Song of Salome: hardboiled meets the lush, the sensual and the King in White

So, it’s been a while since I’ve been here – almost a year. You’ve read it all before… work from home, copyediting and copyediting, yada yada. Rather than go through a round of excuses about why I’ve not blogged, I’ll kick off my return with an interview with the most talented Tom Johnstone!

Last April I participated in a launch event for the release of Tom’s novella Song of Salome, along with Simon Bestwick and Kate Jonez. Afterwards, the two of us agreed that we had more to talk about but missed out in the limited time of the panel. To address this, I suggested this interview in my blog.

Along with our interests in writing and reading politically engaged fiction, me and Tom also have another thing common: we’ve both written stories inspired by Oscar Wilde. Tom’s new novella Song of Salome references Wilde’s play Salome. Meanwhile, I wrote ‘All That is Solid’ for The Scarlet Soul, a collection of stories inspired by The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Perhaps we can start there…

Could you say something about Wilde’s play and the influence it had with your own Song of Salome? One of your characters, the writer of the titular film, refers to Wilde’s play as ‘degenerate’. Would you regard it as such? And how does it relate to virulent racism of the film in the novella?

I haven’t read it for years myself, but I did have a phase of reading quite a lot of Wilde’s work, including Salome. I wouldn’t say the play is ‘degenerate’. Decadent, maybe. But I can certainly see why someone like Hilda Abelard in the novella might regard it as degenerate. Then again, for repressive, reactionary regimes ‘degenerate’ and ‘decadent’ are almost interchangeable terms – I was thinking of the Nazis’ exhibitions of ‘degenerate art’. Wilde notably argued that art is amoral, which might imply that it’s apolitical too, at least in his eyes. Neither Hilda nor I agree with that, from different poles of the political spectrum. I suppose her calling Wilde’s play ‘degenerate’ might be said to disprove his proposition, as the Nazis no doubt staged their exhibition with the aim of discrediting art they saw as undermining their political project.

“Perhaps Dorian Gray is more of an influence on my novella than Salome itself in that respect. After all, that’s about a work of art having a definite influence on the real world if ever there was one”

Perhaps Wilde’s belief that art cannot be good or bad morally but only aesthetically is not as straightforward as it sounds. In The Picture of Dorian Gray there is the line about how books can’t be good or evil, only well-written or badly written, yet the story seems to contradict the idea that art doesn’t have a moral or social effect on the world it represents. Perhaps Dorian Gray is more of an influence on my novella than Salome itself in that respect. After all, that’s about a work of art having a definite influence on the real world if ever there was one. In Song of Salome, I wanted to explore this idea of art influencing reality as opposed to merely reflecting it by interrogating the conventions of the trope of the cursed art object – or in this case, film. As for the influence of Wilde’s Salome itself, what drew me towards it was the atmosphere of hedonism and sensuality around it, which makes it a lightning rod for the fictional screenwriter’s prurient, venomous hatred. There is also its status in popular culture, which makes it an easily recognisable reference point.

A work that immediately came to mind when I read Song of Salome was The King in Yellow by Robert W Chambers. This also involved art influencing reality, or perhaps the perception of reality by those who view the fatal play – who lose their sanity. In Song of Salome the effect was similar but it takes place in a social context that Chambers did not develop; the film codified and distilled hatred and racism while using the framework of Wilde’s play. It caused one woman to put out her eyes to avoid seeing it under duress and a black person to take on the views of the Klan. In fact, you might say that the titular King is wearing a white robe and a pointy hat rather than yellow! Had The King in Yellow been an influence – whether conscious or unconscious – when you wrote your book? 

I honestly hadn’t thought of it until you mentioned it, not knowingly anyway. But I liked the idea so much that the King in Yellow makes a spectral guest appearance on the front cover of the forthcoming Omnibus edition of all three Herb Fry/Dan Spiegel novellas. The Salome theme enables the novella to marry Fry’s hard-boiled voice with something more lush and sensual, I like to think, which borders on the deranged at some points. Maybe that comes more from Samuel G Fuller’s melodramatic cinema. The scene you mention of the black man with delusions of being an ex-Klansman is in fact a an homage to Fuller’s Shock Corridor, in which one of the mental patients in the hospital is a man so traumatised by his experience of being the first black student to be admitted to a desegregated, previously all-white school that he develops a similar delusion.

The King in Yellow must be an influence too though, as the cursed play in it is one of the roots of the lost film narrative. Cultural artefacts exerting a malign influence are a mainstay of weird fiction, whether books of forbidden lore like the Necronomicon, films like the one in John Carpenter’s ‘Cigarette Burns’ episode of Masters of Horror, or paintings as in David Morrell’s story ‘Orange is for Anguish, Blue is for Insanity’. I wanted to interrogate this trope and demystify it, suggesting ‘the book/film/play/painting told me to do it’ can be a convenient ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. At the risk of sounding pompous, the moral of my story might be that artists and writers have a social responsibility for the effect of their creation on others. But viewers and readers aren’t just passive consumers: they too have a responsibility to read and view critically. This can be challenging in the arena of the weird, which acts on the subconscious.

Are there any parallels with Arthur Machen, sometimes considered a Decadent, who deals with the trope of the cursed work and the idea that simply ‘seeing’ something can cause reality to unravel?

Hilda Abelard would seem to provide the more obvious parallel with Helen Vaughan from Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. She exerts a malign influence through her film, which fulfils the role of catastrophic forbidden lore, causing mental collapse in those who encounter it, inciting them to commit grotesque violence to themselves or others. Like Helen, Salome is something of a femme fatale, and her presence contributes to the decadent feel of the novella, but this is somewhat undercut by the fact Hilda’s film is a low-budget ‘poverty row’ biblical epic! But Salome isn’t really a character in the story, more an archetype or stereotype onto which ideas are projected. The story focuses more on Louise Browning, who played her. Far from being a femme fatale, she is innocent to the point of being a martyr-figure, more like Helen Vaughan’s abused and manipulated mother.

Hilda Abelard is horrified by the licentiousness of Wilde’s play, and wants her film to counter its hedonistic decadence as she sees it, but that fits in with her visceral Nazi loathing of ‘degeneracy’. Returning to Machen, the idea of evil put forward in ‘The White People’ is a very metaphysical one. In the framing introduction to the text of the ‘found’ document that makes up the main story, one of the men discussing evil suggests that weird and unnatural phenomena are more profoundly, disquietingly evil than mere domestic murder. I always found that idea rather perverse, even if it did seem as if Machen in his way was trying to challenge conventional Victorian morality with a mystical value-system more in keeping with his fin-de-siecle mores.

If Song of Salome has a moral, perhaps it’s to reassert the idea that mundane evils like racism, inequality and cruelty are in fact more to be feared than supernatural forces. But of course, as with all the Herb Fry novellas, I have my cake and eat it. They deal with racism and fascism but in the form of occult detective stories, so the social forces menacing the characters have a paranormal dimension.

This is something I also do in my shorter fiction too. There’s a paragraph in The Song of Salome that’s also paraphrased in a short story called ‘Zombie Economy’, a tale of voodoo drawing upon Black Jacobins, CLR James’s history of the Haitian revolts against slavery.

This story appears for the first time in my new Alchemy Press collection, Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking, which includes other historical horror stories dealing with colonialism, uprisings and resistance such as ‘Creeping Forth Upon Their Hands’, about the Elizabethan poet Spenser’s spell as a colonial administrator in Ireland, and ‘The Topsy Turvy Ones’, in which a couple encounter weird creatures left over from the suppression of the Diggers’ commune in Surrey.  


I’ll add here that I heard an extract from ‘The Topsy Turvy Ones’ at our Shock Against Racism reading in Brighton back in 2018 and now, at last, I’ll get to read the complete tale.

And I’ll now finish with a big thanks to Tom for answering my questions. Song of Salome and In the Friendly Dark are available from Omnium Gatherum Media and online booksellers. You’ll find Let Your Hinged Jaw Do the Talking through Alchemy Press and the online bookseller of your choice. They are all available as ebooks.

My own Dorian Gray story, All That is Solid, is now available as a chapbook from Eibonvale Press.

I’ll close with a link to the video with Kate Jonez and Simon Bestwick that kicked this all off. You can access it on the Omnium Gatherum Facebook page.

I wanna dance like we used to: replaying my playlist

Everything_Propagate CollectiveLast week I put on my Life During Lockdown playlist on Spotify for the first time in a few weeks. I started this list in early April and now we’re several months down the line. I’ve visited my partner (now known as “bubble boy” or “bubble buddy”) in Oxford for the first time since lockdown and wore a festive new mask for the occasion. Recently he made the journey to see me in London. And now it’s been announced that pubs will be reopening on 4 July.

Like many I have my suspicions about a premature end to lockdown, especially for those who are shielding and stand to lose benefits, or workers who could be forced back into unsafe workplaces or claimants facing sanctions again. I don’t want to go back to the same routine and the same air quality as before or risk a second wave of infections. But will I be able to resist a visit to the pub after a walk?

With these thoughts in mind I recently listened to my lockdown playlist again. I considered the songs that continue to resonate and the changes that have taken place since I began putting it together. Listening to other playlists and compiling my own helped me keep the pieces of my mind together during a stressful period while opening some new musical avenues. It also eased the completion of a particularly troublesome novelette.

At the beginning I did casual searches for words like pandemic, lockdown, corona, covid and plague. This revealed thousands of other playlists. Some concentrated on dance music for indoor exercising, others were mournful, dark and gothic, still others were upbeat and humorous. A few focused on queer themes and some – which were left unclicked – petitioned for salvation from the plague. Many lists focused on certain genres – country music, heavy metal, grime, classical, industrial, rap, blues, folk. A spectrum of musical subcultures are represented: lots of rave-oriented playlists and some good thrashing punk ones and I’m sure I came across a psychobilly one too. There were even playlists of original plague-era early music, like this 15h Century Medieval Party Mix: “Party like it’s yer last day because thou is dying of plague.”

I’m sure these lists will prove fruitful for analysis of this crucial moment in history as well as providing hours of listening pleasure. Let a thousand PhD dissertations bloom!

Rappers were especially quick to the comment on current events. One of my favourite rap attacks on the virus was Gotty Boi Chis’ Fuck the Corona: “Wash your hands and wash your motherfuckin’ feet!”

Some songs on these lists didn’t have such an obvious connection, or none at all. I imagined a very personal context. Nosy as I am, I always want to know more. Was a certain song performed at their last gig before lockdown, or did they listen to it while sick in bed? Or perhaps a song reminded them of a lover who doesn’t happen to share their household.

I also revisited some videos on YouTube. I found that the ones that featured shoppers fighting over toilet paper already seem like period pieces. And when I listened to my own list, I found that the anxious apocalyptic edge has softened. Yet I still respond to the most ominous tunes, which have meant other things at other times. For example, I loved When the Music’s Over by the Doors since I was a kid. Did it have something to do with Altamont and the death of the 1960s counterculture (or a few countercultures past that)? Or maybe it’s about Death with a capital D or something that Jim Morrison ate that didn’t go down well. Now it means something else again. That’s what what I call a ‘classic’, even though I still giggle when Jim intones “the scream of the butterfly”.

When I hear the Specials’ Ghost Town I do remember the riots of 1981 and boarded-up deindustrialised towns – but 40 years on we’ve seen many other ways a city can die. I look out my window and see the development of Nine Elms, where flats are bought as investments and not actual places to live – a ghost town in the making. In any case, that eerie keyboard riff still sends a chill through me even as the bassline gets my feet moving.

And speaking of chills… this chuckle-provoking ditty about keeping it chill in New York City’s East Village reels out several apocalyptic scenarios and one hopeful one. Meanwhile, I continue my efforts to keep it chill in North Lambeth.

On my list I’ve also included songs about solitude and isolation, about death and grieving, about mutual aid and support as well as the solace of drink and drugs, and some plain silly stuff. There’s a lot about dancing and the desire to dance (Days of the Dance and Dancing While the Sky Falls Down). The embattled hedonism of Julie Delphy’s La La La (“I wanna dance like we used to…”) speaks to me again; this song also served in my post-election playlist. As my neighbour’s crap music pounded out his open window and into mine I added the reggae classic Man Next Door, which also expresses a need to escape: “I’ve got to get away!” That’s a recurring theme on several of my playlists.

However, a wider range of musical styles has made its way into my lockdown list. For example, I never got into electronic and industrial music before but I gravitated towards these genres on a few occasions here. I also wanted the playlist to touch on the history of plagues and pandemics and even some of the science, which cast another angle on the music I sought out.

These interests have taken me on some odd musical detours. So yes, I’ve chosen those lockdown staples like Ghost Town, Life During Wartime and End of the World as We Know It… but who else has the likes of Marcus J Buehler’s Viral Counterpoint of the Coronavirus Spike Protein? Buehler explains to how his team analysed the “vibrational structure” of the coronavirus and created music out of it –and why this is a useful thing to do:

“Translating proteins into sound gives scientists another tool to understand and manipulate them… Understanding these vibrational patterns is critical for drug design and much more. Vibrations may change as temperatures warm, for example, and they may also tell us why the SARS-CoV-2 spike gravitates toward human cells more than other viruses…
Through music, we can see the SARS-CoV-2 spike from a new angle, and appreciate the urgent need to learn the language of proteins.”

You might expect ‘Rona to serenade us with some hardcore death metal. Not quite. It sounds rather beautiful, even soothing – in the beginning. Some comments on the YouTube page and elsewhere suggest a resemblance to Bjork’s music. Indeed, I came across a Bjork song with a very similar sound. And guess what it’s called – Virus. So this appears on the playlist just before Marcus J and it’s very creepy (“As the protein transmutates I knock on your skin, and I am in.”)

You might find it impossible to listen to an hour and a half of Marcus J’s viral song in one go. I haven’t stuck out the duration either and I have a slightly shorter version on Spotify. Perhaps I’ve watched too many Ring films, but I can’t help suspecting that if I listen to the whole song I’ll be inviting a whole crew of those spiky little fuckers in for a party. Bueller himself does offer this analogy: “As you listen, you may be surprised by the pleasant, even relaxing, tone of the music. But it tricks our ear in the same way the virus tricks our cells. It’s an invader disguised as a friendly visitor.”

Meanwhile, others suggest (tongues firmly in cheek) the opposite; that listening to it might confer immunity!

In line with my folkloric interests, the most suitable follow-up to that long long song of the virus would be an 18th century ballad (with medieval roots) called Twa Corbies, which describes a conversation between two crows about what they’ll eat next as they eye up the corpse of a slain knight. I’ve chosen Maddy Prior’s haunting solo version. Perhaps a pun – which may be wearing as ancient as the folk song itself – lurks in there too.

I’ve followed this with another folk song,  Shaking of the Sheets, a jolly little ditty that revolves around the trope of death as the “Great Leveller”. It’s obviously untrue in our context where class and race have determined how people are affected by Covid; Boris Johnson had better options for treatment than a black nurse in Peckham who was left to die alone in her flat. But if you listen to Shaking of the Sheets, it seems to hurl defiance  at ‘sly bankers’ and “the politicians of high and low degree” and “lords and ladies, great and small.” The song warns: “Don’t think that you’ll escape and need not dance with me.” Consider an era when official ideology touted the divine right of kings to rule. This song is saying: you call yourself divine your royal fucking highness but you’re only human like us and you’ll die.

Many have noted that times of crisis may result in major changes that can have both negative or positive potential. In English history, restless survivors of the Black Death of 1348 unleashed the Peasants Revolt across large parts of England. It was sparked by the imposition of a poll tax and culminated with an assault on the City of London. This period produced the socialist vision expressed by John Ball and an expanded notion of rights and commonalities.

Could we be looking at another period of upheaval now? We won’t be emboldened by a labour surplus as folks were in the 14th century – quite the opposite. We could be facing another case of state ‘shock doctrine’ in the aftermath. On the other hand, the effects of austerity left a system unable to cope with the pandemic. It is now being challenged and much of the ‘culture change’ demanded by the architects of austerity has been derailed.  The logic of work at any cost, enforced by a regime of benefit sanctions, has also been exposed and held up to question – check out Pandemic Creations: Links to a New World for many perspectives on this. As Arundhati Roy notes in her article:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

To mark the historical connection I searched for tunes dating from the Peasants Revolt; the only thing I found was The Cutty Wren. If you listen to the lyrics, it seems as if folks are getting out a lot of equipment (hatchets and cleavers, big guns and cannons etc) and going to a lot of trouble to do away with a small brown bird. But the unfortunate wren could symbolise young King Richard II, who is killed and fed to the poor in the song. Folk chronicler AL Lloyd put that idea on the table in 1944 and Chumbawumba popularised the connection by including the song in their album English Rebel Songs 1381–1914. Others claim there is no evidence to connect The Cutty Wren with the Peasants’ Revolt. In any case, this is the closest I could get to a song of that era so it goes in!

The Chumbawumba version wasn’t available on Spotify but I do like this one because it’s sung with a lot of verve and a touch of menace. The response: “We may not tell you…” followed by an explicit description of the hardware involved in wren-killing so reminds me of conversations concerning “security” in various naughty noughties actions in the days of yore! This was when ‘masking up’ meant something very different than it does now.

War Movie by the Jefferson Airplane previously turned up in this blog as part of a Paul Kantner tribute. Here it is again, with its SF high-tech vision of another kind of peasants revolt predicted to take place in “nineteen-hundred and seventy-five”. So maybe this did take place in another timeline… I’ve posted the original below but you can also listen to a live version where Paul updates to “two thousand and five”.

And now, in our own timeline, I can’t help but think that recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, occupations and statue-dunking could herald the opening of the portal described by Arundhati Roy. This spirit came across in Saul Williams’ List of Demands. Though it was written in the early 2000s it feels very contemporary: “I got a list of demands written on the palm of my hands. I ball my fist and you’re gonna know where I stand.”

Meanwhile, the illness and death of John Prine from Covid-19 prompted me to think about how important his music had been to me when I was growing up. He was one of the singers I first enjoyed on late-night radio, probably on WBAI with Bob Fass – those mournful and wry tunes were just the thing for clandestine listening on a school night. That Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore always made me laugh – it was the perfect antidote to Okie from Muskogee. Prine had been one of the first at the time to show that country music doesn’t have to be right-wing and flag-waving, and he’s been a major influence on recent “alt-country” (it might be called something else now) performers.

I’ve therefore put a bunch of his songs on my playlist and it’s been a bittersweet experience to revisit them. I had to chuckle when listening to his song Donald and Lydia for the first time in years. It ends with:

“They made love in the mountains, they made love in the streams,
They made love in the valleys, they made love in their dreams.
But when they were finished there was nothing to say,
’cause mostly they made love from ten miles away.”

How’s that for social distancing?

If anyone thinks it’s in bad taste to put a John Prine tribute on the same playlist with Marcus J Bueller’s song of the coronavirus (or have issues with some of the more lighthearted comments in this post), please have a listen to Please Don’t Bury Me. It reveals a sense of humour that is both dark and humane:

I ended the playlist with a few songs about friendship and mutual aid (Carry Me, Stand By Me and Stay Free), followed by Alison Mosshart’s Rise. The timing of its release in early April is coincidental but I’ve taken this song as an anthem about getting through lockdown and loss to “make it to the other side” – and opening that portal.

And if you get this far, I hope you’ve enjoyed the music!

Some words of praise for All That is Solid…

All That is Solid cover

So “Brexit Day” came and went. There was fuss about whether Big Ben would bong and it turned out it would have been a very expensive “bong” indeed. However, my crab bell did get to emit an emphatic ding of disgust and dismay from her vantage point across the river.

Crab bell_red light

Crab bell in a pensive mood

Meanwhile, the chapbook edition of All That is Solid has received some positive reviews. I love the chapbook format and like the compactness of a single story with a cover all its own. But while chapbooks may be perfectly formed, they’re small enough to get lost in the shuffle – so these reviews are especially appreciated.  And the fact that they happen to come from writers whose work I enjoy adds much to the pleasure too. 

Des Lewis (who also reviewed the story when it appeared in The Scarlet Soul) writes in his blog: “I, too, have not been in a Wetherspoons since June 2016; one can’t say it enough. Put it in all fiction and I will quote it in all my reviews… This story will stay with me for a long time.”

You might have come across Des before in the pages of this blog. He is the author of The Big-Headed People and editor of several highly original anthologies like The First Book of Classical Horror, The Horror Anthology of Horror Anthologies and Horror Without Victims and also known for his creative “real-time reviews”.

Andrew Hook writes in his Goodreads review: “Thoroughly enjoyed this single story chapbook which packs so much – Brexit, anxiety, atoms & therapy – in so few pages. A neat dissection of dissociation against a background of dissonance.”

His most recent book is The Forest of Dead Children and he has also published an array of novellas, novellas and short story collections.

Priya Sharma commented in Goodreads: “Writers like Rosanne Rabinowitz are more important in this political climate than ever.” This is high praise indeed, which comes from the award-winning author of All the Fabulous Beasts and Ormeshadow.

Finally, science fiction writer and critic Dev Argarwal included All That is Solid in his roundup for 2019 in Vector: “This is a timely story that explores our Brexit tensions through activism and art therapy, in arresting and elegant prose.”

I’ll end with thanks to these four folks for their very kind words.












Resonance & Revolt shortlisted for BFS award!

Screenshot 2019-07-30 18.03.32Some brilliant news – Resonance & Revolt has been shortlisted for Best Collection in the British Fantasy Awards. For a full listing of the nominees and jurors in all categories, check out the BFS link.

I’m in fabulous (and female) company on this shortlist, which also includes All the Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma, The Future is Blue by Catherynne M Valente, How Long ‘til Black Future Month? by NK Jemisin, Lost Objects by Marian Womack and Octoberland by Thana Niveau. I found it very interesting that this shortlist has turned out to be all women.

This is the first time that I’ve appeared on a BFS shortlist so I’m thrilled to be included alongside these brilliant writers. And I’m especially excited to see that women writers have made a strong showing in all categories as well as the collections shortlist.

27654537_1364622573643699_4256024437919273175_nI’m also very pleased to see that Eibonvale Press has done well – David Rix has been nominated for Best Artist and Humangerie (edited by Allen Ashley and Sarah Doyle) shortlisted for Best Anthology.

Meanwhile, to mark World Con in Dublin I’m looking back on my visit to the city last year for the Dublin Ghost Story Festival at the Milford SF blog with an update of my 2018 post: Return to Dublin. These are two very different cons: one will be massive while the other was designed to be small and intimate. But Dublin’s rich heritage in the speculative and the supernatural provides a common thread through them both. I look forward to visiting this city again to talk about weird stuff! I’ll be back very soon with more details about my panels in my next post.

20190803_07071620190803_070338In other news, I’ve contributed a two-part piece to zine extraordinaire Dykes Ink. This is produced by Dead Unicorn Ventures, an LGBT+ events company based in West Cornwall.  My old friend Julie Travis, who is one of the moving spirits behind this project, suggested I write something about dykes and squatting in the past. Seeking a connection to Cornwall, I hit upon my tender memories of the notorious Treworgey Tree Fayre, which has become legendary in the chronicles of festive excess and headbanging. Then I remembered that the festival was the second event of a paradoxical and exciting summer in 1989; the first event on our calendar was the International Revolutionary Women’s Gathering just outside Ruigord in Holland.

So I ended up writing about both: “From the vantage point of 30 years, these two events may stand in contrast to each other. Yet they were both very much part of our stream of partying and politics.”

Finally, the Pareidolia anthology came out last month. You can read about my story “Geode” and what inspired it here in my last blog post. Now I look forward to reading all the stories in my contributor’s copy. And here is an overexposed shot of my copy seated on a purple velvet cushion that seems suitably pareidolic.



Shock Against Racism in Brighton – a great evening of readings

Here’s an account from Tom Johnstone of last week’s Shock Against Racism event in Brighton. This includes a perceptive discussion of the themes in the stories that we read, which finds connections that I hadn’t been aware of at the time. And I’m rather flattered at his description of my story Survivor’s Guilt as “something of a twenty-first century anti-fascist horror classic”. Thanks!

Like Tom I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear Victoria Leslie’s story “Almost Aureate” that recently appeared in New Fears 2, a book I definitely plan to buy (once I get my lost Kindle back).

I’ll also add that I was intrigued with Tom’s extract from his yet-unpublished story “The Topsy Turvy Ones” set during the radical ferment in 1649 – and 350 years later when Pinochet, ex-dictator and great friend of Thatcher, is awaiting extradition in Surrey while ‘The Land is Ours’ squatters commemorate the anniversary of Winstanley’s Digger commune. If you like your horror historical (with present-day political resonances), this is one to look out for.

And look out also for future Shock Against Horror events!

By the way, this is my first attempt at reblogging… The result doesn’t include all the graphics in the original post so I’ll put one of them here: The World Turned Upside Down.



On the 25th November, I participated in an event that was one of the launching points for a new initiative in the world of horror literature: Shock Against Racism.The recent surge in racism and fascism, whose most obvious global manifestation is the emergence of Donald Trump as US president, has long been a source of anxiety to many of us in the horror community, as in other sectors of society. Some of us have started a group called Shock Against Racism, as a kind of cultural arm of the fight against this phenomenon, because after all the Far Right fights in this arena: the so-called ‘culture wars’.

The group has already held two evenings of dark fiction, with readings from some of the finest talents in the genre. The first was at Write Blend in Liverpool on November 23rd, with Simon Bestwick, Cate Gardner, Priya Sharma and Ramsey Campbell, in…

View original post 1,023 more words

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.




Manchester, myth and music

Hey, that guest blog from Simon Bestwick was fun… I’d like to thank him for stopping by. I’d also recommend guest-blogging to those who might feel the urge to hold forth every so often but don’t want to make a commitment to a regular blog just yet. I started off that way with a guest slot at TTA Press, all about Machen, Misogyny and Madwomen in Attics.

Which brings me to my current post, which also as a lot of ‘M’s in it. As mentioned, I went up to Ladyfest Manchester in November and did a reading as part of the launch for the Rebel Dykes film trailer. This included a fragment of a novel that revisited the South London Women’s Hospital and a bit from my recent blog post on Rebel Dykes of the 1980s and the Sluts from Outer Space. The room was packed – the event had the atmosphere of a gig rather than a literary soiree… People even spontaneously sang out to the “Dykes of Brixton”. I was thrilled by the enthusiastic response by younger women, and also aware of how much I stand to learn from them in turn during this process.

So finally, here is the trailer we launched that night…

After the presentation, I got a drink and eventually turned my attention to the musical talent on the main stage. This started a train of thought about music and urban myth. Recently I saw a BBC documentary about indie music, Music for MisfitsSome of it I enjoyed, but I will also agree with Emma Jackson on the programme’s ‘restrospective sexism’ and how it ignored the sizeable input of women musicians. Where were PJ Harvey, the Voodoo Queens, Echobelly, and so many women who made some noise in the 1990s?

I always find it startling to watch historical documentaries about a period that I lived through, a time that had been a ‘now’ for me. While it could be seen as a part of growing older, I imagine this is also what is meant by the ‘making history‘. Myth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I writer I often deal with myths and draw inspiration from them.

But I’m wary when mythologising has the effect of flattening a lived experience and robbing it of ambiguity and nuance, or hiding major parts of that experience from view. A mythologised experience often stands outside the stream of time, as if the branches that extend into the present have been lopped off. It’s like a bug preserved in amber. In the case of the Rebel Dykes project, this is exactly what the film-makers are striving to avoid.

Meanwhile, musical retrospectives can be very seductive. You hear a lot of favourite old tunes,  they provoke a glow of nostalgia. But they often leave me unsatisfied, as if a big chunk of the story is missing. Friends I spoke with at the Ladyfest weekend observed that the Manchester segment of Music for Misfits and similar documentaries give the impression no real music has been made in the city since the days of the Smiths, Happy Mondays and Oasis.

But the music I enjoyed showed that was far from the truth. One of the bands, Factory Acts, also makes an explicit connection to their city’s musical heritage while striking out in its own unique direction. “Factory Acts are a Salford based dark electro, alt-dance duo. We exist at the edge of the analogue-digital divide, sometimes dreaming, always dancing.” I’ll say that I love a band where the bass plays lead…

And let’s have some rock ‘n roll theremin playing! You’ll see some theremin action at this performance from the Pussy Riot Revolution Festival in 2013.

Another brilliant band was ILL, which happens to include Rebel Dykes co-director, Harri Shanahan. ILL plays queercore riot grrrl style, spikey and discordant and wonderful. If I may indulge in some old fogeyness, I’d also say they’re rather like a 21st-century Delta Five. You can check out their Housewives Trilogy EP and listen to their signature song below.

And here’s a live performance, also from 2013’s Pussy Riot Revolution Festival.

I only caught a bit of the Galivantes after our presentation. But I liked what I heard and would like to see them again.

The night finished in storming style with hip-hop band Ajah UK – here are a couple of videos from them – a live performance of “Money Ain’t Your Friend” and a performance of “Don’t Step on My Shoe”.

During the event, further news about the attacks in Lebanon and Paris was just filtering through. Because I was at a gig myself, I felt especially emotional hearing about the attacks at the Bataclan. Many of us were also concerned about how the horror of these attacks will be compounded with racism and attacks on civil liberties, as well as military action by governments that will result in many more deaths.

It seemed very important to keep making music wherever we are and to oppose suppression wherever it descends. Though much has happened, been written about and analysed since mid-November, as an immediate reaction this comment by a French woman living in the UK still nails it: “My heart is with the world, no borders, no hierarchy…”








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

Journeys into Darkness out now: launch on 6 June

Midnight Street coverThe Midnight Street anthology Journeys into Darkness is now available in Kindle and trade paperback editions. Outside the UK it is also available through Amazon.

This book contains my story “Return of the Pikart Posse”, where medieval heresy meets the threat of early 21st century redundancy. You can find out more about this story and the history that inspired it here.

Other contributors include Gary Couzens, Joel Lane, Peter Straub, Stephen Gallagher, Ramsey Campbell, Elliott Smith, Paul Finch, Ralph Robert Moore, Nina Allan and Allen Ashley.

Journeys into Darkness will be launching on 6 June 2014 at the Phoenix Artists Club on Phoenix Street, London WC2 8BU from 7-11pm.

After all that information, I’m sorry to say it’s likely I won’t be there. It feels strange to miss the launch of an anthology that includes a story of mine. I’m usually ultra-enthusiastic about such events. However, by the time this was arranged I’d already bought tickets for an Eliza and Martin Carthy gig that night.

However, a lot of great people will be on hand. The launch is part of the regular British Fantasy Society get-together and drink-up. Adam Christopher will be interviewed by Gillian Redfearn from Gollancz. There will be more books, a raffle and the launch of DieGo Comics Publishing.

So it’ll be a good social night. I’ll try to make it across the river from the Southbank after the gig, but it depends how long it goes on.

In any case, go on… have a drink and a natter and enjoy the opportunity to buy Journeys into Darkness at a special launch price.


My story “Lambeth North” will appear in the new anthology from Megazanthus Press, Horror Without Victims. The full table of contents appears above.  I’ll be writing some more about what ‘horror without victims” might mean, in case you’re wondering…

Horror Without Victims

Tony Lovell’s cover:

Horror Without Victims

Twenty-five Horror Stories written independently by twenty-five different authors
who responded to the theme ‘Horror Without Victims’. Their serendipitous gestalt
seems to aspire towards a curative force for all of us.

The order of contents in HORROR WITHOUT VICTIMS due to be published in 2013:


THE HORROR – Gary McMahon

CLOUDS – Eric Ian Steele


WAITING ROOM – Aliya Whiteley

FOR AGES AND EVER – Patricia Russo

NIGHT IN THE PINK HOUSE – Charles Wilkinson

POINT AND STICK – Mark Patrick Lynch

THE BLUE UMBRELLA – Mark Valentine

LAMBETH NORTH – Rosanne Rabinowitz

THE CURE – John Travis


LORD OF PIGS – DeAnna Knippling

LIKE NOTHING ELSE – Christopher Morris


SCREE – Caleb Wilson


View original post 56 more words

Special offer!

Helen’s Story is now on sale at Freedom Bookshop at the
reduced price of £10. Freedom-Bookshop21All proceeds will benefit Freedom as they rebuild after last February’s firebombing.

Freedom is located at Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High St – the nearest tube is Aldgate East. The offer will also be available through Freedom’s website. Copies are limited, so get in there fast!

Rustblind and Silverbright

Eibonvale Press editor David Rix has now released the table of contents for new anthology Rustblind and Silverbright. This includes a story by me and Mat Joiner, “The Turning Track”. I’m proud to be among a great group of writers that includes Andrew Hook, Nina Allan, Rhys Hughes, Allen Ashley, Joel Lane and Aliya Whiteley.

Eibonvale is an independent UK publisher that produces “beautiful and lovingly-designed editions of excellent writing in modern horror, magic realism and the surreal”.

“The Turning Track” was my first collaboration on a story. It was a great experience, and we have some more joint outings in the pipeline. I’ll be posting some more thoughts about the process and benefits of collaborative writing in the very near future.