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.

Helen’s Story is half the price at PS Publishing

Helen’s Story and other Shirley Jackson Award nominees are now on sale at PS Publishing for half the usual price. So even though the £12 unsigned editions of Helen’s Story are sold out at PS, you can get the £25 signed and jacketed edition for £12.50.

PS has certainly made a strong showing on the Jackson shortlists. Other books featured in this special sale are Stardust (containing nominated novella “The Gateway”) by Nina Allan, nominated novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki by Ramsey Campbell, Exotic Gothic 5 edited by Danel Olsen (with nominated short story “The Statue in the Garden” by Paul Park ), and Michael Marshall Smith’s short story collection Everything You Need. All these books are half the usual price at PS now!

And if you’re in London, you can also find a couple of unsigned copies of Helen at the Freedom Bookshop

Meanwhile, you can read more here about Helen’s shortlisting and my gibbering joy at the news, along with some background on Shirley Jackson.

Helen's Story coverStardustGla'aki Exotic Gothic Everything You Need

Helen’s Story shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson award!

I’m very pleased to announce that Helen’s Story has been shortlisted for the 2013 Shirley Jackson award in the novella category. I first read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in school (along with Edgar Allan Poe) and she is also the author of The Haunting of Hill HShirley Jackson award logoouse, which I read when I was 12. I never suspected that I’d be nominated for an award in her name “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”. I’m thrilled. I’ve resolved to read more of her work now, and revisit what I read long ago.

When I received the email informing me of my nomination, I was gibbering in surprise and amazement in a way that would do any Lovecraftian cultist proud. It appeared in the email account connected to this website, which I often forget to check. But now I resolve to be more diligent about logging in there, because you never know what you’ll find.

I couldn’t sleep that night either. Insomnia’s always been a problem for me, but it made a welcome change to be sleepless for the right reason – joy and excitement.

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

When I eventually related this news to my friends, I realised that Shirley Jackson isn’t very well-known in the UK. So for those unacquainted with this classic American writer of dark fiction, the Weird Little Worlds blog gives a good summary of her life and work. Meanwhile, the Criminal Element website provides some fascinating background to “The Lottery”. In the post-war US, many town governments across the country sponsored weekly cash-prize lotteries to draw people in from the surrounding farms. They aimed to stimulate the economy for local merchants. And this takes on an especially sinister turn in Jackson’s story…

When I had a good read-through of the shortlists, I realised that I was in some fabulous company. I was very pleased to see fellow PS publishee Nina Allan among the novella nominees. She is shortlisted for her excellent novella “The Gateway”,  which is in her collection Stardust. In addition to reading more of Shirley Jackson, I’ve decided to check out as much of the nominated work as I can. It turns out that Burning Girls is available as a free ebook from Tor.com, for those who don’t enjoy reading longer pieces online. Another PS-published writer, Ramsey Campbell, is also on the list for The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.

I also noticed that there are seven nominees for best novella, the longest shortlist of the lot. Does this indicate that novellas are burgeoning as a particularly creative form for writers of dark and strange fiction?

Shirley Jackson Lottery

A classic

This article from Buzzfeed gives further information about the nominated works, though it does not provide details in short story and novella listings. Otherwise, it’s a good brief guide for further reading. I’ll probably start with The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve read Oates’ realist fiction, and have yet to investigate her fantastical and gothic work. This looks like a good place to start. I’m particularly fascinated because the book is set in Princeton, New Jersey and the nearby Pine Barrens. I used a similar setting for part of my 2006 novella In the Pines, which involved renegades from the Princeton physics department and an appearance from the Jersey Devil.

Pulp lottery

The pulp version

The Shirley Jackson Awards began in 2007, and they differ from many other genre-oriented awards because they are entirely chosen by jury. I’m probably very biased, but I imagine this gives books published by independent presses in small print runs a better chance.

When I vote on the shortlist for the British Fantasy Awards, for example, naturally I’ll choose the books I’ve read. Given the price of many limited edition books (and specialist publishers don’t always do ebooks), it’s unlikely I’ll have been able to read through the vast number of new books within the year of publication and unearth the gems. However, most publishers will send copies or PDFs to awards bodies straight away.

I am still getting pleasantly adjusted to the fact that five highly accomplished writers, critics and editors – who don’t know me! – have not only read my novella, but have also chosen to list it among seven of the year’s best. Whether or not I win, this is a compliment and honour of the highest order.

Going retro: ringing the bells of the Harelle, and the Pikart posse returns

After the defeat of the 'Harelle' in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

After the defeat of the ‘Harelle’ in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a tax on staples. The bell tower was later destroyed

After a flu-ridden and deadline-driven lapse in posting for almost three months, I’m pleased to be back with some new bloggage – and a double helping of news. And what better date is there to relaunch my blog than 1 May? So happy May Day, everyone.

My story “Bells of the Harelle” will appear in The Mammoth Book of the Vatican Vaults in spring 2015And a new version of my old story, “Return of the Pikart Posse”, will be published in June in the Midnight Street anthology.Though these two stories differ in many ways, they share common historical threads and concerns.

The Mammoth Book of the Vatican Vaults is an alternate history anthology edited by David V Barrett and published by Constable and Robinson. It’s based on a unique premise:

“Pope John Paul (I) did not die a month after his accession in 1978; instead he lived on for over 25 years to become the most reforming pope of all time… he also opened up the most secret parts of the Vatican Library to scholars. The deepest vaults of the Vatican Library contain information which, if true, would cause many parts of accepted history to have to be rewritten.”

My contribution will be a tale of fourteenth-century rioting, eroticised heresy and quantum entanglement. Perhaps it’s a prequel to my novel-in-progress, Heretics, which is about a woman leader of the Pikarts or ‘Adamites’ in the Hussite revolution of fifteenth-century Bohemia. The Pikarts stood for all-out warfare against the church and feudal order, and sought to live according to a vision of sensuality and freedom. You could compare them to the Ranters in the English Revolution; this lot eventually took over an island in the Nezarka River.

“Bells of the Harelle” is set among the French/Flemish refugees from Lille and Tournai who eventually travelled to Bohemia and contributed to the more anarchistic strands within the Hussite revolution. Historians have traced the ideas of these people to a sect of Free Spirit-influenced heretics in Brussels called Homines Intelligentiae or Men of Understanding, which faced a crackdown from the Inquisition in 1410-11.

Fragments from the proceedings against the Homines Intelligentiae also refer to several women of understanding, especially an older woman called Seraphine. She declares that spiritual love could not exist without carnal love, and such pleasures are as necessary to life as eating and drinking. From the scraps of information available from her persecutors, Seraphine comes across as a tough, salty and humorous character. So this story became Seraphine’s story. It begins with a revolt of weavers in 1380s Ghent, Seraphine’s decision to leave an unhappy marriage and a life-changing encounter on the turbulent streets of Rouen.

My writing often involves some historical component, usually provoked by an obscure but fascinating footnote. I enjoy weaving a story from sketchy clues or speculations about a simple object or work of art, and bringing hidden history into the open.  Heretics was sparked by a reference to a woman leader of the Pikarts/Adamites called Maria. Less is known about her than Seraphine; all we have for Maria is a name.

The so-called Adamites (the term was first applied to the Bohemian revolutionaries by an eighteenth-century historian) received very bad press from the likes of Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium. He regarded them simply as thugs. But surviving historical accounts were written by the Pikarts’ enemies, whether they were conservative Catholics, mainstream Hussites or Cold War-influenced historians like Cohn.

90278

The Czech edition of Robert Kalivoda’s book, published in 1961

Czech historian and philosopher Robert Kalivoda tried to counter this in Hussite Ideology and Revolution*, denouncing the reactionaries that have heaped “five centuries of schmutz” on the unknown peasants and artisans who fought for their freedom and died as the premature “protagonists of the modern European revolution”.

“Return of the Pikart Posse” touches on the world of Heretics from the perspective of a former punk-squatter turned medieval historian with a specialty in heresy. And if you’ve read Lipstick Tracesa collection of rantage and word play on the common threads of punk, surrealism and medieval heresy (John of Leyden… John Lydon, geddit?), the connection between the character’s punkish youth and her current interests may not seem farfetched (or even if you haven’t read Lipstick Traces). In any case, our historian gets very close to her subject on a research jaunt to Tábor in the Czech Republic.

“Pikart Posse” originally appeared in Midnight Street in 2005, edited by Trevor DenyerMidnight Street and its forerunner Roadworks were fine publishers of speculative fiction in the 1990s to mid-2000s. According to fellow contributor Paul Finch, this was the “golden era of the UK small press”.

Trevor had previously published my work in Roadworks and featured me in Midnight Street 4, which included another story, “The Colour of Water”, plus an interview. Over the years I’ve held “Pikart Posse” in great affection. It came to mind immediately when Trevor asked me to submit a story to his forthcoming anthology, which will include Midnight Street favourites along with new work.

I’ve had stories reprinted before. But this was the first time there was such a substantial gap between outings. I’d been proud of “Pikart Posse” at the time, Trevor had obviously liked it and a few reviewers liked it too. But when I reread the story… Let’s just say I was not the happiest of bunnies. Did I really write this? Oh no…

Originally, I was planning to give the story just a little tweaking. The real-time parts take place in the early 2000s. The difference between a story that simply becomes dated and a piece that effectively portrays a moment in the past can be subtle. So how does a story written as ‘now’ – alongside glimpses much further into the past – make the transition to a narrative that evokes a time and place? Such a story will need more detail in some places, and less in others.

For example, who would remember Charles Clark, New Labour’s redundancy-mongering education secretary? The name would be a distraction. But a writer might need to pay more attention to describing places, sights or experiences that were taken for granted at the time.

Writers and editors take varied approaches to reprints. Some say we should respect the historical integrity of our old work, and limit tweaks to typos and grammatical errors that were missed the first time around. A piece of writing  represents a specific time or state of mind, so let it be.

Others will say a writer’s work is always evolving. So go on. Alter it is many times as you want. I also realised that I’ve developed conceptual frameworks over the years for certain themes and I wasn’t sure if the story held together without them. However, imposing such a framework could turn it into an entirely different story.

So I tried to steer a course between the two options. I gave the story a considerable overhaul, while trying to stay true to its original ambiance.

Writing “Bells of the Harelle” and revising “Return of the Pikart Posse” has helped me find my way back into a world where I’ve not lived for a while. So onward to Heretics

Meanwhile, prepare for further publishing news once covers, line-ups and bragging rights have cleared!

f90af810-a702-4b1c-aba6-918c9dba084c

* Kalivoda’s Hussite Revolution and Ideology is only available in Czech and German. A friend has very helpfully translated some passages from the German edition. Howard Kaminsky also quotes from this book in History of the Hussite Revolution.

See you in Dallas!

CONDFWLOGO-300x150-transparentThis is just a brief note to say that I’ll be attending ConDFW in Dallas on 21 February. I left my arrangements too late to take part in any panels, but I gather this a small and friendly con and it’ll be easy to find me if anyone wants to say ‘hi’.

I’ve been visiting Dallas occasionally since relatives moved there a few years ago. The phrase “fish out of water” comes to mind when I’m there, gasping and flopping about in the sizzling Texas heat. Hot weather shouldn’t be a problem in February, though meeting like-minded people in the area may still be a challenge.

But this time I look forward to hanging out with local speculative fiction lovers who might show me a side of Dallas that I’ve been missing. I’ll also be bringing a few copies of Helen’s Story along with me…

Meanwhile, it appears that PS Publishing has run out of the unsigned edition of Helen’s Story, but they’re still available through the Waterstones website (in the UK) and uhm… Amazon, plus a few other specialist distributors and bookshops.

And to round things off, here’s a recent review of Helen’s Story by blogger and writer Caroline Hooton:

“Rosanne Rabinowitz’s novella is an erotic horror that draws on Machen’s original but is a stand-alone story. I haven’t read THE GREAT GOD PAN but was still able to enjoy this book. I really loved Helen’s spiky, unsentimental voice and her relationship with her strange companion while Rabinowitz does a great job of showing Helen’s creative process, giving it a sensuous, erotic charge that’s disturbing in its sexuality.”

Caroline also has a few critical comments. But I’d say thoughtful criticism from reviewers is just as valuable as praise – it makes the positive words shine even more.