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)