Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Friday 21 June 2013

The Second Coming by WB Yeats, and a review

It's been some time since I have posted any creepy poetry, so I thought I'd pop this classic up for your perusal. It's a much-anthologised and very significant piece by Yeats, reflecting the mystic theory of his book and lifelong obsession A Vision, in which he espouses his ideas of the construction of the universe. From what I remember this was very complex, involving two conical spirals (he referred to them as 'gyres'), influencing the direction and influences upon mankind. The 'second coming' here signifies the two spirals touching (at that particular moment in time), and the 'rough beast', perhaps a giant sphinx, subsequently taking the world towards disorder and mayhem. It was written in 1921, so depending on your point of view, he was either misguided or very accurate indeed!

The Second Coming
by W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Review of Delusion and Dreams by Maria Savva

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Maria Savva's previous collection of short stories, Love and Loyalty, and I posted a review here. So I have been looking forward to reading this, her latest collection.

Delusion and Dreams doesn't disappoint. It kicks off with Delusion and Dreams Part 1, which forms the first part of a storyline running throughout the book, written from different viewpoints. This first installment outlines Jack's descent towards ostracism, all too easy in the modern world; and poses some awkward questions. Next up is Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, which offers a title apt in more ways than one, and some humorous relief; but only through misunderstanding and broken promises. It's clear straight away that the protagonists in these stories are all realistic and well-rounded.

The first line of Happy New Year grabs you, and the story never lets you go as it unravels expertly. Jonathan Graves begins to doubt his own motives during an interrogation, and so will you; but what will be revealed in the end? Following on, Friends and Neighbours is an intriguing tale of a delightful young couple helping out their elderly neighbour and things not going quite to plan – and how opposites do not always attract. Delusion and Dreams Part 2 offers a different perspective, and contains some surprises about Jessie's situation which will make the reader stop and think. Getting Away With It is one of those compelling stories I couldn't read quickly enough, desperate to find out what happens next; I won't say more than that! Friends and Neighbours – Revisited opens the reader's eyes to another viewpoint as the story follows on, involving both the ultimate betrayal, and a twist at the end.

Seeing is Believing involves sympathy, misunderstanding, and sweet revenge – in a most unexpected way. This cautionary tale leads into Delusion and Dreams Part 3, which exposes the cracks beneath the surface of suburban existence. The best short stories make you stop and think, reconsidering your own place in the world, and Merry-go-round certainly does that. Mandy is worn down by family routine, and is pleasantly surprised by the events of one evening – but is everything as it seems? The tables are turned in a surprising way for James in Courage, the story of a young boy's many hangups. It would seem he is victorious in the end, but the seeds of doubt are planted in the very last paragraph. Delusion and Dreams Part 4 caps the collection, leaving the reader wondering whether there really is any loyalty left in the world.

Delusion and Dreams gives the reader strong, believable characters being presented with varying kinds of dilemma, and then makes it possible to examine the motives behind their actions. This is an endlessly fascinating prospect, because it is the essence of human nature; and Maria Savva understands human nature well. I must add that there are five bonus stories, Flames, Isolation, Winter Blues, Michaela and The Game of Life, which are all excellent, ensuring this is a satisfying read. If you are interested in looking beyond the obvious in everyday life, this collection is for you!

Monday 17 June 2013

Cafe society, running and e-books

As I've probably mentioned before, I tend to do most of my writing while watching the world go by in a fairly busy cafe. I think there are a few reasons for this. First, I am what is usually referred to as a 'house husband'. So therefore, when I'm at home, there are myriad distractions such as washing up, making beds, making dinner for children, and so on. Second, I'm a fairly sociable person; and writing while looking after offspring can lead to a lack of human interaction (at least, humans older than eight or so). Third, I love to be outside, so I enjoy the walk up the hill from Coogee to Randwick. Luckily, I live near many great cafes, my favourite of which is Cafeonesixnine, pictured below. I usually sit at one of those round tables on the left. Those windows open right up to take advantage of the Sydney weather (by the way, mine's a large soy flat white if you're offering...)

My haven! Cafeonesixnine
Running is very important to me. I have recently read a couple of blog posts about writers who are also runners, so it seems I'm not the only one. (The excellent Chris Hill posted one here). I find that I can often think clearly while on a run, and a difficult aspect of plot can be resolved with ease. There are different kinds of running though; a steady jog, for an hour or so, is great for the creative juices, but I also do some tough sessions with a group of other runners. Then it's just survival. Nothing else is in your mind apart from finishing the required number of repeats, or keeping the correct pace. Then, I feel it is like a re-set switch for the brain; and, after I've recovered, problems can be faced with renewed focus! Unless, of course, the session went badly, in which case I'm just depressed, but that's another story ...
Must keep going! I've only got a few k to go ...
I've just ordered a copy of Night Voices by Robert Aickman, one of the Tartarus Press re-prints. I bought Aickman's Collected Stories from Tartarus back in 2001, and read them cover to cover. In subsequent years, I have re-read most of the stories within many times. Then, I tracked down most of his first edition hardbacks from the '60s and '70s, which I treasure. Some of them are signed too. There are some pics here, and here if you're interested. Despite this, I still have to get all the new Tartarus editions as well ... just because they are so beautiful. Plus, it's a good excuse to read those timeless tales once more! Here is a shot of my favourite bookshelf:

Here's my second favourite bookshelf, my existential section (is it really there? I guess, in a sense ...):

There are thousands of books in our house; however, I must say I am addicted to electronic books. I love the immediacy of downloading what I want to read straight away, and it's safe to say I have read many more books because of that convenience than I would have otherwise. It has opened a whole new world for me. I've never had a problem with poorly-written e-books, purely because I am a fussy reader. I would not read anything I felt was not worthwhile either on a kindle or as a physical book. I am more likely to take a risk on an electronic book, admittedly, but being able to read the first few pages on Amazon is invaluable. Also, I don't think I have bought fewer physical books, because if I enjoy an e-book enough, I will definitely purchase the 'real thing', which I may not have risked if I hadn't read the e-version. I do regret the decline of bookshops, though, and I can't convince myself I'm not complicit in this. I still love browsing and buying a book, and I make sure I do so often. I'm in two minds about Amazon. I know the situation is essentially unhealthy, but all I can do is this; when there is an option, I go elsewhere. For example, I go to Ash-Tree press to get their e-books, and also to Tartarus to get theirs, rather than to Amazon. I don't suppose that means much, but there you are.

I would be most interested to hear your views on the e-book debate, and also on the perceived quality or otherwise of self-published books.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Progress with Dying Embers

I have now completed seven short stories for my inaugural collection, tentatively titled Dying Embers. I realise I haven't mentioned this lately, as progress has been painfully slow. Even the stories which have been published previously have been revamped. In fact every time I re-read them I change something! Does anyone else have this problem? Anyway, my feeling is I need around 10 in total, which is OK as I have five more in progress; but at this rate it will be another few months before I can even think about finalising things. Part of the trouble is that I have not been writing for long (not fiction at least) so I don't have any kind of 'treasure chest' of previously written stuff. Also, the layout and general look of the book is concerning me. As a graphic designer, I'm used to having complete control over these things, and with e-books these aspects are amorphous to say the least. The cover is fine, but I want the typography within to work well too. I have experimented with PressBooks, and that seems to work very well. I have entered my text into separate "chapters" which affords good flexibility. It's free, simple to use, and I would recommend it to anyone putting a book together.

Here are the stories I have completed so far:

The Next Terrace
The past collides with the present; childhood bonds are first stretched to the limit then broken in this tale influenced by Dante's Inferno.

Playing Tag
An historic building holds the key to a terrible secret from Letherby's youth. Why is he drawn so powerfully to its mysterious Pavilion?

The Source of the Lea
Pocock witnesses something on the river bank which changes the course of his life. Did it really lead to him discovering the true source of the Lea?

In Transit
A passenger on an international flight finds he is most certainly not master of his own destiny. Finding out who is, though, is quite another matter!

Necessary Procedure
An ill-fated property search leads firstly to admission, then a strange form of retribution; and, ultimately, reunion.

Unit 6
The alien landscape of a network of warehouses provides the background to a remarkable transformation. Or does it?

Abraham's Bosom
A remote coastal walk still echoes with a tragic event from long ago, charting an individual's gradual descent into some kind of madness.

Here are the stories I'm still working on:

Turning the Cup
The traditional art of tasseography combines with local folklore to resurrect an unwelcome visitor.

Building Bridges
You always wanted a left-field story about dinosaurs! Well, I hope you did anyway.

Rural Australia proves to be less welcoming than Preston had hoped ...
The Key
An impulse purchase on eBay has an uncanny effect, and proves more trouble than it's worth.

Burnt Close
The exploration of a newly-built housing estate changes the course of some young lives.

Hopefully it won't be too many months until it's all done and dusted. I'll keep you informed!

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Review: Rope Trick by Mark P. Henderson

Rope Trick: Thirteen Strange Tales was published a few years ago, by Ash-Tree Press, and came from an author not previously known for fiction. I was tempted to try this collection after hearing the short story Rope Trick itself being described as 'Aickmanesque'; and, having included this tale in my top ten stories I have read so far this year, I decided to re-read the whole book.

These are elegantly written, genuinely creepy stories in modern settings. As the author himself says in his introduction, there is '... no hint of sinister history, not a creaking door or tomb or mysterious figure in sight, no threat of mortal extinction, and unbroken holiday weather throughout'.  

An Incident in Drereton kicks everything off, and sets the tone. In a mundane English market town, retiree Tom experiences what seems like a strange vision from the past, which, despite its brevity, affects him deeply. He unearths an incident from the past, and, rather than clearing things up, it poses a more significant question. Crooker is a fascinating blend of folk tales, pieced together to create a compelling story with an authentic sense of impending doom. It is written in a different style to the other tales in this collection, and mixes things up straight away. By way of contrast, East Norham is more of a ghost story in the usual sense. Tony Lomax is some kind of psychic investigator, and is called upon to investigate the strange happenings in a house rented by some friends. It would seem to be a case of poltergeists; and, as the story twists and turns, the past collides with the present in a most unpleasant way, and winds up to a satisfyingly ambiguous conclusion.

The breadth of this collection, and the author's skill, is highlighted by the next tale, De Profundis. It is quite unlike its predecessors. Set in some arid outback desert, a mute, pregnant woman appears from the heat haze, and farmer MacGregor takes it upon himself to look after her. However, things do not go to plan; in fact, things go in entirely the opposite direction. I won't spoil the shocking end of this story, but suffice to say it is not ambiguous at all!

Next up is Rope Trip itself. A group of friends suffer a breakdown of the mechanical kind while on a driving holiday, and are forced to find solace in a large, solitary house. Were they somehow expected? Their travails when attempting to leave, and subsequent strange disappearances, add up to a supremely atmospheric tale which wrong-foots the reader at every turn. The title of The Well Dresser is a play on words that does not perhaps do the story justice. This is another tale which seems to draw from local legend or folk tale, and draws the reader into the village politics and prejudices of a previous age. Do you believe in the old wives' tales?

Period Instruments is a perfectly-formed tale of poignant memories, and a highlight of this collection. The protagonist is recalling a visit to The William Marshall Collection of Antique Musical Instruments, in the backstreets of an idyllic seaside town, when he was 'approaching his fourteenth birthday'. His magical encounters with the various instruments, especially the clavichord, is both elegantly written and thought-provoking; and William Marshall himself is touchingly portrayed. Following this, the tone is lightened somewhat by Disappearing Act, which is a brief reminiscence with a very apt title; but I won't spoil the story for you.

Return Ticket is an intriguing tale of a journey David takes on public transport. He finds an old copy of a novel on the seat beside him on a train, which he subsequently finds has rather more significance than he imagines. Handicapped by only having the haziest recollection of his past, he discovers more than he is comfortable with; and the reader is taken along for the rollercoaster ride. I must admit, I'd very much like to see what else the Cobham Circulating Library has for loan!

Writing with a regional accent is always hard to pull off, and can make or break a story; in Ticking, the author has portrayed Scottish well, adding to the atmosphere. Peter and Jock are looking to make a delivery from their articulated lorry on a foggy November night, but get lost and are thwarted by a narrow lane. They seek shelter in what seems to be some kind of monastery, with the sound of ticking reverberating throughout, despite there being no clocks. Their subsequent discovery about the area, and Jock's ultimate fate, make them question their recollection of the mysterious events.

I'm not usually one for werewolf tales, but Rome Will Rise Again is the best I've read for some time, combining jealousy and doomed relationships with a sense of foreboding and, ultimately, horror. The clashes between Ilia and Lucrezia add a convincing psychological interest. Genius Loci is the touching tale of a young boy who grows up to learn of the protective spirit resident within Nathan's Wood. 'Everything around him, the blade of grass and the beetle crawling along it, the rowan and birch, with their perfect branches and perfect leaves, the far hills and the creamy white cumulus, glowed with their own inner light.' Unwisely, in later life, he takes this wife to visit the wood, and her cynical view of the place brings about a terrible retribution. This is an evocative tale of the power existing in the depths of the English countryside; and perhaps the English psyche.

Rope Trick: Thirteen Strange Tales concludes with What Became of April, which is novella length. It deals with the disappearance, lasting three weeks, of a girl on her 19th birthday. Her changed demeanor upon return, being terrified of any modern aspect of life, suggests a kind of transfer has taken place between two time frames. It's an ambitious end to the book, and gives food for thought. My only reservation is that it could have been more concise; some of the focus present in the other stories was not present, and I found myself feeling it lost direction a bit. For me this was the difference between four and five stars for this excellent collection.

Overall, this is a beautifully written set of strange stories that deserves to be better known. I have no idea if Mark P. Henderson will write more in this vein; but I very much hope so.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Top ten short stories of the year so far

I couldn't let short story month slip by without mention. (OK, I admit I knew nothing about it until this morning ... and, technically, it's not May any more ... but never mind that.) So I thought I should put together my top ten short stories of the year so far to mark the occasion. That is, not necessarily stories that were written or published this year, but ones that were new to me.
It's been an excellent year so far, and I've enjoyed so many short stories. So, in no particular order, here's my top ten.

1. Bones in the Meadow by Tim Jeffreys. From Bones in the Meadow and other weird tales.
I first read this in the anthology What Fears Become, before buying the author's collection itself, which I have not yet read. I was sucked into this strange tale, captured by its sense of unease. Jim is a youth embarking on a camping trip with two traveling companions, Ste and Kelvin. It seems, as they make the transition by train from normality to an abstract, fog-bound landscape, that Jim is being coerced by his more worldly-wise friends. '"Guys, I think the town is that way." "Town!" said Ste with a laugh. "We're not going to town, Jim. We came to get away from everything, didn't we? We came here to get lost."' However, once Ste finds a skull in a nearby field, being lost loses some of its attraction; and it seems they are just as helpless as he is. Can Jim resist the lure of the mysterious girl tempting him to confront his deepest fears? I found this to be one of those stories I'm compelled to go back and read again, and I am eagerly anticipating the rest of Tim's collection.

2. Skirmish by David Longhorn. From The Ptolemaic System.
I have previously mentioned that I am a fan of David's Supernatural Tales short story collections, and that I enjoyed his collection The Ptolemaic System. This tale of morale-building manoeuvres "in a wooded valley in Northumberland on a drizzly August weekend" explores what happens when office workers on a team-building exercise collide with the past. Bill and Tracy, straying from the war games they have no interest in, become involved in a deadly hunt. Or do they? The mixture of the banal and the fantastic, and the ancient and modern, made this story stand out for me; and the ending intrigues.

3. The Remover of Obstacles by James Brogden. From Urban Occult.
Terry Grainger has all sorts of bother picking up his car after obtaining an MoT. He is led on a less than merry chase from one seedy establishment to the next, in a spiral of confusion, through a bleak industrial landscape. His increasing disorientation and ultimate 'priority fast-tracked' fate combine to create a Kafka-esque roller-coaster ride which I found to be quite compelling.

4. Elevator by Adam Millard. From Urban Occult.
Also from Urban Occult, this is just my kind of tale. The setting, a bleak high-rise block of flats within a concrete wasteland, rings so true to me; and Sean is the perfect anti-hero. His chance meeting on the stairs sets the scene apparently to go in one direction, but things get turned around in the most shocking way. Elevator is full of brooding, threatening atmosphere, but the real danger approaches from an unexpected source. The scene involving Dennis and his mother in their insalubrious flat will stay with me for a long time, and more than makes up for the ending; which I found perhaps a tad conventional.

5. Inside/Out by Nicholas Royle. From House of Fear.
I'm a big fan of Nicholas Royle, ever since I read his remarkable tale of urban alienation Archway many years back. House of Fear is an excellent anthology, and this story is one of the best of a good bunch. In this deceptively complex tale, Japanese sensibilities collide with a prosaic north London setting, creating an austere atmosphere. The house, with its conflicting entrances and labyrinthine layout, serves as a great analogy for the confusion within the protagonist's mind. This story reminded me a little of Laura by Robert Aickman. Which is something of a recommendation!

6. Mirages in the Badlands by James Everington. From Sanitarium #008.
It's always interesting to read a good writer's interpretation of an unfamiliar genre. I suppose it could be said that this is a zombie story; which would not normally interest me. However, I soon found out that foremost it is a James Everington story. That is, written from his usual slightly skewed perspective, and therefore gripping from beginning to end. The relationship between the unfortunate Chavez and his two captors is convincingly told, and the change of perspective at the end will make you think. The best zombie story I have come across by far.

7. The Engineer by David Haynes. From Ballet of the Bones.
The Engineer is a short story from Ballet of the Bones, part of David Haynes's collection of Victorian-style penny dreadfuls, including Mask of the Macabre and Seance of the Souls. The titular engineer's career develops from repairing sewing machines to something decidedly macabre, prompted by the unexpected visit from a badly injured officer of the Crimean war. The engineer's quest for perfection leads to murder, and subsequently to his unsuspecting part in a grisly sideshow. The story is told with authentic atmosphere and an impressive sense of impending doom. Enter at your own risk.

8. A Tale of Chirbury by PJ Hodge. From the Darker Times Anthology Vol 3.
For me, PJ Hodge's blog, Freaky Folk Tales, has been one of the finds of the year thus far. His thoroughly researched and well-written (in the style of MR James) accounts of local folklore from around the British Isles are quite compelling. His output is prodigious, and certainly deserves to be compiled in print; so I was pleased to see A Tale of Chirbury included in the Darker Times Anthology Vol 3, following on from my own story, Abraham's Bosom. I won't spoil the story, but this tale of supernatural happenings in the little village of Chirbury, and its gateway to the past, will intrigue you; and you'll soom be a regular visitor to the Freaky Folk Tales blog, just like me! 

9. Three Degrees Over by Brian Aldiss. From Dark Fantasies.
This is an oldie but a goodie, from the anthology Dark Fantasies, which is long out of print but well worth looking out for; I rediscovered it on my bookshelf recently. Brian Aldiss is of course a very accomplished writer, and Three Degrees Over is something of a tour de force among the many strange stories I have read. Alice Maynard is returning by 'plane from the US to her settled and mundane life among the spires of Oxford. However, on the flight, she finds herself seated next to Felicity Paiva, an American who somehow imposes herself upon Alice's hospitality. Her baffling effect upon Alice's previously reserved husband Harold, with its heavy undercurrents of passion, sets the scene for a literally fantastic conclusion which has to be read to be believed.  

10. Rope Trick by Mark P. Henderson. From Rope Trick: Thirteen Strange Tales.
This is a great story, and has been called 'Aickmanesque', which is what attracted me to Mark P. Henderson's work in the first place. Well, I must say it is not in fact 'Aickmanesque'; however, it does not need to be. It stands very well in its own right. A group of friends suffer a breakdown of the mechanical kind while on a driving holiday, and are forced to find solace in a large, solitary house. Were they somehow expected? Their travails when attempting to leave, and subsequent strange disappearances, add up to a supremely atmospheric tale which wrong-foots the reader at every turn (and, most importantly, the ending is great). This is a good example of the author's work, all of which I have enjoyed.