There are perhaps only a couple-of-dozen poets I find myself returning to time and again. In the last year, however, Janet Sutherland has become one of them.
I own her four collections from Shearsman Books, which are, in order of publication, Burning the Heartwood, Hangman’s Acre, Bone Monkey, and Home Farm. Each of these books contains an embarrassment of riches, and the more I look into them, the less able I feel to convey just how much I admire this work. But in the spirit of not letting perfect be the enemy of the good, I’ll have a go here. I know it’s a spoiler, but the short version of this blog post is: do yourself a favour and simply read Janet Sutherland’s books now.
Certain themes and images recur throughout the collections. In the first of them, Burning the Heartwood, poems that refer to a Wiltshire farm background in poems like ‘an image of skin‘ are already in place. While in her second collection Hangman’s Acre we meet her character Bone Monkey, who gives its name to her third collection, Bone Monkey. This was the first of her books I read, having been told to do so by my pal Charlotte Gann. Many of the poems this collection contains are about this dark, Loki-like trickster, somehow bestial, but all too human:
Bone monkey knows himself a god although his raddled arms, his ruined balls and buttocks seem to say he’s less than that.
(As a God, from Bone Monkey)
I love the freedom the adoption of a dubious and unreliable character provides. In Janet Sutherland’s hands he becomes a violent, legendary figure.
Bone Monkey swaggers through a plain of thorns crowned with insignia of warlike deeds– emblems stolen from the wolves are fixed securely to his skull with cords
(Emblems from Wolves, from Bone Monkey)
It was in the Bone Monkey collection that I first became enchanted by Janet Sutherland’s lightness of touch with images.
I think of memory like three swans that sweep over the river’s surface
ghosts of the aerial and of the deep
or like the rivers’ flow tidal and complex at an estuary.
(His exposition on the art of memory, Bone Monkey)
The poet has no axe to grind and never seeks our pity. Instead there is alchemy. Personal experiences accrue a near mythical force, in imagery that is dewy fresh and deftly condensed. Images return hauntingly in her work, such as her repeated association of association of snakes with water…
little adders fall out of pitch-forked hay
into the stooks floating the swollen river
(Memory, fromBurning the Heartwood)
This river’s a snake that opens its mouth and sings, looping and undulating, leaving a sloughed skin oxbow by its side.
(At Cuckmere, from Home Farm)
Culminating in the wonderful weirdness of these eels.
…At night white water grinds over and over through this sieve, and in that loneliness the eels come quietly, one by one, driven by longing for a spawning place at sea. Slither an eye across the peep show floor. The risen dark pools where eels still hide trapped in a storage well, somersaulting, tumbling and unbalancing.
(The Eel House, from Home Farm)
Home Farm, published this year, contains perhaps Janet Sutherland’s most autobiographical work. Here her childhood exists in several dimensions: in the awareness of the history of the land, of villagers who lived there before, of family history, in the names of fields and beasts and flowers, and in the suggestions of fleeting human experience, and the tragedy of lost memory. And the result is… Well, just wonderful.
For some reason, she makes me want to use the word ‘ontology’ for her poetry has a complex kind of ‘being’ that has, for me, proper heft and its own strange life. At her best, Janet Sutherland has the power to make her fabulously-realised world exist in the imagination as a place one wants to continually return to. I can admire lots of poetry, but there are few collections I genuinely love as much as these.
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
Very happy to have a new dark tale in the Autumn 2019 94th edition of the literary magazine The Frogmore Papers, edited by Jeremy Page. There are two other stories in this edition: A Citadel by Natalya Lowndes, and A Few Brief Words by Andrew Blair. I found both had a lovely balance of humour and pathos. A Citadel is an evocative portrait of the narrator’s Uncle Julius a lonely, hard-drinking British ex-pat in Moscow. A Few Brief Words, takes the form of a speech given at a funeral for a curmudgeonly writer who idolised Arthur Miller.
My own story The Dream Home is about insomnia, and is based on a technique I used in the past to fall asleep. The idea is when you go to bed, to imagine your perfect house. Night after night I would do this, adding to the house I was building in my imagination, and then I would nod off. In this story, there is naturally something lurking in the dream home. Like others of my recent stories, I set it in a place I have lived in. When I first moved to Brighton over fourteen years ago now, I lived in a Twitten called Camden Terrace very close to the railway station. I often lay awake listening to the rough sleepers gathered in the underpass of Trafalgar Street, and could hear them shouting and sometimes singing.
This issue of The Frogmore Press as ever has some fine poetry in it. Two poems have leapt out at me right away. One by my pal Stephen Bone, called Curry which is spicy in every sense, and another by Laura Chalar called The Nineties Revisited. This simply written poem about a lost time and lost love that got me right away. Here are its closing lines…
your gorgeous life and mine–never to be merged, I’m afraid (too late for that),
but for the humbler treats of coffee and a talk. You may of course choose to
remain silent, but I’ve always been curious– how on earth could you fail to gauge
the depth of that love? Come back, will you? Can you? We’re so young. A bright century is about to come in.”
Like many of his friends, I was distressed to learn of Glen Capra’s death on 29th August in Greece. I was one of a group who regularly went for beers in The Evening Star with Glen when he made one of his regular visits back to Brighton after he had settled in Kavala.
Glen was a considerate and sensitive man, who was passionate about his relationships, music, art and life. This makes the fact that he took his own life extremely hard to take. Close friends, especially Richard Gibson, were in frequent touch with him before he died. He had been depressed and disoriented after his short marriage had abruptly ended. His death was a shock for everyone, and texts I’d had from him a few days earlier showed no sign of what was to come.
I watched Glen perform on many occasions in the UK and in Greece. He was a sensitive accompanist and wonderful pianist with a particular passion for Rachmaninov.
A little over nine years ago, Glen and I met through our mutual friend the composer Matthew Pollard. Matt and I were collaborating on a project that was to become This Concert Will Fall In Love With You — later recorded with additional material as the CD Clameur and Glen was Matt’s first choice to play piano. Matt and Glen had were old friends, performing together in the Tacet Ensemble and The Rainbow Chorus for example. Matt also wrote three linked compositions called Three Portraits for Poet and Piano, which Glen and I performed in its premiere in 2012.
For me it was the start of a friendship that would endure until now. Glen was a thoroughly good bloke, who was hugely liked by a great many people. I will miss him.
Below is a YouTube video of Minotaur, one of the Three Portraits for Poet and Piano by Matt Pollard with Glen on piano and me doing the words.
The story is loosely based on a house I shared as a student in Leamington Spa — with what I hope is a horrific twist. I did once see what I think of as a ghost, which appeared as I describe in this story, although the figure I saw was a woman.
After I finished this story I realise what I may have written was really an allegory for the onset of the panic attacks which started in my early twenties. I experienced debilitating attacks for at least ten years. I had what I thought of as ‘seasons in Hell’, where for stretches of two or three months I might experience as many as five or six attacks in a day.
In my early thirties I finally got help from a systemic therapist in Richmond, Surrey. She had a crumbling spine, and was in agony and spent the sessions lying on her couch. I felt a bit sheepish. She had a real problem. I was just a panicky mess. However, and somewhat miraculously, she fixed me in one session.
‘What makes it stop?’ she asked.
In all the years of attacks on planes, tubes, walking down the road, in the comfort of my own rooms, I had never asked myself this question. I was an expert at what started the terrible plunge into panic, but not on what ended it.
By focusing on what I felt like at the end of a panic attack, I was able to fast forward through the attack, and reach the end unscathed. While I have had the occasional moment of panic since that first consultation, it has never dominated my life again.
I went once more to her, and she told me never to come back again. She died a few months later. To my shame I can’t remember her name, but she gave me the single best piece of advice I was ever given.
So at last found a bit of time to update this blog, as you can see from the photo, taken by my brother, of me tapping away on a terrace in Sicily. I am here taking a break with family. I love Sicily, and the terrace is quick with lizards, and has geckos crawling about on the walls in the evenings. So good to escape the political madness plaguing the UK for a while.
Naturally, there is always time for a quick humblebrag… A poem of mine The House of Hidden Hope, on the poetry village website. This was based on my grandmother who hid things in the fabric of the 16th century granite cottage she lived in Guernsey. She was a practical person who built cupboards, but also secreted things away in case of burglary and so on. This meant wedging objects into the fabric of the house, rather in the way spells were done in older buildings.
I am also continuing with my horror craze, and have two short stories about to be published this autumn, one, The Inheritor, will appear in Supernatural Tales, and is based on Guernsey, in a spooky house also modelled on the one my Grandmother lived in, the other is a nightmarish take on insomnia, called The Dream Home, which will appear in The Frogmore Papers this autumn. I am finding horror stories a rich seam, and have written several over the last few months. I am loving it.
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.