Sunday, 28 September 2014

Guest Post: The Strange Stories of Marie Luise Kaschnitz by Tilman Breitkreuz

Today's post comes courtesy of Tilman Breitkreuz, who emailed me after reading the Strange Stories piece I wrote about Joanna Russ's The Little Dirty Girlto ask me if I'd ever heard of a German author called Marie Luise Kaschnitz; I had to confess I hadn't, and after a few emails back and forth Tilam agreed to write me a piece about her work for this blog. Her stories sound fascinating (I hope not just to me but other readers of this blog) and although difficult to find in English translation there are copies out there.

Thanks to the author for this wonderful piece and for drawing my attention to a new author of the strange..

The Strange Stories of Marie Luise Kaschnitz
An elderly couple imposes a blackout on their home because they are afraid that their adopted son and his street gang might come and kill them (Thaw). Realizing that she has literally lost all feelings, a woman sets herself on fire (Die Fuesse im Feuer). A young man takes part in a superstitious ritual and evokes a malevolent homunculus (Der Tunsch). On the face of it, it is hard to imagine why Marie Luise Kaschnitz once stated that she wanted to express "commiseration with people…"

Born into a family of high nobility and a military background in 1901, Marie Luise Kaschnitz did not rise to fame until the 1950s. While these years are often glorified on account of an economic boom and a regain of confidence, Kaschnitz shows them in a different light: despite their relative security and comfort, her characters seem to be wedged between a guilty and traumatic past and an impending doom in the future (sometimes identified as the nuclear threat).

Like Flannery O´Connor, who wrote her classic stories in the same era, Kaschnitz often implies supernatural elements in order to confront her protagonists with crucial questions and unwelcome answers. But it is not these supernatural features, usually adopted from myths or folk lore, that make her stories worth reading. Using a sober style of writing comparable to Dino Buzzati (with whom she shared the experience of having to live in a totalitarian state) and shy of graphic content, Kaschnitz's central point is not about conjuring a supernatural apparition (maybe that is why her only classic ghost story - bluntly entitled Ghosts - turns out somewhat flat). Wraiths (like in Polar Bears) and demons only serve to reveal a state of general uneasiness, some sort of gloomy detente based on knowing that what has happened to others might as well happen to you. Remedies are scarce. In one of Marie Luise Kaschnitz's strongest pieces the ghost of a woman painter who starved herself to death lets us know that human existence is inevitably tragic and therefore happiness can only be found in tragedy (Zu irgendeiner Zeit). This approach - probably based on Schopenhauer's philosophy instead of rive-gauche-existentialism - resonated with a large audience. So did the accessibility of her prose and Marie Luise Kaschnitz became sort of a household name in Germany.

English-language collections of Marie Luise Kaschnitz´ stories usually feature her own favorite Das dicke Kind (The Fat Girl). The caterpillar-like stranger who invades the life of a single woman (note the similarity to Truman Capotes Miriam) is too ugly to be pitied and only provokes the narrators contempt and curiosity. When the two of them go ice-skating the fat girl becomes a menace first and finally she isn't a stranger any more. There is a striking resemblance to Joanna Russ's The Little Dirty Girl. The bottom line in both The Black Lake and Musical Chairs is that certain conditions require a human sacrifice. Kaschnitz's interest in Greek myths and rites of passage resounds in Home Alone when a young boy finds out that his parents have thrown away his shabby toys (one of them being a toy SA-man) because they think he has outgrown playing with them. He finally agrees - and ignites the gas stove trying to find out if he might talk to the flames like he once talked to his toys. Other non-supernatural stories of note are the aforementioned Thaw and Christine, a grim piece told from the perspective of a woman who once urged her husband not to interfere when a criminally insane man killed a little girl.

In Street Lamps we find the supernatural competing with the horrors of reality. A teenager who has always been eager to do heroic deeds without actually being noticed learns a strange trick that controls other peoples minds. When he challenges the most powerful mind controller of his times (whose name is not mentioned because it is obvious), he fails and later lives a bleak and unhappy life trying to make up for his mistake. In the end we find him a soldier, dying on the pavement somewhere in Russia. Realizing what has gone wrong he has finally found peace as well as freedom but both seem to equal death.

A swim in the Mediterranean sea takes a wrong turn in A Noon Hour In Mid-June while back home an uncanny stranger calls at the neighbour's door. Marie Luise Kaschnitz´s own fate somehow resembled this story. In the fall of 1974 she over exhausted herself swimming in the cold Mediterranean sea, caught pneumonia and died in Rome on the 10th of October 1974.

Some of her work might seem dated and some readers might wish for more action. But those who would like to explore the frailer parts of the human condition could do worse than look into what Marie Luise Kaschnitz has to offer.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Recommendation: Water For Drowning by Ray Cluley

Water-For-Drowning-Shark-SharkWater For Drowning by Ray Cluley is the latest chapbook in the This Is Horror series. It’s a dark and brooding tale that is Cluley’s own interpretation of the mermaid myth – not of our sanitised, cartoonish modern versions but the original fables of doomed love, glass underfoot, and death. It’s told in the first person by Josh, who plays with a local rock band around the south coast - a big fish in a small pond. Josh is, at least at the start of the story, a bit of a cock. One night at one of his gigs, he meets Genna, a girl who seems smitten with his lyrics of water and rebirth as much as with Josh himself. Josh, normally a one-night stand kind of guy, starts to fall for Genna. (This doesn't, however, stop him acting like a bit of a cock.) Genna, meanwhile, has dreams and aspirations far wilder than Josh’s clich├ęd rock-god ones…
The story crams in as many references to mermaids as it can, from the sublime The Lovesong Of J. Alfred Prufrock to the, uh, not-sublime Tom Hanks film Splash, to the fake mermaid bodies exhibited in Victorian times(Although there’s no allusion to Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row and it’s lovely mermaids between the windows of the sea.) In doing so, it builds a backdrop of allusion and history behind Josh and Genna’s tentative romance, and the gradual revelation of the depths of Genna’s obsession. And leaves open, too, the interpretation that maybe, just maybe, Genna isn't deluded at all.

Water For Drowning is one of those books where, as you read it, you realise what the author is going to attempt & what risks they are taking and you think – oh god. It’s like watching someone on a high-wire: what if he wobbles? What if he falls? Because don’t let the length fool you, this is an ambitious story, very much more than the sum of its parts. As such the slightest mistake could ruin its hard-won balance. Fortunately Cluley never puts a foot wrong, never falters, and makes crossing the wire look easy. He even does back-flips. It’s a fantastic achievement, a fantastic story that’s among the very best I've read this year.
In addition, the chapbook also includes a bonus story, the award winning Shark! Shark! – probably some of you will have read it in Black Static. It’s a very clever, genuinely funny, and unsettling story, that’s well worth another read. There’s also an interesting introduction to Water For Drowning  by the author himself. Whilst I've enjoyed all the This Is Horror chapbook stories to date, they seem to have upped their game in terms of production quality and extra content with this one.
 A must read. Preferably after a big plate of fish and chips like I did.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Recommendation: The Night Just Got Darker by Gary McMahon

The Night Just Got Darker is a new chapbook from Gary McMahon, out soon from Knightwatch Press. It tells of a typical McMahon protagonist, at odds with his life and unable to stop it crumbling round him. And one night he sees across the road his neighbour, scribbling away at something in the small hours. He goes over and finds out the man is a very singular kind of writer...

I'll keep the rest of this short and sweet, as the story itself is short (but very far from sweet) and I don't want to give too much away. The really condensed version is: you should read this.

The slightly longer version is that I've read The Night Just Got Darker a couple of times now, once in broad daylight and once, yes, as the night was deepening, with a whisky in my hand. I loved it even more the second time round. It's worth reading more than once, because it's many things and you might not spot them all at first. It's one of those magical stories that seems bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, a tale whose implications ripple out in wider circles than you can possibly imagine from the initial set up. It's a story with a very disturbing view about how humanity might keep the dark held back, as well as a clever piece of meta-fiction about the cost of writing. It's a story about modern urban living and fractured realities and the idea of the scapegoat. And it's a tribute to the author's friend Joel Lane.

And, as I said, it's a story you really should read.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Recomendation - Drive by Mark West

Drive cover by Mark WestMark West’s latest novella is in some ways a departure from the author’s previous work; there’s none of the supernatural horror of The Mill here. But despite its realism there are scares aplenty in Drive and its small-town English realism adds to the effect. Drive’s set up is simple: David and Nat are on their way back from a party; they've never met before but David has offered Natalie a lift home. On the way, they encounter a group of drunk and possibly high boy racers in a souped up car, who they see nearly run over some women in the street. Almost at random, David and Nat are targeted by these youths, and the two spend the rest of the night driving round the estates and one-way system of Gaffney, attempting to flee their pursuers, who become increasingly violent and unhinged.

It’s a tense ride indeed for the reader, and ideally one read in a single sitting with no pit-stops. The story is pared down, barely giving you room to breathe. The characterisation and changing relationship between David and Nat is well done, occurring for the reader in the brief windows between the action. By contrast, the yobs with their laddish banter and blaring music are presented with no back-story, no real explanation for their acts. This seems a deliberate ploy by West, emphasising the essentially random nature of the violence, and giving the car that pursues David and Nat some of the impersonal, relentless horror of the truck from Duel. (It’s certainly a more inventive and original reworking of that theme than the recent Stephen King/Joe Hill collaboration.)

In short this is another impressive work from West, who seems to be mastering the novella form. Published by Pendragon Press, and available both as an ebook and as a limited edition paperback, this one is very much worth a test drive.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A Premonition for 2015...

FS10 Reflections ebook 300ppiPleased to say that my story, Premonition, will appear in the tenth volume of Fox Spirit's Fox Pocket anthologies next year sometime, although my soothsaying powers are not enough to tell me when as yet...

This anthology collects together stories on the theme of Reflections, and like all the Fox Pocket anthologies has some frankly fabulous cover art by Sarah Anne Langton.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Fantasycon 2014 - York

This weekend I attended my first Fantasycon convention; I've been to a few cons now but this was the first 'overnighter' and so I was slightly nervous as I am often am in groups of people I don't know. But it helped that I knew good friends from other cons were going to be there, in particular my fellow 'failed to find an Indian restaurant in Birmingham' partners Mark West, Phil Ambler, and Steve Byrne, who I knew could be relied on to draw me out of my shell if needed. (Backup plan: beer.) But any nerves were misplaced for it was one of the most friendly, welcoming events I've been to, and all the people I met or re-met over the course of the weekend made it so.

Some specific highlights:

Book Launch: No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill
What I was saying about people above? Adam Nevill is a case in point - a thoroughly friendly and welcoming guy, and fellow Robert Aickman fan to boot. (Anyone who likes Aickman is alright in my book.) Adam's one of the most successful horror writers out there at the moment, and I'm a big fan of his work, so a chance to get a signed copy of his new book well before release day was too good to pass up.

A Tribute To Joel Lane
Unlike many people present, I never met Joel Lane, but his short stories were always excellent and if it wasn't for his tragically early death he would undoubtedly have been one of the authors I'd have spent ages trying to pluck up the courage to speak to. A number of authors including Simon Bestwick and Ramsey Campbell read from Joel's work and shared some memories of him. Despite the crap acoustics and loud people at the bar behind us, it was a really very special.

Reading: VH Leslie
VH Leslie's short stories are some of the finest I've read this year, a real class act. For this event she read her story Namesake  (you can find it in Best British Horror 2014) and her reading really brought out both the humour and the unease in the tale. I was lucky enough to get the chance to chat with Victoria a couple of times over the weekend; another damn friendly fellow writer.

Book Launch: The Spectral Book of Horror Stories
This was by far the most packed event I attended, and no surprise: the number of authors who were present to sign the book was massive, the signatures & messages in mine not even all fitting onto one page. Here I said hello to online friends Alison Littlewood and Stephen Volk for the first time in person, and finally overcame my stuttering awe to tell Ramsey Campbell what an inspiration he was and is.

Book Launch:The End by Gary McMahon
There was so much going on on the Saturday, but no way was I going to miss the book launch for a new Gary McMahon book. No way. Regular readers will already know how good I think his work is. I also got the chance to buy a copy of his forthcoming chapbook from Knightwatch Press, The Night Just Got Darker directly from Gary in the bar. Given the prices in the con bar, I think it was the cheapest thing I actually purchased in there...

Book Launch: Boo Books/Knightwatch
This was the event where I read from The Place Where It Always Rains from Worms, which seemed to go okay. There were also readings from K.T. Davies (a pleasure to meet, as always), Simon Bestwick (ditto), Allen Ashley, and Reggie Oliver reading Anna Taborksa's stories from Worms.

Food:the weekend also didn't disappoint on this score. Two fabulous pub lunches in The Maltings, which was an nice old fashioned pub (with decoration that included an old sign about where to get treated for VD). A scrumptious evening meal in The Yak & Yeti, apparently Britain's only Gurkha restaurant. And a Saturday curry organised by Phil, where the only thing bigger than the size of the guest-list was the size of the naan breads. Epic naan.

More People: I probably won't remember everyone, but in addition to those above it really was great to chat to Steve Mosby, Jim McLeod, Johnny Mains, Lynda E Rucker, Ruth Booth, Stephen Bacon, Ross Warren, Alex Davis, Terry Grimwood, Paul Holmes, Dion Winton-Polack, Neil Snowden, Sue Moorcroft, Steve Chapman, Neil Williams, Graeme Reynolds, Simon Marshall Jones, Christopher Teague, Robert Shearman, Dave Jeffery, Adele Wearing, Jasper Bark, John Travis...

If I've not mentioned you it's due to my own crapness, don't worry. Or because your pass was on the wrong way round when we spoke, or because you were someone I met exclusively between the hours of 1am and 3am on the Saturday when things were a bit hazy. And speaking of Saturday night:

A Summing Up: The penultimate song at the Fantasycon disco was Elbow's One Day Like This, which finishes with the repeated refrain Throw those curtains wide, One day like this a year would see me right. Which about sums it up - writing can be a lonely business, with the doubts and rejections and long nights, and even the most sympathetic non-writing friend or family member is unlikely to want to talk about our weird stories for more than a few minutes at a time... So chances like this to speak to fellow writers and editors and reviewers feel like something really special to me now, a chance to recharge my creative batteries and go back into the real world all fired up. A chance to remember how lucky I am to be part of a genre I love in some small way.

Okay, the lyrics don't quite fit, but yes: days like this, and all you fab people - you see me right.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Fantasycon 2014 - Reading

It's my first Fantasycon this year, which I'm immensely excited about. And I'm also very pleased to say that as part of it I'll be reading from my story The Place Where It Always Rains as part of a combined launch for Worms, X7, and After The Fall.

It will take place at 7pm on the Saturday, and as well as me they'll also be readings from:

Simon Bestwick
K.T. Davies
Mike Chinn
Anna Taborska

so it should be a great event. Hope to see some of you there, or just about generally over the course of the weekend. I'm shy as heck during these kind of things, so do come over and say hi!

Fantasycon 2014 book launches.