Saturday, October 31, 2015


Its Halloween, and I'm up early as my time clock is a bit out after a busy few days with work in Rome. I don't really "do" Halloween, guess a legacy of not being around kids much, and never having much of a penchant for dressing up. A bit surprising really as I was a horror nut as a kid. I had a great little book called The Beaver Book of Horror (still got it somewhere) which was like a compendium of vampires, werewolves, ghosts and the like. I see online that it came out in 1977 so I'd have been about ten years old or slightly older. I probably got it from W.H. Smiths rather than the school book club. It wasn't long after that I read "Dracula" for the first time. I guess horror was part of the everyday culture through cartoons mostly. Remember we had Scooby Doo, which still trades in it, but there were also some great little children's TV shows like "Rentaghost" and quite a few Disney cartoons had horror motifs. Then of course there was "Carry On Screaming", one of the high spots of the series, re-runs of "The Addams Family" and the Haunted House at Blackpool Pleasure Beach and other places.

But if we didn't do much Halloween it was probably because Bonfire Night was the great autumn occasion. My grandad's farm had a spare field which was underutilised in the autumn after the hay had been mown. From then onwards, a big pile of wood and other junk would slowly be put together for a big bonfire night special, usually as a fundraiser for the local historical society. This was probably earlier - I can't quite remember when the last one was, but as a small boy I was often cold, tired, and somewhat non-plussed by all the noise and fire. I think I used to prefer the before and after - going around the following day and seeing the smoldering embers, the burnt out rockets and catherine wheels. I certainly don't remember Halloween been celebrated at school in anyway, but our comp had a downer on anything that was remotely creative - and I guess there was always something a little "other" about Halloween.

Its surprising perhaps how mainstream its all become. I guess its the dressing up - an early form of cosplay - and trick or treat seems a bit of an odd thing nowadays on streets where we are all strangers, and a knock on the door by a teenager could be misinterpreted by a terrified pensioner. But we do like a bit of horror in the autumn months. The clocks have changed giving us long dark nights in return for slightly lighter mornings. The leaves are on the ground, all crispy russet-reds, before rain turns them to mulch. There will be the haze of fireworks in the air for the next ten days or so I guess, a slight peppery smell in the air, and next weekend in particular every cat and dog scurrying fearfully under a cupboard at every large bang.

I've noticed a bit of a resurgence in horror literature - particularly "spooky tales" - and an appreciation for the ghost story. The schlock horror of my teenage viewing - the so-called video nasty - was always as kitsch as it was scary, and Troma films like Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High can be picked up on DVD. I wonder how today's teens, sophisticated consumers of SFX will find them?

When people talk to me about "young adult" or YA literature I always think its some unfortunate follow on from the Harry Potter phenomenon, a kind of lifelong infantilisation of our cultural matter.  YA is aimed at "up to 25" by which time I'd bought and sold a house, lived in four cities, held down two full time jobs and had a pension... I felt old at 25! What I was reading when I was a young adult - i.e. 14, 15 - was horror. I tried James Herbert's "Rats" which went round the school like a plague of them, but it was too domestic in its setting, too pointlessly gratuitous - I could tell that you were ripping through the workmanlike prose to get to the shocking bits, and it wasn't worth the effort. Stephen King was different. I probably had seen "Carrie" or the TV version of "Salem's Lot" before I read the books, most of which I picked up second hand. The first "new" one I bought, and one of his masterpieces, was 1983's "Pet Sematary" but I'd pretty much read all the horror ones before then. I didn't actually much like his non-horror work, the Bachman books and the shorts, at the time. I liked the full on stuff. I also read "The Exorcist" around this time, staying up late to finish it one night and being unable to sleep, truly one of the few books to have genuinely terrified me. "The Exorcist," and particularly "The Omen" were a better class of horror movie than those I picked up at the video shop. The historical background and religious underpinning made them both highly fascinating. Yet the best of the lot, was a book which has only recently been reissued (by Valancourt books), Michael McDowell's "The Elementals". This was the best horror novel I'd ever read, a book about an unseen assailant that inhabited the very fabric of the environment, the sands around an old house absorbing it and conquering it. A classic piece of southern gothic, I must have read it half a dozen times. His other books - the serial novel "Blackwater" and "The Amulet" were good, but this was the masterpiece.

At some point, I stopped reading much horror. My love of the gothic went into the dark music of Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and others; and I'd become less susceptible to the strange twist in more contemporary horror films. But its Halloween, so maybe time to indulge, at least for one day....

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Style and the Short Story

I've not been quite sure how to approach this subject - I wanted to talk a bit about the short story in general, partly because of the oft-touted statement that the short is having a bit of a renaissance. I'll touch on that. The point of this blog was always to have some first drafts of my thoughts and ideas, and so bear with me a little, if this wasn't a bit more freeform than usual - I probably need to jot down these thoughts for something longer at a later point.

As a reader, as a writer, the short story has always been important to me. I don't think I know many writers who it isn't. After all, the long haul of the novel is so daunting that a short can seem so much more manageable. I can't really look for the links at present, but you know that there's been a lot of talk about the story's renaissance, though sales remain low. What has happened, I think, as well as seeing an opportunity in these times of short attention spans to hollow out a little space for a short story, is that the rather than apologise for writing and publishing these things, there's been cause to celebrate them a bit. The BBC and Sunday Times short story competitions, the Manchester Fiction Prize, new magazines like the White Review and the Stinging Fly, older magazines with a new lease of life like Granta and Ambit, more grass roots initiatives such as Confingo, Black & Blue, Prole and Bare Fiction, the annual Salt Book of Short Stories, the Frank O'Connor prize, publishers like Comma Press, the Edge Hill prize, Submittable online platform... finally there's a bit of an infrastructure around the story. I applaud it. There was a gap, I think, broadly the mid-90s to early 2000s, when some older regional arts board funded mags had closed, and before cheap and easy DTP made it easier to set up a magazine, when the short story had all but disappeared from public view. Before then, lest we forget, the short story was sent out in a typescript with an SAE.

Yet for all this talk of the renaissance, I'm not so sure so much conversation has gone into discussing the merits of the thing itself. I've been struck, as well, how some of the more lauded collections of recent years have, on reading them, seemed somewhat old fashioned or linguistically disappointing. Every age is both a golden age and a fallow period, depending on your reflection - yet there is something particularly problematic about the British short story that still nags me despite the above infrastructure being slowly put into place. Elsewhere on social media, I keep reading, as well, that the short story is "the hardest form". Well, it's not, not really. What it is, is a genre that is much harder to be original in - and that's partly because so many of the tropes of the form are so well known, and the masters of the form agreed upon. Are you school of Chekhov or Mansfield or Lawrence or Hemingway? Are you heir to Carver or Borges or Ballard or Updike? Are you a fellow traveller to George Saunders, A.M. Homes, Toby Litt or Helen Simpson? The BBC short story prize thinks it knows what short stories are - they're usually written by novelists, are preferably long enough to fill a 20 minute gap on radio, are often first person monologues, and are certainly not experiments with the form on the page, or, God forbid, full of ripe language. Yet all of these tropes are their's not the writers - different prizes will have different scopes. I'm struck that outside of the really big prizes the list of names on many a shortlist is remarkably unknown to me, particularly compared with comparable poetry lists. Reading winning stories, they tend to the narrative, occasionally favouring a more quirky form (e.g. a letter), but generally are stories with a twist, whether its a narrative one or an emotional one.

What I don't see is a lot of innovation, or a general sense of taking the British story to too many unfamiliar places. Yes, they can be set anywhere, but just as British poetry can sometimes seem to be wedded to the anecdotal and personal, the British story seems to prefer a certain distancing - either remote in time or community, either that or the story is young, witty and solipsistic. Its why a story like Hilary Mantel's excellent "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" felt so refreshing. Ostensibly a straightforward tale, this plays with our expectations, uses our knowledge of the subject to elevate the story.

Whereas fifteen years or so ago I could be impressed in different ways by debut collections from Toby Litt, Will Self or Helen Simpson, I don't think - with the exception of David Rose's late arriving "Posthumous Stories" - that I've picked up a collection over the last few years that has both compelled me with the quality of the stories and seemed to take forward the form and language, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. I sometimes think, reading recent prize winners, that sometimes our winning stories are far from being anything new, influences of Carver and Munro and the "New Yorker" story looming large. I wonder if we've even caught up with the playful energy and deep emotional resonance of the America of Salinger, let alone writers of the depth and range of Delmore Schwartz, John Cheever, Thom Jones, Lorrie Moore, Harlan Ellison, Andre Dubus or A.M. Homes. Basically, I still prefer to read American (and other) writers than our own - with some honourable exceptions.

That's not to say that there is nothing good out there, far from it. Novelists' Sarah Hall and Jon McGregor have recently joined A.L. Kennedy and Nicola Barker at proving good at differing lengths, Zadie Smith's "Embassy of Cambodia" may well be the best thing she has ever written. I could wish that McEwan and Self hadn't quite mastered the novel so well, given their past track record in the shorter genre.

A 2-volume collection is out soon from Penguin, edited by Philip Hensher, celebrating "the best" British shorts. They will surely be good books, but with the 768 pages of the first volume taking up only up to the Edwardians, and a 2nd volume, therefore scanning a century of writing, I suspect when we see the final listings, that in Britain as ever, we are overburdened by our past, uncertain about our future and negligent if not apologetic about our present. And the "why?" of this, of course, is that its not enough just to write a good story, or be a decent writer in other genres; the short story is and has to be a platform for change, for experimentation and for different voices - mostly it has to have something to do with style.

And here's where I realise the subject might well be too big for one blog post. Seeing two English language short story writers with international backgrounds last week, May-lan Tan, (Hong Kong via London),  and Mai Al-Nakib, (Kuwait), I was struck, in terms of their work, but also in the conversation afterwards, by how important style as well as subject was to their work. Tan had written two novels before finding the voice that appears in the first story in her collection, - whilst the connected stories in Al-Nakib's book were again deliberate, once she had found the voice and subject. Both were very different writers, but I was struck that both seemed to have a verve, and ambition - in subject matter, but also in their approach to style, that is far from much British writing. Internationalism, which can sometimes be a problem in the novel, seems merely to offer more options and opportunities in the story. The best writing, of any age, of any nationality, will tend to reach for those.  

The plethora of magazines and prizes we have now, and the opportunities being provided by these are important, yet if we are merely revisiting old tropes, like a literary heritage tour, then our best work will fail. In the short story, more than any other literary genre, we surely have the space to take more risks: with form, with language, with subject.... and with style. 

Like I started with, a big subject, and I don't want to knock all the great initiatives to bring up the British short, but at the same time, I'd like to see some sense of critical distance - I do wonder, if a bit like the "workshop poem", the short story (many drafts, tightly controlled) becomes less, rather than more as it gets "professionalised" to fit a particular box/length. I know as well their are acclaimed writers out there I've yet to get round to - and, over hundred stories into my own writing life, how strange they can be, how untapped the potential, how often they fall short of the intention.


More information about the Philip Hensher books - this blog has the introduction from the collection, which should pique your interest. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Autumn Journal

After a patchy summer, autumn has held off its its "mists and mellow fruitfullness" at least in part, and its been warm and mostly dry - so  much so that it came as a surprise to come home the other night to feel the crinkle of leaves underfoot.

So many competing things, of course. Manchester's Albert Square is constantly being colonised then abandoned by scaffolding, viewing platforms, pop up bars and the like - as the jazz festival makes way for the food and drink festival makes way for the Rugby world cup weekend... can't be much else now before the Christmas markets take us up to the festive season. The literature festival starts tomorrow and its a bit of a belter this year - or at least you'd be hard pressed not to find something to go to. I'm hoping to get to Zachary Leader talking about his new biography of Saul Bellow, CB Editions short story writer May-lan Tan, the Psychogeographical Precarious Passages and maybe a couple of other things if I get the chance. I'm going to miss tomorrow's Kevin Barry and Jon McAuliffe reading as I'm busy, but its a good way to start proceedings. Outside of the festival, but coinciding with it, one of my favourite writers, Magnus Mills, will be in Manchester.

I'm in a writing group that has helped immeasurably as I started on writing a novel again - and two of my fellow writers have excellent projects out shortly. David Gaffney is collaborating with a comic book artist and a musician (Dan Berry and Sara Lowes) for "The Three Rooms in Valerie's Head" at the Kendal comic book festival next Saturday, and Elizabeth Baines has her second book of short stories out from Salt, "Used to Be." The launch is at Waterstones on 29th October.

I went to see another launch on Friday- that of "Dead Ink" - a Manchester based press looking at subscription funded new fiction - like "Unbounders" but with new writers rather than celebrity authors (no disrespect to Unbounders there, its been a great success, but I'm yet to be enticed by any of their books). So good luck to them. Buy one book or three, pay upfront and have some nice book-sized parcels winging to your door.

I got back yesterday to find the latest Nightjars from Nicholas Royle's imprint. Short stories published separately in pamphlets, these are highly collectible, and lovely artefacts in their own right. After a bit of a break he published two earlier in the year, and the latest two are by Leonne Ross and John D. Rutter.

Out shortly, and you're recommended to order, is the latest from the Curious Tales writing collective -this time a book of stories inspired by Shirley Jackson. More details are here.

The BBC short story prize was won by Jonathan Buckley for "Briar Road". I'm yet to read or hear this years list - available in a nice book from our local Comma press - but always worth a listen.

Finally, Comma are running, with the MMU, a Creative Writing professional development day which I'm going to, at the start of November. Should be useful.