press and the stunning cover artwork was done by Neil Williams. 

The book will be formally launched at this year’s Sledge-Lit on November 25th with the editors and a number of the authors in attendance. Paperback copies will be available at the event but follow the link here to order if you can’t attend. The Kindle version will be released on launch day, just click here to pre-order.
Should further proof be needed that this will be one of the anthologies of the year, just another take a look at the TOC…

James Everington & Dan Howarth

Gary McMahon

Laura Mauro

Timothy J Jarvis

Holly Ice

Neil Williamson

Stephen Bacon

Ralph Robert Moore

Tracy Fahey

Georgina Bruce

Phil Sloman

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Five Things #6

It's been too long since a five things post, hasn't it? So without further ado:

1. No Logical Way To Write A Haunting by Jay Wilburn
I'm in the depths of writing my own take on the haunted house novel at the moments. This thoughtful piece in Dark Moon Digest is about this sub-genre, and the issues with trying to make the haunted characters' actions believable. In a nutshell: why don't they just walk out?

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - review by Sally Jane Black
Since my last Five Things post, the director of the seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper, sadly passed away. There was of course a lot written about him and TCM in the aftermath, and deservedly so - it's a far more artistic and subtle film than it often gets credit for (as well as being bloody and terrifying too). This piece by Sally Jane Black was the best retrospective I read.

3. Symbols & Signs by Vladimir Nabokov
I found this wonderful story via one of those weird social media discussions that ends up miles away from the topic it started put from. This is a link to the New Yorker version from 1948; apparently everywhere else it's titled 'Signs & Symbols'.

4. Nottingham: UNESCO City Of Literature
I've lived in Nottingham nearly all my life; the two writers everyone knows from my home city are Byron and D.H. Lawrence. But there's much more to Nottingham's literary past than that, and lots of talent in its present. Nottingham has recently been awared UNESCO City Of Literature status; check out this new site to learn about local writers, bookshops, events and more more more.

5. 'Don't Turn On The Lights' by Cassandra Khaw
And finally, this story from Cassandra Khaw in Nightmare magazine, a brilliant telling (and retelling) on those urban legend horror stories we all heard as teenagers...