Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Keeping track on stories

Last autumn I wrote here about a new story exploring the question of gender which was prompted by my reading on embryology and intersex. That story, 'Double Helix' has now been taken by The London Magazine - although I didn't even know it for a good while! It's never happened to me before, but I missed the acceptance. Needing to withdraw a different submission earlier this month, I went to the Submittable website through which many competitions, some publishers and magazines including The London Magazine now receive submissions, only to discover that 'Double Helix' had been accepted more than a month before - somehow I hadn't received the automatic email Submittable usually generates on acceptance (I searched through all my email boxes including the trash, but there was no sign). Since so much time had gone by and I hadn't replied, there was no guarantee that The London Magazine would still be publishing the story, but all's well that ends well: the story is coming out in the December/January issue. I am of course thrilled.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Reading group: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Warning: Plot spoil. This is a novel of suspense (though we had some discussion about the nature of that suspense), but it's not possible to report our discussion without revealing the ending.

Shirley Jackson's gothic work sometimes scandalised, but fell into neglect before a recent resurgence of interest. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Doug's suggestion) is a short novel, but is generally considered her greatest, written just before her death in 1962.

It is the first-person narration of Mary Katherine Blackwood - Merricat - one of the two daughters of a conventionally patriarchal New England family whose ancestors built a large house on land at the edge of the village, carefully fenced off from the 'dirty' villagers. The novel opens with immediate intimations of the weird - although eighteen years old, Merricat announces her name and age in a somewhat childlike manner (although her language will later turn lyrical and at times even intellectually sophisticated), muses the lost possibilty of having been born a werewolf (because 'the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length'), and gives us an almost babyish list of her likes: 'I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cap mushroom.' She lives with Constance, she tell us, and 'Everyone else in my family is dead.'

She then proceeds to tell us of a day some six months ago when she made her usual weekly shopping trip into the village for groceries and to change library books. We know that this day was the start of some change or crisis in the lives of Merricat and Constance, as she tell us too that the library books she collected then are now five months overdue, and 'I wondered if I would have chosen differently if I had known these were the last books, the ones that would stand forever on the kitchen shelf.' The trip into the village is excruciating for Merricat - she both fears and hates the villagers, who fall silent when she enters a shop and stare at her from behind blinds, and in the past she has been taunted by the children. In the cafe, which she braves only out of pride, a male villager, Jim Donnell, is taunting in a menacing way, and seems to issue a threat to Constance.

We soon find out what's behind all this, though it is not through the explicit narration of Merricat, who clearly suppresses it and with whom Constance has a tacit pact not to discuss or even mention it. We discover in the course of Merricat's progress through the village and home that at this time an invalid uncle, Julian, also lives in the big house with the sisters. Every so often, the wife of one of the other landed households, Helen Clarke, comes to tea - an apparently fraught occasion for the insular sisters, especially Merricat - and her visit is due later in the day of Merricat's trip to the library. This time she dismays them by bringing another woman, Mrs Wright, and Mrs Wright is indecently interested in an event which - we are starting to understand - concerned the deaths of the rest of the family. (Mrs Wright has come wearing black, thinking that 'perhaps it was appropriate'.) Uncle Julian, it turns out, is trying to write about that event, and is thus eager to answer the questions of the taboo-breaking Mrs Wright. Thus, along with Merricat and Constance sitting in another room, we listen to his account of what happened: six years before, Merricat's and Constance's parents, an aunt and another uncle died of poisoning at the Blackwood dinner table, arsenic having been added to the sugar they put on their blackberries. Uncle Julian, who had also been present, was the one survivor, the poisoning being the cause of his invalidism. Because Constance had been doing the cooking, because she was the only one who did not take sugar on her blackberries (twelve-year-old Merricat had been sent to her room without dinner, for bad behaviour), and because she washed out the sugar bowl after the deaths, she was tried for murder. However, due to a lack of hard evidence - and in spite of her saying at the trial that 'they deserved to die' - she was acquitted. (After all, as Uncle Julian says, Constance had never liked sugar on her berries.)

The villagers, however, clearly believe that Constance is guilty and she dare not go into the village, but is confined to the house and her kitchen garden and her cooking (and to looking after the younger Merricat and their uncle), and it is Merricat who must go into the village and brave the villagers' ire.

Doug introduced the book by saying how gripping and suspenseful he had found it, but both he and I agreed that the suspense did not lie in the matter that Uncle Julian is trying, with his damaged brain, to unravel: who actually did the killing. We both thought that was pretty clear from very near the start. For one thing, Constance is not at all the kind of person to commit such an act: she is eternally kind and caring to both Julian and Merricat, and, as Mrs Wright says to Julian: ' "I cannot seem to remember that pretty young girl is actually - well." ' Secondly, as Merricat walks through the village she has murderous fantasies:
I wished [the villagers] were dead. I would have liked to come into the grocery one morning and see them all, even the Elberts and the children, lying there crying with pain and dying. I would then help myself to groceries, I thought, stepping over their bodies, taking whatever I fancied from the shelves, and go home, with perhaps a kick for Mrs Donell while she lay there.
Two days later, she tells us in a matter-of-fact manner, she kills a nest of baby snakes: 'I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.' (John commented that in his profession, Child Psycholgy, it is accepted that children who kill animals quite often turn out to be murderers.) And then there is her obsession with poisonous mushrooms, and as Trevor, who agreed with us, said: 'Well, you've only got to work it out: who else was there who could possibly have done the killings?' Plus the fact that there are certain things Constance will not allow her to do, such as handling food or knives.

In my Penguin edition Joyce Carol Oates refers in an Afterword to the consequent 'mystery' of why Constance is so protective of Merricat, and concludes from this that Constance was after all complicit in the murders. We didn't see it all like that. We thought it was pretty obvious why she should be protective of Merricat: there are plenty of hints that Merricat was abused by her family. Firstly, it is made clear that she was often sent to bed without supper as punishment as she was on the night of the murders, ' "in disgrace" ' as Constance puts it to Mrs Wright, and in the family's eyes she was a ' "a wicked, disobedient child" '. Helen Clarke comments on this in a way that we felt we were meant to take on board: ' "An unhealthy environment ... a child should be punished for wrongdoing, but she should be made to feel that she is still loved." ' In other words, we are to conclude that she was unloved by her family, and it is this significance we gave to Constance's words at her trial that 'they deserved to die.' It is also clear that Constance has always tried to protect Merricat, and compensate for that lack of love: ' 'I used to go up the back stairs with a tray of dinner for her after my father left the dining room." '

We can see why Merricat was punished. Arrested by the events of six years before, the sisters maintain their earlier relationship, with Merricat infantilised by Constance's continuing care. Although she is eighteen and something of a seer, Merricat behaves, and is treated by Constance, like the feral child she clearly always was, running wild among the trees on the family's land, hiding away in her secret den, burying objects to cast childlike spells. Thus we get the former picture of a strict, patriarchal father entirely unable to accept a strange and unconventionally wild daughter. At the start of her tale, Merricat fearfully senses a change coming, and so it does: a cousin, Charles, turns up and inveigles himself into the household, intent on getting his hands on the money that he thinks the sisters must have stashed away in the house. Horrifically for Merricat, he takes the place of her father, sleeping in his room, sitting in his place at table, and appropriating his belongings. Finally, like her father, he threatens Merricat with punishment for her feral behaviour, and the effect upon her is dramatic. She runs from the house and into the dank summerhouse where she normally does not go, and in a striking and, to me, moving scene, fantasizes her family sitting around a table adulating her.

Near the start of our meeting I said that I thought the book was about xenophobia, the fear and hatred of difference. The family clearly hate, despise and fear the 'dirty' villagers, the villagers resent, hate and fear the landed family, and the conventional, patriarchal family can't accommodate the difference of the wild child in their midst. After Merricat rids the household of Charles by tipping into the bin the pipe of her father's he has been smoking - another kind of spell - and unintentionally setting fire to the house, she and Constance board themselves away from everyone in its ruins (Uncle Julian having died of a heart attack in the aftermath of the fire). It is a perfect picture of xenophobia: they are safe and isolated from those they fear, and those outside now fear them them in turn, seeing them as witches or ghosts and leaving food to propitiate them, but they are of course trapped.

Mark now asked if we thought it was a feminist book. I hadn't particularly thought of it that way, and Clare strongly thought that Jackson had not been explicitly or consciously addressing the issues from a feminist perspective. However, the issue of women's power or lack of it emerges strongly from the book. As John, I think, said, the family would never have reacted to Merricat's behaviour in the same way if she had been a boy. At one point Mark had said that Merricat was clearly 'bonkers', but Merricat can be viewed as an example of the 'madwoman in the attic' - women designated mad for not conforming to the expectations of conventional and patriarchal society, and then sent more or less mad by their consequent treatment, and/or embracing and rejoicing in their own 'madness'. Merricat's spell-making may seem both childish and sinister, but it is after all the strategy into which the powerless are forced. Witchcraft is of course the name for the ways that the powerless - mainly women - seek to gain power (via herbal concoctions etc), and Merricat embraces witchiness: 'When we had neatened the upstairs rooms we came downstairs together, carrying our dustcloths and the broom and dustpan and mop like a pair of witches walking home.'

Ann was struck by the focus on food in the novel: Constance spends her whole time tending her kitchen garden and cooking, and adding to the preserves in the cellar laid down by previous generations of Blackwood women. Ann noted that it was a feature of the New England fiction on which she and I were brought up - Little Women, What Katy Did - and it is of course reflective of social reality, that the kitchen was the women's sphere. In this novel, however, food and the kitchen, the whole world for Constance and Merricat, is an imprisonment, and the poisoning at an ordinary family meal - via the traditional and almost picturesque dish of blackberries and sugar - subverts the notion of women as nurturers.

Most people agreed that the book had been a gripping read, but Mark said he liked it less after the arrival of Charles, when Merricat's introspection gets taken over by plot events. John thought that Charles was too much of a stereotype or caricature, though I personally had no objection to the portrayal of the character, who was rather, I thought, behaving in the stereotype male way that his society encouraged. John also liked the book as a whole less than everyone else, thinking it tricksy in its withholding of information, which he found distancing. I didn't agree. Merricat may be an unreliable narrator in that she withholds the facts about the murder, but I think we are meant to understand the facts of the murder in spite of her, and to know that she is understandably repressing them.

I did say that, although I had been thoroughly engrossed by the book, in retrospect I had one doubt. It is clear that the whole tale is being told by Merricat after she and Constance have boarded themselves up in the ruined house. Everyone in the group agreed that there is a sense of a long time having gone by since they first did so, as vines gradually grow up and smother the house, so that it is 'barely recognisable as a house', and the narration here has a retrospective mode indicative of much time having passed. Yet in the second sentence of the book Merricat announces that she is - now, at the time of telling - eighteen years old, the same age that she was at the start of the whole saga. I wondered if this were a structural error. Mark said, 'But did they maybe die in the fire?' Perhaps they were now ghosts, he was suggesting, and Ann added that ghosts don't know they've died and they stay the age at which they died. I was convinced by this at the time (and indeed, the cover of my edition hints at the ghostly) and by the fact that Merricat states her age so baldly at the the start and in such an arresting way that the anomaly didn't seem likely to have been unintended on the part of the author. However, the first page includes the clear statement: 'The last time I glanced at the books on the kitchen shelf they were more than five months overdue' - ie, at the time of telling, and after the growth of the vines around the house, the books are only just more than five months overdue. Fantastically quick-growing vines, then? Or maybe a ghost for whom five months and several years are one (but why five months)? Or indeed a structural error? As I said to the group, it all depends what you think ghosts can or can't do, or how they experience time. In any case, it is clear that to the villagers Constance and Merricat are like ghosts, and they do indeed live the lives of ghosts, helpless yet feared for their imagined power.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, August 19, 2019

Cover for forthcoming novel


Well, here's the cover for my novel, Astral Travel, due out early next year. It's designed by Chris Hamilton-Emery and I absolutely love it - striking, and just right for the novel. Chris consulted me closely over the design, and I feel very lucky - and very lucky indeed to be published by such an inspired and stylish publisher as Salt!

Monday, August 12, 2019

Edge Hill Prize and other matters.

The Edge Hill Prize shortlist has been announced, and novelist Tessa Hadley (last year's winner), journalist and Galley Beggar publisher Sam Jordison and I now have six weeks to read the six books, and to choose a winner. It's a wonderful list, and I can't wait to get reading:


Three of these books, Mothers by Chris Power, Live show, Drink Included by Vicky Grut, and Sweet Home by Wendy Erskine are debuts. Lucy Wood appears on the list for a second time, and men make a stronger showing than in most previous years, with the list divided evenly between male and female writers. Very exciting!

I'm going to have to buckle down and make myself a strict daily timetable, as I've also been asked for a new short story and have promised to deliver it for the same deadline, and there's a lot of activity connected with my own current and forthcoming publications. I've done no writing in the past few weeks due to this last. Twice this summer I went away to Wales intending to write, and both times editing and publicity work took over. First there was editing for my story 'Kiss' in Best British Short Stories 2019 (now published) (not much, but once you start thinking about a particular story it pushes everything else from your mind, I find). This was followed by the pretty intense editing process that the Mechanics' Institute Review always make a point of providing (my story is 'Dreaming Possibilty' and the anthology, on the theme of climate change, will be published in late September). Meanwhile there's been a good bit of pre-publicity work for my forthcoming novel from Salt. The novel, Astral Travel, will be published in February, and we are at the stage of deciding on images for the cover - exciting, but a terrible responsibilty!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Reading group: The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz

When people arrived for the meeting to discuss this book, they confronted Jenny, who had suggested it, by telling her that she had some explaining to do. They were, however, laughing.

We all admitted to never having read anything quite like it before, finding it puzzling, even  confounding, yet for some of us it was fascinating and compelling. In fact it was Jenny who seemed to like the book least, although Clare said she had given up on it and hadn't finished it.

Billed in blurbs as the work of perhaps the greatest Polish writer between the two wars, it's a story cycle set in Schultz's home town of Drogobych, and while clearly steeped in his own boyhood memories, is anything but realist: the whole thing is like a dream in which logic is defied and things transmute: rooms in houses are forgotten, birds fly across ceilings, a bicycle rises up into the sky and a man is turned into an electric bell. A key figure in the book is the father of the narrator, the owner of a fabric and tailoring store, who, after abandoning his store and retiring to his bed and suffering unidentified agonies (seemingly physical and metaphysical) embarks on a series of apparently crazy or fantastical projects - hatching exotic birds' eggs in the attic, corralling the housemaid and the seamstresses to listen to treatises on the souls of tailer's dummies (and other matter usually considered inanimate), and dabbling in the new phenomenon of electricty by persuading a relative to give up his body to become an electric commodity. Meanwhile he skulks in cupboards, jumps up onto pelmets and lies on the floor to watch cockroaches, finally appearing to become like one himself. At one point it appears that he has died, only for him to pop up later in another chapter/story with another scheme.

I said that, since the main protagonist is the narrator as a child, what the book is mediating is the psychology of childhood, which doesn't create the demarcations between reality and fantasy in the way that adult thinking does. This I think is why the book is so vivid - we all agreed that it had stayed with us. It really does have that dream-like wonder with which children apprehend the world. There is constant anthropomorphism - window blinds and shadows 'brood', weeds 'luxuriated quietly, glad of the interval for dreams'. I said that initially I had found this naif, but had come to feel that, again, it was a replication of a child's perspective, which doesn't differentiate so strongly between the animate and the inanimate. The book, as John said, is also about memory (and presumably its fantastical, dream-like nature). At one point the narrator says '...even at the time, I could not tell whether these pictures were implanted in my mind by [the housemaid] Adela's tales, or whether I had witnessed them myself.' One story justifying the notion that Schultz was specifically and consciously interested in psychology is 'Nimrod', an exploration, which I found exquisite, of the developing consciouness of a puppy that is brought to the house - though, in spite of its being more realist than the other stories, Jenny didn't like this either.

Ann however suggested that the book perhaps represented a different way of thinking and seeing the world now lost to us, and which survived longer in Eastern Europe, less influenced by Enlightenment rationalism than western Europe. For this reason she found the book fascinating, as well as for the picture it painted of the conditions of living in Eastern Europe in the twenties and thirties - the boiling hot summers and the dreary snow-filled winters - and its depiction of their psychological effect on the population. Schultz is quite explicit about that effect - 'Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom'; 'the old thick trunk of summer continues by force of habit to produce and from its moldered wood grows these crab-days, weed-days, sterile and stupid' - and about the fact that his father's schemes were an effort to triumph over them:
'The affair of the birds was the last colourful and splendid counteroffensive of fantasy which my father. that incorrigible improviser, that fencing master of imagination, had led against the trenches and defenseworks of a sterile and empty winter.'
I said that I had read an academic paper that took this further, arguing that the book was about longing for the transcendence that art gives an artist, and that the father's initial agonies are those of the failed artist (who can't transcend himself), and his schemes his doomed attempts to do so. Ann commented that this is exactly the kind of book that academics like to write about, open as it is to multiple interpretations.

John, as usual, pointed out the aspects of the book that we now find politically incorrect - the 'ragamuffins' hanging around the square, the descriptions of the resident shop assistants with their 'ugly' feet, the snobbish distaste for the more demotic parts of town and the 'scum' who lived there, and the 'thick, black blood' of its female shop assistants with 'cockroachy looks' whose 'overintense colouring' seemed to leave 'a dark trail of freckles, a smudge of tobacco, as does a truffle with its exciting, animal smell'. John found it strange that as a Jew Schultz should express such basically racist sentiments, but others noted that he was very much an assimilated Jew - there isn't a single explicit reference to Jewishness in the whole book.

Jenny, who seemed to feel that she needed to justify her suggestion of this book, said she had been made curious about it by reading of the fate of its author, and proceeded to tell us about it. Schultz was an art teacher in the local school, who apparently hated his job and had begun writing these stories piecemeal and sending them to a female correspondent, who urged publication. When the war began and he was confined to the ghetto, he sent further writings into the care of another, but they were subsequently lost in the Holocaust. While in the ghetto, he was 'protected' by a Gestapo officer for whom he had painted a mural. Unfortunately this Gestapo officer shot dead a Jew protected by another officer, and one day in 1942 when Schultz was on a pass into the Aryan quarter, that other officer shot him dead in revenge.

Somebody in the group commented that the author's story was more interesting than the book, but some of us said that, whatever we had thought of the book at first, we were very glad to have read it. It has certainly stayed with me and become part of my mental landscape.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Best British Short Stories 2019 arrives.



My author copy of Best British Stories has arrived! Well, it arrived a few days ago, but I've been so run off my feet that I haven't had a chance to post about it until now. It looks wonderful, and I discover that the list of contributors I posted before (and which I copied from elsewhere) wasn't comprehensive, and one of the names missing is that of Ruby Cowling, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for recently publishing another story of mine, 'Consequences and Alternatives' in the Short Fiction Journal.

One of the things that's been keeping me busy is the questionnaire for sales and publicity that Salt have sent me about the novel they are due to publish in February. It's one of the hardest things - summing up your own work!

Friday, July 05, 2019

'Kiss' in Best British Stories 2019



Today Best British Stories 2019, which includes my story 'Kiss' (first published on MIR online in December), has arrived from the printers and is available to buy from Salt. Needless to say, I'm pretty thrilled at being in this prestigious anthology edited by Nicholas Royle, and can't wait to read the stories by the other contributors, Vicky Grut (whom Ailsa Cox and I published twice in our [discontinued] story magazine Metropolitan), Julia Armfield, Naomi Booth, Kieran Devaney, Nigel Humphreys, Sally Jubb, Lucie McKnight Hardy, Robert Mason, Ann Quin, Sam Thompson, Melissa Wan and Ren Watson.