Helen’s Story returns – to be censored by Facebook!

rabinowitz-helen-cvr-lrThe US edition of Helen’s Story is now available from Aqueduct Press. This edition is also available as an ebook in Kindle (mobi) and epub formats – you can find the Kindle link here. It’s the very first time I’ve had my own ebook out, so I’m excited. You can read more about this in Aqueduct’s blog.

The startling and sensuous cover image from the 2013 PS Publishing edition will also grace Aqueduct’s version, with thanks to Seattle-based artist Erika Steiskal. However, the bods-that-be on Facebook have not been jumping up and down in joy. In fact, FB has been suppressing new posts with the image despite the fact that it’s been all over social media since 2013. When I first tried to post the link from the Aqueduct blog, it was blocked as ‘spam’.  When I clicked that my post was definitely NOT spam FB informed me that my post would be reconsidered as to whether it breaches ‘community standards’.

That was over a month ago. When I didn’t hear back I tried posting the link again and the same thing happened. Others have reported similar results.

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This is gobsmacking. Either the folks at Facebook can’t write a decent algorithm or some techie is terrified by the mere sight of a finely drawn nipple and/or a luxuriant bush. It’s been suggested that the nipple might’ve led to the ban. To test the hypothesis I posted this gorgeous painting by Klimt, foregrounded nipple and all, but had no problem there. Go figure!

Meanwhile, Nancy Jane Moore has written an excellent post about Helen’s Story on the Bookview Cafe blog. She discusses the suppression of the cover image and also has lovely things to say about the book itself: “It’s an excellent book. I found it both delightful and disturbing, which is always a good mix.”

The good news is that I’ve managed to post a link from the Aqueduct website (rather than the blog), which has stayed up for a day or so. Perhaps it works because the image uploads in a smaller format. Fingers crossed that the algorithms of the great Lord Zuck have passed it by! And here’s the uncensored book cover, by the way. I love the portrait of Mary Shelley on the back cover too.

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Now, it’s been a good few months since I’ve last posted in this blog. In that time I’ve been to WorldCon in Helsinki and held forth at a few panels. Two stood out for me. One was Fantasies of Free Movement, where we talked about borders and the dissolution of borders in fantastic fiction – with reference to Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Chris Beckett’s Marcher and the Fractured Europe series by David Hutchinson.

And I especially enjoyed Beyond the Cash Nexus. We had a big audience eager to discuss the following:

Ursula K LeGuin has called on F/SFwriters to imagine alternatives to capitalism: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” Have things moved on since The Dispossessed?  Is the opposite of dystopia necessarily utopia, is there are terrain where we can avoid the oversimplification of either? Can we portray radical visions when writing about the here and now, as well as secondary worlds, far future or extra-terrestrial universes?

This has actually turned up on YouTube, recorded in its entirety. Though it was a great panel while it was happening, I find I’ve only lasted ten minutes during attempts to watch the video. I’ll leave it to readers to do the search and be the judge.

Then I enjoyed a post-con holiday in the countryside. I spent time with some brilliant writers, especially the hospitable Anne Leinonen. Here’s a 2011 interview with her about the state of Finnish science fiction.

And when I returned it was time to move house. I’ve not actually moved far – up from the first floor to the ninth floor of the same block. It should have been an easy move but there’s been a multitude of hassles. It took over a month to get my WiFi on, which has been a definite contributing factor to the lateness of this post!

I’ll wrap up with some other news: I will be publishing a collection of stories with those wonderful folks at Eibonvale Press, purveyors of modern horror, magic realism, slipstream and the surreal. I previously had “The Turning Track”– a collaboration with Mat Joiner – published in Eibonvale’s anthology Rustblind and Silverbright and I look forward to working with Eibonvale again. Watch this space for more details.

 

 

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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!

Workfare for the fae

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Reading from Helen’s Story
Photo: Gary Couzens

I was excited to be going to the first World Fantasy Convention outside of North America since 1997, particularly when I was offered a reading slot and invited to join Jana Oliver, Tessa Farmer, Alison Littlewood and Emma Newman on a panel about fairy lore and literature. This was part of the stream of programming celebrating the work of Arthur Machen on his 150th birthday.

Maybe some of the convention missives sent out beforehand had us worried, especially when we were informed that lost badges incurred a fine of £75 for replacement. But once the con got underway, people were very friendly. A programme of pop-up pirate events, a kind of World Fantasy Fringe, also added some spice to the event.

Along with the usual social buzz of conventions, I enjoyed the opportunity to meet online friends in person for the first time. This included Lynda E Rucker, who I corresponded with on a TTA Press e-list way back in the late 1990s.

Now, I attended a lot of events. These included readings by Lynda and by Jack Dann, panels on style vs content, broads with swords, whether vampires have lost their bite, several connected with the Machen @150 stream of programming, late night ghost stories… 

However, to keep this at a manageable length I’ll focus on the events that I was personally involved with. So,  let’s start with my reading…

Someone had to be doing stuff at the same time as the Terry Pratchett interview. And if that someone ends up being me (among others), I figured that I’ll just have to give it my best shot. Perhaps I was more concerned when I realised that I was scheduled at the same time as a panel on Machen and modern horror. After all, I’d been planning to attend it – had it circled and all!

The reading room was most impressive, featuring a very high-backed Alice-in-Wonderland chair near a table provided with all the reading essentials. I read from Helen’s Story and  “Lambeth North” from Horror Without Victims, a story that I had begun as a take on Machen’s story ‘N’. This was the first time I took a long look at these two tales together, and I was struck by the common themes as well as their differences (well, nothing of a sexual nature takes place in “Lambeth North”).

Both stories exemplify the dialogue – and sometimes argument – I have with classic works that inspire me. As I’ve written previouslyHelen’s Story developed out of years of fascination and frustration with The Great God Pan. 

In his story ‘N’ Machen imagines a gateway, a rending of the veil, in Stoke Newington, while nothing of the sort would be found in the ‘unshaped’ reaches of South London.

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And a visit to north Lambeth
Photo: Gary Couzens

So as I wrote this story, I found
myself rambling down that strangely silent stretch of Lambeth High Street, staring at the frieze and intricate moulding on the old Doulton pottery building, then entering the tiny park that had once been a burial ground for cholera victims. And while I enjoy stories where fellows of a certain age imbibe in pubs and tell peculiar tales to each other, here I imagined several gals quaffing their whisky and having a laugh. 

Given the other events taking place at the time, I was pleased that anyone at all came. And what’s more, the half-dozen or so in my audience included one to two individuals I DID NOT KNOW. At the end, most of us quickly decamped to catch the rest of the Machen and modern horror panel, which ended with short readings from Adam Nevill, Michael Kelly, Thana Niveau, Tim Lebbon, Paul Finch and Ramsey Campbell.

Touched for the very first time…
Now… the fairy panel. As a total panel virgin I was very nervous. With a reading, I just lose myself in the story. But a panel means talking about things. And even myself. And what do I know about fairies anyway? Eeek! But I emailed Jana Oliver, the moderator, to see what points she might raise. (Be gentle, it’s my first time, I entreated…)

Jana kindly sent me the points she wanted to bring up. I discovered that I knew more than I realised about fairies and the fae. In the end, the panel turned out to be a very enjoyable conversation about favourite books and provoked me to think more about their themes.

In the wake of controversy regarding gender parity on panels, I was interested to find that this panel consisted of all women. An artist of the male persuasion had been on the programme, then he couldn’t make it. But we did have another perspective from the visual arts with Tessa Farmer, an artist who also happens to be Mr Machen’s great-grand daughter. She talked about her strange wire and insect fairy sculptures, and described how her creatures are likely to bring down larger and larger mammals… until they get us. And in a rather chilling aside, she added that parasitic wasps have been providing inspiration as to how this will happen.

Jana asked us about our favourite stories about the fae, particularly those that took the theme in a new direction. I first suggested Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand (interviewed by me here), a potent brew mixed with measures of the pre-Raphaelites, the ever-mad Richard Dadd, Swinburne, folk music, punk and the realm of faerie.

I was intrigued by the hints of quantum physics in Hand’s book  – a glimpse of the fae as beings trapped in two places at once, living between universes. This view was made more explicit by Justina Robson in her Quantum Gravity series, where a hadron collider meltdown results in a blurring of borders between the realms.

Then I got onto Clive Barker’s Weaveworld. This is about a magical world called the Fugue that is hidden in a carpet, a place of refuge from persecution for a race called the Seerkind, who have been mythologised as fairies and demons. A young woman called Suzanna inherits this carpet and the secrets that it hides, and she is joined in a struggle to defend the Fugue by a young man who accidentally discovers the nature of the carpet.

What made the far-out fantasy so effective was the realism of Barker’s portrayal of Liverpool in the early 1980s, just after the Toxteth riots of 1981. In Barker’s book a police chief called Hobart is engaged in a crusade to hunt down any remaining rioters. A sworn enemy of the Seerkind, Shadwell the Salesman, engages Hobart in his mission to destroy the Fugue. As far as Hobart is concerned, the world of the Fugue is a perfect hide-out for fugitive rioters.

When I read the book, I was struck by the way the police chief Hobart immediately accepts that this other world lurks behind an old rug. As far as he is concerned, it is only another place to be controlled and subjugated.

At this, Emma Newman commented: “I imagine that’s how the Tories would react if they encountered the fae.”

Indeed. Certainly I could see IDS as Hobart and salesman Shadwell rolled in together. Or perhaps the latter role would be played by George Osborne.

The feckless fae would inevitably be targeted by a new government Daily Mail/DWP hate campaign, complete with ‘documentaries’ on the BBC through to the Daily Mail of the Air, Channel 5.

And oh what a contract! The whole vile roster of poverty profiteers would stick their snouts in the trough – G4S, Avanta, A4e, Igneus… As I write I can hear the grunting and gobbling and snorting as they concoct their new money-making forced-labour schemes.

So there you have it – workfair for the fae!

From austerity to fairyland

bethnal green hospital occupation work-in nupe july 1978

Bethnal Green Hospital 1978: The first work-in at a hospital casualty department

In the next few weeks I’ll be taking part in two very different events. At the London Anarchist Bookfair next Saturday – 19 October – I’ll contribute to a meeting that will look back on hospital occupations against closure and discuss their current relevance to defending health services. And at the World Fantasy Convention two weeks afterwards I’m on a panel about… fairies.

From austerity to fairyland: the leap between these two subjects first provoked a few bemused chuckles. Then I looked into these subjects a bit more, and you know… I had to think again.

So, the discussion at the bookfair will ask the question: “Occupying is good for your health?” This meeting is part of a stream of radical history presentations and discussions at the bookfair. The people from Past Tense, who are coordinating these meetings, write:

“We don’t see ‘history’ as a dry ‘subject’; it isn’t separate from our own experiences and the struggles, and situations we are part of now, and the ideas and movements we hope can help build a freer future. Our own stories are also history; but reversing that, history is made up of experiences, battles, events, individuals and mass movements – linked to ours by both resistance to the hierarchical and unequal social relations they faced, and the desires, ideas and dreams of what life could be, and how to get there.” 

In this spirit, we will cast our eye back on campaigns in the 1970s through the 1990s when staff and patients occupied hospitals under threat of closure. I took part in the occupation of the South London Hospital for Women from 1984 to 1985, so I’ll bring reflections on that to the discussion. My friend Myk will share his experiences of occupying at UCH in the 1990s. Currently the NHS is under threat again. How is the situation different now? Are tales of previous occupations relevant? The NHS, vital as it is, has never really been under our control – are occupations a step in that direction? We’re also very keen to hear from others who are currently involved with opposing health service cuts and hospital closures.

The bookfair itself is well worth a visit and you don’t need to be a card-carrying or flag-waving anarchist to find something of interest here. The event takes place at Queen Mary’s University at Mile End and features workshops, stalls, books and music,  talks and films. Two crèches are available and there is also disabled access. Check out the bookfair website for more  information.WFC_small

Which brings us to the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, from 31 October to 3 November. Though I’ve been to the UK Fantasycon many times, this will be my first world fantasy event. I’m looking forward to four days of schmoozing, socialising, panels and discussions, drinking, drinking, drinking, curries and curries… and meeting other readers and writers from around the world(ish) who are passionate about fantastical fiction. And I’m also excited to be involved in two programme items.

Tickets are no longer on sale for the convention, but if you happen to be going you might be interested in the following. On Friday 1 November I’ll be at the Reading Café 3-3.30. Given that one stream of programming at WFC will mark Arthur Machen’s 150th birthday, I’ll read from my novella Helen’s Story and from “Lambeth North”, my short story in Horror Without Victims. As you can guess from the title, “Lambeth North” will shed a different light on a part of London that Machen had once described as ‘shapeless’, ‘unmeaning’ and ‘dismal beyond words’. But here South London holds its own.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 by William Blake 1757-1827Then on the Saturday at mid-day I’ll be on a panel, The Little People: When the Fairies Come Out to Play. This discussion looks at how Arthur Machen and other authors and artists have used folklore, the landscape, science and literature to create stories of the faerie otherworld.

So what is the connection between these topics? When musing on this, I had another read of Simon Bestwick’s excellent blog post, The Shrinking Space, which addresses a similar question. Simon describes the fallout from austerity and the ‘shrinking space’ it leaves for enjoying life and exercising the imagination. Simon also looks at the legacy of Arthur Machen, As well as a classic writer of dark fiction, Machen is often read as a father of psychogeography. An impoverished clerk in his younger days, he wandered the streets of Edwardian London to discover worlds of wonder and dread “a stone’s throw from Kings Cross station”.

But in the modern-day ConDemNewLab dystopia there’s little time for wandering, and the otherworldly and unworldly transcendence of Machen’s vision will find little room to thrive. Nowadays, those in employment face continual compulsion to work more and more for much less and give up their live to their work. The clerk of today would be subject to repeated performance reviews, team-building exercises and examinations of their ‘attitude’. Meanwhile, those who are unable to work or refuse to submit to this regime are hounded and starved by the DWP, ATOS and a vile cabal of poverty profiteers such as A4E and G4S.

Machen’s character Lucien Taylor in The Hill of Dreams “craves beauty and peace and seeks to capture them through prose”. But there’s no chance of doing that for those who get forced onto a workfare scheme or – as Universal Credit would have it – get forced to do time in the job centre if their clerk’s salary is too meagre without a top-up for stratospheric 21st century London rents.

Machen became a bit of an old Tory himself and waxed jingoistic over WWI, but Simon’s article nails how the literary legacy of his best work still stands opposed to the ravages of contemporary neoliberalism. I tend to think that ‘authorial intention’ is often distinct from how the core of a story is perceived by those who read it in years to come.

Moving on from Machen’s day, Johnny Void has also pointed out that a mere 15 years of neoliberal  regression could have prevented Harry Potter (among the creations of many writers who put in a few years on the dole) from ever seeing the light of publication. “Under this Government’s plans for single parents, JK Rowling would have been on workfare rather than creating some of the most successful characters in children’s literature in history.”

On one hand, the regime of austerity and intensified work aims to crush any attempt to use the imagination. On the other hand,  the active use of imagination is what gives social movements their power. Fairies might not have had much bearing on our occupation of the South London Women’s Hospital – though we did tell a few ghost stories about the walk along the underground corridor between the main building to the annexe, which happened to pass the morgue.

SL Women's Hospital

This is the balcony where we sang “What shall we do with the cops and bailiffs”, dressed up in nurse uniforms and surgeon’s masks. Good times!

But our campaign showed resilience because we went beyond traditional meetings and petition-writing. We didn’t only defend the health service as it was, but created a centre where women came together to take action, discuss and start to create the kind of health care we wanted. And beyond that – a vision of the kind of world we want to live in.

I still sometimes come across the idea that fantastical fiction is always escapist. It can be – so can anything. It can also be subversive – it is what we make it. In this context, a classic line from the 80s punk band Zounds comes to mind: “I’m not looking for escapism, I just want to escape.”

Is there a difference between escapism and wanting to escape? Answers on the back of a postcard, please!

And with that I’ll sign off with a song…

Horror Without Victims

Good news! My story “Lambeth North” will appear in the new anthologyHorror without victims_thumbnail from Megazanthus Press, Horror Without Victims.

So what is meant by ‘horror without victims’? Along with a few other writers, I was scratching my head for a long time as I turned the concept over in my mind… Initially, I came up with a satire on ‘positive thinking’ and psychobabble. In this regime,  someone who gets critical, angry or even mildly distressed will often be damned for not being ‘proactive’ and for playing the ‘victim’.

I discussed this idea with my “Turning Track” collaborator Mat Joiner, and we conceived a story based around an enforced job-seeker’s workshop. Within the context of claimant compulsion and the welfare-to-work racket, the ideology of ‘positive thinking’ has been assuming sinister and invasive – as well as laughable – aspects. See here for an account of this at a workshop run by poverty profiteering multinational A4e, and here for an example of compulsory and  nonsensical psychometric testing for JSA claimants.

Other online discussions suggested that ‘horror without victims’ could be found in any story that summons feelings of unease, dread or darkness, accompanied by a low or non-existent body count.  Work from writers such as Aickman was mentioned, or classic stories like Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows”.

Well, in the end I submitted a totally different story than the one I started with Mat. “Lambeth North” was partly inspired by one of Arthur Machen’s less known stories, “N”. However, the locale is moved to South London, an area that Mr Machen apparently held in some disdain.

My collaboration with Mat will still go ahead, but we’ve come to realise that under the circumstances, we might really want to have some  &%!! victims in this particular story after all!