There’s probably a German word for the habit of urgently buying books you need right now and then waiting two or three years to read them… Anyway, this is how it was with Anna Burn’s tremendous novel, MILKMAN, which had been languishing on a shelf in my living room for some considerable time before I picked it up this week. I immediately wished I hadn’t waited so long for the sheer exhilarating effervescent brain-refreshment this book provided. I can’t remember when I last read a book that felt so new, that so charmed and delighted and reveled in its love of language.
Language in this book is a pure delight. The unnamed protagonist distracts herself from the traumatising troubles of her time by reading books, but only those written before the nineteenth century, so her narration and her rendition of others’ dialogue is a wonderfully original and enjoyable mix of working-class Northern Irish and extravagant, mildly-antiquated vocabulary and rhythms. In fact it does much that a nineteenth century novel does, in terms of the exposing of the ‘psychologicals’ of the characters. But it is resolutely, perfectly, acute and convincing in every revelation of the particular milieu in which it is set. It has much to say on gaslighting, gossip, how trauma is dealt with when it is an ongoing fact of life, and how a society shapes a mind and a body. I found it absolutely compelling.
Burns’ hilarious descriptions of the arcane and convoluted hierarchies of sectarian divisions, which extend to what television programmes, names, words, sports and hobbies one is allowed or otherwise to watch, speak, or partake in, somewhat put me in mind of Twitter and its increasingly strict and minute – yet largely unwritten – laws about what is and isn’t allowed, and what makes one ‘a community beyond-the-pale.’ It struck me quite forcefully that these divisions and politickings are sectarian in nature and go beyond any kind of logic to enforce a culture upon the ‘renouncers’ and the ‘supporters’; an authority which one is supposed to, and does, intimately adhere to without ever being instructed in its rules and ramifications. It is wrong, for example, to express a certain doubt, or doubt about a certain subject, or to support by way of a ‘like’ another person who expresses that same doubt or speaks on that subject. How demanding! How exacting is the standard! Some books and authors are acceptable, and some are not, and this seems to bear no relation to the actual words in their books or the ideas expressed by their authors; and no heed is to be paid to the fact of fiction at all, to the fact that authors make things up. Some are to be cancelled, and others to be celebrated, and it is all without sense or reason, though the self-appointed state forces will produce reams of highly intellectual writing on the supposed nuances and moral justifications of their cancellations of other authors, and like good little idiots, we all nod our heads and retweet their nonsense.
Well I have never lived in a war zone, or a sectarian community, or in conditions of unrelenting authoritarianism, and so maybe this comparison is trivial. Anyway, it strengthened my resolve to avoid Twitter more fastidiously than I have in the past.
I found in MILKMAN much to revel in, much to admire, much to laugh about, much to love. I read that, in addition to garnering awards and accolades and praise from luminous quarters, it also has sold now in excess of 500,000 copies. Quite something for a bold experimental literary novel. This fact alone has given me great hope. That so many can love a book like this gives me hope. That this wonderfully humane, joyous, perfect language can reach so many is an unequivocal good thing. Highly, highly recommended.
A few updates for the start of 2020. I took part in a fantastic podcast experience with Alex Blott of Papertrail podcasts, in which I talk about writing stories, the unusual formation of my story Kuebiko, the editing process, and why you should never take advice. A really enjoyable experience for me – I hope you will like it too, and give Alex some feedback. Listen here.
One of my writing heroes, fountain pen aficionado, and all-round lovely person, Priya Sharma, talked to me about her fantastic debut novel, ORMESHADOW, in the current Black Static magazine, which also contains a review of her book, plus all sorts of other brilliant stuff.
Priya and I, along with fellow Undertow author, Laura Mauro, had a frank and fascinating chat about writing earlier this year and our conversation can be found here. We go into early influences, the role of politics in our writing, and why Women in Horror Month is not every woman’s favourite time of the year.
If you read that discussion, you’ll know my thoughts on Women in Horror – but I’m all in favour of buying more books by women any time of the year, and Undertow has a great, generous offer on their books by women writers right now. Check it out.
A few words about Vicki Jarrett’s excellent novel, ALWAYS NORTH, recently out in paperback from Unsung Stories. I read this novel in a few short hours, and was variously thrilled, terrified, depressed, intrigued and ultimately satisfied. In places it reminded me of Peter Hoeg’s fantastic MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW. Later, it put me in mind of Michael Walter’s debut, THE COMPLEX. There’s a well-earned nod to Ballard’s THE DROWNED WORLD in there, too. But of course it is always only its own thing, pushing through the frozen seas to the frozen heart (or the plundered brain) within.
Personally I don’t know how many terrifyingly realistic evocations of the eco-apocalypse I can stand. This one was uniquely effective in its use of structure, making me long for the recent past that its characters were seeking, despite its inhospitable terrain. I found Isobel to be an excellent lead, a down to earth woman with a healthy sense of self-preservation and knowledge of her own worth. It was strange that she seemed to be the only woman in the novel – can there be only one real woman at a time? But perhaps it is part of the story, the way men seem to take things over, the way women are relegated to the background. Maybe if it wasn’t such a man’s world, it would feel like we had more of a chance. Either way, I would have wished for more women like Izzy to populate this world. It seemed strangely anachronistic that she was out there alone.
I do love novels that bruise through genre divisions without a backwards look. I love that sense of time collapsing in on itself, of stories that start feeding off one another. At various points I wondered: is it THE THING, is it vampires, is it HIS DARK MATERIALS? There was mystery, urgency, thrill, even moments of comedy, all tightly woven together with precise and flawless prose. While the structure was complex and ambitious, I had total faith in Jarrett’s ability to pull off the enterprise, and (barring a forgivable bit of handwaving towards the end) she absolutely did. This is a novel well worth your time. I hope it continues to garner praise and attention from all quarters. Highly recommended.
Another year, another Fantasycon, this time held in a hospital/hotel nestled in a large car park some miles outside the great city of Glasgow. The hospi-tel was large, modern, and mostly quite clean (although at one point Tim Lebbon was surprised to see lipstick on his coffee cup, as he hadn’t been wearing any that morning.) Some residents were alarmed to see notices in their bedrooms warning them about their upcoming surgeries, but I’m relieved to say that most of us survived the weekend without any complications, and with all our organs intact. Well, maybe not our livers. And our hearts were a bit broken. But more of that later.
I arrived around noon on the Friday and immediately spotted Paul Tremblay, one of our illustrious Guests of Honour, at the check-in desk. I honoured him by embracing him enthusiastically while he honoured me by pretending to remember who the hell I was.
After checking in and dropping off my bag, I met Tracy Fahey in the bar and gifted her a lifelike plastic raven, which caused much jealousy among the gothic hordes. We joined Priya Sharma and Mark Greenwood, Penny and Simon Jones, Steve Shaw, Justin Park, Marie O’Regan, Paul Kane, Andy Freudenberg and oh god this is so much harder than Mark West makes it look. We – whoever we were – sat outside on a terrace overlooking a body of water which was in turn overlooked by some large toxic waste silos. In this romantic setting, we discussed Steve Shaw’s ablutions (see Steve’s-Ablutions.com) and worked out the rules of horror cagefight in which we would pit masters of horror Ramsey Campbell and Paul Tremblay against one another in a wrestle to the death.
Later I had lunch with Canadia’s finest publishers, Carolyn and Michael Kelly, and discussed our plans for ritual human sacrifice. Carolyn and I paid a large sum of money for the world’s smallest and crumbliest gluten-free sandwich (which didn’t even have any human sacrifice in it) and were forced to steal Mike’s chips just in case we starved.
Some other people were around and I talked to many of them. They were all lovely, but I didn’t write their names in my notebook so I have no recollection of who they were or what it was I liked about them so very much. The lack of note-taking was partly because Penny Jones caught me writing her name for this report and ran at me yelling “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” Apparently there are a number of terrifying stories written about Penny Jones and she naturally assumed I was jumping on the trend. I was not. However, later that evening, Hal Duncan spent a good 45 minutes explaining to me that life is a series of interlinked sitcoms and reader, I was thoroughly convinced. It explains a lot, although I’m not sure anything completely explains Penny Jones.
That evening, Andrew Freudenberg and I came up with a great fiction collaboration in which the story of Big Baby Jesus and his twin brother Satan (played respectively by Giant Haystacks and Kirk Douglas) would be told in a way you have never heard it told before. I took this as a sign that I was way too drunk to go on, and took to my bed. It took me a good long while to take to my bed, as first I had to have lengthy chats with lovely Neil Williamson and lovely others even too lovely to remember. On my final attempt to leave the bar, Muriel Gray grabbed me for a selfie, exclaiming that I was “fantastic” and that I had the “best hair”. This was not only the high point of my entire weekend but also means I can pronounce with some confidence that I have won Hair Club, possibly forever. The gorgeously lovely Chloë Yates made a good bid for it this year, but I’m afraid Muriel Gray’s decision is final.
On Saturday I breakfasted with Alison Littlewood and her partner Fergus, who were infuriatingly perky, having gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Talked filmmaking and screenwriting with Eric Steele, who had early that morning escaped from a Magnus Mills novel. Later I went to Paul Tremblay’s kaffeeklatsch, thinking that Paul was going to buy us all coffee and muffins. Apparently that’s not what happens at a kaffeeklatsch, and Paul does not have his own MuffinMinion, actually. To make up for it, there was some great writerly chat with Kelly White, Thomas Joyce, Lee Harrison, Priya Sharma and some other people who were wonderful and so dazzling that I forgot to write their names in my notebook.
We trooped off to Rob Shearman’s pre-launch launch event, and on the way bumped into the Isle of Bute contingent, the extraordinarily talented and lovely Nina Allan and Anne Charnock. They both threatened to read my book, which was quite horrifying. On to the pre-launch launch, where Rob explained his epic new book and then made us all cry with a wonderful reading from it. The queue to buy the pre-book chapbooks went out the door and we had to be removed to the lobby for Rob to continue signing. “Take my money already!” was the cry of our hearts.
That evening, a few of us threw some shapes on the dancefloor. Gary Couzens and Sue York were alone in the disco until Tracy and I turned up for a dance, later joined by Francesca and Rob of Luna Publishing, Teika Bellamy of Mother’s Milk, and Phil Sloman of Legs fame. The DJ was deeply obnoxious but the music was fine, and I arrived at my late night ‘stories in the dark’ reading rather more sweaty than usual. Hopefully no one noticed, as it was dark, and they were probably quite scared, as Charlotte Bond, Pete Sutton, Kit Power and I read them some very creepy stories.
On Sunday morning I did a workshop on writing craft which involved ripping up books and drawing on them. There were a great bunch of writers there, including an old classmate, Hugh Reid. I did a quick podcast interview with E.M. Faulds in the sunshine, chatted with the Gingernuts of Horror himself, the lovely Jim McLeod, and then it was time for the Ordeal – I mean, banquet. Well, halfway between an Ordeal and a banquet. The serving staff, in what I can only assume is an ancient Dalmuirean tradition, refused to bring us any drinks until each person at the table had complained to them twice. For a starter I was served “fine dining” consisting of sweet green mousse on a bed of cress, with some melon juice in a shot glass. For mains, tomato puree over half a raw courgette, and two lumps of cauliflower pakora, which the servers assured me would either poison me, or not. By this point, I had lost the will to live anyway, so it didn’t matter.
I lived to make it to the awards ceremony, which Muriel Gray conducted with great warmth and very welcome humour. Vince Haig won Best Artist and Mike made us all cry with his emotional reading of Vince’s acceptance speech. Rob Shearman and Mike Kelly won the award for Best Anthology, which was wonderful, and their speeches made us laugh and cry some more. Priya Sharma’s award for Best Collection had many of us on our feet, and by this point quite a few of us were openly weeping, though it’s possible that some of us were just remembering lunch.
And that was more or less that. For once, I didn’t have far to go home but had lovely company on the train back to Edinburgh in the form of Neil Snowden and Tim Major, which was lucky or I might have been very sad to be leaving so many dear friends and delightful people, including all the dear and delightful people who should have been mentioned here but weren’t because I was drinking wine when I was supposed to be paying attention. Those who couldn’t make it this year were sorely missed, not least Mark West, who should have been writing this con report, but instead left it in the hands of an amateur, a fabricator, a teller of tall tales, and a person who forgot to write anything in her notebook after Saturday lunchtime. Until next time, much love to all xxx
Happy book birthday to me! This House of Wounds is officially alive as of today. In book world, a book lives before it is officially born, so THOW has been read and reviewed all over the place already, but it’s still exciting to say, it’s here! You can buy it as much as you like now!
This weekend will see Edinburgh’s inaugural CYMERA Festival, which celebrates science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. Absolutely tonnes of exciting authors will be there, taking part in various events – interviews, panels, workshops, quizzes, readings. I’ll be doing a workshop on Sunday morning called “Writing the Body” and the rest of the weekend I’ll be drifting around, so please come and say hello.
On July 13, I’ll be attending Edge Lit in Derby – possibly the UK’s friendliest convention! It’s a wonderful day with loads of interesting stuff to do. There’s going to be a small, very unofficial launch of THOW along with Laura Mauro’s collection, SING YOUR SADNESS DEEP, so look out for that. We will whisper the details in your ear.
Finally, the eagle-eyed among you may have spotted a note in the current Interzone, to the effect that my novella “honeybones” is to be out soon as a TTA Press title. I have a lot to say about this novella; writing it was one of the strangest, most intense experiences of my life. Watch this space for news on that.
I didn’t know anything. That’s the truth right there. All I knew was I was getting a book published, it was ACE and I was happy about it. And that’s all true. It is ace, and I am happy about it. But seriously, friends. My ignorance was VAST. Vast and deep as an ocean. I was innocent, naive, a wide-eyed babe with literally zero idea what the hell was going on. So here’s a partial list of the things I was blithely unaware of. Anything for you.
I didn’t know how much crying would be involved. That’s easily the number one thing I didn’t know about this whole process. If you’re the crying type, and I am, I very much am, then this process involves tears. Tears of joy, pride, and happiness? Sure, whatever. And then there are the other kinds of tears: of vulnerability (so much vulnerability), anxiety, disappointment. And did I mention vulnerability? At one point I seriously considered hooking myself up to a saline drip, just to get through the day.
I didn’t know how REAL imposter syndrome is. See, when I first saw copies of my book I was ecstatic. I was proud of myself, grateful to my publisher and everyone involved, delighted at the prospect of having my book read and reviewed and stocked in shops. I went about humming little ditties, flipping through my book, admiring the gorgeous cover for hours on end. I had NO IDEA my bubble was about to burst, big time. The weekend after review copies were sent out and I realised that people were actually going to be reading my stories, I had a legit full-on panic attack and spent an entire day talking myself down from the ledge of outrageous imposter syndrome. It SUCKED, friends. So bad.
I didn’t know how much it would hurt when people didn’t love my book. Cliché but true. I’ve had a tonne of stories published and reviewed, so I felt reasonably confident I could cope with whatever came my way. I even told people that I wanted readers to engage with my writing in a critical, thoughtful manner. HAHAHA NOPE. So wrong. I quickly discovered that what I really wanted was for people to unconditionally love my stories and herald me as a creative genius the like of which the world has never seen. When instead I heard words like “challenging”, “demanding” and (worst of all) “difficult”, I was CRUSHED. Confidence? What’s that? (And yes, I do realise there are worse insults but THAT’S NOT THE POINT, OKAY?)
I didn’t know how popular I’d become. I love twitter and never felt the need to be other than myself on there. But suddenly, in the space of a fortnight, I gained 150 new followers. It’s great, and they are all so welcome, but whaaaaat? (And is it still okay to swear?) It felt like a huge spotlight was shining in my face and I didn’t quite know how to be anymore. Then there are the requests for interviews, guest posts and so on. People want to ask me questions and hear what I have to say about stuff? GREAT! But also: SO FREAKING WEIRD. See that microscopic dot on the horizon? That’s my comfort zone and I’m travelling away from it at the speed of light.
I didn’t know it would feel like a loss. Like an ending. I’ve wanted to have a book published for so long, for my whole entire life, in fact. So it makes sense that achieving that ambition might leave me feeling a bit… empty. I like to think of it as creating space for something new, and I’ve certainly got lots of new books and stories planned and coming soon, but even so. I didn’t expect there to be grief.
I didn’t know how magnanimous, open-hearted, kind and welcoming other writers would be. Not only writers, but editors, bloggers, reviewers and readers. People have been nothing but helpful and encouraging every step of the way. Everyone from established authors to total strangers have reached out to me in support. I always knew that readers and writers are the best kind of humans, but I didn’t know how much I’d feel the benefit of their awesomeness. Of all the things I didn’t know, this is what I’ll try to hold onto the most. People can be wonderful, when you give them a chance.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, and what I do know might not be helpful or relevant for anyone but myself. Still, I wanted to share this, from my heart, especially for anyone who has their first book coming out (soon, or one day). I hope you have a wonderful experience. I hope you don’t feel any of the anxiety or vulnerability I did. But if you do, I hope you remember that it passes. It does, it really does pass. Just keep breathing. Focus on the good stuff, the wonderful, uplifting, exciting stuff of BEING A PUBLISHED AUTHOR. And stay hydrated.
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!
Thanks to my excellent brother, Matthew, I have finally got an updated and working website. Matt designed the creepy haunted house theme for me some years ago and I am sad to see it go (and will hope to resurrect it in some form) – but it’s lovely to have the very striking cover art from THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS on the header now. Catrin Welz-Stein is the artist and her work is well worth checking out. I’ve also got some AMAZING content on the way, starting this weekend with the first of the Escape Room interviews.
My debut collection is now available for pre-order, so I am being very un-me-like and attempting to flog it to all and sundry. Pre-order on Amazon UK, if that suits you. Other Amazons are also available, and USians can pick it up at Barnes and Noble. The very wonderful Undertow can sell you a copy, and will offer you a tasty subscription deal with their other 2019 story collections – Laura Mauro’s debut SING YOUR SADNESS DEEP and Michael Kelly’s ALL THE THINGS WE NEVER SEE – both of which are going to be unmissable.
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.
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… 🙂