Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Willows

"The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world."

Next choice in my series about influences and inspirations.

The first time I read 'The Willows', I was thirteen, and I had the flu. Proper flu, the kind that lays you out for days. I was over the worst, well enough to read, but still caught in that half-life between being ill and being well again, and now and then the fever would return enough that when I lay back down I would feel like I was dropping down through the sheets, through the bed, head as heavy as a boulder in an endless, infinite drop. Blackwood's languorous prose, the shifting temporary islands that come and go in the torrent of the Danube and the shaking, whispering willows seemed like part of my fever dream.

The narrator says at one point: "It seemed to me that my breathing came with difficulty, and that there was a great weight upon the surface of my body. In spite of the hot night, I felt clammy with cold and shivered." Yeah, knew how that felt.

The Willows is a story of two men, an un-named narrator and his travelling companion, who is only ever referred to as 'the Swede'. They are on an adventure, travelling in a canoe from the source of the Danube, all the way down to the sea. Beyond Vienna, the river takes them into Hungary, beyond civilisation, into 'a region of singular loneliness and desolation, where its waters spread away on all sides regardless of a main channel, and the country becomes a swamp for miles upon miles, covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes'.

The river surges, the water rises, the wind howls, and exhausted, they beach on one of the many small islands that the water will destroy in a day or two, and strike camp among the oppressive willows. They are not there long before they see something in the water that they think at first is a dead body, and then an otter. Maybe. Then they turn again, and see a man in a boat. Maybe.

Whether it was due to the slanting sunlight, or the refraction from the wonderfully illumined water, I cannot say, but, whatever the cause, I found it difficult to focus my sight properly upon the flying apparition. It seemed, however, to be a man standing upright in a sort of flat-bottomed boat, steering with a long oar, and being carried down the opposite shore at a tremendous pace. He apparently was looking across in our direction, but the distance was too great and the light too uncertain for us to make out very plainly what he was about. It seemed to me that he was gesticulating and making signs at us. His voice came across the water to us shouting something furiously, but the wind drowned it so that no single word was audible. There was something curious about the whole appearance—man, boat, signs, voice—that made an impression on me out of all proportion to its cause.
"He's crossing himself!" I cried. "Look, he's making the sign of the Cross!"
"I believe you're right," the Swede said, shading his eyes with his hand and watching the man out of sight. He seemed to be gone in a moment, melting away down there into the sea of willows.

Blackwood's fascination, as so often, is with the otherworldly, with powers beyond human comprehension. 'The Willows' is not a story that you can explain or understand. It's not a story of revenants come back for revenge, a ghost motivated by malice, an apparition pointing its bony fingers at a historic wrong, and injustice done. "We had "strayed," as the Swede put it, into some region or some set of conditions where the risks were great, yet unintelligible to us; where the frontiers of some unknown world lay close about us." Blackwood's story is about forces greater than can be imagined that cannot be understood, and that are as oblivious to humanity as we are to bacteria swimming around a dirty puddle. At one point, the character who is only ever referred to as the Swede observes that, "Our insignificance perhaps may save us."  It's easy to see why Lovecraft admired him so much, considered 'The Willows' to be the finest 'weird tale', and called Blackwood, "the one absolute and unquestioned master of weird atmosphere".

"You think," he said, "it is the spirit of the elements, and I thought perhaps it was the old gods. But I tell you now it is—neither. These would be comprehensible entities, for they have relations with men, depending upon them for worship or sacrifice, whereas these beings who are now about us have absolutely nothing to do with mankind, and it is mere chance that their space happens just at this spot to touch our own."

And like The Owl Service, it's filled with a haunted landscape that is powerful, disturbing, alive. Which is one of the reason why it went on my list. Blackwood's good at that use of place and nature - the world and everything in it charged with a hidden power, the genius locii and the suspicion that somwhere, everywhere Pan is lurking in the trees.

You can read 'The Willows' for yourself, or download a free copy for your Kindle or whatever, over at Project Gutenberg

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Supernatural Tales and Strange Stories

Some good news this week: I found out that 'The Singing', a story I wrote at the start of the month has been accepted by David Longhorn for his excellent Supernatural Tales. You won't see 'The Singing' for a little while, but another story of mine will be appearing in ST a little sooner - watch out for 'The Edge of the Map'.

Lovers of high quality weird fiction should check out James Everington's new series over at his blog Scattershot Writing. 'Strange Stories' is going to feature his thoughts on some of his favourite weird stories, and judging by the two posted so far (Adam Golaski's 'What Water Reveals' and Julio Cortazar's fantastic 'House Taken Over'), it's going to be both a thought-provoking look and a pointer to some stories you might not have come across before.

James' thoughts about the power of ambiguity in the best of weird fiction is well worth a read. It's in the introduction to Strange Stories.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Live, Sire Kyrnala!

Founding member of the Abominable Gentleman, Alan Ryker, interviewed at the Penny Dreadnought blog.

The Owl Service

"She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls."

A couple of posts back I talked about stories and TV dramas from my childhood that have shaped what I write as an adult. I promised that I'd write in a little more detail about them, and this is the first of those posts. In that  post I mentioned the (new to me) genre of 'folk horror', and although that was initially used as a description of a short-lived run of films, I'm shamelessly appropriating it for books, and 'The Owl Service' fits firmly with that idea. This description at the review blog The Bookbag resonated with me:

"The Owl Service is thick and heavy with that Celtic notion of an Otherworld being not so much other as present in all that we see and all that we do. It draws heavily on the Ancient British cult of ancestor worship and on the idea of a past whose tendrils curl and creep around the present, unseen, but never unfelt."

It's one of those books which has children as the protagonists, is read by children, usually gets shelved with books for children, but is not a 'children's book', if you see what I mean. It's typical of Alan Garner's work in a number of ways: 
  • It's largely driven by dialogue, which is oblique and fragmentary and sometimes obscured by dialect. The reader has to work, nothing is spoon-fed, nothing is on a plate, and much is implied.
  • The landscape is a character itself within the book: dominating everything, embedded in everything, and utterly haunted.
  • There's always a sense of something larger going on that is not revealed or known, and which may not even be knowable.
  • Myth and the landscape are inextricably bound together, and myth has a power that is strange and terrible.
  • History repeats, or at least echoes, and the characters are caught up in that, as much as they are trapped within the landscape.
Read 'The Owl Service', and then read Garner's dense and complex and astonishing 'Thursbitch', written thirty-six years later, and you can see the same themes at work, the same fascination with the power of myth and the landscape that links this book with very different works like the film Penda's Fen, and with M R James' haunted East Anglia. Although James is famous as a writer of 'ghost stories', it's interesting how few of his stories contain ghosts, or at least ghosts as we usually think of them. The vengeful East Anglian king of 'A Warning To The Curious', or what Parkin accidentally summons in 'Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You' are more rooted in myth, history and the power of the landscape than they are in any spirit of the undead, returned from the grave.

Tense And Nervous And I Can't Relax.

This week's story is now up at 52 Songs, 52 Stories...inspiration this week from Psychokiller by Talking Heads.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

A little more BSP

Short sharp interview with yours truly, over at Paul D Brazill's place.

And it's nearly over, but as part of a Kindle Select promotion, until the end of the day you can pick up my award-winning crime collection Nowhere To Go for free.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A brief interview which I reveal my Jekyll and Hyde side, which I never ever stand on grassy mounds, my imaginary biography, and why being friends with Merlin would be handy in a time of no beer.

Conducted by my fellow Abominable Gentleman, over at the Penny Dreadnought blog.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Announcing Penny Dreadnought 2: Descartes' Demon

The Abominable Gentleman are back, with our second release. 

Following last month's 'Introducing Penny Dreadnought', we bring you four new stories in 'Descartes' Demon'. What do you do when you turn a corner and you find yourself where you hadn't intended to go, and you turn back and find that what's behind you isn't where you came from? When nothing makes sense, do you doubt your own sanity, or the world’s?

'Descartes' Demon' is a collection of four fearful tales of paralyzing epistemic doubt:

“Falling Over” by James Everington
“All the Pretty Yellow Flowers” by Aaron Polson
“Ice Age” by Iain Rowan
“A Face to Meet the Faces that You Meet” by Alan Ryker

About 23,000 words that will make you doubt the world around you, or doubt yourself.

Amazon UK | US

Monday, 9 January 2012

Close Watch

Cover of a John Cale song. Definitely 2am music. Agnes is the one on the left with the eyebrows. The one on the right plays the cello on the track, because that's really hard to do with talons.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Influences, inspirations, nightmares and folk horror

After quite a while away from it, I'm writing a lot of weird fiction at the moment (never feel entirely comfortable with horror as a label, and I quite like what people like the Vandermeers and China Mieville are doing in resurrecting the label of the weird).

I've written this kind of story since I first started writing stories, and I've read them for much longer than that. In part, this is because when I was a child, I saw or read some of the things below. I'll post a bit more about each of them over the next few weeks.

"The Willows" by Algernon Blackwood. Had flu. Read the story in a state of delirium. Was never quite the same again.

 The angel appearing in the BBC Play for Today, "Penda's Fen." This scene haunted me for years. Even now, thinking about it gives me a chill.

 My dad's book, "Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain", published by Reader's Digest. 
552 pages of weirdness and fear.

"The Owl Service" by Alan Garner. There are strange things and there are older things, and you can write about them in fiction for children without talking down. Garner creates his own folklore which feels as real as anything in the big black book one up from here.

BBC TV Series "The Changes". Never been comfortable about pylons since.

As an aside, I've stumbled over some interesting discussions yesterday about the idea of 'folk horror'. This isn't the experience of sitting through an evening with a nightmarish Steeleye Span cover band, but rather a term coined by Mark Gatiss in his BBC series A History of Horror to describe a run of films in the late sixties and early seventies which drew on folklore, paganism and the British countryside for inspiration - Wicker Man being the obvious example. I like this description of the genre in the 2012diaries blog
Folk horror typically is concerned with the uncanny and often unsettling vitality of folk/pagan traditions and beliefs – with witchcraft, black magic, fertility rites and festivals; in essence, with the idea that the Old Ways, the Old Religions, and the Old Gods never really die out. They remain hidden under the surface of the modern world, preserved in secluded rural enclaves, or waiting to be rediscovered in ancient manuscripts, artefacts, and monuments. The greatest iconic signifier of folk horror is the endlessly mysterious and suggestive form of the Neolithic stone circle – with their eerie mixture of nature and artifice, primitivism and a sense of elusive technology, these Neolithic monuments are the emblem par excellence of the uncanny return of the antiquated.
It's interesting how many of the stories and programmes and images that I think of as influences could be said to fall into this genre, and that's got me thinking about how many of my own stories do. And whether I should write more of them.  When my dad died, one of the things of his that meant a lot to me was the Folklore book - 'borrowed' it and read it under the covers when I was nine, inherited it when I was forty. I think I might have a browse for inspiration, and this year, write some stories that have the same atmosphere as the things that shaped my reading, my writing, my thinking, my nightmares. 

Pssst...over there

Second week of the year, second story at 52 Songs, 52 Stories. This week's inspiration for the story: 'Never Tell' by the Violent Femmes.

Monday, 2 January 2012

A new project - 52 songs, 52 stories

I've started a new writing project, inspired in part by my participation at the back end of last year in Luca Veste's charity anthology Off The Record (if you've not bought it yet, please think about doing so - thirty-eight excellent stories, all the proceeds benefiting children's literacy charities). It was also inspired by the excellent blog A Month In Music.

Fifty-two songs, fifty-two stories does pretty much what it says. Each week in 2012, I'm going to pick a song, often at random courtesy of iTunes' shuffle, post a youtube video of that song, and write a new short-short story to go along with it. I'm also open to requests and suggestions, email to the usual address, in the comments, or via twitter or facebook or google+ or whatever else gets invented and gets everyone excited over the next twelve months.

More about the project, and the inspiration for it, here. Observant regular readers will realise that I've cheated in the first week, and used a piece of flash fiction that I've already published here. To be fair to me, I only thought of the whole idea on Dec 30th, and wanted to have something up for Jan 1st. Every story from now on will be new.

Why am I doing this? I thought it would be fun. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if I can come up with the goods, or look really stupid in public. I thought it would be a good excuse to listen to some good (or not so good) songs. I thought it would be good for my writing discipline.

See what you think. One new short story a week, from now until 2013.

The first song and story are up now.