On Shadows and Tall Trees

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I read the news about Shadows and Tall Trees going on indefinite hiatus with a heavy heart. It really is a huge loss for all readers and writers of horror and dark fiction. Shadow and Tall Trees was a beautifully presented publication, providing short fiction from writers as prolific and important to the genre as Gary McMahon, Gary Fry, Ray Cluley, Lynda E. Rucker and Nina Allen, among others.

I also have a bit of a personal connection to the publication, as in 2012 editor Michael Kelly took a chance on a short story of mine called Red Rabbit. It went on to become my first ever published short story, and my name & work appeared alongside Reggie Oliver, Robert Shearman and VH Leslie – I could barely believe it at the time and still have to stare at the back page for a while to be sure it really happened. Giving new authors the chance to put their name and their writing out there for all to see is such a valuable thing, and I’ll always be grateful to Michael Kelly for giving me that opportunity.

Some of my favourite short stories have appeared in Shadows and Tall Trees – Karin Tidbeck’s ‘Moonstruck’, recently nominated for a British Fantasy Award, is probably up there with the best short stories I’ve ever had the good fortune to read. Robert Shearman’s ‘Bedtime Stories for Yasmin’, Ray Cluley’s ‘Night Fishing’, Michael Wehunt’s ‘Onanon’, Claire Massey’s ‘Casting Ammonites’ and VH Leslie’s ‘Senbazuru’ are all fantastic pieces of fiction, and those are only off the top of my head.

It’s a terrible shame to be losing it, but you can still get back issues – 6 volumes in total – and I would highly recommend getting hold of them while you still can.

Recent Readings

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The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough

A short but mesmerising read. The story of a woman waiting for her father to die, while her family slowly falls to pieces around her. It’s a story about what happens when all hope runs out, about how precious life is and how easy it is to forget that, and how depression can rob us of that simple realisation. It’s about a woman dissatisfied with her life, and the (possibly supernatural) escape route she has not yet taken. It’s also about family, and the way tragedy simultaneously divides and unites us in strange ways.

It’s a stunning piece of writing. I can’t think of any words that can adequately describe just how amazing it really is. It’s also desperately sad and poignant in a way that made me ache physically. I’d recently lost my grandad to cancer when I read this, and I was left reeling by the way she describes the way this terrible disease robs us of our personhood – I remember thinking Sarah Pinborough must have experienced this first hand, because it all feels so stark and so real. The Language of Dying does not make light reading but as explorations of the depths of human emotion and love go, you won’t find anything more honest or more beautiful.

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Water For Drowning by Ray Cluley

I read this in a single evening, which wasn’t my intention – I settled down to read and before I knew it, it was almost 2am and I was a few pages from the end. The novella length is perfect for this kind of story, which charts the brief and intense romance between wannabe rockstar Josh and the strange, ethereal Genna. Josh is brash, arrogant and somewhat unlikeable, so it’s to Cluley’s credit that I found myself immediately fascinated by his odd relationship with Genna, so contrary to everything we think we know about Josh. It offers a smart, subtle sort of horror, this story: you’re effectively observing Genna’s dizzy descent into a profound madness and, like Josh, there’s a terrible sense of powerlessness about the whole affair. And worse still, that small voice in the back of your mind that questions whether or not Genna might not be entirely mad after all. By the time the story veers into its final third it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion. A hugely entertaining read, well-paced and brilliantly written. The novella also comes with Cluley’s award-winning short story ‘Shark! Shark!’, which is still one of the cleverest little horror tales out there.

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The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R Carey

I feel as if I’ve been spoilt with good reading this month, but this really was the absolute pinnacle. In fact, I would go as far as to say that The Girl With All The Gifts is probably the best book I’ve read all year. Maybe even the last couple of years. It starts off well enough – young children in some kind of government facility being taught seemingly mundane lessons, the sort of thing you’d expect kids to learn at school, only these kids are brought into the classroom strapped to wheelchairs, and eat grubs for sustenance. What starts as strange and intriguing quickly devolves into a desperate tale of survival, conflicting priorities and layers of lies. There are multiple perspectives which add layers to the story, but ultimately this is Melanie’s tale – an intelligent little girl with a hero-worship crush on her teacher, a curious mind, and a parasitic fungal infection which has commandeered her brain like a vehicle and left her with a hunger for human flesh. There are shades of The Last Of Us in here, not just in the invocation of the Cordyceps fungus but in Melanie’s strange surrogate daughter relationship with Miss Justineau. And like The Last Of Us, the ending is as painful as it is hopeful, a perfectly bittersweet coda to a wonderful post-apocalyptic tale.

10 Books Meme

There’s a meme going around on Facebook which asks you to name 10 books that have stayed with you. One caveat is that you’re not supposed to think too hard about it, but I came up with about 20 books so I had to narrow it down a bit. Here they are, in no particular order…and I could quite easily add another 10 to this (honourable mentions to Watership Down by Richard Adams, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough.)

1) Moominland Midwinter – Tove Jansson. Yes, it’s a Moomin book, ostensibly for kids but it’s really so much more than that. It’s a surprisingly profound and honest exploration of loneliness, not belonging and the fear of the unknown – and the Lady of the Cold genuinely scared the life out of me as a kid.

2) Firestarter – Stephen King. My nan bought me this from a car boot sale. I was about 11/12 and was absolutely captivated by it. It was around about that time I realised that a good horror story does more than just indiscriminately frighten. (I blame nan for the things I write today.)

3) Spike Milligan’s War Memoirs – I have to treat this as a series because underneath Milligan’s hilarious commentary there’s a very real and very human story, especially following Milligan’s shellshock and subsequent slide into depression. Mostly, it’s just really bloody funny.

4) The Silence of the LambsThomas Harris – read this when I was probably a bit younger than I ought to have been (14) and decided I wanted to be Clarice Starling. Hannibal Lecter is a fantastic, complex villain/antihero/christ knows what, and both characters have endured in my imagination.

5) Of Mice and MenJohn Steinbeck – studied this at GCSE and am gutted it’s supposedly going to be removed from the syllabus because it is such an important piece of literature.

6) The Green MileStephen King. I don’t care if it’s a giant cliche, I love this book. The film version is also the only film I’ve ever watched that makes me cry every time. I have a heart of stone, but even though I know what’s coming, I tear up. A modern day Of Mice and Men, in many ways.

7) Smoke and Mirrors – Neil Gaiman – it was a toss-up between this and American Gods, but I chose Smoke and Mirrors because it introduced me to the idea that the short story was as powerful and worthy a medium as the novel. (Snow, Glass, Apples is still a favourite of mine)

8) The End Of The Affair – Graham Greene. Again, a toss-up between this and Brighton Rock but this book makes my heart hurt every time I read it, and I figure that’s the sign of a very well-written story.

9) Watchmen – Alan Moore – I know it’s a graphic novel but it’s still one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, and appeals to my own sense of politics in many ways. Plus, the superhero genre was always ripe for deconstruction.

10) No Country For Old Men – Cormac McCarthy – Sometimes I think that if I could write like McCarthy, I’d be a very happy writer indeed. It’s a dark story without redemption, and I was utterly captivated by the sheer brutality of it – not in a ‘spilled entrails and splattered blood’ sense, but in the total lack of apology it makes for being so bleak and dark.

Horror Uncut at the Gothic Manchester Festival

As part of the Gothic Manchester Festival, Rosanne Rabinowitz, Tom Johnstone and I will be in attendance at Manchester Deansgate Waterstones, in support of Horror Uncut: Tales of Social Insecurity and Economic Unease.

I will be reading from my upcoming short story ‘Ptichka’. There’ll also be a Q&A, and (I hope!) Horror Uncut will be available to purchase too. For more information, go here!