honeybones pre-orders

HONEYBONES is currently at press and now available to order here. If you want to buy Malcolm Devlin’s ENGINES BENEATH US at the same time (and you absolutely should!) then it’s an even better deal.

If you’re a book person looking to review HONEYBONES or interview me about it, please get in touch. I’m ready to talk!

our side of the road

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.

hear me roar (sort of)

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.

in through the out door

I read a lot of very good books this year, a few of which I reviewed either on my blog or in Black Static or Interzone magazines, including some of the titles mentioned below. I don’t know how much reviewing I’ll be doing in the New Year. I seem to have ground to a halt. I also don’t know how useful these kinds of lists are – I guess it’s just a way of summing up where I’m at with my reading these days.

I observed this year that some of the books I read were unsatisfying to me. They were, in some cases, just too good. They were all surface and slick. They were conventional. They were emotional but only within a certain range. There was something wrong with them. I struggle to say what I mean beyond that. I’m talking about books that are very good, very well crafted, excellent books. But there is a weakness at the heart of them, a lack of doubt, of ugliness, of courage.

Maybe it’s me.

Anyway, many of the books I read, and certainly my books of the year, are not that way at all. Each of them is alive and infected with horrible, gorgeous human stuff.

There were some excellent short story collections this year, of which Tracy Fahey’s NEW MUSIC FOR OLD RITUALS impressed me greatly with its storytelling power. Andrew Hook’s THE FOREST OF DEAD CHILDREN disturbed me and filled me with dread and wonder. I also frankly loved Rob Shearman’s chapbook teasers for WE ALL TELL STORIES IN THE DARK, his madly ambitious 101 short stories project. I read those and Leonora Carrington’s COMPLETE STORIES at the same time and the two authors sort of merged in my mind to create one, supremely messed up hilarious nightmare machine.

THE HEAVENS, by Sandra Newman, blew my mind and blasted me out of my complacency about what novels can do and be. It was compelling and bitter and full of complexity and magic.

Talking about what novels can do and be, it would be remiss not to mention DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT, Lucy Ellman’s transcendently lucid journey through an ordinary mind. It was boring, very boring in places. But hilarious and brilliant. It will change things, this book. It will change novels, anyway.

Julie Travis’ novelette TOMORROW, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, reminded me somewhat of THE HEAVENS but then it went one better in allowing me to live in its strange and wonderful world. Wonderful and perfect are the words I used to describe this book. It is full of love and humour, awe, strangeness, sorrow… I enjoyed it immensely and only wished I could stay forever.

GAMBLE by Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a novel I’ve talked about a fair bit this year, and for good reason. It is brutal in its precision, a skewer to the psyche, funny and so very, very sinister. Speaking of sinister things, I discovered a new writer, who I think is exceptional, in the form of Rebecca Gransden. I reviewed her novel ANEMOGRAM. on this blog. Her writing is unutterably strange, haunting, violent and funny. I don’t know where she will go with it but what I’ve read so far strikes me as profoundly brave and vulnerable, and I think she will do something great.

Another debut novelist, Michael Walters, impressed me with his book THE COMPLEX, which is far from perfect, and all the better for that. It’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since first reading: it has been growing on me/in me/around me. I was also reminded of it when reading Helen Phillips’ THE NEED, also featuring a stag-like being, but in a very different mode. This is a deceptively simple book that does something completely and utterly weird. I loved it.

Two books by Aliya Whiteley, THE LOOSENING SKIN and SKEIN ISLAND, impressed and disturbed me. I loved Deborah Levy’s weird and moving THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING and Anna Stothardt’s gripping and unbelievably good THE MUSEUM OF CATHY. Each of these writers are doing their own, strikingly original things and keep putting out incredible book after incredible book.

But my absolute favourite read this year must be Charles Lambert’s THE CHILDREN’S HOME. This is a book that’s hard to describe, since it resists and transcends and transforms itself as you read it. It is brilliant. When I finished it, I cried. It’s the kind of book you can’t even talk about because it’s too good, you’re too passionately in love with it, too in awe of its brilliance, and you don’t want to break it by understanding it too well. Just read it.

A book I cannot recommend at all is Paul Kingsnorth’s SAVAGE GODS. I can’t, because in fact he wrote it just for me. Or really, he wrote it for himself, and he’s a man, and that matters. But nevertheless, it was also for me, and I found it beautiful and cruel and sorrowful and true, and as someone who is also lost in that same wood, or one adjacent, I am very grateful for his story.

fresh monster soup

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.


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.

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.

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. And happy new year! Read, write, and resist.