Monday, 31 August 2020

Recommendations: Lockdown Reads

To paraphrase Dylan: time is weird now, here in the mountains. Trapped up here in lockdown, awaiting the descent to a normal life, time seems to be passing both at a crawl and at a rush. 

Hopefully a future blog post will being some news about the writing I've done (in fits and starts) during this time... but this post isn't about that. This post is about some of the best books I've read over the last one two three months. The highlights, with a few brief & inadequate words about each:
This collection of poems is based upon a wonderful idea: each takes as its inspiration a different 'final girl' from a horror film. Holland uses this conceit to talk about death, about struggle, about (male) violence physical and psychic, about how sometimes the best way to rebel is simply to survive. Although based on imagery from the films, Holland's precise, sometimes haunting, sometimes brutal language creates something original and personal. This is really very special.

This is the website of a Romanian author I know the sum total of nothing about, other than on this evidence they're a very good (and dark) writer. The micro pieces you'll find if you follow this link are well worth reading: you'll find folk horror, the dead rising, blood rituals - all kind of fun stuff. The kind of thing you hope to find on the internet, but so rarely do: something brilliantly written, obviously personal, but anonymous, and all the more intriguing because of it.
Mosby's books are marketed as crime, and look, they are: I'm sure he'd hate it if I said anything wanky like they "transcend the genre". I Know Who Did It is rooted in the genre, a police procedural full of twists and turns and whatnot, but... well, it sure as hell scratched my horror itch as well. There's a real sense of dread, of foreboding as this one progresses, a feeling that the characters are caught up in something bleak and devastating with no escape, no backtracking... they can only move forward toward their fate. Like everything I've read of Mosby's, it's a page-turner that makes you feel by turning the pages you're pressing forward into that darkness too. Absolutely brilliant.
The debut collection from Laura Mauro was always going to be something special. Most readers of this blog have probably already read & admired some of the stories she's had published over the last few years (disclaimer, she wrote a wonderful tale for Imposter Syndrome, which is included here). Every story in Sing Your Sadness Deep is great, but if I had to chose some specific highlights, the stories 'When Charlie Sleeps', 'The Grey Men', 'Letters From Elodie' and especially the heartbreaking 'Ptichka' are as good as weird fiction gets.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Recommendation: Underworld Dreams by Daniel Braum

I was honoured to advance read Daniel Braum’s forthcoming new collection, Underworld Dreams, which is now available to preorder:

“To read a Daniel Braum story is to step from the familiar into another room, through a doorway not present a second before. At first, things in the other room feel familiar, comfy—but don’t get too comfortable. You’ll notice the off-notes, the strange discrepancies, in this place Braum has transported you to soon enough. You might be tempted to stop reading and close the book, to go back through the door to where you felt safe. But Braum is too good a writer for that, and you keep reading, and you step further into the other room…
And besides, if you did turn around, who’s to say the way back would even be there?”

It contains, among many other dark delights, the story 'How To Stay Afloat When Drowning', which was originally published in Pareidolia.

You can (and definitely should) preorder it from Lethe Press here.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Recommendation: Exercise In Control by Annabel Banks

With life being what it is at the moment, I don't really have the time to do this book justice. But I did want to write something about Exercise In Control by Annabel Banks (from Influx Press). It's a book of short stories, and if you love short stories as much as me you'll want to check it out.

These stories are dark, stylish, funny, and disturbing. While not supernatural in the literal sense, the realism of the writing is undercut/enhanced by the sense that something disturbing or off-kilter is happening just out of sight... As you might expect, that disturbing element is brought to light when the stories reach their conclusions - sometimes in a way that's blackly comic ('Harmless'), sometimes disturbing ('Payment to the Universe') and sometimes weirdly touching ('Rite Of Passage'). Naturally, each of these endings only works because the prose and narrative leading up to it is precisely controlled and exquisitely written. 

There's more than one story here I immediately wanted to reread, but special mention must go to the title story, 'Exercises In Control', which pulled me up short not once but twice at the brilliance/nastiness at what I'd just read. 

See, I told you I wouldn't be able to do this book justice. But buy it anyway, alright?

Monday, 20 April 2020

The 101 Club & We All Hear Stories In The Dark

So, Robert Shearman then.

Anyone who's had the distinct pleasure of reading Robert Shearman's stories before will no doubt agree when I say he's one of the best, most distinctive, most original short story writers in the UK at the moment. Let's take that as read. And a bloody nice guy as well, if you've ever had the opportunity to chat to him at a convention. And one of the best writers at reading aloud his own work. Let's take all of that as read...

Because he's just pulled off something incredible. He's released a collection with one hundred and one short stories in it. Not pokey little micro-fictions or flash-fiction, but actually short stories. Which each reader will get to read in an entirely different order, depending on answers they give to questions at the end of each story they read. It's called We All Hear Stories In the Dark, and is published in three volumes by PS Publishing (you can buy it here).

Faced with such an incredible—if not lunatic—achievement, Jim McLeod of Gingernuts Of Horror decided to match it, and commission a review of every individual story in the collection. And so the 101 Club was born, and I was delighted to be asked to review two tales, 'The New Adventures Of Robin Hood' and 'Canon Fodder'. One's about Robin Hood—sort of—and one is about Shakespeare—sort of. Naturally, I decide to start my reviews of them with a, uh, Public Enemy lyric.

You can find Jim McLeod's introduction to The 101 Club here, along with links to the five pages of reviews. It's a huge undertaking, but one which a writer of Rob's talent and kindness totally deserves. And I think I speak for all the reviewers when I say it's been a true labour of love too. I do hope you'll give it a read, and purchase the book.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Recommendation: Terrible Things by David Surface

The world's a crazy, somewhat scarier place than it was just a few weeks back (and it was hardly a bed of sanity & roses then) and there's little I can do about 99% of it all. But like everyone, authors and small-presses will be affected by coronavirus and its economic impacts, especially those launching books at now-cancelled conventions. So I'm going to periodically post about some of those books on here, and encourage you to throw some money their way if you can.

First off is Terrible Things by David Surface, published by Black Shuck Books. I was actually asked to blurb this book, so here is what I had to say:

"David Surface’s first short story collection is a reason to rejoice for all lovers of disturbing, off-beat, and ghostly fiction. Well-written and multi-layered, these stories are unpredictable in the best possible way: the author doesn’t allow the cliches of the genre to dilute his own personal vision. Put simply, these stories are some of the very best weird fiction has to offer."

And I stand by every word. You can preorder Terrible Things here.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Strange Story #24: Starfish

Strange Story #24: Starfish
Director: A.T. White / Starring: Virginia Gardner

You know what used to be my dream? For everyone to just disappear.

So, it's been six years since I last posted a 'Strange Story' piece on here. But as soon as I had the idea to write about the artsy-'horror'(maybe) film Starfish, it seemed appropriate to resurrect the idea. After all, starfish can regrown lost limbs can't they?

I've never written about a film as a 'Strange Story' before (unless the one in House Of Leaves counts...), probably because I'm not very qualified to do so. So I'll not really mention here the technical aspects of direction or cinematography (although there are some striking visual images), the score (although the music both original and by bands like Sigur Ros is brilliantly used) or the acting (although Virginia Gardner's central performance, alone as she is for most of the scenes, is a key part of what makes this movie work). Okay, so I have mentioned all those things. But really I want to write about how all those elements work together to make this film feel so different: the production, the sound, the imagery, the performances, the plot...

The plot—I should be able to write something about the plot, as a writer. But even that is not easy to do. Starfish begins with the claim it is based on a "true story" and possibly this might seem plausible for the first twenty minutes or so of the film. The main character, Aubrey (and we'll soon know a lot about her, and very little) is at the funeral of her friend, Grace. Aubrey is not okay: isolated, withdrawn, dissociated from what is around her. She leaves the wake and breaks into Grace's apartment which hasn't been cleared out yet, and finds the first of seven mixtapes her friend has left for her, presses play, goes to sleep...

... and then the world ends.

Well, maybe.

Aubrey wakes up alone in a frozen, depopulated world, with signs of a much larger disaster off-screen: we see smoke on the horizon but not what's burning, blood in the snow but not the bodies. There's an monster lurking in the abandoned town, and the voice of another survivor on a radio says the devastation has been caused by an alien radio single, which has some connection to the mix-tapes left by Grace. If Aubrey can find all the tapes and play them then...

But. Is this really what is happening? There's a dreamlike quality to Aubrey's predicament, an oddness to the world she's in (it reminded me of It Follows and that film's deliberate ambiguity about when the film is set). More than that, there's an aptness to her situation, her literal isolation in an empty world echoing her emotion isolation at the start of the film. When she's not fleeing from the monstrous creature in the streets, Aubrey's perceptions seem odd, surreal, and the stylistic choices the film makes become bolder, and at the same time more disjointed... very much, in fact, like a mixtape from a friend lurching from genre to genre.

We start to realise that this is as much a film about Aubrey's past, and her relationship with Grace, as it is a film about alien apocalypse. Her quest to find the mixtapes might save the world, but she's also trying to get closer to the memory of Grace and atone for some prior wrongdoing... Her flashbacks show us snippets of a fractured narrative, her guilty memories fixated on certain key scenes she replays over and over, rather than allowing us to know the full story.

Based On A True Story—maybe that's more true than it seems, not a postmodern fake-out at all. Everything that happens, everything we see—whether 'real' or hallucinatory in the context of the film—is an attempt to represent something "true" underneath. But the beauty of Starfish is that it doesn't attempt to fully undermine its genre-based alien invasion narrative; there's no Matrix-style different levels of reality, one more real than the others. Both aspects of the narrative work together, it's a picture both of a duck looking left and a rabbit looking right: unfocused your eyes and you can see both. It's something more than the sum of its parts, even if you're not sure what that 'something' is. It's not quite the same as anything else I've ever seen, and I'm still thinking about it a days later. Not for everyone I imagine, but if you like the kind of fiction I've mentioned on this blog before, it may be for you. I loved it.

Oh, and Grace has killer tase in music.

Starfish (Amazon)

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Shadows & Tall Trees 8: 'The Sound Of The Sea, Too Close'

Shadows & Tall Trees 8, which features my story 'The Sound Of The Sea, Too Close', is officially released today. This is a story I'm especially proud of, and I'm pleased that its found a home with the utterly wonderful Undertow Press. As regular readers will know, I've often sung the praises of the work that editor Michael Kelly releases, and getting a story into S&TT is a genuine writing bucket-list moment for me. Especially seeing what other great authors are included, not least Alison Littlewood, Neil Williamson, Steve Rasnic Tem, V.H. Leslie, and... well, they're all brilliant.

Aside from where it's been published, I'm proud of 'The Sound Of The Sea, Too Close' because it achieved something I'd tried and failed at a few times: to write about climate change (and climate fear), in a way that was still speculative and 'weird'. (Maybe 'Heatstroke Harry' from Holding On By Our Fingertips was also a success in this regard.)

I've wrote before on this blog about climate change and fiction, but that piece was called Background Fears and that was largely how I'd tackled the theme in my stories up till now: as a background worry, a bit of atmosphere, a throwaway line. I wasn't sure how to present it as the main focus of a strange story without losing that very strangeness that interests me as a writer; I wasn't sure if it was possible to do so. 'The Sound Of The Sea....' didn't start out as an attempt to untangle that knot, it was originally gong to be a relatively simple and untroubled ghost story, set in an abandoned school. But what the school caretaker found in that abandoned school, in those ghostly classrooms, wasn't a ghost—without knowing I was going to, I wrote something very different and all the better for it. The climate fear—and the guilt—moved centre stage, but the ghostly air remained. Whether it's fully successful as a work of fiction, I'll leave others to judge. But as a way forward for my own work, it feels like an achievement to me.

You can purchase the gorgeous paperback and hardback editions of Shadows & Tall Trees 8 directly from Undertow, or get the ebook from Amazon (UK | US)

(Pathway to Paris brings together musicians, artists, activists, academics, mayors, and innovators to help raise consciousness surrounding the urgency of climate action and offers solutions to turning the Paris Agreement into action.)