Wednesday, 21 March 2018

All The Fabulous Beasts: Priya Sharma Interview

I couldn't have been more excited than when I heard Undertow Press were going to be publishing the debut collection from Priya Sharma. The stories I've read of hers over the last few years have always been superb, by turns creepy, beautiful, tender and terrifying. A whole book-load of them? Count me in. Especially one with such stunning cover art and design as this one.

I asked Priya a few questions about All The Fabulous Beasts, particularly focussing on the two stories new to the collection, 'Small Town Stories' and 'A Son Of The Sea' (spoiler: both brilliant).

So, without further ado...

JE: So, to warm us up, how do you think of your stories? Weird fiction, fantasy, horror? I wouldn’t know how to classify them myself (which I absolutely think of as a good thing). Do you find such categories useful as a writer, or limiting?

PS: Hello James! I find that a hard question, even now. I hope that All the Fabulous Beasts is all of the above. When Mike Kelly of Undertow put this collection together he was very careful about what he felt should go in (thankfully) as I've also dabbled in fairy tales, mythology and alterative history. If they'd been included, certain stories might have jarred with others.

The story that I'm writing dictates the form and flavours. I've had lots of rejections along the lines of "I like this but it's not horror". I certainly don't find strict definitions of genre helpful, but I think definitions are getting broader and more blurred.

My favourite books don't adhere to strict definitions and I think I've drawn on them. Things that are between the lines or bend genre are more interesting, such as novels like Beloved by Toni Morrison, Slaughterhouse Five by Vonnegut, and in the work of David Mitchell, Calvino, Helen Oyeyemi, to name a few.

JE: Regardless of how you think of them, your stories nearly all feature a supernatural element. What is it about the supernatural or surreal that appeals to you as a writer? What does it allow you to do that ‘straight’ realism couldn’t?

PS: I remember listening to Thana Niveau on a panel about horror and she said that she was drawn to it because it was hardwired in there somewhere, which I thought was very thoughtful, rather than it just being about exploring our personal fears. I feel like that about most speculative fiction.

The supernatural allows for a whole new level of allegory. Also, when it's done well it does double duty as there are thrills to be had.

I wish I could write straight fiction, and probably read more straight fiction than genre fiction. When I try and write 'literary' fiction it seems very flat on the page. I feel confined. I think I write speculative fiction because I am, in truth, an escapist. It's the perfect type of fiction for exploring big ideas, feelings, and for extrapolating, but also for having fun and pushing the limits. Human beings are all about the impossible (even at risk to ourselves and the planet).

JE: In both of the new stories in your collection, there’s a very strong sense of place — from the more exotic locations of 'A Son Of The Sea' to the very English, parochial English setting you use in 'Small Town Stories'. So I wondered how important you think a evocation of specific place is, to you as a writer?

It's a crucial part of worldbuildng for me, as important as character. We're all affected by our environments. You can character build in how a person interacts with that world. I always do more research for stories than I need and have to be selective about what I use. It's the same with the world that I'm writing about. There's more happening off page that never makes the cut. Sometimes it's as much as what I imagine for the characters themselves.

I love stories with a strong setting, that's crucial to the story. It's what I enjoyed most about The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, for example. The Titus novels by Mervyn Peake blew my mind.

JE: I was especially taken with the titular setting of 'Small Town Stories' — a lot of British horror fiction seems to be either city based urban horror or rural folk horror, but these kind of backwater small towns seem very British and very scary to me. Was it a conscious decision, to write about the kind of place normally ignored?

PS: No, in that it wasn't a conscious decision - I just wanted to explore feelings I had about the town I grew up in- a smallish Cheshire market town, and when I think about that era it brings back the child in me, for reasons good and bad. That place still has a lot of power over me. When I go back I realise that I'm a stranger there.

The thing is, I don't recognise the place that I knew, not really. New build homes are where the industries that employed most of the town once stood. Supermarkets have replaced the veg shop and the butchers. There are more coffee shops and hairdressers, but nowhere to buy books or music. There used to be a thriving market each week but now it's just a carpark. And I'm not sure who shrunk the schools I went to.

Every small town has its urban legends and outsiders, and I wanted to explore that concept as well. Births, deaths, affairs. Nothing was secret for very long.

I wanted to write my own love story to it all.

JE: As well as a strong sense of place, both of these new tales seem to be about the past being something we can’t escape from, or even move on from - was this a conscious theme?

PS: Sometimes it is, sometimes it just seeps in there. It's a form of haunting, isn't it? The past is important to most people I know, whether they're trying to recreate/relive it or escape from it. I read a lot of Fay Weldon in my teens (thanks to The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil) and one of my favourite lines by her is "Wherever we go, we take ourselves with us". We can't escape our pasts. We can only learn to live with the horrors and joys of it.

It's funny that you've brought that up. I don't think I've ever started a story at the beginning of a character's journey. I'd actually find that too difficult to chart, in some ways. I like flawed people, in the thick of their struggles. What does that say about me?

JE: And finally, can you tell me a secret - name an author who’s an influence on your work that no reviewer or commenter has ever picked up on...

PS: Jim Crace. I think he's woefully neglected in the UK. His novels vary widely in subject matter but there's something about his prose that is poetic. It has a rhythm that I find addictive, almost iambic pentameter, which some people will mock. Reading his work, I get the feeling that every single word is considered and deliberate. I think his style is unique, and can only hope that one day, if I work hard enough, I might develop a unique style too.

My favourite works of his are Arcadia, The Pesthouse, Being Dead and The Devil's Larder.

You can buy All The Fabulous Beasts from the Undertow Press site, in both paperback or hardback editions.

Friday, 16 March 2018

In Praise Of Non-Themed Anthologies

In relation to a few things seen on social media recently, I just wanted to say: non-themed anthologies of original fiction are brilliant, aren't they? Especially, I feel, for weird, supernatural & horror fiction. Why? Well:

1. They can give you a real sense of where the genre is right now, its trends & obsessions
2. Paradoxically, they also provide a purview of the breadth & depth of the genre, irrespective of current trends
3. So they provide homes to stories you sense wouldn't quite 'fit' anywhere else, especially for newer writers
4. They're the best place to find new writers to love in the future, writing from the gut & heart, alongside ones you already know can deliver the goods
5. And you can get a real sense of an editor's personal taste too, their own take on this genre of ours
6. In the best ones, you never know what the next story will bring

But... I confess I find them really hard to review on this blog. There's no theme, so you can't mention that: any connections you see between the stories are likely all in your own mind or too general & obvious to be worth mentioning. And writing about each individual story can feel too repetitive, too much of a time-drain. Especially as there seems to be a tendency for these anthologies to push 20 stories or more.

So I've been remiss on that score, but to repeat, I do love a good non-themed anthology of original horror or supernatural fiction. So here's a link to a few of my favourites of recent years:

Shadows & Tall Trees #6 (ed. Michael Kelly, Undertow)
Shadows & Tall Trees #7 (ed. Michael Kelly, Undertow)
Looming Low #1 (ed. Justin Steele & Sam Cowan, Dim Shores)
New Fears #1 (ed. Mark Morris, Titan)
Nightscript #1 (ed. C.M. Muller, Chthonic Matter)
Nightscript #2 (ed. C.M. Muller, Cthhonic Matter)
A Book Of Horrors (ed. Stephen Jones, Jo Fletcher Books)
Darkest Minds (ed. Ross Warren & Anthony Watson, Dark Minds Press)
For The Night Is Dark (ed. Ross Warren, Crystal Lake)
Strange Tales V (ed. Rosalie Parker, Tartarus Press)
Hauntings (ed. Ian Whates, NewCon Press)
The Shadow Booth #1 (ed. Dan Coxon)
ETA: The Black Room Manuscripts #3 (ed. J.R. Park & Daniel Marc Chant, Sinister Horror Company - suggested by Penny Jones)

Any further suggestions welcome in the comments!

Monday, 26 February 2018

Couple of Cool Things

A brief post on a couple of cool things recently:

A Sony C60 - brings back
so many memories.
Mark West has put together another one of his fabled 'mixtapes' - over on his site a number of us horror types have written about our favourite Stephen King short story. There's selections from Priya Sharma, Maura McHugh, Kit Power, Paula Limbaugh, Willie Meikle, and many many others.

My own piece is on King's story 'The Man In The Black Suit', although I spend almost as much time talking about a Bob Dylan song. (I often talk more about Bob Dylan than I should, especially after a beer or two.) You'll have to check out the Mixtape to find out which one.

On an unrelated note, the anthology Another Dimension (which features my story 'Red Route') has won an award! The Sterling Award, to be specific, which celebrates all things to do with the creator of The Twilight Zone. So that's rather nice.

Another Dimension (UK | US)

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Recommendation: The Wish Mechanics by Daniel Braum

My first experience of Daniel Braum's work was his story 'Palankar' in Nightscript III (which I interviewed him about here) and it was such a good piece of strange horror fiction that I had to go out and read more.

So I bought The Wish Mechanics as it was his latest collection, although upon reading the introduction I found out that the stories within are generally contemporaneous with those in his other collection, The Night Marchers. The tales in that volume are apparently more rooted in horror tropes and aesthetics; the stories in The Wish Mechanics are a more varied and eclectic bunch.

It starts with the wonderfully titled 'How to Make Love and Not Turn to Stone', a frankly brilliant story about a couple who live above a beach on which real-life basilisks roam. It's a beautifully handled concept, powering a narrative concerned not so much with the supernatural creatures and their ability to petrify, but with relationships and what we might risk by getting involved with another person. With the various ways our hearts can be hardened. As is common with many of the best stories here, the supernatural element is at once 'real' within the world of the story and metaphorical, not so much a 'symbol' as a concrete representation of ideas the author wants to evoke.

'How to Make Love...' pairs nicely with the final story in The Wish Mechanics, 'This Is The Sound Of Your Dreams Dying'. This is another tale about relationships, both how they begin and how they end. The uncanny element starts as a backdrop for the characters' emotions and dilemmas, but moves centre-stage with some powerfully creepy scenes.

In between these two pieces there are plenty of other gems. 'An American Ghost In Zurich', as well as having (again) a brilliant title, is another immensely impressive story. It is based around a particle accelerator similar to the Large Hadron Collider, and the scientific concepts it plays with—alternative worlds, retro-causation, quantum entanglement—are used to give it feeling of strangeness, of almost Borgesian other-worldliness, that's as strong & powerful as that which traditional genre tropes can evoke. It gains bonus points from me for featuring alternative-dimension songs from a band I love, School of Seven Bells.

Elsewhere, 'Tea in the Sahara' is a more old-fashioned styled story about wishes and fate and three sisters; 'The Canopy Crawlers' a 'straight sci-fi' story full of invention (which shows Braum can sure as hell write action, too), and 'The Water Dragon' takes us back to strange fiction again. There's further sci-fi of a dystopian nature in the title story, and the end of the world (literal or otherwise) in another favourite of mine, 'The Truth About Planet X'. Plus there's plenty of other fine stories to savour, too.

So, overall The Wish Mechanics is a varied, eclectic, accomplished set of short stories, with a number of genuine classics within its pages. Looks like I'll be buying The Night Marchers too then.

The Wish Mechanics (UK | US)

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Recommendation: Improbable Botany (ed. Gary Dalkin)

Improbable Botany is an anthology edited by Gary Dalkin featuring eleven stories based around the
theme of sentient, miraculous, bio-engineered or simply weird plant-life. It's published by Wayward, a London-based collective with a mission to transform neglected urban spaces into green environments (and appropriately enough, many of the stories in Improbable Botany feature just such a transformation...)

There's an impressive range to the stories within these pages, which vary from near-future science-fiction, modern day unease, and even a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in 'The Adventure of the Apocalypse Vine or Moriarty's Revenge' by Cherith Baldry. The strange plants within these stories are by turns sources of potential salvation or destruction, but it says something of the quality of the tales here that, despite the title, the authors mange to make their wonders and horrors all to probable.

My favourite stories in the volume were 'Black Phil' by Adam Roberts, 'The Ice Garden' by Eric Brown, 'Advent' by James Kennedy and most of all the escalating creepiness mixed with petty local politics in Lisa Tuttle's 'Vegetable Love'.

Overall then, Improbable Botany is just what you want from a genre anthology: an under-explored theme, a strong lineup, and a variety and depth to the storytelling. Oh and some wonderful interior and exterior artwork, too.

Improbable Botany

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Five Things #8

More things that I liked, and you might too.

1. Five Ghost Stories Without Any Ghosts In Them by Malcolm Devlin
Great article by Malcolm Devlin about a topic close to my heart: do ghost(ly) stories have to have ghosts in them? As a bonus, he also lists a sixth story that "isn't a ghost story but does have a ghost in it".

2. All The Windows And All The Doors by Damien Angelica Walters
A short story both terrifying and beautiful, I thought this was utterly superb.

3. Online Etymological Dictionary
If like me you're interested in words and their meanings and how both change over time, you'll find some great rabbit holes to tumble down on this site.

4. Interview With Gwendolyn Kiste
Somehow I missed this at the time: on the Hellnotes site, Gordon B. White interviews Gwendolyn Kiste about her debut collection And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe. 

5. Mark E. Smith, Rest In Pe....
Actually don't, that would hardly be your style would it?

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Outer Dark: A Strange & Darksome Night

27th November 2017.
The Lovecraft Bar, New York City.
Julia Rust. David Surface. Daniel Baum. Inna Effress.

Four fantastic writers get together for a night of readings from Nightscript III and to discuss weird fiction in general.

Bet you wish you could have been there and heard that, huh?

Well, now you can (hear it at least) thanks to The Outer Dark podcast, you can. The show is hosted by Scott Nicolay, joined by Daniel Baum and Nightscript editor C.M. Mueller. You can listen it now on This Is Horror:

The Outer Dark #27: Nightscript III