Friday, 14 July 2017

Recommendation: Cottingley by Alison Littlewood

"Dear Sir Arthur Conan Doyle..."

So begins this new novella from Alison Littlewood, the second in the 2017 NewCon press horror range. And it makes a nice contrast with the first, Case Of The Bedevilled Poet by Simon Clark. Clark's novella played with the fictionality of Sherlock Holmes; Alison Littlewood's Cottingley offers a fictionlised version of Holmes's creator.

Doyle himself does not appear onstage in this story, but it is based around a well-known chapter in his life, that of the Cottingley fairies. Famously, Doyle was taken in by these fakes, but in Littlewood's novella fairies are real; but they aren't as innocent as those in the famous photos. Instead, this tale explores the darker side of fairie lore. Littlewood's fairies don't seem evil or good so much as alien and other: beings that might entrance or harm us for their own unfathomable motives.

The story is told in the form of letters written by a Thomas Fairclough, a resident of Cottingley, who lives with his daughter in law and grandchild (his son having perished in WW1). They encounter shinning beings near the local brook, and despite the beauty of what they encounter even here there's traces of the unease to come. An unease only heightened when Fairclough returns home with the dead body of one of the creatures for reasons (he says) of science. Despite the story being related entirely via Fairclough's letters to Doyle and his associate Mr. Gardner (we never get to read their replies) we see both the good side of his character and his foibles—a certain vanity, perhaps, in his being the one to discover of the fairies, and a desire for the respect of great men like Conan Doyle. But Fairclough is a brave man, too, and it isn't long before he is put to the test...

It will be no surprise to long time readers of this blog how much I like Littlewood's fiction, and Cottingley is no exception. It expertly evokes both its setting and the characters' emotional lives; it's impeccably paced, perfectly structured, and a genuine page-turner. I devoured it in one sitting. Make sure you pick up a copy.

(UK | US)

Monday, 10 July 2017

Background Fears #1

I've recently been rereading a whole bunch of my stories with a view to selecting those that will work best together as a third collection. Such an activity is interesting, because it reveals connections, motifs, and repeated/recycled imagery & ideas in my work that I've never noticed before.

And one thing I spotted is... I obviously can't stop worrying about climate change.

I mean, I kind of knew it was there in the background of my fiction, because it's in the background of every thought I have, so it seems. That little niggle, that little voice that doesn't let you forget where we're heading unless we do something. But I've only written about the subject directly once (in an as yet unpublished story) and I unthinkingly assumed I'd only mentioned obliquely in a few of the others that have seen the light of day.

As a horror writer, I should have known we can't bury our fears as deeply as that. Reading back, I'm constantly hinting at it. Trying to give voice to those moments of anxiety whenever something reminds me of climate change (which given it's in the background of everything, could be almost anything).

An incomplete list of the more obvious places it occurs in my work:

Pretty obviously, it's part of a whole set of background worries abut the future for the narrator in 'Falling Over'.

It's part of the world building in 'He'. Same with 'Mirages In The Badlands', too, with its "dreadful heat".

'Across The Water' alludes to it, although of course the central character of that story probably doesn't believe in climate change. (He doesn't believe in a lot of things, but if horror teaches us anything it's that disbelief can't save us.)

Looking back, I see that 'The Place Where It Always Rains' is totally a metaphor for climate change - how could I not realise that? - and similar 'strange weather', for want of a better term, drives the action of both 'Snow' and the 'Into The Rain' section of The Quarantined City.

It's a constant, now I look for it. It's hiding in both the haunted house tale I'm currently writing and the first story I ever had published, 'Feed The Enemy'. It's quite obviously something which haunts me but which I cannot exorcise, not even through fiction.

It's in the background, of everything. But like all monsters in the background, it's not going to stay there forever.

It's coming for us.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Five Things #4

Latest post of things horror and book related I've enjoyed recently, and think you might too.

1. From Annihilation To Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
Somehow I missed this at the time: an article in The Atlantic by Jeff VanderMeer on his Southern Reach trilogy, a series of books I called "masterful" when I first read them, and I'd still stand by that.

2. Shirley Jackson's Sublime First Paragraph in Hill House, Annotated
I surely don't have to tell most readers of this blog how brilliant Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House is, or about its famed opening paragraph. Random House copy chief Benjamin Dreyer does a great job here walking through that paragraph and explaining why it's so good, the one thing he'd change, and mounting a sturdy defence of both adverbs and semi-colons.

3. The H Word: He Himself Was Not Corrupt by Lee Thomas
A really interesting piece for Nightmare about on the 'post-gay' representation of characters in horror fiction; that is, the depiction of gay characters whose sexuality is not a central point of drama or angst, but just part of who they are. Lee Thomas identifies Peter Straub's fine novel Koko as one of the key precursors here.

4. 'My Mother's Skin' by Brian O'Connell
I really enjoyed this story by Brian O'Connell, reprinted on his own site. A tale of the sea and transformation, of which the less said the better by me before you read it.

5. The Corner Of Lovecraft & Ballard by Will Wiles
A frankly superb article about the importance of architecture in the fiction of both Lovecraft and J.G. Ballard. Full of insight and close reading. Fascinating.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Quarantined City real-time reviewed...

Only connect...
Wait, no, that's another book
Yet more thanks I owe to Des Lewis, who has now real-time reviewed The Quarantined City on his famed Dreamcatcher website.

One of the distinguishing features of these reviews is the connections Des makes between different stories... so given this novel's stories-within-stories structure, it's no surprise he found plenty illuminating to say (including comparing it to Timothy J. Jarvis's wonderful The Wanderer). Indeed, one of the buried inspirations for The Quarantined City was Malcolm Lowry's masterpiece Under The Volcano and a half-remembered university seminar about it, in which the lecturer said that paranoia was the act of a mind making too many connections. Another one of which would be that Under The Volcano is a story about a man wandering around a city, having too much to drink, which might sound familiar...

A Des Lewis review of Under the Volcano would no doubt be amazing. Meanwhile, you can read his review of The Quarantined City here.

The Quarantined City (UK | US)

Friday, 30 June 2017

Recommendation: Dr Upex and the Great God Ing by Antony Oldknow

Dr Upex and the Great God Ing is a collection of fiction from Antony Oldknow, a writer I first came across via his excellent story 'Ruelle des Martyrs' in Supernatural Tales. That story is included here and it was nice to read it again; indeed much of what makes it such a good story applies to the collection as a whole. 'Ruelle des Martyrs' is a hauntingly ambiguous tale of a man caught in a rainstorm who gives a woman a lift and ends up at her house. For more conventional authors, this setup might lead to an ending involving one of the genre's more overused monsters, but Oldknow is too subtle for that. Like most stories here, it seems slightly detached from the modern world, both in terms of its setting and the prose: Oldknow tells his stories in language at once old-fashioned and nostalgic for that past, taking his cues from M.R. James and Robert Aickman.

Another good example of Oldknow's style is the title story. Set during WW2, a doctor is recovering from his wounds in a field hospital and becomes convinced he is being visited by the titular god from Norse mythology. It's an original tale, wrong-footing the reader (this reader, at least) several times, not least in that after some fine moments of unease, it ends on a sombre, almost reflective note.

Nearly all pieces here leave threads untied, at least in the literal sense, and it's safe to say this is not a collection for those readers who like their short stories wrapped up with a neat little bow at the end. Several pieces, such as 'A Soldier' and 'Cathedral Woman' are almost fragements, pieces of a wider pattern the reader can construct.

In that sense, this is a 'difficult' collection to read, although I've never understood that term as a criticism of a piece of art. Yes, Oldknow's stories might make you work a bit to get at their deeper meaning, but the only relevent question is if that work, that difficulty, is worth it. For the majority of stories in Dr Upex and the Great God, the answer is an empthatic yes.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Recommendation: Case Of The Bedevilled Poet by Simon Clark

Case Of The Bedevilled Poet is the first in a new line of horror novellas from NewCon Press. It tells the story of Jack Cofton, a poet in London during the Blitz who, in a compelling opening scene, narrowly escapes death from a Nazi bomb.

But after this escape, Crofton's life becomes decidedly strange: an off-duty soldier insults and attacks him, and complete strangers all start repeating the same words to him: "And suffer you shall before you die." London suddenly seems filled with a sense of threat and violence which, while ambiguous, is directed towards Crofton. Seeking shelter in a pub, he encounters two old men who, preposterously, claim to be the real Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Crofton doesn't believe them of course, but he's in no position to turn down their aid...

As the above makes clear, there's a lot of plates set spinning in this story, and if the author was less talented all we'd have would be a load of smashed crockery. Fortunately, Simon Clark is too accomplished for that to happen, in part because the setting of London under siege by the Luftwaffe is so convincingly realised, both in terms of the concrete details and the depiction of the British public under fire. The characters of 'Holmes' and 'Watson' are also well done; a potentially absurd scenario actually becomes the source of pathos as the story progresses.

On one level, Case Of The Bedevilled Poet is a fast-paced, plot-driven tale, racing along with the same narrative verve as the Sherlock Holmes stories themselves. But at the same time there's weighty thematic concerns raised, in particular the idea that the 'death drive' (based on Freud's theories of a universal urge towards self-destruction) is behind both the violence directed towards Crofton and the world-wide conflagration of WW2 as a whole.

Overall, Case Of The Bedevilled Poet is an exhilerating read, and a fine start this range of NewCon Press novellas. (UK | US)

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Five Things #3

Another round up of five things that have caught my eye recently...

1. Unmanageable Spirits: a Look at Nadia Bulkin’s ‘Wish You Were Here' by S.P. Miskowski
On The Conqueror Weird (a site new to me, but looks a goodie), author S.P. Miskowski writes about Nadia Bulkin's fine story, 'Wish You Were Here' (which you can read, uh, here).

2. 'The Average Man Is Not Hard To Mystify' by Chloe N. Clark
Another Chloe N. Clark story and another accomplished tale, one that rewards several rereads. Despite it's short length, this one is bottomless.

3. 'Quiet Horror, Unquiet Horror, Disquieting Horror' by Paul St. John Mackintosh
A wide-ranging piece on the Ginger Nuts of Horror site about what is, and isn't, 'quiet horror'. Takes in Robert Aickman, Joyce Carol Oates and many others. I may not agree with everything the author says here, but it's still well worth reading and engaging with.

4. Electric Lit Interview: Victor LaValle
Fascinating interview with Victor LaValle, author of one of the best neo-Lovecraftian books around, The Ballad Of Black Tom. Here he talks about Lovecraft, the mutability of genres, and "imaginative illiteracy" and a whole load more.

5. 'Good Bones' by Maggie Smith
A poem that has been on my mind a lot since the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester & London, and the surge in voter turnout among the young denying the Tories a majority. You could make this place beautiful.