Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Something To Believe In

My short story titled "Something To Believe In" has just been published in Crossing The Tees (The Fifth Short Story Anthology). This is an anthology compiled of the shortlisted and winning entries to the annual Crossing The Tees competition. I rarely enter competitions, because there's normally a submission fee, however this one was free and I decided it was worth a go. And as usual I'm writing a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

If you read my story, you'll notice there are several references to Ramones. The reason for this is simple, I originally wrote the story with the hope that it might be accepted for Gabba Gabba Hey: An Anthology of Fiction Inspired by the Music of The Ramones, published by Fahrenheit Press. Unfortunately it didn't make the book, so I was left to shop it elsewhere, however because Ramones were my starting point this explains the genesis of the story. I wanted a Ramones song title as the story title, and after discarding the obvious (Sheena Is A Punk Rocker, Rockaway Beach, The KKK Took My Baby Away, etc), I happened upon Something To Believe In. Here was a title I could work with. Combined with the title, I'd recently discarded the opening of a novel where one of the characters, Klein, becomes romantically obsessed with a girl he passes on his daily commute. I decided to have this character relate his obsession to another character, Streckfus, who we then follow through their own thoughts into a similar scenario which also shaped their life.  I wanted to explore how we map our could-have-beens onto other people, totally without their knowledge - or permission - and how transitory interactions can dominate regular thought.

With this simmering in my mind, I happened to rewatch the film Citizen Kane, which included this quote from one of the characters, Mr Bernstein: One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl.

You can see how that fits my story perfectly. So much so, that I use it as an epigraph at the beginning.




The piece is also a commentary on the male gaze, which, from a feminist viewpoint, is the masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. Whilst my story reflects this, it does additionally suggest that unknowingly to the female, it is herself who represents the powerful, and that the gaze can be purely idealised romanticism without the sexual imperative being to the fore or even present at all. However, my character, Streckfus, also acknowledges that: He was no different from Klein, appropriating others for validation, but equally blaming others for the shitshow his life became.


Crossing The Tees (The Fifth Short Story Anthology) is published through the Crossing The Tees Book Festival. It retails at £10.00 in paperback. There are thirty two contributors. I believe the book is widely available throughout the festival, and is also available through Drake bookshop.

As regular readers are aware, I write my short stories listening to music on repeat. In this case, throughout the entire writing session, I naturally played Ramones' "Something To Believe In" on a loop. Not sure how many times I heard it, but it was several. Here it is:




Tuesday, 28 December 2021

The Best and Worst of 2021

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 2021 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2021, but what I actually watched and read and heard - some of these items might be very old indeed.


Books:

I read the following in 2021:

Alison Moore – The Lighthouse
Jeff Noon – Within Without
Thomas M Disch – The Prisoner
Ira Levin – The Boys From Brazil
M John Harrison – You Should Come With Me Now
Joel Lane – The Earth Wire
Max Frisch – Man In The Holocene
Laura Lam – Shadowplay
Arkady & Boris Strugatsky – Hard To Be A God
Derek Raymond – I Was Dora Suarez
Anna Claybourne – Mythopedia
Jon George – Zootsuit Black
Calder Szewczak – The Offset
Christopher Priest – The Gradual
Nina Allan – Spin
David Peace – Tokyo Year Zero
Michael DeForge – Big Kids
Terry Grimwood – Joe
Andy Cox (Editor) – Black Static #78/#79
Cormac McCarthy – The Road
Eugen Bacon/Dominique Hecq – Speculate
Li Ang – The Butchers Wife
Sara Costik (Editor) – Death By Train
HP Tinker – Le détective
Ray Bradbury – Machineries of Joy
Joel Lane – The Anniversary of Never
Pier Paolo Pasolini – Petrolio
Andy Partridge – Complicated Game
George Perec – Things: A Story of the Sixties with A Man Asleep
Andrew David Barker – The Electric
Ray Bradbury – The Day It Rained Forever
Vanessa Springora – Consent
Sophie Mackintosh – Blue Ticket
Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13
Simon Avery – A Box Full Of Darkness
François Mauriac - Thérèse Desqueyroux
Hideo Furukawa – Slow Boat
Kerry Hadley-Pryce – The Black Country
Terry Grimwood – Affairs of a Cardiovascular Nature
Paul Finch (Editor) – Terror Tales of the Home Counties
Yuko Tsushima – Territory of Light
Laura Mauro – On The Shoulders of Otava
Amélie Nothomb – The Character of Rain
Anna Kavan – Ice
Catriona Ward – The Last House On Needless Street
Leonora Carrington – The Skeleton’s Holiday
Irenosen Okojie – Nudibranch
Joel Lane – Instinct
Gunther Grass – The Tin Drum
Kazuo Ishiguro – Klara and the Sun
Eugen Bacon – Danged Black Thing
Georges Simenon – Pietr The Latvian
Steve Jones – Lonely Boy
Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa
Georges Simenon – The Late Monsieur Gallet
Rory Power – Wilder Girls
Ian Whates (Editor) – No More Heroes
Christopher Priest – The Separation
Bernado Atxaga - Water Over Stones
Kate Farrell - Waiting

That's worked out at 60 books this year, up eight from last year's 51 so pretty good, and much helped by deciding to keep an ongoing list on Twitter and Instagram and posting a monthly summary on Facebook. I should mention that I also proofread and copyedit and adding those novels into the mix would increase the number by about 38 books this year (those which were exceptional also making the above list).

There were a few books this year that I was looking forward to, but which really didn't do it for me. The Strugatsky brothers, "Hard To Be A God", I just found muddy and confusing, despite the neat central concept; David Peace's "Tokyo Year Zero" uses a deliberate rhythmic repetitive style which unfortunately began to grate very quickly; Ray Bradbury's collection "Machineries of Joy" really didn't cut the mustard: it felt dated and run-of-the-mill; Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Petrolio" probably contains an excellent 60 page novella within its turgid 450 pages but it's not worth looking to find it; Hideo Furukawa's "Slow Boat" is a simple, quick and easy read but with little to say; and Kerry Hadley-Pryce's "The Black Country" started brilliantly then completely disappointed with a same-old / same-old denouement lacking the originality of the earlier pages. That would probably have been the worst read of the year for me, but then I picked up Catriona Ward's "The Last House On Needless Street" which went from bad to worse and ended with a thirty page info dump of mindnumbing boredom detailing everything we already realised mid-way through the book. For a work that seems to be incredibly popular, I found this astounding.

Thankfully, I also read many great books this year. Having made more effort to read female writers (over a third of the total, excluding anthology appearances), several of those were amongst my favourites including 
"The Lighthouse" by Alison Moore, a simple story of the loss of what could have been; Laura Lam's "Shadowplay" (book two in a fantasy series) which was more than equal to its predecessor. Another SF/Fantasy title, "The Offset", by Calder Szewczak was equally well-written with a clarity of purpose and an interesting central idea; "Speculate", a collection of surreal micro-fiction written in a call and response collaboration by Eugen Bacon and Dominique Hecq, created prose poems that echoed and informed, entwined and correlated. I also greatly enjoyed Bacon's collection "Danged Black Thing". Laura Mauro's "On the shoulders of OTAVA" was a beautifully told story, dreamlike and subtle. Also beautifully written was "Ice" by Anna Kavan. I do love Kavan's fiction, and this was no exception, the fluidity of story matched by events and sense of time. Equal to these was the collection, "Nudibranch" by Irenosen Okojie, such a brave stylist who uses language in new ways to make the unfamiliar familiar. Kate Elizabeth Russell's "My Dark Vanessa" is billed as a counterpoint to "Lolita" and whilst it contains none of the beauty in that work, it was a compulsive read, with Russell not shying away from the fact that some relationships are based on love, some on abuse, and some on both. "Wilder Girls" by Rory Power is a YA novel that reminded me of both Sarah Pinborough's "The Death House" and Sophie Mackintosh's "The Water Cure", but stands in its own right as an exploration of female relationships and body horror and is well worth your time.

I also read several anthologies and short story collections. These included "You Should Come With Me Now", by M. John Harrison, which contained astute observations of fracture, and might have made my top three if not for the shorter vignettes between the stories which added nothing to the book; Joel Lane's "The Earth Wire", his first collection reprinted, was another excellent selection (you would never know it was a debut work), and I also enjoyed another of Lane's collections, "The Anniversary of Never", where the sadness that his characters inhabit being endemic to their surroundings, with patches of hope shining like sunlight on oily water. Two anthologies also stood out: Terror Tales of the Home Counties edited by Paul Finch, contained some great horror stories, and "No More Heroes" edited by Ian Whates featured some excellent fiction based on deceased musicians (disclaimer: I have stories in both these anthologies, but that does not affect my review). 

Novels by male authors which grabbed me included Derek Raymond's "I Was Dora Suarez" which held a kind of beauty that was grubby and brittle. Equally grim was "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, a book I was hesitant to read as I wasn't keen on the film, but which almost makes you want to live that life to see how you might fare. "Water Over Stones" by Bernardo Atxaga is an episodic novel that covers familiar themes in an unassuming, yet occasionally brutal, fashion, that hits just the right tone of remembrance, sentimentality, and realism. "The Separation" by Christopher Priest is an excellent slipstream novel (which I preferred to "The Gradual", which I also read this year), that might have made my top three if I had more interest in the Second World War.

Finally, in non-fiction, "Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC" by Andy Partridge, was a great book for fans and is highly recommended. Another music biography, "Lonely Boy", by Sex Pistol, Steve Jones, was equally an informative yet hilarious read.

Anyway, as usual, I'm going to base my top three from my Goodreads reviews. Only three books received my 5/5 rating, so that made my decision rather easy. Without further ado, here are my favourite reads of 2021:


In reverse order:

"The Electric" by Andrew David Barker



Given my love for cinema it would have been surprising if I hadn't enjoyed this book. This is a thoughtful, delicately-balanced, emotionally authentic story of loss and friendship, of moments that define a life, of the simplicity of existence when everything is stripped away and laid bare. There are ghosts in this book, and it takes courage not to make them scary but identifiable. Throughout I was hoping it wouldn't go the standard horror route, and gladly it doesn't, which means that when there is horror it hits that much harder. I was close to tears by the end. Barker has captured the essence of nostalgia for time's past that wholly resonated with me, steered clear of the obvious, and whilst in some respects it's predictable in its unfolding, this only means that it's natural. There's no rug pulling, no nonsense, just honesty. And that's the most beautiful thing of all. I loved it.

"Territory of Light" by Yūko Tsushima



This slim volume of twelve interconnected chronological story chapters details a woman's separation from her husband together with the anomaly of their child, a being whose continued existence is a tie to the former relationship but also a burden, as though she should have vanished once the parties pulled apart. The stories here are exquisitely told, with an almost ethereal lightness of touch which belies the often dramatic subject matter. Moments made me gasp at the audacity, the recognition, the understanding of the parent / child relationship - the innocence of bewilderment, the shame of knowing. I couldn't fault this work. 

And the winner is:

"Within Without" by Jeff Noon



This is the third Nyquist mystery I've read (although the fourth in the series) and whilst I very much enjoyed the first two this is even better. A mix of noir, fantasy and SF, it's a thoroughly engaging - and in some respects - experimental piece of work, which is beautifully written and contains some excellent ideas. Noon really inhabits Nyquist for this work. Having developed the character over several books he takes him into places both poignant and absorbing. It's a deconstruction and reconstruction of language and possibility. There's a real intelligence on display here, regarding how books work and how to subvert them. I loved it and thoroughly recommend it and can only hope Noon returns to Nyquist's world again soon.


Movies:

I watched the following in 2021:


The Trial
Krampus
2021: A Space Odyssey
Scrooged
Nimic
Joker
Aliens
Us
Evolution
Nobody Sleeps In The Woods Tonight
Escape Room
Invaders From Mars (1986)
Princess Mononoke
The Midnight Sky
Festen
Ruben Brandt, Collector
The Tales of Hoffmann
The Wayward Girl
August 32nd On Earth
Megamind
The Missing Link
The Straight Story
You Only Live Once
It’s Only The End Of The World
The Long Goodbye
Fantastic Mr Fox
The Killer Shrews
About Endlessness
Despicable Me 2
Wake In Fright
The Lighthouse (2019)
Everest
The Wrong Trousers
The Peanuts Movie
Repulsion
The Long Weekend
Under The Tree
Cenote
Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip
Despicable Me
Solis
Duck Duck Goose
The Painted Bird
Greenland
Vampyr
i’m thinking of ending things
Red Dot
Sputnik
Tyrel
?E?ANX (The Cave) (short film)
Lucky
Bad Tales
Citizen Kane
Bill Hicks: Sane Man
Big Trouble In Little China
L’Enfant Secret
The Big Bird Cage
The Meg
The Nightingale
For The Time Being
Super 8
King of Comedy
American Graffiti
Arctic
The Lighthouse (2016)
A Bay of Blood
Host
Slugs
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Vivarium
Don’t Go In The Woods
The Terrorizers
Prisoners
Shrek
Jason and the Argonauts
Rango
The Block Island Sound
Love And Death
Redwood
Inflatable Sex Doll Of The Wastelands
Velvet Buzzsaw
The Legend of Secret Pass
Cold Ground
Exhibit A
Lake Artifact
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
Queen of Earth
Dark Mountain
The Color Wheel
Beyond The Woods
Plan 9 From Outer Space
Shrek 2
Gushing Prayer
Killing Ground
White Settlers
Gnome Alone
Sherpa
The Hunted
Coraline
Oleg
Small Foot
Preservation
Pusher
Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls!
Latte and the Magic Waterstone
Throwback
Pusher 11
Death In The Garden
James and the Giant Peach
Pusher 111
Punishment Park
The Mitchells vs The Machines
This Boy’s Life
Adoption
Compliance
Red Moon Tide
Touchez pas au grisbi
House
Four Doors
The Two Of Them
Listen Up Philip
Goosebumps
Personal Shopper
Billy Liar
Saint Maud
The Brood
Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs
Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
Bully
Born In Flames
Jerichow
Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2
Killer Mountain
The Things Of Life
Deep
Old Joy
The Devil Below
Cecil B Demented
Yella
The Ape
Kala Azar
Union City
Piercing
Wonder Park
PVT Chat
Paddington
Shiva Baby
Lakeside Suite
The Descent
Chicken Run
The Dead Don’t Die
Things Heard & Seen
Rust Creek
Tenet
Cannibal Holocaust
Boro In The Box
Night Tide
The Sparks Brothers
First Cow
Rubber
A Cure For Wellness
Oxygen
Primal Fear
Paranoid Park
The Circle
Brimstone
Wendy
Black Bear
Spree
Total Recall
Aftermath
The Swarm
Diva
Volleyball (Foot Film) (short film)
The Unseen River (short film)
The Queen’s Gambit (TV series)
A Rainy Day In New York
24 Hour Party People
Vivo
The Vigil
Menarca
The Iron Giant
Annette
Over The Moon
White God
Wrong Turn (2021)
Amer
Wish Dragon
The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears
Brother
Scenes With Beans (short film)
Open Hearts
Gobble-Gobble (short film)
Horse In The House (short film)
American Mary
Yellow Cat
The Wizard of Oz
No One Gets Out Alive
The North Water (TV series)
Preparations to Be Together for An Unknown Period of Time
The Guilty
Secret Magic Control Agency
Squid Game (TV series)
Simple Men
Angel-A
Howl’s Moving Castle
Dune (2021)
Chevalier
The French District
Shelley
Airplane!
Fay Grim
Don’t Look Now
Spirited Away
Boy Meets Girl
Miss Violence
Maelström
The Nun (2013)
Bronson
Blue Bottle (short film)
Meow Or Never (short film)
She Dreams At Sunrise (short film)
Sea Dragon (short film)
Big Top (short film)
Footsteps On The Wind (short film)
Mr Spam Gets A New Hat (short film)
Ponyo
Les Bonne Femmes
Unsane
Storks
Ponette
The Nun (1966)
Mauvis Sang
Klaus
The Death and Resurrection Show
Dune (1984)
Coming Home In The Dark
Candyman (1992)
Back To The Outback
Le Bel Indifférent (short film)
The Bones (short film)
Holy Motors
Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus
Whisper of the Heart
The Immortal Story
This Filthy World
La Luna (short film)
Lava (short film)
Ron's Gone Wrong
The Fly
Annette

Quite astonishingly, that's 250 movies this year, literally more than double the 120 I watched last year. I put this predominantly down to the larger TV we bought pre-2021 which has made our viewing experience much more focussed, a handful of short films, and like last year we've also watched a kids film most Friday nights with our 9yr old which has added (I'm guessing) over 35 films to the list. The best of these kids films being "Over The Moon", "Whisper of the Heart" and "Klaus" (a Santa origin story with a humdinger of a staggered ending during which I sobbed three separate times). I've also included three TV series here. I don't watch many of those, but I've decided to class them as long films for the purpose of my annual round-up. The best of these by a country mile being "The Queen's Gambit".

Anyway, this means it's quite 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 one of my favourite films that I haven't rewatched for many years, "Diva", directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix -  one of the films that ignited my love for modern French cinema as a teenager - which I'm glad to say I absolutely re-loved. Other pivotal films that I originally watched when much younger and influenced my way of thinking (and I enjoyed watching again) included Claude Chabrol's "Le Bonne Femmes" which oozes Parisian character and has a truly tragic ending; Woody Allen's "Love and Death" ("if only he would just cough"); Polanski's home alone nightmare that is "Repulsion"; Australian eco-horror movie "The Long Weekend"; director Marcus Reichert's Deborah Harry neo-noir film, "Union City"; Orson Welles' epic "Citizen Kane"; Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" which was much better than I remembered, and I remembered it great to begin with; Nicholas Roeg's masterful "Don't Look Now"; and more recent re-watches of Leos Carax's bizarre "Holy Motors" and Luc Besson's surprisingly affecting "Angel-A".

Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this includes "Aliens" (I know there's a lot of love for this movie, but it's an absolute stinker compared to Ridley Scott's original and I find nothing good to say about it at all); "Dark Mountain" (2018), a lost in the woods film which was just dire amongst a genre which is generally dire to begin with; "Preservation" (2014), another lost in the woods film with no logic despite a strong opening premise; "Throwback", another lost in the woods...well, you get it by now. "Saint Maud", a British psychological horror film which others seemed to love, but for me brought nothing new to a genre saturated with religion-is-bad films (whether it is or not is another matter, but I want something different); "Black Bear" which tried to be frightfully clever but I found just frightful; "Spree", an over the top serial killer film from the serial killer's perspective which became too nonsensical for the message it was trying to unsubtly hammer home; 
"American Mary" which tries for an "American Psycho" vibe but fails miserably and illogically; and "Wrong Turn" (2021), a remake of a superior lost in the woods film, which, well, here we go again...Truthfully, lost in the woods films are our go-to flicks when there's just trash we want to watch, but they don't all have to be trash.

Despite the above, there were so many films I highlighted as excellent this year that it's really going to be difficult to narrow down my top three, an almost impossible task. Here are those that absolutely deserve a mention: "The Trial" (Orson Welles), a beautifully shot, wonderfully designed film that perfectly captured Kafka's novel; "Joker" starring Joachim Phoenix (not generally a fan of superhero/supervillain films but this was excellently played). Clearly "Joker" was influenced by "King of Comedy" (Scorcese) which I also saw for the first time this year and thoroughly enjoyed. Thomas Vinterberg's "Festen" was a superb dissection of family trauma, made under the Dogme 95 manifesto. Another film made under that criteria was the gripping "Open Hearts" directed by Susanne Bier, with a great performance (as usual) by Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen also turned up in "Pusher", which led a trilogy directed by Nicolas Winding Refn which were all thoroughly engaging and uniformly excellent. Denis Villeneuve is a favourite director and this year I thoroughly enjoyed his first feature, "August 32nd On Earth", together with "Prisoners" and "Dune" (although I was less keen on "Maelström"). Speaking of "Dune", I finally watched the David Lynch version after not making my way through it several times since release, and found it almost as good as the 
Villeneuve (which was epic in the right way). Moving on, Elliot Gould's performance in "The Long Goodbye", directed by Robert Altman, really grabbed me. When it came to more mainstream films, the post-apocalyptic "Greenland" was surprisingly good; Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" was an enjoyable piece of fluff, but perhaps without the emotional depth of some of his other work; and "i’m thinking of ending things" contained some excellent wrongfooted movements, although ultimately was probably too clever for it's own good.

Japanese cinema always holds an interest.  This year I particularly enjoyed the absolutely bonkers "The Happiness of the Katakuris", "Inflatable Sex Doll Of The Wastelands" (a surrealist blend of tough-guy pulp and sleazy sexploitation); "Gushing Prayer" (a superior sexploitation movie); and "House" (the  1977 Japanese experimental comedy horror film directed and produced by Nobuhiko Obayashi). Hungarian director, Márta Mészáros, was a new discovery for me this year, and I thoroughly enjoyed "Don’t Cry, Pretty Girls!" (1970), and "Adoption" (1975). Sticking in that timezone, Cronenberg's "The Brood", which surprisingly I hadn't seen before, had some incredible scenes (as did "The Fly", which I think I must have seen before), and I also loved "Born In Flames", a 1983 feminist fiction film by Lizzie Borden; and the astonishing "Cannibal Holocaust" which I'd heard so much about but which it turned out I knew nothing about.

And so we continue: "Tyrel", an outsider film which never takes the obvious route and is all the better for it; the beautifully odd SF "Vivarium" which creates an internal logic and sticks to it, "Host", an isolation / found footage horror film which uses it's premise to great effect and is genuinely disturbing; "No One Gets Out Alive", based on the Adam Nevil horror novel, which doesn't match "The Ritual" (a previous adaptation of Adam's work), but which is definitely worth a look; Luis Buñuel's sublime "Death In The Garden" which bettered my expectations; "Red Moon Tide", an oddly-affecting quiet Spanish movie; "The Dead Don’t Die", Jim Jarmusch's funny yet worth it zombie film; Gus Van Sant's touching "Paranoid Park"; "The Swarm" (2020) a French horror film directed by Just Philippot, which wore those tropes lightly; "24 Hour Party People" (the Tony Wilson biopic which was surprisingly hilarious); "The Vigil" directed by Keith Thomas - another effective horror film which doesn't tread an expected path; "Wendy", a heart-wrenching, tear-jerking retelling of the Peter Pan story;  Hal Hartley's "Simple Men", particularly for that dance sequence; the Croatian "Accidental Luxuriance of the Translucent Watery Rebus" (an almost indescribable noir experience); "Ponette", a 2006 French movie which features 4yr old Victoire Thivisol giving the best child performance I have ever seen; and "The Sparks Brothers", a documentary on one of my favourite bands. Finally in this section, a couple of directors who will feature a little further on: I loved "Boy Meets Girl", Leos Carax's debut, and "The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears", a 2013 giallo film written and directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani.

Are you still with me? So many good films this year. I've narrowed my final selection down to nine, and any of the following six might easily have been in my top three. Here goes: "It’s Only The End Of The World", a French drama film directed by Xavier Dolan which really hit me in the emotional gut, with superb acting throughout; "Ruben Brandt, Collector", an absolutely brilliantly inventive Hungarian animated crime thriller, breathtakingly good; "Wake in Fright", the 1971 psychological 'Ozploitation' thriller directed by Ted Kotcheff; the short film, "Boro In The Box", about the Polish auteur Walerian Borowczyk, directed by Bertrand Mandico (who made one of my favourite recent films, "The Wild Boys"), because it was so perfectly surreal; "Evolution", the 2015 film by Lucile Hadžihalilović, a movie of intriguing, quietly disconcerting horror; and "Amer", another Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani film which mimicked the 70s giallo genre so well that it was only when the credits came that I realised it had a much more recent origin (2009).

"Amer" would have made my third place film, until I decided to rewatch "Annette". I guess that's a spoiler for my top three, Anyway, whilst as usual I get the feeling that another day might produce marginally different results, today here are my top three movies that I saw for the first time in 2021.

Again, in reverse order:

"Annette" (2021) - Leos Carax


I love the music of Sparks and I adore the films of Leos Carax ("Les Amant Du Pont Neuf" being one of my favourite films of all time), so I expected this to be a no brainer. Although, as I described the experience to a friend: "it was exactly what I thought it would be and it was nothing like I thought it would be". The film is often - purposely, I feel - a difficult watch. It refuses to be compartmentalised. As a musical, I'm sure it confounds those who love musicals, and as a regular film it is not without its faults. However, it's also totally, brilliantly compelling. Adam Driver in particular is superb as an individual drawn to the abyss, and the final main song astounds in its honesty. I could write a thesis about this damn thing and still not say enough. I loved it - with reservations, which made me love it all the more. Seen both at the cinema and then again at home, it is also the only film I've seen twice this year.


"The Painted Bird" (2019) -  Václav Marhoul


Another difficult film, Václav Marhoul's adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński (which I haven't read) is a brilliantly harrowing piece of cinema, disturbing yet seemingly authentic, grim and almost entirely without hope. Whilst watching I was reminded of "Come And See" (1985, Elem Klimov) which is an equally relentless piece of work, and the naturalistic acting, methodical pacing, and central performance from - at the time of filming - 12yr old Petr Kotlár who undergoes a series of horrific encounters with ignorance, exploitation, and depravity reminded me of 16yr old Aleksei Kravchenko's debut in that film. Anyway, despite the inevitable comparison, "The Painted Bird" is absolutely a stunning film in it's own right, and deservedly in second place.

And the winner is...

"Mauvais Sang" (1986) - Leos Carax


Thank - insert your preferred deity here - for Leos Carax, but also for Mubi, my favourite movie subscription service which in a previous year gave me the opportunity to rewatch "Les Amant Du Pont Neuf", plus this year "Holy Motors", "Boy Meets Girl", a second 2021 viewing of "Annette", and now "Mauvis Sang". I love Carax's refusal to make the movie you think you're going to watch, which leads - quite simply - to some stunning cinematic decisions. The acting is uniformly brilliant. Michel Piccoli's character is wise yet flawed, a young Juliette Binoche oozes quality, and - of course - Denis Lavant, an extraordinary actor who always astonishes. Moments here are pure bliss: the parachuting scenes, the lengthy dialogue, and that moment where Lavant's character runs and runs and runs. Even thinking about this film literally sends my heartbeat on a similar trajectory. The ending is exquisite. I love this film, and immediately after watching it I knew it would be my favourite of 2021. Without a doubt, what cinema was invented for.


Records:

I listened to the following full-length albums in 2021:

Mattiel – Mattiel 
Taylor Swift – evermore
Snapped Ankles – Come Play The Trees
Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band – Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)
Tubeway Army – Replicas
Ultravox! – Ultravox!
Visage – Visage
The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys
The Cure – Seventeen Seconds
The Cure – Faith
The Cure – Pornography
The Cure – The Top
The Cure – The Head On The Door
Marissa Nadler – For My Crimes
The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
Goldfrapp – Felt Mountain
The Cure – Disintegration
The Cure – Wish 
German Film Stars – The Blooming of the Tisza
Couer de Pirate – en cas de tempē, ce jardin sera fermė
Blonde Redhead – 23
KAZU – Adult Baby
The Cure – Wild Mood Swings
The Cure – Bloodflowers
The Cure – The Cure
The Cure – 4:13 Dream
Maxïmo Park – Nature Always Wins
Pauline Murray – Elemental
Big Joanie – Sistahs
Viv Albertine – The Vermillion Border
The Raveonettes – Observator
Lou Reed and John Cale – Songs For Drella
Cardiacs – Sing To God
Polyphonic Size – Earlier / Later
Ramones – Leave Home
Swell Maps – A Trip to Marineville
Taylor Swift – Lover
Kim Gordon – No Home Record
Ramones – Road To Ruin
Ramones – Rocket To Russia
Taylor Swift – Fearless (Taylor’s Version)
The Raveonettes – Whip It On
Dry Cleaning – New Long Leg
Debbie Harry – Koo Koo
Blondie – Plastic Letters
Matt Berry – The Blue Elephant
Sparks – No.1 In Heaven
Sink Ya Teeth – Sink Ya Teeth
George Ezra – Staying At Tamara’s
Devo – Freedom of Choice
XTC – Oranges & Lemons
XTC – Drums and Wires
The Lovely Eggs – This Is Eggland
Aldous Harding – Designer
The Damned – Music For Pleasure
Imperial Wax – Gaswerk Saboteurs
Buzzcocks – Singles Going Steady
Snapped Ankles –Forest Of Your Problems
The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace
Mitski – Be The Cowboy
TV Priest – Uppers
Screaming Blue Messiahs – Bikini Red
Sparks – A Steady Drip Drip Drip
The Residents – Metal Meat & Bone (Dyin’ Dog Demos)
Red Guitars – Good Technology
Marina – Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land
Sparks – Big Beat
Amyl & The Sniffers – Amyl & The Sniffers
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents
Echobelly – On
Echobelly – Everyone’s Got One
Echobelly – Lustra
Placebo – Sleeping With Ghosts
Paul Smith – Margins
Churches – Every Open Eye
Marina – Froot
Taylor Swift – Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift – Speak Now
Taylor Swift – Red
Taylor Swift – 1989
Taylor Swift – Folklore
Mattiel – Satis Factory
Placebo – Without You I’m Nothing
Cœur de Pirate – Perséides
Sparks - Annette
Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers
The Stranglers – Dark Matters
The Stranglers – Dave Greenfield: A Tribute
Amyl & The Sniffers – Comfort To Me
XTC – The Big Express
Echobelly – Anarchy & Alchemy
PINS – Girls Like Us
PINS – Wild Nights
Taylor Swift – Red (Taylor’s Version, with bonus album)
The Residents – Not Available
Snapped Ankles – Stunning Luxury
PINS – Hot Slick
Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz
Viagra Boys - Street Worms
Bis - data Panik etcetera

That's exactly 100 albums which is 21 more than I listened to last year. The bulk of these were played during the spring and summer months, where - whilst still working from home - I cycled the average duration of an album every morning before work, listening to different records every couple of days through new headphones via Spotify.

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.

You'll note that I listened to the entirety of the output of The Cure this year, having decided to listen to their first album and finding it surprisingly un-goth and post-punk. However it's odd to 'discover' an older band's back catalogue. There isn't the immediacy of waiting for new releases, and you're less 'in-the-moment' as you might have been when younger. "Disintegration" came top of that pile with a  9/10 rating, with "Three Imaginary Boys", "Faith", "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me", and "The Cure" all gaining 8/10. At the time of this post, however, I find I can barely remember a single track on any of them. Perhaps a binge wasn't the best way to approach it.

Unlike books and films (which - even with favourites - I rarely read/see more than a handful of occasions in a lifetime), music is a much more repetitive experience. Revists this year included old favourites such as XTC, Blondie, Taylor Swift, Ramones, Echobelly, etc, all the usual suspects, particularly Devo's "Freedom of Choice", Lou Reed and John Cale's "Songs For Drella" and Sparks' "No.1 In Heaven" that I hadn't heard for a long while.  Also my favourite Fall album, "This Nation's Saving Grace" and my favourite Residents album, "Not Available". 

Having had Spotify from the start of the year, however, I was also able to delve more readily into back catalogues and also new music. Older records I've never heard before included Captain Beefheart's "Bat Chain Puller", early Tubeway Army and Ultravox! albums, and Polyphonic Size's "Earlier / Later" compilation. I also listened and enjoyed to many recent (to me) albums by established or new (to me) artists, including Viv Albertine's excellent "The Vermillion Border", The Lovely Eggs' "This Is Eggland", "New Long Leg" by Dry Cleaning, Matt Berry's surprising "The Blue Elephant", "Be The Cowboy" by Mitski, Aldous Harding's "Designer" (more of whom later), and KAZU's "Adult Baby". Special mention also to German Film Stars whose "The Blooming of the Tisza" contained some really strong material (disclaimer: they are friends).

Special mentions should also go to Wet Leg (album due next year, but "Chaise Longue" and "Wet Dream" were rarely off the virtual turntable), Viagra Boys (who I discovered at the end of the year, and who I am finding compulsive listening), the soundtrack of "Annette" (see films) by Sparks, and Amyl & The Sniffers' eponymous debut album and their second record, "Comfort To Me", which almost made my top three (although, despite it's likeability, isn't much elevated from good old pub rock).

Ultimately, though, my top three new (to me) records played this year were also all (surprisingly) released this year, and here they are (in reverse order):


"Dark Matters" (2021) - The Stranglers


The Stranglers have made many firsts for me: first single I ever bought ("5 Minutes), first album ("Black and White"), first gig ("Norwich UEA, 14/11/1981), first love, so perhaps inevitably I might be biased towards their first album in nine years, but putting that aside this is still a cracking record (made all the poignant by most tracks featuring the keyboards of Dave Greenfield who died before completion). Never sticking to one musical style, these old punks embrace a multitude of genres in this record (including a drop of opera), and apart from a couple of songs not connecting with me, "Dark Matters" had to be within my top three this year.

"Forest Of Your Problems" (2021) - Snapped Ankles



Having especially loved the second Snapped Ankles album, "Stunning Luxury", I was eager for "Forest Of Your Problems" and it doesn't disappoint. A band who dress as trees playing log sythenisers, what isn't there to love. Whilst at times they sound like early Devo crossed with The Fall, they are ultimately a dance band, whose rhythmic repeatitive beats send me flying. A little rough at the edges, as all good music should be, "Forest Of Your Problems" carries an inventive DIY ethic, and I was so glad to be able to catch them live again this year. Brilliant band, brilliant album. 

And the winner is...

"Nature Always Wins" (2021) - Maxïmo Park


I've liked Maxïmo Park since their first record, and have followed their trajectory and seen them live often since. Despite the departure of keyboard player, Lukas Wooller, this is an incredibly strong album containing some political pieces together with (extremely relatable) songs about frontman, Paul Smith's, honest experiences of being a father. Maxïmo Park's literary lyrics have always been to the fore, and never more so than on here: "I've been archiving versions of you", sings Smith about his ever-changing offspring, and "A girl running at night / Clutching a rectangle of light / Still fills her lungs with the dust of a life" is just beautiful from "Why Must A Building Burn?" Driven by Duncan Lloyd's excellent guitar playing, and underpinned by Tom English's drums, this is a steller collection of songs: meaningful, connective, and even featuring Penetration's Pauline Murray on "Ardour" for those old punks out there like me. Released ten months ago and still on the virtual turntable, "Nature Always Wins" is easily my favourite record of 2021.

So that's it, my summary of what I read, watched and listened to in 2021! Drop back in next year, but as has become usual I'll end with a song that's captivated me during this year (with a video I can't tear my eyes away from). This is "The Barrel" by Aldous Harding.



Wednesday, 22 December 2021

My Writing Year 2021

As has become annual I thought I'd write a quick blog post as to my literary achievements during 2021.

Last year the majority of my time was spent writing a non-fiction book, which this year was accepted for publication although I'm not yet in a position to reveal any details, nor am I sure exactly when it might be published. However, with that now put to bed, I've returned to writing short fiction again this year, and also turned towards a publishing project.

Starting with the short fiction, I wrote the following stories: "The Redeemers", "Observations in Tenderness", "Something To Believe In", "Throttle Body", "Caboose", and "So Close To Home". This is about half my regular output, but I'm satisfied with those stories, four of which are already either now published or accepted for publication.

I sold six short stories this year. "Where Do Broken Dreams Go?" to the anthology titled Professor Charlatan Bardot's Travel Anthology To The Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings In The Weird, Wide World (Dark Moon Books), "Mobster Thermidor" to Crimeucopia - As In Funny Ha-Ha, Or Just Peculiar (a crime anthology, from Murderous Ink Press), "Throttle Body" to nightjar press as a standalone chapbook, "Caboose" to the anthology, Railroad Tales (Midnight Street Press), "The Redeemers" for publication in Ars Gratia Sanguis from Black Shuck Books (part of their Great British Horror series), and "So Close To Home" will appear within a project I am yet at liberty to name.

The following seven stories were published this year: "All That Dead Beauty" in the anthology, Shadows From The Hillside (NewCon Press), "Messier 94", co-written with Eugen Bacon, appeared in her collection, Danged Black Thing (Transit Lounge Publishing), and "The Day The World Turned" in the anthology, No More Heroes (PS Publishing). Additionally, "Mobster Thermidor", "Caboose," "The Redeemers" and "Where Do Broken Dreams Go?" all appeared in the respective anthologies mentioned in the sales paragraph above.

Now, onto the publishing project I threw myself into, which was intended to reprint a couple of my previously published crime novels, but also to publish three more books I've written with the same PI, Mordent. These are neo-noir crime books. A blog post as to why I decided to self-publish these can be found here. The publishing company, Head Shot Press, who I've published these under (and will also be publishing other writers' works), can be found here. Because of this, the books I've had published this year number five in total: "The Immortalists" and "Church of Wire" (which are the reprints), "People I Know Are Dead" and "The Happy Finish" (two more Mordent novels), and "Dead Time" (a collection of Mordent short stories).

I have a handful of stories awaiting publication that were originally accepted in previous years, and a few other projects are also under consideration by various agents/publishers, as they were last year. 

So that's it for 2021, a year where the world began to get on track again, and within which I feel I found my feet again. Onwards to next year!

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Where Do Broken Dreams Go?

 My short story titled "Where Do Broken Dreams Go?" has just been published in the anthology, Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild World, edited by Charlatan Bardot & Eric J. Guignard for Dark Moon Books, and as usual I'm writing a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

Unlike most of my short fiction, the gestation period for this story is very long. I originally wrote it in March 2015. I had what I thought was a strong opening, but this version then meandered and ended on a note so ambiguous that even I didn't understand it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly was for editors because I just couldn't place it. Fast-forward to October 2020 and due to various reasons I hadn't written fiction for over a year (mostly because I was working on a big non-fiction project, but also because I'd hit a slump). The writer, Eugen Bacon, had recently discovered my work (and was enjoying it) and she suggested I submit to this travel anthology of haunted buildings. Spurred on - but not having a new idea - I was idly scrolling through my unsold stories and realised that there is a haunted building (of sorts) in this piece. I decided to write a second part to the story where my main character revisits the scene of the first part - just as I was doing in the writing of it. This version of the story was much stronger, and I was overjoyed when it was placed in this anthology. For those who like facts, the original version was 2225 words and I added 655 for a final word count of 2880. This gap of six years between the starting and finishing of a story is the longest I've ever had to make.


Clearly, as you can tell from the title and my description above, the anthology's remit was for haunted building stories, but not haunted house stories. I had been inspired by this news story regarding a village in Kazakhstan where villagers en masse had developed a mysterious illness that sent them into comas, sometimes lasting days on end. In my story I sent a photographer there to photograph the abandoned buildings. It is an experience within one of them that curiously affects her and drives the story. Whilst - of course - I've fictionalised this and created more ambiguity that there previously was, I think I've left it off-centre enough for it to be sufficiently unnerving without enforcing explanation.

Here's an extract: My dreams were gracious. I saw antelope and willow trees. Familiar figures spoke to me in guises I didn’t recognize. A lover or past lover or soon-to-be lover took my hand in his. Our palms were smooth, the backs hairy. I plucked those hairs and placed them in an iron suitcase. Just as it was getting interesting, I woke.
        Timofei stood in the corner of the room. I smelt a thick stench of urine, and as I saw him turn I caught sight of him zipping up his trousers. I closed my eyes. The vestiges of the dream remained, ethereal tendrils. If I let myself go I would be pulled back into the arms of my lover, I would continue the dream as though it had been paused like live television. But now I was aware of Timofei, I couldn’t allow myself to sleep.
        He saw me open my eyes. Watched as I rose unsteadily. Sergei remained on the floor. I coughed. I realized the light in the room had changed. The hum of a generator pricked my consciousness and then I realized Timofei had installed two arc lights in the open space. I no longer held the flashlight, and when I looked to the floor I saw it was switched off. At the windows, darkness pooled.



I usually listen to music when writing, and my records show that the first part of the story was written to Section 10: A Long Day, on repeat, from “The Beginning Stages Of...”, the first album by The Polyphonic Spree. I didn't listen to music whilst finishing the story.

"Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild Worlds" is published by Dark Moon Books in paperback, hardback and e-book. There are a vast number of eminent contributors (63 in total / 452 pages long!) which you'll see from the image below. The book itself is a cornucopia of information about each story, is grouped into geographical regions, and features artwork from Steve Lines and James Gabb.



Monday, 25 October 2021

The Day The World Turned

My short story titled "The Day The World Turned" has just been published in the anthology, No More Heroes, edited by Ian Whates, and as usual I'm writing a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

I was invited to contribute to this anthology which wanted SF/F stories inspired by artists who have left us too soon. If the remit was given now, I would probably have chosen The Stranglers' keyboard player, Dave Greenfield, who unfortunately died of a Covid-related illness in 2020, however this anthology has been a while in the making and those circumstances had yet to pass. This isn't to detract from the chosen subject of my piece, the singer Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex, whose album, "Germfree Adolescents", is in my top five records of all time.


Poly unfortunately died of metastatic breast cancer on 25th April 2011 aged only 53. I wanted my story to reflect the breadth of her life, from childhood through to punk through to Hare Krishna convert. In particular, I wanted to build on her experience of seeing a UFO after leaving a gig in Doncaster in 1978, which had a profound effect. Poly felt objects crackling when she touched them, and believed she was hallucinating. I thought it would be interesting to focus on this incident, when reality changed, when something beyond music called to her. Riffing off the song title, "The Day The World Turned Day-Glo", I thought "The Day The World Turned" to be a fitting title for this piece.

My piece isn't meant to be entirely factual, but I hope I've caught the spirit of Poly and her influences in my story. The story is chock-a-block with instances and references to Poly and the time period which I hope the casual reader will appreciate, but which will also spark like beacons to dedicated fans. 1976 was a leap year. Indeed.


Here's an extract: Stagelights backcomb her hair as a dandelion clock. She turns and notices her shadow against the wall by the mixing desk. A curious excitement pitches her insides. Live music is really something. She is fifteen again – squatting, shotting. Within the darkened environment – challenging the sun which will hang fire another one hundred and fifty minutes – distinctions are levelled. Everyone is here for one thing. Camaraderie in numbers.

I usually listen to music when writing a short story, and of course in this instance I wrote whilst playing  the album "Germfree Adolescents" from X-Ray Spex on repeat. For further reading, you might also want to check out Unconscious Consumer: X-Ray Spex and the Day-Glo World that I wrote for Sein Und Werden magazine in 2015.




No More Heroes is published by PS Publishing and retails at £25.00 in jacketed hardcover and £35.00 as a signed limited edition hardback. Contributors (including their subjects) are Keith Brooke [Amy Winehouse], Ren Warom [Freddie Mercury], Tim Lebbon [Phil Lynott], Storm Constantine [Leonard Cohen], Alison Littlewood [David Bowie], Stephen Palmer [Edgar Froese], Gavin G. Smith [Lemmy Kilminster], Maura McHugh [Dolores O’Riordan], Michael Cobley [Allen Lanier, Sandy Pearlman], Allen Ashley [Robin Gibb], Vaughan Stanger [Steve Strange], Neil Williamson [Jon Lord], Jaine Fenn [Glenn Frey], Adam Roberts [Rick Parfitt], Una McCormack [Dave Swarbrick], Martin Sketchley [Pete Burns], Andrew Hook [Poly Styrene], Bryony Pearce [Prince], Ian Whates [Chris Squire], Donna Scott [Chris Cornell]. Buy your copy here.

Finally, "The Day The World Turned Day-Glo":



Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Head Shot Press

So I've decided to set up my own crime publishing company to not only re-publish some of my older crime novels and new work, but also to create the opportunity for other crime writers to join me on the same journey. The result is Head Shot Press. The focus will be on paperbacks and e-books, with the first five titles now available. As these are all my books so far, I wanted to explain why I've gone this particular route.


It was in 2004 that I wrote my first crime story, "Alsiso", which was published in the British Fantasy Society award-winning anthology, "The Alsiso Project", which was also edited by myself. "Alsiso" introduced Mordent, my ex-cop turned PI who sees the world through noir-tinted glasses and has a bubblewrap fetish. Being a fan of Raymond Chandler (who admittedly is more hard-boiled than noir) I wanted a PI who utilised all the descriptive prose associated with the genre, coupled with wise-cracks, black humour, etc, whilst also telling a good story. Following "Alsiso", whenever I had an idea for another crime short story it made sense to use the same PI. As such, after four or five stories, I realised I had the springboard for a novel, and shortly thereafter I wrote the first in the series, "The Immortalists", which - together with the second in the series, "Church of Wire", was sold as a two-book deal to Telos Publishing with these appearing in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Telos (the team of Series Editor Samantha Lee Howe, together with David Howe and Stephen James Walker), did an excellent job editing those two novels, sourcing some appropriate artwork, and doing their best to promote the books accordingly. Meanwhile, I wrote a couple of other Mordent novels, "People I Know Are Dead" and "The Happy Finish". However, as the first two books didn't sell as well as Telos were hoping, they decided not to offer a deal for those latter titles, and after a while the rights reverted to me and I decided to retain them.


With the rights to all four books back in my possession, I made concerted efforts over the next few years to sell them again. The difficulty being that few publishers seemed interested in a series which hadn't quite taken off, which had stalled at the midway point, or they weren't keen on taking on the two latter novels if it meant they would also need to reprint the first two. Whilst I had a lot of good feedback about the quality of the prose, it became increasingly likely I would never sell them. So I parked them for a while - usually waiting to hear from some publisher or another - but never really wanted to abandon them.

You see, I have a great affection for Mordent. He can be bullish, immoral, misogynistic, but also funny, intelligent, and astute. I liked his sexual exploits as much as I liked the crimes he was embroiled within. He's fallible, for sure, anachronistic, fighting against the tide. He longs for the days when dames were dames and noir was in its heyday. Yet he also realises those days never existed outside of celluloid, remaining content to live his life as though they did. So I decided to re-read the books and see how I felt about them. I realised that I very much wanted to see them in print even if only a dozen people read them. I decided to go it alone.



In re-editing the first two books I made a couple of 'author's preferred edition' notes. Because "The Immortalists" (and to some extent "Church of Wire"), had been built on those previously written short stories, they had been included as background material woven within the novels. In writing those longer works, the short stories had given me a leg up, but in hindsight I saw they dragged the plots down. So I pulled those stories from the novels, and together with other Mordent stories I've written since, decided to create another book. "Dead Time" is a one hundred and fifty page collection of Mordent stories which sits well alongside the novels in its own right. I also had been convinced by Telos to have a prologue in "Church of Wire" as a teaser for the novel, an action scene that was pulled from the middle of the book. In this Head Shot edition, I've restored it and removed the prologue. I was never totally happy with the decision - although respected the business sense of it - and when one reviewer had picked up that they thought the prologue unnecessary I found I was inclined to agree with them. Those two novels have therefore been edited for these editions.


In rebranding the novels I decided not to simply go the Amazon route for self-published paperbacks, but having already run an award-winning publishing company (Elastic Press, from 2002 to 2009), I knew I wanted to also publish other writers, in particular, Andrew Humphrey, whose crime writing I have always admired and whose two short story collections I had published with Elastic Press. I knew I could work with him on some longer works that he had squirreled away. So the game was afoot.

Even so, it was a couple of years with the idea at the back of my mind before I decided to run with it in 2021. I had the name of the press, Head Shot, for a while, and liked it. I wanted the books to look as 'crime' as possible, so anyone scanning the covers would assume the content. But finding artwork for five titles which might clearly identify them as a series and which had some kind of unity of theme wasn't obvious. After abandoning a few ideas, I had the thought of using one piece of artwork which might work as the cover for all the books. Artwork which - if the titles were laid side by side - would create one picture. Bearing in mind the 'noir' and 'city' theme it was a quick google search to find an appropriate cover. An excellent piece of art that was the composite of several cities and so not tied to an obvious location, which dripped with noir. Contacting the artist, Edouard Noisette, we negotiated terms and the piece was obtained.


I paid particular attention to fonts and colours. In my Sunday library job a lot of crime books pass through my hands and I got a feel for how they should be presented. I selected a font by scanning covers into a program which could determine which fonts were being used, and I selected the colours by also watching trends with recent titles. The back covers for the print options were also suggested by templates from a variety of publishers. The logo is simple, basic. I think the cover captures the feel of the book without over-explanation, something that I've been guilty of in the past when offering artwork ideas. Even if the stories are different from the norm in crime, I wanted them to look the same.

In the end, I've produced five books which I'm exceptionally proud of, which I think could sit on a shelf and be identified as crime, and hopefully will catch the eye with a reader. Maybe even with two readers. Truth be told, these might not sell and I might have spent much of this year riding a white elephant. But I'm glad I chose this option and I'm happy the books are now out there. I'm now looking forward to reading what other work might be sent my way (from writers who read the guidelines first).


All books are available through links on the Head Shot website. Alternatively, a quicker route to the Kindle versions can be found here

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Messier 94

My short story - co-written with Eugen Bacon - titled "Messier 94" will shortly be published in her collection, Danged Black Thing, and whilst I usually write a few words discussing how a piece came to be written it seemed to make sense to suggest to Eugen that she guest writes this post. The book is available for pre-orders now.

Before I introduce her, however, it's worth mentioning that Eugen 'discovered' my writing through my collection, "Frequencies of Existence" (NewCon Press) which she had been sent to review. Her reaction from that book was that she asked if I could write a blurb for her short novel, "Ivory's Story", also being published by NewCon Press. Although I agreed, initially I was wary of entering into a potential back-scratching situation, however after having read "Ivory's Story" not only did I want to write a blurb, but a full review which I then placed in Black Static magazine. At the conclusion of that review I wrote that the novel was "a fast-paced organic fantasy shone through a poet’s timbre and I loved it." From this, her suggestion that we collaborate felt like an exciting prospect.


Anyways, here's Eugen's take on "Messier 94":

Writing an Unamed Story with Andrew Hook

I’d finished reading Andrew Hook’s short stories in Frequencies of Existence, Human Maps, The Forest of Dead Children and The Alsiso Project, and was hooked.

I was also fresh off collaborating on a short story with Seb Doubinsky, and had previously written with E. Don Harpe and Dominique Hecq, so writing with others was not a novel thing for me to do. And I was already nuts about Hook’s way of saying, how his mind takes him.

Would you… might you… I broached nervously.

‘A collaboration sounds like fun and something I’d definitely be interested in,’ he surprised me with his response. ‘Do you have any specific ideas?’

I didn’t.

‘When I’ve done it before,’ he said, ‘it was a case of taking turns with the other writer, adding 500-750 words or so and then sending it back and forth until the story was finished.’

Yes! I loved it.

‘Looking forward to seeing the start of the collaboration,’ he said, leaving me in a mixture of trepidation and ecstasy. What the hell were we going to write?

I opened a folder named ‘working with Andrew Hook’.

And started typing:

An Unnamed Story

By Andrew Hook and Eugen Bacon

I was passing through an altered line-up of suspects removed from linear time, but none revealed their wind or percussion, not even a state of mind. What I needed was a shift that happened inside out, outside in, something fixated on call and response. What I needed was a zoom, possibly in never out…



I wrote 908 words, to be exact, including a header that stated:

Eugen Bacon & Andrew Hook         about xyz words

 

The excerpt finished with:

I caught a whiff of cinnamon, muffins freshly baked. Something burnt and nutty: coffee perhaps.

 

“Will that be all?” piped a voice.

 

I sank on the bed, too miserable to tip the child—the child!—perhaps a teenager, wearing curls on his head, a tux and a bowtie and the big eyes of an adorable puppy. I put my head in my hands, stared at my feet as the door softly closed. 

 

The blood on the door and the carpet was gone.

 

Hook took a few days, perhaps a week, came back with a response—433 words. I loved how he’d picked up the story and connected with where he was going:

*

Dr X was an intriguing nom de plume, an inescapable lie. Regardless of a shifting perspective which nagged at my psyche, I had recollections – memories, education – which scrolled through my mind like a zealot through microfiche. Data, sensations, visions, dislocations formed information I knew and moments I had lived. In addition, those strong breakfast smells suggested baseline reality. Whilst forcing a construct upon my malleable environment, I found I could operate within different parameters. I watched my fingers mutate in the process of extending, reaching for a muffin which changed shape before my eyes. My conclusion defaulted to virtual reality, yet when the muffin reached my mouth there was no sensation of falsehood. The texture was as authentic as the taste. Perhaps it was more likely any hallucinations were narcotic in nature, as opposed to an exterior simulation.

 

My keenness soared. Especially when I read this part where Hook wrote:

I was reminded of a galaxy, Messier 94, itself an anomaly within others of its kind. Unlike regular spiral galaxies which were a disk of gas and young stars, intersecting a large sphere of older stars, Messier 94 did not contain such older stars. Instead a bright central structure held intense star formations which resembled a bulge forming a ring around the central oval region.

 

So I named the next draft of ‘An Unamed Story’ to ‘Messier 94’, and sent Hook the next iteration. He replied with more words. And thus it was, back and forth, back, forth. What struck me about Hook is how he sent back polished drafts. His email would be something like: '...been busy... found a minute... hope you like it...' And it would be a perfect write. Where I fiddled and fuddled, moved things around, edited, edited... Hook took a minute on his computer, quickly read through the story so far, and then punched something polished straight from his head. 

Sometimes the story appeared to spiral, and I worried we might be unable to contain it. But it always aligned itself. Finally, I sent Hook what I thought might lead to a neat closing.

He replied in a few days. ‘Here’s our collaboration. Added 774 words,’ he said. ‘Worked it back around (I hope). Feel free to conclude.’

The conclusion became a few iterations of tweak and refine, v0.4ah, v0.4 ah eb, v0.5, v0.5ah…

Finally, we had a story, 5,300 words of slipstream fiction that made perfect sense, and didn’t. It was awesome.

‘Messier 94’ is the eighth story in Danged Black Thing, out in November 2021 by Transit Lounge Publishing and available now for pre-order. I am excited to hear what critiques think about this particular story—already they’re talking good things about the collection that also features stories with Seb Doubinsky and E. Don Harpe—all collaborators in a potentially unclassifiable single-author/multi-author collection/anthology that should be a publisher’s nightmare, but so far isn’t!