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.

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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.