Fantasycon, book nerd problems and book love

Book_nerdThere I was, volunteering to organise a workshop on Universal Credit and benefit sanctions for working people (aka in-work conditionality‘) at the London Anarchist Bookfair when something went ping in the twisted passages of my brain as I noted the date of the bookfair – 24 October. Could that be… yes it is… the same date as Fantasycon in Nottingham! Yes, I had double-booked myself, despite the many lists made and calendars defaced. As a friend suggested, this clash of events is a classic #booknerdproblem.

Usually Fantasycon takes place at the end of September, but this year it’s moved to the end of October. A couple of years ago the World Fantasy Convention took place on the last weekend of October, just after the London Anarchist Bookfair and it was fun to go from one to the other – I wrote about this in my 2013 post From Austerity to Fairyland. But it’s bookfair weekend rather than Halloween weekend this time around.

Since I had arranged everything in Nottingham, Fantasycon won out. It did give me some pause for thought. While I’ve been ruminating on the conjunctions between political action, creativity, weirdness and writing, have I been caught in a situation where the interests of geekery, fantasy and activism stand opposed?

Not entirely… The story I’ll be reading in my slot is about in-work conditionality too – kind of – with a definite twist of weirdness. Plus, the panel I’m on will tackle alternative social structures in imaginative fiction. And of course, the anti-austerity anthology Horror Uncut is shortlisted for the best anthology award.

So here are my events for the weekend. And no doubt I’ll also also be hanging out at the bar…

PANEL: Saturday 24 October
The Fantastic Mundane: Imaginary Social Infrastructures
12 midday (
Conference Theatre)
Health, wealth, law, government & learning are key parts of our lives, but how are they depicted in genre writing? What do these and other ‘everyday’ social establishments offer within created worlds?
My personal starting point in this discussion will be Ursula K LeGuin’s comment: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” I’m also interested in how we can envision alternatives when writing speculatively about ‘real’ settings as well as secondary and far future worlds .
Moderator: Karina Coldrick
Panelists: Leigh Bardugo, Lucy Hounsom, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Williamson

READING: Saturday 24 October
8.40pm
(Reading Room)
I plan to present “Keep Them Rollin'” from the anthology We Need to Talk. Quantum computing meets Universal Credit! This is my first truly ‘short’ short story that I can finish in one reading.
Afterwards, I’ll be heading to the launch party for Undertow Publications, which will celebrate the launch of VH Leslie’s Skein and Bone and Aickmann’s Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas. I gather there will be wine and conversation until late. Anyone wanting to chat afterwards is welcome to join me at the launch.

I was just putting the finishing touches on this post, when I went over to Facebook and discovered a somewhat relevant article in the Mirror16 of the scariest things we just learnt about benefits reform should definitely appeal to horror fans, and it also features an incident involving time travel, or at least the expectation that claimants have access to some means of time travel: “One man received a letter telling him about an appointment on 27 June 2014. It was dated 26 June 2014 and told him he had to go to the appointment one day previously – 25 June 2014. Even though he showed officials the letter, he was sanctioned.” 

To end on a more cheerful note, the second printing of Soliloquy for Pan is out. According to the publisher, about half were sold by pre-order so get in there if you want one. And here’s a review from When Churchyards Yawn. The blogger, John C Nash, writes appreciatively about the physical presentation and feel of the book, accompanied by luscious photographs of the book in autumnal settings:

“The foliate arabesque cartouche surrounding the gold-foiled Pan on the front cover and the gold-foiled Trajanesque typeface on the spine is reminiscent of the Arts & Crafts movement; which is, of course, the perfect choice for the theme of the collection as there was a massive resurgence of interest in Pan at that time.”

I certainly feel honoured that my story, “The Lady in the Yard”, is encased within an object of such beauty. Meanwhile, I hope that John enjoys the text as well… 🙂

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The Vatican Vaults are open!

1795476_1084280334918889_265400601105857995_nIn Going Retro: Ringing the Bells of the Harelle, and the Pikart Posse Returns I wrote about my story “Bells of the Harelle”, which was accepted by David V Barrett for Tales of the Vatican Vaults in Constable & Robinson’s Mammoth Books series. Now this anthology has been let loose upon the world. As befits the series name, Vatican Vaults is a substantial 500+ page volume packed full of stories and helpful editorial commentary.

It’s based on a unique alternative world premise: Pope John Paul I did not die a month after his accession in 1978. Instead he lived for over 25 years, and opened up the most secrets parts of the Vatican Library to scholars. We will find all the manner of strange and suppressed stories within…

I tend to dip in and out of collections of shorter fiction between novels, so I’m only just beginning to read through this anthology. I’ve found it fascinating just as a casual reader as well as one of the contributors. Each story has a preface and an afterward giving scholarly comments on the contents. This has let to a lot of excited googling, wanting to find out what’s real and what’s made up. So this anthology is wonderful in the way it blurs the boundary between the real and the fantastical. Sarah Ash had me looking up the history of Allegri’s Miserere: yes, it really was forbidden to transcribe this piece and those who did would be excommunicated. And what is the connection of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Order of the Golden Dawn, as explored by JM Brugee in “Songs of Love”? While tantalising to the historically minded, these rollicking tales also entertain in their own right.

My own contribution,”Bells of the Harelle” is a chronicle of fourteenth-century rioting and eroticised heresy; it also reveals that certain medieval sects had stumbled on scientific mysteries much earlier than we imagined. In some ways this story is a prequel to my novel-in-progress about a woman leader of the Pikarts or ‘Adamites’, an anarchistic and free-loving faction in the Hussite revolution of fifteenth-century Bohemia.

As I wrote “Bells of the Harelle” I grew very fond of my character Seraphine. We meet her as a young wife in Ghent, where a revolt by weavers in the 1380s gives her the impetus to leave her unhappy marriage and dedicate herself to changing the world, a mission that takes her to the turbulent streets of Rouen, to Brussels and Tournai. After the Inquisition cracks down on Seraphine’s sect of sensual heretics, she ends up as a refugee in Prague on the eve of the Hussite revolution. And that’s where my novel Heretics begins.

After the defeat of the 'Harelle' in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

After the defeat of the ‘Harelle’ in Rouen in 1382, the army removed the tongues from the bells that had summoned people to rise up against a new tax. The bell tower was later destroyed

When I first started writing Heretics, Seraphine dies early in the novel. She was getting on a bit, after all… But now that her character has grown more in “Bells”, I now feel like I’d rather keep her around longer. She’s sly and salty, tough and humorous, as well as a bit grumpy.

So that’s yet another decision looming on the horizon now that I’m looking at this book again. Is dear old Seraphine one darling I’ll have to kill? Yet gratuitous character carnage always annoyed me as a reader. Oh we need something dramatic, let’s shoehorn in some of that Hollywood Screenwriting 101 brand of ‘Conflict’ – eeny meeny mighty mo, that one has to go!

No doubt I’ll have more thorny thickets to clear out as I work on Heretics. Meanwhile, if you want to meet some of its characters and read some enjoyable stories, Tales from the Vatican Vaults is available in paperback and on Kindle. You might even find it in a non-specialist bookshop on your high street.

And since we’re on publication news, I’m pleased to announce that Soliloquy for Pan will have a second printing at the end of September, so those who missed out on the first run will have another chance. The second edition will also feature some new illustrations. Watch this space or visit the Egaeus Press website for more news.

Another great development is that Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Unease has been nominated for the British Fantasy Society’s best anthology award. The winner will be announced at Fantasycon at the end of October. I’ll have more information relating to Fantasycon in the very near future.

That last weekend in October

As I  sent in a round of corrections on a piece recently, I realised that most of my work on a clutch of short stories has come to an end. Is it time now, I wondered, to face that novel I’d put aside (again) to finish those stories? I was gathering my wits as I prepared to enter the 15th-century setting of my novel-in-progress Heretics, then remembered that I haven’t posted in my blog for about six weeks. Ah well, tomorrow is another day…

Twisted reading

You see the panelists from a distance in this shot, but you get a good view of that bloke’s jumper – which I rather like

This unfinished blog business includes a follow-up to my previous post about Horror Uncut. A few other folk have already blogged about our Manchester launch. But with the passing of the date marking Joel Lane’s death (25 November), I’ve decided to do that now. As co-editor and friend and an inspiration to many of us, he was certainly present in our thoughts at the event.

The first question that organiser and contributor David McWilliam asked the panel –  myself, editor Tom Johnstone and fellow contributor Laura Mauro – was about how Joel influenced our work. This is something I’ve become even more aware of in the past year. As I wrote in last year’s blog post, discovering the work of Joel and others in TTA Press’ Last Rites and Resurrections was like hearing punk for the first time. That was when I began to find my own voice as a writer. It is truly a mark of an extraordinary writer if he or she can write words that are so powerful they inspire others to reach inside themselves and find their own.

Tom read Joel’s story, ‘A Cry For Help’. He later said: “It feels really strange that we should all be here reading from the book and discussing it without Joel being here.” Laura read from her story “Ptichka” and I read from “Pieces of Ourselves”. I was aware that I could only read an extract, while others read entire stories. Someday, I swear, I will write a story that is short enough to complete in one reading stint. I once wrote a story of 2000 words and felt very pleased with myself, until people in my writers’ group said it needed to be longer. Maybe someone even uttered those dreaded words: “This should really be the beginning of a novel.” Flash fiction is definitely not my forte.

Here are some accounts of the event – from Priya Sharma, David McWilliam, Laura Mauro and Neil Harrison. All suggest that Horror Uncut is a step towards creating speculative and dark fiction that can reflect on austerity and inspire readers to question and resist it. One of these blogs refers to a forthcoming anthology called Neoliberal Gothic, which sounds fascinating and timely. Let’s see if I can get my hands on it.

To my knowledge there have been two reviews of Horror Uncut. The first one is by Anthony Watson, who writes:

Horror Uncut may not change minds or influence policy but it’s an excellent collection of stories that do have important things to say. It has to be said it’s unlikely to appeal to Daily Mail readers – which is about as high a compliment as I can pay it.”

Of my own contribution, he says:

“A more subtle, tangential approach to the effects of the austerity measures on individuals is exhibited in Rosanne Rabinowitz’s Pieces of Ourselves and Stephen Bacon’s The Devil’s Only Friend, affecting ghost stories both.”

And then we have one of Des Lewis’ epic real-time reviews. He’s not one for sticking down a few stars and calling it a review, our Des!

“Rabinowitz’s work — of accretively obsessive, self-harming shavings and skeins of skin from the male protagonist’s body and the memento stone box where he collects them — becomes a highly sensitised vision of something beyond the cuts, a vision that rationalises the demos and fights against the cuts as part of a pattern of his past life, austerity further pared, his exes, his travels, his thwarted ambitions, the patchwork people, his “Feeling bolder”, a sometimes clear, sometimes confused vision that enticingly is the potential core of the horror uncut ‘book bloc’.

These are all thoughts that came up during the discussion of Horror Uncut. And at several points I was almost expecting that Joel would see fit to do some haunting and turn up to utter some ghastly and eldritch puns. That’s one ghost story we would have all enjoyed.

As 2014 draws to a close, many of us have been reflecting that it’s been a very bad year for losing beloved writers and friends; as well as Joel we have recently lost Graham Joyce and Eugie Foster. But I remember that last weekend in October was also a time for relishing the pleasures of life. The joys of friendship come high on the list. After the reading, we spent a long and lovely afternoon in the pub, which was an opportunity to spend time with some friends in the north I don’t get to see much. And then I returned to my temporary base near Huddersfield, where an old friend was celebrating her 50th birthday the next day. A time of food, drink, music and merriment ensued.

So here I am… doing a bit of ‘spoken word’ in my friend’s honour, a wee bit rosy-cheeked after a few bevvies.Me at Marion's birthday

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

The rock arrives, and Fantasycon approaches

Shirley Jackson pebbleMost bloggers already have LonCon summed up, done and dusted. But as soon as I sat down to write about LonCon, I realised that the next convention is coming up on 5 September – tomorrow!

So it looks like I’ll write about LonCon and Fantasycon and the reflections or hangovers they provoke later on.

Meanwhile, my special commemorative Shirley Jackson Award nominee pebble has arrived! The ‘detailed description’ on the customs form attached to the package describes the contents: “Rock”. No fooling around there.

As I own a strictly antique phone, I’ve tried to take a photo with the Photobooth thingy on my Mac. So here’s my special rock, arse backwards. It’s a nice little thing, well-polished and smooth and somehow calming to hold. Maybe I’ll take my rock with me to Fantasycon this weekend.

While the programme at LonCon was impressive, I’ve been looking forward to the relative coziness of Fantasycon. So what are some of my plans for the weekend? Well, if you see me mumbling in a corner in the bar on the Friday afternoon, be assured that I’m practising for my reading.

This will take place at 7.20, sandwiched between Simon Bestwick and Simon Kurt Unsworth. I’m planning to read from “Pieces of Ourselves”, which will appear very soon in the Gray Friar Press anthology Horror Uncut: tales of social insecurity and economic unease,  edited by Tom Johnstone and the late Joel Lane. Joel will certainly be in the thoughts of many of us at the convention, and we’ll be meeting for a drink and readings from his work at 6pm on Friday – just before my reading.

On Sunday 7 September at 10am I’ll be on the panel below. Yes, it’s kind of early. Strong coffee has been promised!

10.00am – A Working Class Hero is Something to Read?
“Fantasy often focuses on characters at the extreme ends of society, but is frequently written by middle-class authors who bring middle class assumptions to their princes and peasants. The panellists discuss class in SFF.” Gillian Redfearn (m), Joan De La Haye, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Sarah Lotz, Den Patrick

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing the rest of the time, but meeting up with friends, schmoozing and drinking and eating and attending a panel or two will certainly play a big part. Rustblind and Silverbright is up for best anthology, so I’ll be at the awards ceremony… perhaps clutching my special rock for good luck. (No, I have no plans to throw it at anyone.)

And looking ahead to next month, I’ll announce an exciting event coming up as part of the Gothic Manchester festival. Info is now out for Twisted Tales of Austerity, a reading on 24 October that will mark the launch of Horror Uncut. It will take place from 12 noon to 1.30pm at Waterstones on Deansgate in central Manchester. The readings will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A.

Co-editor 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’.”