Robin and I have just uploaded the latest episode of Planet Poetry. This one dabbles in the Uncanny, and is an overlap in the Venn diagram of my interests, with my interests in dark fiction and black comedy.
Tess Jolly has cropped up severally in this blog. I have always been a fan of Tess’s work — for my first glance at her earlier pamphlets see here and here on this blog, and I am delighted she has been snapped up by the excellent Blue Diode for her new collection Breakfast at the Origami Cafe.
Krishan Coupland is that rare thing, an accomplished editor with a particular vision. I have subscribed to his magazine Neon, and it has marked out a distinct territory for itself both in poetry and prose… And it looks great too.
What with one thing and another, I have found it hard to read lately. It’s as if a smoke alarm keeps going off in the house. Yesterday, having a hateful ear infection, I opted for a sofa day. When I wasn’t dripping antibiotics into my ear and moaning peevishly, I was completely taken by the highly-divertingBarking Mad! by my Guernsey based pal Jane Mosse. Her last project mentioned on this blog was Guernsey Legends — but this is a very different book, being a fictionalised account of several years of pet sitting with her husband Richard Fleming. All they have to do is live in stranger’s houses, and befriend their pets. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Luckily for the reader, things are rarely straightforward.
Travel, plus animals, plus nosing about in other people’s houses? It’s a perfect formula for an enjoyably escapist read. You can imagine yourself anywhere from arriving in Alderney in a tiny aircraft on a rabbit sitting mission, to the ballroom of a grand estate in Northumbria with a Shetland pony that lets itself into the house from time to time, freezing in Prague as the boiler goes kaput before Christmas, or in a lock keeper’s cottage deep in a northern industrial wasteland. There is a panoply of loveable pooches and pampered cats — not to mention the cast of eccentrics who hand them into our heroes’ care. Our pet-sitting wanderers also encounter all manner of other critters on their travels, from water snakes to deer, mosquitoes to rabbits, piglets to a lugubrious bathtub carp. Many of these creatures harbour ideas of their own so they certainly give their temporary minders plenty deal with.
Part of the fun of course, is getting an real insight into their host’s lives. So if your sanity could benefit from imagining yourself basking in Tuscan sunlight under lemon trees as cats haunt the shadows, or gazing out on snowy, deer-filled parkland just before Christmas… Then you’d be mad not to simply get yourself a copy of Barking Mad!
Is anyone in their right mind interested in horror stories at a time like this?
Despite this, I find uploading readings onto YouTube is helping me manage my anxiety. I was talking to my pal Robin Houghton yesterday that this outbreak makes me want to upload all my best work. Robin said it made her want to burn things, which made me laugh.
Anyhow… I intend to upload a few readings of published horror stories just for fun. Peter Kenny’s Little Horrors allows me to give published stuff another airing for a different audience, and to be there for posterity.
This story was first published by the excellent Jeremy Page in The Frogmore Papers, in 2019. Hope you enjoy it….
I’ve met Clare several times, but bought this book without realising that its subject matter was in fact a memoir about child abuse, published in 2018. I discovered it to be a beautiful patchwork of impressions, of childhood memories, of telling descriptions of home movies, and a deeply human but unsentimental record of an abusive father’s protracted death.
Clare Best quietly tells us how she dealt with her father’s expectation that she should write down his memoirs, all without him ever acknowledging the appalling abuse he had foisted on her.
I was tremendously moved by The Missing List, and by imagining the cold courage it must have taken Clare to write it. It is a careful memoir, by this I mean it is aware of its readers as well as dwelling on how caring for others is full of complexity and nuance. For anyone who is compelled to make sense of their own past, this book’s quietly understated wisdom is very welcome.
As dippers into this blog may recall, I have been immersed in short stories in the horror and weird fiction genre for a while now. One contemporary writer who I find genuinely interesting is Matthew G Rees, and I wrote about his excellent collection Keyhole here.
A recent story, The Snow Leopard of Moscow, struck me as an instant classic of the literary horror genre. The time he spent in living in Moscow clearly informed the writing of this story, which is pervaded by what, for this reader at least, is a refreshing backdrop for a horror story.
It really has it all — atmosphere, ambiguity, proper characters, and an absence of weary tropes. It was also made me think about the Jungian shadow, and archetypes of tramps and the wounded healer we encounter in dreams. Why not read it here now?
If you happen to know a child of 9-12 who likes reading, and want a tale set in the run up to Halloween and Guy Fawkes night… then I have a full length story (a.k.a. my kindle experiment) for them. It’s creepy, funny, magical and dystopian and is about trying to bring together a divided populace.
Grace is a heroine for a troubled age. The story was complete before I came to know about Greta Thunberg. Grace would love Greta.
The cover painting is by the splendid young artist Ellie Francesca Watson. Ellie happens to be the daughter of Carl, one of my oldest and best pals, which makes it doubly nice for both of us. Also I would like to thank Charlotte Norman who edited the manuscript and helped me recognise, and then eliminate, some bad habits in my prose style. What I learned from her was enormously useful, and I have carried these learnings into my short horror fictions.
Thanks are also due to my chum Tracey Middleton who, tired of my whining early this year, put a rocket up my derrière to get this done.
Being married to a headteacher is a wonderful boon too, and Lorraine’s patience, encouragement and knowledgeable guidance has been invaluable. Our friends in education Rosie Taylor and Dawn Daniel have given me essential feedback and the opportunity to go into schools and try it out on real life children.
Several years ago, my mum painted pictures of some of the characters, and this was extremely useful in focusing my ideas.
I decided to publish this story under a pseudonym. It has had an unexpected psychological boon. I struggle to promote myself, but I adore Skelton Yawngrave, however, who is a character in the book as well as its author, and I would do anything to help him.
So this is my kindle experiment. I’ll let you know how I get on.
As a horror and weird fiction newbie, I’m delighted to have my first story The Inheritor in Supernatural Tales, edited tirelessly by David Longhorn. My tale is set in Guernsey, and draws on my childhood experiences of living in my Grandparent’s haunted 16th century granite cottage.
The story concerns the return of an exile, a burial and a the return to a haunted house (see above). You’ll be pleased to learn it all ends horrifically. I preface The Inheritor with a quote by Victor Hugo, who lived on the island.
‘Houses resemble those who dwell in them, and can, as it were, die… These weird looking abodes are not rare in the Channel Islands; all agricultural and seafaring classes have a strong faith in the active agency of Satan.’
Victor Hugo, The Toilers of the Sea
The table of contents has some heavy hitting horror and weird fiction writers. Chuffed to be among them.
That the Sea Shall Be Calm by David Surface
Pertrichor by Sam Dawson
Old Habits by Stephen Cashmore
The Sea Man by James Machin
Sorrow is the Mother of the World by Jeremy Schiliewe
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.
So I am now in the ‘seeking representation’, (agent-beguiling) stage for my children’s story (age 9-12) called The Second Kind of Darkness (more about it here). After donning my imaginary pith helmet, I selected an agent to target. Mostly this was done on gut feel having seen her in the new Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook and liking her profile on the website.
The reality is that there are bazillions of people out there writing children’s books, and only a tiny percentage will be taken. So statistically it seems unlikely that the book will emerge into the world. I can’t stop, however, feeling weirdly and uncharacteristically positive. I think The Second Kind of Darkness is the best thing I have ever written.
As it is a children’s story, trying it out on children seemed a good idea. Fortunately my wife is a headteacher, and one of our teacher friends Dawn Daniel has been an enormous help. Dawn has fixed it for me on several occasions to read early versions to children in class. (Note: arriving at this version took ten years of bloody-minded rewrites.)
To begin with I found this a bit nerve-racking too, and my already sky high respect for today’s teachers climbed even further.
I found children quickly let you know what’s working – and what isn’t. I was soon reminded how smart ten year old children are, being hawkish about detail and continuity. Some of their questions were surprisingly technical too, such as the use of first and third person narrators. I came to see the children’s feedback as a kind of highly useful collaboration.
Just before the summer break Dawn read the opening chapters of this final version of the story to her class. I was delighted to hear the majority of the class were engaged and keen to read on. If children are loving it, at least that’s a hopeful start.
Reading A Man in Love, volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, I’m struck by how his fidelity to describing life’s minutiae lends credibility to his descriptions of more important things. If he can be so reliable in his description of doing the washing up, then we instinctively trust his truth telling about more important events. Knausgaard’s candour is magnificent. He seems to remember everything, and retells it unflinchingly, however bad it makes him seem, or how humiliating it is for the people close to him.
He does have a consistent tone. The tone is truthful. Obviously ‘truth’ is word guaranteed to start arguments, but having such an identifiable tone is an advantage, but it seems to me to presuppose a stable identity from which that voice emerges.
Rightly or wrongly, I tend to think of people as a cluster of sub-personalities. So to me having a tone which is sustained for as long as Knausgaard sustains it, seems remarkable. It is a fictional device however, and a tension exists between the consistency of this device and the idea that Knausgaard is relentlessly truth telling. I find the truthfulness in Knausgaard challenging in all the right ways. He manages to convey a searing emotional reality, that is strangely able to remain grounded in the concrete world.
Confessional writers appear to grant you permission to access to private thoughts. Sylvia Plath electrified this approach. Take Daddywritten on October 1962.
Although the ‘I’ is addressing a ‘you’, I don’t really have any sense of a dialogue here, rather of eavesdropping on one of those repetitive interior monologues.
If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two – The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. Daddy you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart And the villagers never liked you. They are dancing and stamping on you. They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
This sounds like a confession, but who is she confessing to? Us as readers I suppose.
Elsewhere in the poem she employs holocaust imagery to describe her Daddy, such as: ‘A man in black with a Meinkampf look’. Her father was a German-born academic who wrote a book about bumblebees, and arrived in the US at the age of 5 in 1900. Plath is clearly describing an emotional reality rather than a empirical one. But in the arena of her supercharged interior monologue, emotional and symbolic truths exist with mesmerising force.
As someone who likes plays, afictionalised I, such as in a Shakespearian dramatic monologue, seems entirely normal. In English poetry Robert Browning was well known for his poems which were essentially dramatic monologues. While Y.B. Yeats had what he called ‘masks’ through which his various personae spoke. There is nothing new about toying with identity. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa for example, published poems under several identities. When I visited his house in Lisbon, there were the horoscopes he’d drawn up for these different identities on the exterior walls of the house. Wikipedia lists 81 different heteronyms.
What Knausgaard makes me think about how we manage self-disclosure and present our truth in writing. When you can make your writing seem like unalloyed truth, the fripperies of fiction can seem artificial. I’m hoping that by gulping down another dose of Knausgaard, my awareness of inauthenticity in my own work will be heightened.
For me the idea of who is this person who is writing your work, is quite an intriguing one. I think I tend to give vent to different kinds of truth in my plays than I do in my poems. I like the idea of different media conveying different sub-personalities. But there must be some centre to it all somewhere, some bedrock of personality. Perhaps this is why I am enjoying Knausgaard so much. Perhaps we can infer from his work that there is a bedrock, and we find this reassuring.
Yesterday I attended a talk by Ken Eklund, a writer and games designer based in California, at an event organised by The University of Brighton, and excellently hosted by Matt Locke of Storythings. Ken creates ‘cli-fi’ games that allow people to ‘immerse themselves without fear’ in challenging future environmental scenarios.
One game requires people to locate unusual plastic objects which have been scattered, apparently randomly, in several countries. The gamer who collects these objects finds they correspond to a voicemail from the future. These messages allude to future climate change events, such as suggesting that an airport is underwater.
Another game in 2007 saw people documenting a fictional oil crisis. People used various internet platforms to contribute to a crowdsourced fiction about life in an oil crisis. Ken said a pivotal moment was when one person suggested they stop posting doom scenarios and instead find a way of tackling the problem.
Ken creates a game playing environments that are ‘multi-sourced, open and emergent’, he also calls this ‘Authentic Fiction’.
As there was an opportunity for questions, I asked Ken to say more about how while advertising uses creativity to funnel people towards an outcome, such as buying a pizza, his fictional activity turns the funnel the other way to allow for a multiplicity of crowd sourced responses. Would the desired message be dissipated?
Ken said he wasn’t in advertising, but instead created a playful space for the issues to be raised. I liked this as Ken is the kind of storyteller who creates the frame rather than the picture.
While the idea of a messages from the future is an SF staple, it certainly doesn’t crop up much in advertising and marketing. The UK First Direct bank’s confident first effort back in 1989 (a message from the then future of 2010) was the first one that sprang to mind. In a game-playing context, however, those who are ‘playing hard’ are far more willing to suspend disbelief than someone passively watching their TV. In Ken’s scenario the messages from the future become valuable and sought after. Marketing, which naturally is seeking ways of making its messages more magnetic, definitely has something to learn from Ken’s work.
With my other hat on, as a writer, poet, etc. I found the scenarios a little predictable, but I think Ken’s focus was in unleashing the creativity of others, enabling what he called ‘the resurgence of my story’ to feed into a greater narrative arc. In that way richness and unpredictability is organically added.
His latest project in development is around how artificial intelligence may take over human activities. A project which coincides with Channel 4’s excellent new Humans series about AI being aired in the UK. One scene nails Eklund’s concern where Mattie, a teenage character resentful of the robots, questions what is the point of her continuing to become a doctor. “That’d take me seven years, but by then you’d be able to turn any old synth into a brain surgeon in seven seconds,” and goes on to asks if they are all supposed to become poets.
I found Eklund’s work fascinating and I will be keen to keep tabs on his future projects.