I've always loved short story collections where the author describes some of the background and inspiration behind the stories in the book. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, for example, both do this very well - see Skeleton Crew and Smoke and Mirrors for evidence (in fact in the latter Gaiman goes one better and hides an entire extra story in the notes).
Maybe such explanations are even more interesting for surreal or supernatural fiction, where a simple autobiographical explanation isn't available from the story itself.
And maybe, also, it's only wannabe writers who read the author's notes so avidly? I don't know, but as soon as I decided to put out some stories in a self published collection, I knew I'd do some notes of my own for them.
In order to give people a taster of what The Other Room contains I've posted these notes below (they may need editing slightly from the versions that will appear in the actual book to avoid spoilers). I start with the title story itself...
The Other Room
I've the kind of job where I occasionally have to stay in hotel rooms on my own, but not often enough to get used to it. And there's something weird about the experience, a sense of anonymity to go alongside the anonymity of the cheap hotel rooms themselves - no one knows you. You could be anyone.
Returning from the hotel bar on one of these occasions, I put my hotel swipe-card in the wrong door. Although nothing happened the thought occurred to me - what if it had opened? This story pretty much wrote itself after that initial thought. I didn't plan it, and things I wrote without thinking turned out felicitously, such as the whole Waits/Straw thing. If I'd planned that before hand, I would have spent ages getting two names which were exact reversals of each other. But of course the world outside the Other Room isn't an exact opposite of our own.
I chose this as the title for this collection because reading fiction, in particularly weird or fantastical fiction is like stepping into a strange room. One where everything initially seems familiar and safe, but you still feel that something, somewhere, is off-key...
I'm sure it will surprise no one that I wrote this whilst living in Oxford; like the central character I did grow up in a Nottinghamshire mining village, although the one presented in the story is an exaggeration.
This was originally going to be a much longer piece, but in order to submit it to a magazine I had to slim it down to make it fit a lower word count. They rejected it, but fortunately Morpheus Tales accepted it - my first accepted piece of fiction.
Slimming this down made it better, I think; the whole thing now pivots around the garbled quotation from Larkin. The poem is The Explosion from High Windows.
I see this as a ghost story, for what are ghosts but the past come back for us?
Some Stories for Escapists
I wrote a ton of these while I was at university; I think I was inspired both by Labyrinths by Borges and Stephen King's description of horror archetypes in his non-fiction exploration of the genre Dance Macabre. I interlaced these archetypes with personal, subjective views of my own on horror stories... The result was rubbish, but that's fine - every writer needs to write some rubbish before they become any good. And being at university gives you a perfect opportunity to write such rubbish, particularly if it is pretentious rubbish, which this certainly was. Fortunately I put the finished thing in a drawer and never showed anyone.
About ten years later I mined and revised the best bits from the bloated original when I first saw the phrase 'flash fiction' on some trendy new website.
First Time Buyers
It's a truism that horror stories, for all their ghosts and ghouls, are reflections of our real worries and fears. And while it's true that the Big things like Death and Fate are scary, the fact is we spend a lot of our time worrying about comparatively little things - money, our jobs. Unemployment and homelessness.
And maybe because we are worried about these things, we tend to demonise those people who are made redundant or who lose their homes. It's easier to think that what has happened to them is their fault somehow, rather than something that could have happened to anyone.
The real monster in this story is not the white figure running in the mist; like Frankenstein's monster, it's one we've created ourselves.
I've read a smattering of modern cosmology and physics books, and while it's fascinating I can't say I understand it all. But it's always struck me that there's huge level of imagination to such writing, a scale and scope that is awesome, in the original sense of the word.
The 'thought experiment' known as Schrodinger's Cat also has a perverse and malicious ingenuity to it - it's easy to imagine an alternative reality where Schrodinger wrote Twilight Zone style horror stories. In fact, if you believe some theories of modern physics, this reality actually exists somewhere...
The quotation that heads the story is from Schrodinger's original 1935 article where he describes the experiment, which has the marvellous title Die gegenwärtige Situation in der Quantenmechanik. A description of the experiment and its implications simple enough for even a humanities graduate like me to understand can be found in the excellent God and The New Physics by Paul Davies.
This is the kind of story that makes me wish I hadn't decide to write these notes at the back of the book, as I've no idea where the central idea came from. There's some references to philosophy, and obviously the whole thing is an exaggeration of feminist ideas about the objectification of women... But other than that, I don't know. I just picked up a pen one day (I still write all my first drafts by hand) and started writing it. Sometimes it really is that easy.
Note to readers: when an author tells you where he or she 'gets their ideas' they're probably confused or lying.
The Final Wish
This is an odd one. I wrote this at university - one winter I got sick with some kind of flu, and barely left my room for days. I took the kind of flu medicine that knocks you out for a bit rather than cures you, and then when awake drank either coffee or whisky depending on whether it looked light or dark outside my window.
Obviously whatever assignment or other writing I had on at that point was halted, but when I recovered this was scrawled on my notepad. I vaguely remember writing it. but those memories are tinted by the fever-like quality of my illness.
All I've ever done to alter it is give it a title; the whole story is mysterious to me and reading it back I get no sense of having written it myself. Despite that, I've always found it the one story of mine I can't form any objective opinion on. I'd be genuinely interested in hearing what readers think of it.
I suppose a Freudian reading through this would have a field day - I'd like to point out that my relationships with my parents and brother are completely normal...
A Writer's Words
Yes, yes, I know the title is bad - awful, pretentious, and trite. But I've never been able to think of a better one. (I often struggle with titles - I can get all the way to the end of a third draft of a story and still have no idea what the damn thing should be called.)
Like The Other Room the inspiration for this one came from another minor incident which I then took to its extreme. Like the main character I was on a train when I became concerned it was the wrong one, and there was a note with back-to-front writing stuck to the window. From that brief spasm of anxiety (and it's always slightly nerve-wracking, using public transport for long journeys) came this story.
These Lincolnshire roads, with signs showing the number of fatalities, are real. I guess this complements the previous story, but this time it's about personal not public transport. Do any of us stop to think as we get in the car that it's most likely the riskiest thing we'll do all day?
When The Walls Bend
I've a tendency to over-think when I'm writing, to believe that a story needs some kind of intellectual underpinning before I can begin it. To compensate, I often force myself to write something based on a simple, archetypal idea. Here I just wanted to write a haunted house story.
I had to have some way in though, and the idea for this story came when I wondered why so many haunted houses in fiction were big, sprawling mansions owned by screwy upper-class people. Do the rich really have a monopoly on the afterlife as well? I wanted my haunted house to be small, cramped, and squalid. I also love ghosts stories which are as much about the person being haunted as the ghost.
This was another story for which I struggled finding a title; I was playing Radiohead's Hail To The Thief album constantly at the time, and eventually I 'borrowed' the title from a lyric from a track called The Gloaming.
I've always liked the last line of this story, and it seemed an appropriate way to end the collection as a whole.