dinosaurs and distress-biscuits

My author copies of This House of Wounds arrived this week, and they look amazing! I didn’t expect that getting copies of my book would be so emotional, but there is something very moving about holding your own book in your own hands. It’s not just the gorgeousness of the cover and design, or the fact that having a book like this has been my ambition ALL MY LIFE (and I am very old). It’s also the kindness and generosity shown by so many friends, acquaintances, and actual, literal strangers that has been so moving and wonderful to experience.

I’m so ridiculously grateful to everyone who has pre-ordered This House of Wounds from Amazon, bought it from Undertow, downloaded the e-book, requested an ARC, or marked it as ‘to read’ on Goodreads. I’m super grateful to everyone who has posted, tweeted, shared, liked, or commented about the book on social media. I’ve always known writers to be a kind and generous bunch, but the support I’ve received has been unreal. You are all so nice. Have ten million dinosaurs 🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕🦕

It’s early days yet for reviews, but words like “intense,” “haunting,” and “disturbing” are flying around. One reader claims that it gave her nightmares, for which I am very sorry (and also a little proud). My suggestion to alleviate reader distress by taping complimentary biscuits to every copy sold is apparently “a bit impractical” but I still think it’s a good idea. If they are dinosaur-shaped distress-biscuits, so much the better!

big fat book of doom

running away from a scary tunnel which i would actually rather run through than write my book

Have spent every spare minute over the past few weeks thinking and sketching out a plot for a big, complicated novel I’ve been desperate to write. It covers two worlds and three timelines, and it combines all the things I love about ghost stories and haunted houses with everything weird in science fiction, and a dollop of domestic realism on top of that. Basically, imagine putting Shirley Jackson, Jeff Noon, Simon Ings, Christopher Priest, Angela Carter, Tanith Lee, Lewis Carroll and Siri Hustvedt in a blender and pouring the bloody mess into a broken jug… or something like that. Suffice to say it is big, and it is complicated, and messy and full of blood and broken bones.

I’ve got a rough plot, character notes, setting notes and so on. Today I finally solved the structural problems. I sorted the big logic issues and figured out how the timelines would run together. It works! At least, it potentially could work. It makes sense, at least to me.

But you know what? Now I’ve done all that, and there’s nothing left to do but start writing, I find myself staring glumly at the wall and wondering if it was all a terrible mistake. Maybe I should write some short stories instead. Or a different novel altogether, one I haven’t even got an idea for yet. Literally anything else.

I suspect, or perhaps I just hope, that this is THE FEAR sinking its gloomy, doomy claws into me. If not, then I guess I burn it all and start again.

dark dark dark… we all go into the dark

Well, maybe not all of us, but definitely meeeeeeeeeee! “Her Bones the Trees,” my blood-soaked, bear-infested, twisted Twin Peaks fan fiction is to be reprinted in acclaimed literary horror magazine THE DARK. Looking forward to sharing this story with more readers.

The story was originally published as “Her Blood the Apples, Her Bones the Trees,” in The Silent Garden journal of esoteric fabulism – a truly beautiful book chock full of illustrations, essays, reviews and stories from weird fictioneers such as D.P. Watt and Helen Marshall (whose story really ought to win awards galore – check it out).

In other news, edits are done on my forthcoming collection! Michael Kelly is a brilliant, sensitive editor and it’s been a very positive experience. I’ve had to dial back my tendency to get typographically extra, but my House of Leaves homages are set to continue with my current work in progress, which is going to put the punk in punctuation… 🙂

this house of wounds

Delighted to share the news that my debut collection, THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS, is being published by the extraordinarily brilliant Undertow Publications, and should be out within the next few months. There are a number of new, previously unpublished stories in there, which I’m super excited about. But the book also collects some of my earliest pieces, such as Crow Voodoo, which was one of the very first stories I ever had professionally published. It’s exciting to look back over my career so far and to see themes and concerns emerge and coalesce. My writing has always been woman-centred, concerned with the physical body and with competing realities. Themes of madness, perception, parallel universes, doubles and others have deepened and enlarged. And lately my stories have become more concerned with issues of representation, especially the visual image. I think my work has become weirder and more complex over the years. I also think I give the reader an increasing amount of space in the story, and an increasing amount of work to do. But as is the ways of these things, the stories don’t belong to me so much anymore – they belong to the readers and I very much look forward to seeing what you make of them.

THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS is one of the titles in Undertow’s impressive 2019 catalogue which also features Laura Mauro’s debut collection, a collection from Michael Kelly, and reprints of wonderful books by Lynda E. Rucker and Joel Lane. As always, Undertow have gone out of their way to make beautiful books you’ll want to keep forever.

I’m hoping to share more news soon regarding my novella, HONEYBONES, and I’ve recently embarked on a new novel which I’m sure will be taking up every spare moment. I promise to try to blog a bit more this year and to keep this space a bit more up to date. In the meantime, you can find me on the twits (@monster_soup) or drop me an email. Happy new year!!

the big-headed people

who are the big-headed people

No one is brilliant the way the author/recorder of these stories, Des Lewis, is brilliant. I thought I’d try to gestalt-real-time-dream-catch-review ‘The Big-Headed People’ but found myself instead foundering, sunk by the weight of these stories, through the floor and into the basement and then somewhere underneath that opened up into great vistas of strange incomprehension. It’s not an overstatement to say these stories are radical. A kind of un-writing that speaks to the unconscious spirit, translating the everyday and quotidian into its sometimes sinister, sometimes absurd, sometimes godly language of feeling and knowing. It’s impossible to do justice to these stories in a brief response. They are small but TARDIS-like in that they are bigger, infinitely bigger, on the inside. Which is funny, considering Des Lewis is the outsider-artist of our times, the one who sees it all.

THE BIG-HEADED PEOPLE

“What happened between then and now is told, I’m told, in detail elsewhere, by another source…”

The first story in the collection sent me reeling. I didn’t know you could tell that story. I didn’t know it was possible to completely transform every recognisable element of a story into something else, and present the reader with such a generous trusting invitation to make her own art from it. This story shocked me. At first I thought of Kafka, and Borges, especially his labyrinths. But the closest comparison I could make to an existing work of art is to Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’. The labyrinth doesn’t look like a labyrinth, but it is, a maze sunk underground. An understory. The rest of the story is “elsewhere,” generated by an anonymous source, unreliable and distant. We are left with the part of the story that can’t be told.

The mannequins with their leaking, rusty groins put me in mind of my own Dreemy Peeple: inarticulate and broken, they haunt the story, perform operations, move with the sick compulsion of a dream. The derelict tower is a tarot card, signifying breakdown. A level of dysfunction that drives the narrator to find a primal connection to his own birth.

A HALO OF DRIZZLE AROUND AN ORANGE STREET LAMP

“I am depending on hearsay and rumour…”

Alma wants a real experience, something that matters, a “real-time fact of her diminishing life.” But her connection to the world is attenuated, alienated; again, the story has been told elsewhere, by anonymous others. In this case, only understanding one facet of the story, Alma invites sinister shadow-stories into her world. There can be no record, no story, not even the Family Bible can keep Alma tied to this world where “things are all technological and nobody has proper picnics at all.” There is a loss of simplicity, a loss of connection to the past, to family, to memory. The sun is “panicking” and so are we.

THOUGHTS & THEMES

“It was my turn to stand watch at the front room window tonight…”

Two clowns, Vladimir and Estragon in another dimension, take turns to pay attention to the world and meditate on its themes, as a circus rolls into town. Entities and urges are disguised as normal people and everyday things. Behind their masks/clown-faces, an unfathomable intellect. Beyond that, a physical mystery. The two (?) characters are emphatically not “normal human beings” by their own account. And yet there is something familiar and domestic in their attention. Characters in these stories are growing older, monitoring and documenting the world as it changes and morphs into unrecognisable forms. Trying, perhaps, to capture something real or meaningful and keep it alive.

ORIGAMI SHADOWS

“This story knew where he was, all the time… sure in its own heart that reality was its gift to the world, not make-believe…”

This story opens with a reference to Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men, which reminded me of a jubilee street party, long ago in a different time, where my brothers were dressed up as Bill and Ben, and I adamantly refused to be dressed up as Little Weed, thinking I was being made an insignificant feminine sidekick to the main characters. As well as Bill and Ben, I spotted Alice and Escher in this story, my own ‘White Rabbit’, and that Ian McEwan story about the geometrical shape that disappears people. For all its spreading web of connections to story after story, this is the most blatantly un-written story in the collection. It seems to be admitting to its project of undermining story in order to get at reality… or something deeper. “The origin of the shape was slowly pre-dating the shape itself…”

THE SOFT TREAD

“A black rose.”

The past is mysterious, illusory, a tapestry of lies. A suspicion of noises. The sound of stone revolving over stone, a sound we pretend not to have heard. The soft tread of the story, following us along the hallway. A ghost story that made me feel like the ghost.

This collection of stories is tiny, but it weighs incredibly heavy. We are so lucky to have Des Lewis in these times. His project as a reader and as a writer is dazzling huge but touchingly intimate all at once. A genius, no doubt. But much more than that – his writing is a resource for all of us who think stories matter. READ THIS BOOK.

white rabbit wins british fantasy award

Absolutely delighted to report that my shortstory ‘White Rabbit’ has won the British Fantasy Award 2017 for short fiction. It was published in Black Static #50 and illustrated by the insanely talented Vince Haig (who also took this photo of me roargrowling in victory). Back copies still available! The same issue contains Gary Budden’s excellent (also shortlisted) story, Greenteeth – so well worth picking up.

I’ve never won an award before and I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to go on about it before everyone starts hating me. Or maybe it’s already too late! All I really want to say is thank you, thank you. I’ve been writing all my life, but for a long time I didn’t think people like me could be ‘real’ writers. But I’ve been steadily and seriously working away at this for the past couple of decades. Work and life commitments have meant my progress is slow and halting. I’m well past the age where I might have been a “new talent” and into the age where women tend to get written off as irrelevant. But I have no intention of giving up. Getting this award is hugely encouraging and you can’t stop me now!

In other news, I’m currently working on a novel (or is it a novella) and planning a themed collection of stories. And a new story, ‘The Book of Dreems’ is coming out in the next Black Static, so… subscribe! Oh, and another new story, ‘Little Heart,’ will be in the ‘Imposters’ anthology from Dark Minds Press, coming soon!

how to make love at the end of the world

Two Citizens of Nowhere meet in front of a boarded-up shopping centre. He takes her hand and presses it to his heart. She gently touches his face. They share a smile. The giant TV screen floating overhead swoops down and forces them apart. A zoomed-in close-up mouth screams at them, over and over: GRAB HER BY THE PUSSY!

#

He slams his hard-earned money into the gaping slot. Pumps the slick handle urgently, rams the lever stiffly in and out, thrusts his hand into the hole. He holds on to whatever comes, holds it in his fist so no one else can see. Holds it up to his nose and takes a long, deep sniff.

#

Pictures from a magazine drift in on the floodwater. The children try to put the images together, to tell themselves a story. Arms and legs disintegrate in their hands. There is a dark eye in the centre of the page, gazing wetly out.

#

She’s dying from the sun, but she wishes she were drowning. She thinks of a time when she became water from her cunt to her tongue: when she was a muscle of water writhing in air. But it was so long ago. Now she’s dry as a book.

#

In the ruins of the city, people fear touches. Their skin is too weak, their bodies too hungry. Kissing quickly turns to feeding. A finger becomes a feast.

#

In the North, an old couple throw their books onto the fire. They break up their wooden chairs and burn them. They burn the kitchen table. On the fire goes the sofa cushions, the bookcase, a suitcase full of old exam papers. The flames lick out and bubble the paint on the walls. This’ll be the last time we’re warm, says one. I burn for you, says the other.

They throw their clothes onto the fire.

i am dreaming

You know it’s time to start writing your book when words bleed through the palms of your hands, in mirror writing, and lightning sparks from your fingertips. It’s one of the more obvious symptoms.

I’ve been dreaming of this book for a very long time. It’s just a book. But like dreams, it makes its own sense and has its own language. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means. Writing is such a mystery. But at the heart of the act of writing is a kind of listening.

It’s rhythm, I think, that I’m listening for. It’s what powers the sentences. Rhythm creates emotion – we know this from music. And it’s there in writing, too. It’s in the play of one word against another, in the balance of a sentence, in images juxtaposed, opposed, enmeshed, at war. Rhythm is how a sentence snags us, draws us in. When you open a book and you’re instantly hooked, it’s because you’ve entered a whole world of sound, an emotional universe. A book can do that, through its music, which begins with the rhythm of every note or word or space or stop.

I never listen to music when I write, but try to listen for the book’s own music. It takes some focus, but nothing deliberate. Each word, sentence, image is tried for harmony with the whole piece. The structure itself wants to be like music, building up and leaping forward, looping round and twisting back, reprising its own imagery, chorusing and responding in echoes of itself. It’s not a formula, but a feeling you have when you write, when everything is flowing forward: effortless, you are part of the song.

(It should be clear by now that I know fuck all about music.)

My book is called ‘The Mirror Book.’ It’s actually two books: the book and its reflection or inversion through the mirror. It’s a haunted house story, it’s a hall of mirrors, it’s about a crime, it is full of nonsense. I have no idea if I can even write it, but I have started. There are words. There is a kind of music, faint and far away. I hear it in my dreams.

my top ten books of 2016

Because books didn’t let us down in 2016.  Books didn’t allow Poundshop Cruella to take over the UK. Books didn’t elect Dipshit McHairdo as US president. Books didn’t exacerbate and instrumentalise divisions between people. Books didn’t conspire with evil dictators around the world to usher in a new age of fascism.

Because books are good.

Alice, by Christina Henry

This book gripped me from the very first line, and had me enthralled right to the very last. I love Alice in Wonderland, and over the years have collected many versions and adaptations (some relevant ones here are Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, and The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor). Christina Henry’s version gives us Alice as a victimised, imprisoned, oppressed young woman, who finds within herself the will and strength to fight back against the gruesome misogynist magical regime of the Walrus and the Caterpillar. It is gripping, funny, gruesome, and feminist as fuck. Highly recommended.

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Creepy fiction about a bucolic summer in which something very strange happens to the members of a folk band recording their first album at Wylding Hall. The compelling thing about this book is its telling – each of the band members relays what they recall of that strange summer, and in the gaps and overlaps between their stories, we begin to see the shape of something very sinister emerging. By layering their stories one on top of the other, Hand is able to make a whole other story emerge, ghost-like, from the interstices. A brilliant book.

Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie

This is a book which keeps on unfolding and revealing itself long after you’ve read the last lines. Kirsten moves into an apartment at Wakewater House, a former hydropathy sanitorium. Her story intertwines with that of Evelyn, a woman treated at Wakewater House many years before. From there, this gothic ghost story is transformed by Leslie’s sensitive, passionate writing into a frightening and moving explication of the tortures that ‘unnatural’ women were subjected to, and the need to keep this history alive. Leslie is a superb writer of the feminist gothic and Bodies of Water is a very exciting first novel.

My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal

I had to stop reading this book on the tram because it was making me cry so much that it was actually embarrassing.  Leon is a young boy in foster care, broken up from his younger brother, and very lonely. His foster carer is one of those brilliant ordinary women who understand how to love and who rage against the racism and callousness of the care system. Set in Birmingham around the time of the Handsworth Riots, this is a story about family, love, racism, and power. If you like having your heart broken and put back together again, this is the book for you.

The Lost and Found, Katrina Leno

Full disclosure: Katrina Leno happens to be a good friend of mine. But I am only friends with the best, most accomplished, talented and interesting people, and she is one such. She has a unique voice which is both sensitive and sarcastic, and an imagination which knows no bounds. In her second YA novel, she tells the story of two young people who are brought together in a mysterious way, each on their own journey to solve their own particular problems. Leno’s evocation of falling in love is the most moving and compelling aspect of this book, which will make you laugh and cry. What more do you want?

A Spell to Conjure Violets, Kate Mascarenhas

Kate Mascarenhas is not only a fantastic writer, but a talented artist and a bookbinder. She printed, bound and covered each copy of Violets herself – which has sadly now sold out. You’ll be lucky to get your hands on a copy of this book, but if you can, then do! Because it is fantastically weird and beautifully written – a portal fantasy that goes fractal. It’s a novel about abuses of privilege and power, and also about what connects us to one another. A book of wonderful, frightening, enthralling possibilities. I treasure this book, and commend this writer to you with all my heart.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Jane Eyre has been one of my favourite books since I was a small child – so I’m not sure why it took me until this year to get around to reading Jean Rhys’ incredibly powerful sister-story, Wide Sargasso Sea. It tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and in doing so, it moves Bronte’s gothic sensibilities into new dimensions of power, privilege, abuse, racism, colonialism, and sex. This is a brilliant book in its own right, but to me at least a part of its greatness comes from the conversation with Jane Eyre, who is also oppressed as a female, yet is part of the system that oppresses Bertha and denies her freedom. A very beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking book.

The Bird King, James Knight

Total cheat, as this isn’t actually just a book, but a series of books, poems, and tweets which explore nightmares (both personal and political), other worlds, strange cabaret, the thing behind the mirror, Mr Punch, illustrations of your dreams, and more besides. James Knight is currently writing a novel, which will no doubt be brilliantly surreal, moving, and extraordinary in every way. In the meantime, you can buy one or several of Knight’s books here.

The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang

The Vegetarian grabbed everyone’s attention this year by winning the Booker prize – deservedly so. This short novel is about the madness and oppression of Yeong-hye, a woman who no one notices at all until she stops eating meat and thus begins her struggle to escape the imprisonment of her female body. An utterly brilliant, though bleak, book, which led me to Human Acts, Han Kang’s absolute masterpiece. This is not only the best book I read in 2016, but one of the very best books I have ever read. It is a shocking account of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, in which hundreds of students were viciously killed and their bodies carelessly thrown onto pyres. Han Kang carefully and lovingly draws out several strands of this story, bringing to life the humanity and need of each of the characters, taking us the reader into the heart of the horror, and then leading us back out to the light. This is a book of magic, with Han Kang working at the height of her powers to put the ghosts of Gwangju to rest. It is more connected and active than any writing I’ve ever come across – I came away with the feeling that the book itself is a form of prayer, a burial rite, and a powerful kind of healing. Han Kang is an extraordinary writer, a genius, an activist, and a luminary.

I read about 100 books this year, and many of them were excellent, but only ten of them can be on the list, because that’s the arbitrary rule I’ve invented to torture myself with. So sorry to those books I loved but didn’t make it. (Come back in 2017 when I’ll be reviewing some of the good ones I’ve read lately.) And happy new year! Read, write, and resist.

you’re on a list

You’re on a list, mate. You’re definitely on a list. If you’re not on a list already, you’re going to be on a list soon. Shortly after you’ve read this post, they’re going to put you on a list.

Lists are necessary. Getting everyone on the right list is the bureaucratic burden of the regime, it’s the biggest task facing the government, it’s where we’ll put all our money and manpower. Because there have to be lists. If there are no lists, how will we know what’s important?

Really, what could be more orderly, more ordinary, than a list? Alphabetised, numberised, cross-referenced to other lists, computerised and databased and we assure you these lists are very secure, these lists are just for our security. These lists are just so we know which small children do not belong in our schools and which pregnant women should be turned away from our doctors’ surgeries, and which highly-skilled physicians should be dismissed from their posts as soon as possible. You see, the lists are just a practical measure, to make sure we’re all getting exactly what we deserve. To suggest that there is anything more sinister to these lists is pure melodrama.

It just makes sense. If there wasn’t a list, we wouldn’t know where to concentrate our resources, and we’d end up making terrible mistakes. We might break down the wrong doors, steal the wrong children, smother the wrong babies in their cots, rape the wrong girls, torture the wrong parents. And that would never do – we’re civilised people, for god’s sake.

And a list is a flexible thing, you’ll agree. A list can change its nature very easily. The list titled “Foreign Children In Our Schools” can easily be re-saved as “Deportation and Transportation.” It cuts down on admin, you see, if we already have everyone on a list. Then if our policies change, we can simply change the title of the list to reflect our new values. Pretty neat stuff.

I guess the only thing that could throw a spanner in the works is if you refused to have anything to do with the lists. If you refused to name your foreign workers, or to send information about the small children in your school, or about your colleagues, or about your friends. If you sabotaged the lists wherever you could, populated lists with bogus information to waste the authorities’ time and money. If you were irresponsible enough to do that, to lose lists, and lie on lists, and refuse to even make lists in the first place – well that could really fuck things up. That’ll get you on a list, for sure.

(see also Michael Rosen’s “Lists, lists of foreigners, lists of foreign born people.” )