Friday, 7 December 2018

Recommendation: An Obscurity Of Ghosts (ed. J.A. Mains)

An Obscurity of Ghosts: Further Tales Of The Supernatural by Women 1876 - 1903 is a sequel to the anthology A Suggestion of Ghosts (which I reviewed here). Once again, editor J.A. Mains has collected together a set of Victorian ghost stories by women and which even the most well read horror fan is unlikely to have read before. These are tales culled from old journals and newspapers that have long since ceased circulation; they are pieces published as competition winners in the trade magazines of tea makers and candle purveyors. In short, they were printed wherever women of the 19C could get them printed. The fascinating and valuable introduction by Melissa Edmundson examines how women from this period used supernatural writing as a way of writing, of escaping the strictures that women should be 'angels in the house' and little else. 

Some words about my favourites stories here. 'A Live Ghost' by Ellen MacKubin, opens the book and has itself a great opening: a man returns from a two year trip to 'darkest Africa' to find everyone he has ever known at home thinks him dead. He has no access to his funds, is refused access to his club, is cast out from his old life. It almost feels like the start of a modern, ambiguous piece of weird fiction, although the story soon becomes more conventional. Nonetheless, it's a piece that lingered long in my mind after reading it.

'The Pin Ghost' by E.T. Corbett is a more light hearted tale, but with a central ghost whose manner of 'haunting' people who deserve it ("I put pins in his old pleasures, his old pursuits, until he can glean nothing from them, and is fain to become a dissatisfied grumbler for the rest of his life...") is unique: feeling to the reader at once both metaphorical and creepily physical, as the titular pin-ghost tells how she pricks and scratches those who don't meet her high standards...

Finally I'll mention 'Not Exactly A Ghost Story' by Mrs Molesworth, a children's author who crafts here a supernatural tale that is uncanny enough to unsettle modern adult readers. The ghost here isn't malevolent or threatening, but the way it is introduced, to both the reader and the central character is unsettling and ambiguous. As is the lingering doubt about whether the figure was a ghost, or something more conventional, or not even present at all outside of the narrator's mind. This gives it a a more modern feel compared to most of the other pieces here. It also seemed to me the best written story, the best crafted, by an author one senses knew the ghost story tropes of her contemporaries inside out, and knew how to twist them to express her own vision.

And that's what's important about this book, and its predecessor. These stories are women expressing their visions via supernatural tales, and those visions, these voices, have been unseen and unheard for too long. While not every story here was one I loved, every one was an obscured voice worth recovering from the past. 

And if two books isn't enough for you, a third volume, A Finality of Ghosts, is to be published next year.

An Obscurity of Ghosts: Further Tales Of The Supernatural by Women 1876 - 1903 is published by Black Shuck Books.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

A Few Thoughts on Fantasycon 2018

Fantasycon this year took place in Chester, and was once again a wonderful, hectic, stimulating, scary, exhausting and uplifting weekend celebrating genre fiction - not to mention celebrating friendship, great curries, and the odd drink too. It's hard to do these posts each year without a sense of repetition, but that's part of the charm: Fcon is a fixed point of the year, always different but always the same.

This blog is really only my selected highlights of the weekend; there's so much going on, so many people and books and conversations, so much laughter, that it's hard to fully take in at the time, never mind recall it all afterwards (mind you, Mark West always seems to bloody manage it). So, a few things:

Book Launches: I bought a one , a few, many, um, 'quite a lot' of books, again, including The Dark Masters Trilogy by Stephen Volk, The Alchemy Book Of Horrors, the third volume of Great British Horror, and not one but two books by Ramsey Campbell. The launches for the two books I had stories in were two of the best I've been involved in. Early Friday saw the launch for The Black Room Manuscripts IV which was staged as a mock-funeral, and then on Saturday NewCon Press launched Best British Horror 2018 where at least half of us contributors were there to sign copies: the launch seemed to go well, seeing the book in the flesh was wonderful (the hardback is beautiful), and overall it was a huge thrill.

Black Room Manuscripts IV Launch

Readings: I saw lots of fine readings over the weekend, but my three favourites were George Sandison at the Shadowbooth event, Eliza Chan's reading from her forthcoming novella during our fantasy reading slot, and of course John Llewellyn Probert's restrained, hushed, and sombre reading from his new Doctor Valentine novel...

I read my story 'Drones' from Falling Over, a piece I've never read live before (and only decided to do about an hour beforehand). As ever, I was nervous doing it but it seemed to go okay and hopefully my naturally dull monotone deadpan reading style hid any nerves from the audience (the glass of wine helped too, apart from the moment mid-reading I accidentally inhaled some of it).

My Fantasy reading slot with Mike Chinn and Eliza Chan 

Panels: I was on two panels: Being BFA Nominees (aptly, for Imposter Syndrome) and Strange Fiction. The latter especially was both huge fun and intellectually stimulating (or maybe that was just the bottle of prosecco Georgina Bruce cracked open at the start). Of the panels I attended as an audience member, my favourite was probably Fantastic Inspiration, which explored mythologies, tropes and narrative forms from cultures and traditions other than the usual—every year, I try and see something that broadens my horizons, that talks about books, authors, and fictional approaches that I'm unfamiliar with, and this one really hit that spot. More like this next year, please.

Georgina Bruce opens the 'Strange Fiction' panel in style.
The People:
God, where to begin? Or more accurately, where to end as I'm sure to miss out some of you out. But, cliche or not, it's the people who make Fcon what it is, so I do feel it's important to try and mention as many of the you who made my weekend so special. So, in no particular order:

Friends I bumped into 30seconds after arriving in Chester station: Jim McLeod, Marie O'Regan & Paul Kane
'The Reverend' Justin Park, Tracy Fahey, Duncan Bradshaw, Penny Jones & the rest of the SHC crew
Charlotte Bond (great cake!)
Birthday Boys CC Adams and Ross Warren
Andrew Hook (finally we had our Fall conversation)
Ray Cluley (finally we had our poetry conversation)
Jess Jordan (a bad influence, frankly :) )
2am Saturday buddies Eliza Chan & Tim Major
Morning-after breakfast buddies Dion Winton-Polak & Lisa Childs
Laura "award winning" Mauro, Mr. Mauro, & Keith
G.V. Anderson (*waves from across hotel room*)
Neil Williamson (super-sub who never was)
+ Tom Johnstone, Dan Coxon, Mark Morris, Gary Budden, James Bennett, Geogina Bruce, Kit Power, Alison Littlewood & Fergus, Simon Bestwick, Cate Gardner, Chris Jones, Ren Warom, Steve Shaw, Ian Whates, Stephen Volk, Priya Sharma, Richard Farren Barber, Terry Grimwood, Ben Jones, Maura McHugh, Jan Edwards...

And last but never least, fellow Crusties Mark West, Phil Sloman, Steve Byrne, John Travis, Timothy Jarvis, Linda Nagel, Peter Mark May and Stephen Bacon

Dion Winton-Pollak, Mark West, Ross Warren, Steve Byrne, me

Chester - really quite lovely

Sober and dignified at the Best British Horror 2018 launch

Monday, 15 October 2018

My Fantasycon 2018 Schedule

This weekend it's Fantasycon, an event I like forward to immensely. And on the assumption that you, hypothetical blog-reader and Fcon-goer, are more organised than me and actually plan these things out in advance, here's my schedule - come say hi!

Friday 19/10 - 4pm, The Jubilee Room
Book Launch: The Black Room Manuscripts IV (The Sinister Horror Company)
This great looking anthology, edited by J.R. Park & Tracy Fahey, features my story 'Size Isn't Everything'. Something special is promised for the launch, so it should be a lot of fun...

Saturday 20/10 - 2pm, Panel Room 1
Being BFA Nominees
Ed Fortune (Moderator), James Everington, Anna Smith Spark, Stephen Volk, Jen Williams

Saturday 20/10 - 5pm, The Jubilee Room
Book Launch: Best British Horror 2018 (NewCon Press)
Great to see Johnny Mains's yearly patriotic best-of return; this year I'm chuffed to bits he chose my story 'The Affair' for inclusion. 

Saturday 20/10 - 8pm, The Disraeli Room
Readings: Fantasy
Not quite sure why I'm in a 'fantasy' reading slot, but I'm alongside the excellent Eliza Chan & Mike Chinn, so it will be alright on the night I'm sure.

Sunday 21/10 - 1pm, Panel Room 2
Strange Fiction
Andrew Hook, Duncan P. Bradshaw, Gary Budden, Georgina Bruce, James Everington, Jan Edwards

Sunday 21/10 - 3pm, The Jubilee Room
The British Fantasy Awards
I probably won't still be there for this, but I will be in spirit because Imposter Syndrome is nominated for Best Anthology!

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Recommendation: Hollow Shores by Gary Budden

Isn't it great when a book turns out to be something different and more exciting than you were expecting?

I'd read and very much liked a couple of Gary Budden's stories in Black Static and Best New Weird, so I was expecting his debut, Hollow Shores, to be a well-written and interesting collection of psychological weird fiction. And there's certainly that element; but Hollow Shores is so much more. It's one of those collections of stories that's greater than the sum of it's parts, where each piece manages to be complete in itself while also part of a wider whole.

As this suggests, the stories here are interrelated, but the connections between them aren't plot-based so much as each piece occupying an overlapping physical or mental space. The characters of each story are linked to those of others by genealogy, geography, or just being at the same punk gig at the same time. Someone might have the starring role in one story, but be little than a background actor or the subject of mere rumour in the next. Tales are passed between people or down the generations; they mutate and change focus as a result, producing a shared if unacknowledged mythology for the people of Budden's titular coastline, of Kent, London, and further afield. And crucially, it's a narrative space that you as a reader feel as much a participant as a spectator in. As the first piece, the excellent 'Breakdown', says: "The story is mine now."

As such, it would be somewhat self-defeating for me to follow the usual review route here and list my favourite stories from the book*. Instead the whole reading experience forms a gestalt in my mind, a composite of imagery, meaning, and language, which probably says as much about me as the book itself: the liminal spaces of beaches & off-season seafronts; birds heard rather than seen; strange tall figures glimpsed in the mist; the insinuation of corporate branding into our inner lives; the time machine of music; invasive weeds twisting up through the concrete of railway platforms; Whitstable Bay beer; nostalgia for the moment even as it's happening; the quiet miracle of seeing a red kite overhead.

The majority of these stories are non-supernatural, but the natural world often seems as uncanny or strange as any mere spectres. In 'Baleen ' for example, a dead beached whale has the same aspect as the weird trappings of stories like 'Breakdown' and 'Greenteeth': the whale is an alien being from a different world, suddenly erupted into our own.

As I said, it's a different book to what imagined going in, and all the better for that: why would I want to read a book that I could imagine? Instead, what I got was a piece of writing both personal and communal, something unique from Budden that impressed me no end. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it, despite my rather unfocussed description above. It's simply brilliant.

Hollow Shores (UK | US)

* but fucking hell, 'Spearbird' deserves a special mention

Friday, 5 October 2018

Recommendation: The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

I had the pleasure of being on a couple of panels with Laura Purcell at Edge-Lit this year, and in a like-the-cut-of-her-jib moment I bought her novel The Silent Companions as a result. And I'm very glad I did, because I enjoyed it immensely.

It's a story about a Victorian widow called Elsie, sent out to The Bridge, a country estate with requisite surly staff, strange noises, and locked rooms. Its structure is intriguingly modern, switching between three time-frames with ease, but at its heart this is a modern take on the gothic novel.

So, a confession: beyond the classics, I'm not a massive fan of the gothic mode in horror fiction. Something like The Woman In Black, for example, I found slightly underwhelming, the most disturbing thing being the faint but persistent sense of deja-vu its tropes induced. And The Silent Companions sure ticks all the gothic boxes: its period setting; its isolated country house; the cursed past implicit in present misfortunes; the gradual escalation of its haunting.

But there's a pleasing darkness and grit to The Silent Companions which to my mind elevates it behind mere literary mimicry. It's there in the intrusion of industrial London into its rural setting, in the way its doesn't flinch from the cruelty of the times it evokes, or draw back from the violence of its narrative. The spirit of both Henry and M.R. James can be felt, the former in the ambiguity about how much the haunting is real or psychological, the latter in the way any sense of a cosy narrative is punctured by scarily physical manifestations of the supernatural—like James, Purcell has the gift of being able to suggest such things with a single sentence or image that are all the more powerful for their compactness.

Its wonderfully done, and manages that rare trick of slowly building a sense of unease while also being a genuinely page-turner. I'd heartily recommend it.

The Silent Companions (UK | US)

Friday, 21 September 2018

Coming Up For Air

I've been immersed in writing my novel, tentatively titled Other People's Ghosts for what feels like a loooooooong time now—I'm 50k words into writing the second draft. Those 50k words (and the 80k or so of the first draft that proceeded them) have been grabbed & snatched whenever I've had chance—first thing in the mornings, during lunch breaks, during tired evenings when the rest of the world is surely sensible enough to be be asleep—over the past months. Each time I write another 10k it feels like another notch as I descend into blacker and blacker waters; and they'll only get deeper & blacker as I move onto subsequent drafts.

I haven't finished a short story in months; I used to be able to work on multiple stories at once but life doesn't really allow that anymore. Life, time, age doesn't allow that. Because of the slow way publishing works, a few stories of mine are still trickling out this year, but soon they'll be nothing in the pipeline. I've a couple of stories still trying to find a home, two of the best ones I've ever written IMHO, yet they're wracking up the rejections like nobody's business. Maybe they're junk and I'm not seeing them clearly. Maybe I've lost perspective, down here in the deep.

But you know what? I miss writing short stories, not just creatively, but for stupid reasons: the acceptances, the feedback, the feeling that new work was coming out and I wasn't being forgotten, fading in the minds of the few readers I have.

Like I say, stupid reasons.

But once this draft of Other People's Ghosts is done, when I'm maybe 30k further down into the black water than now, I'll need to come up for air and write some new short stories. It will be good for the novel, to have a pause between drafts, obviously, but more importantly I think it will be good for me. For stupid reasons. To come up for air, see the light, feel the wind on my face, wave to a shore that seems more distant than when I took a breath and dived: hello, I'm still here.

And then back down I'll go.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Other Worlds - My Schedule

The Other Worlds convention takes place at Nottingham Writers' Studio on Saturday 6th October. The schedule has just been released, so here is a quick preview of what I'll be up to:

  • 11:30am – Workshop: Creating Atmosphere in Horror and Weird Fiction
  • 2:30pm – Human Fears: Are We More Afraid of People Than Monster in Our Fiction? Charlotte Bond, Alex Davis (Chair), James Everington, Alison Moore
  • 5:00pm – Pushing the Boundaries: Where Does Genre Fiction End? Alex Davis (Chair), James Everington, Daniel Godfrey, Justina Robson, Anna Stephens

Full Schedule and Tickets can be found here.