Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Best and Worst of 2017

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 I read/watched in 2017 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2017, but what I actually watched and read - some of these items might be very old indeed.


I read the following in 2017:

Rosalie Parker (editor) – Strange Tales V
Trevor Denyer (editor) - Ghost Highways
Chris Beckett – Dark Eden
Paul Trembley – Headful of Ghosts
Stewart Lee – Content Provider
Ted Chiang – Stories of My Life
Adam Nevill – Last Days
Dennis Potter – Blackeyes
Raymond Chandler – The High Window
L P Hartley – Facial Justice
Joan Lindsay – Picnic at Hanging Rock
Sapper – Bulldog Drummond
JG Ballard – The Drought
Helen Callaghan – Dear Amy
Colette de Curzon – Paymon’s Trio
Jeannette Ng – Under The Pendulum Sun
David Wheldon – The Automaton
Alison Moore – The Harvestman
Nicholas Royle – Ornithology
Cameron McCabe – The Face On The Cutting Room Floor
Tim Robbins – Tibetan Peach Pie
James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Hank Janson – Operation Obliterate
Tom Robbins – B is for Beer
Paul Meloy – The Night Clock
Christopher Kenworthy (editor) – The Sun Rises Red
Gary Indiana – Horse Crazy
Vladimir Nabokov – Mary
Amber Royar – Free Chocolate
Philip Roth – The Human Stain
Paul Cain – Fast One
D F Lewis – Weirdtongue
Joel Lane – The Edge of the Screen
Joe Gores – Interface
Jeff Noon – The Body Library
Steve Nuwar – Crystal Garden
John Elliott - Dying To Read

That's worked out at 37 books this year, down from last year's 43 which is probably because I find it increasingly hard to stay awake reading at night. There was nothing I loathed this year, although I did find Ballard's "The Drought" very hard going and also the expectations I had with Paul Tembley's "Headful of Ghosts" fell far short of reality. Paul Cain's "Fast One" also didn't earn the merit I'd been told it had. Other than that, there were some good books this year. Special mentions to Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" (my first experience of Roth, and despite a couple of reservations it was a gripping read), Paul Meloy's "The Night Clock" (absurdly, beautifully skewed), Tom Robbins autobiography "Tibetan Peach Pie" (which prompted me to write to the author from which I received a nice personalised reply), Vladimir Nabokov's "Mary" (it's Nabokov: word-love from the opening sentence), Nicholas Royle's "Ornithology" (a collection of short stories almost making the top three), Cameron McCabe's legendary bizarre "The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor", Adam Nevill's "Last Days" (brilliantly written horror), and Chris Beckett's "Dark Eden" (brilliantly written SF).

Before the final reveal I also want to mention three books I proofread this year for Angry Robot. I usually don't include 'work' books in my listing (in some instances it would be unprofessional to do so, and it would bump the number up by another twenty titles), but appearing this year "Under The Pendulum Sun" by Jeannette Ng was an intriguingly plotted theological fantasy, and being published next year are the inventive how-can-this-work-but-it-does "Free Chocolate" by Amber Royar and the enjoyable "The Body Library" by Jeff Noon. All well-worth seeking out.

As usual, I'm going to base my top three from my Goodreads review. This is very straightforward for 2017 as only three books received 5/5 and putting them in order feels quite natural. So, without further ado, here they are:

In reverse order:

"Interface" by Joe Gores

This is a cracking crime novel, about as hard-boiled as they come; superbly paced and brimming with danger. It also includes the best car chase I think I've ever read in a novel - and considering I'm not even a fan of such in movies that's really saying something. Involving, frenetic, and clever, I have no reservations in including this in my top three, especially due to the totally left-of-centre perfect ending.

"The High Window" by Raymond Chandler

Everything I've read by Chandler borders on the brilliant and this is no exception. So many good lines, so many perfect wisecracks and scintillating descriptions. The plot hangs good, takes a surprise turn but finishes neatly wrapped. I couldn't fault it.

And the winner is:

"Horse Crazy" by Gary Indiana

I thought this to be an outstanding dissection of a relationship (in this case, homosexual). In some ways - obliquely - it reminded me of the obsessive love story, "The Tunnel", by Ernesto Sabato which I also adore. And whilst this book is in many respects completely different to that, the resonances meant that I enjoyed it all the more. Packed with anecdotal detail, occasional comedy, and utter frustration from the narrator, this short novel feels painfully real - a perfect example of how love distorts reality, opaquely, in which the madness revealed is just as tantalising as love's absence, of how obsession can wreck even the most logical of us. This is easily the best book I read in 2017.


I watched the following in 2017:

Rear Window
Love Crimes
A Man Escaped
La Grande Bouffe
Our Man In Havana
King of Devil Island
The Royal Tenenbaums
The VVitch
What Have You Done With Solange?
Capturing The Friedmans
Ex Machina
Anatomy of Hell
California Split
Bunny Lake Is Missing
La Femme Coquette
The Owl Man
My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
Modern Romance
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
About Schmidt
Un Chien Andalou
The Chase
La Rupture
Homo Sapiens
The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Mr Deeds Goes To Town
You Can't Take It With You
The Lady From Shanghai
Le Révélateur
The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki
The Tenth Victim
Funny Games (US)
The Virgin's Bed
The Assassin
Inherent Vice
Les Hautes Solitudes
The Hitch-Hiker
In A Lonely Place
The Reckless Moment
The Revenant
Summer With Monika
Les Gouffres
Baby Driver
3:10 To Yuma
Maps To The Stars
It Comes At Night
Scabbard Samurai
Cries and Whispers
Murder by Contract
Blood Simple
Intolerable Cruelty
The Passenger
Annabelle: Creation
Suddenly, Last Summer
The Magnificent Ambersons
La Ville des Pirates
A Nos Amours
The Signal
Blade Runner 2049
The Towrope (La Sirga)
Le Chinoise
Shinjuku Triad Society
The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds
Four Flies on Grey Velvet
Rainy Dog
White Ant
Autumn Leaves
Experiment in Terror
Dead Or Alive
The Fountain
On Body and Soul
Daddy’s Home 2
Wet Woman In The Wind
Irma Vep
Once Upon A Time In America
Radio Mary

That's 99 movies this year, a sharp drop from 144 last year, but we've tended to have a more involved social life this year! Of course, it's still a long list to narrow down to my top three, and unlike books I don't have a site equivalent to Goodreads with which to guide my memory.

As usual, however, I'm discounting movies I've previously seen. So this knocks out Hitchcock's classic "Rear Window" with that slo-mo Grace Kelly kiss, Dali and Buñuel's always enjoyable "Un Chien Andalou", and Godard's colour-coded "Le Chinoise". A surprisingly small number of re-watches this year.

Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this unfortunately includes the 1965 pulp flick "The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds" which should have remained lost, "The VVitch" (which I really wanted to enjoy but just seemed too silly), "Ex Machina" (so much potential, inadequately realised), "Dunkirk" (just not my kind of film, underwhelming), and - no doubt controversially - "It" (I simply felt it was unsure of it's audience).

This leaves us with some great movies. I thoroughly enjoyed "Youth", directed by Paolo Sorrentino (whose "The Great Beauty" I will never stop raving about), "La Grande Bouffe" (a film about a group of friends who plan to eat themselves to death), "The Royal Tenenbaums" (sheer comic joy from start to finish from Wes Anderson), "In A Lonely Place" (classic film noir), "Les Gouffres" (slipstreamish French film, weirdly disjointed), "Baby Driver" and "Blade Runner 2049" (both of which I saw at the cinema and were thoroughly enjoyable), "On Body And Soul" (a close call not to be in my top three, a Hungarian love story set in a slaughterhouse), "Homo Sapiens" (a documentary film about forgotten or abandoned places, from Fukushima to Bulgaria - no voiceover, but featuring only natural sounds to create beautifully eerie scenes), Cronenberg's "Maps To The Stars" which I now barely remember other than that I enjoyed it, and the Japanese "Antiporno" (which I saw between Christmas and New Year and almost made my top three - visually beautiful, challenging and potentially heartbreaking).

I get the feeling that another day might produce marginally different results, but - today - here are my top three movies I saw for the first time in 2017
Again, in reverse order:

"Symbol" (2009) - Hitoshi Matsumoto

An absolutely bonkers movie where a Japanese man awakes in a glaringly white room and sets off a weird chain of events by depressing the genitals of cherubs in a certain order. Meanwhile, in Mexico, Escargot Man prepares for a wrestling match which he surely can't win. Somehow - through sheer audacity - these storylines converge in an unbelievably audacious ending which must be seen to be believed. Constantly inventive, humorous, and strangely life-affirming, "Symbol" easily makes my top three this year.

"Persona" (1966) - Ingmar Bergman

Can't believe I hadn't seen this before as I've enjoyed a lot of Bergman films, but from the start I was held captive by this intense and beautiful psychological drama. The themes of duality, insanity and identity resonate perfectly, and the ambiguity inherent in this enigmatic film is powerful and compelling.

And the winner is...

"Le Révélateur" (1968) - Philippe Garrel


Thanks to my subscription to Mubi I've discovered so many interesting works which otherwise would have been unknown to me. This film by French director Philippe Garrel is one of these. A strangely affecting experimental narrative with some wonderfully beautiful, jaw-dropping scenes. The central 4-yr old child is played incredibly well, appearing much older than their years. The title describes the procedure to develop or 'reveal' film negatives, and this slow - totally silent - movie entrances throughout. If you like this kind of film, it's a masterpiece. The above image doesn't do it justice, so here's another:

So that's it. Looking forward to reading and watching more in 2018!

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

My Writing Year 2017

As has become annual I thought I'd do a quick blog post as to my literary achievements during 2017.

I've had two books published this year. First was the non-fiction film title, "Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel: a personal analysis" through Rooster Republic Press, and also an anthology I edited for NewCon Press, "Elasticity: The Best of Elastic Press". Both have received good reviews. Additionally, my novella "And God Created Zombies", has been reprised as an audio book and is available through Audible.

I wrote twelve short stories this year: "A Preview of Coming Attractions", "Buckle Up", "Memories of Olive", "Honeypot", "My Tormentors", "The Ice-Cream Blonde", "Oh, Superman", "Tonight Is Today", "Alfalfa", "The Harvest", "The Good Girl", and "H is for Hollywoodland".  Most of these form part of what I have come to call my 'celebrity death' stories, a themed collection. Without doubt, they are my best work.

I sold six short stories: "A Preview of Coming Attractions" to Great Jones Street, "The Call of the Void" to Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism (Salò Press), "Silent Bridge" to Confingo, "Shipwrecked In The Heart Of The City" to Midnight Street magazine (the magazine has subsequently folded, but the story will be published by them in a future anthology), "Memories of Olive" to Ambit, and "A Pageant of Clouds" to Doppelganger.

The following five stories were published this year: "A Preview of Coming Attractions" in Great Jones Street, "Cold Water Killer" in Spark volume VIII, "Clusterfuck" in Ambit, "The Call of the Void" in Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism, and "Silent Bridge" in Confingo.

I was also interviewed and had four books reviewed in the excellent Black Static magazine. I've almost delivered my sixth collection of short stories to be titled "Frequencies Of Existence" to a  publisher I'm not yet allowed to name for publication in 2018. And the aforementioned collection of celebrity death stories, to be titled "Candescent Blooms", has been completed and I'll start seeking a publisher for it in the New Year.

Also this year I continued assisting my partner in her publishing venture Salò Press, where she published the books, Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism edited by Sophie Essex, and poetry collections, The Shape of Things by Bradley J Fest, Everything, Desire by Owen Vince, and Sphinx by Cat Woodward. All of these deserve  your time.

I have a handful of stories awaiting publication that were originally accepted in 2014(!)/2015/2016/2017, and my next main project will be a novella based on The Mysterious N Senada. A few novels are also under consideration by various agents/publishers, although I'm not writing a novel at this moment in time.

It's been a quieter year on the publication/acceptance front, mostly because I've been holding stories back so originals will appear in the next two collections. Even so, looking back on this, 2017 has still been rather a good year.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Silent Bridge

My short story, "Silent Bridge", has just been published in Confingo #8, and as usual I'm blogging about the gestation of the piece. There may be spoilers for those who have yet to read it.

This is one of those stories whose background is distinctly nebulous. Some pieces are fully formed in my head before I sit to write them, others I have a vague idea about, but with "Silent Bridge" all I had was the title and the time in which to write (this time is precious, and not to be squandered, so sometimes it's essential just to sit down and write on spec; as for the title, I can't remember where that came from). I recall researching silent bridge online, and finding references - perhaps unsurprisingly - to music, which I realised I could work into the story. I also found a piano piece online (also called silent bridge, which I subsequently played throughout the writing of the story), which set the scene, and I was also heavily influenced by the writing of Anna Kavan, whose novel, "Who Are You?", I had recently read and is also set in the tropics, detailing the relationship between the main character and her boorish husband. With this in mind, and pitching art against brutality, "Silent Bridge" was formed.

It was a difficult piece to place as it is more mood piece than story. And whilst there is story there, it is certainly open to interpretation. So much so that I'm not entirely sure as to the meaning of it's conclusion, although I certainly know what the story is about. This ambiguity continued with some readers, one of whom has said "I found it very compelling, even though I am not sure I understood it in a paraphrasable way - and the second reading didn't help, but deepened the compulsion." I enjoy writing works which make the reader think, and I believe the story has found it's spiritual home here at this great magazine. This is my third appearance within Confingo.

Here's a bit of it:

Marcus said she had legs he would kill for.

She hesitated in correcting him, then she said: you mean I have legs to die for.

He had nodded, slowly, without understanding. There was a bullishness to his behaviour, a dour brutality, which she found infuriating; however, it was this exact rough sensuality that tousled her in the sack. She would kneel astride him, her straight straw-like hair brushing his chest, moving her hips as though they were fingers on piano keys, that rhythmic, turgid movement.

I wrote "Silent Bridge" whilst listening to "Silent Bridge" by Elodie Sablier on repeat.

Confingo #8 also contains poetry/prose/art by Tom Jenks, Nicholas Royle, David Wheldon, Peter Bradshaw, Mike Fox, Zena Barrie, Jo Howard, Chris Emery, Lee Stannard, Shiv Dawson, Sarah Longlands, Roelof Bakker, Megan Powell, Alison Criddle and Richard Conning.


Friday, 27 October 2017

The Call Of The Void

My short story, "The Call Of The Void", has just been published in 'Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism' through Salò Press, and as usual I'm blogging the background as to how the piece came to be written.

The title arrived after I discovered the French expression, l'appel du vide (translated as the call of the void) which is a term used to describe the urge one feels to jump from a precipice or high building when standing at its apex. If you've ever been to the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, or the Jaws of Death (in the Gampians, Australia) - as I have - then you might relate to this. The sensation of vertigo coupled with the freedom of falling and the rush which comes with that can be intimated from the threat of the drop. Perhaps it relates to our possible bird ancestors, or at least taps into that section of our subconscious which embraces fears in order to dispel them, but in any event it's common enough for the French to have a phrase for it.

Around the same time, I then discovered acrophilia - sexual arousal from heights or high altitudes. You can see where this is going...

Thirdly, I saw this photograph of a 1930s baby cage which I believe was originally part of a BBC news website article. These contraptions were designed to allow babies access to fresh air when living in apartment blocks. Would it be far-fetched, I wondered, for someone exposed to a baby cage to experience an adult thrill regarding heights? And coupled with that sexual thrill, would it be too far a jump - pun semi-intended (second pun possibly intended) - to experience l'appel due vide?

As often happens when I write, the convergence of two ideas together with a title kick-starts the piece and then it more or less writes itself. Finding a place to submit this story, however, wasn't easy - it's a 'literary' piece without any of my usual genre overtones, and as it's primary theme is masturbating off tall buildings the subject matter might have proved distasteful to some. As it happens, my partner's publishing company, Salò Press, announced a call for an anthology of eroticism and I cheekily asked if I could submit. Whilst this might seem like nepotism, rest assured I went through the same process as everyone else, including a vigorous edit. It's fair to say that "The Call Of The Void" has found it's spiritual home.

Here's a bit of it:

I've masturbated off the Empire State Building, the Bank of America Tower, the Chrysler Building, the New York Times Building, 70 Pine Street, the Trump Building when it was known as the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building, Citigroup Center, 8 Spruce Street, 30 Rock and the Bloomberg Tower. I've done it off 570 Lexington Avenue, 345 Park Avenue, 919 Third Avenue and 400 Fifth Avenue. I also did it off the Singer Building before it was demolished in 1968, and of course I did it within One World Trade Center and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Finally, I wrote this story whilst listening to the Nick Cave album, Push The Sky Away, on repeat.

Milk: An Anthology of Eroticism is edited by Sophie Essex and contains poetry, prose, and non-fiction by Kailey Alyssa, Andrew Darlington, Alison Graham, Brian Howell, Rhys Hughes, N.A. Jackson, Jane Jacobs, Nooks Krannie, Francesca Kritikos, Socrates Martinis, Jared Pollen, Rosie Quattromini, Jessica Rhodes, Sarra Said-Wardell, Fred Spoliar and Nina Ward. Purchase it here

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Just the ticket

This blog post is about the decline of the gig ticket.

It's easy to slip into old-man mode and start moaning, but 'electronic tickets' - what's that all about? I've seen some excellent gigs this year - including The Flaming Lips at Norwich UEA - but unless I save my generic print-out with the barcode which requires scanning at the venue, or unless I happen to actually remember it, then where are the keepsakes? Last year I caught The Rezillos and after the gig proffered the electronic print-out for Eugene Reynolds to sign. He looked querulous, as though it were a legal document..."this is a ticket?" I know some venues still issue these, but locally in Norwich none of the venues now actually issue anything. To be honest, it's a great loss.

I've saved almost all my gig tickets since my first show: The Stranglers at Norwich UEA, 14th November 1981. Unfortunately I don't have a stub for that gig - they were retained - and I would dearly love to see it again (I can remember it clearly, which isn't surprising, as I must have examined it for weeks beforehand, so excited that I was finally going to see my favourite band, so if anyone has a scan of that, please let me know), but otherwise I have kept most tickets to shows I've attended. Here are a handful:

I've seen The Stranglers eleven times (not many in the great scheme of things, some people might see the equivalent during one tour), but I am going to catch them again next March...

Here are some of my favourites. The Talk Talk ticket is the second gig I ever attended, on 12th November 1982, so is therefore the oldest ticket I have in my possession. Adjacent to that is The Sugar Cubes - the only time I've ever seen Bjork who is someone I would dearly love to see solo nowadays. Above that is a solo gig from Maximo Park frontman, Paul Smith, which was about as intimate as it could get with a 220 capacity, and which was truly memorable. Above that, The Cramps at the London Town and Country Club. I'd already seen them once before, in Norwich the previous year, and I would see them once again (in Australia the following year). A tremendous live band who I would buy a time machine for. Left of that ticket, X-Ray Spex. So lucky to see this one off show - another favourite band who I was too young to see at the time - especially considering Poly Styrene's untimely death a few years later. Above that, and The Smiths (note misplaced apostrophe), at another tiny (200 capacity?) gig shortly after their first Peel Session. They ran out of songs and played Handsome Devil twice (saw them again six months later and it was a tragedy - everyone had gladioli and they weren't as good as Red Guitars, the support band). Finally, top right, these stubs for 'Harry' are part of Deborah Harry's six night residency at the Borderline in London. A 300 capacity venue, the residency marked her first ever UK solo shows. We had tickets for the first night (£6) and were right at the front for a magical performance. So enamoured were we that we headed down speculatively on the last night, and after having waited, cajoled, hoped and despaired for the best part of eight hours we finally managed to buy tickets off a tout for £50 just as the doors were opening. And I think it's fair to say that's the best £50 I ever spent. Again, down at the front, literally arm's reach from Deborah who did touch my hand. The only time I've ever bought touted tickets (funnily enough I had a spare for the first night which I sold at face value - I've never upsold a ticket and never will).

Perhaps it was inevitable after that Deborah Harry gig the following would happen:

We saw every UK show on the follow-up tour (the Norwich ticket marked her tenth consecutive show in the UK, although it actually was the opener for another tour the following year). I can't begin to describe how superb these shows were or the emotions which accompanied them. Everyone's gotta be a fanboy sometime, right? I hadn't seen her fronting Blondie in their original incarnation, but I have subsequently seen Blondie five times since, live they are definitely something special.


Here are a few oddities worth mentioning. That Ramones gig marked the first time anything I had ever written appeared in print, and I followed it up by reviewing The Damned a few weeks later. Can't believe I was twenty when I wrote those as they seem incredibly childish now, and they were only local paper stuff (without payment!), but that's where my 'career' in writing took off. Under those reviews are ticket stubs for long-time favourites Devo and Magazine, who I never thought I was ever likely to see (the light pours out of me, spuds!). Top left is a ticket for punk-wannabees Transvision Vamp. We took a punt on the gig as it was cheap, but the Jacquard was a hard-core punk venue and unfortunately no one was buying Wendy James' faux-punk style - some of the banter was truly acerbic. Underneath that is a Blondie gig ticket signed by Deborah Harry (the reverse signed by guitarist Chris Stein). I don't often get stuff signed - who wants to hang around afterwards - but some signatures are worth it. And finally - to confirm I don't simply see old punk bands - there's my stub for Radio 1's Big Weekend which included - OMFG!! - Taylor Swift. Fanboy comes home to roost again.

Flicking through these tickets has evoked so many memories which I'm sure wouldn't have been so fresh without them. And in some cases, have confirmed my attendance (apparently I was at a P J Harvey gig which a mate of mine recently thought I wasn't). I don't see the value in replacing these with barcodes and print-it-yrself tickets. What do you think? Am I an old curmudgeon, or has keeping these added immeasurably to the value of the gig? What's the best - transience or permanence? It's clear which side of the fence I fall.

Feel free to share memories in the comments.

Friday, 28 July 2017

The Nomenclature of Fear (reprise)

My short story, "The Nomenclature of Fear", has recently had its cover revamped as part of a general overhaul of publications at In Short Publishing, so I thought it opportune to re-post my original blog as to how the story was written. There will be spoilers for those who have yet to read it.

All of my stories start with a title, but I can't quite remember where this one came from. What I do know is that I had read an article regarding words in foreign languages which had no easy English equivalent, and that reading down the list I realised there were several words which could be associated with fear. I realised that I could use each of these words to define segments of a short story, and that the story would - in fact - write itself so long as I stuck to that format. However, what I also wanted was something subtle. I hate writing the obvious and so I knew that whilst the story would be about fear it wouldn't be a horror story.  I would delineate a relationship using each of those terms as a stepping stone, and it would be more of a piece examining how aspects of fear define our lives, leading to one of our ultimate fears: loss of a long-loved one through illness.

However, I also wanted to allude to one of the greatest horror movies of all time, "The Blair Witch Project"; which in itself is all about allusion and where what you don't see is more effective than what you do.

Here's a bit of it:

I thought my heart would explode. It's a cliché, but like all clichés it's grounded in the truth of expression. There's a word called mamihlapinatapai, a word used by the Fuegians from Tierra del Fuego in the South American peninsular. It's a succinct word which describes the sensation of two people looking at each other, each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing do to.

We were too afraid to lean in for a kiss.

And here's the new cover:

"The Nomenclature of Fear" is available here and very cheaply priced. In Short Publishing originally published 18 authors simultaneously and numbered each chapbook accordingly (and randomly). Mine is number 4 in the series. They have now published 25 titles in total.

I wrote the story whilst listening to "Music From Drawing Restraint 9" by Bjork on repeat.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Half A Century

Today is my birthday. I turn fifty.

I remember when I was twenty-one and joked to my parents that I was then a quarter dead. I don't think they quite got my sense of humour. A quarter sounded about right, eighty-four being an admirable age from the view of a twenty-one year old. But once I hit twenty-five I felt that age seemed more reasonably like a quarter dead, and from then on the magical one hundred became an optimum target.


I can try and kid myself that fifty is halfway, which is a frightening enough thought in itself, but we know it isn't really. One hundred is unlikely. It's much more likely to be that eighty-four, and whilst that's a long way off it still isn't long enough. Factor in general body deterioration (of which - thankfully - there's no obvious concerns at present), and reaching fifty becomes even more depressing. Today feels like the balance has tipped.

I remember when forty used to be considered old. I remember when I heard "fifty is the new forty". Numbers, ay? I remember when age didn't concern me. It doesn't - much - now, but it has been on my mind the past few months. It seems like I'm caught between light and dark.

I'm not really grumbling. I have my health. I live reasonably well. I have my family around me. I've succeeded in many of my literary goals. I've read well and watched a lot of movies and will continue to do so. I've loved being alive.

It doesn't matter if many others have gone before reaching fifty, or that many others have had worse lives, or that some are riddled with ill health. None of that matters. What matters is our knowledge that this life is finite. That the second following our birth brings us closer to death.

What do The Flaming Lips say: "Do you realise that everyone you know someday will die".

And Nabokov in "Terror": "At night, in bed, I would abruptly remember I was mortal.  What then took place within my mind was much the same as happens in a huge theatre if the lights suddenly go out, and someone shrilly screams in the swift-winged darkness, and other voices join in, resulting in a blind tempest, with the black thunder of panic growing - until suddenly the lights come on again, and the performance of the play is blandly resumed. Thus would my soul choke for a moment..."

Writing this post has helped to exorcise some of those demons, but regardless of that I'm still on the uncomfortable side of reality.

Of course, Woody Allen said: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying"; and whilst I agree, at least I have achieved a modicum of immortality through my work, and - realistically speaking - there are many many good years in me yet. As I say, I'm not grumbling, and I'm not particularly depressive. I'm a very upbeat person. I'm really looking forward to those future years, and I hope I live to see all of them.

Friday, 21 July 2017


My short story, "Clusterfuck", has just been published in issue 229 of Ambit magazine, and as usual I'm blogging briefly about how the story came to be written and the ideas behind it. There may be spoilers for those who haven't read it.

I read the story in its entirety at the Ambit London launch earlier this week and it was interesting to note how it was received. It's a potentially contentious piece - a story of sexual obsession from a 19yr old female student's perspective written by myself, a male writer edging into his fifties. There is also a proliferation of profanities and sexualised words. The editors - upon accepting the story - did compliment me on the authenticity of the voice within the piece, which was particularly welcomed as both editors are female and such validation of my protagonist was important to me. Whilst it isn't unusual for me to write from a female perspective, I felt gender was integral to this piece and to know that I got into the head of such a character to the satisfaction of the editors made the acceptance of this piece all the more satisfying. The audience appeared to enjoy it, although I think it probably takes several readings for the nuances to become apparent. It might well be a story which works better on the page.

"Clusterfuck" was suggested as a title by my partner, and once I had it I began researching sexual obsessions, and how I might break down the word within the story for sub-headings. I discovered  erotomania, which is a type of delusional disorder where the affected person believes that another person is in love with him (or her). This seemed a perfect jumping off point for the story. I would go so far as to state that all love is delusional in some way - that we make assumptions that others love us in the same way that we love them which might not be entirely correct. It's the dichotomy between the two which can undermine relationships, although in "Clusterfuck" the delusion is total and the relationships entirely one-sided.

Upon my partner's suggestion I wanted to render the protagonist's fantasies in surrealistic prose. This adds a dream-like unreality to those sections where it is used which are then counterbalanced by the straightforward descriptions of her deluded love in the rest of the piece. Between them, they illustrate her state of mind.

Here's a brief excerpt:

I imagine you and I in surrealistic sexual reverie. The glans of your penis presented within wet muslin. Strands of your beard transform into finger-tendrils which explore my labia as your head is bent to my cunt. I close my legs, pop your head inside with the sound of trodden bladderwrack, caress your penis within the material as your lips mouth devotional love.

I wrote "Clusterfuck" whilst listening to Blondie's 4(0)-Ever, on repeat.

Ambit #229 includes stories, poetry and artwork from Dan O'Brien, Lesley Saunders, Rebecca Close, Etel Adnan, James Woolf, Will Harris, Christian Brookland / Sarah Karen, Paul Henry, Ila Colley, Sophie F. Baker, Charles Opara / Lucy Waldman, Emma Cousin, Lisa Kelly, Pia Ghosh-Roy, Callum Nott, Annie Katchinska, and Hassan Hajjaj. It can be purchased here.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Elasticity: The Best of Elastic Press

This coming weekend sees the publication and launch of Elasticity: The Best of Elastic Press, edited by myself for NewCon Press. To promote the book in this blog I'm going to include extracts from the introduction and from each of the stories. For those reading this prior to Saturday 8th July, feel free to pop along to the Star of Kings in London from 1pm to 5pm where the book is being launched alongside Best British Science Fiction 2016.

The book is published in both paperback and limited edition hardback and can be bought from the usual outlets as well as direct from the publisher here. If you need proof of me signing, here it is:

From the intro: I expect most readers of this book will be familiar with Elastic Press, the independent publishing company I ran from 2002 until 2009. The remit was simple: to publish mixed genre short story collections by relatively unknown writers. It wasn’t quite a sound business plan, as unknown authors, mixed genre and short stories generally are renowned as hard to sell. But that was a challenge, not an obstacle. I chose the name Elastic Press through an unwillingness to burden the company with a restrictive genre title. Whilst I might have written science fiction, fantasy, horror and – as they like to call it – literary fiction, I tended to prefer the all-encompassing ‘slipstream’ moniker and wanted the press to reflect this and have the elasticity to publish whatever genre I enjoyed (often within the same book).

Over seven years Elastic Press won seven separate awards (two Best Small Press awards and three Best Anthology awards from the British Fantasy Society, one East Anglian Book Award, and the Edge Hill Prize for short fiction for Chris Beckett's The Turing Test). Whilst shedding the press was a relatively easy task, it was always at the back of my mind as to whether I would revitalise it, and I was surprised and delighted when Ian Whates of NewCon Press telephoned me to enquire if I would be interested in editing this book. It was a great honour not only for Ian to acknowledge Elastic’s influence on his own publishing company, but to have someone other than Elastic Press publish an Elastic Press book. I had no hesitation in accepting the task and immediately began to consider the contents...

From "Grief Inc" by Andrew Humphrey:

Then she became soft, pliant, folded against him. And he felt the usual slow warmth and tasted something dark and bitter at the back of his throat. She murmured, ‘My God, my God,’ into his chest and he held her, stroked the top of her head, and felt something tender, something close to love. Even though he charged for this and although he didn’t actually give a shit, Carter was suddenly imbued with a tainted, accidental, sense of virtue.

From "The Tower" by Brian Howell:

Instinctively, she drew her legs up to the sofa and watched as the creature scuttled towards the skirting board, as if drawn there by the surface tension of water in a puddle. She would wait until it stepped off the carpet before she crushed it.

From "Evelyn Is Not Real" by Mike O'Driscoll:

A man in a black leather sports jacket was standing at my shoulder. Before I could say anything, he gestured at the DVD I held and said, “Nobody ever died of sadness watching Grant and Hepburn.”

From "Amber Rain" by Neil Williamson:

“Col,” she said. “It’s no use. I think it’s different for everybody. Maybe some people do see little green men, and maybe some see God, and some Yogi-fucking-Bear. But not me. I think whatever it is – whatever they are – looks into people and finds something that no-one else has, perhaps the single element that makes them an individual, and then they tweak it to see what happens.”

From "351073" by Jeff Gardiner:

Eloise saw me shaking my head and squinting.
     “You see, men have wisdom, but women have understanding.” She smiled as if this explained all my doubts and frustrations.
     It was from then that things started getting really strange.

From "Four A.M." by Gary Couzens:

She smiles and blows out the flames one by one, sucking on her fingers to douse the smoke. Her fingers are clean, freshly washed pink, unscorched and unblistered.

From "When We Were Five" by Marion Arnott:

Her memories still squat like lodgers in my mind, as at home as my own: the 150 bridges spanning the Neva and the roiling sea; in winter, the restless waves frozen in silent glistening peaks; in spring, the ice cracking with a roar; in summer, the white nights when the sun never sets and the city drowns in the scent of lilacs.

From "Shopping" by Antony Mann:

July 10

Chewing Gum
Cat Food
Condoms (novelty)
Ronald Reagan mask
Baby Oil
Masking Tape

Speaking of shopping, here are the endpages of the hardback to whet your appetite:

From "Somme-Nambula" by Allen Ashley:

I felt Snapper’s strong arms around my somnambulant shoulders preventing me from raising my bare head above the parapet. His onion and tobacco breath was pungent in my nostrils as he pleaded with me to return to the land of the conscious.

From "Visits To The Flea Circus" by Nick Jackson:

One of the deer stood awkwardly. It opened its great brown eyes and in the black centre of the pupil she saw a distant image of herself in her yellow dress.

From "Alsiso" by Justina Robson:

The seeds of life fell on Teriapt as on a thousand other worlds, scattered by the Hand of Gaia Obasi Nsi, The Tortoise-Shelled. She was the first, the last and the only daughter of Earth gifted with the grain of DNA, nanoreplicators and the capacity to leap to any known space in the hopes of bringing forth other worlds fit for humans.

From "Jasmine" by Andrew Tisbert:

I had come across a universe for this chance to meet her. I wasn’t about to turn shy and passively let my opportunity slide by. I swallowed and took a deep breath, and this time I did smile.

From "Televisionism" by Maurice Suckling:

I once had a girlfriend who was famous. I suppose she still is in a way, but I can’t really say she’s my girlfriend anymore. At least we don’t go out and we don’t see each other, and people tend to see that as significant.

From "The Marriage Of Sea and Sky":

He emerged to an astonishing sight. Over at the eastern horizon, the enormous moon was rising over a returning sea. Brilliant turbulent water, luminous with pink moonlight, was sweeping towards him across the vast dark space where the women had yesterday hunted for crabs.

From "fight Music" by Tim Nickels:

I look out and down on the scattered shoes: hundreds or thousands of mismatched pairs clouding the wasteland as far as the shrunken river. All of them waiting for feet that will never be born.

"Elasticity: The Best of Elastic Press", is available in both paperback and limited edition signed hardback from NewCon Press.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Exterminating Angel vs The Exterminating Angel

Most readers of this blog will be aware that I've recently published a book about Luis Buñuel's 1962 film classic, "The Exterminating Angel", detailing how the film has resonated with me on a personal level as well as examining it's meanings and motifs. It was during research for the book that I became aware of an operatic adaptation due to be performed at London's Royal Opera House this month. Naturally, I was intrigued, and whilst I have no particular interest in that art form it became inevitable that I would see the production. This blog post will explore my thoughts on the opera.

For those who are unaware, Buñuel's movie centres on a group of socialites who retire to one of their houses for an after-opera soiree and who then - for inexplicable and unexplained reasons - find themselves unable to leave the drawing room at the end of the evening. Their social veneers are stripped away, revealing ugly interiors, until eventually after several days they are able to exit only to find themselves caught in a circle of repetition when attempting to leave a church after giving thanks for their escape.

Buñuel's cinematography is fluid considering almost all the action takes place in one room and there are twenty-one cast members. Inevitably, the opera - as expected with any adaptation - doesn't stick rigidly to the film. The cast is much smaller; almost halved. Some of the characters have merged. The set design - with it's large arch representing the open doorway between the two rooms - is impressive. The live sheep - much promoted - make only a cursory appearance.

Initially the opera closely follows the film and adheres to much of the dialogue. There are small tweaks for a modern audience - a Jew becomes an anarchist - but the biggest problem I have with the opera is - well - the opera itself. Buñuel's film would be well-suited to a stage play, and effectively this is exactly what it is. Yet here dialogue is sung. This seems an obvious statement, yet unfortunately it lends the piece an unintentional comic overtone, because - realistically - there is no need for the dialogue to be sung other than the fact that it is an opera. The only differential between the film and the opera is the singing. Because of this, the singing seems absurd.

I appreciate this reflects my own bias. Having only once before been to an opera - over thirty years ago in Russia - I have no comparison with others of its type. However, dialogue appertaining to coffee spoons doesn't render well when sung - it's forced, not comic. The actual singing itself - apart from a few occasions where multiple voices intentionally lead to hysteria - feels superfluous. Without the surtitles - bearing in mind  the opera is in English - little of the dialogue was discernible. If reading the surtitles was akin to watching the movie in Spanish with subtitles, it also confirmed the pointlessness of the medium. This isn't an opinion purely confined to non-opera-aficionado me. Michael Tanner in The Spectator states: "What did the dialogue among the innumerable characters gain by being sung?" In addition, the accompanying music neither added nor detracted - and again, I must make excuses for my lack of orchestral understanding, but for this viewer, it added little to the performances.

And the performances were adequate.

For those who know the movie well I thought there were a handful of deviations that were completely unnecessary. Buñuel's movie is explicit in our understanding that there is no physical reason for the guests' entrapment, yet twice the 'arch' flashed light suggesting some kind of supernatural barrier. I thought this undermined the surrealism. The hostess also tells the butler not to enter the room at a point before their situation is known - a moment which stopped me, not him. There is a reference to the opera's composer, Thomas Adès, which was awkwardly - embarrassingly - self-referential. In the movie, Buñuel's dialogue is crisp and matter-of-fact. Where the opera dialogue deviated from the original it was arch (see what I did there) and over-flowery, completely at odds with the rest of the production and in direct contrast to Buñuel's mastery. Two extended songs also added little, either dramatically or to advance the plot. From promising beginnings, the opera began to outstay it's welcome, and although having seen reviews elsewhere I now appreciate Adès musical deconstructions these were not apparent to the casual listener.

There are two dream sequences in the movie which I was intrigued to see translated for the stage. The first, featuring a disembodied hand, was well-replicated considering the difficulties. Following this, I had great expectations for the second sequence, but this never materialised - a lazy omission. Whilst that sequence is a montage of the guests' thoughts and possibly difficult to transfer to the stage, in my opinion those night-time reveries could have been screened direct from the film in a backdrop with the orchestra adding musical accompaniment on the ondes martenot. If, as an alternative, one of the dead cast members levitating Peter Pan-like from the stage was meant to compensate, I'm sorry to say that this erred on the wrong side of absurdity and was contrary to the spirit of the film.

Criminally, near the end of the opera - when the guests realise they can exit the room - their egress occurs in a perfunctory manner as they drift through the arch individually as though in a daze, much unlike Buñuel's guests' surge of elation which is almost palpable on screen. This aberration undermined any tension, made it appear that the preceding events had been little more than an inconvenience. As an aside - and without too much explanation for those who haven't seen the film - the return of the servants also happened much earlier than necessary as they are integral to the restoration of order (their reappearance simply occurs at the wrong moment), and the goading of the child is much too explicit when compared to the subtlety of the film.

Now, I appreciate not everyone seeing the opera will have seen the movie, and few would have given it as close a scrutiny as I have, however there should be some faith in an adaptation to adhere to the intent of the original production, and whilst Adès "The Exterminating Angel" began positively I felt it digressed without due care and attention along the way, with the final moments scuppered without the humour of Buñuel's original church scene by further endorsing a perceived supernatural threat via the illuminated arch. Even putting the deviances aside, Thomas Adès operatic adaptation left so much to be desired, particularly with regards to his understanding of surrealism. A great shame, because on a superficial level I enjoyed the experience and found it interesting. Ultimately, however, the production left me wanting to revisit the film rather than kindling a desire for further operatic art forms. In "The Exterminating Angel" vs "The Exterminating Angel" it is the angel which is exterminated.

My book, "Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel: a personal analysis", is published by RoosterVision in both (reasonably priced) print and kindle editions.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Buñuel's "The Exterminating Angel" - a personal analysis

My newest publication is my first non-fiction book: "Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel: a personal analysis" which is published by RoosterVision in both (reasonably priced) print and kindle editions. As usual on publication, I'm blogging a few thoughts as to how the book came about for those who might be interested.

The writer, Chris Kelso (also commissioning editor for this film book line), contacted me in May 2016 to ask whether I'd be interested in writing a short non-fiction piece about a movie that I love and had influenced my work. The remit was for it not to be an academic piece, but an informal appreciation. It would probably be useful in this part of the blog to quote from a recent Black Static interview where Pete Tennant asked me the self-same question:

Pete: "Why did you choose to write about Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel? What is its appeal to you? Why do you feel it is an important film? And can you identify any echoes of TEA in your own work?"

My reply: "I was approached by Chris Kelso – the commissioning editor for the RoosterVision imprint – to see whether I would be interested in writing a film book from a purely personal perspective, about influences and resonances, rather than something academic. Whilst I’m not drawn to non-fiction, the project appealed to me as a film fan, and immediately a handful of films shot to mind – Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive, Le Mepris, amongst them. But Buñuel had been my first introduction to both foreign and surrealist cinema, and of his movies The Exterminating Angel is my favourite.
"The central premise, of a group of socialites who find themselves unable to leave a room after a soiree following an opera despite there being no physical impediment in doing so, struck a chord with me in the way I find surrealism often does – it triggers a little receptor at the back of my mind which gives me joy. It’s as simple as that. You could say it is undoubtedly a horror film, a genuinely nightmarish situation which wouldn’t be out of place as a Twilight Zone episode. I would have seen this as part of a BBC2 retrospective as an impressionable teenager, and the surrealist juxtaposition of strangeness and familiarity is certainly something prevalent in my work and possibly influenced by that movie. Many of my genre stories tether normalcy to the weird, and this is explicit in The Exterminating Angel. The film never bores me and rewards repeated viewings. It’s a quintessential surrealist movie, although not everyone’s cup of tea. And in a reality imitating fiction scenario I’m attending an operatic adaptation in London this May. It will be interesting to see if I can leave the Royal Opera House after the performance."

When the opportunity arose, I spent some time watching and re-watching the movie, consulted the reference books on Buñuel that I already had, and also bought a few which I knew specifically referenced the film. Especially useful was a copy of the screenplay, which I used extensively to plot the film for those who might not have seen it, and also some pointers to reference material from an old friend of mine, Dr Steven Allen, who teaches on the Film Studies and Media Studies programmes at the University of Winchester. Having amassed a reasonable amount of material I then spun my own interpretation, linking surrealism with punk, providing a (very) brief overview of surrealist cinema and a micro-bio of Buñuel's career, and ended with some thoughts on other movies that might have been influenced by The Exterminating Angel (whether consciously or subconsciously or collective-consciously, either in style, plot, or other similarities), and also some musings on how viewing the film at an impressionable age has no doubt permeated my own fiction.

Hopefully, the result is a readable, personal engagement which will encourage those who haven't seen the movie to do so, and will also - for those who already have - provide a somewhat alternative appreciation of this classic film.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

And God Created Zombie - audio book

My 2009 novella, "And God Created Zombies", originally published in both paperback and hardback through NewCon Press, has recently breathed new life as an audio book. In this post I'll give a little background as to the writing of the novella itself and the process that I went through to create the audio version.

The novella itself is an existential work, although it does feature familiar slow-moving zombie tropes from the movies of George Romero. I can't say too much about it without giving away the main plot as there is a substantial twist in the denouement, however my main character, John Baker, finds himself increasingly embroiled in a zombie threat which appears personal. It is his unravelling of the reason behind that which forms the thrust of the plot. Notwithstanding this, there are several instances of gore and not a few comedic moments too. I half-swiped the title from the Roger Vadim movie, "And God Created Women" (although there the similarities end), and the print version had an introduction by best-selling author, Sarah Pinborough.

Whilst the novella was published eight years ago, it's still in print (check out the links above or message me for discounted/signed options), and following a conversation with the writer, Craig Saunders, I became aware of ACX and the possibilities of creating an audiobook version. What really appealed with ACX was the option of working with a voice artist who wouldn't require an up-front payment, but a 50/50 split of any profit. Whilst I appreciate the risk is greater for the voice artist that way - the audio book comes in just short of four hours, but that's just the tip of the voice artist's time - it did mean I could experiment with that form and see if there was a market for my work in audio book format without having to pay anything (that I couldn't afford) up front.

The process is simple: upload a selection of the text to ACX in the hope that a voice artist will make contact with a sample. Choose the best sample out of those that come in. Then authorise the voice artist to go ahead with the work. Finally, upload the finished result. It really couldn't be easier from the writer's point of view.

I was lucky to be approached by William L Sturdevant who I found professional and friendly throughout the process. Listening to the novella for the first time in quite a few years was also an interesting experience, and intriguing to have the story 'read' to me. It has genuinely thrown new light on the book and made me remember how proud I am to have written it. It's a cracking story with philosophical undertones and if I enjoyed it, maybe you will too.

"And God Created Zombies" can be found here on Audible (free with a 30-day Trial for those not currently Audible subscribers). If you do buy it, please consider leaving a review.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

A Preview Of Coming Attractions

My short story, "A Preview Of Coming Attractions", has just been made available on the excellent App from Great Jones Street, and as usual I'm blogging a few thoughts as to how the story was written. There may be spoilers for those yet to read it.

Great Jones Street is an App only magazine which has previously published my short stories, "Sarcoline", "Vole Mountain" (as reprint), and "Blood For Your Mother" (as reprint). It's a great resource for quality fiction and the App can be downloaded for FREE here.

I was approached by the editors with a request to write a piece of flash fiction for Valentine's Day and was eager to take part. I already had a title, "A Preview Of Coming Attractions", waiting to be written (although when I made a note of it I had no idea what kind of story it might be), and it seemed like a good starting point. I had the idea to write a piece from a female perspective, a reminiscence of sexual encounters, expanding and challenging throughout the years. Taking a lead from the title I decided to section the story within the parameters of movie classification, and as the publisher is American I decided to utilise the American classification system considering this would be more familiar to their audience (the story is therefore split into sections G, PG, PG-13, R and NC-17).

Regular blog readers will know I write to a musical background, and instinctively the song "Je t' non plus" suggested itself as most appropriate. I prefer the Gainsbourg/Bardot version, but I also have the Gainsbourg/Birkin version. It struck me that I could use the subtle differences within the versions as part of the story itself, and so I played one version after another on repeat whilst writing (as indeed, my protagonist does whilst reminiscing).

To say more about the story will give too much away - it is only 749 words in total, after all - but here's a brief extract:

Edging towards eternity.

I see his outline for the first time. An electric eel.

Bending my head I receive the only acceptable bruise for my age group.

The discolouration brands me. I wear a scarf indoors.

Sometimes, in fast cars, everything is a blur.

Overlooking the town, the lights, one of them is a mirror. The stars hold greater permanence, yet we are also them when viewed from another planet.

He will find me as a naked, treeless, deserted island.

Just one look is molecular disintegration.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Cold Water Killer

My short story, "Cold Water Killer", has recently been published in Spark Vol VIII, and as usual I'm blogging a few thoughts as to how the story came about. There may be spoilers for those who have yet to read it.

"Cold Water Killer" is one of my Mordent stories, Mordent being a detective-turned-PI with a bubblewrap fetish who views life through noir-tinted glasses. I had written a series of Mordent short stories before realising he was prime material for a novel and some of those short stories formed part of the first two books in the series. "Cold Water Killer" was originally intended as a chapter in the novel, "Church of Wire", but after discussion with the publisher it seemed superfluous for that novel. I therefore decided to sell it as a standalone story.

The story is set in 1975, when DNA-profiling was in its infancy in criminal cases. A random sniper disguises his fingerprints by immersing his hands in water prior to committing his crimes; the subsequently crenulated skin obliterating his identity. This is intertwined with a relationship Mordent has with a florist, and the indiscriminate nature of the killings is compared to the equally indiscriminate concept of love.

Here's a bit of it:

Mordent had been in the force a sparse few years. Had lost his feet and then found them. The drinking was only just starting to kick in. Back then, people were allowed to be characters rather than caricatures and his precinct was full of them. As the years rolled by, so the faceless ones dominated. When Mordent was only the character left, he left.

But back in '75, with flowers budding like parachutes seen from the ground, and the dirt on the streets washed by April rains, his future spread in front of him like a body unrolled in carpet.

Spark VIII also contains work by Gabriel Griffin, Louis Rakovich, Charles Henke, Karen Resta, Bo Balder, Michael Haynes, India Stronach, Sarah L. Johnson, GennaRose Nethercott, Janet E. Irvin, Dany G. Zuwen, Floris M. Kleijne, Alix E. Harrow, Alexis A. Hunter, Beth Cato, Jeff Bowles,
Brian Fence, Crystal Lynn Hilbert, Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, Francis Marion Soty, Marina J. Lostetter, Olivia R. Burton, Dustin Brown, Brynn MacNab, John Vicary, Kristen Skerry Andrews, James Aquilone, Layla Carr, Michael Garrett Ashby II, Lily Iona MacKenzie, George Wells, W. P. Johnson, Tom Crosshill and Melissa Cannon. Purchase it here.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Best and Worst of 2016

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 I read/watched in 2016 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2016, but what I actually watched and read - some of these items might be very old indeed.


I read the following in 2016:

Paul Auster – Mr Vertigo
Ira Levin – Sliver
Matthew De Abaitua – The Destructives
Italo Calvino – Mr Palomar
Christopher Priest – The Extremes
Georges Simenon – The Mahe Circle
Joel Lane – Where Furnaces Burn
Skein and Bone – V H Leslie
Joel Lane – Trouble In The Heartland
Conrad Williams – Use Once, Then Destroy
Yoko Ogawa – Hotel Iris
Salvador Dali - Oui
Liv Spencer – Taylor Swift: The Platinum Edition
E.M. Forster – Where Angels Fear To Tread
Yoshihiro Tatsumi – A Drifting Life
Michael Chabon – The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
Jaime Hernandez – The Love Bunglers
Phillippe Soupault – Last Nights of Paris
Chester Himes – If He Hollers Let Him Go
Nathanael West – The Day of the Locust
Nicolas Dickner – Nikolski
Chris Beckett – The Peacock Cloak
Alan Stillitoe – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Christopher Priest – The Space Machine
Vladimir Nabokov – The Real Life Of Sebastian Knight
Sarah Pinborough – The Death House
Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House
Peter Coleburn and Pauline E Dungate (editors) – Something Remains
Cate Gardner – The Bureau of Them
Ray Cluley – Within The Wind Beneath The Snow
Gary Fry – Scourge
Mark Morris – Albion Fay
Richard Brautigan – A Confederate General From Big Sur
Conrad A Williams – Decay Inevitable
Brett Savory – A Perfect Machine
Paul M Feeney – The Last Bus
Andrew Hook – Human Maps
Richard Brautigan – Dreaming of Babylon
Richard Brautigan – The Hawkline Monster
Jeff Noon – A Man Of Shadows
Doug Jones – London and Norfolk Poems
Nick Jackson – The Secret Life Of The Panda
Anna Kavan – Sleep Has His House

That's worked out at 43 books this year, a few more than last year but average overall (although I'm still reading the Doug Jones, which is poetry that I'm dipping in and out of). Definitely amongst the worst of the bunch were Paul Auster's "Mr Vertigo" (and I love Auster, but this was a meandering mess), Ira Levin's "Sliver" which was just ridiculous, and Christopher Priest's "The Space Machine" which just didn't work for me (interestingly, both Auster and Priest made my top three last year). The absolute worst book I read this year, however, was the carnage which was Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policeman's Union": a total dirge and dreadfully written. Thankfully these books were eclipsed by some great reads. Special mentions to "The Death House" by Sarah Pinborough (a simple tale which - goddammit - made me cry), "The Secret Life Of The Panda" by Nick Jackson (a great collection of short stories), "The Haunting Of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson, and "Nikolski" by Nikolas Dickner. If I were to choose a best anthology it would be "Something Remains", stories inspired by the notes of Joel Lane, which was uniformly brilliant. And special mention to Richard Brautigan, whose writings I discovered this year via Rhys Hughes, and whose "The Hawkline Monster" almost made my top three.

Before the final reveal I also want to mention three books I proofread this year for Angry Robot. I usually don't include 'work' books in my listing (in some instances it would be unprofessional to do so), but "The Destructives" by Matthew de Abaitua was a great SF book, and being published next year are the inventive "A Perfect Machine" by Brett Savory and the brilliant "A Man Of Shadows" by Jeff Noon (a book I wish I'd written). All well-worth seeking out.

As usual, I'm going to base my top three from my Goodreads review. This is very straightforward for 2016 as only three books received 5/5 and putting them in order feels quite natural. So, without further ado, here they are:

In reverse order:

"Sleep Has His House" by Anna Kavan

Kavan must be one of my favourite female writers and her work is always challenging and often difficult with flashes of brilliance. She nearly made my top three last year with "A Scarcity Of Love", but has cracked it with this book which tells a tale of a woman withdrawing from daylight existence and living only at night. These states are metaphorical, however, and semi-autobiographical chapter introductions are then fully-fleshed as surrealist counterparts within each chapter as a whole. It's an inventive, intriguing, and engaging synthesis of memoir and experimentation.

"Where Furnaces Burn" by Joel Lane

I love Joel's writing and this (World Fantasy Award winning) collection of supernatural police stories is simply superb. Incisive dialogue, intelligent phrasing, weirdly believable scenarios, these all make for a dark, troublesome, realistic read and because the same protagonist features throughout the cumulative continuity of his journey really adds to the overall experience.

And the winner is:

"The Mahé Circle" by Georges Simenon

I really love Simenon's pared down style and am generally finding his non-Maigret novels even more exciting. This short novel is a brilliantly told tale of obsession leading to destruction, and easily makes for my best read of 2016.


I watched the following in 2016:

Goodbye To Language
Henry and June
The Holy Mountain
Wake Wood
Ace In The Hole
The Hateful Eight
The American
The Box
Robot and Frank
End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones
High Fidelity
Memoirs of a Geisha
Lost Highway
The Misfits
Le Mepris
Bus Stop
Funny Games
Last Year In Marienbad
Bande A Part
The Conformist
Magic In The Moonlight
Anna Karenina
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Altered States
Wild At Heart
The Lobster
Body Heat
King of the Zombies
Gone Girl
Bad Lieutenant
We Are Still Here
The Book Thief
Fading Gigolo
The Borderlands
The Wind Rises
Catch Me Daddy
The Grand Budapest Hotel
East of Eden
The Collector
Bullet Ballet
The Exterminating Angel
The Exterminating Angel
The Babadook
Blue Ruin
Don’t Come Knocking
In Darkness
Stalag 17
Vanilla Sky
Gone Baby Gone
There Will Be Blood
Three Colours: Blue
Three Colours: White
The Club
White Dog
Three Colours: Red
Betty Blue
The Man Who Knew Too Much
The Wicker Man
The Last Detail
The Battleship Potemkin
The Graduate
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Diaboliques
The Talented Mr Ripley
Eastern Promises
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
The Boys From Brazil
Séance On A Wet Afternoon
Grand Piano
A History Of Violence
Cast A Dark Shadow
The Wages Of Fear
Black Narcissus
Pretty Persuasion
These Three
I Know Where I’m Going!
Come And See
The Exterminating Angel
Welcome To New York
Schultze Gets The Blues
Johnny Guitar
The Passionate Friends
The Blue Room
Farewell My Lovely
Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?
The King Of Marvin Gardens
Switchblade Sisters
The Lady Vanishes
Mr and Mrs Smith
Lupe Under The Sun
Samaritan Girl
Where The Sidewalk Ends
Wuthering Heights
Days of Heaven
Little Foxes
Natural Born Killers
All Night Long
Beat Girl
The Nun
Tokyo Fist
Saturday Night Sunday Morning
Build My Gallows High
Turtles Can Fly
48 HRS.
Single White Female
The Station Agent
A Taste Of Honey
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Artificial Paradises
JLG/JLG - Self-Portrait In December

That's 144 movies this year, an increase from 116 in 2015 and 47 in 2014 (movie watching increases as child care decreases!) Of course, this makes the list much more difficult 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. Luis Bunuel's "The Exterminating Angel" appears three times in my list because I watched it for research for a book I've written about the film which will be published in 2017 by Rooster Republic Press. It also knocks out gems such as "Close Encounters of The Third Kind" (equally as powerful as when I first saw it almost thirty years ago), the "Three Colours" trilogy (the ending of the third movie utterly destroys me cinematically), "The Wicker Man" (just as terrifying), "Come and See" (emotionally devastating), "Videodrome" (perfect Cronenberg), and Godard's "Le Mepris" which we were lucky to see on the big screen this year and is one of my favourite films of all time.

Those movies which were just awful are easy to chronicle, and this unfortunately includes Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight" which was dross from (almost) start to finish, "The Lobster" (which I really wanted to love but just hit all the wrong notes for me), "Grand Piano" (one of the most ridiculous films I've ever seen), and "Natural Born Killers" (tedious, indulgent, unnecessary).

This leaves us with some great movies. I thoroughly enjoyed both "Stalag 17" and "A Taste of Honey", both of which mixed brilliant characterisation with pathos and humour, "Days of Heaven" (a subtle, moving movie), "Blue Ruin" (compelling modern noir), and "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night" (perfectly pitched Iranian horror). Very special mentions must go to "The American" (very surprised by this George Clooney flick which I thought almost perfectly understated), "Funny Games" (which came so close to my top three - the brief section where the scene plays out in reverse was utterly brilliant), "Triangle" (flawless horror with perfectly sustained logic), "The Holy Mountain" (genius Jodorowsky with some wonderful imagery/ideas, which fails only for being overlong in parts), "Build My Gallows High" (unbeatable noir) and British horror "The Borderlands" (the ending of which continues to unsettle me and play on my mind).

I get the feeling that another day might produce marginally different results, but - today - here are my top three movies I saw for the first time in 2016.
Again, in reverse order:

"Coherence" (2013) - James Ward Byrkit

From a seemingly slow start where all the puzzle pieces are overlaid this SF movie slowly unravels both its own plot and viewer expectations. Essentially, an alternate reality movie where for a brief period all realities are infinitely accessible, it thankfully never becomes too clever for its own good and maintains its inner logic for perfect satisfaction. The ending - perhaps - could be different. But then maybe there were different endings in other realities.

"There Will Be Blood" (2007) - Paul Thomas Anderson 

On the face of it a simple tale about an oil man's quest for wealth over and above all other considerations, this lengthy movie never drags and is gripping throughout right through to the inevitable - almost farcical - conclusion.

And the winner is...

"Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?" (1966) - William Klein

I almost didn't watch this movie when it appeared on Mubi because neither the film's title nor the plot satirizing the fashion world particularly appealed, however I'm glad that I did. Proving the maxim that 'it ain't what you do but the way that you do it' from the very first scene, I was utterly delighted by the sheer inventiveness, charm, French New Wave vibe, and off-kilter sensations that the movie has in spades. It's fair to say I found myself frequently gasping, rolling in ecstasy, and smiling throughout this film. It's a little known gem which deserves a loving audience.
So that's it. Looking forward to reading and watching more in 2017!