“This time I will definitely do some writing while I’m on holiday”

Who am I kidding? Every holiday, I take pad and pen. Every holiday, they remain untouched.

I think, though, that it’s important I take them. It symbolises my intent. And if I don’t actually put pen to paper, then I can spend time plotting and planning, right?

Well, no. Not really. Not consciously, anyway. I spend the time with my family. I barely think about whatever project I’m working on.

But the time away does help – to invoke a cliche – to recharge the batteries. Without the pressure of trying to think of the next scene or of a character’s motives, ideas pop up that might not otherwise, now that you’re removed from your normal environment.

So I’ll enjoy my holiday and not worry about not writing. But the tools are there, if I need them.

 

Progress update: I’m committed to a book review. The first draft is almost complete, though I’m unlikely to finish it before the holiday starts. Enough is written to make completion a straightforward priority on my return, and the deadline is the beginning of September.

The folk horror work (what do I call it? Novel? Novella? Novelette?) progresses. Over 13,000 words now, and spilling from my Parker Jotter at twice the speed that the now-dormant fantasy novel ever did. I’m trying to strike a balance between wanting it to be a work of literary merit and my instinct to make it read like a 1980s pulp horror novel. It wants to be both.

Right now – first draft – that’s not a problem. The priority in the first draft is to get the story told. The way you tell it can wait until you begin to re-write, to an extent: but I always need to know which voice or whose viewpoint a particular scene will be told from. I find that this unlocks the episode for me, and gives me a way in. Nothing I can’t change later.

There also comes a point, after sending a manuscript to agencies and publishers, where you concede defeat. Yes, maybe the book is good, but it’s not quite good enough to capture the mass-market that agents and editors are after. So with that in mind, I’m thinking about serialising the Robin Hood novel on this blog. It’s a few years old now, and my interest in doing anything with it has faded, given that the fantasy novel and – hopefully – the folk horror work are both better-structured and better-written. But the Robin Hood novel romps along and is quite good fun, or so I hope. I’ve nothing to lose and, ideally, a few readers to gain. Are you interested?

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Summer Reading

In Scotland the schools are off, and the weather has been uncharacteristically summery since late May. I’m away on holiday. Time to share with you what I’ve been reading in this fine weather, and what’s in the suitcase for the trip to Kernow.

  • The Devil Rides Out – Dennis Wheatley: 1930s black magic horror hokum. “Of its time” in the sense that its racist, sexist and classist; despite all this, the basis of Hammer’s enjoyable 1968 film. If a horror writer’s own fears can be deduced from what they portray in the most ghastly terms, then forget all the Satanism stuff. In the orgiastic scenes, people fall upon piles of food without using cutlery! The horror!
  • Mythago Wood – Robert Holdstock: a mythago is an archetype; a figure from our collective unconscious. The prototypes of the likes of Robin Hood and King Arthur haunt an ancient woodland. A man recently returned from World War 2 searches for his brother in its unmapped depths. Wonderful, and as deep and many-layered as the wood itself.
  • The Arrival of Missives – Aliya Whiteley: Delicately-told weird fiction, set in the aftermath of World War 1. A writer I intend to read more of.
  • Black Static #57 – Bi-monthly horror magazine, with good long-form fiction and many reviews; includes a story by Aliya Whiteley (above).
  • Some Kind of Fairy Tale – Graham Joyce: a girl went missing twenty years ago, and turns up not a day older. Was she really abducted into the land of faery?
  • Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley: the dark rituals of a hidden Lancashire valley pull one of its sons back into the family orbit.

 

Still to read:

  • Four Colour Fear: anthology of 1950s American horror comics. Full-on brain-eating gross-out fun. These are what prompted the formation of the Comics Code Authority.
  • The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers: Great cover. Dark historical fiction rooted in the Yorkshire landscape, and based on a genuine story of counterfeiting in the 18th century.
  • Under the Rock: The Poetry of Place – Benjamin Myers: Myers again. Non-fiction this time, and what looks like a poetic yet unflinching piece of “nature writing” (horrible term; we need a better one).
  • The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland – John Lewis-Stempel. More nature writing, this time looking at the English farming landscape; what’s to be found, and what’s been lost.
  • Nutmeg #8: Scottish football journal. A new one to me: I don’t follow football nearly as much as I used to, but the World Cup (and Scotland’s repeated absence from it) is unavoidable. This looks like football’s answer to cycling’s game-changing Rouleur magazine.

New fields, old land

I tweeted a month or so back that I’d shoved all other writing projects aside (and that has included this blog, dear reader) because I’d started work on a Folk Horror story. This new work is now at around 9,000 words* and going well.

I feel a twinge of guilt at abandoning (for now) the fantasy story that I’d been writing for three-and-a-half years. That’s a long time – too long a time – to have one work living in your head. I hope I can return to it in the future. In the meantime the new work (of course) feels fresh and exciting. Occurring as it does in “the real world”, rather than a sub-created one, it makes the writing – or at least the thinking behind it – that much easier. There’s much more a writer can take for granted that a reader will know. Obviously a good writer will try to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, but at least you don’t have to describe everything as if encountered for the first time.

Also, writing in the horror mode feels a lot more like home. I’m sure (and if it’s ever published, you can find out and tell me) that I was committing unpardonable errors and cliches in the fantasy novel, but I was enjoying it, and it felt true to me**. But slipping into horror is like putting on an old, worn, but comfortable piece of clothing. It just fits.

I’m currently reading Devil’s Day by Andrew Michael Hurley (author of The Loney), and a few pages in I began to be concerned that the work I’ve just begun shares a similar conceit. Neil Gaiman has previously spoken (vis-a-vis the Sandman volume A Game of You, which shared a plot with Jonathan Carroll’s Bones of the Moon) about works that are “tuned to the same channel”***. I hope my work is just mining the same vein, and not stealing from Hurley’s haul. I swithered over whether or not to keep reading, in case of unwitting theft, but decided to continue. I’d like to think I’m honest enough not to steal from another writer, and wise enough to realise if I was doing so unconsciously. Hopefully you can be the judge, in time.

I’m not superstitious but I don’t generally like to give too much away about what I’m writing until it’s advanced enough to be capable of standing on its own. Otherwise (to mix metaphors) it lets all the air out of it. You’ll just have to wait, and hopefully it won’t take me three years to write.

Howard Ingham makes a very good point about the difference between a film being “accidentally” folk horror (the quintessential The Wicker Man, made years before the term was coined), and a film being intentionally designed as Folk Horror (Wake Wood, capitalising on the resurgence of interest in the genre)****. If I’m already labelling this story, it has to live up to the expectations of that label, and preferably either supersede or help to expand the genre’s (admittedly broad) definitions. Otherwise it’s an exercise in box-ticking: Folk Horror bingo, as Ingham says.

I meant to do a piece on Folk Horror ages ago but never got around to it. The links below will have to suffice for now. It’s one of the genres that’s difficult to define with precision, but generally you know it when you see it.

Folk Horror primer:

 

* If I can get 500 words written in a day, I’m happy. I have a full-time job, a full-time marriage and full-time child to juggle at the same time.

** It was also the umpteenth attempt at a story whose origins are actually shared by the new work, as I wrote before Christmas.

*** Carroll was encouraging, quoting Ezra Pound to Gaiman: “every story has already been written. The purpose of a good writer is to write it new”.

**** He also makes a good point about veering too close to saying “I was into Folk Horror before it was cool”. The stories in my collection which could be termed folk horror were written years before I heard the term, and in that respect are accidentally so.

Habitat and Habit: “Reservoir 13” by Jon McGregor

IMG_20180601_093431Warning: contains spoilers, sort of.

I read Jon McGregor’s debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, when it came out in 2003. I was, I confess, immediately envious of his talent, given that he’s two years younger than me. Ah well, some people have it. This is the first novel of his I’ve read since, and his development as a writer is breathtaking. Its a wonderful, beautifully structured and carefully told tale of life in a north-of-England moor village in the months and years following the disappearance of a young girl.

It is, in common with several recent novels (Fen by Daisy Johnson, Folk by Zoe Gilbert, the works of Benjamin Myers and Andrew Michael Hurley) deeply informed by the concept of ‘place’, and specifically rural place. I can’t help but wonder if this is a backlash against the jingoism that seems to have gripped England in the last few years. These works investigate geography and belonging, and show it as a much more complex and troubled concept than Union Flags and the White Cliffs of Dover would have you believe.

The story is told in sections, one per month – twelve per chapter – over thirteen years. It took me a few “years” to realise this, because McGregor is a subtle writer, and not so gauche as to lumpenly include the name of the month in each section.

Every section is told as if reported – like village gossip, in fact – and the accumulated effect of the repetition reminds me, surprisingly, of Red Or Dead, David Peace’s under-appreciated novel about Bill Shankly’s Liverpool FC.

This means that there is no direct speech; instead, key pieces of people’s conversations are recorded and reported in the same way as the rest of the story, thus establishing a unity of speech and text. This unity feeds through to the prominence given to “natural” events: the mating of the local badgers, the singing of a blackbird, the building of a goldcrest’s nest: all are treated with the same degree of respect and importance as the human dramas. You could argue that it’s the other way around, and that the human dramas are only as “important” as the cycles and struggles of bird and beast and tree.

There is humour, though. Some of it is in the banter between the locals, some comes from the unwitting repetition of habit: in seeing only snatches of these people over a period of thirteen years, their tics are revealed in much more detail than a conventional novel and act like subtle running gags. We know Gordon Jackson will try to pull any woman who comes his way. We know Irene – the cleaner – will gossip but take offence at any interest shown in her own affairs. We know Richard will visit his ailing mother only at Christmas and endure difficult conversations with his sisters. We know the pantomime will feature unintended hilarity or audience-silencing awkwardness.

And what of the missing girl, Rebecca (Becky, Bex) Shaw? I warned about spoilers at the top of the page, and here they come. Does she ever appear? Yes, but only in the villagers’ dreams. Sightings occur as the years pass, but in them she’s dressed as she was on the day she vanished, and so are unlikely to be of her. Who causes the mysterious fires that start each New Year (the anniversary of her disappearance)? Her father is arrested in connections with them but as the book finishes nothing is proved. Could the fires be symbols of the land’s own trauma? And what, finally, of the book’s title? There is a sense of tension: we expect the titular reservoir to reveal something: certainly, the many reservoirs on the moors are regularly attended, surveyed, searched and the drains cleared, but there’s no sign of Rebecca.

It would take a deeper study than this to pick up all the recurring threads that appear throughout the weave of this fine book. It is a novel in which both everything and nothing happens – human, avian, insect, mammalian and vegetable lives breed, blossom and die.

Meta-nostalgia: “The Beatles Story” by Arthur Ranson & Angus Allan (1981/2018)

This is a follow-up to my previous piece on nostalgia. Not because the world needs any more writing on The Beatles: it really doesn’t.

The book is a collection of the serialised strips which appeared in Look-In from 1981-1982. There was also a similar strip covering Elvis’ rise to fame. I remember them (vaguely) from the days when I got Look-In, though I suspect I flicked past them on the hunt for something more fun. They probably felt too much like a history lesson, something worthy.

Elvis, then, was four years dead but The Beatles had imploded more than a decade ago: before most of the readership of this strip were born. They belonged to your parents. Although much of Look-In was black and white anyway, there was no way these strips could be in colour: they were documenting history.

Ancient history. As Mark Fisher has written, the 1960s are closer to us now than they were in 1979. At the time of serialisation, the Fab Four existed only on records, cassettes and old magazines, discolouring over time. They were the past, when the past was less retrievable than it is now. Which made this an elegy of sorts, an exercise in nostalgia for an audience who could not know what nostalgia was, nor feel it anyway (at any rate, not for something your Mum and Dad listened to).

This re-publication (nicely done by Rebellion), then, is a curious thing. The story – focussing largely on their early years – is well told, and the artwork beautiful1. It deserves to stand on its own as a quirky piece of Beatles merchandise, appealing to anyone interested in the Fab Four.

What it does, though, coming from the pages of Look-In, is make readers of that magazine nostalgic about a story which was itself nostalgic. A hall of mirrors; mise-en-abyme. There are illustrations – to evoke the mood of Beatlemania – of some of the wacky Beatles merchandise of the time: ephemera within ephemera; nostalgia triggers for the Look-In reader’s parents.

Many of the panels are evidently drawn from photos, which, though stunning, can make the storytelling clunky as the writer fits expository speech into posed images2. But this creates a distillation; a poetic truth rather than a literal one:

beatles3
Paul, looking uncannily like a Walrus, moans at George.

My favourite panel is the central one below (apologies for the reproduction): a drawing of a young John Lennon. I find the white space hugely evocative: these panels look back twenty years to a precise moment in time, at which point the future of these four boys was utterly unimaginable. The area around the solitary, foregrounded Lennon (whose death would still be fresh in the memory at the time of writing) is nonetheless full of the  history to come, and full of the loss of it.

beatles4

The bulk of the story is taken up by their ascent: the Liverpool childhood, The Quarrymen, Hamburg, the Cavern Club, Brian Epstein. Once they’ve made it big, the narrative skates rapidly over what for many is their most interesting aspect: their astonishing (and astonishingly fast) musical development. But a kid’s comic strip would sink under the weight of anything much heavier than “striving young moptops”, and anyway (as noted by Rob Power in the book’s afterword) “this was not the place to talk LSD”.

An unfortunate side-effect that it shares with the Elvis story is that it implicitly imposes on its young readers a hierarchy: that These Artists Matter. Contemporary bands had their own frothy strips in Look-In: Madness and Haircut 100, for example, had weekly Hard Day’s Night-type adventures. All of which only reinforces a sour point (which conveniently ignores the cultural detonation that was punk): Elvis and The Beatles built the template for all your favourites, and there will never be anything like them again.

 

1 I loved Ranson’s artwork for Look-In: he drew many of their other strips including the fabulously eerie Sapphire & Steel, and my favourite at the time: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Someone please republish these!

2 Reminding me of Kyle MacLachlan’s in-case-it-had-escaped-you line in Oliver Stone’s The Doors: “we took drugs to expand our minds, Jim!”