The Vatican Vaults are open!

1795476_1084280334918889_265400601105857995_nIn Going Retro: Ringing the Bells of the Harelle, and the Pikart Posse Returns I wrote about my story “Bells of the Harelle”, which was accepted by David V Barrett for Tales of the Vatican Vaults in Constable & Robinson’s Mammoth Books series. Now this anthology has been let loose upon the world. As befits the series name, Vatican Vaults is a substantial 500+ page volume packed full of stories and helpful editorial commentary.

It’s based on a unique alternative world premise: Pope John Paul I did not die a month after his accession in 1978. Instead he lived for over 25 years, and opened up the most secrets parts of the Vatican Library to scholars. We will find all the manner of strange and suppressed stories within…

I tend to dip in and out of collections of shorter fiction between novels, so I’m only just beginning to read through this anthology. I’ve found it fascinating just as a casual reader as well as one of the contributors. Each story has a preface and an afterward giving scholarly comments on the contents. This has let to a lot of excited googling, wanting to find out what’s real and what’s made up. So this anthology is wonderful in the way it blurs the boundary between the real and the fantastical. Sarah Ash had me looking up the history of Allegri’s Miserere: yes, it really was forbidden to transcribe this piece and those who did would be excommunicated. And what is the connection of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Order of the Golden Dawn, as explored by JM Brugee in “Songs of Love”? While tantalising to the historically minded, these rollicking tales also entertain in their own right.

My own contribution,”Bells of the Harelle” is a chronicle of fourteenth-century rioting and eroticised heresy; it also reveals that certain medieval sects had stumbled on scientific mysteries much earlier than we imagined. In some ways this story is a prequel to my novel-in-progress about a woman leader of the Pikarts or ‘Adamites’, an anarchistic and free-loving faction in the Hussite revolution of fifteenth-century Bohemia.

As I wrote “Bells of the Harelle” I grew very fond of my character Seraphine. We meet her as a young wife in Ghent, where a revolt by weavers in the 1380s gives her the impetus to leave her unhappy marriage and dedicate herself to changing the world, a mission that takes her to the turbulent streets of Rouen, to Brussels and Tournai. After the Inquisition cracks down on Seraphine’s sect of sensual heretics, she ends up as a refugee in Prague on the eve of the Hussite revolution. And that’s where my novel Heretics begins.

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 new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

When I first started writing Heretics, Seraphine dies early in the novel. She was getting on a bit, after all… But now that her character has grown more in “Bells”, I now feel like I’d rather keep her around longer. She’s sly and salty, tough and humorous, as well as a bit grumpy.

So that’s yet another decision looming on the horizon now that I’m looking at this book again. Is dear old Seraphine one darling I’ll have to kill? Yet gratuitous character carnage always annoyed me as a reader. Oh we need something dramatic, let’s shoehorn in some of that Hollywood Screenwriting 101 brand of ‘Conflict’ – eeny meeny mighty mo, that one has to go!

No doubt I’ll have more thorny thickets to clear out as I work on Heretics. Meanwhile, if you want to meet some of its characters and read some enjoyable stories, Tales from the Vatican Vaults is available in paperback and on Kindle. You might even find it in a non-specialist bookshop on your high street.

And since we’re on publication news, I’m pleased to announce that Soliloquy for Pan will have a second printing at the end of September, so those who missed out on the first run will have another chance. The second edition will also feature some new illustrations. Watch this space or visit the Egaeus Press website for more news.

Another great development is that Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Unease has been nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s best anthology award. The winner will be announced at Fantasycon at the end of October. I’ll have more information relating to Fantasycon in the very near future.

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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’.

These are all thoughts that came up during the discussion of Horror Uncut. And at several points I was almost 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 ensued.

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

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.

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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!

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* 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.