Sunday, 1 March 2015

Recommendation: Nightingale Songs by Simon Strantzas

I've read a number of stories by Simon Strantzas in yearly best ofs and the like, but Nightingale Songs is the first solo collection of his I've tried. Given what I'd read before I was expecting something special, stories literate and creepy in equal measure. And I wasn't disappointed.

But before I talk about the stories themselves, it's regrettable but I must mention that this book had the worst formatting error I've yet seen in an ebook. I say 'formatting' but in fact it was worse than that: the entire ending to a story was missing, and instead appeared as part of the final paragraph of the following story, thus ruining the climax of both. What a shame. (I downloaded the Kindle version over a year ago; hopefully other formats aren't affected and the Kindle version has been corrected by now.)

Anyway, with that unpleasantness behind I can say that the stories that weren't mangled were fantastic examples of strange, ambiguous, supernatural fiction. Aickman's influence is often to the fore, fortunately not in a superficial way - indeed second story Her Father's Daughter may well be the best example I've read of a writer assimilating Aickman's influence whilst retaining their own voice. A story that combined elements of both feminist and Freudian psychology (although Aickman hated Freud) into a compelling psychic landscape of strange car accidents, reclusive sisters and a flatly ambiguous ending, this was one of the best stories I've read so far this year.

Other highlights included Pale Light In The Jungle and An Indelible Stain Across The Sky (what a title!) which owed something to Ramsey Campbell's style of paranoia built from metaphoric connection whilst, again, remaining completely Strantzas's own story. Mr. Kneale by contrast was a black, black comedy taking swipes at literary conventions and success, but still having a core of horror beneath. Nearly all the stories were impressive, and personal favourites will likely vary. Only Everything Floats was a slight disappointment to me, beautifully written and atmospheric but building towards an ending all too predictable.

An excellent collection, then. I notice Strantzas has had another collection of short stories released since Nightingale Songs, and given how satisfying these tales were I'll surely be picking that up soon.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Quarantined City Episode 2: Into The Rain

I woke up this morning, ears still ringing from a Jesus & Mary Chain gig, to find out that Episode 2 of The Quarantined City, 'Into The Rain', is out now from Spectral Press.

Blurb and links below.

For Fellows, life in the quarantined city is getting stranger.

The previous day had been a normal one, spent walking the streets and hunting rare books. But then Fellows had read a story by the reclusive writer known as Boursier, and things changed. His memories of the city no longer seem to tally with the streets around him, and the ghostly child in his house seems to have redoubled its efforts to touch him. The protestors against the quarantine are getting more vocal and the unity government more intolerant.

Fellows just wants to ignore these complications and concentrate on finding further stories by Boursier, but his efforts to do so just entangle him further in the secrets of the quarantined city.

Into The Rain is the second episode of the six part monthly serial The Quarantined City from James Everington and Spectral Press.
(UK | US)

Episode One: 'The Smell Of Paprika' available here (UK) and here (US).

Friday, 20 February 2015

Recommendation: Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson

Last year Penguin republished Shirley Jackson’s first four novels; I blogged about The Road Through The Wall last year and now I’ve just read her second book, Hangsaman.

Hangsaman is a strange novel by any standards; as if trying to remember a dream I feel the urge to write this blog quickly as I can, before it’s unique internal logic fades from my mind. Its central character is Natalie Whaite, a seventeen-year old American girl on the verge of going to college. The surface level events of the story are mundane, trite even: Natalie has bourgeois parents, and goes to a respectable girls-only college. But what happens externally is not really the point; this is a story about Natalie’s inner life, and how she reacts to and absorbs the world around her: parties thrown by her parents; the machinations of cliquey and spiteful college girls; the strangeness of returning to her family abode after months away. Transformed by Jackson’s inimitable prose, these mundane events seem vividly odd; sinister even. How much of this sense of threat is real and how much projected onto the world by Natalie’s precocious yet vulnerable psyche is one of the central ambiguities of the book.

Right from the start it is clear Natalie has a vivid imagination; much like Eleanor from The Haunting Of Hill House, Natalie is someone whose propensity for daydreaming and fantasy seems alarmingly strong. If her urge for escapism is so dominant, what is she escaping from? Early on in the story a potentially traumatic event is hinted at, and it is clear that Natalie is repressing something – but exactly what occurred is opaque, repressed by Jackson’s narrative as much as by Natalie’s mind. Exactly what Natalie is thinking and feeling is often obscure – it certainly isn’t revealed directly in her chirpy interactions with a college professor and his young wife, or in her playful letters home to her father. But what the reader becomes alert to is the brief glimpses that Natalie might actually feel unbearably lonely and distanced from the world. And it’s easy to understand why Natalie might be so alienated, when it and the characters it is peopled with are presented with satirical humour by Jackson. In part this works so well because isn’t this how we see the world as a teenager, as something faintly unrealistic, as a joke being played on us? Because everything is focused through the character of Natalie, the differences in tone (the novel can be cruelly humorous one minute, and disturbingly sinister the next) don’t seem to jar. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

As the book reaches its final third, it darkens considerably, and the exact extent of what is real and what Natalie imagines is unclear, with double and triple bluffs confounding the reader. It’s a compelling read, and despite similarities to The Bell Jar and The Catcher In The Rye, a unique experience. There’s no one quite like Shirley Jackson andHangsaman seems to me to be her first queer, twisted masterpiece.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Fox Bites Reading

This Saturday, I'll be reading from my story The Man Dogs Hated from Falling Over as part of the Fox Bites event organised by Fox Spirit, alongside a host of other great authors.

The event is at Cafe Malvern, Leicester starting at 3.30pm.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Do As I Say...

I'm guesting on the brilliant Gingernuts Of Horror site today, with a post entitled Do As I Say Not As I Do - Some Hypocritical Advice On Writing Episodic Fiction.

There's also a picture of me eating a sausage, for some reason.

And whilst we're here, want to see a sneak preview of the cover for the second episode of The Quarantined City? Oh go on then.

The first episode is available here (UK) and here (US).

Saturday, 14 February 2015

A Romantic Comedy

I wrote this story years and years ago; I was still experimenting with styles and genres at this point, finding my feet. I never wrote anything like this ever again, but I've always kind of liked it. It's nothing like the writing I do now and clumsily try and promote on here; it's not horror, it's not weird. But sod it, it's Valentine's Day, so I thought I'd post it. (I've deliberately not amended anything that my twenty-something self wrote.)

A Romantic Comedy
It wasn’t a relationship, but a rehearsal. We weren’t really boyfriend and girlfriend, but just trying out those roles for future reference. We were very young. I don’t know why you picked me, out of all the boys who auditioned. You were considered very pretty, with your long brown hair and startling hazelnut eyes, the kind that would look good on movie posters.

We would walk around the park holding hands, while the light fell on us from different angles. Or we would kiss, learning how it was done. We never went any further than that, because ours wasn’t that kind of film. We were too young to have seen films that went further.

But what script would stop there? There was another boy, waiting in the wings. He had been learning his lines, getting into character. He was very good; I didn’t know what was happening. Suddenly I was being out-staged. You barely wanted to hold my hand anymore, let alone kiss me. You told everyone kissing me was “disgusting”, just when I thought I had got the hang of it. My first bad review.

I was forced into a different role. I happen to think I played it rather well. I took long, lonely walks, kicking at dead leaves and not letting myself cry. I wrote letters to you that I never sent. I brooded and listened to sad songs late at night. Everyone saw how well suited I was for the part, but I knew there would be other films later. I never meant to become typecast.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be just a rehearsal with you, when all the doors were still open and we thought we had time to explore them all. We were just seeing which roles we would want to play later. But the doors seem to have shut behind us.

Every script I get offered seems to be the same, with the same ‘surprise’ ending that doesn’t surprise me anymore: dead leaves and late night radio. And I can’t help but thinking that maybe it wasn’t a rehearsal, back then with you, but something far more important and fundamental, that set the scene for all that followed.

I’ve played my part with many girls, although sometimes not for long. And I just wanted to tell you that none of them have seemed as beautiful as you seemed then. I still think of you, every time the film ends, and I watch the credits with tearful eyes. I always watch until the very end, in case anything changes. It never does. I still think of you. My writing this to you when I’ve not seen you for years is perfectly in character.

What more is there to say? It all remains the same, the same long slog through the same lonely scripts. My film career has failed to take off. I’ll probably end up in some dull pantomime, with one of the ugly sisters. While your face beams down on us from the billboard of your latest blockbuster, your romantic comedy, your happy ending.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Recent Recomendations

Some books that have rocked my world recently:

Leytonstone by Stephen Volk: I reviewed this for This Is Horror, and it's an utterly fabulous story about a young Alfred Hitchcock. If you were worried whether Volk could equal the superb Whitstable, rest assured: he bloody well did.

Within The Wind, Beneath The Snow by Ray Cluley: another review for This Is Horror, and another belter. Cluley's latest is a compelling novella set in the arctic. If you liked Michelle Paver's Dark Matter (and if you didn't, I'm very disappointed in you) then you'll like this.

The Derelict by Neil Williams: a deliberately old-school, nautical horror story, this one was like a mixture of Conrad and MR James. It's a quick read and thoroughly engrossing whilst it lasts.

Glass Coffin Girls by Paul Jessop: a collection of bizarre short stories, chock full of strange imagery and out of context fairy tale references. If you like Robert Shearman and Helen Marshall(and if you don't, I'm very etc.) you'll like this.