Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Sunday 20 January 2013

The Source of the Lea

I've neglected this blogging thing for a couple of weeks. We have been away for a while, the kids are on holiday from school, and ... I've been busy re-writing work I had foolishly thought was finished. The trouble is, every time I read over something I've written, the urge to change something is irresistible. I assume most writers have this tendency. I find it's more acute when I encounter something that influences me in some way by another writer (which is basically all the time); and it makes me want to reflect something differently in my writing.
A couple of books in particular have had that effect on me recently. First, I finished Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory. His spare, economic writing style distils meaning, deftly creating atmosphere. It gave me the confidence that I could use fewer words to convey my own message. But also that it helps to put them in the right order!
Second, I read Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway. I have mentioned my doubts about calling this a novel. Really it is a collection of short stories, tenuously linked (nevertheless I like this concept.) In some ways I found it an uncomfortable read. However I could not put the book down, being caught up in the breathless rush of it. It is certainly uncompromising. It follows the method of showing things, not telling them, which is my kind of writing. It fascinated me and made me think: could my stories be a little more confronting? Cue for some more re-writing ...
It must be said that I have not been writing for long. I have yet to truly settle on my own writing style.

Right now I am making adjustments to a short story called The Source of the Lea. I have changed the structure of the tale, adding sequences at the start and the finish. Here is its new beginning. What do you think?

The Source of the Lea part one

"Tell me, Fowler, did you turn out to be the marrying type?"
I recoiled slightly from this blunt inquiry, and his bloodshot gaze. I desperately tried to place him.
"Well yes, as a matter of fact ..."
"Children too?"
"Two, actually: one of each."
He nodded, mopping his shiny brow. His restless gaze flitted about the poorly lit room.

The school reunion had been a disappointment from the start. I was at a loose end, having made the long drive up from the west country earlier in the week. I was staying on the outskirts of the town where I grew up. The very outskirts, in fact, in the very cheapest kind of hotel, on a main road near the motorway. I had my rather lowly standing in the firm to thank for that.
So I found myself looking for things to do, not wanting to spend all my evenings alone in my room. A copy of the local rag had been slipped under my door, and I flicked through it, wondering at how little things had changed in so many years. Near the back was a surprisingly prominent advertisement announcing a reunion for my year at high school.
Normally I would not be interested, but I thought it would at least get me out of my hotel room for a few hours.

He really was rather on edge. It seemed for a while he was quite unaware of my presence, so intent was he on scanning the room; but as I turned, about to make my escape, he placed his hand on my arm and looked me in the eye.
"By the way, old man, when you came in, did you notice a brown-haired girl push past you in the doorway; attractive type?"
I certainly would have noticed an attractive girl, especially in the gloomy scout hall. A makeshift bar had been set up in one corner, and music played from speakers either side of a dusty area cleared for dancing. Nobody danced. The small crowd milled about by the bar. It seemed everyone had kept in touch but me.
I had been surprised not to recognise anyone straight off, and yet to have been recognised several times myself. I even handed out a few business cards, along with empty promises. Perhaps I have not changed much since my younger days.
"No, I'm afraid I can't say I did."
His eyes clouded over and he looked downcast. Staring at his feet.
"Thought so. It's always the same."
I was about to ask what he meant, when I realised who he was. Kevin Pocock bore little resemblance to the boy I remembered from school. We had sat next to each other in English during our final term. He was a gangly, unremarkable boy who seemed academically able but lazy. We got on well enough, but he had not made a lasting impression upon me. Looking at him now, however, I could not help feeling sorry for him. His willowy frame had become stooped, his once thick hair now receding, grey and wiry. His complexion was grey too, apart from his nose, which was red, covered in the tiny broken blood vessels of a heavy drinker. He was dressed in a rather haphazard manner.
And yet, I could still see an odd flash of Pocock as he was. The difference was striking.
Draining his drink, he almost dropped the glass as he placed it on the shelf behind him, alongside several others. He looked to me like he needed a lift home. With nothing better to do, I offered.
"Not yet, Fowler. I might have a few more of these yet." He smiled and winked, but I could tell his heart wasn't in it. I didn't offer to get him another. "Besides, you wouldn't want to hear my story. You're the lucky one, with your wife and children. Go home to them, don't waste your time with the likes of me."
At that moment the music got louder, and the first tentative dancers took to the floor. Conversation became difficult, and we decided to leave. Taking his frail arm, I led him out.
The cold night air made me shiver after the over-heated hall, and Pocock's feet almost slipped out from under him on the icy steps. I steadied him and we stumbled to my car.
"Cheers," he said as I felt for my keys.
He lived in one of the estates that had sprung up around the town, and it wasn't very far, as he had assured me. We approached his house through a confusing maze of back streets, and he directed me to pull up opposite a small car park where the remains of a burnt-out car squatted.
"Tradesman's entry, old boy!" Laughing hoarsely, he struggled with an old wooden gate, damp and slimy. We trudged up his back garden path, and he slid open some glass doors. It occurred to me that they had not been locked.
"Make yourself at home, Fowler." He cleared a space on the sofa, moving piles of newspapers, magazines, and old takeaway containers.
It did not surprise me that the house was both untidy and none too clean. What I wasn't prepared for was the extent of the damp. My nostrils prickled. I could see mould on the walls, which were nearly running with water. The carpets were both threadbare and moist. Clearly the upkeep of the place was too much for him, and glimpses of the kitchen told me things were no better through there.
I could hear him putting the kettle on, fumbling around clumsily like a much older man. Unable to refuse the offer of tea, I shuddered at the grimy mug he proffered, wondering how I could avoid drinking it. He lit the gas fire and collapsed into an old armchair opposite me.
"So, what exactly is this story of yours you said I wouldn't want to hear about?" I said it partly in jest, but his hurt expression told me how serious he was.
"It won't mean much to you, I'm sure." His eyes took on a faraway look in the light from the gas fire, and there was something in his tone which suddenly interested me despite my misgivings.
"You remember, Fowler, all that dodgy business about the river when we were in our last year at school?" He started to cough, and it was some time before he could continue. I did remember it all very well, of course. It was a big story at the time, and part of local folklore. "Well, it's tied up with that, in a way. Although I don't really know if there's anything behind the whole thing at all."
By now I was intrigued, and I encouraged him to start at the beginning.

Do you want to find out what happens next? Watch this space!

Wednesday 2 January 2013

My short stories of 2012

I know this is what the world has been waiting for ... so, as threatened, here is my pick of the short stories new to me during 2012. There were so many great examples from so many great writers, and really I am spoilt for choice. However when I cast my mind back, these ones stand out, for various reasons.

The Man in the Grey Bedroom by Reggie Oliver
This was my first taste of this author's work, being as it is the opener in his collection The Masques of Satan. I was immediately taken by his writing style, feeling at home with his distinctively dry, rather aloof delivery. It is a very atmospheric tale, and despite poor Jack Protheroe's demise never being in doubt, his journey still fascinates. This is a rounded, satisfying read in the traditional sense, reminding me somewhat of The Fully Conducted Tour by Robert Aickman. I have since read everything I can from Reggie Oliver, and I have enjoyed all his output. He is a very consistent writer, with very few wrong notes (in The Masques of Satan I can only think of The End of History as being less than successful). If I have a criticism of his work – more of an observation really – it would be that his stories are all a bit 'samey'. With some collections, I can happily read them right through in one go, but I have to dip into his on and off; perhaps in this case due to the recurring theme of the stage and acting in so many of his tales, something with which I do not have an affinity.

The Shouting by L.T.C. Rolt
I had always wanted to read Sleep No More and finally managed to do so. Anticipating something special, I wasn't disappointed. Of course I understand all about his relationship with Aickman and Elizabeth Jane Howard, and the rumour that Aickman started to write his stories in competition with Rolt. Reggie Oliver put it succinctly in his introduction to the new Tartarus edition of Intrusions:
In 1948, under the auspices of the Richard Marsh Agency, Rolt published a volume of ghost stories called Sleep No More. It is likely that Aickman began to write his 'strange stories' partly to compete with Rolt.
It is generally considered that Rolt's collection is a fine one, but that it consisted of conventional ghost stories which broke no new ground. After reading this enthralling volume for the first time, and knowing Aickman's output so well, I might beg to differ. I can see some aspects of these tales which must surely have been quite influential. Certainly they are more evolutionary than revolutionary, but there is a lot of weirdness going on, and some fascinatingly unresolved endings. I just loved all these stories, but the one that stays in my mind the most is The Shouting, mainly because it is so unconventional. Edward's phobia of woods is creepy, and the juxtaposition of the innocent children and the strange 'shouting' could perhaps have come from Aickman's mind. Oh and the concluding sentence is great too.

Off the Tracks by Steve Duffy
Night Comes On is a great collection. Every story is compelling. But I had not quite finished it early last year, and just before Christmas I realised I hadn't yet read Off the Tracks, the last one. This was one of those stories that manages to hit a nerve. Duffy's evocation of the railway brought back memories of mine from when I would travel into London St Pancras most weekends with my father, back in the black-and -white early 1970s. We would indeed stop alongside damp, bleak, blackened cuttings on the outskirts of the city for no apparent reason:
A grim, solitary world, too, it is, where no one ever goes, bar the odd gang of navvies laying tracks or fixing signals.
I found myself transported back to those days, sitting in the old sealed-off compartment trains with velour seats, and those stiff slide-down windows with the warnings next to the emergency cords. I also remember seeing grim-looking doors set into those cuttings we would stop beside, and wondering what they were there for, never seeing anyone enter or leave. Once you have read Duffy's thoughts on what happens behind such doors, you might want to catch the bus next time.

When the Walls Bend by James Everington
I really enjoy strange stories with a mundane setting, and this is a great example, from the excellent collection The Other Room. Everington is adept at creating tense atmospherics in ordinary situations, particularly in The Shelter and First Time Buyers, and this tale is just as good. I connected immediately with the hapless protagonist; and the 'landlord' Dom made my skin crawl, recalling perfectly Chris Ryan's character Mike in The Young Ones. Or is it just my age? Anyway, the combination of the ordinary and the supernatural meld perfectly, and the story whisks you along ... to the perfect conclusion. This is a story I feel I should have written. But would it have been as good? No way!

The Knock at the Cellar Door by Paul Finch
This is a compelling, powerful story, the ideal opener for a collection. Though thoroughly conventional, it is very well written, and the kind of tale which could easily be made into a screenplay for TV (or a radio play). It has a very strong opening sequence, and the tension is wound up and sustained expertly, with village inhabitants being not what they seem, and a growing sense of impending doom. Love it!  The idea of the door opening into the mountainside (I won't say more) is satisfyingly creepy. Yes, the story is one long cliche, but it is one that has been proven to work well; and it sent a delicious shiver down my spine nonetheless.

Mannequins in Aspects of Terror by Mark Samuels
Speaking of shivers down my spine, I must admit that this story succeeded there too. This is a delightfully quirky tale, set in a modern city landscape where terrible things exist alongside workers going about their everyday business. A junior architect develops an obsession with an apparently  deserted office block visible from his office window. When an 'art installation' is opened in the building, by Eleazor Golmi, an architect he admires, he just has to go and experience it. What he discovers is more than unnerving, and a couple of sequences in this story are genuinely creepy even for the seasoned strange story reader. I have re-read this story a number of times, and I can see myself doing so again. Essential reading.

Mortmain by John Metcalfe
Of course Mortmain is well known as a classic ghost story, but I had not read any of Metcalfe's work until last year (apart from Brenner's Boy, which is great but ubiquitous!) I was fascinated by Nightmare Jack and Other Stories, as I had not realised quite how enigmatic and complex his tales would be. I was taken with their modern feel, and how strange they are, not quite like conventional ghost stories. Mortmain is like a dream, or a nightmare. The recurring appearances of Humphrey Child's boat (no, not the Child from Ridgway's Hawthorn and Child ...), and the various preturnatural moths, create a malevolent atmosphere quite at odds with the peaceful setting of the idyllic Hampshire coast. From the start, it's clear that things will not turn out well. Elizabeth Jane Howard's masterful short story Five Miles Up has a similar feel, and not just due to the subject matter. Metcalfe's colourful life and tragic end only adds to the fascination of his stories. He wrote some interesting novels too, apparently, but I have never seen anything of them.

A Different Morecambe by Simon Kurt Unsworth
'I don't want to go to this Morecambe. I want to go to a different Morecambe.'
This story was the first I had read by this author, and it struck a chord immediately. A a parent I am very used to trips with young children, as is the premise behind this tale. The interaction between Huw and his son Lennie is well observed, creating a realistic feel. The idea of there being an alternative reality, but existing in such a prosaic location as Morecambe, seemingly obvious to the child but a mystery to the parent, is interesting and works well. A growing sense of unease is created both by the excellent prose used to describe the differences between the two Morecambes, and the changes happening to Lennie simultaneously. I won't go into more detail but suffice to say the ending is great and it is written beautifully.

There were many other stories I felt were excellent, and I will summarise them in another post.