Shoutout for Helen’s Story from Rebecca Baumann

rebecca-baumannEveryone… listen to this podcast from Abebooks!

It originally came out in November 2018 but I was revisiting it yesterday. Because… Well, because listening to people say nice things about your book is just the thing you do on a Sunday afternoon to put off a long-delayed visit to the gym.

The podcast features librarian and rare books collector Rebecca Baumann, who shares her love for classic weird fiction. She also discusses contemporary writers who are inspired by the tradition, yet write against the sexism and racism found in the old texts.

She makes the point that the best critiques of classic fiction appear in other fictional works rather than formal literary criticism. And… ahem… this includes a big shoutout for my novella Helen’s Story, which she describes as “amazing”. And what’s more, I find myself inhabiting the same paragraph as Victor LaValle and his deconstruction of HP Lovecraft. That’s amazing too.

On the podcast page there’s a list of books discussed in the interview, which includes some from ‘lost’ women writers of strange fiction. This has opened some new reading territory. I’ve never heard of Rachel Ingalls, a US-born writer living in London, but found out about her here. I definitely want to check out her novella Mrs Caliban. In the podcast it’s compared favourably with the award-winning Guillermo del Toro film The Shape of Water. 

So this podcast not only bigged up my own book but pointed me in the direction of a few others. Highly recommended.

At long last: X Marks the Spot, Great God Pan the opera, Eastercon and a belated tribute to Vi Subversa

book_x_marks_the_spot_front_2It’s been a while since my last post, to put it lightly. What can I say? Deadlines, deadlines, day job and all the usual. I should know by now that the best way to blog is to fire off quick items, otherwise you’re faced with the prospect of knitting together disparate events. But that’s life, a series of disparate items.

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll have a story in an anthology X Marks the Spot, published by NewCon Press to mark its tenth anniversary in July. It doesn’t seem long since I went to an event to celebrate the publisher’s fifth anniversary.

I previously published with NewCon in the anthology Conflicts. Some time ago at a bar, editor and writer Ian Whates told me he wanted stories for an anthology called Conflicts. Conflicts? You want conflicts, I’ve got conflicts! So I sent him “Harmony in My Head”, a story set around the time of the 2005 7/7 London bombings and the anti-G8 mobilisation in Scotland. Tinnitus and parallel universes were also involved.

It turned out that Conflicts (2010) was primarily a collection of military SF, which my story wasn’t, but Ian published it anyway. At least one reviewer expressed bemusement that the only military hardware in the story was a quick glimpse of a Chinook helicopter in a newspaper photo.

I’m very pleased and proud to have a story published by NewCon again, and be on board to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

Easterconeastercon cate and rosanne
I attended Eastercon at the end of March. It’s been my first Eastercon for several years. I felt sentimental about it being in Manchester, site of the first con I ever attended – Eastercon 1998. I went to some good panels, but now that I’m looking back over a few months and my memory is hazy I have to admit that a high point was dinner in the Greek tapas bar over the road in the company of Simon Bestwick, Nina Allen, Cate Gardner and Priya Sharma. And here’s a nice photo of myself (left) and Cate (right), taken by Cate. I’m notoriously camera-shy but I’m glad I gave in to the cajoling for a selfie. A ‘good’ photo of myself is one where I don’t look like a zombie or an axe murderer – so I think this one fits the bill.

Great God Pan – the opera
Those of you who enjoyed Helen’s Story might be interested in a forthcoming opera based on The Great God Pan. While I’ve not been an opera follower myself, I’m taking a great interest in this one. Composed by Ross Crean, the opera sets out with similar aims to give the vilified Helen Vaughan a voice. In her final aria she sings:

We will raise the living dead
Through the power of horned head,
Cloven foot and revelry.
Thus the Lord of Trickery will
Set this mortal coil on fire
With every succulent desire.
Pan is all, and all is Pan,
And we will hence return again!

Here’s a clip with some background information and music. Apparently, the production will be given a steampunk aesthetic. I really hope I have the opportunity to see it some day.

Vi Subversa (Frances Sokolov) 20.06.35–20.02.16
So now we’re going to hark back to earlier in the year… If you recall, my last blog ended with reactions to the deaths of David Bowie and Paul Kantner. Since then, we’ve lost even more creative people, including Prince, Victoria Wood and Vi Subversa.

Several months gone, I still want to say something about Vi – guitarist, singer and songwriter with feminist punk band Poison Girls. She died at the age of 80 last February.

I first went to see Poison Girls in 1980, and went to their gigs many times throughout the decade. Conway Hall, Chat’s Palace, the Cricketers at the Oval, the squatted ambulance station on the Old Kent Road, other venues with names that have long slipped away into the spaces between my brain cells.

I also remember when Vi performed at a picnic in the garden at the occupied South London Women’s Hospital in the summer of 1984. She was accompanied by one guitarist, 17-year-old Debbie Smith. I have a vivid recollection of Vi performing “Under the Doctor”, very appropriate to the hospital setting: “What I’m trying to say… is you’ve got to be strong, so strong/Because nothing takes the pain away for long!” Sadly, the garden  where this took place is now a carpark for the Tesco superstore that replaced part of the hospital.

In December 2015 I went to Brighton to attend what was to be Vi’s final gig, thrilled to see her performing again. Along with her own songs she sang several Brecht & Weill compositions including “Pirate Jenny”. Her voice was perfect for Brecht. Songs such as”Old Tart’s Song” and “I’ve Done it All Before” (just about the only love song I can stomach) acquired even more resonance when sung by an 80-year-old woman. I especially liked the little polyamorous flourish she added at the end: “I’ve done it all before, but not with you… and you… and you.”

I ended up sitting across a table from Vi before she went on stage. She was talking to one of the gig organisers, then to another musician. I wanted to say hello since I interviewed her for radical women’s magazine Bad Attitude in 1995, which marked the release of a retrospective CD and a grand reunion gig at the Astoria. I also went to her 60th birthday party and had the pleasure of getting to know her a little then.

But as I sat there at the Brighton venue I was thinking: ‘Better not disturb her before she goes on stage, she might be preparing for her performance and getting into the mood… etc etc… I’ll catch her afterwards.’

But I didn’t manage to find her that night, so that didn’t happen. Perhaps she left just after her performance. And now I know it won’t ever happen.

I deeply regret that I was too stupidly shy to say hello, but I am grateful that I had a chance to see that wonderful gig. Vi Subversa was – and still is – an inspiration to me.

Here are a couple of songs from that gig, “Persons Unknown: and “Old Tart’s Song”. As you might expect, the acoustic version of “Persons Unknown” is quieter than the original, but even more powerful: “Survival in silence isn’t good enough no more…”

And here’s the original “Persons Unknown” for a bit of contrast… I believe this was the first Poison Girls record.

I’ll now share a scan of the article I coauthored in Bad Attitude. The other article on the spread is about an ill-fated UN women’s conference in Beijing, in case you’re wondering. Back in the day I suppose our prevailing aesthetic was: “We’ve got a new font and we’re gonna use it!”

Vi2Vi1

If you have fond memories of any Poison Girls gigs or want to find out more about Vi and her wonderful music, you might be interested in joining a Tributes to Vi Subversa Facebook page. There you can find personal reflections and links to music videos, interviews, obituaries and tributes.

There may be trouble ahead…
Now I’m just getting up to speed. The events of the past few weeks weigh heavily, but this post is long enough. I’m sure more ranting, writing and serious thinking is called for in the near future. So at the risk of appearing flippant, I’ll close with a certain old Nat King Cole tune…

 

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.

 

 

 

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”.

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!

Interviews, interviews!

Shirley Jackson award logoJust a quick note to mention that Kristin Centorcelli has interviewed me over at SF Signal about Helen’s Story and its Shirley Jackson Award nomination, and Charles Tan has also had a few words with me on the Shirley Jackson Awards site.

As for the award itself, well… I didn’t win. But as I wrote in a previous post, it was a thrill just to be nominated. And the novella that received the award, Veronica Schanoes’ Burning Girls, is an excellent story that is available online at Tor.com. You can also download it as a free ebook here. It was a very strong list and I was honoured to be on it, among some great company.

I’ll be back again very soon with some publication news and updates, plus my doings at Geekfest, LonCon and Fantasycon.

Helen’s Story is half the price at PS Publishing

Helen’s Story and other Shirley Jackson Award nominees are now on sale at PS Publishing for half the usual price. So even though the £12 unsigned editions of Helen’s Story are sold out at PS, you can get the £25 signed and jacketed edition for £12.50.

PS has certainly made a strong showing on the Jackson shortlists. Other books featured in this special sale are Stardust (containing nominated novella “The Gateway”) by Nina Allan, nominated novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki by Ramsey Campbell, Exotic Gothic 5 edited by Danel Olsen (with nominated short story “The Statue in the Garden” by Paul Park ), and Michael Marshall Smith’s short story collection Everything You Need. All these books are half the usual price at PS now!

And if you’re in London, you can also find a couple of unsigned copies of Helen at the Freedom Bookshop

Meanwhile, you can read more here about Helen’s shortlisting and my gibbering joy at the news, along with some background on Shirley Jackson.

Helen's Story coverStardustGla'aki Exotic Gothic Everything You Need

Helen’s Story shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson award!

I’m very pleased to announce that Helen’s Story has been shortlisted for the 2013 Shirley Jackson award in the novella category. I first read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in school (along with Edgar Allan Poe) and she is also the author of The Haunting of Hill HShirley Jackson award logoouse, which I read when I was 12. I never suspected that I’d be nominated for an award in her name “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic”. I’m thrilled. I’ve resolved to read more of her work now, and revisit what I read long ago.

When I received the email informing me of my nomination, I was gibbering in surprise and amazement in a way that would do any Lovecraftian cultist proud. It appeared in the email account connected to this website, which I often forget to check. But now I resolve to be more diligent about logging in there, because you never know what you’ll find.

I couldn’t sleep that night either. Insomnia’s always been a problem for me, but it made a welcome change to be sleepless for the right reason – joy and excitement.

Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson

When I eventually related this news to my friends, I realised that Shirley Jackson isn’t very well-known in the UK. So for those unacquainted with this classic American writer of dark fiction, the Weird Little Worlds blog gives a good summary of her life and work. Meanwhile, the Criminal Element website provides some fascinating background to “The Lottery”. In the post-war US, many town governments across the country sponsored weekly cash-prize lotteries to draw people in from the surrounding farms. They aimed to stimulate the economy for local merchants. And this takes on an especially sinister turn in Jackson’s story…

When I had a good read-through of the shortlists, I realised that I was in some fabulous company. I was very pleased to see fellow PS publishee Nina Allan among the novella nominees. She is shortlisted for her excellent novella “The Gateway”,  which is in her collection Stardust. In addition to reading more of Shirley Jackson, I’ve decided to check out as much of the nominated work as I can. It turns out that Burning Girls is available as a free ebook from Tor.com, for those who don’t enjoy reading longer pieces online. Another PS-published writer, Ramsey Campbell, is also on the list for The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.

I also noticed that there are seven nominees for best novella, the longest shortlist of the lot. Does this indicate that novellas are burgeoning as a particularly creative form for writers of dark and strange fiction?

Shirley Jackson Lottery

A classic

This article from Buzzfeed gives further information about the nominated works, though it does not provide details in short story and novella listings. Otherwise, it’s a good brief guide for further reading. I’ll probably start with The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve read Oates’ realist fiction, and have yet to investigate her fantastical and gothic work. This looks like a good place to start. I’m particularly fascinated because the book is set in Princeton, New Jersey and the nearby Pine Barrens. I used a similar setting for part of my 2006 novella In the Pines, which involved renegades from the Princeton physics department and an appearance from the Jersey Devil.

Pulp lottery

The pulp version

The Shirley Jackson Awards began in 2007, and they differ from many other genre-oriented awards because they are entirely chosen by jury. I’m probably very biased, but I imagine this gives books published by independent presses in small print runs a better chance.

When I vote on the shortlist for the British Fantasy Awards, for example, naturally I’ll choose the books I’ve read. Given the price of many limited edition books (and specialist publishers don’t always do ebooks), it’s unlikely I’ll have been able to read through the vast number of new books within the year of publication and unearth the gems. However, most publishers will send copies or PDFs to awards bodies straight away.

I am still getting pleasantly adjusted to the fact that five highly accomplished writers, critics and editors – who don’t know me! – have not only read my novella, but have also chosen to list it among seven of the year’s best. Whether or not I win, this is a compliment and honour of the highest order.

See you in Dallas!

CONDFWLOGO-300x150-transparentThis is just a brief note to say that I’ll be attending ConDFW in Dallas on 21 February. I left my arrangements too late to take part in any panels, but I gather this a small and friendly con and it’ll be easy to find me if anyone wants to say ‘hi’.

I’ve been visiting Dallas occasionally since relatives moved there a few years ago. The phrase “fish out of water” comes to mind when I’m there, gasping and flopping about in the sizzling Texas heat. Hot weather shouldn’t be a problem in February, though meeting like-minded people in the area may still be a challenge.

But this time I look forward to hanging out with local speculative fiction lovers who might show me a side of Dallas that I’ve been missing. I’ll also be bringing a few copies of Helen’s Story along with me…

Meanwhile, it appears that PS Publishing has run out of the unsigned edition of Helen’s Story, but they’re still available through the Waterstones website (in the UK) and uhm… Amazon, plus a few other specialist distributors and bookshops.

And to round things off, here’s a recent review of Helen’s Story by blogger and writer Caroline Hooton:

“Rosanne Rabinowitz’s novella is an erotic horror that draws on Machen’s original but is a stand-alone story. I haven’t read THE GREAT GOD PAN but was still able to enjoy this book. I really loved Helen’s spiky, unsentimental voice and her relationship with her strange companion while Rabinowitz does a great job of showing Helen’s creative process, giving it a sensuous, erotic charge that’s disturbing in its sexuality.”

Caroline also has a few critical comments. But I’d say thoughtful criticism from reviewers is just as valuable as praise – it makes the positive words shine even more.

Fryer’s delight – and a look at novellas and novels

Happy new year, everybody. And a happy first birthday for this blog. I committed my first posting here on 3 January 2013, which was mainly a tale of WordPress woe.  

As I enter my second year in the blogosphere, I won’t go on about resolutions except for the most relevant one… to blog more. But before I attack my blogging back-log, I’ll start the year on a complimentary note. Matthew Fryer, who gave Helen’s Story an enthusiastic review earlier in 2013, has also highlighted Helen in his best of 2013 roundup:

“Special mention also goes to the lustrous Helen’s Story by Rosanne Rabinowitz. Functioning as an update/sequel for Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”, it will please anybody who enjoys a thoughtful reworking and fresh point-of-view on a classic.”

So extreme thanks for the recognition and positive words, Matthew!

I was also very interested to see that Matthew counted Helen in the novel rather than novella category. At just under 40,000 words Helen would be considered a novella in most camps, and PS Publishing advertises it as a novella on its website. I’ve always thought of it as a novella myself.

So Matthew’s article has inspired me to think further about these two forms.

When I write a short story, it usually threatens to grow into a novella – I am engaged in a struggle with such an unruly story as I speak. Furthermore many of my stories extend to 10,000 to 12,000 words, or what’s known as a novelette.

I’ve always relished a good novella, and nothing hits the spot more than a collection of these beasts. I’ve also noticed that some novellas read as a longer short story, while others contain the layering you usually find in a novel. I have enjoyed both types of novella, but maybe the latter satisfies and resonates the most.

Much of Alice Munro’s work lies in this category; she is able to convey the timespan and complex story arcs of a novel in about thirty pages. Elizabeth Hand and Nina Allan have also written this kind of novella.

So can we define these forms by word count, or is it the structure and mood that defines the short story, the novella and the novel? Could there be an essence of novella-ness that is neither extended short story or condensed novel, but a fictional form in its own right?

Answers on the back of a postcard, please!

hellforge-best-of-2013-1

Helen’s here in some excellent company

Workfare for the fae

wfcrosannereading2_CROPPED

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.

wfcrosannereading5_CROPPED

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…

New review of Helen’s Story!

Chris Butler has this to say about Helen’s Story:

“Rabinowitz’ writing is very fine, as fans of her short fiction will know, and she exhibits a sly sense of humour here that I very much enjoyed… for anyone interested in the Pan mythology, ruminations on the power of art, or simply interested in quality contemporary fantasy writing, I highly recommend it.”

See link for full review.