horror

Week 15: Spoken word in Leeds, among other things

The highlight of this week was Friday night at Anything Prose, the occasional poetry-free offshoot of regular open mic night Word Club at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. Hosted by Mark Connors, the stand-out performances for me were from headliners Lynn Bauman-Milner and David Williams.

Lynn was introduced as a horror writer and my heart sank, but although one of her stories veered into gory territory, it was so well-written that I barely noticed. The others were unsettling, chilling, darkly wonderful and not what I think of when I think of horror. Maybe I assume horror covers plausible events in the real world, featuring scary evil humans, whereas I’m fine with dark fantasy involving strange creatures and other worlds. Impressively there were T-shirts for sale as well as books. I should have checked the back to see if it had a list of open mic nights and library readings she’s done, in the vein of a band tour T-shirt, but I didn’t.

David read a scene from his thriller 11.59, and as well as brilliantly conjuring up the setting (a down at heel pub, largely populated by steady drinkers) he made me interested in the main character, a late-night talk radio DJ, in a relatively short time. As David Williams seems to write in many formats it was perhaps unsurprising that he’s made a foray into Twitter fiction, with a book collecting 1000 story tweets. He was one of three people during the evening to read some of their Twitter fiction and though I like it (I had my first Twitter fiction published in 2009, long before I was on Twitter) and there were some great examples on Friday night, I find it a bitty experience at an open mic. Reading one or two straight after each other is fine, but a succession interspersed with titles and comments seems to break the flow too much for my liking.

Naturally, I read a piece of flash fiction myself, a response to Hemingway’s famous baby shoes six-worder, featuring mermaids. I was halfway down the half of real ale before I considered it might be detrimental to my performance of a couple of tricky lines, but it seemed to go off OK and I’m looking forward to going to Anything Prose again sometime.

Other events this week included a free webinar on how to blog more effectively (which I’m clearly following to the letter. Er…) and a Twitter fiction competition which was only open to staff, students, and alumni of Edinburgh University, to launch a new journal. First time I’ve used that maths degree in ages. I’ve sent two sketches to Newsjack this week, breaking out of my one-liner comfort zone to write a Yes Minister pastiche and a sketch about Donald Trump (swore I wouldn’t, but he’s proving too tempting). And tonight it’s the penultimate meeting at Chapel FM before this year’s Writing on Air festival. Excuse me while I put my feet up for ten minutes.

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The Honours by Tim Clare

Another one of those books I read based on a recommendation, this one after my dad read a review of it in The Guardian and pronounced it ‘your sort of thing’. As usual, the time between writing down the title and author, and actually reading the thing was quite long enough to have forgotten any kind of conversation about the book’s contents, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had an idea it was probably fantasy or sci-fi, but it was shelved under general adult fiction at the local library, and though the prologue makes it pretty clear the book has fantastical elements, the first half of the novel ticks along as an engaging 1930s thriller, all spies and intrigue and gathering warclouds, and I was beginning to doubt my interpretation. However, it’s definitely dark fantasy (bordering on horror in places).

Set in 1935, the central character is 12 year old Delphine Venner, a tomboy with an obsessive interest in war and guns. Going to live on a country estate with her upper middle class parents, as part of an exclusive rest home cum improvement society, the bored and lonely little girl goes exploring, living out fantasies of Great War trenches, and suspecting every grown-up she encounters (apart from her dad) as being Up To No Good. The truth, however, is beyond even Delphine’s imagination.

As you might expect there are secret passages for Delphine to find, good places to hide, woodland to explore and large grounds for her to wander in and keep out of everyone’s way. I found her an engaging character to follow, and all the bad decisions and character flaws necessary for the plot to unfold seemed to flow naturally from her age and background. Once the fantasy plot kicks in it’s gripping, but prior to that you have to be willing to tag along as this girl imagines her way through long, lonely days, overhearing cryptic conversation snippets that neither she nor we can interpret (OneMonkey found it dragged on him after a while, too big a gap between meeting Delphine and her world, and anything genuinely exciting happening). I suspect there will be a big overlap of readers with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.

Beside the Seaside: Stories set around the Yorkshire Coast (edited by Scott Harrison)

How could I resist this short story collection when I spotted it in the library a few days after my east coast jaunt? Particularly with its old train poster on the cover. Add to that the promise of ‘A collection of thriller, science fiction, & horror to stimulate the mind and invigorate the senses’ (despite being on the general fiction shelves) and I was looking forward to finishing the novel I was reading at the time so that I could dive in.

The stories (by a Doctor Who novelist and other established writers as well as some less well-known) are:
That’s the way to do it, by Alison Littlewood (chilling fantasy set in Scarborough, involving a sinister Punch and Judy man); Landlady Interface by Lee Harris (Robin Hood’s Bay, far in the future in a guest house run by an outmoded AI named Ivy); Scarborough in July by Sadie Miller (A day in the lives of four loosely-connected people, neither thriller, nor science fiction, nor horror); The Woman in the Sand by Trevor Baxendale (Kate and her 7 year old son have an unsettling encounter with a sand sculptor); She Who Waits by Gary McMahon (mild horror/ghost story about a grieving widower and the legend of a local haunting); Scarborough Warning by Sue Wilsea (a secret holiday in Scarborough that doesn’t stay secret for long enough. Well-written, but more mainstream fiction than any of the quoted genres).

The stand-out stories for me were The Last Train to Whitby by Scott Harrison (a gripping 1950s secret agent story with just enough of a light touch to stop it being grim. Quite 39 Steps with its railway compartments and codenames, double-crossing and paranoia, and made good use of the setting) and The Girl on the Suicide Bridge by JA Mains (powerful dark fantasy about the all-consuming love of a teenage girl for her troubled older brother, in a town where the nearby bridge is a national suicide-magnet. Hard to say much about it without spoilers, but it will stay with me for a long time I think).

Unfortunately, the whole book was riddled with typos and felt like it hadn’t been proof-read, which was a shame as it looked enticing and professional, and the intro from David Nobbs (he of Reggie Perrin fame) persuaded me of its quality when I picked it off the shelf. The mistakes were only mildly irritating until I got to Sadie Miller’s story, and by the end of it I felt quite sorry for her as they’d started to overshadow her writing a bit (for this grouchy pedant, anyway), for instance ‘The water was icy cold and she submerged herself, as fast as soon could, which always seem to help.’

There was an interesting mix of styles and approaches to the theme, with some stories making full use of their setting and others (like Landlady Interface) feeling like they were more about the characters. Personally, I would have liked more of a mix of settings, as all but 2 were based in Scarborough (my least favourite part of the coast), but you can’t have everything. Maybe there’s just not much drama to be had from Filey. I would recommend if you’re drawn to the darker side, read this then go to the Yorkshire Coast yourself to soak up the atmosphere (and if you’re a writer, start work on something that might fit in a follow-up volume. Preferably set in Filey or Brid…)

The Moon of Endine: free sci-fi werewolf comic

I don’t always put the comic/graphic novel stuff on this blog but it occurred to me that readers here might be missing out because they ‘don’t read comics’. Mark Pexton’s art is (in my biased opinion) pretty special at times, and if you’ve enjoyed any of my sci-fi or fantasy stories you might like the one about werewolves on a frontier planet. So try our comic The Moon of Endine which (like we did for Boys Don’t Cry) we’re now making available online for free under creative commons license CC BY-NC-ND, though you can still buy the print copy over at our comicsy shop or at Forbidden Planet and Travelling Man in Leeds. You can download the pdf if you like, or just sit and page through it here (it opens up a full page when you click on it)…

Flash horror and tweets

I’ve just noticed the Morpheus Tales flash fiction special is available for free on their website; it features a story by me (The Day the Circus Came to Town) and artwork by LeMat, so you get two for the price of one (and the price being nothing, that’s a pretty good bargain). While I’m plugging, I’ll remind you that I have twitter fiction appearing on November 3rd, 5th and 10th at PicFic.

Too many zombies may be good for your health

Well that was quite a long absence, and although I’ve edged a little closer to completing the serial novel, mainly I’ve been reading detective stories. I will pontificate at length on detective fiction later on, but for now I’d like to enthuse about another story I’ve had accepted. To be precise, Morpheus Tales held a competition for flash fiction inspired by one of LeMat’s marvellous paintings and I came joint second (yes, they know he’s a friend of mine and no, he had no hand in the selection. Phew, I wouldn’t want to leave myself open to a Private Eye dressing-down). It’s zombie horror, so not my usual kind of thing (that said, do I have a usual kind of thing?) but it was enjoyable to write (always important) and quite a challenge to weave a story that fully gelled with the painting (hats off to Tracy Chevalier. At least for her first couple of novels – see earlier posts on that topic).

Back to the celebratory cup of tea.