Sunday 16 July 2023

Helen Grant - Interview, and new book news!

Thanks to Helen for taking the time to reply to my questions about her life as a writer and her new novel, which sounds fascinating! 

Lots of people write in childhood but then stop. Did you – like many writers – simply keep going?

I did indeed write in childhood – both for my own amusement and for school assignments, which I absolutely loved. At my primary school we had one particular teacher who was really interested in creative writing and would set us quite challenging topics. The supposed punishment for some misdemeanour or other was to write two sides on "an empty room" and I always kind of fancied doing that! And yes, I did just keep going, though the types of things I wrote varied. When I started working, I didn't have a lot of time for writing, but whenever I travelled anywhere (which I did a lot in my 20s) I kept diaries. I still have them: scruffy handwritten notebooks full of remarks like "We are currently camping in a police compound in Loreli in the Baluchistan region, as there are bandits around here." I always wanted to write novels, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when we moved to Germany and I was at home with two young kids, that I had enough time to do that. By that time, my head was absolutely bursting with ideas. I used to drop the children off at Kindergarten at 7.30am and then work like a demon until noon, when I had to pick them up again. Limited time certainly concentrates the mind. My first published novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was written in those circumstances. I haven't stopped since.

You began as a YA author – was that in part because you wanted to emulate favourite authors you read as a girl?

I have always had authors I admire – M.R.James, obviously, among others – but that was not an influence on my first works being YA. I didn't actually set out to write YA at all; my first book was simply the book I felt moved to write, and when my agent showed it to publishers, Penguin picked it up for their YA range. I've never adopted different styles for my "YA" work and my adult stuff. The thing that probably categorised my first six novels as YA was the fact that the protagonists are all young: teens or even pre-teens. I suppose the other thing is that even where there is gore in my work, I tend to write euphemistically about it; I concentrate on the light flashing on the blade as it descends, rather than the knife burying itself in someone's flesh. That's probably perceived as more suitable for the YA market, but that genuinely isn't why I write that way. If I do emulate favourite authors, it's because I admire the way they express the unspeakable without rubbing the reader's nose in it. M.R.James is an absolute master at this. In "Count Magnus", for example, he tells us, " I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones. You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that. And they laid him on the bier which they brought, and they put a cloth over his head, and the priest walked before; and they began to sing the psalm for the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them. And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place." So poor Anders Bjornsen has literally had his face destroyed – blood everywhere, eyeballs sitting there in the naked skull – but somehow M.R.James manages to tell us this without being gross. That gets a chef's kiss from me.

Your first book, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal – did that shock you or were you all ‘yeah, damn right it’s good’?

Ach – in my debut days I don't think I realised how damn' lucky I was to get that shortlisting. I probably wasn't shocked enough. When you consider how many books come out every year, it was an amazing thing to happen, and also super helpful – even now, over a decade later, I get a tiny sales blip whenever the Carnegie is in the news. I don't think I'm a literary genius or anything. Generally when a piece of work is finished, I am pleased with it, but I don't think I'm more deserving than the next person. It's a certainty that there are brilliant, beautifully-written books out there which don't win anything.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

THE BLACK PILGRIMAGE 2 - Further Explorations in Supernatural Fiction, by Rosemary Pardoe


New from David Sutton's Shadow Publishing comes the second volume of writings by Ro Pardoe, one of the greatest experts on supernatural fiction and related matters. Like the first Black Pilgrimage, this is a collection of short, non-fiction pieces from various sources. Ro edited Ghosts & Scholars magazine for four decades, and as you'd imagine there are a lot of interesting items from that. She is also one of the founders of The Everlasting Club, a ghost story-oriented Amateur Press Association (APA), contributing a regular column entitled 'Lady Wardrop's Notes'. There are also book introductions - of which she's done a lot! - and book reviews. 

Much of this material is of course focused on M.R. James and related matters, such as the role dogs in his stories (canines feature more often than cats, surprisingly), but the sheer range of interests is exhilarating. I didn't know there was a writer called John Harrison (no relation to M. John Harrison). Then there's the question of whether M.R. James could have read any of Lovecraft's fiction. It turns out that he might well have encountered 'The Horror at Red Hook' (oh dear) and 'Pickman's Model' (phew). We may never know for sure, though.

And I defy anyone not to want to read  an essay on 'The Mad World of Lionel Fanthorpe and Noel Boston'. For those who don't know, Lionel Fanthorpe wrote a vast number of tales for a magazine called Supernatural Stories (and a ton of stuff for other publications) under a bewildering variety of pen names - Pel Torro, Bron Fane, Trebor Thorpe. Like Carmilla, he rearranged the letters in his real name to create these alter egos. Unlike Carmilla, he later joined the Anglican clergy. All very odd and good clean fun.

It's not just books, of course. Broadcasting features strongly, notably the Pilgrim series of radio dramas by Sebastian Baczkiewicz. There's also an interview with the author from the magazine Wormwood, which rounds off a splendid book. I love eclectic, amusing volumes I can dip into at any time, especially when I'm at a loose end or feeling down. This is one of the best examples of that kind of book.

Monday 10 July 2023

CAGED OCEAN DUB by Dare Segun Falowo (Tartarus Press 2023)

Our humanity both unites us and divides us. The question is always one of balance. In this debut collection by a rising star of Nigerian fiction, stories range in genre from social realism (sort of) to science fiction by way of weird tales. These stories are sometimes bloody, often magical, and rise to remarkable heights of stylistic power. I learned a lot and was often puzzled - both good reactions to a new author, I find. So, what is going on?

The book is divided into three sections - 'Hungers', 'Ghosts', and 'Heralds'. Among the first group of stories is 'Oases'. a terrible, intense account of a refugee family trekking across the Sahel, bringing home the perma-crisis that besets so much of our world. 'Eating Keolin' is a horror/fantasy about a pregnant woman whose world is disrupted by colonial forces that are countered by Amazonian women and leopards. 

'October in Eran Riro', a novella, tells of an internal migrant - that most Victorian of characters - but in a distinctly Nigerian way. October is a girl whose family falls from middle class prosperity to penury overnight, and who - after both parents are dead - finds her way to the eponymous restaurant. Strange people and strange rituals are described in detail, which is both hallucinatory and oddly matter-of-fact. Magical realism, of a kind. 

Among the Ghosts is 'Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa', in which a beautiful model purchases a magic mirror from a roadside hawker. A conventional theme, certainly, but again Falowo takes their reader in new and strange directions. 'Vain Knife' is also a highly effective tale of horror, in which the Devil prompts a put-upon son to stab his tyrannical mother. Things do not go as planned, to say the least. 

The last section, 'Heralds', consists of science fiction stories. These reminded me a little of the New Wave science fiction of the late Sixties/early Seventies. That was an explicit reaction against the tropes and 'realistic' prose conventions of Golden Age sf - the works of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein etc. I don't know if Falowo is reacting against something similar in Nigerian fictional traditions, but I wouldn't be surprised. The result is startling, demanding, and never less than interesting. 

'Biscuit and Milk', a tale of interstellar travel, is exuberantly inventive, offering a future struggling with ecological collapse but also worth living in - quite an achievement. The short and powerful 'What Not to Do When Spelunking in Anambra' is a clever, surreal variant on the idea of alien influences discovered here on earth. 

Caged Ocean Dub is a remarkable debut. Falowo's style is poetic, dazzling, and perhaps a little heady for readers used to firm restraint and the (very artificial) conventions of realism. There is power here, and strangeness, and a sense of cultural tectonic plates shifting. None of which are bad things. 

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Sneaky peek at the next issue


Cover by Sam Dawson - 'Owl and Henge by Moonlight' sort of thing. Really good!

But what of the contents, hmm?

New stories by: 

James Machin
Steve Duffy
S.M. Cashmore
Tina Rath
Mark Nicholls
Tim Jeffreys

Supernatural Tales 56 - contents

The next issue - due out in the autumn - will see a mixture of familiar names and some newbies. I hope, as always, that the stories find fav...