That last weekend in October

As I  sent in a round of corrections on a piece recently, I realised that most of my work on a clutch of short stories has come to an end. Is it time now, I wondered, to face that novel I’d put aside (again) to finish those stories? I was gathering my wits as I prepared to enter the 15th-century setting of my novel-in-progress Heretics, then remembered that I haven’t posted in my blog for about six weeks. Ah well, tomorrow is another day…

Twisted reading

You see the panelists from a distance in this shot, but you get a good view of that bloke’s jumper – which I rather like

This unfinished blog business includes a follow-up to my previous post about Horror Uncut. A few other folk have already blogged about our Manchester launch. But with the passing of the date marking Joel Lane’s death (25 November), I’ve decided to do that now. As co-editor and friend and an inspiration to many of us, he was certainly present in our thoughts at the event.

The first question that organiser and contributor David McWilliam asked the panel –  myself, editor Tom Johnstone and fellow contributor Laura Mauro – was about how Joel influenced our work. This is something I’ve become even more aware of in the past year. As I wrote in last year’s blog post, discovering the work of Joel and others in TTA Press’ Last Rites and Resurrections was like hearing punk for the first time. That was when I began to find my own voice as a writer. It is truly a mark of an extraordinary writer if he or she can write words that are so powerful they inspire others to reach inside themselves and find their own.

Tom read Joel’s story, ‘A Cry For Help’. He later said: “It feels really strange that we should all be here reading from the book and discussing it without Joel being here.” Laura read from her story “Ptichka” and I read from “Pieces of Ourselves”. I was aware that I could only read an extract, while others read entire stories. Someday, I swear, I will write a story that is short enough to complete in one reading stint. I once wrote a story of 2000 words and felt very pleased with myself, until people in my writers’ group said it needed to be longer. Maybe someone even uttered those dreaded words: “This should really be the beginning of a novel.” Flash fiction is definitely not my forte.

Here are some accounts of the event – from Priya Sharma, David McWilliam, Laura Mauro and Neil Harrison. All suggest that Horror Uncut is a step towards creating speculative and dark fiction that can reflect on austerity and inspire readers to question and resist it. One of these blogs refers to a forthcoming anthology called Neoliberal Gothic, which sounds fascinating and timely. Let’s see if I can get my hands on it.

To my knowledge there have been two reviews of Horror Uncut. The first one is by Anthony Watson, who writes:

Horror Uncut may not change minds or influence policy but it’s an excellent collection of stories that do have important things to say. It has to be said it’s unlikely to appeal to Daily Mail readers – which is about as high a compliment as I can pay it.”

Of my own contribution, he says:

“A more subtle, tangential approach to the effects of the austerity measures on individuals is exhibited in Rosanne Rabinowitz’s Pieces of Ourselves and Stephen Bacon’s The Devil’s Only Friend, affecting ghost stories both.”

And then we have one of Des Lewis’ epic real-time reviews. He’s not one for sticking down a few stars and calling it a review, our Des!

“Rabinowitz’s work — of accretively obsessive, self-harming shavings and skeins of skin from the male protagonist’s body and the memento stone box where he collects them — becomes a highly sensitised vision of something beyond the cuts, a vision that rationalises the demos and fights against the cuts as part of a pattern of his past life, austerity further pared, his exes, his travels, his thwarted ambitions, the patchwork people, his “Feeling bolder”, a sometimes clear, sometimes confused vision that enticingly is the potential core of the horror uncut ‘book bloc’.

At several points in the proceedings, I was halfway expecting that Joel would see fit to do some haunting and turn up to utter some ghastly and eldritch puns. That’s one ghost story we would have all enjoyed.

As 2014 draws to a close, many of us have been reflecting that it’s been a very bad year for losing beloved writers and friends; as well as Joel we have recently lost Graham Joyce and Eugie Foster. But I remember that last weekend in October was also a time for relishing the pleasures of life. The joys of friendship come high on the list. After the reading, we spent a long and lovely afternoon in the pub, which was an opportunity to spend time with some friends in the north I don’t get to see much. And then I returned to my temporary base near Huddersfield, where an old friend was celebrating her 50th birthday the next day. A time of food, drink, music and merriment ensured.

So here I am… doing a bit of ‘spoken word’ in my friend’s honour, a wee bit rosy-cheeked after a few bevvies.Me at Marion's birthday

Tales of social insecurity and economic unease

Horror UncutHorror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease is now out! This anthology from Gray Friar Press includes my story “Pieces of Ourselves”: a librarian goes on an anti-cuts demonstration, gets caught in a police cordon and starts to suffer from a strange skin ailment that links him with a significant past. The story actually started with a dream that lingered with a disturbing image – and I’ll leave you to guess which image it was that kicked the whole thing off.

This is one of two recent stories that take place around the anti-cuts clashes of 2010/11. The other is a ghost story that I’ve discussed in my post A Matter of Masks, which will appear in the Joel Lane tribute anthology The Dispossessed. I’ve come to regard these two stories as companion pieces.

As I was researching and writing these stories, trying to get my mind back to 2010, I had the strange feeling that I might as well be writing that thing called ‘historical fiction’. But it’s not so long ago, is it? How quickly ‘now’ becomes history. And I wonder what became of that wave of anti-austerity activism. For many of my younger friends, 2010 was it. One said something to the effect that 2010 was their ’68 (and perhaps 1981 was mine).

The memory gets hazy; I geek out at the computer as I search for the crucial details that will recapture the anger, the excitement and also the fucking bloody cold of the winter of 2010/11. However, in this case I had the help of YouTube videos, which were not available when I was writing about the regime in Millbank Prison, the Blackfriars Rotunda and the reform riots of 1831 and certainly not the Harelle revolt of 1382.

Launch events
There will be two events to launch Horror Uncut towards the end of this month. Twisted Tales of Austerity will take place on 24 October 12 noon to 2pm at Waterstones on Deansgate in central Manchester. I’ll be reading along with contributor Laura Mauro and co-editor Tom Johnstone, who will read a story by fellow editor and extraordinary writer Joel Lane. The readings will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A.

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’. And here on contributor Priya Sharma’s blog is an excellent interview with Tom about the anthology. I particularly found the discussion on horror vs SF interesting: “Horror often thrives on hard or uncertain times, allowing people to see their real fears play out in the form of fantastic imagery.” And he suggests that a large body of science fiction accepts a colonial or neo-liberal narrative.

I tend to view all these genres as part of the rich stream of speculative and strange fiction. My story may start off hinting at the trope of ‘body horror’, but it ends on some science fictional notes too.

Holloween with Horror Uncut takes place in Brighton at the Cowley Club on 26 October. I won’t be there myself because I’ll still be travelling down from the north. But if you’re in the area, do go! The Cowley Club itself is a great community venue, and it promises to be a fun evening.

Meanwhile, you can read the first review of Horror Uncut here. My story – along with Andrew Hook’s “The Opaque District” – is described as an “affecting ghost story”.

And here’s a full table of contents…

A Cry for Help by Joel Lane
The Battering Stone by Simon Bestwick
The Ballad of Boomtown by Priya Sharma
The Lucky Ones by John Llewellyn Probert
The Sun Trap by Stephen Hampton
Only Bleeding by Gary McMahon
The Lemmy / Trump Test by Anna Taborska
Falling into Stone by John Howard
Ptichka by Laura Lauro
The Devil’s Only Friend by Stephen Bacon
The Procedure by David Williams
Pieces of Ourselves by Rosanne Rabinowitz
A Simple Matter of Space by John Forth
The Privilege Card by David Turnbell
The Ghost at the Feast by Alison Littlewood
The Opaque District by Andrew Hook
No History of Violence by Thana Niveau

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 soon 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…