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’.”

Advertisements

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 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.

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.