Shock Against Racism

On the 25th November, I participated in an event that was one of the launching points for a new initiative in the world of horror literature: Shock Against Racism. The recent surge in racism and fascism, whose most obvious global manifestation is the emergence of Donald Trump as US president, has long been a source of anxiety to many of us in the horror community, as in other sectors of society.  Some of us have started a group called Shock Against Racism, as a kind of cultural arm of the fight against this phenomenon, because after all the Far Right fights in this arena: the so-called ‘culture wars’.

The group has already held two evenings of dark fiction, with readings from some of the finest talents in the genre. The first was at Write Blend in Liverpool on November 23rd, with Simon Bestwick, Cate Gardner, Priya Sharma and Ramsey Campbell, in aid of Hope Not Hate. The second took place at the Cowley Club in Brighton, where I was joined by Rosanne Rabinowitz and V.H. Leslie on a night that marked the fifth anniversary of the untimely death of Joel Lane (1963-2013). As well as being a post and author of prodigious talent himself, he was a tireless supporter of others’ work, co-editing two anthologies whose themes reflected his socialist political outlook. One of these, on which he was working with me at the time of his sudden death, was the anti-austerity Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease. The other, Never Again (co-edited with Allyson Bird), was an anthology of weird fiction against racism and fascism. 

Image result for never again anthology

Therefore it was only fitting that Rosanne Rabinowitz, one of the contributors to Never Again, rounded off the evening with an excerpt from ‘Survivor’s Guilt’, something of a twenty first century anti-fascist horror classic that appeared in this anthology, narrated by an undying monster who has witnessed and participated in many of the upheavals that shook the Continent during the last century, including the German revolution of 1918 and the rise of fascism in the Thirties. Before her reading, she paid tribute to Joel Lane’s thoroughness as an editor, spotting a missing umlaut that had eluded her.

Earlier on, Rosanne also read her Brexit-related weird tale ‘All That is Solid’, about a Polish woman under siege both from harassment by racists emboldened by the European Referendum result and from the macabre artwork she has created in her flat as therapy. The story appeared in the Swan River Press anthology The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian (Gray, that is, in case you were wondering), edited by Mark Valentine. Sadly this and Never Again are both out of print, but you can still read ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ in her recent collection Resonance and Revolt from Eibonvale Press. https://www.eibonvalepress.co.uk/books/books_resonance.htm

Eibonvale Press - Resonance and Revolt by Rosanne Rabinowitz

I started my report at the end of the evening, but here’s how it began. I said a few words to the small but attentive audience about how horror fiction can contribute to the fight against fascism, generally raising awareness and the psychological study of minds under pressure and how that feeds into Far Right political thinking. A good example is Horridge in Ramsey Campbell’s The Face That Must Die, but as she was there and planning to read it, I mentioned ‘Almost Aureate’ by V.H. Leslie. I followed this brief preamble with a short story of my own, ‘Guardian of the Gateway’, about a council tenant who finds out the reason for her unfriendly neighbour’s surliness.

After the first part of Rosanne Rabinowitz’s ‘All That is Solid’, Victoria H. Leslie treated us to ‘Almost Aureate’, a study of male obsession that reminded me the first stories I read by her: ‘Ulterior Design’ and ‘Time Keeping’. Its denouement is less extreme then those two, and yet in its way it’s equally terrifying, a short story as sleek and ruthlessly perfect as the ‘bronze man’ it depicts so vividly down to the tanned skin like ‘vellum’ above the waist band of his swimming trunks. With this image and the central character’s use of a hotel swimming pool as a refuge from his paternal responsibilities, it echoed the brilliant film (adapted from a John Cheever short story) The Swimmer.

While Victoria mentioned the tale’s inspiration in a visit to a hotel and apartment complex in Spain that had become a white English enclave, where the inhabitants conveniently defined themselves as ‘ex-pats’ rather than ‘immigrants’, ‘Almost Aureate’ had perhaps the most oblique relationship to the Far Right. After all, the protagonist and his wife are modern liberal types, not beer-bellied Sun readers, only defining themselves as ‘travellers’ rather than ‘tourists’, only succumbing to the lure of a more consumerist package holiday because of the pressures of rearing twin toddlers. After all, the hotel complex has a creche…

Yet the protagonist’s infatuation with the ‘bronze man’ on his lofty perch seems to me to represent his deep-seated sense of entitlement to escape into a world where male solitude (and exemption from hands-on childcare) is respected once more. Despite his ‘right-on’ (but it turns out rather grudging) commitment to egalitarian co-parenting, he envies and craves the approval of this god-like figure with his golden aura and his apparent immunity both to the threat of skin cancer and to the strictures governing the other hotel guests. 

But I’ve said enough about this story, except to say that although it might seem like a non-political piece, to me it works as a subtle critique of the anti-feminist Right. Read it yourself. It appears in the first-class new horror anthology from Titan Books, New Fears 2https://titanbooks.com/9212-new-fears-2-brand-new-horror-stories-by-masters-of-the-macabre/ edited by Mark Morris. It’s interesting to compare it with the story that follows it in that book, Rio Youers’ ‘The Typewriter’, which also concerns a seemingly devoted family man’s chilling descent into obsession.

After a short break, a speaker from Brighton Antifascists said a few words about who they are and what they do, commenting that the readings so far had converted him to an appreciation of horror fiction. So that’s good then! Later we discussed the ‘culture wars’, the parallels between ‘Gamergate’ and the ‘sad puppies’ phenomenon in the SF/F/H world.

Before Rosanne’s reading of ‘Survivor’s Guilt’, I sung an acapella rendition of part of ‘Abiezer Coppe’, a song about the legendary English Civil War Ranter by Leon Rosselson, originally sung by the late Roy Bailey. This served as an introduction to an excerpt from my unpublished story ‘The Topsy Turvy Ones’, set in two time periods, the time of radical ferment in 1649, and three hundred and fifty years later, when General Pinochet is awaiting extradition in Surrey while ‘The Land is Ours’ squatters commemorate the anniversary of Winstanley’s Digger Commune with an eco-village on St. George’s Hill. 

Image result for world turned upside down

Hopefully, this was the first of many such events, but next time I will make sure there is a mike stand, to spare the readers the horrors of juggling holding a microphone alongside turning the pages of their books…

Here’s Brighton Antifascists’ facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BrightonAntifascists/

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Making Monsters TOC

Table of Contents:

• Introduction – Emma Bridges
• Danae – Megan Arkenberg
• The Last Siren Sings – George Lockett
• Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement – L. Chan
• Calling Homer’s Sirens (essay) – Hannah Silverblank
• Aeaea on the Seas – Hester J. Rook
• To the Gargoyle Army (poem) – H.A. Eilander
• Water – Danie Ware
• Monsters of the World (essay) – Margrét Helgatdóttir
• A Song of Sorrow – Neil James Hudson
• Helen of War (poem) – Margaret McLeod
• The Vigil of Talos – Hûw Steer
• The Monster in Your Pocket (essay) – Valeria Vitale
A Heart of Stone – Tom Johnstone
• The Banshee – Alexandra Grunberg
• The Giulia Effect – Barbara Davies
• Caught in Medusa’s Gaze (essay) – Liz Gloyn
• The Eyes Beyond the Hearth – Catherine Baker
• Eclipse – Misha Penton
• The Origin of the Different (essay) – Maria Anastasiadou
• Justice Is a Noose – Valentine Wheeler
• Siren Song (poem) – Barbara E. Hunt
• The Tengu’s Tongue – Rachel Bender
• Ecological Angst and Encounters with Scary Flesh (essay) – Annegret Märten
• When Soldiers Come – Hunter Liguore

• Afterword – Mathilde Skoie

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2017: My Review of the Year in Books and Stories

I’ve had quite a few stories published this year, in publications you can see on the relevant page. Here I want to talk not about what I’ve written, but about exceptional stories I’ve read this year. To enable me to limit the numbers to those I can discuss in depth, I’m limiting them to those published this year. It includes some short stories published in anthologies that also published my work, by authors I might not otherwise have discovered had I not received contributor copies.

So let’s start with short stories, some of which fall into this category…

 

SHORT STORIES

When reading my contributor copy of Horror Library vol. 6 (Cutting Block Press), I was particularly struck by Marc E. Fitch’s ‘The Starry Crown‘, an eerie exploration of a Deep American South still infested both with kudzu and the terrible legacy of slavery. The title comes from an old song that may be familiar to readers from Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? It has similar preoccupations to that film, though its conclusions are somewhat more pessimistic. Definitely a horror story for our times…

The same anthology ended on a particularly high note with Carole Johnstone’s mountaineering epic ‘Better You Believe‘. To echo the climber’s joke it opens with, typical of the author’s dry sense of humour, things go downhill from the word go, but not in the quality of the fiction, which is as sharp and glacial as its subject matter.

Moving to Cold Iron (Iron Press), an anthology of twenty first century ghost stories to which I contributed a story,  I’d first like to mention Tracy Fahey, a writer whose work I’ve had the pleasure of discovering this year. Her ‘Playing in Their Own Time‘ in this anthology is an excellent contribution to the ‘TV paranormal investigation’ trope. The lesson is, don’t take your daughter to the ‘most haunted’ Irish castle where you’re working. (While I’m on the subject of Fahey, I’d also like to mention ‘The Woman Next Door’, a fiendishly brilliant tale with a devastating ending, though strictly speaking it’s outside the remit of this review, as it comes from her BFA-nominated collection, which came out in 2016, but what the Hell!)

Cold Iron also boasts ‘The Lengthsman‘, a deliciously creepy contribution from Charles Wilkinson. Its power derives from evoking class tensions in a small Welsh village, echoing Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, but with a bleak denouement all its own, built on upper middle class parental heartlessness. Its post-war British feel is perhaps too old-school for an anthology so keen to boast its millennial credentials, but its themes are nonetheless contemporary in a country where inequality is rising scandalously, moving us back to the pinched, class-bound era this tale evokes.

The last of the contributor copies I received this year was also from Cutting Block Press: Single Slices — an anthology of longer short fiction, getting into the novelette range. From this I’d like to single out firstly Felice Picano’s ‘After Sunset, in the Second Drawing Room Garden‘. A high-flying TV script-writing power couple move into a Beverley Hills mansion. Pregnant Ashleigh is particularly attached to the room of the title, whose supernatural whispers from Hollywood’s bitchy Golden Age result in success for the couple in the short term, but tragedy in the long term. It’s a pitch-perfect traditional ghost story with a very modern feel for the era of HBO and Netflix. Another stand-out from Single Slices is Brian Lillie’s ‘The Shiro‘, which comes across like The Thing meets Heart of Darkness with shady mycologists and mercenaries in the South American jungle, and a hell of a lot of evisceration…

As in his ‘The Salter Collection’, from Mark Morris’s excellent anthology New Fears (Titan Books), Lillie confounds our expectations by locating the source of the horror in primal forces within the character you’d least anticipate. I thought I’d bring in this book to prove I haven’t just been reading my contributor copies! But from ‘The Morris Collection’, my favourites were Stephen Gallagher’s ‘Shepherds’ Business‘ and ‘Dollies‘ by Katherine Ptacek. Gallagher’s a veteran script-writer and author of such horror classics as Valley of Lights and ‘The Horn’, while Katherine Ptacek’s a writer new to me. Both achieve gut-punch twist endings with these tales, not cheap punchlines, yet grounded in grim, abusive human relationships.

Let me also mention two stories from single author collections published in 2017, something I’ve been remiss about reading. Firstly ‘The Early Signs of Blight‘ from Kristine Ong Muslim’s Eibonvale Press mini-collection The Drone Inside: this takes the trope of the child’s monster in the cupboard fears in a new and horrifying direction. Then there’s Mark West’s collection from Dark Minds Press, Things We Leave Behind, in which I particularly enjoyed ‘What Gets Left Behind‘. Strictly speaking it’s an oldie that came out as a chapbook some years ago, but it’s a goodie, and this is the first chance I and probably many others have had to read it. Its title is almost the same as the collection, and it seems like Mark’s signature story and theme: a middle-aged man looking back on a traumatic incident, in this case two boys playing somewhere they shouldn’t, discovering something that changes everything.

Moving onto another top-notch anthology, Great British Horror Two: Dark Satanic Mills (Black Shuck Books), the ones that really stood out for me were Gary Fry’s ‘Satin Road‘ and John Probert’s ‘The Church With the Bleeding Windows‘. (I almost missed out the ‘n’ there, which would have made an even weirder image than the mis-spelling that begins Fry’s story) With these stories, yes, the authors do make their stories black jokes ramping up to sick punchlines. But they carry them off with such wicked glee that they remind us that horror can be fun! Probert’s story opens with the bald statement: “There was blood everywhere”. It ends with an equally simple but cruelly effective last line: the kind Robert Bloch would have killed for. In Fry’s, the accent isn’t so much on humour, though it reminds me of Ramsey Campbell’s work and his interest in writing E.C. Comics-style short tales with all the graveyard humour that implies. At first I thought the opening musings on the road-sign defaced to mis-spell ‘Satan’ were a bit of a digression, but they link to the main story and the actually rather serious theme at the heart of this story and of its succession of surreal and grisly closing images: the twisting and misunderstanding of words, and the inability of closed minds to imagine things beyond their comprehension.

This isn’t to do down some of the more straight-faced offerings within these Dark Satanic pages, which have many highlights, such as Cate Gardner’s surreal, dystopian and lyrical ‘Fragments of a Broken Doll’, Gary McMahon’s fusion of martial arts and cosmic terror in an urban wasteland ‘The Night Moves’ and Marie O’ Regan’s revelation of the horrifying meaning of ‘Sleeping Black’. Not to mention a cracking Glasgow police procedural horror novella by Carole Johnstone…

That name again! We really aren’t related, in case anyone’s wondering…

Which brings me to:

 

NOVELLAS

Before I mention Carole Johnstone again (this is getting embarrassing!), let me turn first to Laura Mauro’s debut novella Naming the Bones (Dark Minds Press). On the face of it, an old-fashioned tale of monsters in the Underground that will have fans of Quatermass and the Pit and Deathline salivating with anticipation, it’s actually more of a character piece, focusing on the traumatised reaction of Alessa Spiteri, a survivor of a terrorist attack. She thinks the monsters she saw down there are imaginary, but others have seen them too. What makes this book so compelling is the interplay between the three main female characters, the tough but vulnerable Alessa, her supportive, grounded sister Shannon and the disturbed, manipulative Casey, with wry, funny dialogue, sharper than the claws of one of its subterranean monsters, the Shades. It’s also a novella with a lot of heart, and I don’t just mean one that’s splattered all over a tube station platform.

Carole Johnstone’s Skyshine (or Death by Scotland), which appeared in Black Static #50 (TTA Press), shares many of these qualities too, but with different subject matter and a rather more free-wheeling range of UK settings and narrative styles, as fractured as its central character’s mind. Starting with the fragment of a retrospective non-fiction book about some kind of apocalyptic event referring to an unnamed ‘patient zero’, moving onto an apparently unrelated catastrophe in a news cutting, there then follows a scene of Whitehall farce worthy of The Thick of It, before we meet the mental patient whose progress we follow southwards, a young woman armed only with some patois words of wisdom from a West Indian who works on her ward and some dodgy wonder drug the government wants to test on her, as she’s sent out into a hostile, indifferent world. I hope this gives you some idea of the fierce, angry, mind-bending imagination and invention of this story.

Finally, another novella that blew me away, also from TTA Press, was Simon Avery’s The Teardrop Method, whose funereal premise has singer songwriter Krisztina Ligetti overcoming her writer’s block only when she begins to ‘hear’ the ‘songs’ of the dying. To add to her troubles she’d pursued by a mysterious stranger wearing a macabre porcelain mask. Those who enjoyed Avery’s music-based stories in Black Static, ‘Sunflower Junction’ and ‘Going Back to the World’, will find this melancholy tale music to their ears — particularly as the latter story features as an extra in the novella edition.

 

NOVELS

Well, actually novel, because I’ve only read two from this year, so I thought I’d better pick one out of the two, and it’s got to be The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood (Jo Fletcher Books), who for me has really taken a quantum leap fiction-wise since she’s taken up the mantle of Susan Hill, Sarah Waters and other purveyors of neo-Victorian Gothic, and made it her own. I loved The Hidden People and this is even better, introducing us to a similarly prim, obsessive, unreliable male narrator with a penchant for micro-managing his significant other’s reading habits. If the prose can read somewhat stilted at times, that’s a reflection of the mind of its repressed and tormented narrator. It’s apt that the name for psychiatrists at the time was ‘mad-doctors’, because it’s a toss-up whether the most unhinged physician is the hapless Nathaniel himself, his employer Dr Shettle with his unhealthy interest in phrenology or the slimy mesmerist Dr Lumner our hero calls in to save his lady love Victoria from ECT. But the thing about the narrator is his contradictions. He’s appalled when Shettle gives her the water treatment, rightly seeing it as a form of torture to force her into submission to her husband, and yet he too can’t quite see past this goal himself or acknowledge his feelings for her. Victoria herself is no shrinking violet, full of dark complexity, possibly even echoing the same terrible myth as Richard Adams’s Girl in a Swing. Whether she’s villain or victim, femme fatale or proto-feminist, perhaps a bit of both, is for the reader to decide. But anyone who thinks they can see the twist coming is in for a shock.

 

So that’s my pick of the year’s reads, bearing in mind I haven’t read much of what’s come out this year, such as Priya Sharma’s collection from Undertow, which I’m sure must be excellent, and I’ve read some great stuff published in previous years., e.g. James Everington’s marvellously inventive blend of meta-fiction and retro-dystopia The Quarantined City, but I’m not going to mention anyone else because I want to watch The Detectorists marathon on BBC4, because that’s how I roll on New Year’s Eve…

 

 

 

 

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Happy Krampus Night

“I should show them the carving. But I can’t, for the same reason that I can’t take it back where it came from.

“I destroyed the evidence.

“I remember the the foul acrid stench — as if I was burning flesh rather than wood. That was nothing to the smell left in the bedroom after that first dream: as if a feral tom cat had marked its territory on our bedspread in the night, and imbued it with the entrails of decomposed birds and small mammals it had mauled, together with the reek of dead leaves long-immersed in putrid, stagnant water. You didn’t seem to notice, as you reclined in the afterglow of the kind of languorous, satiated bliss that I could never give you.”

Screenshot 2017-11-28 23.27.43

David Rix’s hypnotic minimalist cover design captures the eerie Alpine setting of Krampus folklore…

It’s that time of year, of course, when we turn on the twinkling fairy lights to keep the dark at bay. If the figure of Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, has come to personify the bright gaudy spirit of Christmas, Krampus is his dark shadow, wielding a bundle of sticks to torment naughty children where Father Christmas rewards the good ones with the carrot of gifts, playing Old Nick to Saint Nick. To mark the season, Eibonvale Chapbooks are releasing my story ‘How I Learned The Truth About Krampus’, in which a post-graduate student visits Austria to research the mythology around this malevolent figure and comes across a sinister yet strangely compelling carving. I wrote this story,  a winter’s tale of madness, obsession and folk horror, for reading during the long, dark months to come, preferably in a snowbound isolated cottage…

***

“Behind her, in the windows, I could see my own face smiling back from the darkness where the snow fingers blindly groped at the panes, leaving melt prints. For a moment I thought I saw two points of light above the face, but they couldn’t have been stars on such a night.”

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The Sound of Horror

I’m on the Coastal Waters Review today, hosted by Caroline Waters, for a pre-Hallowe’en special at 4pm on Brighton and Hove Community Radio. Listen live at this link

www.bhcr.org.uk/bhcr

or wait for the upload on Mixcloud:

There’ll be a reading of my story ‘The Apotheosis of Jenny Swallow’, and I’ll be discussing the role of sound in horror, starting with radio horror, whether it’s the shows that used to crawl out through the static of your bakelite wireless set in the ‘Fifties or the use of radio stations as a setting and narrative device in films like The Fog. As an example of radio-based horror fiction, we’ll hear an extract from Thana Niveau’s terrifying short story ‘Two Five Seven’, about numbers stations. But sound is also crucial in the visual medium of the cinema, from the pounding on the bedroom door in The Haunting to the Foley-based frights of Berberian Sound Studio. Then there’s the role of music, not just as the soundtrack to horror movies but as subject matter, in gothic tales of mad composers, tormented concert pianists and devil-worshipping music promoters. We’ll be drawing connections between the treatment of this theme from The Phantom of the Opera to Simon Avery’s recent novella The Teardrop Method

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Cold Iron reviewed by Supernatural Tales blog.

The Supernatural Tales blog is reviewing Cold Iron (Iron Press), story by story. So far, ‘The Last Checkout’, ‘Support You Ever More’ and ‘Intruder’ have come under the microscope. My own contribution, ‘The Follow Up’, as befits its title, will be following a good distance behind as its the penultimate story in the anthology. The latest tale to get the Longhorn treatment is ‘How to be Invisible’ by the excellent Chris Barnham…
Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost Stories
You can buy Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost Stories here:
(Nice to see a press you can order from directly, rather than going through the publishing vampire that is Amazon…)
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Hallowe’en Ghost Story at Brighton Open Market

Like bowls? Love ghost stories? I’ll be telling a tale of supernatural goings on at a bowling green this coming Saturday 29th October, 4.30pm after the Hallowe’en costume parade. Featuring free Day of the Dead cookies! Part of Hallowe’en at Brighton’s Open Market:

https://www.facebook.com/events/1293409477356931/

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