Sunday, 27 December 2020

The Best and Worst of 2020

Well, it's that time of the year when everyone is doing their 'best and worst of' lists, so here is mine. I'm going to list the books and movies and records I read/watched/listened to in 2020 and then pick my favourites. This isn't restricted to what was new in 2020, but what I actually watched and read and heard - some of these items might be very old indeed.


Books:

I read the following in 2020:

Rachel Smith – Artificial Flowers
Allen Ashley & Sarah Doyle (editors) - Humanagerie
Philip Roth – The Dying Animal
Mark Morris (editor) – New Fears 2
Exquisite Corpse – Poppy Z Brite
Deborah Harry / Marcus Reichert / Amos Chan – Behind Union City
Jorge Luis Borges – Doctor Brodie’s Report
James Everington & Dan Howarth (editors) – Imposter Syndrome
Philip K Dick – A Maze Of Death
Nina Allan – The Rift
Brian Aldiss – Frankenstein Unbound
Cathay Che – Platinum Blonde
Georges Simenon – The Snow Was Dirty
Juan Rulfo – Ilano In Flames
Ian Whates (editor) – Ten Tall Tales
Andrew Humphrey – Trick Of The Light
Malcolm Devlin – Engines Beneath Us
The Arrival of Missives – Aliya Whiteley
Don Delillo – The Names
Javier Marias – All Souls
Mark West and Stephen Bacon – The Lost Film
Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
Jonathan Carroll – Bones of the Moon
Andrew Gallix, Tomoé Hill & C.D. Rose (editors) – Love Bites
John Travis – The Terror and the Tortoiseshell
Georges Perec – W, or The Memory of Childhood
George Sandison (editor) – 2084
Giorgio de Chirico – Hebdomeros
Breece D’J Pancake – Trilobites
Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach
Allen Ashley – The Planet Suite
C S Forester – Payment Deferred
Ian Drew Forsyth (editor) – Afterlives Of The Writers
Brian Aldiss – Non-Stop
Georgina Bruce - Honeybones
Ross Warren Anthony Watson (editors) – Darker Minds
Arthur Schnitzler – Dream Story
Marcus Reichert – The Memoirs of Jerome Berger
Pascal Garnier – Moon In A Dead Eye
James Everington – The Quarantined City
The Residents – The Brickeaters
Eugen Bacon – The Road To Woop Woop
Douglas Thompson – Barking Circus
Eugen Bacon – Ivory’s Story
Haruki Murakami – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Joel Lane – The Autumn Myth
Quentin S Crisp – Remember You’re A One-Ball
Brian Clemens – Rabbit Pie
Caroline Hardaker – Composite Creatures
Debbie Harry – Face It
Celeste Bell & Zoe Howe – Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story

That's worked out at 51 books this year, up ten from last years 41 so pretty good, and much helped by Covid-19 which meant I was reading a lot more in the day job for a month or two. My target is generally 50 books a year, so I'm happy with this. I should mention that I also proofread and copyedit and adding those novels into the mix would increase the list by about 25 books this year.

I can count the number of books I've ever given up on before finishing them on one hand, and unfortunately this year that includes "Ilano In Flames", a collection of short stories by Juan Rulfo which I just couldn't get into. Other books I weren't keen on included "On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan (so appalling British, so righteously sneering, so dumbingly anal), "Honeybones" by Georgina Bruce (which I desperately wanted to connect with, but just couldn't - try it though, others love it), "Moon In A Dead Eye" by Pascal Garnier (one-dimensional, run-of-the-mill), "Remember You're A One-Ball" by Quentin S Crisp (which I found passionless and unengaging), and "Rabbit Pie", a collection of short stories by Brian Clemens which was ok but which has dated considerably from when it was written.

I made an effort again this year to read more books by authors that I know personally and out of the 51 books this included 22 from such folk (including a few books read for review and those in an editorial role). Overall, the following deserve special mentions across the board: "Humanagerie" edited by Allen Ashley and Sarah Doyle (an animal-themed anthology of poetry and prose), "The Dying Animal" by Philip Roth (typical white middle-class male perspective, but bang on the nose with it), "New Fears 2" edited by Mark Morris (some brilliant horror stories here), "Exquisite Corpse" by Poppy Z Brite (exquisite!), "Doctor Brodie's Report" by Jorge Luis Borges (a strong collection of his later short stories which are primarily realistic in nature, although in some instances proving realism is equal to the fantastical), Nina Allen's "The Rift" (a writer who also mixes the mundane with the fantastical in this great novel), "Engine Beneath Us" by Malcolm Devlin (great novella with some interesting ideas), and another novella, "The Arrival of Missives", by Aliya Whiteley. I'd also recommend "Terror and the Tortoiseshell" by John Travis (noir detective story, with animals), "The Planet Suite" by Allen Ashley (the expanded version of his earlier novel of the same title: inventive and brilliantly written), "W, Or The Memory Of Childhood" by Georges Perec (a powerful treatise on both memory and remembrance), "Hebdomeros" by Giorgio de Chirico (one of the most immediately engaging surrealist books that I've read), "The Memoirs of Jerome Berger" by Marcus Reichert (an existential jailbreak novel with a dash of authentic narrative surrealism), "The Quarantined City" by James Everington (almost made my top three, brilliant central conceit), Douglas Thompson's endlessly inventive "Barking Circus", Eugen Bacon's vibrant "Ivory's Story" (and her collection, "The Road To Woop Woop"), and finally Deborah Harry's autobiography, "Face It".

However, as usual, I'm going to base my top three from my Goodreads reviews. Four books received my 5/5 rating, and so I'm edging out "Behind Union City: The Making of an Independent Film" by Amos Chan, Deborah Harry and Marcus Reichert, which is a sumptuously beautiful book about the film Union City containing both stills and original photographs, as I tend to stick to fiction in these round-ups. However, without further ado, here are my favourite reads of 2020:


In reverse order:

"The Bones of the Moon" by Jonathan Carroll


A beautiful couple meet, fall in love, and have the world at their feet, but the world has other plans and conspires to undo them by renting reality asunder. In this case, the cause could be the guilt Cullen James feels over an earlier abortion, but pinning psychological meaning under character's actions aren't really necessary in Carroll's work because it is the journey which needs to be savoured and not the vehicle you travel in. A good Carroll novel makes you want to be part of that world - however romantic or terrifying it may be. "Bones of the Moon" ticks those boxes for me and whilst often I feel Carroll really doesn't know how to end his books (they can feel abrupt, or unsatisfactory, or insufficient), here everything pulls together well.

"The Names" by Don DeLillo



The back cover blurb describes this as an 'exotic thriller' and it would be interesting to know what usual readers of 'exotic thrillers' would think of this novel because it certainly - thankfully - isn't that. What we have here are deliberations on language, culture, identity, relationships, isolation and good old white middle-aged male angst and existentialism. Everything is exquisitely rendered with some of the best prose I've encountered for a long while. The pacing is slow, a little scattershot, but somehow works. The 'thriller' aspect is glacial, muted, incidental. I love books which run around the outside of things without needing to speak specifics and I loved this.

And the winner is:

"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" by Haruki Murakami



I won't lie that this took me a while to get into - the set-up seemed too pat to be convincing - but where Murakami works best for me is when he pinpoints and nudges that tiny ache inside you, that difference between wanting to be like everyone else and wanting to be different. It's not necessarily so overt in his other novels, but they do have that sense of be(longing); here, it's more explicit, and it resonated deeply. Murakami walks a line of everything being preordained despite us having free will, he sees past present and future for what they are - a jagged edge rather than a linear construct. Without giving spoilers away, the last chapter encapsulated that for me (others might prefer a different resolution), whilst retaining that sense of mystery, whilst defining that ache that just can't be erased, whilst understanding that the reader knows this, whilst wanting that ache to remain. For that reason alone, it has to be my number one for this year.


Movies:

I watched the following in 2020:


Jessica Forever
Here To Be Heard: The Story of the Slits
Paterson
Thirst
Phantom Thread
In Fabric
GUO4
Une Femme Est Une Femme
Solaris
Custody
The Castle
You Were Never Really Here
Alphaville
River of Grass
Border
The Favourite
Miss Americana
High Life
Midsommar
Bob le Flambeur
George Washington
Lady Bird
The Idiots
Fantastic Planet
The Wild Goose Lake
The Man From London
Les Valseuses
Robot Monster
Night Train
Valley of Love
Sympathy For Mr Vengeance
Un Flic
Sharknado
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari
Querelle
Cemetery of Splendour
47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Bad Taste
Hiroshima Mon Amour
Celine and Julie Go Boating
The Consequences of Love
Il Divo
One Man Up
The Family Friend
Endless Poetry
The Blood of a Poet
Testament of Orpheus
Primer
No End
Time Trap
Visitor Q
Le Corbeau
La Bête Humaine
John Wick
Toy Story
Animal Crackers
Everest: Death Zone
Popeye The Sailor vs Sinbad The Sailor
Piglet’s Big Movie
Redoubtable
A Bug’s Life
Cars
Coffy
Swimming Pool
Angel Face
The Shining
The Addams Family (2019)
Colossal
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water
Minions
The Devil All The Time
The Trout
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Baxter, Vera Baxter
What Have They Done To Your Daughters?
Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
See No Evil, Hear No Evil
Hotel Transylvania
Stir Crazy
The Lorax
Onward
Theatre of Blood
Seberg
Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood
Parasite
The Great Alligator
Creep
Cure
Monster House
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge On The Run
Things To Come
The Other Lamb
Meek’s Cutoff
His House
My Favourite Wife
Rio
Jojo Rabbit
Rio 2
Calibre
Malina
The Grinch
Sorry To Bother You
Alien
The Hills Have Eyes
Lilo & Stitch
Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions
The Platform
8 Women
The Christmas Chronicles
The Kindergarten Teacher
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Swallow
Elf
They Listen
Abominable
Black Water: Abyss
Cold Meridian
Where The Wild Things Are
A Short Film About Love
A Short Film About Killing

That's 120 movies this year, a staggering 49 up from last year which is just what I wanted! Mostly this is due to my partner's working hours realigning with mine, renting about 25 movies from our library during the first Covid-19 lockdown, buying a larger TV to make the experience more enjoyable, but also making time each Friday to watch kid-friendly movies with my eight year old. From those, "Onward" won our hearts this year. All of us were crying.

Anyway, this means it's quite a long list to narrow down to my top three, and unlike books I don't have a site equivalent to Goodreads with which to guide my memory.

As usual, however, I'm discounting movies I've previously seen. So this knocks out one of my favourite films, Jean-Luc Godard's "Une Femme Est Une Femme" which I've seen half a dozen times or more, "Alphaville", also by Godard, which was much better third time around, Peter Jackson's "Bad Taste" (clearly his best movie), the sublime "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (which I could watch on repeat and cry every time, Gene Wilder and the whole cast are brilliant), and films as diverse as "Animal Crackers" and "The Shining". Not to forget either the final two films on the list by Krzysztof Kieślowski which are sublime.

Those movies which I found annoying or awful are easy to chronicle, and this includes "In Fabric" (I've loved Peter Strickland's other films, but I almost physically and mentally recoiled from this it was so bad), "High Life" (director Claire Denis and actress Juliette Binoche should have been a match made in heaven, but I just couldn't engage with this film), "Sharknado" (which is so obviously awful, but I still had a lot of fun with), "Parasite" (the Oscar-winning South Korean film which I thought opened with some good ideas but which finished up all over the shop), and "Jojo Rabbit" which I really wanted to enjoy but which I found vacuous and derivative.

One of my favourite platforms for movies is Mubi, and I loved that they showed a variety of Isabelle Huppert movies this year, as I would rate her as my favourite actress. These included "The Trout", "Things To Come", "Malina" and "8 Women", all of which I thoroughly enjoyed, and all of which could have made this year's top three.

Other favourites included "Solaris" (the Andrei Tarkovsky original, particularly the driving sequence), "The Idiots" (Lars Von Trier's provocative - aren't they all - early feature), "The Wild Goose Lake" (a Chinese neo-noir thriller directed by Diao Yinan), "The Man From London" (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky's almost inexorably slow but ultimately rewarding black and white masterpiece), "Night Train" (the 1959 Polish film directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz which was very engaging), Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Querelle" based on a Jean Genet novel (visually stunning, a dynamic work), "Hiroshima Mon Amour" directed by Alain Resnais (beautiful, realistic love story), Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette's sprawling, metamodern film which probably requires two views to completely love it), "The Consequences of Love" (the best of five early films I watched directed by Paolo Sorrentino with a surprising ending, and a great opening sequence to a song by Lali Puna), "Endless Poetry" (Alejandro Jodorowsky's brilliant and visually inventive auto-biopic), Jean Cocteau's "The Blood of a Poet" (so far ahead of its time), the quirky "Redoubtable" directed by Michel Hazanavicius which takes a chapter in the life of Jean-Luc Godard and gets it just about right, "Baxter, Vera Baxter" directed by Marguerite Duras (who also wrote the screenplay for "Hiroshima Mon Amour" mentioned above, a semi-solipsistic musing), "Midsommar" directed by Ari Aster (a riotous horror film of unnerving skewed logic which narrowly misses on a top three place through being slightly ridiculous), "Theatre of Blood" (a tremendous Vincent Price vehicle which also narrowly misses out on my top three due to an aversion with forced feeding), "His House" (extremely affecting horror film very relevant to today's society, one which resonated deeply), "Calibre" (taut British crime thriller with great realism that skillfully sidesteps expectations), and "The Platform" (another intriguing horror film which posits a social dilemma at its heart to create an interesting dialogue).

So, as usual, I get the feeling that another day might produce marginally different results, but – today – here are my top three movies I saw for the first time in 2020.

Again, in reverse order:

"Border" (2018) - Ali Abbasi


It's really difficult to talk about this film without giving too much away about the plot, which is in turns bizarre, amusing, repulsive, extraordinary, and oddly life-affirming. There was so much here which wrong-footed me on a basic level, and despite the exceptionally odd subject matter it also resonated deeply. It is an honestly weird film which adheres to an inner logic and I loved it.


"Phantom Thread" (2017) - Paul Thomas Anderson


This was one of the first films I watched at the beginning of the year so whilst it has considerably faded in my memory it would be disingenuous not to include it in my top three because of that. Anderson is one of my favourite modern directors and this story of an haute couture dressmaker who takes a young waitress as his muse would probably not even come up on my radar with another director, but I'm so glad I watched it because frankly it's quite brilliant.


And the winner is...

"Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood" (2019) - Quentin Tarantino



I absolutely loathed "The Hateful Eight", Tarantino's previous film, so it took me quite some time to summon up the effort to watch this long movie. However, this film seemed an ideal way to christen our new large TV and I'm so glad we took time to watch it. Unlike others, I'm happy to watch Tarantino rewrite history (as in "Inglourious Basterds"), and in this feature that conceit is even more of a delight. As the Manson Family ascend to Sharon Tate's abode I was really not wanting what I expected from Tarantino and I became overjoyed at realising what I really should have expected from Tarantino. Generally, the dialogue, visuals, story arc, and duration of the film are all perfect. It would be impossible not to chose this as my best film watched in 2020.


Records:

I listened to the following full-length albums in 2020:

The Talking Heads – ‘77
The Residents – Not Available (pREServed edition)
Pins – Girls Like Us
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen
Coeur de Pirate – Coeur de Pirate
The Monochrome Set – Fabula Mendax
Maximo Park – Risk To Exist
Talking Heads – Fear of Music
Talking Heads – More Songs About Buildings And Food
Can – Ege Bamyası
The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears
Fontaines D C - Dogrel
The Residents – Eskimo (pREServed edition)
Wire – Chairs Missing
Blondie – Panic Of Girls
Blondie – Ghosts Of Download
Blondie – Pollinator
Mattiel – Satis Factory
Taylor Swift – Lover
Blondie – Autoamerican
Amy McDonald – This Is The Life
Siekiera – Nowa Aleksandria
Bjork – Vespertine
Lali Puna – Scary World Theory
Taylor Swift – 1989
Negativland – dispepsi
Negativland – Negativland
The Stranglers – La Folie
The Stranglers – Black And White
The Stranglers – Rattus Norvegicus
The Stranglers – No More Heroes
The Stranglers – The Raven
Paramore – After Laughter
the xx – I See You
The Stranglers – The Gospel According To The Meninblack
The Stranglers – Feline
The Stranglers – Aural Sculpture
The Stranglers – Dreamtime
The Residents – A Nickle if your dick’s this big
The Stranglers – 10 
The Damned – Evil Spirits
The Sex Pistols – Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols
Sparks – A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip
The Residents – Metal, Meat & Bone
Polly Scattergood – In The Moment
New Found Glory – Forever + Ever x Infinity
Taylor Swift – folklore
The Residents – The Big Bubble
Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride
Bedouin Soundclash – Light The Horizon
Maximo Park – Too Much Information
Dixie Chicks – Gaslighter
Poly Styrene – Translucence
Taylor Swift – Red
Taylor Swift – Fearless
The Residents – Tunes of Two Cities
The Residents – The Mark of the Mole
The Residents – Commercial Album
Ciccone – Eversholt Street
Rebekah Delgado – Don’t Sleep
Locust Fellow & Friends – Curse Of The Baleful Caller
Buzzcocks – Love Bites
Vampire Weekend – Contra
Captain Beefheart – Trout Mask Replica
X-Ray Spex – Germfree Adolescents
Television – Marquee Moon
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
Rachel Sweet – Fool Around
The Anti-Nowhere League – We Are The League
Dead Kennedys – Frankenchrist
The Residents – Mole Box
The Flaming Lips – American Head
Snapped Ankles – Stunning Luxury
XTC – White Music
XTC – Wasp Star
XTC – The Black Sea
The Residents/Renaldo & The Loaf – Title In Limbo
Sztywny Pal Azji – Europa I Azja
Taylor Swift – evermore
The Clash - Sandinista


That's 80 albums which isn't bad considering I used to mostly listen to music on headphones whilst cycling to and from work and I haven't had to do that since March as I've been working from home. I also haven't been writing fiction to music this year so haven't heard any that way either. So, headphones on and bopping around the kitchen making dinner it is, then.

As I've done with my book and movie list I will discount anything previously listened to. And unlike movies and books, predominantly most of these will be re-listens.

I revisited my favourite band, The Stranglers, following the unbearably sad death of keyboardist Dave Greenfield from Covid-19. Both "Black and White" and "The Raven" would be within my top ten albums of all time, closely followed by many of their other records. And as usual I played some Blondie, X-Ray Spex, Maximo Park, and The Residents (digging into the pREServed editions from Cherry Red there is much Residents' material I haven't heard or has been reworked there, to my delight. "Not Available" and "Eskimo" being the best of these). 

I think I have fairly eclectic tastes, but on the other hand am quite conservative with the same names popping up quite regularly. And I don't seem to have listened to much 'young' new music at all this year.

I revisited several albums I haven't heard for many years: Dead Kennedys' "Frankenchrist", Television's "Marque Moon" and several XTC records with "The Black Sea" being the best of those. I also - finally - managed to track down a Polish band I used to listen to, but couldn't remember: the album "Europa I Azja" by Sztywny Pal Azji is a firm favourite and it was great to hear it again.

When it came to new material (to me, at least), it was good to listen to Talking Heads' first three albums which - very surprisingly - I've never heard before. Some great material on there. It was also good to listen to Can for the first time and Negativland (both bands who should have been very much on my radar before now). At the opposite end of that spectrum, the Dixie Chicks country album, "Gaslighter", has some excellent lyrics and tunes, and of course Taylor Swift followed up "folklore" with "evermore", a record that I think will need to bed in a bit before I become fully enamoured by it.

Other favourite artists released new music this year which I loved: pop punks New Found Glory turned in an album much like many of their others, "Forever + Ever x Infinity", but they do it so well, Polly Scattergood's "In This Moment" also has much thoughtful material harking back in some respects to her eponymous debut which devastated me, The Flaming Lips released "American Head", yet another album of intricate gorgeousity which would have made my top three if it wasn't so similar to other Lips' records, and new Sparks' record "A Steady Drip Drip Drip" continues to embed them in pop history with some fantastic songs and was also a close miss from my final selection.

Ultimately, though, most of those three might have budged for third place, but today my top three new (to me) records played this year are (in reverse order):


"Fabula Mendax" (2019) - The Monochrome Set



I've been a fan of this band for many many years and haven't always kept on top of their recent, prolific output, with "Super Plastic City" being the last new material I'd listened to back in 2014 and they've released another five albums since then! However "Fabula Mendax" is a great album, purportedly based on manuscripts written in the 15th Century by Armande de Pange, a companion of Jehanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), although I think the truth is probably much different. Either way, this is a great collection of songs some of which luckily I was able to hear live earlier this year prior to lockdown.


"Metal, Meat & Bone" (2020) - The Residents



Another record based on questionable source material, purportedly the songs of Alvin Snow, an albino bluesman who recorded some demos under the name Dyin' Dog before vanishing many years ago. Whether this is the case or not, the album contains all of Dyin' Dog's original demos, plus The Residents' often completely different sounding reinterpretations, plus another handful of songs the band have written inspired by Dyin' Dog's music. It's a great concept album, with some mournful singing and some truly inventive moments. "Bury My Bone" also has to be one of the catchiest Residents' songs ever.


And the winner is...

"folklore" (2020) - Taylor Swift



Taylor made my top spot last year with "Lover", but this album goes in a completely different direction and was dropped by surprise to her record company a day before release. Whilst in no way as experimental as some would have you believe, this record is perfectly pitched for lockdown, a low-fi selection of nostalgic songs which break Swift's usual mould of writing about herself and therefore expands her repertoire accordingly. It's a truly Great American Songbook and will hopefully draw more fans to her music. The trio of songs from the perspective of different protagonists are a highlight, but for me the crux of the album is encapsulated in four songs in the middle of the record: "Mirrorball", "Seven", "August", and "This Is Me Trying" which are absolute perfection, the latter song of that quintet breaking my heart each time. As a songwriter and storyteller Taylor speaks to me on every level, and it would be impossible to ignore this superb record. Undoubtedly, it's my favourite of 2020 and certainly the most listened to.

So that's it, my summary of what I read, watched and listened to in 2020! Drop back in next year, but in the meantime, here's Lali Puna's "Scary World Theory" which I mentioned above from the soundtrack to "The Consequences of Love" and which would be good to play out to.




Wednesday, 23 December 2020

My Writing Year 2020

As has become annual I thought I'd write a quick blog post as to my literary achievements during 2020.

It goes without saying - but here I find myself saying it anyway - that 2020 has been rather an odd year. However, whilst I've barely written any fiction at all in the last twelve months, that isn't due to circumstances created by Covid-19. Towards the end of last year I found myself getting increasingly disillusioned with fiction, and had already begun a non-fiction work which has taken up most of 2020. Additionally, I've had an absolute ton of freelance proofreading, copyediting and critiquing to do, in addition to the day job (which has remained constant through the various lockdowns). So whilst Covid-19 has created an environment within which I'm a little unsure how to write my way through it, the virus itself hasn't been a deciding factor in my work.

Usually I aim to write a short story a month, but that went totally out of the window. In fact, I've only worked on two pieces. I revamped an older story titled "Where Do Broken Dreams Go?" which I felt deserved a second look, and I added a few hundred words to the ending. I also collaborated with Eugen Bacon - a writer whose work I've discovered this year and whose poetic language has inspired me - on a short story titled "Messier 94".

What I have been writing is a non-fiction book of around 75,000 words which is currently being read by a prospective publisher. I don't want to give too many details away, but I've spent the year interviewing various actors and members of the film industry. In that respect, lockdown has been a massive benefit, because these individuals who would otherwise been working have happily answered my questions and had time for me. Hopefully, I'll be able to report more about this in 2021.

I sold three short stories this year: "The Girl With The Horizontal Walk" was selected as a reprint for Best British Short Stories 2020 (Salt Publishing) by editor Nicholas Royle, "Fetch" to Sein und Werden, and "The Ice-Cream Blonde" to Crimewave magazine.

The following four stories were published this year: "Dirty Snow" online at The Crime Readers Association website where it can still be read in full, "My Somnambulant Heart" in Terror Tales of the Home Counties, "Fetch" in Sein und Werden (read online in full here too) and the aforementioned "The Girl With The Horizontal Walk" in Best British Short Stories 2020 through Salt Publishing. This year also saw me occasionally reviewing books for Black Static magazine.

In addition to the short stories, I had two books published in 2020. My biography of The Mysterious N Senada, which I wrote after decoding the Bavarian composer's diaries, titled "O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N", was published by the Eyeball Museum in association with Psychofon Records with a version coupled with The Residents' recording of Senada's "Pollex Christi" magnum opus, and my eighth short story collection, "Frequencies of Existence" was published through NewCon Press.

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

So that's it for 2020, a year most of us will be glad to see the back of!

Monday, 2 November 2020

Best British Short Stories 2020

My short story, "The Girl With The Horizontal Walk", has just been reprinted in Best British Short Stories 2020 edited by Nicholas Royle, published by Salt. In view of that, I'm reprising this post from last year when the story was originally published as a standalone chapbook by Salò Press, and as usual I'm blogging a few notes about how the piece came to be written. There will probably be spoilers for those yet to read it.



The subject matter of "The Girl With The Horizontal Walk" is Marilyn Monroe. I previously had no more than a cursory interest in the actress until I read a fictionalised biography of her work titled "Blonde" by Joyce Carol Oates. "Blonde" is an absolute tour-de-force, a brilliant piece of writing reimagining Monroe's life, which is heart-breaking, exhilarating and an absolute page turner (for all of it's 600 pages). After reading the book a few years ago I felt compelled to write my own Monroe story. But where was I to start?

After doing some research I became intrigued at the premise of her last - unfinished - movie: "Something's Got To Give". In the film Monroe's character (Ellen Arden) is a photographer declared legally dead after being lost at sea in the Pacific. Her husband remarries. Monroe then returns after being rescued and takes an assumed name, Ingrid Tic, moving in with her husband - who recognises her, of course - but concealing her real identity from the new wife. Complications ensue.

In my story, a dead Monroe attempts to process her life through the character of Ellen Arden who is an actress working on a film about a photographer named Marilyn Monroe who goes missing after an altercation with President Kennedy. Arden increasingly identifies with Monroe, in a role which itself is threatened by a make-up girl, Baker, Arden's dead ringer who the producers encourage to work as a stand-in on some of Arden's scenes. Complications ensue.


As per the original blurb: "As Marilyn Monroe's body lies in the morgue, fragments of her unfinished final movie coalesce in a swansong of remnants, gossip, memories, doppelgangers and subterfuge."

"I play a photographer, Marilyn Monroe. I get to go platinum. Preferably a wig. Marilyn doesn't take great pictures, but she's always in the right place at the right time. Plus she's pretty - we know how many doors that opens, front and back. She carves out a career for herself, LifeMovielandModern Screen, all those covers. She gets invited to all the right parties, then some of the wrong ones. So there's then a photo of the president; in flagrante. Before you know it, she's killed."


The symbol on the original cover, incidentally, is the chemical compound for the barbiturates which were found in Monroe's body by the coroner after her death. The chapbook itself is still for sale over at Salò Press and can be purchased in that edition  here.

Writing "The Girl With The Horizontal Walk" has led me to create several pieces of fiction under similar premises - which I affectionately call my 'celebrity death' stories - whereby character's attempts to understand their deaths are subverted by confused memories of their life. These now form a collection, "Candescent Blooms", currently seeking a publisher. I've blogged about two of the stories which have also been published at the following links: Grace Kelly and Olive Thomas.

"Best British Short Stories" includes stories by the following: Richard Lawrence Bennett, Luke Brown, David Constantine, Tim Etchells, Nicola Freeman, Amanthi Harris, Andrew Hook, Sonia Hope, Hanif Kureishi, Helen Mort, Jeff Noon, Irenosen Okojie, KJ Orr, Bridget Penney, Diana Powell, David Rose, Sarah Schofield, Adrian Slatcher, NJ Stallard, Robert Stone, Stephen Thompson and Zakia Uddin. It's a 272pp paperback for £9.99 and can be purchased here.

Friday, 23 October 2020

My Somnambulant Heart

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

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

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

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



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

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



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

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Frequencies of Existence

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

 

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

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

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

- - -

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

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

- - -

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

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

- - -

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

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

- - -

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The Residents

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 August 2020

O For Obscurity, Or, The Story Of N

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


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


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



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



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


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


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

Meanwhile, here's some pre-press reviews:

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

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

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