Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: The Sign in the Moonlight & My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7

Finally, the title story!  Though - a small confession - it wasn't always intended to be.  That honour was originally meant to go to The War of the Rats, as the longest and newest work.  But since our artist Duncan Kay, who had by this point produced interior illustrations for every story in the collection, couldn't get the picture for that particular tale to a point he felt was cover-worthy, we all eventually agreed to go instead with one he'd already produced an absolutely stunning image for.  It turned out to be one of those decisions that felt right as soon as it had been made; now it's almost impossible to imagine how anything else could have gone on the front of this book.

In fact, I'll go further: I don't know that there's a tale in the collection that sums up its spirit quite as perfectly as The Sign in the Moonlight - originally published, by the way, a couple of years back in Nightmare Magazine.  It's absolutely a weird tale, one that might even have creeped out Lovecraft himself, what with his notorious phobia of the cold.  It follows a party of mountaineers that is itself hot on the heels of an expedition which included notorious British occultist Aleister Crowley - a real and documented historical event, by the way - and finds more than it bargained for upon the slopes of Mount Kanchenjunga.  I've said this before, but it was almost creepy how this story came together, and how much my research threw up real life details that fit perfectly, not only with the narrative I was constructing but with each other.

By comparison, My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7 is a wee slip of a thing, written with little forethought in one mad splurge: a joke, really, though one that's either rather sad or kind of cruel, depending on how you decide to look at it.  I got one of my nicest ever reviews for this story, which acknowledged just how difficult it is for a grown man to write in the style of a seven year old girl.  Yet the truth is, it wasn't that difficult at all.  I don't often talk about characters finding their own voices and all that nonsense, but Daisy certainly did, and she went on to more or less write her own story, which required next to no editing and which I'm still entirely happy with nigh on a decade later.  I guess it's just a shame that she couldn't have come up with a happier ending for herself!

Here's an extract from The Sign in the Moonlight:
You will have heard, no doubt, of the Bergenssen expedition—if only from the manner of its loss. For a short while, that tragedy was deemed significant and remarkable enough to adorn the covers of every major newspaper in the civilised world.
At the time, I was in no position to follow such matters. However, in subsequent months I’ve tracked down many journals from that period. As I write, I can look up at the wall to see a cover of the New York Times I’ve pinned there, dated nineteenth of May 1908, bearing the headline, “Horror in the Himalayas: Bergenssen five reported lost in avalanche.”
In a sense, I suppose, it’s a spirit of morbidity that draws me back to those days upon the mountain and their awful finale, which I failed to witness only by the purest chance. Equally, there’s a macabre humour in the thought that to almost all the world I am dead, my body shattered and frozen in the depths of some crevasse. But what draws me most, I think, is the memory of what I saw after I left Bergenssen and the others—that knowledge which is mine uniquely. It’s without disrespect to the Times that I say they know nothing, nothing whatsoever, of the horror of Mount Kangchenjunga. Likely, there is no one else alive who does.

Friday, 27 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: The Desert Cold & The War of the Rats

I suppose the main thing I have to say about The Desert Cold is that it was my first ever professional sale, almost seven years ago now, and to the then fairly new web-zine Flash Fiction Online.  Needless to say, I was still finding my way in those days, perhaps a little blindly, and this slender tale came together by a long and awkward route: it began as a vignette, more of a scene-setting exercise that a story, that would become the core of the first two thirds of the finished piece.  Strangely, though, I think that benefited it, ultimately; it still basically ended up being a mood piece, but one with a nasty little sting in its tail.

As for the The War of the Rats, the one new story in the collection and the longest, it came directly out of the research for my recently finished novel To End All Wars, and my frustration at the fact that there was so much I wanted to say about its subject, the First World War, that I knew I wasn't going to be able to find a place for.  Principally, I didn't have an outlet within the novel for all the anger and revulsion I felt at reading so many stories of lives cut short and disfigured, or for the sheer grotesqueness of much of what I'd come across.  It was ideal fare for a horror story, but not so much so for a science-fiction novel set largely away from the trenches.

So all of that got poured into The War of the Rats, a novelette that dived deeply into the most hellish aspects of WW1 and found there, to my surprise, a love story of sorts.  I think the responsibility for that came from one particular book that I was reading at the time, the memoirs of a soldier named Harold Chapin, released as One Man's War.  Which, thinking about it, also led to one of my greatest fears in writing both novel and novelette, which was that I'd inadvertently end up trivialising the whole subject.  The conclusion I came to was accepting how to an extent that's unavoidable; the more you research, the more the awfulness of the First World War defies imagination, and any work intended as entertainment is going to be trivial by comparison.  All I can say is, I did my best.  And on the plus side, I can guarantee that nothing I wrote is more repellent than the reality - which given how repellent things get is saying something.  It's certainly fair to say that The War of the Rats is the closest the collection comes to pure, unadulterated horror.

On that note, here's an extract:
A rat.  A rat!  The word chimed in my mind.  It was all the sense I could make of the situation.  There is a rat, my hysterical thoughts protested uselessly, crawling up my leg.  Yet behind that immediate, enormous fear - so huge that it seemed to eclipse even the possibility of sensible thought - there lay another, deeper terror.  I just couldn't, wouldn't admit it to myself.
The motion stopped.  The whiskers gave a slow, exploratory twitch.  I knew what it had found; what it had been seeking all along.  Oh god ... I'd have given anything for the strength to just kick my leg.  Here was that profoundest fear, which I'd been unable even to acknowledge until then.  For he was at my bandage.  Sniffing.  Nuzzling. 
I've seen the way they get at dead men, Emily.  A wound to them is nothing but an entrance to somewhere warm and safe, or else a place to eat.  That was the terror I could hardly let myself think of.  Whenever I'd seen rats scurrying about the dead I'd gone profoundly cold, averted my eyes and clammed up for a while, sinking into a sort of stupor.  I'd always counted myself lucky it had gone unnoticed.
Now there was no hiding.  No stupor would protect me.  I heard his teeth before I felt anything, a tender chatter interspersed with pauses that seemed almost thoughtful.  As he continued to work, however, I could feel the pressure of his head, as when a dog pushes for attention.  He toiled with steady determination.  He knew what he was looking for, and knew that with patience he'd have it.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories: The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma

I'm not proud to admit that I wrote The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma on a dare.  And I'm even less proud to admit that it was a dare I dared myself.

Yet that's about the size of what happened.  The core concept - of a man who takes it upon himself to direct the course of his own karmic rebirth, with one very specific goal in mind - came out of a chance remark I made, followed by some bloody-minded part of my brain pointing out that it might just conceivably work as a short story, and hey, wasn't that just the perfect reason to give it a go?

Probably not.  But as it turned out it wasn't an altogether terrible one either.  Perhaps the reason for that was that it came together with another, equally odd concept that was then batting around my brain, though I'm not sure I quite realised it at the time.  Looking back, though, and put briefly, it was this: what if Sherlock Holmes was only a genius in John Watson's mind?  What if all the crazy was real but the rest of it less so?  What if - and I can't be the first Holmes fan to suspect this - it was Watson who was the real brains of the operation, or at least the only one with the requisite number of marbles?

From all of that came a story about friendship and sanity, and the toll that the years can take on both.  For something conceived as a joke, it also wound up as being quite serious, though of all the stories in the collection this one probably has its tongue wedged most firmly into its cheek.  It was originally published in a magazine called The Willows for very little money, at which point I'd imagine it was read by all of about a dozen people who weren't my mum.  One of the nicest things about the existence of this collection is that these older tales get to reach a (hopefully!) wider audience than they did the first time around.

With that in mind, here's a brief extract:
As I said, I've known Algernon since early childhood, since our schooldays.  Even in his youth, he was markedly eccentric; but perhaps these things pass unnoticed more easily in a child.  For my part, if I observed any signs of strangeness it was only as further evidence to justify my commitment to my friend, for I regarded Algernon with endless approval.  He was a source of constant fascination, of ideas both unique and, it seemed to me, impeccably wise.  He was also charismatic, witty and remarkable in appearance; he viewed the school’s drab uniform with contempt and chose to dress instead, from about the age of seven, in the manner of a man in late middle age.  It didn’t concern me in the least that I was his only friend, his only sympathiser.  Though Algernon's classmates and even his teachers viewed him with evident distrust, I reasoned that this was nothing more than further proof of how detached from the common herd my companion was.  
Of course, I could never have imagined then that he would go on to prove me right in so spectacular a fashion.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories: The Burning Room

I'm a sucker for ghost stories.  Simon Marshall-Jones is also, I suspect, a sucker for ghost stories; after all, he is running a publisher called Spectral Press.  So it's probably appropriate that there are (depending on which edition you buy) potentially three of the things in my forthcoming Spectral collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.

The first of those is our opening tale, The Burning Room, originally published some years back in the excellent Bull Spec.  I have a theory that most ghost stories are essentially mysteries, and that's certainly true of this one: it plays out, basically, as a detective story, with the principle difference being that the crime in question is dramatised night after night, as a female tenant finds herself confronted by the tragic history of the suspiciously cheap room she's begun renting.

One impetus with many of these stories was to take a traditional genre - say, the Victorian ghost tale - and try and modernize it or otherwise upend it in some way that I found particularly interesting.  In this case, that meant giving my female protagonist a little more voice and leeway than she might have had in tales from the period.  The estimable Miss Taversham isn't one to be frightened away by things going bump in the night; instead she'd rather interpret the horror she encounters as a problem to be solved, one to be seen through to its decidedly bitter end.

Oh, and the title was meant as a reference to H. G. Wells's The Red Room, a big tonal influence and perhaps my favourite ghost story of all time.

Here's a brief sample of The Burning Room:
For all her strangeness, Mrs Faraday seemed like a blessing.  She interviewed me in a small, drab kitchen, claustrophobically gloomy with the heavy curtains drawn.  There were indications of poverty, but signs of former comfort also: the tablecloth, though faded, had once been fine; the chipped crockery in the cabinet was china of a more expensive sort. 
"I wouldn't let it," she said, "if I weren't very desperate.  I've put it off these past years since I lost my Daniel, Lord knows I have.  But times are hard."
So she was widowed.  That explained the odd mixture of penury and luxury.  "I'll be quiet, and no bother," I replied.
She stared at me.  I couldn't have hazarded a guess at her age.  Her hair was grey, her eyes seemed washed of vitality, but her skin was unlined and seemed to belong to a much younger woman.  She ran her fingertips down the swathe of crimson scarring that ran from her cheek to beyond her collarbone, and said, "Miss Taversham, it isn't myself I'm worried for.  Do you sleep deeply?"
"I imagine so.  It isn't something I've considered."
"Then probably you do.  Will you see the room?"
"I’d like to."

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories: Coming Soon

I've been a little quiet on the subject of my forthcoming short story collection The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, what with one thing and another, but that all changes as of now.  Because not only do we have a finalised cover - see? - but we have a release date, and it's soon.  Like real soon; like beginning of December soon.

As such, I won't be shutting up about this book - my first ever collection! - for the next few weeks.  My plan is to talk through each of the stories in turn, to give a little taste of what it's all about, but in the meantime, here's the basic table of contents:
  • The Burning Room
  • The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma
  • The Desert Cold
  • War of the Rats
  • The Sign in the Moonlight
  • My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy Aged 7
  • Prisoner of Peace
  • The Door Beyond the Water
  • Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams
  • A Twist Too Far
  • The Way of the Leaves
I say basic because it's set to vary a little depending on which edition you get, the idea being that there should be some reward for splashing out on the paperback over the e-book edition, or - for the ultimate Sign in the Moonlight experience - on the sure-to-be-delectable hardback version.  So the paperback comes with The Untold Ghost as an extra, and the hardback includes both A Stare From the Darkness and the seasonally (in)appropriate A Study in Red And White, all of which also are accompanied by their own unique illustrations.

Because, oh right, illustrations!  See that gorgeous cover there?  That's by superstar artist-stroke-Scotsman Duncan Kay, and he's produced something equally spectacular for every single story.  We also have an introduction from one of the finest Fantasy writers writing today, Mr Adrian Tchaikovsky, because why do things by halves?  I mean, who knows, maybe I'll get eaten by termites tomorrow and this will be the last short story collection I ever get to do, and while that remains even the tiniest risk, I wanted to throw everything at this book.

So there we have it: The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories, by me, with art by Duncan Kay, edited by Simon Marshall-Jones and due for release in early December from award-winning publisher Spectral Press.  Expect to hear me talking about it a whole lot between now and then.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Book Ramble: All That Outer Space Allows

It would be silly by this juncture to suggest that I'm actually reviewing Ian Sales's so-called Apollo Quartet of conjoined novellas, or approaching them with anything that could be considered impartiality.  Ian is a friend and I can't pretend to be anything other than an admirer of his work.  And it's fair to say that my reviews of the previous books in the series - Adrift on the Sea of RainsThe Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself and Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above have only been growing more gushing as they've progressed.

Nevertheless, if I'd hated All That Outer Space Allows I certainly wouldn't have kept quiet about it.  I mean, maybe I wouldn't have gone and blogged about it, but Ian would certainly have got an earful, because there are few things more frustrating than urgently wanting to read a book and actually knowing the author, and then having month after month of them narrating ever single infuriating delay.  Of which there were a fair few in the case, as a planned novella blossomed (or possibly exploded) into what would eventually become the short novel it is now.

Needless to say then, since I am talking about it, I didn't hate All That Outer Space Allows.  But before we go any further than that, let's get the premise out there.  And because I'm lazy and it's a rather fine bit of writing in and of itself, here's the official blurb:
It is 1965 and Ginny Eckhardt is a science fiction writer. She’s been published in the big science fiction magazines and is friends with many of the popular science fiction authors of the day. Her husband, Walden, has just been selected by NASA as one of the New Nineteen Apollo astronauts… which means Ginny will be a member of the Astronaut Wives Club. Although the realities of spaceflight fascinate Ginny, her genders bars her from the United State space programme. Her science fiction offers little in the way of consolation—but perhaps there is something she can do about that… Covering the years 1965 to 1972, when Walden Eckhardt lifts-off aboard Apollo 15 as the mission’s lunar module pilot, this is Ginny’s life: wife, science fiction writer, astronaut wife… because that is ALL THAT OUTER SPACE ALLOWS.
Well doesn't that sound worryingly straightforward for an Ian Sales novella?  But there are wrinkles, of course - though less, I'd suggest, than in the three previous volumes.  I would go so far as to say that ninety percent of All That Outer Space Allows is in fact a particularly straightforward narrative, by the convoluted standards Ian's set for himself but by any others as well.  It's a character study, in essence, and though that study is transparently a way into a great many wider themes and events, it's never less than central.  This is Ginny Eckhardt's story from beginning to end, or something less and more even than that: a slice of her life treating ordinary and extraordinary events with approximately the same degree of interest.  And Ginny is a splendid protagonist, a being of flesh and blood and believable needs and wants, of her time while almost-but-not-quite transcending it, fascinating even in her smallest actions.

So that's the ninety percent, but that still leaves ten, doesn't it?  And those aforementioned wrinkles?  Which brings us to the point where All That Outer Space Allows, seemingly, has proven itself divisive amongst fans of the series.  (Though if you'd got this far into the Quartet without expecting to be screwed with then, honestly, I worry for you.)

Anyway, some reviewers have been put off by the fact that, at points in the narrative, Ian interrupts his story to comment directly, discussing points of research, inspirations, even openly stating and deconstructing his own themes.  Ian himself has suggested, perhaps jokingly but probably not, that this was an active effort to mess with his audience's expectations.  Yet - and this is the thing I find most fascinating - for me the intrusions had precisely the opposite effect.  They didn't break the narrative but strengthened it.  The author that elbows himself into All That Outer Space Allows is as much a fictive construct as Ginny herself, and ultimately a less persuasive one.  It's an extraordinary thing, but being told by a voice that was recognisably and yet not the author Ian Sales that Ginny was unreal actually made me believe in her more.  Bit by bit I began to doubt that this intruding voice was Ginny's creator.  And if they weren't then who was?  Was anybody?

There are many nice things that you can say about Ian's prose, but for me, above all, it's sturdy; it has an immense solidity to it.  And the more it tried to assure me that I was being lied to, the more I found I was persuaded by the lie.  This is crucial, because in its last third, All That Outer Space Allows moves on from trying to deconstruct itself and begins deconstructing the entire notion of the Apollo Quartet, in ways I've no intention of spoiling - except to say that if that prose weren't so sturdy, if Ginny weren't so believable, they would bring the whole game crashing down.  As it is, it's fascinating to watch a narrative trying to break itself from the inside, but what's most satisfying is seeing it fail.

By this point, it should hopefully be clear that I loved All That Outer Space Allows.  Whether it's my favourite of the four is too early to say, it's a toss-up between this and Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, and the virtues of each of those books are so different that it becomes largely meaningless to compare them anyway.  One thing's for sure: now that the Apollo Quartet is complete, there's no question but that it's something extraordinary.  Like I said above, my obvious bias is really no bias at all, because I could just as easily have kept my mouth shut.  But this is great work, perhaps the pinnacle of a great series, and I'd feel remiss if I didn't recommend it without reservation.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Short Story News, October 2015

Okay, I realise it's not October, but this is mostly October news so let's just close our eyes and pretend.  Except, wait, you can't read with your eyes closed and I'm not convinced I could knock out an entire blog post that way.  Um.  Let's just think October thoughts, shall we?  Maybe pretend its not quite so dark and horrible and nearly-wintery outside?  That should do it.

Now I mentioned back in my September round-up that I hadn't quite covered all of the short fiction news on the horizon, but I certainly didn't anticipate the flurry that would come almost immediately after that post went up.  But hey, flurries are good!  We like flurries.  I mean, when they're good flurries, like this one has been.  Not when they're flurries of snow.  Or fish.  Or razor blades.

Firstly there are now a few more things out there with my short stories in them.  The Coven anthology from Purple Sun Press finds the discombobulated royal guardsman from my No Rest For the Wicked (as published in the Death God's Chosen collection) on another, even weirder case, this one involving an apocalypse cult that may actually be onto something.  I can't comment much beyond that since my contributor copies literally arrived this morning, but I adore that cover image and I seem to be having a good year for anthologies, so odds are this one will be worth a look.

What I have seen copies of, because they arrived all the way from the snow-bound lands of Canadia, is Second Contacts from Bundoran Press, the cleverly-themed anthology that contains my grim but heartfelt science-fiction tale Free Radical.  Basically the idea of the collection was to foreground not stories of humans meeting aliens but how those interaction might work out ten or twenty years later, a fun notion that - based on the stories I've read so far - succeeds very well indeed.  And Free Radical, a tale of well-intentioned but ill-considered occupation with some obvious real world parallels, seems to have proven a nice fit.

Speaking of things I've actually read, I recently got through Gaia: Shadow and Breath vol. 2 from Pantheon Magazine, containing my The Hair of the Hound, and enjoyed it a great deal.  Will Manlove's A Bare Bones Outfit is, I think, the best short story I've read this year, one of those pieces that takes an idea you thought had been worn out entirely and offers it completely afresh, all wrapped up in some splendid prose.  Joshua D. Moyes's The Temporary Freedom of Clockwork Birds was another standout in a collection not exactly lacking standouts.  I'd definitely recommend this one, and it's a real shame that Pantheon aren't pushing it a little more (or, apparently, at all.)

Meanwhile, Jenny's Sick has been seen before, in Lightspeed and then the Lightspeed Year One anthology, but with all due respect to one of my favourite science-fiction 'zines, it's never been behind quite such an outrageously lovely cover as this.  It doesn't entirely show up in a flat image, but that there is a metal-inlaid hardback and this book - along with its companion volumes, Chilling Ghost Short Stories and Chilling Horror Short Stories, is something special indeed.  I mean, I don't know how it was made, though I suspect the involvement of magic, but it's indescribably lovely.  Oh, and also huge, and crammed with fantastic sci-fi stories, with a roughly half and half split between genre classics, (the whole of Flatland is in there, along with writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne and Mark Twain) and more recent work.

Back in the present, I'm in this month's Urban Fantasy Magazine, both with an interview - performed by the goodly mister Pete Sutton - and a reprint of my story Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place, which originally appeared in the 250th issue of Interzone.  I confess that I floundered for a while in coming up with a story of mine that could be classed as urban fantasy, that not being a genre I've dabbled much in, but this one certainly fits - unless it's urban science fiction, which the more I think about it probably isn't a thing.

Last only because I've already talked about this particular story and this particular market recently is Across the Terminator, which was recently made available, (and still is available), as a self-contained e-book and now is also out as part of the rather gloriously named Cosmic Hooey anthology from that selfsame publisher, Digital Science Fiction.  This one I feel entitled to speak highly of, because I've read most of the stories in their individual e-book forms and enjoyed the majority, and because Digital Science Fiction are doing something extremely fun, and because it's called Cosmic Hooey, goddamnit, what more could you realistically need?

Phew!  That's a lot of stuff out in a relatively teeny piece of time - which probably means there's a drought a-coming, that being how it tends to go, but it was a good deal of fun while it lasted.  And at least I have a few bits and pieces still scheduled.  Digital Science Fiction have picked up another story for e-book release, The Painted City, as originally published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 43.  And on the new stuff front, my Afghanistan-set, Arcade Fire-inspired near future horror tale Great, Black Wave is set to mark my second appearance in John Joseph Adams's marvelous horror 'zine Nightmare.

All told, it hasn't been a bad year for short fiction.