Friday 17 November 2023


My short story titled "Keepers" has just been published in the anthology At The Lighthouse edited by Sophie Essex for Eibonvale Press, and as usual I'm blogging a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

Before I go ahead, I should say that the editor, Sophie, is my partner, but for the submission process she read all the stories without bylines so there is no favouritism when it comes to selecting my story for this book.

As the title of the anthology suggests, each story here features a lighthouse as it's central theme. I had been amassing a list of interesting female names to use within a story (Juska, Candelaria, Ottile, and Cosmina), and it felt natural that I could tell a story from each of their individual viewpoints as to how they might work together for a lighthouse to be restored. Their names - and the meanings of their names - felt a good fit for this piece and they are - therefore - the keepers of the title. The actual nature of the lighthouse itself is revealed - perhaps ambiguously, perhaps shamelessly, depending on your reading - at the end of the story, so much so that I don't feel I can add much more to this blog without it becoming too much of a spoiler.

Here's an extract: 

The island is - inevitably - windswept. When Juska - the refuge giver - steps one foot from the boat her sense of home is evident. Two steps anchor. The Captain has a gruff sensibility, the bonhomie during the two hour journey rough and frank. Now he hauls her suitcases from the deck to the shingle. It's a long way up to the shack which abuts the lighthouse. She accepts his offer to share the weight. Gorse prickles against the thin cotton material of her leggings as she moves from stones to dunes, until eventually this shades into moorland and she sees that the coarse vegetation which surrounds the base of the lighthouse will require cutting back to allow an easier access to the entrance.

Regular readers of this blog will know I usually listen to music through headphones whilst writing, and this entire story was written to three different albums by Blonde Redhead: 23, Penny Sparkle, and Barragan on continual repeat.

To reiterate, "At The Lighthouse" is published by Eibvonvale Press, and in addition to myself features stories from the following: Jason Gould, Terry Grimwood, Rory Moores, Pete Sillett, Ariel Dodson, Julie Ann Rees, Matt Leyshon, Damian Murphy, Tim Lees, Rhys Hughes, Brittni Brinn, Charles Wilkinson, Tom Johnstone, Douglas Thompson, Ashley Stokes, and C.A. Yates. Buy it here. The book comes in paperback, hardback, and a limited photo paper edition to best display the interior images of lighthouses taken by Sophie.

Sunday 29 October 2023

The Natural Environment

My short story titled "The Natural Environment" has just been published in the anthology Reports From The Deep End edited by Maxim Jakubowski and Rick McGrath for Titan Books, and as usual I'm blogging a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

The byline for this anthology is 'stories inspired by J G Ballard'. I enjoy Ballard's books, particularly when he explores the correlation between technology and human interaction (in that regard, "Crash" is my favourite of his novels), and for quite a while I had a title, "The Natural Environment", which I then realised would probably suit the remit. As usual when I think of titles, my first consideration is to reverse them. What might be an unnatural environment? Perhaps uploaded consciousnesses existing in a technological state long after physical humans have ceased to exist. And what if those consciousnesses hankered after the 'old days', held nostalgia for the past which was never theirs. How might they return to the natural environment, and how might the passing of time have both coloured and confused what they think that actually might be. Additionally, how might love then exist. Here, I had my story.

I believe most of the stories for the anthology were commissioned, but there were a few slots for open submission and I took a chance and thankfully both editors liked it. I therefore find myself in quite a stellar line-up of talent. And in hardback, too!

Here's an extract:

Janet had initiated her transformation prior to informing Ned. He had been annoyed that she had done so without consultation. They were supposed to be one organism, after all, yet her unilateral decision had forced his own hand - two hands, even - in the matter. It irked him that whilst she had maintained a degree of communication that she hadn't allowed him to view her modifications. What if Ned didn't like what he saw?

Regular readers of this blog will know I usually listen to music through headphones whilst writing, and this entire story was written to the soundtrack of the film Naked Lunch on continual repeat. No direct connection with Ballard, of course, but the sensibility of the film / music also seemed to complement the story.

For those local to London, quite a few of the contributors, including myself, will be at a signing session at the Forbidden Planet megastore next month. Details are here:

To reiterate, "Reports From The Deep End" is published by Titan Books as a reasonably priced hardback and can be purchased here.  A list of contributors is very handily printed on the reverse.

Friday 21 July 2023

The Enfilade

My short story titled "The Enfilade" has just been published in Black Static and as usual, I'm blogging a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

Before I go ahead, however, I want to say a few words about this issue of Black Static, as it's the final one of a very long run. Andy Cox began publishing as The Third Alternative back in the early nineties. Once I'd discovered the magazine I not only found great new fiction, but also kindred spirits in that many of the writers published in those first issues were touching on the 'slipstream' genre that I hadn't even realised I was writing. My first acceptance in The Third Alternative was a story titled "Slender Lois, Slow Doris" and appeared in issue #6 in May 1995. Several other appearances followed. When Andy Cox took over Interzone magazine, The Third Alternative became Black Static and focussed mostly on dark horror. This final issue is a 'double issue' and is numbered 82/83. It's an incredible achievement and I'm proud to have had three stories in TTA and now eight in Black Static. Production values and accompanying artwork have always been superb, and the artwork for "The Enfilade" was created by Dave Senecal. A huge thank you, therefore, to Andy Cox for everything, for basically single-handedly defining the genre in the UK and championing weird short fiction for the past thirty years.

As for the story, I'm not entirely sure how I came about the word enfilade but I liked the sound of it and when I saw that one of it's meanings meant a suite of rooms with doorways in line with each other I became intrigued. The word doorway in itself then lead to thoughts of Aldous Huxley's Doors of Perception, and his experiences with mind expanding drugs, and subsequently googling architectural examples of enfilades brought me to Mysore Palace, a magnificent structure in the Indian state of Karnataka. Often it's simple connections like these which grow a story. I envisaged a set of doorways as in an enfilade but as spiritual representations within the human mind. What if someone became so obsessed with finding meaning through such doorways that they attempted the impossible? And what if they succeeded?

This was one of those pieces which subsequently wrote itself. I sat down one morning at 9am and by 5pm I had an 8500 word story. I don't have to edit much nowadays, only a word or phrase here or there, rather than anything structural, so it more or less fell out fully formed. As if through an open doorway. Here's the opening: 

I first met Pryce on the grassy banks of the River Cam, although it was to be quite a different body of water that would signify his destiny. Pryce was a scraggy youth who stood with a dangled cigarette dropping ash into the water, as he gazed out towards Clare College Bridge with its three uniform arches. The structure was the oldest bridge remaining in Cambridge, and bore the oddity of a missing section of the globe second from the left on the south side. One story was that the builder of the bridge received what he considered to be insufficient payment, and in his anger removed a segment of the globe; another is that it was a method of tax avoidance, as bridges were subject to tax only once they were complete. Whatever the meaning, I was unaware of either back then. I was also unaware how the concept of completeness would be a major influence on Pryce’s life, to the point of obsession.

Regular readers of this blog will know I usually listen to music on repeat through headphones whilst writing, and this entire story was written to Coeur de Pirate's album of piano music, Perséides, on continual repeat.

To reiterate, "The Enfilade" is published in Black Static #82/83, and in addition to myself features stories, comment, reviews and art from the following: Richard Wagner, Lynda E. Rucker, Simon Avery, Ben Baldwin, Steve Rasnic Tem, Sarah Lamparelli, Warwick Fraser-Coombe, Ralph Robert Moore, Rhonda Pressley Veit, Jim Burns, Julie C. Day, Vincent Sammy, Neil Williamson, Richard Wagner, Peter Tennant, Gary Couzens, Josh Bell, Joachim Luetke, Françoise Harvey, Aliya Whiteley, Stephen Volk, Dave Senecal, Tim Lees and Ray Cluley. Buy it here.

Friday 2 June 2023

Some Pastel Morning

My short story titled "Some Pastel Morning" has just been published online in IZ Digital, the online sister magazine to Interzone. Initially it is presented as an IZ Digital supporter exclusive (print IZ subscribers also get access), however from 12 July 2023 it'll be free-to-read. It's very cheap to become an IZ Digital supporter. As usual, I'm blogging a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

Unlike many of my short stories, "Some Pastel Morning" approached me in a variety of guises. I first had the idea when walking to pick my youngest daughter up from school. On a telegraph pole was a notice for a missing cat, complete with a picture. This led me to remember those instances where the faces of missing children were put on milk cartons in the United States in the early 80s, which further led me to think of what might cause children to go missing as frequently as lost dogs or cats. Like in much of my fiction, I then decided to reverse the idea. What if a childless woman who had seen such posters decided to invent one, a composite child that she might declare as her own. And then - of course - what if such a child were subsequently found and returned to her? How might that play out?

I had a title that had been kicking around for a while: "The Hello Station". I thought it might fit this story. Because I have to have a title in my mind before I write a story (and very rarely change it, maybe only four times over 170 published stories), I tend to let the story brew in my mind for a while. I'd booked a day off work to write this piece, and therefore had a self-imposed deadline. The pressure was on, but the idea wouldn't gel. A few days before I intended to write, I saw the word pastel. Obviously I knew this word, but my partner suggested it might be an evocative title. We'd also been listening to the Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood album Nancy & Lee, which contains one of my favourite songs, "Some Velvet Morning". A few days later I sat down to write "The Hello Station" which immediately became "Some Pastel Morning". It was this change which instanntly led to the story beginning as it does, and which is an integral part of the whole plot. This opening wouldn't have existed without the title change, literally a few minutes beforehand.

After the first disaster the air was thick with dust. Finely ground pigments stained the streets as though expelled from pastel-coloured puffballs or an explosion in a spice factory. Some of the surviving children made patterns on car windscreens, some even wrote their names, but mostly those names were appended to the posters which had begun to appear around the city, stapled to telegraph poles or pasted up in storefronts, usually accompanied by photographs which depicted poses they were unlikely to grow out of.

Heads up there's a spoiler in this paragraph. Once my protagonist's child is 'found' and returned to her I couldn't think where to go next. I tend to avoid explanations in my fictions, and I couldn't see how to progress without one. It was at this point that I realised another swap was necessary. I ended her story with the found child and began a new section from that child's point of view. Again, there is another soft apocalypse and this time it is his 'mother' who goes missing. I decided to explore the dynamic there. It is this second pastel morning which occurs at the child's school that Sumit Roy has captured so evocatively in his artwork that accompanies the piece.

After the second disaster Hemmingway remembered the air was thick with dust. Within the school the building darkened, as though Edgar Degas were decorating windows, transforming pastels from simple sketching tools into a core artistic medium that might dominate the art scene for many years to come. Some of the children ducked underneath desks. Hemmingway did too. He could see his teacher’s shoes – the brown brogues that they were – gradually attain a patina of filth. Yet when the sky lightened, his teacher remained present. This wasn’t the case with the parents of some of his classmates. When his teacher moved, the floor was clean where he had been standing: inverse footprints of inertia.

You have to allow stories to tell themselves in the best way, in the way that they demand, rather than force them elsewhere, and - for me - this piece is a good example of that. Regular readers will know I usually listen to music on repeat through headphones whilst writing, and this entire story was written whilst playing The Residents' instrumental album, Mush-Room.

To reiterate, "Some Pastel Morning" is published online in IZ Digital, the online sister magazine to Interzone. Initially it is presented as an IZ Digital supporter exclusive (print IZ subscribers also get access), however from 12 July 2023 it'll be free-to-read.

Friday 26 May 2023

So Close To Home

My short story titled "So Close To Home" has just been published in Languages of Water, an anthology edited by Eugen Bacon. As usual, I'm blogging a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

This anthology came into being via Eugen's short story, "When The Water Stops", which was first published in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. "Languages of Water" - Eugen blogs - is a cross-lingual hybrid birthed from the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE). At the heart of WrICE is a simple idea: to give writers of different backgrounds a chance to step outside familiar writing practices and contexts and connect deeply with writers from different cultures and across generations in an immersive residency. The respectful and generative space for reflection, conversation, creative sharing and surprise that WrICE offers affords writers a muse - a precious opportunity to explore possibilities outside comfort zones and borrow something new into own creative practice. It sparks connections and grows a cohesive community of writers that spans boundaries.

"When The Water Stops" becomes a source story in "Languages of Water" where it appears in multiple translations and interpretations. Eugen asked me to contribute to the project, and "So Close To Home" is therefore inspired by that story.

Envisaging a world where water is in short supply led me to consider how the impact of aridity might affect countries that would normally have no fear of drought, namely the UK and those in the Northern Hemisphere. How they might repurpose water from elsewhere, or add other liquids to it in order to bulk it out. How they would ration it. The story is split into two sections, centered around a child - Joel - who accompanies his father on the morning trek to a repurposed filling station in the first section, and in the second section is older and in a gang that seeks to intercept one of the water trucks. The title - of course (perhaps) - is appropriated from the Raymond Carver short story, "So Much Water So Close To Home."

Here's a bit of it:

Joel didn’t understand the ins and the outs, the hand-me-down jokes, but when he suggested the plan, they listened. The trucks made pre-determined journeys, not dissimilar to the passage of water down a mountainside in the golden days. From the source they spread, fanned along tributaries, turned where the land grooved. In Joel’s city they arrived in the early hours, twin orbs lighting darkness. In amongst the metalwork at the rear of the garage Joel found the tyre iron he had hidden three days ago. Gripping it in his right hand he left to join the others.

Languages Of Water is edited by Eugen Bacon is published through MV Media. It can be bought here.

Wednesday 3 May 2023

Thoughts After Reading: White Spines

I've decided to write a series of posts, when the fancy takes me, regarding books recently read. Not reviews as such, if you want those then check out my Goodreads page, but considerations. The first of these concerns "White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector", by Nicholas Royle.

I shortly began reading this book after the long Easter weekend. As we do every few years, my partner, Sophie, & I had decided to put all our books into author alphabetical order. When I say all our books, I'm not including Sophie's new books which are kept separately upstairs in order of her preference, but my books and our secondhand books which are downstairs split over four shelves (some doubled up). Despite having numerous unread books, we keep buying, so rather than account for space to slot them in as we go, new books have a temporary space until we do the alphabetical thing every couple of years. It's something that we enjoy.

Of course, despite us logging all our books on LibraryThing, this process always seems to throw up a duplicate that we bought and didn't realise. This time around it was "Serenade" by James M Cain. Oh well. I'll have to give that a good home. Rather pleasingly, this reshuffle also meant I could add two letters to the ten books whose spines now spell "M A R T I N B E C K" rather than "M A R I N B C K", being the full set of novels featuring that detective by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. It also means I will no longer keep buying one of those novels thinking I don't have it, when I do (at least three duplications in that series in previous years). However, annoyingly, I see the first book doesn't have 01 on the spine unlike the others which are numbered.

For some time now I have kept a list of my unread books as a Word document. I have two lists, one of regular books and one for books by friends. For a while we've said I should also include the books Sophie owns as another list, so during this reshuffle we added the books of hers that she recommends I should read. This means I now have three lists, whose numbers are: main list (310 books), friend's list (57 books), and Sophie's list (183 books), meaning I have 550 unread books in the house (or at least, those unread which I intend to read).

I keep these lists because I decide which will be my next book to read by having Sophie pick a number at random once I've finished my current read. Apart from a few exceptions (books to review, Maigret novels I slot in once or twice a month from the library which I'm reading in order of publication - all 75 of them(!), and other books where there is some pressing need), I stick to this on the basis that it uncovers gems in the house I might otherwise not have bothered to read. The intention now will be to have a number chosen from my list, then the next from the friend's list, and then from Sophie's list, in rotation. It should only take me ten years to read all the books unread that we have...on the basis that we don't buy any more books.

I was speaking to a writer recently at the Dragon Hall Social event organised by the National Centre for Writing who believes that "collecting books and reading books are two separate things entirely". I'm inclined to agree.

Shortly after putting all our books in author alphabetical order I finished reading "Slave Stories: Scenes From The Slave State" edited by Chris Kelso (in which a story of mine is included), and the next random number generated led me to pick up the non-fiction title, "White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector", as you might well have guessed.

Whilst at the optician's today (Sophie's eye test, not mine), a couple came into the waiting area and I overheard the male say, "Another optician's I have sat in. You could write a book on that." To which his partner replied, "Sssh."

I mention this because overheard conversations about books are included in Royle's "White Spines." And I mention the author alphabetical and random number generation as examples to prove that it isn't only Royle who is obsessed by getting things right coupled with the excitement of luck and coincidence. Initially, reading "White Spines", where Royle regales the reader regarding his collecting Picador 'white spine' books (I've taken the liberty of using his photograph below), one gets the impression that he's completely bonkers. It's only as you read on and identify with almost every aspect of collecting that you realise you're bonkers too.

Whilst I don't collect certain publishers, reading "White Spines" has made me realise how few Picadors I own. Glancing around now I see I have a couple of Ian McEwan ("The Comfort of Strangers", "Black Dogs"), "The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vac by Haniel Long, sat alphabetically alongside Anita Loos' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", and Susanna Jones' "The Earthquake Bird" (which is out of the date that Royle collects and I see the title on the spine is in blue rather than the usual black on white). There may be others hidden behind (in fact, I later find "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" by Oliver Sacks and "Rat" by Andrzej Zaniewski), but this paucity of Picadors makes me feel like a fraud.

In my teens, I was more specific with my collections. I loved the numbered spines of Willard Price's Adventure series of (what would now be called) YA novels, and was deeply uncomfortable when number 13, "Tiger Adventure", followed a different format to those which preceded it. I also loved Ian Fleming's James Bond series, specifically the Triad Panther editions with female models draped over exceedingly large replica firearms. Additionally at that age I bought many Agatha Christie novels, particularly those with covers designed by Tom Adams in the Fontana series (I preferred those with the Fontana logo at the top on a white background, with "Agatha Christie" and then the book title underneath, with the artwork underneath that). Sadly, both the Fleming and Christie titles I car booted in bulk fifteen years ago, and have spent the past five years steadily buying them back.

According to Wikipedia, Nicholas Royle has had fourteen books published in total (including novels, novellas, short story collections, and "White Spines"), of which I own thirteen and have now read twelve. I need to get this one, at some point, to complete my collection:

Living in Norwich there are several bookstores to choose from. I prefer Oxfam on Magdalen Street which unlike the Oxfam Books & Music Store on Bedford Street isn't a dedicated bookstore and this is reflected accordingly in more favourable prices. It's been a while since I was in the Tombland Bookshop (lovely building, but somehow I find it off-putting for no particular reason), and whilst I used to buy regularly from the J R & R K Ellis bookshop on St Giles (where I am sure I would find some Picadors) I haven't done so for quite some time (I wonder if the floorboard between the shop's two rooms still squeaks?). The bookstore I wish still existed was The Scientific Anglian on St Benedict Street, which was packed to the rafters with books in precarious states of arrangement. The owner, Norman Peake, was described as a Cretaceous geologist and bookseller whose work on the stratigraphy of the English chalk was truly ground breaking. Those who staff the Oxfam stores may have equally focussed lives, but these are less worn on their sleeves. And at least they never write the price in biro in the top right hand corner of the cover and then draw a box around it.

"White Spines" mentions Nicholas Royle's namesake, another Nicholas Royle who is equally an author, as well as several other examples of author duality. I am reminded of my own namesake, the Andrew Hook who - unlike me, is a professor - and writes non-fiction (most recently, "From Mount Hooly to Princeton: A Scottish-American Medley"), who also gives his name to the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies in Glasgow), and who - also unlike me - has a dedicated Wikipedia page. Goodreads also provides a third Andrew Hook - unless the Scottish Hook has a predilection for writing erotica as well as non-fiction, whose titles include "Hot Vacation: Naughty Friends #1" and - presumably - the equally hot #2. Finally, I see there is a non-author Andrew Hook who is a Geography lecturer at the University of Sussex where - rather bizarrely, perhaps - Nicholas Royle's namesake also holds residence. To my knowledge, none of us have ever been mixed up.

When Nicholas Royle's publishing venture, Nightjar Press, published my short story, "Throttle Body" as one of their chapbooks last year, Royle came to my house whilst I signed the 200 copies and I noted his eyes roving the few Picadors on my shelves. Having already been aware of his collection prior to reading "White Spines", I mentioned that whenever I saw a Picador in a secondhand book I would think of him and wonder if he had it, but that I wouldn't dream of buying it and passing it on because presumably it would suck all the joy out of collecting. As expected, Royle agreed.

Finally, Royle also mentions in "White Spines" the delight in finding what he has come to call "inclusions" - whether bookmarks, receipts, concert tickets, or otherwise that people tend to leave inside books and which - for some odd reason - booksellers also tend not to remove. I've never had much luck with inclusions - I'm obviously not buying enough books - or perhaps not enough Picadors - however my best example probably couldn't be bettered. In New York around 2004 I visited the vast Strand bookstore and picked up a copy of Jonathan Carroll's "Sleeping In Flame" (Vintage) that sometime afterwards I realise included a short religious pamphlet and a photograph of a girl in some kind of traditional dress. If anyone knows this kid and wants the photo back, drop me a line.

"White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector" is published by Salt Publishing, is highly recommended, and can be purchased - new - direct from the publisher, here.

Tuesday 25 April 2023

An Absence of Ghosts

My short story titled "An Absence of Ghosts" has just been published in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #73. As usual, I'm blogging a few words discussing how the story came to be written. There may be spoilers within.

This story developed from a couple of sources. Firstly, I tend to like trashy horror films but get bored of the tropes. I remember watching "Wrong Turn" and thinking why not make a movie called "Right Turn", where a bunch of teenagers take the better turning and get safely to their destination within a few minutes, with the remaining 90 minutes of the film just credits. Around that time, horror author/editor Johnny Mains was putting together an anthology called "An Obscurity of Ghosts" (featuring forgotten tales of the genre). That make me think how I might write a ghost story, and contrary me came up with "An Absence of Ghosts". The idea, therefore, was to write a story that subverted the usual tropes by having nothing happen. Or, as Stephen Theaker has better phrased it in promo for this edition of the magazine, "From Andrew Hook we have An Absence of Ghosts, about a trip into the mountains where the eeriest things keep not happening."

In my story, therefore, a group of American late-teenage kids keep getting into scrapes where it might appear a horror trope is being set up, only for it to come to naught. Personally, I think this is quite funny (although I do have quite an oblique sense of humor). That doesn't mean that the story isn't also unnerving. Fellow writer, Andrew Humphrey, who I always exchange new stories with, agreed: "I love the constant undercutting of horror movie tropes, but, despite this, you still manage to build a tangible sense of dread. I still kept thinking that something awful would happen and that indeed would also have been a trope!"

Here's a bit of it:

Scott shouts ahead. “Wait! Some ground rules. Check our cells work, don’t split up, turn on any lights if they’re working, if we have to run don’t fall over, and if we do end up getting chased when we reach the highway, don’t run down the centre of the road when being pursued by a car.”

They laugh.

“We’re safe,” Francine says, “because Jessie isn’t here. She’s the shy one. She’s the final girl. If she’s not with us, then this can’t turn out bad.”

As well as the aforementioned "Wrong Turn", I also riff off "A Nightmare on Elm Street", "Carnival of Souls", "Psycho", "The Blair Witch Project", "Candyman", "From Beyond The Grave", "The Babadook", "Ringu", and "Wolf Creek, amongst others. See if you can spot them all.

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #73 is edited by Stephen Theaker and John Greenwood and is published through Theaker's Paperback Library. The magazine is free to download in epub and pdf, and as cheap as they can possibly make it to buy on Kindle and in print. The best link to check out all purchase options is here. This issue also features stories by Patrick Whittaker, Charles Wilkinson, Harris Coverley and Ross Gresham plus reviews.

As regular readers are aware, I write my short stories listening to music on repeat. In this case, throughout the entire writing session, I played "Jezebel Spirit" by David Byrne & Brian Enoon a loop. Not sure how many times I heard it, but it was quite a few.