Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Tuesday 30 July 2013

More short stories of 2013

I've been fortunate enough to read so many great short stories this year that I feel compelled to share some more with you. I featured ten of my favourites from the first half of 2013 here, including tales from David Haynes, Tim Jeffreys, James Brogden, PJ Hodge, Brian Aldiss and more. As usual, I must remind you that these are not necessarily newly-published short stories, just ones that are new to me.

1. The Skins by Reggie Oliver. From The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler.
I like Reggie Oliver's short stories very much; and, when I saw that his debut collection from back in 2008 was available on Kindle for the first time, I had to read it. In some ways I think it contains his best work, as it is a little more varied than his two later collections, Masques of Satan and Mrs Midnight. Perhaps it's a little uneven, but all the more interesting for it. The Skins I found to be the most memorable of the tales therein, but they are all excellent in their own way, and as always impeccably written. Oliver's stories often involve the tawdry world of the stage, and, as he writes from experience, they have the benefit of authenticity. Syd and Peggy Brinton arrive at the Pier Pavillion Theatre in Scarmouth as the new speciality act; a 'Comedy Tap Sensation'. However, it soon becomes obvious that all is not as it should be. One part of their act involves donning the skins; Syd and Peggy form the front and rear of a pantomime horse, in which they perform a tap routine. The intimacy of this, both physically and mentally, is brought into uncomfortably sharp focus through jealousy, infidelity and revenge. What happens when Syd is unable to uphold his side of the bargain? This is a grim tale of the boards with a suitably downbeat ending.

2. Passing Forms by Anne-Sylvie Salzman. From Darkscapes.
This is the latest from Tartarus Press, and I must admit I have not yet finished reading the whole collection; however, I was moved to comment on this tale straight away. It is one of the most interesting  things I've read for a while, combining the bones of a fairly conventional ghost story with pared-back prose and a matter-of-fact style which reminded me a little of Camus. (It may be significant that Salzman's stories are translated from the original French.) Bale is an academic who is on a walking holiday in a remote part of Scotland, recovering from his recent divorce. He explores the cold, misty and hostile countryside and makes a gruesome discovery; as the story expands, he makes more. Is he somehow a catalyst? This is a fascinating snap shot of Salzman's work, and I look forward to her other stories.

3. New Boy by James Everington. From Falling Over.
I think James Everington is one of the best new short story writers around right now, and I couldn't wait to read Falling Over, released last month by Infinity Plus. New Boy is one of my favourites from that collection, perhaps because it rings so true; I feel that it may contain more than a hint about the author's own experiences. The manager is returning to work after some time off, and finds that things have changed in his absence. There is indeed a 'new boy', but why does he seem so familiar? The manager gradually loses all authority, and is forced to come to terms with both his past and his future. I feel this may be the pivotal tale of the collection, incorporating aspects of alienation, mistaken identity, mystery and, ultimately, enlightenment. Welcome to the weird, slightly off-centre world of James Everington! By the way, I reviewed Falling Over here if you missed it.

4. The Shadowy Third by Elizabeth Bowen. From The Collected Stories.
Elizabeth Bowen is my latest obsession. I had read a few of her short stories many years ago, and I was aware of her reputation as one of the best short story writers, but I was not aware of quite how much she had written. I recently acquired a copy of The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen from The Book Depository, and was startled to see it contained no fewer than 79 short stories! The Shadowy Third is a subtle tale of mystery and intrigue, in the truest sense of those words. Martin is met at the train station on his way home from work, as is usual, by his second wife. He returns home with her to what had originally been the matrimonial home for him and his first-wed. As the story progresses, it is clear that odd things are happening, and that the house is having an effect upon them. Or is it caused by the ghost of his first wife? So much is left unsaid in this enigmatic tale. Bowen treats her readers like grown-ups, and her stories often have to be deciphered by the reader, but it's well worth the effort.

5. The Long Way by Ramsey Campbell.
This is a short story from PS Publishing, and a good way to get a reasonably-priced taste of Ramsey Campbell. I have never enjoyed his novels, but his short stories are quite different; when he writes a good 'un, it's about as good as it gets. This may not be one of his very best (see The Companion, The Guide ... etc), but I found it compelling nonetheless, and so evocative of my own childhood. Craig, the youthful protagonist, has to look after his Uncle Philip who is wheelchair bound. This involves walking through a rough part of the neighbourhood, along run-down and partially demolished streets. If he takes a certain route, he passes a house amid those boarded-up and derelict surroundings, in which he sees a strange, motionless stick-like figure. Each time he steels himself to walk that way, however, the figure has moved ... just a little. When the row of houses is eventually demolished, does it bring redemption, or something much worse? The Long Way is an atmospheric story of childhood guilt, reminiscence and terror.

6. The Nightingale Floors by James Wade. From The Satyr's Head: Tales of Terror.
This is a gem, from what was something of a golden era of horror; the 1970s. I was recently searching around for a creepy short story set in a museum, as mentioned on my blog here. I turned up trumps with this, the tale of the Ehlers Museum on the South Side of Chicago. A university dropout with a minor drugs problem (well, it was written within memory of the '60s I guess) wanders aimlessly through derelict streets, and discovers the dusty old museum needs a night watchman. I must say the story begins unpromisingly, but through a little perseverance the reader is rewarded with a supremely atmospheric tale and a satisfying conclusion. I won't give any spoilers, but it is well worth a look, and it influenced my short story Building Bridges, which will be part of my forthcoming collection Dying Embers.

7. The Bitter Taste of Dread-Moths by Richard Gavin. From The Darkly Splendid Realm.
Richard Gavin's work is difficult to pin down. Multi-layered, it is at once grotesque, horrific, fantastic and yet anchored in the everyday. In this dark tale Carolyn Mears is writing a thesis for her BA entitled Wide Eyed and Wider Minded: The Role of Fear in Eastern Mystery Traditions. By her own admission, a poor effort, but when she is contacted by a Dr Valzer, who corrects her on one aspect of the paper, she is drawn in to a nightmare world. She meets Valzer, who is experimenting with the production of the physical residue of fear, and becomes the subject of his bizarre research. She is forced to confront her own mortality, and to match her own memories of being born with something far more challenging. This is a roller-coaster ride, and his collection The Darkly Splendid Realm is well worth a look.

8. The Devils by Lauren James. From The Side-Effects of the Medication.
Lauren James is new on the scene, and came highly recommended to me. I was not disappointed. The Side-Effects of the Medication is her debut, and is full of interesting ideas and striking imagery; throughout the collection, her voice gets stronger, and the final couple of stories, The Devils and Full, really jumped out at me. The Devils begins as we meet the unwholesome Quentin Fisher, whose daughter Mellie is imprisoned behind bars in her attic bedroom. The reader is lulled into a false sense of security, assuming this to be a conventional tale of possession and exorcism, yet it turns into something quite different and much more unsettling. Highly recommended reading, and I look forward to Lauren James's writing developing in the future.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Currarong break

I haven't posted for a while, as we've been on a break to the south coast of NSW. Specifically, a couple of weeks at Currarong, near Abraham's Bosom national park; the inspiration for my eponymous short story. Running and walking through the bush reminded me how magical this part of the world is. Part of the magic is how remote it is here; on a peninsular, surrounded by national park and only accessible by one road. There are unspoilt, deserted beaches, pristine rainforest, deserted tracks through the bush and amazing views of the coastline. Not many creature comforts though; one tiny general store and a fish and chip shop just about sums up the shopping experience (although they do get fresh fish every day direct from the boats that use the jetty in Currarong). Most of the houses are holiday lets, so in the winter there's hardly anyone around. Oh, and the nearest petrol station is twenty minutes' drive away!

Looking towards Abraham's Bosom beach
On a bush walk yesterday, my children came skipping back to us very excited; they had seen a snake. And what a snake! Seriously big, curled up by the track and obviously asleep, digesting something large clearly visible as a lump inside. I don't know what kind it is, but the children were convinced it was a viper. Not sure about that; no doubt a python, so no danger to us, but best to leave it alone. It had gone when I ran past later in the day.

What a snake! It really was a big one.
This place was my original inspiration for writing strange stories. On our very first visit here, I ran Coomie's Walk, a 9k loop through the bush, not knowing exactly where it went. Inevitably, I got lost, once the yellow direction arrows disappeared. Being from England, it hadn't really occurred to me then quite how remote things could be; as it started to get dark, I was crashing through undergrowth, having strayed from the path. I realised that no one would find me if I could not find my way. There was no chance of seeing anyone (in fact, in the years I have been running round Coomie's Walk, I have never seen anyone else there). I must admit, I was panicking a bit, and my skin was really 'prickling on the back of my neck'. After about half an hour of systematically searching around, noting landmarks and trees, I stumbled by accident back on to the path. By the time I was back on familiar ground it was almost completely dark, and it was obvious how lucky I had been. I still get goosebumps when I think about it now.

The turnoff for Coomie's Walk, which Merewether
missed in my short story Abraham's Bosom.
So this exquisite fear made me think that I could try to re-create the feeling in a story, and I started to think about some kind of plot. It soon became clear that there was some interesting local history which I might incorporate into something readable; a shipwreck and some biblical references from the past, and my first story was written. That was eight years ago, mind, and I've still only written eight or so more, so still not enough for my first collection! Mind you, watch this space ...

The beaches are so crowded here ...

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Review: Falling Over by James Everington

James Everington's first collection, The Other Room, was one of my reads of the year in 2012, so I was very much looking forward to reading Falling Over, this time published by Infinity Plus.

Entering Mr Everington's world is akin to discovering an alternative reality which, while superficially familiar, has some subtle but significant differences. That these differences exist just below the surface; hiding at the edge of things, nagging at you from the back of your mind, only adds to the power they wield. While reading Falling Over, I became aware of the cumulative effect of this paranoia by stealth. This meant that by the time I finished Public Interest Story, the final tale here, I found myself distrusting not only the media and any form of government, but also my own take on the world.

The reader's journey begins with the titular story, which takes hold with its opening sentence and does not let go. Set in a university's halls of residence during a summer break, the protagonist perceives of an identity crisis. He has convinced himself that Michelle, a fellow student who has returned from hospital after a fall, is not who she seems. Is it his imagination running wild, affected by the echoing, almost-deserted university buildings, or do others harbour their own suspicions too? Is there some kind of conspiracy, or is the reader persuaded to give too much credence to insignificant events? The substance of the story repeatedly falls away, just out of reach, but then strikes back at the end. This story has a dream-like atmosphere, helped by the ghostly location; the unnerving halls of residence remind me somewhat of the museum in that classic tale The Nightingale Floors by James Wade.

Next up is Fate, Destiny and a Fat Man from Arkansas, and the dream-like atmosphere is continued. The reader accompanies Tom and Sean on their rush towards their own destinies; there is a sense of inevitability, of seeing the better turning but being unable to take it. As they rush headlong (towards what?) the question is raised; how much can we really influence the direction our own lives take? This roller-coaster ride is followed by Haunted, a piece of flash fiction which deftly conveys a subtle, well-wrought story in 100 words. I thought of The Haunting of Hill House as I read this; and not just because of Eleanor. In every good collection of stories, there must be a certain amount of autobiography: and I feel that New Boy may contain more than a hint about the author's own experiences. The manager is returning to work after some time off, and finds that things have changed in his absence. There is indeed a 'new boy', but why does he seem so familiar? The manager gradually loses all authority, and is forced to come to terms with both his past and his future. I feel this may be the pivotal tale of this collection, incorporating aspects of alienation, mistaken identity, mystery and, ultimately, enlightenment.

The Time of Their Lives also hinges upon the uncertainty of both identity and the secrets of existence. Vince is a child on holiday with his grandparents at a dusty old hotel in an idyllic Cotswolds village. As the novelty of having his own room wears off, and he realises there may not be much to occupy his youthful mind, he is pleased to meet Alice, the only other child in the hotel. Between them they work out there is more to the situation than meets the eye; but true understanding is beyond Vince's ken. Could Alice's fate be determined by her keener mind? Such ambiguity is carried on to The Man Dogs Hated, where the protagonist is not a child but is perhaps just as naive. The dangers of the aspirational neighbourhood, and of what sacrifices are needed in order to 'fit in', are examined here, and how failure to toe the line is rewarded by rejection. Emma too has been rejected, in Sick Leave, up next. Upon her return to the classroom, she is unable to re-establish the close relationship she had enjoyed with her seven-year-olds before her absence. She becomes suspicious of the supply teacher's motives, and feels herself ostracised both by the children and Mr Hall, the head teacher. Illness and playground duty combine; but does the threat of ancient ritual hang over her? It may be too late to find out.

Modern warfare enters the mix in the form of Drones. The effect upon an individual of playing God, and of his just (or otherwise) desserts in the long term, should send a shiver down anyone's spine. The remote operation of weaponry is brought sharply into focus: "This job is like that – trained reaction to stimulus. If I've fired I can normally remember the screen filling with light, but not the decision-points, not the reasoning that got me, and them, to that destination." 'Drone' is the nickname of the unfortunate protagonist, who begins to be affected in a worrying way by the essence of his duties. Drones is very much a cautionary tale of retribution! Public Interest Story tops off this collection, and looks at how modern society can be manipulated through the media. The mere fact that Joel's image is reproduced in a newspaper leads to rejection, alienation and violence. I was reminded of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery as I read this story; the sheer inevitability of it all, and the lynch-mob mindlessly 'going through the motions'. Scary stuff indeed.

It's tempting to suggest the influences behind some of these tales, to say they may be 'Aickmanesque' or influenced by Kafka, Shirley Jackson and so on. However, having read James Everington's previous collection, The Other Room, what struck me most was that he has been busy developing his own style; it can be safely said that these are proudly James Everington stories, and all the better for it. Make no mistake, this is some of the very best strange fiction around.

Monday 8 July 2013

Reviews: The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson is one of those authors whose work I had always wanted to read, but had somehow never quite managed. In the end, it was down to James Everington; he had mentioned his admiration of her work on several occasions, and eventually I downloaded both The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery and Other Stories from our friends at Amazon.

The Haunting of Hill House

By Shirley Jackson

This is well known as one of the most famous and influential of haunted house tales, later filmed as The Haunting by Robert Wise in 1963 (though I must admit I have not seen it).
To begin, I feel I should reproduce here the book's opening paragraph, often quoted (by, among others, Stephen King) as being one of the finest descriptive passages in the English language:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The reader is at once drawn into the world inhabited by Eleanor Vance, an insecure, vaguely mysterious woman whose life has lost most of its meaning and direction. She becomes part of Dr Montague's investigation into paranormal occurrences at a country house, along with Theodora, a rather more flamboyant character, and Luke Sanderson, the wastrel nephew of the house's owner. The book deals as much with the relationships they form (particularly between the women; full of hidden significance and repressed violence), as it does with supernatural happenings. Eleanor finds herself strangely drawn to the house, with a mystifying sense of belonging. Has she in some way returned home? The haunting could be more to do with Eleanor than with the house; and the mystery surrounding her past only adds to this impression.

Jackson's writing style is delightfully sparse, being at once matter-of-fact yet brilliantly evocative, managing to convey so much with so few words. Everyday occurrences are lent heavy significance, and the reader is constantly on edge, wondering when the evil might creep out from the shadows of the seemingly mundane. As a result, when the house strikes, its effect is doubly powerful.

There were several scenes in the book which were genuinely scary. The one which stays with me the most occurred when Eleanor and Theodora were sharing a bedroom, and they held hands in the darkness for reassurance during a disturbance. 'Now, Eleanor thought, perceiving that she was lying sideways on the bed in the black darkness, holding with both hands to Theodora's hand, holding so tight she could feel the fine bones of Theodora's fingers.' 

But when the light comes on, Eleanor realises that Theodora had been asleep, and it could not have been Theodora's hand she held; and the reader suddenly wonders just what the 'fine bones' she felt could have been. '"Good God", Eleanor said, flinging herself out of bed and across the room to stand shuddering in a corner, "Good God – whose hand was I holding?"'

Apparently Jackson researched thoroughly before she wrote The Haunting of Hill House, reading all the ghost stories she could, visiting supposedly haunted houses, and the result is something of a study of the horror genre. It must be one of the finest ghost stories ever written. 

The Lottery and Other Stories

By Shirley Jackson

Jackson was widely known as the author of The Lottery, a short story which was first published in 1948 in the New Yorker magazine, creating much controversy at the time. It provoked an unprecedented response from the public; a record number of letters arrived at the publisher's offices, most of them demanding to know what the story meant. I admit I read The Lottery first, although it is the final story in this collection. It is certainly dark and sinister. It describes with growing suspense a small-town lottery; but to decide exactly what? Perhaps its indictment of small-town America is not so shocking now, but it must surely have been challenging at the time. It's not the story that sticks in my mind the most from this collection, however, perhaps because it is just a little too conventional. Nonetheless it's perfectly-formed, and it is, quite rightly, one of the best-known short stories ever written.

The story I enjoyed the most was The Tooth, which breaks my rule that it's necessary for a good short story to have a good title! Overcoming my distaste, I was stunned by this ambiguous gem. Jackson is adept at creating atmosphere, and the sense of impending doom this tale creates is almost suffocating. Clara Spencer has a sore tooth; and she takes herself off to the big city to see a dentist. As far as the plot goes, that's about it; but, as in all the most haunting tales, the beauty is in the journey.

My Life With R. H. Macy is a stream-of-consciousness look at the dehumanising effects of mundane employment, and is chillingly hilarious. In The Daemon Lover, a woman waits for, then searches for, the man she is to marry that day, only to find that he has disappeared as completely as if he had never existed; and she finds it possible to forgive, but not to forget. In Trial by Combat, a shy woman confronts her kleptomaniac neighbour, and in Pillar of Salt, a tourist in New York is gradually paralysed by the threatening city. These are disturbing, unforgettable tales with satisfyingly ambiguous endings.

Jackson had two writing styles. She wrote with detail and humour about domesticity, lending a significance to everyday chores; and yet she could move swiftly to cold-blooded and dispassionate psychological horror without apparent effort. Her taut and spare prose builds a story's mood quickly and efficiently, ideal for short stories where the reader needs to be engaged from the first line. She must have been a pioneer of the unresolved ending; and, in fact, my only caveat about this collection is that one or two of the stories have endings which seem to be truncated rather than unresolved.

These tales are beautifully written, and I enjoyed reading them all. They are eerie, unforgettable, by turns terrifying and hilarious, creating a bright, sharp world where the strange lurks in the darkness just around the corner, and where nothing is quite as it seems. The Lottery and Other Stories was the only collection to be published during the author's lifetime.