Kneejerk Nerdery, or How I Learned to Calm Down and Accept That I Like Some Crap Books

I’m not the most socially nerdy person you’re likely to meet. While my online presence basks in glorious nerdiness and geekery, in my offline life I personally know very few geeks/nerds/whatever term you wish to use. This isn’t a deliberate thing on my part, just that I had a weird – and somewhat, um, rumbustious – youth and have moved around a lot because of it, combined with the fact I now live in a small village in the middle of Northumberland. Those are the breaks. Because of that, I wasn’t really aware of the massive, clumping force of nerdrage. It never occurred to me that there was a SF&F community beyond the same twenty or thirty people who got their letters published regularly in magazines like Starburst or SFX.

Ignorance, I have to admit, was bliss in many ways. I liked what I liked, loathed what I loathed and got on with my life, in a state of cheerful unawareness about the simmering fury that lurks beneath the surface of so many SF&F fans when something they love does not receive universal acclaim, from the SF&F world at least if not necessarily the world at large.

Then the internet happened to me. The real internet, not just the bit with free downloads and pictures of women in their underwear. I learned about message boards, comment threads, blogospheres and so on and it was a joy to me, the poor schlub who’d never had the chance to discuss my love of Stargate: SG1 or my cordial dislike of Farscape in any depth with anyone. Very soon after that, I learned about people who take it personally if you don’t like what they like. Then I learned about the strange phenomenon of reviews being reviewed[1]. As I took more and more notice of, and participated a little bit in, the online SF&F community I learned about storms in teacups and internet hissy fits. It baffled me. To a certain extent, it still does. For years, I shook my head in confusion about it and wondered why people got so hot under the collar.

Then it happened to me.

If you’re British, aged 30 or over and have read fantasy novels for most of your life, chances are you’ve never seen a negative review of a David Gemmell novel. Oh, there are reviews that were couched in less than glowing terms all right, but nothing that outright eviscerated one. The late Mr Gemmell was one of our sacred cows, part of the 1980s and 1990s holy trinity of fantasy which also included Terry Pratchett and Robert Holdstock. Untouchable Titans, Colossi of praise and acclaim. Add to that the fact that Legend has a very deep and personal meaning for me[2], and this review cut me like a personal wound. A little bit of what made me, well, me was under attack.

This review right here. Go and read it, fellow fans of traditional heroic fantasy and feel your nerdrage building. But rather than comment on it immediately, come back here first and hear me out.

When I first read that review, on the day it went live as it happens, I felt my own nerdrage building. How dare he? How can anyone not love this book? Yes, it’s got its faults, but what book hasn’t? So what if the plot is kind of lumbering and sags in the middle? His handling of of the women characters in the book is risible, but it was his début novel so give him a break! He didn’t paint the invaders in the best light but tried to correct that in later novels! Clumsily, I admit, race wasn’t his strong point, but he was trying damn it! The prose isn’t great, but it’s not that sort of book!

(Hang on; nowhere in the review is there any critique of the prose style, so why am I on the back foot about it?)

That’s when I took a breath, deleted the comment I was busily typing and actually thought about my reaction. I wasn’t defending the novel, not really. I couldn’t actually refute any of the criticisms levelled at it. I was defending my love of it. Why did I feel the need to do that? I don’t have to justify my love for my wife, even though she enjoys Strictly Come Dancing and On the Buses[3]. I don’t have to justify my love of football, even though many footballers are complete dicks and the fans can be wearisome and annoying, as well as occasionally violent. I don’t have to justify my enjoyment of the first Transformers film, even though it’s dumb, loud, badly acted, badly plotted, badly written and obnoxiously edited, so why the defensiveness about a book?

It’s my belief, and one I’m sure that most habitual readers will agree with, that books are by far the most personal form of art. There is no other form of art, or entertainment if you prefer to separate the two, which is so utterly reliant on the consumer collaborating willingly with the creator. The writer creates the story, but it comes to life in a unique way for every person who reads it. Everyone who reads a book reads the same words, but no two people have the exact same experience. Hence, when someone tears apart a book you enjoy, they tear apart a little piece of you for liking it. They don’t usually mean to, chances are they don’t even know you, but they do.

This, more than anything else, goes to the heart of why book reviews in general, and fantasy book reviews in particular, generate such heated debate. It’s why the craven and disingenuous objection to ‘tone’ is so frequently a part of the occasional bout of nerdgassing that goes on when someone negatively reviews a book. If we enjoyed the book being dismissed, sneered at or even torn into little pieces and scattered to the four winds, we can’t escape the feeling that the person reviewing it is judging us negatively, as well as the book.

It’s why acrackedmoon of Requires Only That You Hate is so often criticised for the ‘tone’ of her reviews; it’s not that she doesn’t like a given book, it’s that she isn’t apologetic for it. It’s why Liz Bourke’s negative reviews provoke such interminable and circular bellowing about ‘tone'; it’s not about the negative review, it’s that she wasn’t nice about it[4]. It’s why there was so much bleating surrounding Christopher Priest’s recent criticism of the shortlist for the Clarke Awards; it wasn’t about the negative opinion, it was about the fact he didn’t dance on eggshells to prevent hurting people’s feelings.[5]

If a book is called out for sexism or racism, that doesn’t make you sexist or racist for enjoying it; if it’s called out for being rubbish that doesn’t imply that you are a lesser person for liking it.

That’s step one in learning to accept you like things that aren’t very good. Accepting that no one is insulting you personally (at least, not very often) by not liking the things you like.

Step two, and it’s a painful one, is admitting to yourself that just because you like something, that doesn’t make it good. While there’s no such thing as objectively good, there are too many variables between one person and another to declare a universal standard, there’s certainly such a thing as objectively bad and it’s OK to like things that fall into that bracket. Even by the standards of fast food outlets, McDonald’s is not good, in terms of taste, quality or healthiness (or, more disturbingly, ethical business practices); I still enjoy a Big Mac meal now and again. There is no possible scale by which the Hammer (ahem) classic Twins of Evil can be measured as a good film, but I shovel crisps down my gullet and enjoy it each time I see it. This is OK. It doesn’t make me a bad person and it doesn’t constitute a personal attack when someone points out that some of the things I enjoy are rubbish.

Stop trying to defend your bad taste; own it instead. Legend is rubbish. I love it anyway. Neither should you.

[1] Observational study indicates that reviews are classified as ‘good’ when the person mentioning it agrees with the review and ‘bad’ when they don’t.

[2] Long winded and boring story which means nothing to anyone but me, so I won’t waste your time with it.

[3] If you ever think you have to justify your love for another person, I mean one who doesn’t treat you badly or make you feel lesser in some way, give yourself a ding round the earhole, you over-analytical pillock.

[4] acrackedmoon and Liz Bourke also have to contend the with the joys of misogynistic spleen, condescending words like ‘shrill’ being used against them and, in a spectacular act of shooting your attempt to defend your entertainment choices in the foot, Liz Bourke was accused of being too intelligent to review a fantasy novel. I don’t care what you intend, that’s the only thing calling someone an “Ivory tower academic” implies.

[5] Yes, I have opinions on most of the novels acrackedmoon has reviewed, that Liz Bourke has reviewed and two of the Clarke nominations Christopher Priest ripped into (I’m behind with my reading this year). No, I’m not sharing them. That’s not the point of this post.

Anthologies: How They Work and Why Some Don’t

An anthology is a simple concept, at heart. Grab a bunch of short stories, put them all in one collection and BAM! Done. The execution, though, is a different thing altogether. An anthology is more than just the sum of its constituent parts and, in fact, I intend to argue that a good anthology is as cogent, coherent and carefully executed as any novel. To do this, I shall be using a trio of anthologies from my own collection; the reasons for the selection of the particular collections in question will become apparent as the post goes on.

Murder Most Foul – Ed. unlisted.
The Giant Book of Best New Horror – Ed. by Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell.
Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke – Ed. by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin.

I Shall be examining each one in turn and illustrating what works, what doesn’t and, hopefully, why that’s the case. It should be noted that this does not constitute a review of the anthologies as collections of literature, but from the technical standpoint of the anthologist’s art; all three contain stories I adore, am ambivalent towards or outright dislike and no indication shall be given about which stories from which anthologies fall into what bracket.

That's some bad lighting, isn't it?

Pictured: The books examined

First principles:

Before going any further, I think it necessary to explain what I believe constitutes a good anthology and a bad one. The most important thing to note is that a ‘good’ anthology doesn’t contain a high ratio of ‘good’ stories by default. In fact, from a technical standpoint so long as the stories aren’t downright horrible to read, then an anthology filled with mediocre fiction can be classified as ‘good’, or at least ‘technically successful’, while a bad one can be filled with great stories. An anthology exists separately from the literature it contains, being both a vehicle for and passenger of the stories within, which forces it to become an entity in its own right.

A good anthology should contain two of the following three qualities (at a bare minimum): careful pacing, narrative structure and, when at all possible, an anthology should be thematically consistent. While this is difficult to achieve in collections which aren’t tied by any given theme beyond ‘best of year’ or ‘best of [given sub-genre]‘ and so on, it can still be achieved by means of ensuring that stories are presented in an order which groups certain themes together while maintaining overall pace and structure.

A bad anthology contains a bunch of stories thrown together with reckless abandon. A bad anthology does not exhibit its contents, it merely allows you a convenient place to see them. It really is as marked as the difference between visiting an exhibit in an art gallery and a shop which happens to sell art.

The good, the bad and the almost good:

Murder Most Foul:

Couldn't find a cover illustration online, so you get my crap photography. Cover art is uncredited in the book.

No anthology of the ones being examined contains so many works by big hitters and names for the ages, and yet, the overall impression it leaves on the reader is one of ambivalence. While it does have a theme of sorts, Murder! The foul kind!, the stories aren’t really placed so much as deposited. While someone involved in the process obviously thought ‘Open strongly so the reader doesn’t lose interest’, and any anthology which opens with a story by Ray Bradbury is opening strongly, beyond that obvious piece of structural thought little attention was given to the pace and structure of the anthology as a whole. The stories fluctuate between the gruesome, the clever, the too clever by half and the light and frothy at a rapid enough pace to cause emotional whiplash (if that was an actual thing, which it isn’t).

While most of the stories are very good indeed, even a minor work by someone like Dorothy L. Sayers or Ray Bradbury is something to write home about, Murder Most Foul flounders because of a lack of thematic direction. Another editor could have turned this into a definitive collection of great crime writing in the short format, but as it stands it fails spectacularly due to its inability to carry the reader along from one story into the next with any kind of smoothness. The lack of thematic imperative or narrative structure afforded by the haphazard construction leaves the book as little more than a brief lived in the memory and lumpen collection of stories, of interest only, perhaps, to completist fans of a given author it might contain.

The Giant Book of Best New Horror:

Cover image taken from vaultofevil.wordpress.com, artwork by Luis Rey

The very title of this book tells you it’s a collection, more than a true anthology; a snapshot of the state of the horror genre at its time of publication in 1993. This overreaching and unwieldy premise is, however, elevated by the skill of its editors. Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Jones know horror – they know it inside out, upside down and back to front. Furthermore, any brief reading of the many articles, author’s notes, forewords, introductions and internet postings of Jones and Campbell tells you that these gentlemen are steeped in the anthology tradition, as is any horror fan old enough to remember when the release of a new Pan Book of Horror was a thing to look forward to rather than a distant memory from their youth.

The above being said, the skill shown by Messrs Jones and Campbell cannot outdo the scattergun approach necessary in such an undertaking. While every attention has obviously been given to ensuring a smooth flow from one story into another, a subtle gathering of the stories into particular sub-types (bad thing happens to undeserving person, rotter gets comeuppance, transformational, the other and so on) and carefully ensuring the closing tone of one story is either echoed or counterpointed by the opening tone of the one following, the sheer volume of inclusions means the anthology groans under its own weight.

Viewing  The Giant Book of Best New Horror as a time capsule, a collection of what horror was about and intended to do at the tail end of the 1980s[1], it’s a roaring success and of great interest to those with a serious interest in horror fiction and it can, and should, be argued that this was the intention. Viewed as an anthology, however, it’s a only a mild success, one qualified by the unavoidable sense of interminable length such a tome brings to bear and which no editor, no matter how highly skilled and knowledgeable, could avoid.

Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke:

Picture taken from pandemonium-fiction.com, artwork by Gary Northfield

Honesty compels me to disclaim the following by admitting that this anthology has a dual advantage over the two previous examples; those of tighter thematic requirements and a smaller collection of stories than those mentioned above. I stress again, this isn’t a comparison of the relative quality of stories contained, but of success in the building of an anthology.

Pandemonium: Stories of the Smoke succeeds on multiple fronts. As well as the obvious advantage of thematic consistency imparted by having a restrictive requirement for submissions/commissions, it stands up to examination from a structural standpoint. Stories flow into each other, with no notably jarring examples of mood change. It also bears reading in sequence in order to appreciate the subtlety with which the overall theme, that of Dickensian fiction for the modern era, marries with a specifically Dickensian tone, namely one of warning about current social/cultural trends tempered by optimism for the future, not to mention an inherent fascination with the city of London and its potential to both elevate and corrupt those who choose or are trapped by its environs.

Further to the above, the stories are placed in the anthology in such a way as to draw the reader in. Despite the wildly differing approaches undertaken in the individual stories, the careful construction still evokes the feeling of an overall narrative, from a thematic perspective at the very least, and the sense that the anthology has, when taken as a whole, something to say, as well as something to show you. This almost novel-like pace ensures that the anthology can be read in one sitting as a complete work, as well as dipped into at random.

While the publishers obviously hope to make a profit from the release of this anthology, it’s very clear that first and foremost it was a labour of love and an artistic, rather than commercial, endeavour.

Conclusion:

Of the three books examined, we have one failure, one minor success hamstrung slightly by over-ambition and one major success when each is viewed as examples of the mechanics of an anthology. What is readily apparent is that for any anthologist, established or budding, an understanding of narrative structure and the emotional reaction of the reader are essential. While it’s undoubtedly true that an anthology brilliantly assembled from sub-standard parts[2] can be damned by the faint praise of ‘technical accomplishment’, it’s also true that an anthology which is clumsily assembled from brilliant parts can be condemned as a technical failure.

Equally important, is a genuine connection with the subject matter of a given anthology. Someone not interested in a particular style or genre will miss nuances of classification that a true lover of said style/genre will spot at 100 paces and instinctively know how best to exhibit. Locked Room mysteries are not best followed by spiteful revenge yarns, splatter doesn’t follow easily behind slow burning stories of the Bad Place and so on.

Finally, an anthology should always be, before anything else that may be hoped for it, an artistic endeavour. Once a story has been selected for inclusion, as much thought – if not more – should go into placing it within the collection in such a manner that it is shown in its best light. While a technical understanding of anthologising can take you so far, the final push into excellence comes from an aesthetic sensibility. Knowing that B should follow A is all well and good, but there’s no substitute for knowing that both B and A make for excellent counterpoints to each other so should in fact bookend another story altogether. There’s craftiness in anthologising, but also artistry.

When an anthology succeeds, even slightly, it’s because someone loved it; not just loved the subject matter, although that’s important, but loved the act of anthologising in its own right. The urge to classify, reclassify, tweak and tinker with story placement, analyse and discuss at inordinate length.

When an anthology fails, it’s due to a lack of care at some level. Not caring about the reader, or the subject matter, or the construction or whatever else it may be doesn’t matter. An anthology becomes unlovely when no love was shown to it.

If you’ve made it this far, and congratulations if you did, the next time you find yourself reading an anthology and having a love or loathe reaction, ask yourself if it really is the stories that have you feeling that way, or if something about the construction is making it greater or lesser than the sum of its parts. Sometimes, the answer might surprise you.

[1] Thanks to the slow pace of publishing, any snapshot of a particular genre or movement is slightly out of date when it appears. There’s an entire blog post of its own about this; I might even write it sometime.

[2] Again, I must emphasise that I’m not offering reviews of content, but analysis (clumsily, I admit) of construction. No anthology chosen contains more than its fair share of duffers and all contain moments of brilliance.

The Siren Song

Living a few hundred yards, as the crow flies, from a fire station isn’t something you think about, most of the time. During the day, the hum of traffic both near and distant, combined with the general background hubbub of the daytime that you never truly hear, but notice strongly by its absence as night falls, make it something that barely registers on your conscious mind.

In the deepest pit of the night, this changes. Your slumber is never truly deep, as the bell that fire stations once favoured has been replaced with a klaxon. Sleep is broken by that muffled, yet insistent wail… woooOOOOP-woooOOOOP-woooOOOOP. I wake, curse the klaxon and sulk for a few seconds, before remembering that the klaxon’s wail means that someone, somewhere, is in trouble; to hear the klaxon is to hear the sound of help departing for those unfortunates.

I roll over, damning myself as an inconsiderate, stone-hearted, bastard. I close my eyes again and fall back into the arms of Morpheus, embracing his transcendent kiss, lulled back to sleep by the gentling song of the passing fire engine.

weeeOOOOP
.
.
.
Weeep-Weeep-Weeep
.
.
.
HOOOOOOOOOOOOOONK!

Review: Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin

Disclaimer: This is not normally a review blog. I do not consider myself well enough educated, or analytical enough to review things on a regular, or even semi regular, basis. With that in mind, I’m still going to post a review of this anthology, for reasons which will become clear in reading it.

Disclosure: I have written for Anne and Jared’s geek culture blog Pornokitsch twice in the past. There is a working relationship of sorts between us, but at no point has there ever been anything transactional in the nature of it. I wrote for Pornokitsch because what they asked of me sounded fun and interesting; I neither asked for, nor received, payment in cash, goods, services or in any other considerations.

With those two notices out of the way, to the review! Onwards!

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse, is a small press anthology with distinctive and unusual roots. The fledgling Pandemonium Fiction is a writer’s cooperative, which for its début release is working with the Tate Britain and the Clarke Awards in releasing an anthology inspired by the work of the Romantic artist John Martin, an man of unique talent and unusual historical significance (or lack thereof, depending upon fashion). Proceeds from the sales of the collection are split between the contributors and various other literary causes; in this the case the Arthur C. Clarke Awards.

The anthology collects original works by of eighteen of the brightest rising stars in SF, fantasy and horror, including such luminaries as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Lauren Beukes, Sophia McDougall, Kim Lakin-Smith and Chrysanthy Balis, all apparently given one simple instruction. Look at Martin’s work, then write. The results are varied, wildly imaginative and brilliant. The stories within all follow the themes, settings or atmosphere of Martin’s work perfectly and, in one particularly clever case, use the exhibition itself as the starting point of a searing reaction to the confused, inarticulate, consumerist nihilism of the London riots and the reactionary, pro-vigilante discourse that followed them.

Some of the stories are quite obviously set on this world, some equally obviously are not, while others retain a pleasant ambiguity about setting. They  vary in tone from comic (The Architect of Hell, Chislehurst Messiah, The End of the World) to bleakly depressing (OMG GTFO, Πανδαιμονειον, ), taking detours at touchingly human (Closer, The Day or the Hour, Another Abyss), gloriously dark (Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion) and achingly romantic (Not the End of the World). The apocalypses portrayed range from implied in the setting (Deluge, The Last Man), to explicit on the page (Deluge again (trust me)); from the literal apocalypse, to the deeply and intensely personal (A Private Viewing) end of an individual’s world; from the biblical (Evacuation), to the mysterious (At the Sign of the Black Dove), to the science fictional (The Harvest, The Immaculate Particle) to the gloriously unclassifiable (Postapocalypse). Although I’ve highlighted certain descriptors with particular stories, they all fit several of the descriptors mentioned and none of them are one dimensional.

The first thing to note is that Pandemonium contains no dead wood; no filler, obligatory inclusions, or unnecessary stories. Every work in the collection, as well as being individually superb, sings for its supper; serves a particular purpose within the thematic framework of the anthology and is placed with great care at a specific place within the book as a whole to aid in the pacing, structure and emotional response of the reader. A short story collection can, of course, be read out of order; Pandemonium is one that merits a full reading in sequential order at least once. To do otherwise is to miss the thematic subtleties and structural cleverness of the editors.

This is a rare thing to say about an anthology, but there were no stories I disliked; nothing which I thought to be weak, or badly written; nothing which I found myself trawling through, wishing only to get to the next story. There were, of course, stories which stood out for me personally or which took me so much by surprise that they still linger days later. I’ve highlighted a few below, although it bears saying that even the stories not chosen are worthy of highlighting in their own right.

(Some spoilers between the asterisks)

***

Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, by Archie Black

I thought that Archie Black’s ‘Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion’ was a relentlessly black, magnificently downbeat exercise in the stripping away of humanity; the ambiguously detailed historical apocalypse is mirrored perfectly by the descent of the narrator into depression, despondency, barbarism, degeneracy and, ultimately, death. This story was a particularly pleasant surprise, as before starting Pandemonium I’d never heard of Archie Black, even second hand; I’ll certainly be keeping a very close eye on her career from this point on.

OMG GTFO, by S.L. Grey

I’d heard of the gestalt entity that is S.L. Grey, usually in glowing terms, before reading Pandemonium, but this was my first encounter with them. ‘OMG GTFO’ took me by surprise, not for the high quality (which met my absurdly high expectations and proves that hype isn’t always unjustified), but for the cynical nihilism on display within it. Horror, despite accusations to the contrary, is often the most human of genres; with each survivor, we reject death; with each monster defeated or contained we reject chaos; with each boundary or moral line not crossed, we reaffirm our humanity.

Not so, in ‘OMG GTFO’. What at first comes across as a sly parody of religionist insistence that there are no atheists in foxholes and the idea that the stick serves a deity far better than the carrot for bringing in the sheep, quickly and neatly sidesteps into a pitch black insistence that humanity is kept human by only the thinnest of civilised veneers and at the end of it all, we’re all fucked anyway. Hell exists all right, we live here. Wonderfully thought provoking.

Deluge, by Kim Lakin-Smith

Kim Lakin-Smith’s ‘Deluge’ surprised me in multiple and confusing ways. First of all, for the fact that it is, nominally at least, my ‘least favourite’ (please note the semantic difference between ‘least favourite’ and ‘don’t like’) story in the collection, yet it absolutely point blank refuses to leave my head. Secondly, for the fact the story was not set at the bottom of a deep, oceanic abyss; I have never read a story which left me with such a strong sense of pressure, compression and abyssal depths; each mention of air, desert, rain,wheels, wind or sand in the text hit me like a drop of cold water in the face, reminding me that the story occurs on dry (very dry) land.

This isn’t for lack of clarity on the part of author, I should point out; short of her coming to my house and sprinkling sand in my sock drawer, the desert environment couldn’t be made any more unambiguous by Ms Lakin-Smith. Saying that, every sentence of ‘Deluge’ felt as disorienting as sounds heard while underwater. Louder and closer than is strictly comfortably, yet always more distant than you think.

While I can quite easily, and truthfully, tell you that despite being exceptionally well written the story didn’t quite click for me, I can simultaneously, and with equal truth, tell you that I’m deeply fascinated with reading more about Wakatire and would eagerly snap up any further stories set there, as well as hunting out the author’s other works with great haste. As I said, confusing. Like all top quality writers, when a story doesn’t click you doubt yourself and your understanding of it, as much as, or more than, the story itself.

Not the End of the World, by Sophia McDougall

‘Not the End of the World’ by Sophia McDougall, is the final story in Pandemonium and the perfect story with which to close out such a volume. A subtle, heart warming, heartbreaking and devastatingly human end to a roller-coaster of an anthology.

Equal parts historical tale, tender romance, ghost story, war story and urban fantasy, Ms McDougall paints intimate portraits of six disparate characters with remarkable deftness, lightness of touch and brief, yet illuminating, intimacy. Through meticulous use of repetition, exactingly precise use of vague recollection of earlier passages and events and effortless shifts from a chatty, intimate viewpoint to a broad and poetic narrative prose, she takes the reader from the domestic claustrophobia of Friedenstrasse 77, through the timeless space of what could well be an eternity passed in what may be only nanoseconds and, finally, to a rejection of the comforts of routine, mundane, unchanging now and a willingness to embrace the future, even though that future may contain horrors not yet known, uncertainty, or instant and painful death.

Failure to embrace change is a failure to exist fully and the end of the world in ‘Not the End of the World’ comes not for Elly with her rejection of eternal safety in a never ending present, but for those who remain in Friedenstrasse 77, preserved forever, but as untouchable and unliving as Frau Holl’s precious ornaments. Sophia McDougall achieves as complete and satisfying an emotional transformation in  one short story as many writers struggle to illustrate in an entire novel, which is remarkable.

***

(Spoilers end)

Why do I feel the need to review this anthology, when I read so many things and review, well, none of them? Because this anthology feels, forthcoming mockable hyperbole duly noted, like the beginning of something special. Not a beginning for Pandemonium Fiction, this may seem cold (Sorry Anne and Jared!) but imprints start or stop every year, but of a generation of writers, and two hugely gifted anthologists, about to hit the big time. There’s a famous photograph taken at Sun Studios in Memphis, which shows the young and not yet famous group of musicians, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins, gathered around a piano having fun. This collection has that same feeling of fresh, new and limitless potential. Even taking the vagaries of publishing into account, I find it hard to believe that at least a few of the writers here won’t go on to become huge names. I will take huge pleasure in watching to see which ones and cheering all from the sidelines.

It’s worth noting that I started writing this review five hours before writing this final paragraph and most of that time was spent agonising over which few stories to highlight individually and wish I had the space to write about the fourteen that remain. With that firmly in your mind, you should be heading over to Pandemonium Fiction and making sure that you get your copy of Stories of the Apocalypse just as soon as it goes live. It will surely be talked about a lot in the coming weeks and months.

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse is released on November 4th 2011 in ebook format and in a limited edition hardback run available for purchase at the Tate Britain.

Superinjunctions: The beginning of the end for the free press?

I try my best to keep my political views away from this blog. I make no apologies for the views I do hold, strongly to the left, but I try to keep things reasonably light hearted and personal here. If people want to read about politics there are approximately eleventy squajillion political blogs out there, both good and bad, and I figure people can find their own way to them without me adding my own flavour of screed to the cacophony.

I also hold strong opinions about the press and media in this country, but I think that sites such as the magisterial Tabloid Watch, Angry Mob and Five Chinese Crackers do a far better job than I ever could in flagging the hypocrisy of the British media.

That being said, this new trend for granting “superinjunctions” is a disturbing one, to say the very least. I first became aware of the “superinjunction” in 2009 after it went public that Trafigura had taken one out to prevent The Guardian from reporting on the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast. I later heard of them again after all that ridiculous brouhaha about John Terry’s love life (I won’t dignify that non-story with a link).

Today it emerged that Fred Goodwin is Not a Banker; or at least, not if the superinjunction he tried to take out had anything to say about it. There are many interesting issues surrounding the injunction, not least of which is the tacit acknowledgement that the word ‘banker’ is now pejorative in tone, but that’s another blog post for someone else to write. The problem is, superinjunctions are dangerous and easily open to abuse. The Trafigura and Fred Goodwin stories only came to light under the protection of Parliamentary Privilege

If you can’t even acknowledge the fact that a company or individual has brought action against you, you are effectively court ordered to excise a legal proceeding from existence. I don’t care whether you’re a multinational corporation covering up misdeeds, a footballer covering up having your end away with a former team mate’s ex-girlfriend (a sentence I’m ashamed to write) or the inept, blundering, cockwaffle of a useless banker, yes, BANKER, who presided over the collapse of RBS, the fiscal equivalent of being the captain of a ship who knowingly steers straight into shallows and grounds the vessel. No-one should be able to use the law of the land as a blunt instrument to silence those who report on their misdeeds, sexual antics or the plain fact of what they once (incompetently) did for a living. Are the press running a blatantly false story? Then a plain old injunction is good enough, it prevents them running the story and justice is done.

Any action beyond that is a flagrant abuse of the system and, furthermore, it’s the kind of abuse only open to those with enough money to hire the most expensive of legal teams in the first place, effectively meaning there is one rule for the rich and another for everyone else. A two tier legal system is wrong on every level I can possibly think of.

Anyway, rant over. Since Fred Goodwin is Not a Banker, let me see if I can figure out what he really is…

Fred Goodwin is a Circus Clown?

Fred Goodwin is a Zoo Monkey?

Fred Goodwin is a Small Bed & Breakfast Just Outside Tunbridge Wells?

Fred Goodwin was a small arboreal maniraptoran that hoarded the eggs of other species? (hat tip to Jake Kale)

Fred Goodwin is a Member of the Bolshoi Ballet?

Fred Goodwin is a Rich, Entitled, Shitweasel Who Has The Temerity to Try and Pretend That He Didn’t Break RBS to the Tune of a £20 Billion Taxpayer Funded Bailout?

Yeah, I think that’s the one. Shitweasel. I could be wrong of course, why not say what Fred Goodwin is in the comments, maybe we can stumble onto the truth by accident…

Work in Progress: Short Extract no.2

Please note: As time marches on, this may end up as a deleted scene instead of an extract. Time will tell.

So, as I mentioned the other day I’m rewriting or throwing out a lot of my current Work in Progress because of stylistic issues. The most difficult character to do this with is Armand, because the passages from his POV are so, well, strangely put together. Even by my own standards, they’re lacking description, intentionally choppy and disjointed and I’m not entirely sure how to go about retooling them. Anyway, I know Armand is going to remain a major POV character but here’s a look at him as he first emerged onto the page, no matter how he ends up in the final draft.

Light. White and blinding. Armand shut his eyes and turned away from it, but it burned through his eyelids and so he woke. He stepped from his pallet and walked to the bowl of water to wash his face. Snoring. The man he was sharing the cost of the room with was still fast asleep. Thoughts crossed his mind, but Armand ignored them, for now at least, and washed himself. With face clean and thoughts ignored he pulled on his clothes and considered if he was hungry enough for breakfast. No breakfast.

Clean, thoughtless and dressed.

The inn was poor, even the shutters on the windows were worn and full of holes, and the food and drink weren’t as Armand would have liked. Money was what he needed, but this place was too poor for anyone except the local lord to have anything of use. Armand sat down to decide where to go next. He was almost out of room in Galle, so his options were to go sideways or to loop back north into the middle. He didn’t like moving sideways, so back north it was. Decision made.

Clean, thoughtless, dressed, not hungry.

North wasn’t good. North was behind him and people knew Armand behind him. Sideways was worse, though. People always looked sideways first. At least backwards might be unexpected. Standing up, he started to gather his few belongings into the pack he travelled with. Noise. Sudden, low, mournful. Armand froze in place, then located the noise. The bed opposite. The man sleeping had passed wind. Armand began to wretch, the smell assaulting his throat and making his stomach twist and lurch. Thoughts. Lots and lots of thoughts. Too many thoughts. Make them stop.

Turning towards the man, Armand crossed the space between them. He waited until the man exhaled, then placed his hand across the man’s nose and mouth, pinching off his air supply. It took him a second or two to wake up, which was a second or two too long, so Armand knew the man was dead. He watched the dead man’s eyes spring open, saw the look of first confusion, then fear enter his eyes and then, after a few seconds of pointless and feeble attempts to push Armand away, the body caught up with the inevitable and died. He left his hand over its mouth until it voided itself, then stepped away to wash his hands again. Hunger, sudden and sharp. Armand decided to get a bag of food from downstairs to take with him as he walked. In a short while, the people here would know him. Leaving time.

Clean, dressed, thoughts emptying again, hungry.

Everyone, meet Armand. Armand, stay the hell away from everyone I know. As stated before, I’ve no idea how he’ll end up, but this is how I first met him.

One of Those Days

I’m a bit swamped today, between Real Life, the Work in Progress and one or two other things I’m working on, so with that in mind let me do some quick sharing. We all love to share and blather about ourselves, right?

Things I Do Not Care About

To all media outlets, everywhere: Charlie Sheen’s apparent mental breakdown.
To people who comment on youtube videos: Justin Bieber/Lady Gaga/Katy Perry.
To amazon.co.uk: Bargains to be found on clothes airers. I clicked one link damn you!
To football broadcasters: The opinion of the vast majority of pundits you hire.
To our fridge: That funny whiff coming from behind you. I’ve learned to live with it, nothing can convince me to lug your heavy arse out of your cubby hole to find out what it is.
To our cat: I never liked the wallpaper in the passage that much, anyway.

Things I Do Care About

To my fiction writing brain: Completing my current work in progress, stop distracting me with the urge to write something else.
To the internet: Pictures of Bridget Moynahan. I don’t care if I’m shallow, vapid and guilty of objectifying an intelligent and talented actress, I just never get tired of looking at her.
To my reading brain: Reading the good stuff. Stop trying to convince me to reread bad stuff and post reviews of it.
To the world in general: Being too broke to afford Dragon Age II, so trying to figure out whether it’s worth trading in Heavy Rain, Fallout: New Vegas and a few less prestigious games to help finance the purchase.

That’s all for now. Drop a comment telling me what you do and don’t care about and I’ll catch you again soon.

In Which I Pontificate on Narrative Voices (and concede a minor defeat)

You might have seen one of my comments mentioning my grandly ambitious plans to use seven distinct writing styles for the five and two half POV characters in my current work in progress. If you did, then I’m here to tell you that that particular plan has had to be abandoned, hence my silence for the past ten days or so. I’ve had to throw out or retool approximately 20,000 words. Not my favourite thing I’ve ever had to do, but the plain fact is it wasn’t working. Each POV switch jarred too heavily and it felt as if each character was part of a different novel. That sounds very cute and clever in theory, but in practice it makes for a very choppy and disjointed story which doesn’t flow very well from one scene into another.

I’ve been having to rewrite things in something that approaches a consistent narrative voice and add minor flourishes of colour in character’s internal monologue or descriptive passages, which has taken up a lot of my time. I’m getting caught up to myself again, though, so normal service will be resumed soon. I’ll throw up a little taster of one of the other characters very soon.

Until then…

Unsung Genre Heroes – Horror: Graham Masterton

In horror, or ‘Dark Fantasy’ as some bookshops are starting to call it these days (with justification, perhaps – that’s for another post, though), there’s a bit of a fetish for transcending the genre; writing a book that appeals to the lit-fic crowd. If you’re lucky enough to be translated from another language – John Ajvide Lindqvist, Koji Suzuki – or sell an absolute buttload of copies – Stephen King, Clive Barker – then it happens almost automatically. If you have a knack for spare, almost McCarthyesque, prose then you might escape the genre doldrums and be, somewhat sniffishly, accepted as a ‘real’ writer. Peter Straub and Christopher Fowler have and it looks like Joe Hill is well on his way towards that too. If you just want to give people a ripping yarn with a few scares and shocks in there, though, you might end up unjustly ignored by anyone except horror buffs. Along with a few of his contemporaries – F. Paul Wilson, Ramsey Campbell, James Herbert – Graham Masterton has ended up in just that situation.

A cut down biography of Masterton’s writing reads something like this. He started out as a journalist and jobbing writer, before becoming the editor of Mayfair and UK Penthouse. He wrote a couple of sex instruction manuals before his first novel, The Manitou, was released in 1976. Since then, he’s written primarily, although by no means exclusively, in the horror genre as well as continuing to release sex instruction manuals.

Now that we’ve established who he is, it’s time to get to the crux of this post; why I’m writing about him. I’m writing about him because he deserves it. For more than thirty years, he’s been writing effective, efficient, occasionally brilliant horror novels, as well as a selection of solid crime, historicals, thrillers and the occasional foray into ‘true’ fantasy. So far, he’s published more than eighty novels and almost as many short stories and is still going strong. The man must be doing something right, so what exactly is it?

The first part of it, is his mastery of formula; knowing exactly how a given type of story should progress, where the beats need to be, how to hook a reader and then drip feed them shocks, twists, revelations and action at exactly the right pace to carry them all the way to the end. In case you think that’s faint or grudging praise, try finding a writer or critic who isn’t filled with respect and admiration for Elmore Leonard or Donald E. Westlake; believe me, you’ll need to travel a long way to find one, and those guys are fellow masters of formula.

The second part of it, is his prose style. It’s unfussy, uncomplicated and gets the point across effectively in the minimum number of words. When you’re reading a Graham Masterton, you rarely pick out a turn of phrase or sentence and say “That’s a typically Masterton way of putting that”, in fact you don’t even notice him at all, merely the story he happens to be telling. By no means every critic, and certainly not every writer, will tell you that’s something to aim for, but Masterton is masterful at putting the story first. So far as he’s concerned, the reader is to be entertained first and foremost. If you have to scurry for a dictionary to look up a word, he’s not doing it right; if you lift your eyes from the page and say “what a beautifully constructed sentence”, then you’ve noticed him and it’s distracted you from the story. Because of that, he takes the “murder your darlings” approach to its extreme. The only idiosyncrasies in a Masterton story are those of the character, most notably in his Manitou novels, where the voice of Harry Erskine has remained consistently recognisable for thirty five years. The same thing applies in his Jim Rook series of horror novels for young adults. Rook is recognisable and it’s immediately apparent you’re reading a novel about him, but, once again, Masterton himself is almost invisible. To quote Elmore Leonard, he “leaves out the bits that people skip” and does it consistently and superbly well. The man is a pro.

The final part, is his meticulous attention to detail. He quite obviously goes out of his way to learn about the subject his story deals with and that always shows on the page. In most cases, that research is channelled into making an element of mythology or folklore scary, but he weaves sometimes quite sizeable infodumps into his stories with skill and flair, almost always phrasing them as stories within the story and the infodump itself becomes entertaining in its own right; something a lot of far bigger selling authors have still to learn. Now, I’m not saying that all of the mythology in his stories is strictly true to the source, Trotting Coyote wouldn’t necessarily make the greatest villain (Charnel House) without some serious tweaking to fit the tale in question, but they make an excellent jumping off point for learning more about the myths in question.

So, if you’ve read this far then you obviously haven’t encountered his writing before, and might be wondering where to start. Maybe try a few from the selection below and see what you think.

Horror Fans
The Manitou series (Manitou, Revenge of the Manitou, Burial, Manitou Blood, Blind Panic)
Flesh & Blood
The House That Jack Built
Prey
Any of his short story anthologies (Scare Care, Fortnight of Fear, Flights of Fear etc.)

Never read horror, but willing to give it a go
The Jim Rook series (Rook, Tooth & Claw, The Terror, Snowman, Swimmer, Darkroom, Demon’s Door, Ultimate Evil)
Black Angel (A mixture of horror & detective fiction)
The 5th Witch (A mixture of horror elements and urban fantasy)
The Devils of D Day (Mixes horror and action thriller quite nicely)

I read fantasy, but don’t mind the odd scare mixed in
The Night Warriors series (Night Warriors, Death Dream, Night Plague, Night Wars, The Ninth Nightmare)
The Hidden World
Walkers
Edgewise (One of many Masterton tales which are based on Native American mythology)
Descendant (Volume one of proposed Vampire Hunter series)

I read mostly crime, but don’t mind it being creepy in places
The Sissy Sawyer series (Touchy & Feely, The Painted Man)
Trauma
Holy Terror

There you go. The man’s a true pro and an unsung hero of the horror genre. I hope you’ll try at least one of the books I’ve recommended above and also hope you’ll get as much pleasure from them as I have over the years. Happy (if somewhat nervous) reading!

Visit Graham’s home page to learn more: http://www.grahammasterton.co.uk/

Work in Progress: Short extract

In lieu of that Northumberland Folklore post, which I’m too busy to write properly today, have a snifter of what I’m currently writing instead. A bit of a departure in terms of my writing, since it’s pulp adventure which owes equal parts to Dumas, Lieber and Westlake. The working title is The Harlequins (subject to change, just as soon as I think up a better one).

Harlequins extract: Chapter one – Part one – An Unexpected Creditor

Eight feet, by eight feet. That was what Remy’s world had shrunk to. Sixty four square feet of cold stone, a tiny grille for a window, a wooden sleeping platform and bucket that made the whole dismal room smell of a sewer. Oh, there was a sort of courtyard he could go into but he tried to avoid it. Only two kinds of people were out there, deluded minor nobles who were convinced that a relative would pay their debts and have them released, or else the lowest kind of commoner not reduced to thievery, bemoaning their accursed luck at ending up in gaol. Remy didn’t like mixing with either of them. The nobles looked down on him, the commoners treat him with suspicion and both sections kept away from each other, leaving Remy to wander alone through the open space in the middle. Besides, some of the nobles had relations who couldn’t afford to pay the debts, but could afford to bring them various luxuries and treats. Remy hated seeing all that luxury, in relation to what a flat broke prisoner like himself could have, going to waste on simpering halfwits. If he only had a stake, he could live like a king in here. The problem was, he was so far down on his luck that he couldn’t even raise a cake or a decent shirt to gamble with. If you could call playing against these idiots gambling.

A harsh laugh from the walkway outside his cell brought Remy out of himself. There was another reason he didn’t go out into the courtyard. Gaston. A swaggering, one-eyed bully who enjoyed taking what he could from those lacking a group of friends to protect them from it or the outside influence to prevent it. Remy closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the cold stone wall behind his pallet. With luck, Gaston and his two snivelling cronies would pass by to annoy some other fool.

“Good morning, Remy. Have you got something for me? Half of your morning bread perhaps? I hate to see people who can’t honour a promise, especially when such mistakes are what landed them in this pleasant guest house in the first place.” A couple of sniggers accompanied that sparkling witticism. Remy sighed heavily. Why was Gaston so obsessed with the bread? It was as hard a priest’s heart by the time the prisoners as poor as Remy got it.

“Gaston. Always a pleasure. No, I don’t have bread for you. I’m stashing it under my mattress. I’m hoping to sharpen it up on the walls, so I can cut through the bars.” He opened his eyes, to see three people staring blankly at him. The hulking Gaston, greasy hair slicked back into a ponytail and gravy still on his chin from his breakfast, fingering the patch over his missing eye as he always did when he was trying to appear urbane and charming. On either side of him were his two lapdogs. Remy could never remember their names.

Gaston flicked his head and the two lackeys rushed forward and grabbed Remy by the arms, hauling him to his feet. Gaston stepped through the doorway, pulling the door closed behind him. He strolled over to Remy and looked him up and down. Remy met his gaze evenly. He had no intention of fighting them, but he’d be damned if he was going to flinch from them.

“We have an agreement, Remy. You give me half your morning bread, and I protect you from the more unsavoury characters in here. Where’s my bread?” Remy held Gaston’s gaze.

“We have no such bargain. I signed nothing, told you quite plainly I wouldn’t give you anything of mine and the only unsavoury thing in this shithole of a gaol is the smell from your two flunkies. I owe you nothing. Now tell arse-kisser and ball-licker here to let go of me, then all three of you get out of my room.”

A dull pain erupted in Remy’s solar plexus and all his wind exited his chest as he coughed and wheezed. Gaston was pretty quick for a big man. Remy hadn’t even seen the blow coming, so couldn’t prepare himself for it. Tears streamed from his eyes as he tried vainly to get his breath back between retches and coughs. He thought briefly about fighting back, but they’d already got the first blow in and besides, he could be here for a long time. No sense in starting a feud that could end up with his getting killed.

“When Gaston tells someone they’re going to give him something, they give it to him, do you understand me Remy?” Remy spluttered a bit more, then managed to draw himself upright.

“I thought you were Gaston?” Gaston’s solitary eye clouded in confusion.

“I am Gaston.”

“So who’s the other Gaston you’re talking about? The one who everyone gives their stuff to.” Remy actually managed to see the next blow coming, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He just closed his eyes in preparation for the pain he knew was coming and ducked a little in the hope of avoiding a broken nose, as Gaston drew his shoulders back for the headbutt.

An explosion of white light, then the next few minutes passed in a haze of dizziness and pain. Blows landed all over Remy’s ribcage, then he felt himself fall to the floor as arse-kisser and ball-licker let go of him, in order to land a few blows of their own. He managed to curl himself into a ball with his arms tucked over his head to protect himself from any further strikes to his skull, but from there it was a matter of hoping they got bored quickly. Soon enough, it was over and he heard their boots retreating and the door opening and closing as they left.

After a few minutes to make sure they weren’t coming back for a second helping, Remy unrolled himself from his protective ball and tried to stretch out a bit, in order to test how badly they’d hurt him. A few pokes and prods told him they’d done no serious damage. Lots of bruises and a headache from the headbutt were all he had to show for it. This beating was obviously meant as a warning. No doubt the next one would be more severe.

Remy opened his left fist, which he’d kept clutched tightly shut throughout the beating. In his hand was a pewter toothpick he’d managed to lift from the one he thought of as “arse-licker”, as he’d slumped over after the blow to the guts. At least the beating had been profitable. Later on, he could try and use the pick to get in on a game of cards or dice with those idiotic minor nobles. First though, a nap to help him get over the beating. Perhaps his luck was changing after all.

There you go, hope you didn’t hate it. The folklore post I promised will be up either later on today or tomorrow, entirely dependent on how RL stuff pans out.