Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Saturday, 22 December 2012

More books from 2012

I have looked back over the year once more, and this post completes my most memorable reads. Again, they are in no particular order. I have included one novella and one novel.

Nightmare Jack and Other Stories John Metcalfe

Morbid Tales Quentin S Crisp

The Shelter James Everington

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day Ben Loory

 Literary Remains RB Russell

Quiet Houses Simon Kurt Unsworth

The White Hands and Other Weird Tales Mark Samuels

Yesterday Knocks Noel Boston

The Doll Maker and Other Tales of the Uncanny Sarban

 Le Grande Meaulnes Henri Alain-Fournier

The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini & Other Strange Stories Reggie Oliver

What can I say? I've read some great stuff this year. Keep tuned in to find out my favourite individual short stories of the year ... and even, soon, some reviews. Happy holidays!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Books I have read in 2012

Here are some of the most memorable books I have read during 2012. Not necessarily books that were first published during the year, just ones that were new to me.

My year was dominated by short story collections, which is not surprising as it is my favourite form of fiction. Here are 12, in no particular order.

 A Hazy Shade of Winter Simon Bestwick

A Natural Body and a Spiritual Body JS Leatherbarrow

After Shocks Paul Finch

In Ghostly Company Amyas Northcote

Lost Places Simon Kurt Unsworth

The Other Room James Everington

Rope Trick Mark P Henderson

Sleep No More LTC Rolt

 The Night Comes On Steve Duffy

The Passion Play Anthony Oldknow

They Might Be Ghosts David G Rowlands

Tragic Life Stories Steve Duffy

What a great selection there! Some older classics and some excellent newer collections. I will post more books I have read this year subsequently ... I didn't realise I'd read quite so much this year.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The strangest book I have read

Having been fairly well read as a 17-year-old, having tasted some science fiction, some horror stories, a fair few classics, and having grappled with existentialism with some success, I felt I was quite worldly-wise. Nothing could shock me; after all, I had read Never Talk to Strangers, and I was a Jesus and Mary Chain fan. What more could life teach me?
But then a friend lent me a copy of Maldoror by the mysterious Comte de Leatreamont (real name Isidore Ducasse). It is surely the strangest, nastiest, most shocking book imaginable. At the time, I read voraciously and with the intensity of a fairly pretentious youth, and this book left me scarred for life! To say it is unrelenting is an understatement; it is a litany of disturbed and disturbing images which leave the reader numb. I have experienced nothing since with a fraction of its power. It is incredible how it came to be published, especially in Paris in 1868, with the repression going on at that time (I believe there were issues about both its publication and distribution, but nonetheless they were resolved). I don't intend to write a synopsis or review of it, as so much has been written elsewhere, but I would recommend anyone with an interest in strange stories, literature in general, or indeed horror stories, to have a look at it. If only to have your own morals well and truly challenged.
I feel I should quote its opening sentence:

May it please heaven that the reader, emboldened and having for the first time being become as fierce as what he is reading, should, without being led astray, find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre and poison-filled pages; for, unless he brings to his reading a rigorous logic and a tautness of mind equal at least to his wariness, the deadly emanations of this book will dissolve his soul as water does sugar.

You'd better believe it. Of course, part of the legend of this book is the mystery surrounding Isidore Ducasse. Almost nothing is known of him, apart from that he was born in Montevideo in 1846, the son of a French consular official, and that he died in Paris at the age of 24. There are some sketchy details about his education, and a tantalising interview with one M. Paul Lespes, in 1927, when he was 81; he had been at school with Ducasse, and he mentions that Ducasse had admired Edgar Allen Poe. A couple of bare descriptions of him exist, and but one photograph (below). He had become caught up in the Prussian seige of Paris, and apparently died of a fever, as was common at that time. He left no letters, no memoirs or diaries.
(An interesting aside is that Ducasse apparently said, just before his demise, that Maldoror was about evil, and that he was about to begin its sister volume, which would be about good. The idea being that the two would balance each other out.)

Maldoror was probably the first surrealist novel, and as such has influenced Verlaine, Gide, Breton, Dali ...  it is challenging in a way that books cannot be any more. Despite its amoral bleakness, violence and sadism, it is also poetic, humorous, frightening and atmospheric. There is a strange sense of outrage at its own excesses, too, which I found confusing but fascinating. Certainly, as the protagonist himself says, a bitter fruit, but one worth trying. With an open mind.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Existential angst

Of course, I went through a period of existentialism. A friend of mine had read Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, and recommended it to me. So, having just started at art college, aged 16, I gave it a go. It had such an effect upon me that it shaped my reading matter for many years, and indeed it still does. In a way I feel it stopped me from even attempting to write, as it is such a singular achievement which could surely never be emulated. I still occasionally read it, getting something different from it each time; but something just as relevant to me.

Upon reading the book as an older person, it became clear just how self-indulgent and self-absorbed the whole thing is: but then that just adds to its magnificence. Would anyone write such a book now? It is so trivial yet so ground-breaking. Has there ever been a more fascinating yet pathetic character than the Autodidact? Doomed from the start yet compellingly so. Everything is questioned, from the tiniest detail to the broadest of concepts, and it was all so terribly important to an art student. Are art students like that any more?
Of course I had to read more by Sartre, and so I bought a copy of The Age of Reason. This is a (fairly) conventional novel putting forward a complex theory of philosophy in a very accessible manner. I lost myself in and to this book. Mathieu, the protagonist, became an obsession to me, and I tried to live my life to the ideals put forward in Sartre's prose. This is at least slightly possible when one is still at college ... but the concepts of personal freedom become a little compromised once one has to acquire a holiday job!

Part of a trilogy called, collectively, Roads to Freedom (it was great to tell people at college parties you were reading a trilogy) of great influence, it is the easiest to read. The other two, The Reprieve and Iron in the Soul are worthy books but harder work. The narrative structure in The Reprieve, whereby the action is observed through the various characters without flagging which one by the writer, is masterful but demands a lot of the reader. Sartre subtly changes his writing style to reflect the different characters, sometimes in mid-paragraph, and the reader is expected to keep up. In a lesser author's hands disaster would occur, but the effect here is breathtaking.
One of the most striking sequences of any book I have read is in The Age of Reason where Mathieu is in a nightclub with Ivich, the worthless object of his obsession, and he cuts himself with a knife to impress her. I'm still morbidly fascinated by this, despite having read it so many times.

This is the first few lines of The Age of Reason. Don't you wish you could begin a novel like this?

Half-way down the Rue Vercingetorix, a tall man seized Mathieu by the arm: a policeman was patrolling the opposite pavement.
'Can you spare me a franc or two? I'm hungry.'
His eyes were close-set, his lips were thick, and he smelt of drink.
'You mean you're thirsty?' Asked Mathieu.
'No: I'm hungry, and that's God's truth.'
Mathieu found a five-franc piece in his pocket.
'I don't care which you are; it's none of my business,' he said: and gave him the five francs.
'You're a good sort,' said the man, leaning against the wall. 'And now I'd like to wish you something in return. Something you'll be really glad to have. What shall it be?'

There ... could you resist reading on? I was hooked!

Next I tried Albert Camus ...

Friday, 30 November 2012

More books that shaped us

Here are some more books which have influenced me.
When I was 14, I had exhausted the supply of books to read from our local library, so I spread my wings to the main such institution in the nearby town. I remember browsing the shelves one summer's day, and coming across 1984 on the shelves. Of course I had heard of it, but my understanding was that it was a simple science fiction novel. Having enjoyed Indoctrinaire years before, I felt this might be similar. It was during the summer holidays, and I set myself up in the bay window of my bedroom one morning, expecting to read a chapter or so then go out on my bike, as was my habit. However it turned out that I couldn't stop reading; it became the first novel I couldn't put down (I think it took me a couple of days to finish.) It was also the first story which made me cry. I found the ending incredibly powerful, and I read it over and over, feeling somehow confronted. It still haunts me.

Enthused, I went back to the library and got a copy of Brave New World. This I found less accessible, but satisfying. It was the first book I really had to work hard to get through, and I was proud of myself once it was finished. I know a lot of subtlety within its pages was lost on me back then, but my appetite was whetted for fairly challenging books. (Is this the best book cover ever?)

Back to the library I went, and my eye was caught by The Trial (need I say who wrote it?) I must admit I had not heard of Kafka or his masterpiece. It was the typography and general look of the book which I found hard to resist (and in fact its title), and I had to read it. It held me spellbound from start to finish in a way that no other book has. I've read it many times, along with The Castle and America (I eventually bought the Penguin Collected Novels). It influenced me as a reader and also as a designer. I feel it is one of those rare books which gets better each time it is re-read. The film of the same name by Orson Welles is very much underrated, with superb imagery and atmospherics.

A still from The Trial (1962) showing Anthony Hopkins (below). Orson Welles himself played the cigar-chomping Advocate. Don't you just love black and white films?

At the end of those holidays, it was back to having to read prescribed books from school, and first up was Pride and Prejudice. Not my cup of tea at the time, and I tried to get by without actually reading it. I still have an essay I had to write about the book, covered with angry red ink from my teacher (I was generally a good pupil, at least in English). At the end it says: 'Are you sure you read the same book as the rest of the class? For the most part this is complete rubbish.' What a great comment!

I much preferred choosing my own novels to read ... More in another post.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

All the fun of the fair

Visited Luna Park with the kids today, and despite the bright, hot and sunny weather, I couldn't help but notice some creepy images, so I took a few photographs. I was reminded of a number of tales written about funfairs ... and one great film.
I must say that, to me, the most memorable story depicting such places is 'The Swords' by Aickman. The flyblown, grimy amusement arcade in the urban wasteland is etched in my mind forever ... as it should be in yours! Also another favourite of mine is Ramsey Campbell's 'The Companion', which has a similar feel.

These looked most disturbing to me ... especially given the heads swivelled! Most bizarre. Are these meant to be appealing to children?

It struck me that taken out of context, many of these figures would perhaps frighten some kids, but at the funfair, they are accepted at face value. There's got to be a story there somewhere!

One of my favourite films happens to be 'Carnival of Souls', the cult classic by Herk Harvey, made in 1962. I saw it late one night on BBC2 when I was 15, and I had no idea of its significance. It just struck me as such a powerful, simple story with compelling imagery, involving something of a haunted funfair. The score has some excellent organ music, which is very dramatic too. If you haven't seen it you really should. Here are a couple of stills.

Yes, it's every bit as good as it looks! One of the films that shaped me. I would love to hear if anyone else has seen it, and if so what you thought.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Bits & pieces

Just a couple of things. First, you can read two of my short stories, 'Unit 6' and 'In Transit', on real paper pages! The paperback book is at Amazon now. Here is the link:

Also, my copy of Aickman's 'Intrusions' by Tartarus Press arrived yesterday. Tartarus produce such great books.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Cover for Dying Embers

It's still some way off, in fact getting further away as I begin yet more stories ... but here is a possible cover for my collection of tales called Dying Embers.

Right now, the book consists of these short stories:

The Source of the Lea
Abraham's Bosom
In Transit
Unit 6
Playing Tag
Necessary Procedure
Turning the Cup
Burnt Close

Some of these stories are finished, some need editing, and some re-working. I tend to go on a bit, so a lot of words can be lost ... but I'm getting fairly adept at doing that myself. It is a steep learning curve, even before things are ready for the editing process.
I have also started a short story called The Key, but I'm not sure if that will be included or not.

I will give outlines of these stories as things progress.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Pan horror collections

I remember seeing Volume 7 of the Pan Book of Horror Stories sitting on the window sill in our dining room. I was nine years old, and I'm sure my parents would not have wanted me to read it. However, it was there for a few days, apparently forgotten about by my father. So one evening I picked it up and read it through. In the end I read it many times.
I do remember being rather disturbed by some of the images. 'The Monkey's Paw' really caught my imagination (of course it is a classic short story) and 'Never Talk to Strangers', well, it gave me nightmares. I haven't got a copy of the book, in fact I haven't seen a copy for 35 years, but it is still crystal-clear in my mind.


Every story is a cracker. Here is the track listing:

Charles J Benfleet, ‘The Man Who Hated Flies’
R Chetwynd-Hayes, ‘The Thing’
GM Glaskin, ‘The Return’
David Grant, ‘The Bats’
Dulcie Gray, ‘The Fur Brooch
Dulcie Gray, ‘Dream House’
Harry Harrison, ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’
Patricia Highsmith, ‘The Snail Watcher’
WW Jacobs, ‘The Monkey’s Paw’
John D Keefauver, ‘The Last Experiment’
John D Keefauver, ‘Mareta’
Rene Morris, ‘I’ll Never Leave You – Ever’
William Sansom, ‘A Smell of Fear’
William Sansom, ‘The Little Room’
Rosemary Timperley, ‘Street of the Blind Donkey’
Martin Waddell, ‘Cannibals’
Martin Waddell, ‘The Old Adam’
Elizabeth Walter, ‘The Island of Regrets’
Alex White, ‘Never Talk to Strangers’


The only other Pan book I read was Volume 4, which I found at a second-hand shop a year or so later. This was a similar proposition, and some of the tales I still remember vividly, particularly 'Slime' and 'The Horsehair Trunk'. When I found out in recent years that there had been an Aickman in there ... well, to my eternal shame, I have no recollection of reading 'Ringing the Changes' at all. Still, I suppose I was only 10.

Here are the stories in that Volume:

William Sansom, ‘Various Temptations’
MS Waddell, ‘The Pale Boy’
Ray Bradbury, ‘The Emissary’
Robert Bloch, ‘Lucy Comes To Stay’
Richard Davis, ‘Guy Fawkes Night’
Vivian Meik, ‘The Two Old Women’
Alexander Woollcott, ‘Moonlight Sonata’
Septimus Dale, ‘The Little Girl Eater’
Rosemary Timperley, ‘Harry’
Ray Russell, ‘Sardonicus
Robert Aickman, ‘Ringing the Changes’
Hugh Reid, ‘Dulcie’
MS Waddell, ‘The Importance of Remaining Ernest’
Joseph Payne Brennan, ‘Slime’
Adobe James, ‘The Ohio Love Sculpture’
Davis Grubb, ‘The Horsehair Trunk’
Alex Hamilton, ‘The Attic Express’
Elliott O’Donnell, ‘The Haunted Telephone’
Sir Frederick Treves, ‘The Elephant Man’  

I'm not sure that I would like my own children reading these collections at such a young age, but, as they say, it never did me any harm ... Oh, hang on –

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Which book shaped you?

I am thinking of the reading we may have done which has influenced us, but are not necessarily part of the genre we enjoy now. These are some of the books I have enjoyed through my formative years. It would be great to find out what books shaped you through those years too.

When I was young, we didn't have many books around the house. Couldn't afford to in those days. We used to frequent the local library, and it wasn't long before I had read all the books in the childrens' section. Probably the first "novels " I read were the Jennings ones, by Anthony Buckeridge. I read them all, and in fact I now read them to my own children. Excellent books.

At home, my mother splashed out to buy me a set of encyclopaedias of course ... and there were some aging pulp novels lined up on a shelf in the lounge. Two of those books had a lasting influence on me. One was A Summer Night, a romantic novel by Alan Moorehead, which really didn't seem like much, but Moorehead is an exceptional writer and it captivated me, even at age nine. I still have the paperback on my shelf now, falling to pieces. I have since gone on to read his wonderful Nile books. He was probably the highest-profile war correspondent during WW2, with access to Mountbatten down, and his account of the conflict, titled Eclipse, is compelling. He had the knack of writing about anything and making it appeal.

But the book that I feel had the most lasting effect upon me was Indoctrinaire by Christopher Priest. When I think back, I was a touch young for it ... its imagery would sometimes keep me awake at night. The story concerned a strange area in the middle of a jungle; a clearing, within which the normal rules of time did not count. At the centre of this area was a pyramid-like structure with a network of underground rooms and tunnels, which seemed to be used for brain-washing a rebellious scientist by the name of Wentik, the hero of the story. (I say 'seemed to be', because I was never sure if this was in fact what was happening). The hand on the table came into things somewhere, although I can't quite recall exactly how. It was pretty creepy for a nine-year-old. All was very weird, and my recollection is that it was ultimately unresolved. Unfortunately I don't still have that copy, and I have never seen another one. It seems to have been a fairly obscure book. I would be interested to find out if anyone else has read it.

Next up came some short horror stories ... but that's for another post.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

More Aickman stuff

I mentioned previously that some of my Aickmans are signed, so I thought I'd post some images.

This is Powers of Darkness with an inscription which reads "for Ken Cowley". I did some research, eventually tracking him down and contacting him via e mail. He was good enough to tell me he is an occasional writer who met Robert Aickman at the British Fantasy Society's convention in Birmingham in 1976, when he (Aickman) was guest speaker. Aickman signed this book for Ken Cowley, and also confided in him that he "got the inspiration for some of his stories from dreams".

This is Dark Entries, signed in 1970, reading "for Ian Law". I don't know who that is.


This is Intrusions, reading "for Kate who has been here before". I don't know who that is either. This was signed in August 1980, only 6 months before his death. I acquired this book from the Inland Waterways Association.

Finally this is a letter Aickman wrote, with his Gledhow Gardens letterhead. It's not a particularly interesting letter, being about some money he owed someone, but Aickman wrote it!

Darker Times fiction competition

I had some good good news this morning. I am a runner-up in the Darker Times October fiction competition for my short story Unit 6, and I also received honourable mention for In Transit.
These stories will be published in the upcoming Darker Times anthology, both in e-book and paperback formats. I will let everyone know about publication dates when I find them out.
Here is a link to the results:

The Next Terrace

I've been working on The Next Terrace, and thinking about my approach to the cover. I think this version may have more potential, I'd be interested in comments.

Hopefully this short story will be published soon, and the collection (possibly called Dying Embers) will follow on soon after.

Dark Entries

Tell me ... did Bauhaus have the Aickman collection in mind when they recorded their best track?

Maybe ... what do you think? Cracking performance though.

Friday, 2 November 2012


Unsurprisingly, the first time I read Robert Aickman I was hooked. The Hospice it was, and the atmosphere he created, together with the way the story ended, meant I could not get it out of my mind ... and I still can't, all these years later (about 22 in fact.) It expanded my mind.
I started to find collections of horror stories which included his tales, but I was frustrated at the time that I could not easily find more of his work. Then, in 2001, I discovered Tartarus Press, and their Collected Strange Stories. What a great publishing house, and wonderful people. I have since bought all of their publications relating to Aickman, and have to restrain myself from buying most of the other things they publish too. Have a look, perfect for Christmas presents!
Since then I have also found a number of first editions, mainly on eBay, and over the years I've created a nice little collection, with some signed copies too. Here are some pics.

Don't Tartarus books look great!

Some first editions.

And some other bits and pieces.

I try not to pay too much for these items, it's a matter of waiting around for things to come along at a reasonable price.