Resonating & resonacting

unnamedTime to highlight a wonderful and thought-provoking review of Resonance & Revolt from Rachel Hill at Strange Horizons. It’s been out for a few weeks so yeah, I don’t exactly blog at the speed of light. But in case you’ve missed it, I’m here now to share it and express thanks and appreciation for the knowledge Hill brings to the review.

To begin with, she has a winning familiarity with the history of south-east London: “A location which, from the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt to 1977’s ‘Battle of Lewisham’ (where local counter-demonstrators prevented the far-right National Front from marching), has a rich history of revolt and features heavily in her stories.”

Some reviews inspire writers to look at their own work in a new way and that’s the case with this one. Hill references the writing of philosopher Ernst Bloch on music and the utopian impulse when discussing my story In the Pines  (natch, Ernie now occupies a place on my TBR list):

stramge horizons-logo“Bloch places music as the foremost form of utopian impulse, as it affords “ways in this world by which the inward can become outward and the outward like the inward” (Spirit of Utopia, p. 231). These ways of being are full of productive “revolutionary tension.” In other words, music yokes together listeners in a shared experience of resonance which can be the basis of collective action. Similarly, Rabinowitz echoes Bloch’s structure of harmonious oscillation between self and world(s), prompted by music, as demonstrated by the collection’s first story, ‘In the Pines’.”

Hill coins a cool new word: resonacting or a “process of resonance which catalyses new action”. Such resonaction “refracts throughout the collection, propagating further revolt through new and extended frequencies”.

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She stresses the prominence of psychogeography in my stories and the role of the dérive, a concept that comes from Guy Debord (his classic text pictured left) and the Lettrist and Situationist International. A dérive is a critical wander through a city or a landscape that opens up our understanding of the environment and how it manifests its social history. It can involve breaking out of everyday relations and discovering new ways of occupying space. She suggests that Evelyn in Return of the Pikart Posse goes on a dérive through the town of Tábor and the ruins of a fortress that had been occupied by the free-loving anti-authoritarian heretics that she is researching: “Evelyn attunes herself to the resonances of the Czech landscape, enabling her body to become a channel, or a transtemporal site.” Transtemporal – I like that.

At the time I wrote the story I was thinking: hey, Evelyn’s pissed on the pivo and having a wander. As you do. While I’m no stranger to psychogeography and situationism – and I’ve taken part in activism where they were influences – I wasn’t thinking about these elements consciously.

But yes, my character is indeed dériving under the influence of heightened emotion and perception (perhaps helped by a few drinks) and a deep longing to connect with the past and a different kind of future. And then there are sensual encounters with “psychic residues”, an idea that casts some of my motifs in a different light too.

Hill also offers insight into The Turning Track – co-written with Matt Joiner – and the way its multidimensional train unites the layers charted throughout the collection. 

I’ll add that after reading Rachel Hill’s piece, I reacquainted myself with the general excellence of the reviews and critical essays in Strange Horizons – which describes itself as “a free weekly speculative fiction magazine with a global perspective”. And then there’s the fiction! This brings us to their current fundraiser and a link to their Kickstarter if you’d like to donate something to ensure that this good work continues. Be assured I’m not just making this plug because they gave me a good review – I believe it’s a project worth supporting. Really.

Des Lewis review book 3

And since we’ve been on the subject of inspiring critics and criticism… Des Lewis has collected his online ‘real-time reviews’ into a series of books. I’m in this one, alongside Nicholas Royle (as editor), Ron Weighell, Andrew Hook, Helen Marshall and Malcolm Devlin. Needless to say, I’m there in excellent company. If you haven’t read it, you can still check out Des’ real-time review of R&R online and see my comments about real-time reviews (and rugelach) here.

Finally, you might be amused by visiting a link to a humorous look at psychogeography in a cartoon by Tom Gauld. Pigeons and focaccia are involved!

 

 

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May Day sale plus more reviews for R&R

Only a few more wicker-weaving days until May Day! You also have the opportunity to nab a book bargain…

To mark May Day, Resonance & Revolt is on sale with the Kindle edition going for a mere 99p! For those who prefer paper, the very handsome hardback edition is also slashed to a third of the price. In addition, prices are also cut on Hive and other online booksellers (or they were the last time I looked). 

priyaAnd if you want to find out more before you spend your 99p, Priya Sharma – author of the wonderful collection All the Fabulous Beasts and forthcoming novella Ormeshadow – gives a good rundown in her February 2019 review on Goodreads:

“Medieval activists lie side by side with modern scholars, Jewish protesters bend space to seek an alien Golem and a woman walks through the past in her pink patent leather boots… There’s a fascinating archeology in this book, some of the work revealing London’s sociopolitical geography by slipping through time. And it’s shot through with droll, knowing humour.”

The first review for 2019 was followed by several others that definitely put a spring in my step. On the morning of 30 March I woke up with a sore throat and a headache, sure I was coming down with something nasty. But then I came across a new review of R&R from Nancy Oakes on the Oddly Weird Fiction blog and I recovered from whatever ailed me. Oakes writes:

“The book is a beautiful blending of the historical, the mystical, the surreal, and the strange, but more than that, it is a book that is absolutely relevant to right now in her rendering of many recognizable contemporary issues. The stories do not easily yield answers, but the more you read the more in tune you become, as her writing not only crawls under your skin, but deep into your pores, your veins and your entire being.”

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Oakes’ review also includes a shoutout for Lynda E Rucker’s “excellent and most insightful introduction” and praise for the quality of books published by Eibonvale Press. She also suggests: “There is just something about this collection of stories that makes me want to buy a gazillion copies of it, then hand it out to people and tell them “you really need to read this.” 

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Supernatural Tales then published a review on 5 April. Editor David Longhorn mentions some difficult personal circumstances so I particularly appreciate that he took the time to write these kind words:

“These stories are fun to read, as playful and intelligent as anything you will find elsewhere… I recommend it to anyone who likes well-written imaginative fiction that has something passionate and thoughtful to say about our human condition, and how we might struggle to improve it.”

Melanie Whitlock’s review at Super Ink Arts first asked the question “Should I read this book?” I am pleased that the answer is ‘yes’:

“Rabinowitz has delivered us a collection of short stories and tales that are completely out of the ordinary, spanning from the medieval era all the way to modern day London, covering quantum entanglement and the often gritty anti-austerity life in-between. Rebellions, war-torn Munich, the swinging free-loving 1960s and Russia, all becoming key places of interest and stop offs along our journey back and forth between the past and the present. Each story set, linking to the last and filled with the mysterious, wondrous and often at times the weird.”

Screenshot 2019-04-25 20.28.46I keep hearing that it’s not the done thing to respond to reviews in any way. If you’re talking about arguing with a bad review or harassing a critic, I certainly agree. But I wonder how it could be wrong to thank someone for the time they took to read and review a book, or to respond to a thought-provoking point. 

So I’ll say here, on my own blog, that I was delighted with all of these reviews. Thank you to all the folks who wrote them. And I’ve been especially chuffed when the words ‘fun’ and ‘humour’ came up. I hoped to avoid any impression of worthiness and preachiness while I was putting the book together, and I’m very glad that it’s worked for at least a few people. 

Meanwhile, the voting for the British Fantasy Awards shortlist is open until 3 May. If you are eligible to vote I urge you to do so and support the authors you’ve enjoyed. R&R happens to be eligible in the single-author collection category but 2018 was also a bumper year for excellent collections from many of my favourite writers. So please vote for the books of your choice – it doesn’t have to be mine! And if you’re as indecisive as I am you’ll be pleased to find that several choices are allowed in each category.

I’m thrilled with the growing interest in short stories and collections of shorter fiction – not too long ago they were seen as a dying breed. Here’s a chance to affirm that’s not the case.  

Finally… here’s a fine version of In the Pines/Where Did You Sleep last night. I confess that I responded to the Super Ink Arts review, which mentioned this song, by tweeting the video below. So shoot me! 

 

 

 

Resonance & Revolt listed among year’s best in Vector – plus Kindle edition and two more reviews

devan 2In a great start to a recent weekend, I discovered that writer and critic Dev Agarwal has listed Resonance & Revolt among his year’s best in Vector. Never mind the croissants – this was the ultimate treat with my Saturday morning coffee. Dev writes:

“These stories span historical European settings, contemporary Britain and the near future. The collection is thematically linked around the concepts of resistance and Lynda Rucker discusses in her introduction how Rabinowitz’s evocative prose gifts the reader with a sense of the history and also a present that feels layered by the lives of those now past.”

Thanks, Dev.

And now in further R&R news, the Kindle edition of Resonance & Revolt is now live. Since 2010 I’ve been an avid Kindle user. Yes, I enjoy paper books and will always keep a lot of them on hand. I still buy them for special occasions or when I’m looking at a book with beautiful graphics. However, I love being able to transport an entire library with me. It’s especially useful when I have a few anthologies and collections on the go. I always appreciate the opportunity to try out new writers with an inexpensive click, so I’m very pleased to make my book accessible this way and available at £2.99.

I am also pleased to report two more reviews since the last R&R Review RoundupOne was part of a roundup by David V Barrett in Fortean Times (374). He writes that “revolutionary religion and politics, music and art wind in and out of these fascinating stories”. This review isn’t available online but I’ve posted a screenshot below. It includes a piece of the next review, which looks at Christopher Priest’s book An American Story. I did this partly for the sake of symmetry and also because I’m happy with the company.

 

This is followed by a review from Seregil of Rhiminee at Rising Shadow. He writes:
“It’s a must-read collection for everybody who loves literary and intelligent speculative fiction, because it’s different, captivating and thought-provoking. I was deeply impressed by this collection and found it utterly compelling. It’s an intriguing re-imagining of what the world could be like, but it’s also much more than that, because there are many layers in it. Reading it is like pealing an onion and seeing what lies behind each layer. Whether the revelations are beautiful, challenging or strange, they’re always captivating and intriguing, because time and history are wonderfully intertwined in the stories. There’s also insightful wittiness in the stories that adds fascination to them.”
This review had been published in December 2018. It was just the thing to read and reread slowly as the mid-winter darkness rolled in. 🙂

R&R review roundup

After that first wonderful review from Des Lewis in May, there was a vast silence of several months on the Resonance & Revolt review front. To be honest, it had me worried.

But eventually the reviews began to appear, starting with a couple on Amazon and GoodReads.  Clare Bonetree wrote: “Rabinowitz has an incredible imagination, but a really down to earth style… Totally recommending this to speculative fiction fans, and anyone who wants to live in a different, more creative world.”

A certain Steve describes “radical and mysterious journeys” and “stories from London, in the recent past and near future, from medieval and contemporary Europe and from a century or so of America. Music, pictures, sounds, and acts of rebellion resonate across time”.

And just before I packed my bags for Fantasycon I came across this post on Peter Coleborn‘s blog.  Peter brought up the same dipping vs devouring question that I mentioned in relation to Uncertainties III. And so it seems that R&R is one for dipping. Perhaps that’s why it took a  while for the reviews to appear, what with all the dipping and sipping going on! 🙂

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“Rabinowitz is a wonderful stylist who writes compassionately about characters you want to care about. She writes from the heart… I suggest that you dip in and out of Resonance and Revolt and savour the tales along with a glass of wine (or coffee or tea or G&T; your choice, I’m not being prescriptive).”

I personally would recommend whisky myself to accompany an R&R reading session, but I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive either.

panNext up is the Pan Review. Like Deborah Walker in her Goodreads (and Amazon.co.uk) review, editor Mark Andresen singles out “Bells of the Harelle” as a favourite story:

“This collection’s finest, most satisfying tale, deserving of future anthologising. Served mainly by its narrative’s sense of urgency, the opening line alone pulls you in…”

Mark also mentions certain stories as ‘lesser tales’ that didn’t quite do it for him. I found this most interesting in light of my deliberations as I put the collection together. When I was reading through the stories I was thinking that a bunch of back-to-back novelette-length historical tales might be kind of… too much at once. So I concluded it’s best to have something short and snappy and lighter between them. I received some advice suggesting this as as well – and I wrote about the process in a guest post I contributed to the Milford SF blog.

Of course, I discovered again that everyone has their own preferences. Later, comments from Steven Andrew at the Morning Star reflected both on the larger themes and the smaller stories:

DrZ0P7BWkAEJRet“Rabinowitz eschews clumsy agitprop-style didactics and doesn’t offer easy answers. Given to open-ended responses, her interest is largely driven by wonder at people’s continued ability to love, think and rebel against capital, often in the most difficult and unlikely circumstances… Another strength is that Rabinowitz brings to her writing a deeply rooted sense of place and many of the passages are informed and affectionate celebrations of her now-native London.”

Along with ‘insurrectionary insights’ this reviewer also enjoyed the quieter and more personal elements of the stories:

“Lots of the radicals dip in and out of struggle, get drunk, fall into relationships and are often wracked with self-doubt, jaded librarian Richard in Pieces of Ourselves being a prime illustration… Often a quiet, gentle and comedic perspective ensures that not all the contributions are full of frenzied street fighting. The magical realism of Tasting the Clouds is kick-started by a chance tasting of Zapatista coffee and an all too familiar conversation about the merits or otherwise of ethical shopping.”

So I found it very enlightening to read through different reactions. All these stories received multiple critiques before they were first submitted and published but there’s nothing like an overview of a collection from a fresh eye. This is all part of a learning curve and offers food for thought as I plan my second collection.

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Later, Phil Smith wrote about my use of realism in writing the fantastical in his Mythogeography blog. That gave me a glow because I’ve always responded most to works that mingle the concrete and gritty with the strange and numinous. This applies to what I enjoy reading and the effects I try to achieve in my own work.

“There is nothing predictable in Rosanne Rabinowitz’s short story collection Resonance & Revolt. Rabinowitz’s writing is very precisely detailed, drawing realist worlds and then infiltrating them; there are only a few monsters here, but mostly everything is monstrous. The most effective of Rabinowitz’s stories are those in which the realist details are radically possessed by shifting energy: tiny patches of skin that become a double in ‘Pieces of Ourselves’, a naff landscape painting that won’t stay fixed in ‘Keep Them Rollin’, a scruffy cap that passes for a mask in ‘The Peak’, an old bloodsucker in ‘Survivor’s Guilt’ and the spirit of ‘The Pleasure Garden’.”

And in the most recent review, Jaine Fenn makes this observation about how the stories fit together and complement each other.

jaine_green_bkgnd“Overall these tales are vibrant and relevant, displaying exquisite writing, passionate characters and strong sense of place. Although each story stands alone, I took great pleasure in spotting the links – or should I say resonances – between them. They cover themes including quiet but persistent rebellion, love without borders and the malleable nature of time and space as revealed by physics or ritual.”

There are also a few words of thoughtful criticism in Jaine’s review that are appreciated just as much as the praise.

Peter Coleborn’s comments have made me think more about the dipping vs devouring approach to anthologies and collections. Is one better than the other? I imagine that a novelist’s first thought would be: ‘I want to keep the reader reading FFS’. On the other hand, one friend has said that a powerful collection for her usually lends itself to dipping – the best stories are so intense that she needs space between them to think and truly appreciate them.

I’d be interested to hear what other writers and readers think on this score. And I’d also like to thank all the reviewers for taking the time to read and write about Resonance & Revolt. If anyone else reading this post would like to review R&R then get in touch with Eibonvale Press, or you can contact me if that’s easier. Or feel free to scribble a line or stick up a rating at Goodreads or Amazon or any review site of your choice.

Last, I’ll mention that not all the reviews were strictly literary. Jason Whittle speaks well of the rugelach that accompanied my reading of “The Matter of Meroz” at Fantasycon; he described my first attempt at concocting the Jewish pastries (with almond, sour cherry and apricot fillings) as “delicious”. So thank you too, Jason.

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Aliens, Jews, reviews and song!

jva1I’m excited to announce that Jews vs Aliens – which includes my story ‘The matter of Meroz’ – is now out! Jews vs Aliens and its companion volume Jews vs Zombies are both edited by Lavie Tidhar and Rebecca Levene, and published as e-book originals by Jurassic London. A limited paperback edition will follow in the autumn.

Proceeds from these books will benefit Mosac, a charity that provides support to non-abusing parents, carers and families of children who have been sexually abused. Based in Greenwich in south London, Mosaic offers a national helpline, as well as counselling, advocacy, support groups and therapy.

I’m proud to find myself in a stellar line-up that includes The Big Bang Theory’s writer/co-executive producer Eric Kaplan, BSFA Award winning science fiction writer Adam Roberts and Nebula Award winner author Rachel Swirsky. Another name that stands out for me is Orange Prize winner Naomi Alderman, since I’ve read and enjoyed all her books – Disobedience, The Lessons and The Liars Gospel. I’ve also been wanting to read Shimon Adaf’s novel with PS Publishing, Sunburnt Faces, so I look forward to his story in JvZ.

My tale ‘The Matter of Meroz’ takes place in Russia in 1905, in the wake of a partial revolution and the reaction that unleashed a new wave of pogroms against Jewish communities. Naturally, there were different views on how to deal with this threat. Raizl is an activist in the socialist General Jewish Labour Bund who takes part in militant self-defence groups and labour agitation. Meanwhile, her kid brother Samuel has taken to kabbalah in a big way, but regards golems as passé. Instead he gazes at the stars, pores over the Talmud and looks for solutions in the ‘leaping of the roads’ and the ‘crumpling of the sky’.

Yankl, a member of the Bund, Odessa, 1900. Photo by K. Mulman. (YIVO)

Yankl, a member of the Bund, Odessa, 1900. Photo by K Mulman (YIVO)

It’s worth mentioning that the Bund was resolutely anti-Zionist and also that women played a major role in the organisation. You can find out more about the Bund from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and this article at the Jewish Women’s Archive.

It’s still early for reviews for JvA. However, Horror Uncut has received a mention from James Everington. In fact, it’s an enthusiastic recommendation for Horror Uncut:

“Its theme of modern day austerity, its victims and its monsters, makes this a timely anthology, but the sheer quality of stories on display makes it one for the ages as well. Thoroughly recommended; buy it before your native currency collapses.”

On my contribution, he writes: “‘Pieces Of Ourselves’ by Rosanne Rabinowitz contained a brilliantly evocative description of modern day protesting before becoming enjoyably surreal.”

The second review is not such a new one, but it is now making its first appearance online. Peter Tennant’s review of Helen’s Story originally appeared in Black Static 36, where he reviewed Helen along with a recent edition of Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan. All this is now online in Peter’s Trumpetville blog.

Of Helen’s Story, he concludes:

“Rabinowitz has created a work that remains true to but at the same time reinterprets its source material… Her Helen remains an outsider, the archetypal stranger in a strange land, but at the same time she is somebody more feared than she is fearsome, a victim of others’ terror of the unknown, often codified simply as the desire to avoid scandal. At the end her story marks the power of creativity, the fecundity of both nature and the human mind, while at the same embodying those things in the figure of the shape shifter Pan and the abilities with which his children are endowed.”

Peter’s perceptive observations on Machen and the qualities that continue to inspire contemporary writers also offer a good introduction to new readers. He writes that Machen “carefully constructs a schemata in which the ineffable seems just a heartbeat distant from the everyday, with the wonders of the natural world shining through the story, but all the same at the calm centre of the tale is the idea that the mysteries will forever be beyond our grasp…” This mingling of the mundane and the fantastical is what inspires me in the work of writers such as Elizabeth Hand, Caitlin Kiernan, M John Harrison (especially Course of the Heart and Signs of Life), the late Graham Joyce and Joel Lane, and many others.

Meanwhile, writing about Yiddish culture and Jewish radicalism gives me a fine excuse to play some music. So here’s Daniel Kahn singing a Bundist anthem “In Struggle”, a ditty that crops up in “Meroz”. (NOTE 25.03.15: Oops! What a shame. YouTube has taken the Daniel Kahn vid down. I’ll leave this empty space up for now until I find a replacement or someone posts it again. In the meantime listen to it on the Arty Semite blog.)

And since I’m the kind of geek who doesn’t just simply play songs, but plays versions of songs… Here’s a rendition of “In Struggle” by the Klezmatics, in a video dedicated to the Israeli direct action anti-occupation group Anarchists Against the Wall:

Another Yiddish song that appears in “Meroz” is “Daloy Polizei” also known as “Down with the police”. Here’s an early version:

And here’s a revised version by Geoff Berner:

And a Colombian folk-punk version: Finally, thrash metal!

And now I’ll end the post with a more recent song, though it’s based on a very old tune. I saw these guys live last January, and they were excellent. Highly recommended if they come to your town. Dumay dumay! Think!

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

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.