Modulating beautifully through passages of horror, humour and the supernatural Matthew G. Rees collection Keyhole is a hugely enjoyable collection of short stories. They juxtapose a grainy matter-of-factness that moves the narrative briskly along, with tantalising glimpses of a deep and timeless magic that seems rooted in Wales.
Some are of these dark stories I found hilarious (a tough thing to pull off) such as The Cheese, which features the appalling cheese correspondent of the Llanymaen Evening Mail who inflicts the ultimate cheese nightmare on an unsuccessful author. While in The Griffin, the familiar feeling that you have lost the pub you are looking for, becomes a grimly amusing meditation of the slipperiness of time and space.
There is an unsentimental bleakness in these stories too, which are populated by haunted, isolated characters. Where there is horror it is often inflected with magic and ambiguity. In Sand Dancer an old man with a metal detector finds a fully crewed WW2 U-boat buried under the sand, he frees them and sets off with them, with disastrous consequences. While in I’ve got you, a family made from shells emerge from the sea to menace the mother and son who find them. They call the shell man, Percy Shelley. ‘Mr Shelley went after him, the whites of his rotating razor fingers glinting in the dark.’
Wales is everywhere in these stories, from the wet slate of misty hillsides to the bait diggers on the coast. This genius loci gives these stories heart and cohesion, and a concreteness that balances the dreamlike passages.
Keyhole the eponymous opening story is magnificent. Flecks of of dark fairy tale mix with a middle aged man’s crisis as he returns to his childhood home. We are introduced to a child, Brontë Vaughan, who ‘had a condition that meant she had to be kept from the light,’ confined in a house called The Fosse. Her mother, presents her with a kingfisher.
In her time her mother, a woman of great beauty grieved by her conviction that in bringing her into this world she had cursed her child, gave Brontë another and another of the birds. These mated and reproduced so that their number, swarming through the dark chambers of the old house, came to defy calculation. The birds swirled in shoals around young Brontë’s white hair and head. They clustered on mantels, perched on clock cases, their droppings striating curtains that were seldom if ever opened and flecking large, hanging tapestries that showed harts running into deep forests behind whose think and faded fabric the walls of The Fosse stood powdery and damp.
‘Keyhole’, from Keyhole — Stories by Matthew G Rees, Three Impostors Press 2019.
Lushly imaginative, lyrical, full of intriguing ambiguities and surprisingly funny interludes, Keyhole, is a wonderful collection I’m busy recommending to friends.
In a Bloomsbury bookshop last October, two days after the death of a close friend, I found myself in the store’s horror section. On a whim I bought a collection of disturbing short stories by Robert Aickman called Compulsory Games. Only on the train home did it occur to me that choosing to read horror fiction in a moment of bereavement was a bit odd. Nevertheless Aickman’s ‘strange stories’ (I went on to read four volumes of them) sparked a concerted foray into horror and a dozen or so writers — from E Nesbit to H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson to William Peter Blatty, Grady Hendrix to Thomas Ligotti and many more. These are some findings from the weird world of horror.
Glimpsing larger worlds
I want to draw a parallel, briefly, with poetry. I respond to poems that slap you in the face like a Zen monk. I love how a line or image can jolt you to a realisation that the world is more beautiful, moving and — this is my point — far larger than before.
It may be why people with little interest in poetry will still resort to it at weddings, funerals or moments of heartbreak. Poetry provides a path away from the hard realities of life by changing our perspective. Take W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues. The poet asks us, in the rhetoric of grief, to ‘Stop all the clocks’ — not just one clock, but all the clocks in the world. Later, the poem says, ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’. This is personal grief stretched to wrap around the whole world. In my own moment of bereavement, horror did the same job for me. Why was that?
For a horror story to work, it must also allow you a glimpse of something far larger than yourself. If poetry can show us the sublime, horror can shrink us until we feel powerless in the face of vast, unknowable forces. For the readers of both poetry and horror, however, result is the same. The world has become larger and less stiflingly mundane. Horrorstör (2014) by Grady Hendrix, is a good example of this, set in an Ikea-like store whose doors open into a horrific supernatural prison and its terrifying denizens. It’s funny too.
Three entrances into hell
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
The opening sentence of H.P. Lovecraft’s landmark essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927) is hard to take issue with. But I also think that there are familiar entrances into this huge realm of the unknown.
1. The Door of Religion
The Case Against Satan (1962) by Ray Russell and, more famously, The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty both use religious ideas of God and the Devil, to create a vast, menacing backdrop to the action. The plots have strong similarities, in both stories young girls channels wild and hellish forces. These must be tackled by men of wavering faith, who are forced to abandon their rational and scientific impulses in the face of demonic possession.
The famous movie version of The Exorcist (1973) may have influenced the real life case of Anneliese Michel. Annaliese appeared not to respond to psychiatric treatment, and sadly died of thirst and starvation while in the care of her family and two Roman Catholic priests. These priests were later found guilty of negligent homicide.
Another story drawing its horrific heft from religion is Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby(1968) where a woman, under the evil influences, becomes pregnant with the Antichrist, the child of Satan.
You only have to think of the work of poets like Milton or Dante to realise religion and horror are centuries-old bedfellows. ‘I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost’, writes Dante. To escape this entanglement, he needed to progress through the vastnesses of hell and purgatory.
2. The Door of Mythos
H.P. Lovecraft has a towering influence in horror circles. Despite a teenage phase immersed in the stories of his friend and devotee Clark Ashton Smith, I had read very few of his stories until recently. He is a master of horror. He is also a vile racist, even for someone publishing in the 1920s and 30s. He portrays black and biracial people as horrific barely human entities. If you are able to hold your nose enough to overlook this you will discover why his influence is so great. His tactic for bringing supernatural horror to his readers is the invention of a mythology about a monstrous race from the stars, who lived before humans and will persist beyond them. The tentacle-faced Cthulhu (see above) is the greatest of these.
I am hard pressed to understand why The Cthulhu Mythos has become so influential, to the extent that it has become a shared fictional universe used by other writers — in what must have been an early form of fan fiction.
The beginning of the seminal story, The Call of Cthulhu, shows how Lovecraft engineers an immense backdrop, against which the plot about the discovery of clues to an unknown and monstrous race can unfurl.
We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu (1926)
I would also argue here that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings certainly contains elements of horror and, like Lovecraft, this is rooted in an even richer mythos.
3. The Door of Disillusionment
During my new horror craze, I have become a fan of Thomas Ligotti (b.1953). While I find his prose sometimes heavy going, when his stories are good, they are magnificent. His work has already found its way into Penguin Classic status, collecting the stories of Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe in one Penguin volume. Lovecraft’s influence is here, and one of Ligotti’s most famous stories, the Last Feast of Harlequin, is dedicated to Lovecraft’s memory.
Ligotti’s work often derives its power from the conceit that the world is absolutely horrific, and it is only through the collective madness of optimism, that we fail to see the world for what it truly is: huge and terrifying.
An a wonderful Ligotti story, In The Shadow of Another World, the protagonist gains entry to a tower whose windows enable the scale and weirdness of reality to be properly seen.
‘For the visions they offered were indeed those of a haunted world, a multi-faceted mural portraying the marriage of insanity and metaphysics… After my eyes closed, shutting out the visions for a moment… It was then I realised that this house was possibly the only place on earth, perhaps in the entire universe, that had been cured of the plague of phantoms that raged everywhere.’
Thomas Ligotti, In the Shadow of Another World (1991)
This is an act of disillusionment, of the stripping away of illusion to see the vast, terrifying truth behind it.
Ligotti’s pessimism is condensed in a fascinating non-fiction book called The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. It is an idiosyncratic survey of pessimism, and is peppered with grim insights, such as this cheery reflection on the moment of death.
‘And for the first time you feel that which you have never felt before—the imminence of your own death. There is no possibility of self-deception now. The paradox that came with consciousness is done with. Only horror is left. This is what is real. This is the only thing that was ever real, however unreal it may have seemed.’
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2010)
Ligotti’s handling of this vast reality belittles us into the weird pleasure of fear.
And for me, the penny drops
In my bout of supernatural horror, I realised something that had been staring at me like a creepy marionette half my life. There is a horror in a good deal of my own work. I called my second poetry pamphlet ‘The Nightwork’, I have written poems about monsters, and doubles, and psychological horror. All my plays are comedies, but three of them have a horrific backdrop. My short stories often have been explicitly horror or weird fiction. But only now has the penny dropped.
Poetry can accommodate horror and sublime moments, and horror can do that too. Also horror can reassure you that your life is better than, say, going mad with alcoholism and trying to kill your family as in Stephen King’s The Shining, or turning into a bestial murderer, as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ultimately, it is not this reassurance I seek. I thrill to horror’s moments of dark and expanding wonder.
And as I detail here, this new horror craze led me to sending a story, to Matthew Rees at Horla who was kind enough to publish it. I find myself in a new phase of explicitly writing horror, and I find I am loving it.
I think I’ll leave the last word to a poet. Here’s Rilke, from the first of The Duino Elegies (as translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender).
For Beauty’s nothing / but the beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, / and why we adore it so is because it serenely / disdains to destroy us.
I am in an early cups-of-coffee-and-exploring stage of a new project with my photographer pal Innis McAllister. Innis is most familiar for his work with models and in fashion. He also has a rich archive of other work in a huge variety of subjects.
It is a challenging time to be a photographer. In 2019 it is likely there will be 2.7 billion smartphone users on the planet, all able to take photos. So what, if anything, distinguishes the photographs of ‘real’ photographers like Innis from those taken by the smartphone snappers? As a writer, one answer seems fairly obvious to me. Most people are able to write sentences in their native language, but very few will go on to be published writers. Just because billions of people have a camera in their pockets, they will not necessarily become photographers.
Some photographers accumulate images by going to exotic places or challenging environments. I like looking at these photos as much as the next person, but I am also drawn to photography that can make me look at the strangeness and beauty of commonplace things.
There is something about time too. Taking a photograph is an act of seconds, but the skill of the photographer can takes years to accumulate. Photographers, if they want to eat must be able to skilfully produce consistently good imagery, not just get lucky.
But there is more. The eye of a true photographer is easy to spot. Take the image above, The dog in snow has an absolute timelessness, as if the dog had just trotted out of The Hunters in the Snow by Bruegel, here the photographer has the confidence to be simple, to let the beauty and contrast of the dog’s form rejoice in its landscape.
While the image below is from early in Innis McAllister’s career. Here a man is waiting for a train. See the squareness of the lines and how they progressively depart from true, gently winding your eye into the object of attention. A man reading a paper with a lurid headline about drugs. I used to sit with people on tubes that looked like him all the time. Now he seems a vanished creature from another time.
The tidal wave of imagery will become a defining feature of the early 21st Century. But I think artists can stand outside time. One of the jobs of ‘proper’ photographers is to find the images that do just that.
My ever-resourceful pal Robin Houghton has put together a real winner. It is an extremely practical and insightful little book which does what it says on the tin…. A Guide to Getting Published in UK Poetry Magazines. Packed with practical advice for those new to being published or a bracing reminder of what good practice as a poet looks like if you are an old hand.
With typical generosity, Robin does the leg work for you. She has consulted with lots of editors to find out what butters their parsnips when it comes to a submission, and the book is peppered with this feedback. She also rounds up and introduces online and print magazines, and offers all kinds of useful advice – about being disciplined and methodical in your submissions, and how to deal with rejections. (Thanks to reading this Guide I also bought a copy of 52 Ways of Reading A Poem, by Ruth Padel.)
A Guide to Getting Published in UK Poetry Magazines is selling like hot cakes, and with good reason. And at this time of year it would make an excellent little gift for anyone interested in being a published poet, or becoming a better-published poet than they may be already.
In my last post I mentioned I had been reading short story collections lately, and particularly the strange tales of Robert Aickman. This prompted me to exhume some of my own short stories from the cobwebby Kenny Vaults. One of these was a story called The Dark Fish. I wrote the first version of this in my mid twenties, and it interested the editor of a magazine called Panurge, who suggested changes. After three lots of changes, it was rejected. After this, and a couple of other rejections, it lay dormant in dusty hard copy for years.
Time, however, is the best editor. When I found my MS last week, a few editorial fixes suggested themselves. These made, I was pleased with the results.
I had recently discovered Horla, the Home of Intelligent Horror, and when I sent it to its editor, Matthew Rees to my delight the story was immediately accepted. I have often experienced long time-lags between having written something, and it finding publication, but 32 years is my best yet.
The story concerns an astrologer, and was grounded in my own experience. For having graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Literature, I returned to London and seizing up the nearest copy of the Evening Standard was aghast to discover the absence of a ‘philosopher wanted’ column in the jobs section.
After a few months lifting and carrying boxes containing electric keyboards and cash registers in the Casio warehouse near Brent Cross, I began casting horoscopes in my spare time. I then left the warehouse to go full time as an astrologer. Briefly things went okay. I had taught myself how to cast and interpret horoscopes in my teens, and found a stream of people asking for my services. Soon my work took a darker turn. I found I was asked to do horoscopes for people who were recently bereaved. More strangely, I discovered that people were investing me with powers and wisdom I did not have. I am pleased, looking back, that I had enough self-awareness at the time not to pretend I had the answers. I got out of the business of astrology sharpish. For more about my brief career as an astrologer and my feelings about astrology itself read this.
Alongside the story, I discovered the Rotring pen drawing below.
My friend Janet Summerton died on October 1st at the age of 79. I was heavily involved in her care during her last two months, and that of her husband Ken who survives her. Janet was a lateral thinking champion of the crafts and craft makers – and a benign influence on a generation of arts managers in the UK. There are plans to celebrate her life and work next year. My own relationship with her, however, started when I was her lodger in my twenties. For the next thirty years she was a wise and affectionate aunt-like figure to me. What I learned from her is immeasurable, introducing me right away to the idea of having a portfolio career and, perhaps most helpfully, she stopped me being a genius.
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Shortly after Janet died I attended a long-booked Writers & Artists ‘How to hook an agent’ day course for writers of Children’s and YA fiction, at Bloomsbury Publishing up in Bedford Square. The agents I heard from were Davinia Andrew-Lynch, Julia Churchill, and Ben Illis, all of whom were generous with their advice, and refreshingly normal and human. Lurking in Bloomsbury’s maze-like offices I kept imagining all the celebrated writers who must have visited there. My fellow attendees were a fascinating lot too, some had flown in from other countries. In the afternoon we all had ten minutes face-to-face with an agent. Pitching is part of what I have done for a living for the last twenty years or so, so the fact I made such an arse of myself was disappointing. Despite this, Ben Illis the agent I spoke to gave me excellent advice. I am acting on it.
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I have been reading short stories recently, after buying two collections from writer friends, both published by Cultured Llama.
In Jeremy Page’s London Calling and Other Stories. I particularly enjoyed the novela-length title story London Calling. Its protagonist, a University drop-out called Eustace Tutt, is brilliantly drawn, and was for me like meeting someone from my own past. Sadly, my past did not feature sharing a squat with two German girls with a propensity for nudity. Jeremy’s stories are funny, touching and very human. I devoured the collection.
Unusual Places by Louise Tondeur‘s style is fascinating, she has an alien’s eye for detail, and observations are made without the expected filters and hierarchies of importance. Louise is writing a crime novel at the moment, and I can’t help thinking the engaging oddness of her characters and description would make her foray into crime something to be greatly anticipated.
My other ‘discovery’ is Robert Aickman, a writer of what he called ‘strange Stories’, who died in 1981. I bought a new collection of his called Compulsory Games full of hauntingly weird stories. The story called No Time Is Passing, is one of the most disturbing and brilliant things I have ever read. It concerns a man who goes out into his back garden in West London and discovers a river at the end of it. I found myself in the middle of the night worrying if I was going mad. I had been obsessing about the story lying awake and wide-eyed for hours. The way Aickman nudges up the weird every few sentences is just incredible. Dreamlike is a word that is overused continually, but Aickman’s stories are properly nightmarish, while rarely resorting to horror tropes.
Personally, I’m looking forward to hearing the readings, drinking some wine, and also reading my poem War diary in 1/72 scale, which is about how the legacy of male hostility is passed down the generations… And Airfix kits.