Friday, 23 October 2020

My Somnambulant Heart

My short story titled "My Somnambulant Heart" has just been published in the anthology Terror Tales of the Home Counties, edited by Paul Finch, and as usual I'm writing a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

First of all, the Terror Tales anthologies are a long-running series which focus on horror stories set within particular locations (in fact, this is the thirteenth anthology in the series). I was approached by Paul Finch a while back as to whether I would like to contribute to this book, and immediately said yes. Stories based on locations are always interesting, because material can be drawn from the physical place to augment the characters in a story. In this case I chose Box Hill in Surrey, which has the oldest untouched area of natural woodland in the UK, one of the oldest in Europe in fact. The hill takes it's name from the ancient Box Woodland that can be found on the steepest West-facing chalk-face slope. Local history has it that witches once used to congregate in their covens on Box Hill, because they believed the Box Trees enabled them to better interact with the spirit world. It's also the location where the eccentric Major Peter Labelliere was buried upside down in his grave at Box Hill (through choice).

My story concerns a Londoner moving to Surrey. An unfeeling, mildly unpleasant character who has been unable to engage with other people during the course of his life, and who has glossed over in his mind the bullying he took part in of another boy at school. The boy who is a man who is now living in Surrey, and who brings some home truths to bear.

The story was inspired by my own schoolboy recollections of how someone was treated badly by others at my school. Whilst I was only at the peripheries of that - and hindsight/context makes a world of difference - I've never forgotten it. I can't remember where the title came from, but I had it for some time. I imagined it has resonated much deeper with the boy who was bullied. That simmering resentment, together with the legends around Box Hill, are what inspired the story.

Here's an extract: On the side of the Old Fort some vegetation made a face. It struck me that pareidolia wasn’t restricted to finding order where there was none, but it also collated a series of random events into something that might be perceived as significant. Hindsight made it easy to fictionalise reality, to find signs and connections which don’t actually exist. Yet underlying my dissatisfaction was the knowledge that Harris had somehow managed to step outside of the persona we had granted him. However it had happened, Harris was somehow more successful at being a person than I was.

Paul discusses the theme of the anthology in more detail here.

Terror Tales From The Home Counties is published by Telos and retails at £12.99 in paperback with an e-book version also available. Contributors include Steve Duffy, Reggie Oliver, Gail-Nina Anderson, Sam Dawson, Andrew Hook, Steven J Dines, Tina Rath, Paul Finch, John Llewellyn Probert, Helen Grant, Mick Sims, Tom Johnstone, Allen Ashley, David J Howe and Jason Gould. Buy your copy here

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Frequencies of Existence

My seventh short story collection, Frequencies of Existence, is published today through NewCon Press, so I thought a short blog post to celebrate this was in order. The collection contains twenty-four stories, four of which are original to this book. The other stories have been previously published in magazines and anthologies such as Black Static, PostScripts, and Strange Tales amongst other places. As usual for me, there are a mix of styles, which might include elements of SF/F/H but perhaps are most appropriately described as slipstream. So general weird speculative fiction with a focus on the interplay of relationships set against unreal scenarios. Here's the cover:


To give a flavour of what's on offer, I'm going to quote from a handful of my favourite stories in the book and explain why they resonate with me.

First up is "Your Golden Hands", originally published in PostScripts. This is a conquistador-type story, albeit set on an alien planet. The human fixation with gold remains, but where exactly is it?

We were of the understanding that you didn’t really know what we were looking for. Tradition told us that material things held no meaning for you. Metals, gems, other natural resources were not there to be exploited, just to be used as and when you saw fit. Like a hermit camped in a battered tent in the desert with an unknown oil well hundreds of feet beneath him, you had no urge to seek what you didn’t know was there. Still, we kept the nature of our quest secret.

- - -

Another favourite is "The Last Mohican" which is my punk story. Punk was a huge influence with me as an individual and has accordingly affected many of the decisions I have made in life. This story has an alternative reality where 1976 was a turning point in British politics and the ethos of punk was accepted and still continues to the present day. But what happens when you're the last punk standing from that era?

Everyone says they remember where they were when Thatcher’s government came down. Of course, we were all post-punk then, but the ragged sentiments from the three-chord thrust were still running through our veins. And by that time we had the whole country behind us. Whoever said the revolution starts at closing time had been right. We had a black and white TV in those days, but I swear you could see the orange flames flickering at the Houses of Parliament.

- - -

My favourite out of the new stories is "Always Forever Today" where a film critic ruminates over an article he has to write about his most influential film, which in his case is Roman Polanski's feature debut, "Knife In The Water". The idea for this story came about through watching an older black and white film and realising that not only all the actors were now deceased, but also all of the original audience for the movie would also have died. There's a train of thought that suggests immortality is achieved through film, but of course that isn't the case. And what if film itself might also decay?

Donald had never been a fiction writer, although some of his critics – even a critic can have critics – considered him otherwise. Nevertheless as he climbed the stairs to bed he remembered a story idea he once had. That instead of movie stars adhering to the immortality of their screen presences, on each viewing they would age incrementally, until finally they would continue beyond the point of their deaths, trapped within the movie’s cycle, their remaining flesh performing their roles, until everything rotted away and returned to dust and only disembodied voices could be heard.

- - -

Finally, a favourite with many readers who have expressed an interest in my work is "The Day My Heart Stood Still". This features an extraordinarily simple premise: what if death has been eradicated so that generations have passed and no one can remember it. And then what happens should someone die? I consider this piece to be Ray Bradburyesque in the telling. Here's a bit of it:

I sat beside her for a few minutes before glancing at the clock. Dad would be home soon and would know what to do. On a whim I reached out and peeled her left eyelid over the cornea. The returned stare was vacant but again she didn’t wake. I was getting bored. I stood and wandered to the doorway. I was also getting hungry. The eye regarded me impassively. I turned off the light but the eye was still visible, so I nipped back and pulled the lid down again before returning to Charlotte and the pool.

- - -

So that's a very brief taster of what's in the book. I think it's quite eclectic and brimming with ideas, but then I would say that. So here's what others have said:

“For lovers of metafiction, poetic text, intellectual narrative and elusive characters who linger to haunt you. The thrill you get reading Andrew Hook’s weird collection is out of this world. It’s a pastiche of the literary strange. You’ll want to read more of Hook after this.” – Aurealis, review by Eugen Bacon

“Andrew Hook is an undisputed superstar of strange fiction” – Neil Williamson, author of The Moon King

“A rich slab of Andrew Hook’s trademark understated darkness: measured, careful, but ruthless in its own quiet way.” – Chris Beckett, Arthur C. Clarke and Edge Hill Prize-winning author.

The book is available as a limited edition signed lettered hardback and a regular paperback. Pop along to NewCon Press for your copy today!

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The Residents

As readers of this blog will be aware, my most recent publication is a biography of The Mysterious N Senada, a Bavarian musician whose Theory of Obscurity greatly influenced the American art collective known as The Residents. "O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N" is available as a limited edition paperback through Psychofon Records and also had been coupled with The Resident's recording of Senada's "Pollex Christi", although I believe that version has now sold out. Anyway, despite The Residents being the biggest avant garde band in history with over 60 albums since the early 1970s it still surprises me as to how few people seem to have heard of them. Here then, is a guide to some of my favourite pieces. It tends to be the more accessible material, so - believe me - there is a lot of stuff they've done which is weirder than this - but here are my 'go to' favourites for some Residential listening. Enjoy! Where possible I've linked to videos - the band have been pioneers for the format - but also some live performances that I love.

1. Guylum Bardot is contained within the opening segment of their debut album, "Meet The Residents", from 1974. A suitably weird piece with a musicality that I love.

2. Another favourite album is the delightfully named "Fingerprince". Here is the opening track, the infectious "You Yesyesyes".

3. My favourite Residents album is "Not Available". A concept album in several suites, I've chosen the opener "Part One: Edweena" as it makes sense to start at the beginning. What a fabulously evocative piece of music.

4. "Duck Stab" is often cited as a favourite album amongst fans. I could have chosen "Hello Skinny" but "Constantinople" just about beats it. And I love this fairly recent live performance. What a costume! 

5. If all this is getting heavy, here's a one minute song from "The Commercial Album". I once recited the lyrics in full to actor Reece Shearsmith after a reading he gave for a snail story he had written. Here's why with "Moisture".

6. "Mark Of The Mole" was another 'story' album, this time a story of moles under attack from humans. An excellent excerpt is "Migration".

7. "The Tunes Of Two Cities", the second album in the mole trilogy, compares the music of the Moles and the Chubbs. I love this jaunty piece, which I would select as my entry music if I ever took up professional wrestling.

8. I'm fast-forwarding a bit to the "Demons Dance Alone" album written in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I love this album so much I'm including three songs here. The first is a live performance of "Life Would Be Wonderful", with the normal lyrics changed to reflect the band's circumstances. I would have loved to have been at the shows for this album, because the pieces viewable online are truly magical. This version also includes a laconic James Brown anecdote.

9. "Honey Bear" from the same album showcases The Singing Resident's gravelly melancholy voice which makes me melt.

10. Finally from "Demons Dance Alone" who wouldn't like a song called "Make Me Moo"? There's often a childlike feel to The Resident's music (note: not childish) and this song perfectly exemplifies that.

11. Only The Residents would record a song about the Dutch tulip crisis! "Two Lips" might have double meanings of course. This is from the "Animal Lover" album.

12. A beautiful piece of music and a wonderful video for "My Window" (also from "Animal Lover")

13. Moving to more recent material, here's the catchy "Voodoo Doll" from the "Intruders" album:

14. And then we are bang up to date with a couple of tracks from 2020's "Metal, Meat and Bone": the re-imagining of lost demos from the forgotten blues singer, Dyin' Dog. First up is the (not safe for work) video for the incredibly catchy "Bury My Bone", with The Singing Resident channeling Ken Dodd, surely?

15. And finally another moving vocal in "Mama Don't Go".

Of course, there are loads I haven't mentioned and this selection just scratches the surface. There are far more experimental pieces in their oeuvre than this, but hopefully it provides a good introduction. Special shout out should go to the "Eskimo" album but because it is best heard as one piece I haven't made a selection from it. Feel free to add your favourites in the comments box below.

If you've enjoyed these, I suggest you follow Ralph's Records' motto: Buy Or Die!

Sunday, 23 August 2020

O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N

My next book, "O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N", has just been announced for pre-sale over at Psychofon Records. Publication sees the culmination of a long journey for this title, which began when I discovered an encrypted diary page written by The Mysterious N Senada when I was at a London television studio researching my novella, "Ponthe Oldenguine", back in 2009, and then subsequently the discovery of the full diary by the San Francisco avant-garde collective known as The Residents whilst they were uncovering material for their pREServed CD retrospective issued through Cherry Red Records. The code in which the diary is written took a while to fathom, until I recognised it employed many of the tricks used by Numbers Stations, but the less said about conspiracy theories the better.

For those unfamiliar, N Senada was a Bavarian musician whose work influenced the early music of The Residents. Working from the encrypted diaries, I've managed to piece together Senada’s life from its beginnings in the Bavarian forest to his death in a nondescript hotel room. Focusing on the creative development of his magnum opus, "Pollex Christi", whilst also illuminating the inspiration behind The Residents' “Eskimo” album, the resulting work is a unique insight into the mind of the man and his Theories of Obscurity and Phonetic Organisation.

The small leather notebook, wrapped in sealskin and rawhide, with the letter "N" embossed upon its cover, is a major musical artefact, for which I am privileged to bring to life through my interpretation of its contents. My thanks to Homer Flynn of the Cryptic Corporation for his positive involvement in the project and for The Residents for allowing me to work with this material. Special thanks also for Andreas at Psychofon Records for agreeing to pair the book with a limited edition run of "Pollex Christi" as performed by The Residents in a package which is as beautiful as it is intriguing.

I might never have begun this book if I hadn't already been aware of The Residents, and therefore realised the significance of the extract I had unearthed. And if it wasn't for the following NME feature which intrigued me at the tender age of fourteen I might never have discovered them in the first place.

The sleeve notes referencing Senada both in "Eskimo" and "Not Available" drew me to this elusive character and I felt a spiritual connection which has been compounded whilst translating these diaries and writing this book. To be associated with Senada and The Residents is something my fourteen-year-old self would never have imagined. I thank providence for pointing them my way.

Myself with Homer Flynn of The Cryptic Corporation and the spokesperson for The Residents, London, January 2019

All pre-order information regarding the two different versions of the book/record packaging can be found on the Psychofon Records website, together with a promotional video where I expand on the discovery of the diary page and working on the subsequent translation. Within five hours of the pre-sale, the special edition is almost sold out, so be quick if you want to grab one!

Meanwhile, here's some pre-press reviews:

Upon reading the brief journal, one of The Residents recounted the feeling of having rediscovered – and lost – one of his best friends, as the others nodded approvingly – The Cryptic Corporation

Hook’s writing is, of course, sublime, and his portrayal of the mercurial German is both entertaining and surreal. And like Senada, Hook seeks to produce pure art, free from interpolation or distraction, while still being accessible. He (somehow) achieves it. Pure art and a real statement of intent – Chris Kelso, author of The Dissolving Zinc Theater.

Impeccable, especially in the dissection of the spiralling thought processes of the protagonist. A fine piece of work – Andrew Humphrey, author of Alison.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Dave Greenfield: 1949 - 2020

It's not often that four disparate individuals form a band and each holds equal importance to the other. The Stranglers were such a band.

In January 1978 I was ten and a half years old. I had been a punk for some time without really knowing what punk was. I was at the nebulous age where reality was only just starting to coalesce around me and my world view was naive and malformed. Initially it wasn't even clear to me that punk was about music, but I knew it was political because a few of us at school had plans to sneak up behind Margaret Thatcher and pull down her underwear. But that must have been 1979, so memory is challenging me now. What I do know is that one day at school my mate, Mark Dullea (who sadly passed away earlier this year), said: "If you're calling yourself a punk then you need to buy a punk record." That weekend I did.

I went with my mum to the Jarrold's department store in Norwich where she asked the salesgirl if she had five minutes and received a puzzled look, whilst I saw the cover of The Stranglers' "5 Minutes" single beneath the glass counter. The lettering was LED red on a black background. I still go giddy even thinking about it. It would be the first 'proper' record I would buy.

Listening to it for the first time it wasn't then that I became a punk, it was more a realisation that I was a punk. Strangely, it was a homecoming.

"5 Minutes" is a song written by Strangler's bass player, JJ Burnel, about a rape that occured at a shared flat he had once lived in and his frustrations over finding the men who committed the attack. Those lyrics went right over my ten and a half year old head, but I sense the record was dangerous, dark, and sinister. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard and so my Strangers' obsession began.

Of course, Dave Greenfield's keyboards were a unique part of that record, as they were on all The Stranglers' material. There were some who said The Stranglers weren't punk partly because of the swirling keyboards, but punk cannot and shouldn't be defined and is in fact whatever you want it to be (including "Golden Brown", the Greenfield written harpsichord paean to heroin which won an Ivor Novello award). Hugh Cornwell has tweeted "he was the difference between The Stranglers and every other punk band" and this is also true. But then so were the individual members: JJ's brooding, violent basslines, Jet's intelligent drumming, Hugh's almost surgical guitar-playing. This is a band who complemented themselves perfectly.

Because of this, it's hard to write an obituary for one individual member when in fact it includes the demise of the whole band. Its the end of an era in a different way to when we lost Mark E Smith, Pete Shelley or Lux Interior. It's almost the collapse of a civilisation.

Of course, Hugh Cornwell left the Stranglers in 1990 (a fact I discovered the morning I went travelling for 18 months, it was almost prophetic: endings and beginnings), but the records remained and so did the other members of the band, going through a few line-up changes with Jet, Dave and JJ constants, until they found another true Strangler, Baz Warne, who solidified the existing reputation and took them on some further excellent journeys. Whilst The Stranglers weren't quite The Stranglers in Hugh's absence, Dave's keyboards were integral in bringing the group forwards, even more so over the last three records where he reverted to a more traditional sound. Songs such as "Relentless" or "Freedom Is Insane" are undeniably classic Stranglers' material. And live they remained superb, getting tighter and more accomplished with every performance.

In Dave's absence, however, it's impossible to imagine the band continuing with only JJ as remaining original touring member (Jet having already retired due to ill health a few years ago). Unlike Hugh who left thirty years ago (!) I can see no drive for a replacement, no 'career path' that needs to be reforged. I had tickets for the band this coming October for a gig which already had been billed as the final tour. I feel robbed that this can no longer happen, that even if JJ & Baz were to continue on a more intimate level the surge of emotion at the start of - and during - every Stranglers gig will never again be felt (just as the feeling is different at a solo Hugh Cornwell gig). As my long-term friend and fellow Stranglers fan, Steven Allen, said last night "such a huge part of our lives has gone".

It seems fitting to end with one of The Strangler's defining songs, "Genetix", a piece which perfectly condensed each band member's skills into a brilliant piece of music which only they could have created. And of course, it's one of those rare occasions where Dave sings. I've chosen this version from a more recent performance without Hugh Cornwell, as Dave features prominently and it simply sounds incredible. At least the music remains.

Fly straight.

Monday, 30 December 2019

The Best and Worst of 2019

Well, it's that time of the year when everyone is doing their 'best and worst of' lists, so here is mine. I'm going to list the books and movies and records I read/watched/listened to in 2019 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2019, but what I actually watched and read and heard - some of these items might be very old indeed.


I read the following in 2019:

Jeff Vandermeer – Borne
John Grant – Tell No Lies
Paul Finch – Dean Man Walking
Douglas Thompson – Sylvow
The Residents – Bad Day On The Midway
Tanya Tadaq – Split Tooth
Dashiell Hammett – Red Harvest
China Mieville – The City & The City
Chris Beckett – Mother of Eden
Doug Jones – Posts 3
Joel Lane – Scar City
Ian Fleming – The Man With The Golden Gun
K J Bishop – That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote
Walker Percy – The Moviegoer
Ian McEwan – Atonement
Lucie McKnight Hardy – Jutland
Alison Moore – Broad Moor
Charles G Finney – The Circus of Dr Lao
Mark West - Drive
John Grant – The Lonely Hunter
Ray Cluley – 6/6
Clarice Lispector – Hour of the Star
Vladimir Nabokov – Transparent Things
Laura Mauro – Sing Your Sadness Deep
Viv Albertine – Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys
Christopher Priest – Fugue For A Darkening Island
Rosanne Rabinowitz – Helen’s Story
Neil Williamson – Secret Language
Michel Houllebeq – Platform
Nicholas Royle – First Novel
DH Lawrence – Selected Short Stories
Paul Meloy – Dogs With Their Eyes Shut
Nina Allen – The Harlequin
Rosanne Rabinowitz – All That Is Solid
Gary McMahon – At Home In The Shadows
Terry Grimwood – There Is A Way To Live Forever
Raymond Radiguet – Count D’Orgel’s Ball
Simon Bestwick – And Cannot Come Again
Stephen Volk – Leytonstone
Edited by Trevor Denyer – Night Light
Juan Rulfo – Pedro Paramos

That's worked out at 41 books this year, down from last years 43 so not too bad, although my target is probably 50 (which would take me 7 years to get through my backlog without buying any more books).

There were a couple of books this year that I struggled through and which I should probably have given up on, which included Walter Percy's "The Moviegoer" (apparently a 'dazzling classic' but for me navel-gazing and utterly pointless). "The Hour of the Star" by Clarice Lispector (like wading through a sea of treacle, soporific, a battle against ennui) and "Platform" by Michel Houellebecq (mundane and unexciting). There were also a handful of novels I thought were ok but perhaps not as good as they wanted them to be, which included "Borne" by Jeff Vandermeer (which I enjoyed for it's outré-ness but found a little unengaging) and "Atonement" by Ian McEwan (well-told but over-told).

I made an effort this year to read more books by authors that I know personally and out of the 41 books this included 22 from such folk (including a few books read for review). Overall, I enjoyed more books than I disliked this year, and the following deserve a special mention: Douglas Thompson's "Sylvow" (a multi-faceted and complex concoction), Tanya Tagaq's "Split Tooth" (brittle and harsh, as unforgiving as an Inuit landscape), Chris Beckett's "Mother of Eden" (a worthy successor to "Dark Eden"), the late Joel Lane's "Scar City" (quality urban dysfunctions), the novella, "Drive", by Mark West (an unabashed page-turner), John Grant's novella "The Lonely Hunter" (well-paced, intriguing, thoughtful), the music biography "Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys" (by The Slits' Viv Albertine), Neil Williamson's excellent collection of SF/Weird short stories, "Secret Language", Nicholas Royle's brilliant novel "First Novel" which very nearly gained a top three spot this year, and Nina Allen's "The Harlequin" which I also loved and was top three material.

However, as usual, I'm going to base my top three from my Goodreads reviews. Four books received my 5/5 rating, and so I'm edging out a collection by K.J.Bishop, "That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote", a book I described as 'surrealist baroque' and which I expanded in my review to state 'these are elegiac and mystical stories, borrowing but never cloning occasional genre standards, quirky and often humorous, but leaving the reader with a dislocation of possible other worlds which run parallel to ours but are just out of sight'. On another day, this might have made the top spot, but it probably didn't benefit from being read earlier in the year and sliding from my memory. However, without further ado, here are my favourite reads of 2019:

In reverse order:

"Helen's Story" by Rosanne Rabinowitz

I read this whilst on holiday in Cornwall and the wooded surroundings perfectly complemented this story. Confession: I haven't read Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" from which the title character in this novella makes a singular appearance, however I found the narrative compelling, urgent and intriguing. Despite the 'fantastical elements' the story read very realistically, nothing seemed out of place. Helen is an appealing character, someone who I found readily identifiable, someone I was interested in. To take a fictional character and make them your own is brave and a challenge. Rabinowitz achieved this with an expert hand.

"Leytonstone" by Stephen Volk

Interestingly, another novella. "Leytonstone" is Volk's tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, taking an oft-told anecdote from his youth and extrapolating an entire origin story from it which informs on - and bleeds into - the Master's movies. Volk doesn't put a foot wrong in tone, characterisation or prose. This is an engaging, compelling work which illuminates Hitchcock in the same way that Joyce Carol Oates' "Blonde" illuminates Monroe or John Connolly's "He" does the same for Stan Laurel. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

And the winner is:

"The City and The City" by China Miéville

This is a book, like Lavie Tidhar's "Osama" which was a favourite some years back, which I really should have written myself. I knew I would engage with this due to the neo-noir nod and the intrigue of the title. I won't go into the plot, suffice to say that the conceit of two cities existing simultaneously and the unseeing construct by which the citizens of each actively do not perceive the other is ruthlessly maintained by Miéville. In lesser hands, the novel would begin to fall apart as the logistics of the endeavour become unwieldy, but Miéville is married to the cause, the backdrop is the foreground, the tone is level throughout. It's a methodical book, but never labours. The investigation of the murder at the heart of the novel is legitimately stymied by bureaucracy and feels authentically Kafkaesque in principle whilst maintaining it's own identity. It concludes with aplomb. I thoroughly enjoyed it (although I can't say the same about anything else I've tried to read by Miéville, as I've never previously managed to finish one of his books)


I watched the following in 2019:

The Image Book
Taylor Swift: Reputation Stadium Tour
Doctor Chance
Steamboat Bill, Jr
A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop
The Family
Funny Ha Ha
T2: Trainspotting
The Endless
Phase IV
Ghost Stories
Get Out
Await Further Instructions
The Ritual
They Live
Phantom Lady
The Silence
Mysterious Skin
The Killers
Free Solo
The Game
Le Bonheur
Dark Horse
Black Dynamite
Not Reconciled, Or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules
Of Horses And Men
The Double Life Of Veronique
Cold In July
Funeral Parade of Roses
The Stranger
The Front Page
The Beguiled
Jurassic Park
The House That Jack Built
Berberian Sound Studio
The Duke of Burgundy
Les Amant du Pont-Neuf
I’m A Cyborg, But That’s Ok
The Thing
Code Unknown
Café Society
Midnight Cowboy
An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn
Stan & Ollie
The Seventh Continent
Benny’s Video
Psycho (1998)
71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance
The Piano Teacher
Union City
The Palm Beach Story

That's 71 movies this year, a staggering 50 down from last year which is just terrible! Mostly it's due to changes in my partner's working hours, but that's changed again recently and hopefully I can get the numbers back up for next year. Of course, that's still a long list to narrow down to my top three, and unlike books I don't have a site equivalent to Goodreads with which to guide my memory.

As usual, however, I'm discounting movies I've previously seen. So this knocks out the always-excellent "Walkabout"; foreign favourites "The Double Life Of Veronique" (superb second time around - wasn't as keen when I saw it on release) and "Les Amants Du Pont Neuf" (a firm favourite); in addition to "Union City" starring Dennis Lipscomb and Deborah Harry (again, another favourite, and which I viewed for research purposes...).

Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this includes "The Family" (now I love Luc Besson but this film is an absolute stinker), "Dark Horse" (the 2011 film, there are many others with this title and I assume all of them must be better than this shite), and I was also disappointed by "Roma" (heard so much about it, but I didn't think it deserved the praise from someone who watches a lot of foreign films).

Similar to my book thread, I watched quite a few films this year based on books written by friends (those lucky buggers). Whilst (author name in parenthesis) "Wounds" (Nathan Ballingrud), "The Silence" (Tim Lebbon) and "Await Further Instructions" (Gavin Williams) all had something to recommend them, it was "The Ritual" (Adam Nevill) which I thought the best of these bunch. A brilliant interpretation of the book which came close to making my top three and which I would easily watch again.

2019 was also a year in which I watched a lot of Michael Haneke. I enjoyed all his films, with "Hidden" coming quite close to my final selection. He's an excellent, intrusive, filmmaker. "The Piano Teacher" was also a revelation.

Other favourites this year include Jean-Luc Godard's "The Image Book" (a melange of imagery), "Pity" (a deadpan Greek comedy drama), both "Ghost Stories" and "Get Out" which played nicely on 70s horror sensibilities, "Psycho" (it's taken me years to watch this Hitchcock classic, dulled only by knowing too much about it), "Damage" (the Louis Malle film with the always superb Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche), "T2: Trainspotting" (a surprisingly worthy successor), "The House That Jack Built" (Lars Von Trier's brilliant dissection of serial killing married to myth), "Funeral Parade of Roses" (I loved this Japanese drama film directed and written by Toshio Matsumoto, loosely adapted from Oedipus Rex and set in the underground gay culture of 1960s Tokyo with a very French New Wave sensibility), and "Berberian Sound Studio" (directed by Peter Strickland - the film I would have made if I had ever become a director). These last three were so close to reaching my final selection.

So, as usual, I get the feeling that another day might produce marginally different results, but – today – here are my top three movies I saw for the first time in 2019.

Again, in reverse order:

"Le Bonheur" (1965) - Agnès Varda

I think this is the only Varda film I've seen (she died this year, and I should keep up). It's a bittersweet story of a happy family which shatters when the male ambivalently takes another lover and cannot contain this extended happiness from his wife. Ultimately a story about male insensitivity and also the interchangeability of relationships, "Le Bonheur" broke my heart and made me cry. It's such a simple, effective film.

"Stan & Ollie" (2018) - Jon S Baird

Having loved Laurel & Hardy films from a very early age I still repeatedly rewatch and quote from them. The humour is timeless and hilarious. I would number many of their features and shorts amongst the best films - not just comedy - ever made, so coming to this biopic I was a little fretful that it would do them justice. I needn't have worried. I thought it perfectly pitched, an affectionate and loving biopic of the greatest double act that ever lived. Coogan and Reilly excelled in their roles and their wives were also extremely well played. The final dance scene somehow managed to transcend the movie and bring the real Stan & Ollie onto the stage. I'm sure they would have approved.

And the winner is...

"Suspiria" (2018) - Luca Guadagnino

Shock! Horror! I've chosen a remake as my favourite film of the year. Shock! Horror! Yet this is more a re-imagining of the original Dario Argento classic and a brilliantly realised piece of theatre to boot. If there's any fault in it then it's the unnecessary casting of Tilda Swinton in one of her three roles, although even this affords an unsettling disconnect which perhaps adds to the unease which is channeled throughout. The denouement is wickedly executed with panache and aplomb, and whilst it might have ended just a fraction before it did, this has remained a film I've thought about over and again since I watched it and for that reason alone thoroughly deserves the top spot this year.


I listened to the following full-length albums in 2019:

The Residents – Animal Lover
The Residents – Bunny Boy
Valerie June – Pushin’ Against A Stone
Coeur de Pirate – en cas de tempête, ce jardin sera fermé
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour
Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider
The Plastics – Welcome Back
The Residents – Tweedles
The Residents – Intruders
The Residents – Demons Dance Alone
The Residents – Bad Day on the Midway
Buzzcocks – Another Music In A Different Kitchen
Buzzcocks – Love Bites
Echobelly – Black Heart Lullabies
Buzzcocks – A Different Kind Of Tension
Bis – Social Dancing
Buzzcocks – All Set
Paul Smith – Diagrams
Gabby’s World – O.K.
JJ Burnel – Euroman Cometh
The xx – I See You
Jordan Reyne - Bardo
Hugh Cornwell and Robert Wiliams – Nosferatu
The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
The Flaming Lips – The Terror
The Residents – Duck Stab
Scott Walker – Scott 1
The Flaming Lips – Oczy Mlody
The B-52s – The B-52s
Charlotte Gainsbourg – Rust
Sparks – Hippopotamus
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
Sonic Youth – Dirty
Bill Nelson – Sound on Sound
Bis – New Transistor Heroes
The Ravenonettes – Lust Lust Lust
Bis – data Panik etcetera
The Fall – Re-Mit
The Fall – Sublingual Tablet
New Found Glory – Radiosurgery
Sonic Youth – nyc ghosts & flowers
Sonic Youth – Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star
Blondie – Eat To The Beat
Marina – Love + Fear
Brigitte Fontaine – Kekeland
Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires Of The City
Vampire Weekend – The Father Of The Bride
Manaam – Manaam
Siekiera – Nowa Aleksandria
Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
Mattiel – Mattiel
The Cramps – Off The Bone
Stump – A Fierce Pancake
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
Magazine – Secondhand Daylight
Modern Eon – Fiction Tales
Joy Division – Closer
Polly Scattergood – Arrows
Bjork – Homogenic
The Stranglers – The Raven
Emilie Simon – The Big Machine
Mattiel – Satis Factory
The Residents – Eskimo
Ciccone – Eversholt Street
Idles – Joy As An Act Of Resistance
Taylor Swift – Lover
The Monochrome Set – Super Plastic City
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Devo – Something For Everybody
Slits – Cut
Essential Logic – Fanfare In The Garden
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents
The White Stripes – The White Stripes
The White Stripes – De Stijl
The White Stripes – White Blood Cells
The White Stripes – Elephant
The White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan
The White Stripes – Icky Thump
Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide
Blondie – Plastic Letters
Hugh Cornwell – Monster
Art Brut – Brilliant! Tragic!
Iggy Pop – Free
Ultravox - Vienna
Talking Heads - Remain In Light

That's 85 albums which isn't bad since most of these were listened to on headphones whilst cycling to and from work. I've never made an album list before, and as I've done with my book and movie list I will discount anything previously listened to. And unlike movies and books, predominantly most of these will be re-listens.

I revisited Buzzcocks following Pete Shelley's death, and also the entire White Stripes oeuvre on a whim (finding their first album and also "Get Behind Me Satan" to be my favourites). As usual I played some Stranglers, X-Ray Spex, Somic Youth, Magazine and The Fall. The Flaming Lips also made their usual appearance. Unlike most years, I haven't written much fiction listening to music, so my go-to's Echobelly and Blonde Redhead didn't make an appearance (other than the new/old Echobelly record, "Black Heart Lullabies").

I think I have fairly eclectic tastes, but on the other hand quite conservative with the same names popping up quite regularly. And I never iPod shuffle, preferring to hear full albums rather than individual songs. I revisited several albums I haven't heard for many years: Modern Eon's excellent "Fiction Tales", Ultravox's "Vienna", Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" and Joy Divisions' surprisingly good "Unknown Pleasures" (my memory of this record not quite what I thought it to be).

When it came to new releases (to me, at least), I loved Valerie June's almost country "Pushin’ Against A Stone" (such a great voice), perennial favourite Coeur de Pirate's "en cas de tempête, ce jardin sera fermé", Marina's superb pop album "Love + Fear" (very close to making my top three), Vampire Weekend's "Father Of The Bride" (an album which benefits from repeated listens), Fontaine D.C.'s vibrant "Dogrel", and Iggy Pop's jazz-infused "Free".

Ultimately, though, my top three new (to me) records played this year were all 2019 releases. And here they are (in reverse order):

"Stunning Luxury" (2019) - Snapped Ankles

This band was recommended to me through several friends and when I saw they were anonymous creators dressed as trees who played log synthesisers it was impossible not to love them. I was lucky enough to see them live this year - oldest man in the mosh pit! - and it was absolutely joyous. I love repetitive rhythms and whilst the album doesn't quite capture the feel of the live gig, it's definitely an excellent starting place.

"Satis Factory" (2019) - Mattiel

Another band I was lucky enough to see live this year, this is an excellent record of garage-pop-rock type tunes which really got under my skin and rewarded numerous plays. Mattiel's vocal is just the right side of rough and the songs are stompingly good, gritty, and fresh (despite a plethora of influences). To take the usual advice with music, play it loud.

And the winner is...

"Lover" (2019) - Taylor Swift

Considering the absolute dogshite of the previous album, "Reputation", "Lover" is a glorious revelation, marrying all Swift's previous styles to create a career-defining record. We listened to this on the last day of our Cornish holiday, lights off, in silence, soaking it up, praying after each superb track that she wouldn't fuck it up on the next one, and joyous that she didn't. "Lover" is quite simply a fantastic record with superb and witty songwriting, room to breathe, and crystal-clear production. Swift has always been a storyteller at heart, and this record exemplifies that. It's also a record of love, proving there is no finer muse. There are eighteen songs here and none of them duds, each augmenting the one before and seguing into the one following. Favourites include "It's Nice To Have A Friend" (with steel drums and harps!), "The Man" (Swift's take on a female's progress through the music industry), and "Cornelia Street" (a paean to love, hope and trust). This record has had a permanent stay in the car CD player since August and is a must listen for those who think they know Swift but don't.

So that's it, my summary of what I read, watched and listened to in 2019! Drop back in next year, but in the meantime, here's my favourite song (and my favourite video) which I discovered in 2019: "Kekeland" by Brigitte Fontaine.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Mr Writing Year 2019

As has become annual I thought I'd do a quick blog post as to my literary achievements during 2019.

It's been a productive year in some respects but has felt completely unproductive in others. I feel this  is probably due to my own personal perception rather than anything else, as in terms of publications it's not been bad at all.

Usually I aim to write a short story a month, but due to a desire to focus on other projects and also a lack of impetus I only wrote seven short stories in 2019: "Life + Illusion = Love + Dream", "The Natural Environment", "The Song The Moon Taught Us", "Mobster Thermidor", "Fetch", "The Malaise Trap" and "All That Dead Beauty". A novel I began, "The Non-Conformists", I subsequently abandoned.

I sold four short stories this year: "Life + Illusion = Love + Dream" to the Pete Shelley tribute anthology, Love Bites, "Of Course, A Girl" to the Afterlives Of The Writers anthology, "The Girl With The Horizontal Walk" to be published as a chapbook by Salò Press (my partner runs this press, but it was her suggestion to take this story), and "All That Dead Beauty" to an anthology I'm currently not allowed to mention.

The following three stories were published this year in this order: "The Girl With The Horizontal Walk" as a chapbook from Salò Press, "Of Course, A Girl" in Afterlives Of The Writers from 5th Wall Press, and "Life + Illusion = Love + Dream" in Love Bites from Dostoyevsky Wannabe Press. Additionally, a short reminiscence on seeing the band The Smiths in 1983 & 1984 was included in The Smiths: The Day I Was There published by This Day In Music Books and edited by Richard Houghton. This year also saw me occasionally reviewing books again for Black Static magazine.

In addition to the short stories, I had two books published in 2019. The mini short story collection, "The Forest of Dead Children", through Black Shuck Books, and the novella "The Uneasy" from Eibonvale Press.

There are updates on two other book publications I mentioned last year. My eighth short story collection, "Frequencies of Existence", will be published next year by NewCon Press. Predominantly SF, there will be twenty-four stories in the book. Cover reveal here. And "O For Obscurity, Or, The Story of N", a creative non-fiction biography of the musician known as The Mysterious N Senada - who worked in association with and influenced The Residents - should appear through Psychofon Records in conjunction with a re-release of some of his material. This book was written after I decoded his diaries which were discovered in 2018.

I have a handful of stories awaiting publication that were originally accepted in previous years, and a few novels are also under consideration by various agents/publishers, as they were last year. My next project is a proposed film book for which I'll begin interviewing the director and actors in 2020. It's a speculative project at present, but hopefully will bear fruit. I'm quite excited about it.

As I said at the start of this post, from my perspective 2019 has been a quiet year, although putting it in words I don't think I've done too badly at all.