A Podcast Bonanza

Apparently podcasts are my thing now, because this week there are two podcasts out featuring my dulcet Bermondsey tones.

First off, I make an appearance on Kit Power’s “Watching RoboCop with Kit Power” podcast, which is exactly what it says on the tin – we watch RoboCop, we discuss the joys of stop motion, Peter Weller’s cheekbones, dodgy 80’s sartorial decisions, RoboCop as a fetish object, toilet cameras and professional mimes. It was great fun to record and Kit is an excellent bloke.

And then there’s the latest episode of “New Horror Express”, which is a double bill featuring interviews with myself and fellow horror/weird fiction scribe Kristi DeMeester. In this episode I talk about my novella ‘Naming the Bones’ and the things which inspired it, the ‘genre fiction ghetto’, gateway drugs into horror fiction and mental health. It’s worth a listen not least because of Kristi DeMeester’s interview, which is a fascinating look into the inspiration behind and writing of her novel ‘Beneath’, and the projects she’s currently working on.

Best of British Science Fiction, Stephen King Mixtape & Jim McLeod interview

Very pleased to announce that my short story “Looking for Laika” has been chosen by Donna Bond to appear in Best of British Science Fiction 2017, imminently due for publication from NewCon Press. This is especially exciting for me as “Looking for Laika” is my first foray into sci-fi, and a story that means a great deal to me.

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In other news, I was asked by Mark West to pick a favourite Stephen King short story for the most recent in his excellent ‘Mixtape’ series (Previously featured: the Brit Horror mixtape, the American Horror mixtape, and the Women in Horror mixtape. You can find out which one I chose (and see all the other excellent choices) over at Mark’s blog.

And DLS Reviews are hosting an excellent interview with Jim McLeod, the Don of Horror and the heart & soul behind Ginger Nuts of Horror, a website which continually provides a vital service to the British horror community and beyond. The interview is as honest and illuminating as you would expect from Jim, and an absolute must-read.

New Fears 2 – Letters from Elodie

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Incredibly excited to be a part of New Fears 2, from Titan Books, appearing alongside such amazing authors as Priya Sharma, Stephen Volk, Paul Tremblay, Aliyah Whiteley, V.H. Leslie, Ray Cluley, Kit Power, Steve Rasnic Tem (the list goes on and on…) My short story “Letters from Elodie” joins a formidable lineup, and if it’s anything like the first volume, this anthology is going to be pure magic.

(I reviewed the first volume here and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves strange, scary stories)

Tai Chi and Chattering Monkeys

In December I decided to invest in my physical and mental wellbeing and switch to a fancier, more expensive gym closer to home. If there’s one thing I’m terrible at, it’s motivating myself, so having access to a variety of exercise classes seemed like a good idea – once you’re there, you’re committed to an hour’s exercise, and you’re guided, so there’s no standing about and messing around for twenty minutes while you decide what to do next. There is a wide range of class types too, so it’s varied enough to hold my (sometimes fickle) interest.

One of the classes I was especially interested in trying was Tai Chi. I suffer with what my former boss used to refer to as ‘chattering monkeys’ – that constant, nagging voice in your head which talks and talks and never seems to shut up unless you’re asleep, and even then it sometimes finds a way to sneak in. I’d tried yoga previously, and while I enjoyed the physical aspect of it, I found there were just enough long pauses for the voice to weasel in – in those quiet, meditative moments in which I ought to have been focusing on my breathing, or on holding a pose, I was instead trying in vain to quiet the brain-noise: what if this were to happen did you forget to do this thing remember that time two years ago when you did something really embarrassing you need to renew the home insurance what if you get home and everything has been stolen what if you mess up at work tomorrow and get the sack oh no you forgot to buy bread…

You know. Chattering monkeys.

I didn’t know what to expect from Tai Chi. I’ve seen people practicing it in parks; they always look so peaceful and graceful, so co-ordinated. I am none of those things. It turns out that isn’t a bad thing. Tai Chi requires a pleasant kind of concentration; you have to be ready to transition from one move to another in order to maintain the smooth flow of movement, so to a certain extent you must always be thinking ahead. And your movements must be smooth, slow and controlled, so you must also concentrate on the speed of your movement, the control of your muscles (and here I hear my instructor: “When we’re stressed, we speed up. Control your speed. Control your stress.”) You are focusing on form, on the physical reality of each movement, and on the concept which underlies it (‘Crane spreads its wings’, for example, or ‘needles at sea bottom’).

And to do all of this successfully, the brain must be focused solely on what you are doing. Which means there is no room for chattering monkeys. Which means an hour of blissful silence. And this alone means my gym membership has been worth every penny.

Desert Island Books

Here’s a stunningly unoriginal concept: Desert Island Discs, except that instead of eight recordings, you can choose eight books to accompany you. (Mine would of course be packed alongside a very large parasol and a keg of Factor 50 sunscreen – judging by the permanently blue hue of my skin, I was not designed for desert islands.)

My picks are liable to change with the weather, but I have chosen eight books which I always seem to return to, no matter how long I’ve been away, or however many other books I might fall for in the interim:

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Watership Down by Richard Adams: A choice which I suspect will surprise absolutely nobody. Watership Down is such a cleverly crafted story with so many subtle layers – from innovative rabbit linguistics to the ‘story-within-a-story’ construct of El-Ahrairah’s parables. I always quote Watership Down whenever anyone derides children’s fiction as lacking in depth or meaning – there surely cannot be many books out there as rich in meaning, imagination and sheer heart as Watership Down.

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The City and The City by China Mieville: Yes, China Mieville is often too self-indulgently clever for his own good, and he needs to let go of the thesaurus, but my god, can he tell a story. The City and The City is part police procedural, part weird fiction, set in a fictional European city which shares much of its material space with another neighbouring city. The bizarre twist is that it is illegal (and shockingly immoral) for citizens of either city to acknowledge or ‘see’ anything of its neighbour. It’s a story that absolutely has to be experienced to fully comprehend its sublime madness.

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The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood: An uncanny series of similarities between the characters of The Robber Bride and my own group of friends means I am weirdly bound to this book; it feels as though it takes place in an alternative universe in which distant possibilities have played out. It is probably a testament to Atwood’s ability to craft three-dimensional characters that I identify so strongly with them, and with the story.

 

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Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson: Another oft-quoted book, and my most frequent pick for ‘favourite book of all time’. As with Richard Adams, there is nothing patronising about Jansson’s writing; she credits children with the intelligence and the emotional capacity to comprehend subjects as deep as loneliness and anxiety. Jansson’s peaceful summer valley is transformed into a cold, wintery realm which is in turns frighteningly inhospitable and eerily beautiful. And I think I would need that retreat into the cold if I were on a desert island – hot weather and I are uneasy companions.

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier: I sometimes joke that Rebecca is a book about horrible people doing horrible things to one another, but I think that’s actually a fairly accurate summary of the book. Rebecca is the greatest horror story never to be shelved as horror; the unease blossoms so organically as the story progresses that by the time you realise how profoundly uncomfortable you are, you are almost at the end. A masterpiece of prolonged, wire-taut tension.

 

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Laika by Nick Abadzis: A recent discovery, this graphic novel dramatises the true story of Laika, the Soviet space dog, and is a beautiful and entirely appropriate tribute to this most unwitting of heroes. The inevitability of Laika’s fate makes for a heartbreaking read, and though it is fiction, the notion that someone – anyone – might have cared about her is both desperately sad and a small ray of sunshine in a tragic story.

 

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The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey: I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic fiction at the best of times, and this is a wonderful, intelligent take on the end of the world. It also takes on another beloved trope of mine: sympathetic monsters. Melanie, the titular ‘girl’ (and a literal ‘girl’, not a woman for once!) serves as our eyes as we make our way through a Britain ravaged by a strange and terrifying fungal infection, and we are forced to consider the nature of monstrosity, as well as the very prescient question of whether or not the world will continue after we are gone – and whether it might just be better off without us.

 

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The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King: Another ‘girl’ (and another literal ‘girl’ to boot!) I could have picked any number of Stephen King books for the final slot – I might have picked apocalyptic epic The Stand, which, despite my ‘revolving door’ of favourite King books never fails to wind up in the top 3. I might have cheated and opted for the Dark Tower series. Instead, I’ve chosen one of his shorter works. For most of the book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon leaves us stranded (thematically appropriate!) in the woods with a single character: a nine year old girl. Her struggle to survive and to reach safety is a simple enough narrative, but things become far more complicated (and far stranger) when, overcome with exhaustion, she begins to hallucinate; we are never truly sure whether the nightmarish visions that follow her are supernatural or simply imaginary, but the answer scarcely matters.

 

What are your “Desert Island Books”? Let me know!

[insert pithy title here]

I’m not usually one for formal New Year’s Resolutions, but since everyone else was doing it, it seemed almost rude not to. I’d be telling fibs if I said I had a list drawn up, or a concrete plan for change, but there are a few things I think I should address in 2018.

First: I need to brush up on my Japanese. To this end, I’ve dug out my Japanese for Busy People and Genki textbooks from my Japanese classes, and I’m also making use of the lang-8 account I started and was too scared to use back in 2014. (My fear of Being Wrong in Japanese is still strong, but I also recognise now that if you don’t make mistakes, you don’t learn. And the Japanese lang-8 users are very gracious in correcting my plentiful errors.) I’m off to Japan in March for fourteen days, and I’d love to have the confidence to communicate – however piecemeal it may be!

Second: Fitness. My arthritic joints aren’t getting any better, and I was recently diagnosed as hypothyroid thanks to Hashimoto’s Disease. Clearly my body is telling me something! I enjoy lifting weights but I think I also need something more structured to encourage consistency – exercise isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I joined a new gym in December and I’ve been trying out various classes. Pilates and Tai Chi are great, and I need to work up the courage to try out the Boxercise class (I fear my woefully low levels of cardiovascular fitness will lead me to collapse and embarrass myself mid-class). And of course, eventually, I’d love to get back into lifting those heavy weights.

Third: Writing goals. I completed my first Master’s essay over Christmas, and it felt very good to get back into academic writing. It helped enormously that the subject matter was engaging (so much so that I actually had to cut out an intended section of the essay because I’d already overshot the word count.) My Spring term module is on ‘The Victorian Fin-de-Siecle’, which is proving to be very interesting already.

(Also: more writing means less Facebook. I’m finding Twitter is my preferred platform at the moment, and I think less Facebook will hopefully encourage more blogging – in English and in stilted, terrified Japanese.)

In terms of fiction writing…I have no project commitments outstanding, so I am in the daunting position of being able to write whatever I feel like. I’ve read some truly incredible stories in the past few months, and intermingled with reader’s joy was a touch of writer’s despair – I’ll never be able to write like this. I am opting to take this as a challenge rather than as a self-rebuke and I hope to up my game this year, and focus on quality rather than quantity. Time will tell if this is a successful tactic, or whether the latter half of 2018 will see me sobbing face-down on the floor by my bookcase and vowing to live a life of literary hermitage. There’s much to look forward to in 2018 from a reader’s perspective (not least Priya Sharma’s forthcoming collection ‘All The Fabulous Beasts‘ from Undertow Publications) so whatever my writing life brings this year, my reading life should be very rich indeed.

News update: Laika nomination and Locus review

I discovered this morning, browsing Twitter (as you do), that “Looking for Laika” made the longlist of nominees for the British Science Fiction Association Awards! It’s a pretty full list of nominees, with some quality stories on there, so it’s pretty awesome to have made the longlist.

And “Naming the Bones” has been reviewed by John Langan in the January edition of Locus Magazine. He had some very nice things to say about it, and I’m thrilled that my first ever review in a print magazine is a good one. (Having a book of mine appear in a print magazine – and Locus Magazine, no less! – is a bit of a ‘bucket list’ ambition for me!)

Not a bad way to start 2018!