Thursday, 26 July 2018

A Pageant of Clouds

My short story, "A Pageant of Clouds", has recently been published in Doppelganger magazine, and as has become customary this short blog post will examine how the story was written. There will be spoilers for those who haven't read it.

This piece came completely out of the blue (no cloud analogy intended). I had an evening where I had time to write and had been struck by some cloud formations earlier that day. Searching for the collective noun for clouds gave me the title, which immediately plugged into my psyche. Thinking about different types of clouds led into research about night clouds (noctilucent clouds) which I realised could also be used as a metaphor. I also decided I could include atomic clouds (I own a book called 100 Suns by photographer Michael Light which I had been planning to farm for a story for some time), as this piece would suit that subject matter perfectly.

The atomic angle fed into writing this as a Japanese story (given the echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and I discovered that the city of Kokura had a narrow escape with respect to both those atrocities. As though fate was in collusion with the story, cloud cover made a difference: Kokura was backup to Hiroshima should clouds over the latter city have prevented the dropping of the Little Boy atomic bomb, and conversely Kokura was first choice for the dropping of the Fat Man atomic bomb but cloud cover transferred that city to Nagasaki.

These ideas linked to another I had been toying with, having read about the increasing phenomena of (mostly) young Japanese men becoming reclusive and confining themselves to their bedrooms (known as hikikomori). Armed with all this information I wrote the entire piece in one energised setting.

Here's the start of it:

Eiji gradually spent less of his time in daylight, until eventually it was none.

He wasn't averse to the sensation of sun on his skin. There was a warmth to be had which was a two-way process. In the old days his skin felt projected towards the sun, as though it were giving back something that had been taken. However he found that the light illuminated as much as it shadowed, and increasingly it was within those shadows that he wanted to live. The transparency of night provided hiding places, smudged him into anonymity. By sleeping during the day he effectively erased its existence.

Eiji considered himself a noctilucent cloud, that rare meteorological phenomenon which could only be observed when the sun was below the horizon.

This is the first issue of Doppelganger magazine, a periodical whose remit is to publish three realist short stories alongside three magical realist short stories in each issue, in the hope that the clash of these two forms will be disconcerting and interesting. Having not yet read the magazine, I'm unsure which camp my piece falls into. The other stories are by Dan Powell, Grayson Eloreaga, Yasmina Floyer, Cath Barton and Max Dunbar.

At the moment of blogging, the website for the magazine seems to be down. But hopefully this is a short term inconvenience.

Finally, I wrote this piece whilst listening to the album "Alive" by Sa Dingding on repeat.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Sarcoline (reprise)

My short story, "Sarcoline", originally published through the now defunct Great Jones Street app, has recently been reprinted in Norwich: A Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities anthology, edited by Sophie Essex, so it seems timely to re-blog a few words about how the story came into being for those who might be interested. Beware, there could be spoilers.

A few words first about the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities project. This is a series of short anthologies which are guest edited for the publisher by someone local to the city in question and which feature material from writers and poets in that area. Each book is accompanied by a local event timed to coincide with publication (in this instance, I'll be reading from the book at The Birdcage in Norwich from 7:30pm on Thursday 19th July). Other cities covered and proposed so far include Brooklyn, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham and Glasgow.

Onto the story itself. "Sarcoline" is one of a series of pieces I've written which will form a new collection regarding Hollywood celebrity deaths of the 1920s through to the 1980s. These stories are told from the viewpoints of the celebrity at the exact moment of their (usually) tragic deaths - the results being kind of alternate autobiographies, fragments of memory, death assimilations, where fact and fiction intertwine as their souls vacate their bodies. In this instance, the story is based on the life and death of the actress, Grace Kelly. The word sarcoline means flesh-coloured, and I felt it resonated with Grace in a way which I could use. I believe the term for this type of work is creative non-fiction.

Here's an excerpt:

In her room at the Barbizon Hotel for Women she lays diagonally across the bed. The tape recorder squeaks on rewind. She simultaneously presses record and play. Speaks: fairytales tell imaginary stories. Me, I'm a living person. I exist. On the bed beside her lies the script for Strindberg's The Father. She reaches for a pencil and taps it against her teeth. Her legs extend upwards, crossed at the ankle. Within a coffee cup, dregs congeal. This scene is lit by the non-Technicolor glow of her bedside lamp, its shade muted yellow as the beam.

Norwich: A Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities anthology also features fiction and poetry from Anna Cathenka, Doug Jones, Ramona Herdman, N.A. Jackson, Helen Ivory, Julia Webb, Martin Figura, Kat Franceska, and Alison Graham.

Finally, I wrote the entirety of "Sarcoline" whilst listening to the song, "Sweeter Than You", by Dr John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell from their album "This Time It's Personal" on repeat.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The Fall - My Personal Top Ten

Since Mark E Smith of The Fall died on 24th January 2018 I have listened to nothing other than Fall albums on my daily commute (by bicycle) to work and back. Some of these were records I already owned - particularly the most recent albums - and others I obtained via the library service (including the wonderful 6 CD Peel Sessions retrospective) and elsewhere. Prior to his death I reckon I owned about two sixths of the band's output and I'm probably now closer to three fifths. What strikes me is the diversity from the band who were always different yet always the same. Whilst both Smith and repetition are constants, musically The Fall ran the gamut of post-punk, rockabilly, reggaebilly (my word), and the peripheries of grunge-rock'n'roll, with the often cut-up lyrics reminiscent of Dadaism and experimental fiction. The amalgamation being - to my mind - fiercely intellectual and challenging, confrontational and exciting. As mentioned elsewhere, Mark E Smith is one of the few people I would consider to be a genius, and listening repeatedly to this extensive body of work has confirmed this evaluation.

Now, despite some significant gaps in my collection, this replaying / rehearing / new hearing of Fall songs is coming to a close. It seems important - to me, at any rate - to list what I consider to be my top ten Fall songs. This is the material which most often earwormed my head, which I might quote snatches from at inopportune moments, which got me dancing on that bicycle. The selection might change tomorrow / next week / next year, but this is what I like right now (although not in any order).

Bremen Nacht

As part of the above process, several compilations and alternate versions turned up on the CD's I listened to. By far and away the most frequent of these was "Bremen Nacht", the relentless repetition in the music imitated by the number of times it surprised me as I heard the opening bars of it once again. This is my favourite extended version.


I think This Nation's Saving Grace might be my favourite Fall album. There's a cohesive structure which builds over the course of the album and in the middle of this is the glorious "L.A.", basically an instrumental written by Brix Smith, which pins the elegiac to the grotesque, peppered with a handful of lines from Mark which perfectly compliment the music. An oasis.

Kurious Oranj

There's something really friendly about this song which appeals. The music almost jaunty, summery. I love the alternate pronunciations of 'orange'. (Mark's often deliberate mispronunciations always resonate with me). This song was written for the ballet "I Am Kurious Oranj" - of course. This is The Fall.

Mountain Energei

The Real New Fall LP was one of the first records I bought when I rediscovered the band back in 2003 and I have a real affection for this song with it's (on the surface) daft lyrics and ambling music. It's a grow(l)er.

Guest Informant

I consider this a typical Fall song. Repetitive chanting - with much online questioning over the actual lyric (Baghdad/Space Cog/Analyst?) - and a narrative story about hotel paranoia and incompetent staff which whilst surface-trivial is filled with those touches which make me adore Mark's lyrics (in the burning scorch of another Sunday over / the miserable Scottish hotel / resembled a Genesis or Marillion 1973 LP cover).

Rebellious Jukebox

Impossible not to sing along to this one, ay? A sentient jukebox, perhaps, refusing to conform and play standard material - or a metaphor for the band itself? Taxi!

The Man Whose Head Expanded

This may have been the first Fall song I ever heard. I certainly remember it played on the John Peel show and enjoying it, although it was some years later (via TV show The Tube) that I really connected with the band. Love the Casio VL Tone intro which transports me like a time machine back to the early 80s. Actually, thinking about that date, it couldn't have been the first Fall song I ever heard, but let's say it was.

Fol de Rol

The Fall inhabited now, so not to choose something from the final album, New Facts Emerge, would be a travesty. It's a great record in any event, a searing guttural throb of garage rock, and whilst Mark's voice has changed (as though someone has re-tuned his personal instrument), there's a steamroller menace here which benefits from that nuance. This song is a perfect example of what The Fall were all about prior to Mark's death.

Y.F.O.C. / Slippy Floor

Another recent(ish) album which I consider as thematically coherent as This Nations Saving Grace, Your Future, Our Clutter is probably my second favourite Fall record. This piece segues the your future our clutter theme which runs through the album into a raging piece of music which slips and slides all over the place just like that slippy floor itself.

Free Range

I absolutely love the opening of this song. I've always considered The Fall to be a great dance band, and it's impossible not to hypnotically gyrate here. And the riff is sublime. What a great song to finish off this selection. Lyrically not too shabby either.

Of course, I could have included "How I Wrote Elastic Man" (partly responsible for the once-name of my old publishing company), or "Cruisers Creek" (see reference to The Tube - above - where I saw this song performed and fell for the band), or "Hilary" (where's the sixty quid you borrowed off me?), or "Totally Wired" (I'm totally wired). or "Way Round" (I hit roundabout / I just can't find my way / round), or "Secession Man" (you're the one who always runs the show), or "Pumpkin Soup And Mashed Potatoes" (pumpkin soup and mashed potatoes / That has always been my dream). Or - indeed - every Fall song ever written that's always different, always the same.

If you've read this far it's highly likely you're also a big Fall fan, and if you haven't heard of the following site which contains a wealth of lyrical information then I suggest you drop by now: The Annotated Fall.

And finally, to quote again from "Totally Wired", here's some sound advice: You don't have to be strange to be strange / You don't have to be weird to be weird.

Mark E Smith
05/07/1957 - 24/01/2018
nobody has ever called me sir in my entire life

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City

My short story, "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City", has recently been published in the Midnight Street Press anthology, "Night Light", and as usual I'm blogging about how the story came to be written for those who might be interested. Be aware that this post is likely to contain spoilers.

As usual, I had the title prior to any other ideas. In this case, I stole the phrase from Paul Auster's memoir "The Invention of Solitude". In the chapter titled "The Book of Memory" he states This was life as Crusoe would have lived it: shipwreck in the heart of the city. As soon as I read it I knew it was mine.

Shortly thereafter I had an idea to write a story about a woman whose baby had died in the womb but who refused to acknowledge it, and in the process of thinking through that idea I decided to alternate her story with that of the aborted foetus itself which exists in a kind of pre-birth limbo within a world not entirely dissimilar from David Lynch's Eraserhead vision. The phrase, shipwrecked in the heart of the city, seemed to perfectly convey this.

The story is prefaced with the following quote, which together with the title - I believe - elevates reader expectation and primes them for the fiction:

Interviewer: suppose your house were on fire and you could remove only one thing. What would you take?

Jean Cocteau: I would take the fire

Here's a bit from the middle of it:

There was nothing for it. He took off his clothes, pulled the sheets from the bed until all that remained was the bare wooden frame. He curled up, foetus-like, his head bent in supplication, his knees close to his chest, his arms tight, little fists tensed as if expecting to box. After a moment he felt for his umbilical cord where it was squashed between one leg and his stomach, and he straightened it, pointed it away from his body, as though it were an arrow to another place.

Night Light includes stories by Stephen Laws, Ralph Robert Moore, Tony Richards, Rhys Hughes, Simon Clark, Susan York, Maria V A Johnson, Robert D Richards, Alexander Zelenyj, Gary Couzens, Ian Steadman, Michael Washburn, Terry Grimwood, Allen Ashley, Yvonne Chamberlain, David Turnbull, Andrew Darlington, Stephen Faulkner and Mat Joiner. Buy it here (UK) or here (elsewhere).

Finally, I wrote "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City" whilst listening to the album "Barragan" by Blonde Redhead on repeat.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

In Case You Missed It...

...I've recently written guest posts for the blogs of those fine writers James Everington and Stephen Palmer. For those who might be reading here but not there, below are links to those posts.

Music For Writers

James is running a series of guest blogs from writers who listen to music as part of the creative process. Here's my piece in which I name check Bjork, Blonde Redhead, Echobelly, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Nancy Sinatra, and explain how their work creates an ambience to facilitate mine.

Whilst you're there, other contributors to the series have been Iain Rowan, Mary J Nichols, Paul Feeney, Ray Cluley, Tim Major, Stephen Palmer and Rhys Hughes (with more to follow).


Stephen's guest blog series invites writers to enthuse about one fiction and one non-fiction book. My post is here in which I mention Luis Bunuel's "My Last Breath" and "Jitterbug Perfume" by Tom Robbins. Currently I believe my inaugural post remains the first in the series, but keep an eye on Stephen's blog for other such posts and also his regular musings.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

The Al Pacino Appreciation Society

My short story, "The Al Pacino Appreciation Society", has just been published in Crimewave #13: Bad Light, and as usual here are a few words about how the story was written with the usual caveat that there are likely to be spoilers for those who haven't read it.

This story was actually written quite some time ago (October 2011, to be precise), but for reasons I'll mention below has taken a while to get into print. Because of this, my memory is a little sketchy. Needless to say, I had the title first. Whether I'd just watched an Al Pacino movie I can't remember, but there it was: a title waiting for a story to fit it.

The main thrust of the piece is a man's unwitting immersion in terrorism, how love can blind us to what is really happening. There is a clue in the title which has become a little dated - I won't say more, but world events have shifted a tad from when this was written. I recall the whole idea came to me at once, when I noticed the clue myself, but I was having a job structuring it until I decided to have section headings from Al Pacino film titles. The story then flowed easily.

Getting it to print has been a different story. It was originally accepted for publication in November 2011 by an anthology which was going to be called The Year, featuring 365 stories. This didn't come to fruition, but the accepted pieces were then going to appear in three separate anthologies, of which crime was going to be one of them. But again, this never happened, and it was finally released from that obligation around 2015. I then sold it to TTA Press for Crimewave in January 2016, and it's taken a while to subsequently get to print. Of course, all good things are worth waiting for, and the anthology looks to contain excellent stories from many well-respected writers.

Here's an extract from the opening:

She wanted someone gritty.

I wanted to be someone gritty. But where Beatrice and I failed was in the definition of gritty.

I turned up one evening with an armful of Al Pacino DVDs. The Godfather parts one through to three, Righteous Kill, Dog Day Afternoon, Sea of Love, 88 Minutes, Scent of a Woman, and Cruising.

"This is gritty," I told her; even though I hadn't seen any of the movies, and had only that morning picked them up at a car boot sale. None of them were in their original packaging.

"I don't want violent gritty," Beatrice said, her arms folded across her ample chest. "I want romantic gritty".

Crimewave #13: Bad Light also features stories by Simon Bestwick, Gerri Brightwell, Georgina Bruce, Ray Cluley, Mat Coward, Catherine Donnelly, Stephen Hargadon, Linda Mannheim, Ralph Robert Moore, Mike O'Driscoll and Steve Rasnic Tem. Cover art by Ben Baldwin. Buy it here.

I usually write stories to music, but I have made no note as to what I listened to writing this story.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Making Friends With Fold Out Flaps

My short story, "Making Friends With Fold Out Flaps", has recently been published in The Black Room Manuscripts: Volume Three by the Sinister Horror Company and as usual I'm blogging about the gestation of the story for those who might be interested. There may be spoilers for those who haven't read it.

As is usual for me, this piece was born from the title and a couple of other ideas which tangentially coalesced with it. In this case the title came from another title - from a simple children's board book: "Making Friends (Just Like Us)". At the corner of the book runs the phrase, "with fold out flaps". It doesn't take too much imagination to put those two things together, and the resultant phrase carried with it a suggestion for a possible story.

Two other books also made their way into this piece, both works which I'd been considering using as launch pads for stories for some time. The first was a book on silhouettes which I picked up at a school boot fair several years ago. Silhouettes as a metaphor for what we are and what we hide has always been of interest. Additional to this, I find what we have hidden physically within our bodies as well as psychologically is also fascinating. Who thinks on a daily basis about all our interactive internal organs which run our bodies almost independently of conscious thought? This never been illustrated better in my opinion than through the plastination work of Gunther Von Hagens which I was lucky enough to view at the London Bodyworlds exhibition in 2002. I picked up the catalogue at that event and often find myself flicking through it.

Silhouettes, the workings of our bodies, making friends with fold out flaps: this is the kind of story which falls together quite simply from its constituent parts. Here's a bit of it:

The bonus with silhouettes is that they are one-dimensional. But people aren't. The truth embodied in a silhouette is lacking from that in a person. With them, it's not so much about the surface, it's about the things people keep hidden: their thoughts, their repressed desires, their understandings, their internal organs. To get at the real person you have to undress them, utterly. I could equate this to locating the kernel within a fruit or a nut, or a grain or seed as of a cereal grass enclosed in a husk. Or - to use the computing definition of the word - the kernel is the main component of most computer operating systems; it is a bridge between applications and the actual data processing done at the hardware level. The kernel can provide the lowest-level abstraction layer for the resources that application software must control to perform its function. It was the lowest level that I was interested in.

Finally, I wrote the story whilst listening to Radiohead's "Hail To The Thief" album on repeat.

The Black Room Manuscripts: Volume Three is a charity anthology where all proceeds will go to Shelter, the homeless charity. It's a hefty book - over 400 pages - and as well as myself features in order of appearance stories from Paul Tremblay, Adam L G Nevill, Guy N Smith, David Moody, Ray Cluley, Michael Bray, Paul Kane, Chris Kelso, Preston Grassmann, Phil Sloman, Daniel Marc Chant, J R Park, Anthony Watson, Glenn Rolfe, Orrin Grey, Lex H Jones, Linda Angel, CC Adams, Lydian Faust, Ash Hartwell, James Jobling, Andrew Freudenberg, Kerry Lipp, Jonathan Butcher and Jack Bantry.