Monday, 28 July 2014

Strange Story #22: The Graveyard Reader by Theodore Sturgeon (Guest Post by Anthony Cowin)

Strange Story #21: The Graveyard Reader
Author: Theodore Sturgeon
Anthologised In: The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology

JE: Another guest post on an author's favourite 'strange story'; this time Anthony Cowin talks about a Theodore Sturgeon. Anthony's own damn fine strange story, is available now

Take it away, Anthony:

I was a fan of Theodore Sturgeon years before I even knew he existed. What I mean is I’d enjoyed some of adapted work when I was a kid from his original Star Trek scripts to the classic B-movie Killdozer. I’d read a few of his short stories in anthologies over the years too without registering his name. I never used to check on author names when I was younger. I just assumed these were one off, long dead writers who didn’t need investigation. When people would discover my love for genre fiction they’d often tell me to check out Sturgeon. “But I don’t like sci-fi” I’d say. They’d look at my shelf with Vonnegut, Clarke, Boulle, Robert J. Sawyer, Matheson, Philip K. Dick, Bradbury, Jack Finney and raise a weary eyebrow. I thought Science fiction was about new worlds, huge spaceships and invented languages I couldn’t be bothered to read, all packaged in paperbacks with colourful worlds and sexy aliens on the covers.

Then one day I picked up a handful of tattered anthologies from a local charity shop. The stand out book was The Boris Karloff Horror Anthology that contained one story in particular that blew me away. It was The Graveyard Reader by Theodore Sturgeon.

The story lives beneath the words, almost hidden. I don’t mean it’s vague or trying to be self-consciously obscure, just that it runs deeper than what you see on the page. Like the silence between the notes of a powerful Requiem. It’s also a story about language. It examines how we use language, the way we absorb it and how people have their own grammar.

Sturgeon makes us question the quantity of truth we allow ourselves to tell. How retelling can make lies from truth, or elevate monsters into saints. Graveyard reading gives everything. It never subtracts from the truth, it shows without exception however uncomfortable.

The Graveyard Reader is also a story of anger. The anger born from betrayal. A poisonous rage that curls nettles around the heart until the only beat is an echo of love. The story is a simple one. A man tending the grave of his dead wife, a wife who he discovered through her death was cheating on him. Her headstone remains unmarked; all he feels are the flint spark words cut in his own stone heart. During this ceremony of weeding and tending the newly dug plot, that seems designed purely to purge his anger and assuage his dented pride, he encounters a stranger. A man who claims he’s to be a graveyard reader.

The man teaches him how to read the fall of leaves, the turn of soil, how shadows cast across the grave tells a story. Every element from rain to the blaze of sunshine reveals more secrets. It’s an atavistic language of symbols and definitions. How two sticks lay across each other will reveal how the person loved in life, or a snowflake that melts slowly may unveil hidden secrets they kept from loved ones for example.

After a year the widower masters the language and reads the story of his wife. The nuances of the symbols tell him everything he wanted to know, perhaps too much. What he does with this information is astounding, a final act that will surprise you. Sturgeon gives the reader a real cutting ending, a stone cutting ending you may say.

The Graveyard Reader had a enormous influence on my own writing and the stories I seek out. I like to add layers to my stories that need digging out. I plant flowers throughout my plots that look like nettles on closer inspection. I use symbolism, though not to seem clever or abstruse, I use it to add richness to my stories. These usually come naturally and I often only discover them myself after finishing. I hope I add those tones between the notes, the whispered timbre in the silence between words. All of these aspects I took from Sturgeon’s strange tale The Graveyard Reader. Mostly I hope the lesson I took from Sturgeon and The Graveyard Reader in particular is that emotion is as vital to a story as any other component. But the real emotions should never be revealed too early, let them hide behind the opposite feelings for a while.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Edge-Lit 3...

This year's Edge-Lit was a convention of firsts for me for a number of reasons, the main one being that I was actually on the bill, albeit in a small way - Worms from Knightwatch Press was being launched at the convention, and I was scheduled to read from my story The Place Where It Always Rains. Of which more later.

It was also the first convention where I'd specifically arranged to meet people there - indeed within 2 seconds of walking through the door I'd bumped into Phil Ambler. After signing in and getting our goody bags we went to the cafe at The Quad where we briefly caught up with Paul Holmes from The Eloquent Page. 

Phil and I then headed up to the first panel we liked the sound of - Ghost Stories Today with Andrew Barker, Johnny Mains, Marie O'Regan and Niki Valentine. This was certainly interesting, with the conversation referencing many of my favourite stories and authors, including The Turn Of The Screw, Dark Matter, The Willows and Afterwards. For me, those was a slightly awkward part where members of the audience were invited to share whether they had ever seen a ghost in real life, and one lady told a story about her child dying, but moderator Johnny Mains handled it really well.

After that, we finally meet up with Mark West and Steve Harris/Byrne, who introduced us to Alison Davies, John Travis, and Christopher Teague. Phil, Mark, Steve, John and I headed down for a few drinks, and we exchanged stories about the worst rejection letters/emails we'd received in the same manner as that scene in Jaws when they're talking about shark bites.

Photo: Really good to see Alison Davies again.
Mark West, Alison Davies, me, and Phil Ambler.
Then back upstairs for a slightly unusual event - Theresa Derwin (who runs Knightwatch) was having her head completely shaved to raise money for a cancer charity, as well as auctioning off a few books.The fact that she had the guts to do this, not even getting in too much of a flap when the cutters ran out of power, certainly put any nerves I was feeling about having to do my first ever reading into perspective.

Then a few of us went out for a quick lunch, our gang now including Richard Farren Barber and Ross Warren. Somehow we ended up in a cafe that did pensioner specials and cheap liver & onions. Myself and Phil then had to hoof it back to The Quad in order to be in time for our reading - it was also Phil's first time, reading from his story in the Potatoes anthology. The Worms launch and my own reading seemed to go really well, at least as far as I could tell. Phil did a good job too, although I think we both felt upstaged by KT Davies (who it was lovely to meet again) and her excellent reading from Worms; she did different voices and funny swearing and everything. Now the reading was done I helped myself to the free launch wine and olives, as well as signing a few copies of worms. My handwriting is truly shit, so I drew a little worm cartoon character in each copy too.

Then it was back down to the bar again for more drinks and chatting - we met up with Paul M Feeney, and I also had a nice talk with Andrew Barker about his book The Electric. Then it was time for the raffle - we didn't win as many prizes as at Andromeda One, but on the plus side that meant we weren't scared of being lynched on the way out this time.

Phil had to leave at this point, which left the rest of ready for 'Operation Curry' - we found somewhere that had been recommended and had a lovely, if slightly pricey meal. It was a nice end to the day, talking about books and drinking beer and eating nice food, with friends both old and new.

'Operation Curry'
Despite not having superhuman luck in the raffle this time, I still came back with a fair few books, including The Electric by Andrew Barker, Best British Horror 2014, Potatoes, a Gary McMahon novella The Harm, and of course Worms.

Photo: Edgelit book haul:

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

The Quarantined City

And secondly today, I'm really very happy to be able to say that the wonderful Spectral Press will be releasing a monthly serial I'll be writing called The Quarantined City - it will be released in monthly episodes from January to June 2015.

Now I just need to write it...! 

"Events, Dear Boy, Events"

Hauntings An AnthologySo this is cool: two books that I have stories in are being launched this month, and pleased to say I'll be at both events:

First up it's Worms from KnightWatch Press, edited by Alex Davis - Worms is being launched at this year's Edge-Lit convention at Derby on the 19th July. It contains my story The Place Where It Always Rains.

Secondly, my story The Man In Blue Boots will appear in Hauntings from Hic Dragones; Hauntings will be launched on the 31st July at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester - I am assured there will be free wine...

Be lovely to see any and all readers of this blog in person, so if you're at either event do say hi.

Edited 10/07: the other writers who will be reading are: Tracy Fahey, Mark Forshaw, Hannah Kate, Sarah Peploe, Michael Hitchins, Daisy Black and Rachel Halsall. Although it's a free event it would be helpful to the publisher if you could register via the thingy below. And yes there's definitely free wine.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Recommendation: The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood

The Unquiet House
I love haunted houses, me. I love Hill House, I love Hell House, I love The House Next Door and the House Of Leaves.

And now I think I love Mire House, too.

For Alison Littlewood's new(ish) novel is a haunted house novel to rank with all the above; where the house is not just a home for spooky beings, but a corruption of all a house should actually be; an archetypal 'bad place'; a mirror of its inhabitant's hopes and fears; a trap.

The Unquiet House is told in four interlocking sections, starting in the present day and then working back to the 1973, then to 1939, before finally coming back to 2013 - it almost reads like three self-contained novellas about a different generation's experiences at Mire House. But the historical parts of the novel provide a rich and plausible justification for the terrors in the present, and at the end Mire House is left still standing, still unquiet (still "not sane" as Shirley Jackson would no doubt have it) and still occupied by... something. And there's a strong suggestion that all is not over, and that another generation is about to be trapped and consumed by the horrors of the past.

I love haunted houses, me.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Ray Cluley on Short Stories

Regular readers (hello you) will know of my love for the short story form, and in particular its suitability to horror and strange fiction. So it was a pleasure to listen to this interview with Ray Cluley, where he talks about short stories with This Is Horror.

(There's also some filthy stuff about mermaids, too.)

Saturday, 14 June 2014

We Are All Haunted

Pleased to say that I have a new story called The Man In Blue Boots in the forthcoming Hauntings anthology, from the fabulous Hic Dragones press.

I believe it will be released on the 31st July; in the meantime here's the blurbage below:

An anthology of new fiction, edited by Hannah Kate

A memory, a spectre, a feeling of regret, a sense of déjà vu, ghosts, machines, something you can’t quite put your finger on, a dark double, the long shadow of illness, your past, a nation’s past, your doppelgänger, a place, a song, a half-remembered rhyme, guilt, trauma, doubt, a shape at the corner of your eye, the future, the dead, the undead, the living, a grey cat, a black dog, a ticking clock, someone you used to know, someone you used to be. We are all haunted.