The rock arrives, and Fantasycon approaches

Shirley Jackson pebbleMost bloggers already have LonCon summed up, done and dusted. But as soon as I sat down to write about LonCon, I realised that the next convention is coming up on 5 September – tomorrow!

So it looks like I’ll write about LonCon and Fantasycon and the reflections or hangovers they provoke later on.

Meanwhile, my special commemorative Shirley Jackson Award nominee pebble has arrived! The ‘detailed description’ on the customs form attached to the package describes the contents: “Rock”. No fooling around there.

As I own a strictly antique phone, I’ve tried to take a photo with the Photobooth thingy on my Mac. So here’s my special rock, arse backwards. It’s a nice little thing, well-polished and smooth and somehow calming to hold. Maybe I’ll take my rock with me to Fantasycon this weekend.

While the programme at LonCon was impressive, I’ve been looking forward to the relative coziness of Fantasycon. So what are some of my plans for the weekend? Well, if you see me mumbling in a corner in the bar on the Friday afternoon, be assured that I’m practising for my reading.

This will take place at 7.20, sandwiched between Simon Bestwick and Simon Kurt Unsworth. I’m planning to read from “Pieces of Ourselves”, which will appear very in the Gray Friar Press anthology Horror Uncut: tales of social insecurity and economic unease,  edited by Tom Johnstone and the late Joel Lane. Joel will certainly be in the thoughts of many of us at the convention, and we’ll be meeting for a drink and readings from his work at 6pm on Friday – just before my reading.

On Sunday 7 September at 10am I’ll be on the panel below. Yes, it’s kind of early. Strong coffee has been promised!

10.00am – A Working Class Hero is Something to Read?
“Fantasy often focuses on characters at the extreme ends of society, but is frequently written by middle-class authors who bring middle class assumptions to their princes and peasants. The panellists discuss class in SFF.” Gillian Redfearn (m), Joan De La Haye, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Sarah Lotz, Den Patrick

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing the rest of the time, but meeting up with friends, schmoozing and drinking and eating and attending a panel or two will certainly play a big part. Rustblind and Silverbright is up for best anthology, so I’ll be at the awards ceremony… perhaps clutching my special rock for good luck. (No, I have no plans to throw it at anyone.)

And looking ahead to next month, I’ll announce an exciting event coming up as part of the Gothic Manchester festival. Info is now out for Twisted Tales of Austerity, a reading on 24 October that will mark the launch of Horror Uncut. It will take place from 12 noon to 1.30pm at Waterstones on Deansgate in central Manchester. The readings will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A.

Co-editor Tom Johnstone says this anthology ushers in a ‘new era of socially engaged but entertaining and darkly funny horror fiction, which may not change the world but will, I hope, change the way we look at it’.”

My summer of cons

LONCON3_logo_270w

Hmmm… The Gherkin + rocket

This is the summer of cons! Here’s a brief, somewhat belated rundown on some of my doings at LonCon and Fantasycon.

These conventions are gatherings where readers and writers of the strange and speculative get together. There’s a lot of talk about books and films, with art and science exhibits as well. And lots of drinking.

LonCon 14-18 August I’ll be on the following panels:

Reimagining Families
Thursday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 2 (ExCeL)
“In a 2013 column for Tor.com, Alex Dally MacFarlane called for a greater diversity in the way SF and fantasy represent families, pointing out that in the real world, “People of all sexualities and genders join together in twos, threes, or more. Family-strong friendships, auntie networks, global families… The ways we live together are endless.” Which stories centre non-normative family structures? What are the challenges of doing this in an SF context, and what are the advantages? How does representing a wider range of family types change the stories that are told?” Alice Hedenlund, Jed Hartman, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Laura Lam, Cherie Potts

Beyond the Force: Religion in the Future
Saturday 11:00 – 12:00, Capital Suite 14 (ExCeL)
“Writers working with futuristic settings often use present-day and historical religious forms to frame something new; Dan Simmons uses Catholicism in Hyperion, for example, and Kameron Hurley takes a similar approach to Islam in God’s War. How can this be done in a manner that respects religious traditions and believers, while still allowing the author creative license? To what extent do such works succeed at imagining how religions change over time? What are the advantages and disadvantages of extrapolation compared to inventing a new faith — and do common templates for such invention, such as science or the state, make sense given what we know about how humans respond to the spiritual?”
Simon Morden, Derwin Mak, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Elisabeth Vonarburg, Janice Gelb

For “Reimagining Families” I’ll probably say something about polyamory in F/SF. Beyond some of those 1970s classics, what do we find about differing family structures and choices? And for “Beyond the Force: Religion in the Future”, I’ll comment on the other side of the coin – heresy and dis-belief in the future. Maybe I’ll say something about Jewish mythology (there’s more to it than dybbuks and golems). And is there a difference between drawing on myths in fiction and portraying religions?

Pirate Programme
Who knows what could happen?

Mind Seed launch 
Sunday August 17, 5-7pm in the LonCon Fan Village. You can find us in the marquee labelled ‘Beijing in 2016′ on this map. There will be drink and a great bunch of people, and books!

And now for a musical interlude to get us in the mood, before I get on to Fantasycon.

 

So come September in the city of York…

Fantasycon 2014 5-7 September

I’ll be reading on  Friday 5 September 7.20-7.40
It’ll be a change to give a reading in the evening instead of the morning, and I look forward to the prospect of a well-lubricated audience… hopefully the likely suspects will have arrived by then.
I’ll post more information on this and other possible programme items closer to the time.

Mind Seed: the world turned sideways

Mind Seed, a science fiction amindseednthology edited by David Gullen and Gary Couzens, is now out. This anthology was put together by members of T-Party Writers in London, in memory of our member Denni Schnapp, who died in January 2013. The stories reflect Denni’s interest in hard SF, biology and ecology. The proceeds go to Next Generation Nepal, an anti-child trafficking charity.

My contribution, “Living in the Vertical World”, was inspired by images of vertical agriculture and gardening. I’d been posting photos on Facebook on the subject for some time. There is a world-turned-upside-down quality to them that provokes wonder – or is it the world turned sideways? As you’d expect, there are lots of arguments about whether vertical agriculture is viable. Some of the ‘visions’ do appear rather gimmicky and technocratic. But the general idea is fascinating, and some vertical schemes look very cool – for fictional purposes, anyway. This website has some great photos, both real and imaginary.

I was also following the cases where Monsanto patented seeds and prosecuted people for alleged patents violations if the wind happens to blow the wrong way, and I recently come across this article in Common Dreams about the state agricultural department prosecuting a local seed library in Pennsylvania.

And then I read about the world’s tallest squat, the Tour David in Caracas, Venezuela. And it all came together in my story.

Mind Seed will be launched at LonCon on Sunday August 17, 5-7pm in the LonCon Fan Village. You can find us in the marquee labelled ‘Beijing in 2016′ on this map. In the meantime, here’s the table of contents for Mind Seed.

Introduction – John Howroyd
Sex and the Single Hive Mind – Helen Callaghan
Evolution – Fox McGeever
Living in the Vertical World – Rosanne Rabinowitz
Darkchild – Ian Whates
Rockhopper – Martin Owton & Gary Couzens
Bird Songs at Eventide – Nina Allan
Alien Invaders – Markus Wolfson
The Three Brother Cities – Deborah Walker
Mind Seed – Denni Schnapp

Interviews, interviews!

Shirley Jackson award logoJust a quick note to mention that Kristin Centorcelli has interviewed me over at SF Signal about Helen’s Story and its Shirley Jackson Award nomination, and Charles Tan has also had a few words with me on the Shirley Jackson Awards site.

As for the award itself, well… I didn’t win. But as I wrote in a previous post, it was a thrill just to be nominated. And the novella that received the award, Veronica Schanoes’ Burning Girls, is an excellent story that is available online at Tor.com. You can also download it as a free ebook here. It was a very strong list and I was honoured to be on it, among some great company.

I’ll be back again very soon with some publication news and updates, plus my doings at Geekfest, LonCon and Fantasycon.

A matter of masks

PrisonersI’m in the middle of writing a story about a haunting that connects Millbank Prison, the occupation of Millbank Tower in the student demonstrations of 2010, and the Tate Britain gallery (which occupies part of the former prison site).

I enjoy writing stories based in history. Perhaps my love of the weird and strange in fiction springs from a desire to explore layers of time, mix them up together and see what happens.

But historical fiction has its frustrations. Very often I find myself stuck on a detail, then go off on an extended detour searching for information instead of writing the thing. However, such a detail can affect the whole shape or mood of a story. It can even invalidate a meticulously constructed scene.

And I’m wrestling with such a detail now… Can any history buffs out there can help me with this?

In the early 19th century at Millbank and other prisons, inmates had to wear masks when they left their cells. This was meant to ensure they couldn’t recognise each other, communicate or look in any direction other than straight ahead. Non-verbal communication – nodding, eye contact, looking this way or that – was punished as severely as speaking or passing notes.

In the course of my research, several questions came up. What were the masks made of? On the internet I found a replica of a mask worn by prisoners in a Welsh gaol, which was made of a stiff leather. Other accounts refer to the masks as ‘cloth’. Henry Mayhew’s book on London prisons in the latter 19th century shows Pentonville prisoners at exercise wearing masks that appear similar to the Welsh leather ones.

There’s also the matter of gender. Did women prisoners wear such masks? Mayhew has a sketch of a woman prisoner in Wandworth wearing a veil as a mask; apparently this was part of their uniform.

I’m also aware that Mayhew conducted his study later in the 19th century, when the use of such masks was declining and soon to be abolished. I can extrapolate, but I’m afraid of getting it wrong. Sarah Waters’ well-known novel, Affinity, takes place in Millbank but again, this in the later 19th century after changes in the regime.

If I find out that only men wore the leather or cloth masks, I can deal with it. I can imagine that the prisoner in the story has been subjected to special treatment. Perhaps she didn’t behave in an appropriately feminine manner – which Victorian penal ideology emphasises – and was given a masculine punishment to mark her out and shame her. But I need to know first in order to do this!

Also, the construction of the mask does affect the story. What does it feel like on the face? How would people react if you wore it on a demonstration instead of a balaclava or an Anonymous mask? And if it’s a very old mask, leather would be more durable.

Well, I can only roam the internet so long. Then I have to get back to writing, and a lot of guessing…

A nomination for Rustblind and Silverbright, and the scariest train song I ever did hear…

RustblindI’m pleased to announce that Rustblind and Silverbright has been nominated by the British Fantasy Society for Best Anthology. This is a great credit to the thought and care that editor David Rix has given to producing this book, and the way he drew together a varied and powerful group of uncategorisable stories themed around railways and train journeys.

This anthology includes “The Turning Track”, a novelette I co-authored with Matt Joiner, where a fantastical train runs through the multiverse to haunt the dreams of those struggling with a shabby and repressive reality. Another story in this anthology, Nina Allan’s “Vivian Guppy and the Brighton Belle”, has also received a nomination for Best Novella.

I’ve been meaning to write about Rustblind for a while, and now have an excellent excuse. I’ve also been wanting to respond to a few questions about a line sung by the dedicated station-master as he awaits this mighty multi-dimensional Train:

“I asked my captain for the time of day… he said he throwed his watch away”.

These lyrics actually come from a traditional song noted for ominous trains and lonesome forests:  “In the Pines” aka “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The line about the thrown-away watch has fallen out of the most well-known renditions, but I think it’s one of the most haunting lines in a song full of train wrecks and decapitated bodies and desolation.

“In the Pines” is also a song about loss, and this echoes profoundly because the anthology contains “The Last Train” by the late Joel Lane. Last year’s launch for Rustblind was the last time I saw him, and that was the case for others involved with this book. I have a feeling that Joel was a guy who spent a lot of time in the pines.

While many people first came across this song through Nirvana’s 1990’s rendition, it actually dates back to southern Appalachia in the 19th century. Other musicians who performed “In the Pines” include Leadbelly, Earl Monroe, the Carter Family, Dolly Parton, Marianne Faithfull, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Greatful Dead, Hole and even Tiny Tim.

Many American folk songs portray the building of the railroads, the advent of train travel and the Depression of the 1930s when immigrants and working class people rode the rails in search of work or a better life. Music historian Norm Cohen wrote a book that explores this legacy, Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong. A good chunk is devoted to “In the Pines”, which belongs to a ‘cluster’ of songs. Songs in this cluster include the “in the pines” chorus, a stanza about ‘the longest train’ and one about a train crash where someone’s head is found in the driving wheel or ‘round the firebox door’.

I first heard this song as a teenager, and it has always fascinated me. Why does the girl hide in pines where the cold winds blow, and why do those who are outcast and bereft flee there? Some versions are addressed to a “black girl”; was she running from slavery to seek refuge in the pines? Or was she hiding there after her husband, ‘a railroad man’, was lynched?

Dominating the song is ‘the longest train’, which often stands outside time itself. The train might kill a loved one, take a loved one away, or transport a migrant worker to exile. But sometimes the protagonists ride that train back home.

This song inspired my 2006 novelette “In the Pines”, where it links three characters through space and time. This appeared in the anthology Extended Play: the Elastic Book of Music. And the melancholy chords of “In the Pines” continued to echo in my mind as I collaborated on “The Turning Track”.

To mark the nomination of Rustblind and Silverbright, I’m sharing a few of my favourite performances of “In the Pines”. It makes sense to start with Nirvana’s version, which introduced the old song to a new audience.

Kurt Cobain drew much of his inspiration from Leadbelly’s interpretation. In this recording, Leadbelly addresses the song to a “black girl”, though he sings ‘my girl’ in another recording.

Here’s a classic bluegrass version by Bill Monroe, which features that ‘high lonesome sound’. The ‘longest train’ is prominent from the first verse and we don’t hear about the severed head.

Leadbelly and his successors have left out the verses about the ‘longest train’ and the discarded watch. But this bluegrass rendition by Lori Lee Ray gets everything in, as does this Joan Baez performance. Lori Lee Ray’s video below also contains powerful images of trains, pine forests and clocks.

Finally, here is an absolutely eerie version performed by Hole. Dare I say that sometimes I prefer this to Nirvana’s rendition?

Of reviews and cats
While I’m at it, I might as well post a couple of reviews of Rustblind that came out last year, which I missed during a period of busyness and bloggage-drought. So here’s a review on Rising Shadow by Serengil and another from Nick Jackson in Sein und Werden.

Serengil describes “The Turning Track” as:

“A fascinating story about love, death and a mysterious train… a beautiful example of what authors can achieve when they know how to write good fiction and have plenty of imagination. This story is a sparkling gem of literary speculative fiction that will seduce the reader with good prose and strange happenings.”

And Nick Jackson writes in Sein und Werden:

“Mat Joiner and Rosanne Rabinowitz co-authored the final piece in the collection and take up the idea of an infinite train travelling between this world and the next. ‘The Turning Track’ concerns a gay man’s aim to complete a history of a mysterious train begun by his late partner.  This piece is particularly strong on characterisation and contains some wonderfully gory detail of human-to-machine transformation.  With all dual-authored stories, you look for the seams in the narrative.  In this case there don’t seem to be any but my money is on Rosanne for introducing a particularly characterful cat.”

Thanks Serengil and Nick. At this point I’ll offer a belated response to Nick’s comments about Fintan the cat. It was Mat who introduced the cat but I gave the moggie his name. And it was our critiquer, Joel Lane, who had urged us to make Fintan more than mere ‘furry freight’ – to give him more presence and render him ‘characterful’. My first response was ‘well, he’s cat and he does what cats do’. Then I thought again…

So I’ll leave with another thank-you to Joel.

Journeys into Darkness out now: launch on 6 June

Midnight Street coverThe Midnight Street anthology Journeys into Darkness is now available in Kindle and trade paperback editions. Outside the UK it is also available through Amazon.

This book contains my story “Return of the Pikart Posse”, where medieval heresy meets the threat of early 21st century redundancy. You can find out more about this story and the history that inspired it here.

Other contributors include Gary Couzens, Joel Lane, Peter Straub, Stephen Gallagher, Ramsey Campbell, Elliott Smith, Paul Finch, Ralph Robert Moore, Nina Allan and Allen Ashley.

Journeys into Darkness will be launching on 6 June 2014 at the Phoenix Artists Club on Phoenix Street, London WC2 8BU from 7-11pm.

After all that information, I’m sorry to say it’s likely I won’t be there. It feels strange to miss the launch of an anthology that includes a story of mine. I’m usually ultra-enthusiastic about such events. However, by the time this was arranged I’d already bought tickets for an Eliza and Martin Carthy gig that night.

However, a lot of great people will be on hand. The launch is part of the regular British Fantasy Society get-together and drink-up. Adam Christopher will be interviewed by Gillian Redfearn from Gollancz. There will be more books, a raffle and the launch of DieGo Comics Publishing.

So it’ll be a good social night. I’ll try to make it across the river from the Southbank after the gig, but it depends how long it goes on.

In any case, go on… have a drink and a natter and enjoy the opportunity to buy Journeys into Darkness at a special launch price.