The lowdown on the Lowdown

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Ye olde Amstrad

This is just a quick note to say that Simon Bestwick has interviewed me for his regular author feature The Lowdown. I admit I first had problems with the question: “Tell me three things about yourself.” But given time, the oddest things came to mind. So in honour of my anecdote about a stint testing early home computers in 1981, I will grace this post with a photo of an Amstrad. As I say in the article I’m not exactly sure what model I was testing, but it did look like an Amstrad and that’s good enough reason to plonk one on this page.

Another thing – which I’ve only just discovered – is that two of my stories, Meat, Motion and Light and The Lady in the Yard were given Honourable Mentions by Ellen Datlow in Best Horror of the Year Vol 8. Thanks Ellen! How that had first escaped the net of my conscientious self-googling I don’t know…

I’d also like to draw readers’ attention to a new journal called Feminist Dissent. The inaugural issue is free to download online, and features a mix of analysis, poetry, fiction, art and reflection. This will give you an idea of what the magazine explores:

“Feminist Dissentcover_issue_2_en_US brings together innovative and critical insights to enhance our understanding of the relationship between gender, fundamentalism and related socio-political issues. It aims to fill a gap in the existing literature by creating space to interrogate the multi-faceted links between historical and resurgent religious fundamentalism and gender. It further aims to open up new ways of thinking about secularism, religious freedom, civil liberties and human rights, nationalism and identity politics, anti-racism and multiculturalism, neoliberalism, and feminist resistance”.

I hope to do some reviewing for Feminist Dissent in the near future, so keep an eye out for more about this exciting and much-needed publication.

 

 

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Book news and reviews, musical memories and memorials

6a00d8345295c269e201bb0898b1c1970dHere’s a belated happy New Year to all my readers, and a kick-off to 2016 with some bits and pieces…

To start things off, the paperback edition of Jews vs Aliens AND Jews vs Zombies is now available in one omnibus volume. So that’s two books for the price of one, comprising 18 stories. This includes my tale “The Matter of Meroz”, which was selected by James Everington for his list of the year’s favourite stories. Nice one, James!

And a few years after the fact, two new reviews of Helen’s Story have recently appeared. Bobby Derie writes in the Innsmouth Free Press:

Helen Vaughan is alive and well in contemporary London, both more and less than the genderbending changeling that Machen had made of her. A century after the events of Machen’s novella, she has set up as an artist in Shoreditch, seeking through her art to make contact once more with her elusive fey companion. The language is sensual, the imagery vivid, the critical eye on the inhabitants of the art scene perceptive and penetrating, creating caricatures from which characters emerge like blooming flowers, Helen Vaughan the busy honey bee spreading the pollen from one to the next, all while reliving the events of “The Great God Pan” (and, skillfully intermixed, elements of Machen’s “The White People”).

Helen'sStory cover_smallHe also pays me a great compliment by comparing my writing to Caitlin R Kiernan’s. Nice one there, too.

Mythogeography, a site dedicated to psychogeography and the art of wandering, also featured a review. Crab Man describes Helen as “a lovely read; an unembarrassed and unembarrassing hymn to pleasure and to an interwoven world of material and metamorphosis”. Thanks be to Mytho!

I’m very pleased that people are still reading and commenting on this book. And it turns out that there are still signed hardback copies left at PS Publishing, which are now on sale for a mere £4. Many more excellent titles are available at knock-down prices in this general clear-out at PS – I have my eye on a few – and there are reductions on postage for multiple orders.

The opening month of 2016 has been cruel one for the loss of musicians. Like many others I was stunned and saddened by the death of David Bowie only days after the release of his new album and his 69th birthday. And hadn’t I been belting out “Rebel Rebel” at a karaoke in the not-too-distant past? It all came back to me.

Much has been written about Bowie since his death and doubtless more will be written. I was stunned and saddened, but this was shared with many people – especially since I’m based in the general Brixton area. When I turned up at the mural off the High Street around 11pm, people were still gathering, playing his songs and remembering ‘our Brixton boy’. Candles are still burning there as I write. There was both collective mourning and celebration of the music he has left behind.

For the record, I’ll mention that my favourite Bowie songs are “Suffragette City” and “Panic in Detroit”. Before there was punk, there was Bowie. You could almost pogo to “Suffragette City”. Here’s a live version from the Hammersmith Palais – sadly, this renowned live music venue is now a gym. As I watch this video, I can see a lot of headshaking and handwaving from the audience… perhaps a few demi-pogos can be detected as well.

Then… A couple of weeks after Bowie’s death, I was stunned again to hear that Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner had died. This hit me even harder. It was only a few months ago that I’d rediscovered his more recent folk-inspired music and its link to the legacy of the Weavers.

The grief at Bowie’s death was shared with many around me, and it was tempered by a massive celebration of his music. But my Facebook feed was pretty quiet on the loss of Kantner. I suspect it’s because many of my friends are younger than me. To them, the Airplane was just one of those hippie bands from 1960s/70s. Yeah, the Jefferson Airplane had some good songs like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”. But my younger friends didn’t grow up with those guys. The very first album I bought was Crown of Creation. For many of my friends it might’ve been something by Ian Dury, Madness or the Specials, Alison Moyet, Joan Armatrading or the Slits – or perhaps Bowie.

One friend did post an item that that the Jefferson Airplane’s first female vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson, died on the same day as Paul at the same age of 74. She had left the group when she had a baby, then Grace Slick stepped in. Anyway, here’s an early Airplane song where she duets with Marty Balin.

Back in the day my Airplane-love focused very much on Grace and her magnificent voice, but I later appreciated that it was Paul who brought the political and science fictional themes to the band. I was just starting to read SF and all things weird, and hearing it infuse my favourite rock music was sublime.

I later turned to Twitter for people sharing similar memories, though that first album financed by after-school newspaper routes or carefully accumulated allowances tended to be Surrealistic Pillow rather than Crown of Creation.

I feel as if I already wrote a tribute to the Jefferson Airplane and Kantner in particular in Soliloquy for Pan: It’s Not Just About the Pipes. The story that appeared in Soliloquy, “The Lady in the Yard” was also such a tribute, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time of writing. So I intended to add to these homages by posting a live version of War Movie here, since the album version from Bark already appears in my earlier post.

However, I couldn’t find one on YouTube or anywhere I else. A friend remarked that “War Movie” has been overlooked on all the compilation albums and I gave the matter some thought. I’m just very fond of it, though other tracks from this band may have stood up better to the test of time. Well, specifying a long-departed date for when the revolution takes place may be why! But that’s part of its charm for me, and perhaps it lends the tune a certain poignancy. And like any piece of outdated SF, it shows us more about the era it was written in than the future it envisioned.

I remember hanging out with a few friends in my college dorm in 1976, listening to this song rather glumly since nothing of the sort had happened in ‘nineteen hundred and seventy-five’. Then we put on ‘Volunteers’ followed by ‘Suffragette City’ to cheer ourselves up.

We were well and truly ready for punk.

In that spirit I’ll end with a fast(er) and thumpin’ version of “Volunteers”. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I am a lover of speculative fiction. And I do like to speculate and will do so at any opportunity. So I immediately imagined Paul Kantner jamming on this song with Joe Strummer. What a ‘heavenly’ racket those two powerful rhythm guitarists would make! And Pete Seeger came into this fantasy too. Maybe he’d pull the plug, as he did when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Or perhaps he’d shake his head with a bemused chuckle, then get out his banjo.

 

 

 

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.

Soliloquy for Pan: it’s not just about the pipes

Pan 1Pan 2I’m letting you all know that Soliloquy for Pan, which includes my story “The Lady in the Yard”, was released at the end of June by Egaeus Press (yes, deadlines + day job have put my bloggage behind once again). Like anything produced by Egaeus, Soliloquy is a spectacularly beautiful book – as you can see here.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to buy it now. According to Egaeus, the edition has sold out entirely during pre-ordering. Editor Mark Beech however has hinted at the strong possibility of another printing in the autumn, so you can add yourself to the Egaeus email list to keep informed.

In “The Lady in the Yard”, Pan takes on female form and visits the yard of a Bronx apartment block in the early 60s. In my last post Musical Interlude 3: Farewell Ronnie Gilbert I suggested a connection between this story and the recently deceased Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers. So here it is… “The Lady in the Yard” began as a follow-up to “She Lives in the Deep”, which appeared in The Monster Book for Girls in 2012. The Weavers are present in the narrative and provide a musical motif throughout the piece.

In “She Lives in the Deep” I wrote about Suzy, a little girl trying to lure a green and blue parakeet into her hand on a snowy day so she could take it back to her apartment and look after it. Nothing supernatural happened, and I literally left my character dangling. But in the follow-up story, the Lady in the Yard has appeared, saving Suzy’s life but not all of her toes, which she loses as a result of frostbite.

The 1960s Suzy brings a record into school by the Weavers, a lefty folk group popular in New York at the time. But teacher disapproves, saying this is a bunch of Communists. Suzy however loves the Weavers and she’s especially impressed with Ronnie Gilbert: “But all four Weavers look very friendly on that record cover, especially the fat guy. The lady wears a shiny sleeveless black dress. Her head is thrown back and her mouth is wide open to let the song out. Suzy leans her head back like the lady from the Weavers as she sings…” 

With “The Lady in the Yard”, Suzy reappears in the 1970s as a pot-puffing flute-playing teenager who fervently wishes to meet the Lady in the Yard again. She’s an outcast in her high school, and escapes through reading mythology and science fiction, plus furtive late-night radio sessions listening to the likes of WBAI’s Bob Fass and Alison Steele ‘the Nightbird’ on WNEW-FM. She creates a world of her own in an abandoned swimming pool surrounded by underbrush, where she plays the flute and records on her reel-to-reel.

Perhaps the Soliloquy book resembles the old edition of Bullfinch’s Mythology that Suzy treasures. It looks like the kind of book Suzy would read it in bed while listening to her favourite late night DJs.

In “The Lady in the Yard”, I drew image57on the early versions of the myth that concerned me in Helen’s Story – Pan as a shapeshifter and gender-shifter as well. Though this is the older Arcadian myth that didn’t quite find its way into the familiar classical mythology, there are still some representations of female Pan figures in Greek and Roman art. The most well-known one was found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, where a female Pan figure suckles a young goat while a male Pan figure plays an instrument.

Once again, Suzy doesn’t fare well when she shares her literary and musical interests. At school she gives a ‘book report’ on the post-nuclear apocalyptic classic, The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. She identifies with Sophie, a friend of the protagonist who has six toes. Sophie has to hide her extra toes so she isn’t seen as a mutated Chrysalids_first_edition_1955abomination, while Suzy must hide her missing toes. After she explains the themes of this favourite book to her classmates, she is derided as ‘Mutant Sue’.

The Chrysalids (or Re-Birth in the US) had certainly been a cherished book when I was in my teens. I gather it is now part of the school curriculum in the UK, but in those days it was one of the books I had to hide under my desk during lessons. I must’ve read it at least five times. My reading pleasure was heightened by the thrill of recognition when I came upon this dialogue towards the end: “Life is change, that is how it differs from the rocks… you are the crown of creation and you’ve got no place to go.” Wow! I was reading the lyrics to the Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation”.

Now, Crown of Creation was the first album I ever bought. Through my pre-teen and teenage years the Airplane was one of my top bands. Later I’d be blasting out songs like Volunteers, and listening to the likes of Sunfighter, Blows Against the Empire and Bark. Even the Airplane’s sillier songs like Have You Seen the Saucers (I did have an interest in UFOs at the time, and my favourite band singing a song about them was especially exciting) found their way onto my reel-to-reel.

So while the Weavers provided a soundtrack to “She Lives in the Deep” – along with the theme song from Diver Dan – “The Lady in the Yard” is definitely propelled by the Jefferson Airplane. And imagine my amazement when I uncovered links between these two musical inspirations: it was just like discovering the lyrics to “Crown of Creation” in a beloved book.

As I cruised about YouTube at some ridiculous hour in the night, I came across a 2008 incarnation of the Jefferson Starship singing “Drinking Gourd”, an underground railway song popularised by the Weavers in the 1950s. I found this was part of an album called Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. 

So here’s the Starship doing “Drinking Gourd” at a festival in Bedford. You might also want to check out the studio version, which has an infectious boogie woogie roll to it (However, I thought the picture of the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson appearing alongside a song about the underground railroad a bit dubious, though it is the album cover.)

Much of this album is a tribute to the Weavers, covering songs like “Wasn’t that a Time”, “Drinking Gourd” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” along with music from Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and recent compositions. The current band has a lovely way of rewriting the old songs, adapting them while keeping the spirit of the original. Starship singer Cathy Richardson ably fills the formidable shoes of Ronnie Gilbert and Grace Slick, while putting her own soulful stamp on the tunes. I stopped listening to the Starship long ago when they blanded-out with numbers like “We Built This City”, so this was a surprise and a revelation.

I found this interview with singer, guitarist and band founder Paul Kantner, where he talks about the influence of the Weavers.

“I was primarily and greatly inspired and energized by the Weavers, a folk music group from the forties and fifties that was one of Pete Seeger’s early bands. In so many ways The Weavers taught me “how to be a band”. There was a combination of beautiful three-part harmony singing and the rich folk music as well; there was also the connection to social responsibility that led to a mentality that drove our own band to the act of supporting and doing benefits for any number of people and causes in need, and then there was just the overall joy of life that shown forth from The Weavers. I treasure The Weavers still. It was for me… a memorable beginning.”

He also bigs up the Weavers in this article from Craig Morrison:

“The Weavers were my prime teachers. I sit at the feet of the Weavers, still. They were all very different people. Probably all together they make up one perfect human being, sort of like our band, Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship. The Weavers and Pete Seeger particularly. What got me into music was Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5-String Banjo book. I was a banjo player, played in college, still play banjo, love banjo. Ronnie Gilbert was the reason I wanted to work with a woman singer, just because she so obviously added a great unknown quantity that takes you far beyond even the expectations of a known. I never saw the Weavers perform, that was my one great loss, only Pete, and he was good on his own. I really wish I had seen the Weavers because they were so invigorating to my songwriting approach, to life, and to what you’re supposed to do as a band, whether you are a rock and roll band, a folk band as they were, or whatever. It’s just sort of an overall Grecian equivalent of everything you are supposed to do : good, bad, indifferent, drunken party boys to severe ascetic, almost Amish kind of Pete-Seeger-dedication to the cause.”

The Starship also has a page on its website devoted to the Weavers, and there’s more about the Weavers and their influence on the Jefferson Airplane hereKantner does add somewhere that the Weavers themselves would’ve been horrified by the drug-taking and excesses of their late-1960s psychedelic musical descendants! But listen to the harmonies, and the way a strong female voice holds the centre in both bands. I loved the Airplane because I loved the Weavers as a child. So there you have it – Pan, the Lady in the Yard, the Weavers and the Jefferson Airplane. Have you seen the saucers? 🙂

Meanwhile, Des Lewis has written a real-time review of Soliloquy for Pan, and he says this about “The Lady in the Yard”:

‘A satisfying leisurely story… [involving] a singing wisteria, cannabis joints, flutes, Peter Pan, Panisca as the female Pan, listening to late night radio, a Lady with mutable wings, cavorting with mixed-sex naiads, Wyndham’s Chrysalids…”

I’ll end with another song from the Jefferson Airplane. Call it hippie shit, call it what you will, but I did really like this one when I were a lass. All together now!

“In nineteen hundred and seventy-five / all the people rose from the countryside / locked together hand in hand / all through this unsteady land / to move against you, government man / do you understand?”