ESCAPE ROOM: ALISON LITTLEWOOD

Did someone mention walkies?

I love my writing space! I have a study which I decorated and set up and filled with lovely things, so I feel very lucky. Our house is really old and the study has an ancient fireplace and creaking cupboards and a very wonky floor, so I decorated it in quite a traditional style with soothing greens. The desk though is modern (IKEA – Shhh!) and I put it together myself, which I discovered I really enjoyed doing, though it was tricky finding the precise spot to balance it on that wonky floor and I’m pretty sure it has a bit of a slant.

The green shelving was originally in another room but I pinched and painted it so that I could fill it with pen pots and cards from friends and ceramics and pictures and other nice things to look at when I’m supposed to be working. Oh, and it has a skull-monster in a bobble hat who lives in a vase (but everyone has one of those, right?) Behind me are more shelves with some of my books, my to-be-read pile and some handy reference tomes. There’s also usually a sleeping dog or two in here somewhere.

Fountain pens are never far out of reach. I’ve clearly become slightly obsessive about them, and indeed pen pots (it’s all fellow writer Priya Sharma’s fault), along with my favourite Leuchtturm notebooks. I have quite a stash of those ready to use and I really need to stop buying stationery, but just… not… yet!

My mornings are mainly about feeding and walking my two Dalmatian dogs, then once I’ve woken my head up with some fresh air, I can get stuck into work. I usually start off with any adminny stuff before I get my head engaged properly (or maybe that’s just called ‘procrastination’). Sometimes I’ll be drafting a novel, or I might be researching and jotting down ideas or working through piles and piles of editing. Some days I just sit there in a kind of catatonic state staring at the screen hoping that words will magically appear. Those are not good days.

I can’t listen to music while I write. I know some writers have playlists to go with whichever book they’re working on, and that’s all very cool and I love the idea, but somehow can’t do it in practice. I have images of myself happily typing away only to find I’ve typed out the lyrics of whatever I’m listening to, over and over…

There isn’t much I can’t write without, though my chair is one of those easily overlooked things that’s actually pretty important to me. It’s super-ergonomic and rescued me from some nasty neck/upper limb problems a few years back. It’s snazzily attired in a snood a friend gave me because it matches the dogs.

Speaking of which, my main distractions come in canine form. They’re really good at snoozing the afternoons away while I work, but that hour before lunchtime is another matter. Vesper can be especially insistent that it must be time to eat – she’ll paw at my desk and rattle my chair or nudge my arm or jump onto my lap or disappear under my desk and scratch at the footrest or whatever her latest ploy is. I should probably threaten to make her into a snood.

The most enjoyable part of writing is the writing and the least enjoyable part of writing is the not writing, if that makes any sense! What I mean is, there are days when my head’s down and I’m in the zone and don’t notice time flowing past. Those days are golden. Then there are days when it’s treacly and one word won’t seem to follow the next and ugh ugh ugh. That happens sometimes mid-book, because I’m not a very thorough plotter and I’ll sometimes write past the point where I know what happens next. I do like to allow for some flexibility in the middle of a novel, but it can also be frustrating.

Of the books I’ve written in this room, I’m probably proudest of my first historical novel, The Hidden People. It’s based around some of the dark fairy folklore I love – I’ve always found the idea of changelings delightfully creepy, whereby people are stolen away by the fairies and doppelgangers left in their place. It’s also the first book I wrote where I got halfway through and realised there was far more going on than I’d planned, and that the plot was going to get more complex than anticipated. I love it when a project takes on its own impetus and starts to surprise me.

At the moment I’m working on a mixture of things. I’m editing a novel based around the Cottingley fairies and indeed fairy lore, tinkering with a Victorian piece about – well, doppelgangers, but not changelings this time, and I’m starting to piece together a whole new idea which I’m excited about but it’s just too early to give any details. It feels like that would be putting an industrial fan in front of a little cloud of dust that’s just beginning to coalesce in the air. Or maybe I’m just over-sensitive.

Right, it’s time to stop pretending I’m all healthy with that big glass of water on my desk and make a proper strong cuppatea…

Alison Littlewood is the author of several acclaimed books, including The Hidden People, The Crow Garden, and her latest, Mistletoe. She won the 2014 Shirley Jackson award for short fiction, and her first novel, The Cold Season, was picked for the Richard and Judy Bookclub. You can find out more about her work here.

there is other magic

Thinking about this new book, HONEYBONES. It’s a book that has driven me in strange ways. By which I mean, it’s a book that has insisted on itself. No compromises.

The story had been haunting me for a long time, a decade or more. I’d attempted it a few times, but it never seemed to work out. For quite a while I called it ‘The House of Mirrors’. It was about something – fairytales, crows, a house – but I couldn’t really make sense of it. I spent a lot of time dreaming about the book. I wrote in mirror-writing, inside out.

I can’t remember now quite how I came up with the idea of ‘dreeming’ and Dreemy Peeple. I know it started with the dolls, the creepy dolls Anna finds in the bedrooms of her stepdad’s house. It was the brand name, stamped into their plastic casing. Then, somehow, the dreem took on a life of its own. I worked it out in various short stories that ended up in my collection, THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS. (There’s an oblique reference to THOW in HONEYBONES – a million dinosaurs to anyone who spots it!) And finally, it started to bring forth this story.

Other things which didn’t seem quite to fit anywhere at first, like an exercise in ventriloquism from the cully king (himself a character from a much earlier story, CROW VOODOO), and then all these songs and bits of plays and other books – they all swirled about this girl, this house, this dreem. I cut 20,000 words. I cut another 20,000. When I had something that looked passingly like a story, I called it done. And – a stroke of luck – Andy Cox at TTA Press snapped it up.

That was lucky for lots of reasons. One big reason was that Andy, used to working with temperamental artists [insert eyeroll emoji here] wasn’t terribly bothered when I took the story back a few times and made some reasonably significant changes. He didn’t even mind too much (or at least he didn’t let it show) when I took it back again and re-wrote it SUBSTANTIALLY. Like changing the whole thing from third to first person, re-writing major plot points, taking out a couple of characters and, oh yes, completely changing the ending.

I couldn’t help it; I was seized by an instinct about how the book should be and I couldn’t sleep until I executed it. That last re-write took me a few days of writing, practically non-stop, sitting at my kitchen table drinking a whole lot of black coffee and not thinking, not thinking at all. When I was done, I knew I was finished for real this time and – for all its faults – HONEYBONES was as close to the story as I was going to get.

Another thing I have to be grateful to Andy for. The manuscript I sent him was a mess of different fonts, colours, amateur attempts at typographical effects. The cully king has to speak with this voice, you see; and the writing needs to fade away here; and this part should look like an old book; and and and. It was a lot. So many editors would have just said no to it all. Who do you think you are, House of Leaves? But Andy got it. He understood that it mattered for the book to look a certain way, feel a certain way, use text to tell the story. So he found a way to make it work.

I am as proud of this book as of anything I’ve written, possibly prouder, even though I maybe have no right to be. It wasn’t easy to write, except for when it was. But it pushed me. It made me experiment – sometimes from inspiration, sometimes from desperation. At other times as a ‘fuck you’ to the people and things that held me back. So forgive me if I bang on about it and spam you with links for where you can buy it (here! Buy it here!) And please don’t hesitate to ask if you need a review copy or an interview or anything else.

honeybones pre-orders

HONEYBONES is currently at press and now available to order here. If you want to buy Malcolm Devlin’s ENGINES BENEATH US at the same time (and you absolutely should!) then it’s an even better deal.

If you’re a book person looking to review HONEYBONES or interview me about it, please get in touch. I’m ready to talk!

honeybones

Here is the cover for my little book HONEYBONES, coming soon from TTA Press as part of their novella series, which will also see the brilliant Malcolm Devlin‘s ENGINES BENEATH US coming out at the same time. So please buy both books if you can!

Malcolm’s weird brother, the award-winning artist Vince Haig, did the cover illustration. I am so honoured to have had Vince illustrating several of my stories over the years. He somehow managed to tell the whole story in this picture – not an easy feat! It’s a beautiful illustration and I feel very lucky.

HONEYBONES is definitely in the realm of horror. It’s actually one of those twisted fairytales I like to claim I don’t write. It’s Bluebeard, Snow White, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses gone very, very wrong. It also features Dreemy Peeple (indeed this is where the Dreemy Peeps began) and a lot of mirrors and feathers and that sort of thing. A brief descriptive blurb says:

A troubled girl, a haunted book, a house of illusions and enchanted mirrors. Anna Carrow just wants to make things right between her and her mum, to please her stepdad, and keep out of the way of school bullies. But her efforts only seem to lead her further and further from reality, deeper and deeper into paranoia and delusion, until she finds herself tangled inside a twisted fairytale, face to face with the sinister Cully King. Now Anna has to decide which version of reality to believe in. But how can you know who to trust, when your mind is playing tricks on you?

If that sounds like the kind of thing you like, watch this space! HONEYBONES will probably be a bit like that. It’ll be available to buy very soon and I can’t wait to see what people make of it. Thanks to all for your support!

our side of the road

There’s probably a German word for the habit of urgently buying books you need right now and then waiting two or three years to read them… Anyway, this is how it was with Anna Burn’s tremendous novel, MILKMAN, which had been languishing on a shelf in my living room for some considerable time before I picked it up this week. I immediately wished I hadn’t waited so long for the sheer exhilarating effervescent brain-refreshment this book provided. I can’t remember when I last read a book that felt so new, that so charmed and delighted and reveled in its love of language.

Language in this book is a pure delight. The unnamed protagonist distracts herself from the traumatising troubles of her time by reading books, but only those written before the nineteenth century, so her narration and her rendition of others’ dialogue is a wonderfully original and enjoyable mix of working-class Northern Irish and extravagant, mildly-antiquated vocabulary and rhythms. In fact it does much that a nineteenth century novel does, in terms of the exposing of the ‘psychologicals’ of the characters. But it is resolutely, perfectly, acute and convincing in every revelation of the particular milieu in which it is set. It has much to say on gaslighting, gossip, how trauma is dealt with when it is an ongoing fact of life, and how a society shapes a mind and a body. I found it absolutely compelling.

Burns’ hilarious descriptions of the arcane and convoluted hierarchies of sectarian divisions, which extend to what television programmes, names, words, sports and hobbies one is allowed or otherwise to watch, speak, or partake in, somewhat put me in mind of Twitter and its increasingly strict and minute – yet largely unwritten – laws about what is and isn’t allowed, and what makes one ‘a community beyond-the-pale.’ It struck me quite forcefully that these divisions and politickings are sectarian in nature and go beyond any kind of logic to enforce a culture upon the ‘renouncers’ and the ‘supporters’; an authority which one is supposed to, and does, intimately adhere to without ever being instructed in its rules and ramifications. It is wrong, for example, to express a certain doubt, or doubt about a certain subject, or to support by way of a ‘like’ another person who expresses that same doubt or speaks on that subject. How demanding! How exacting is the standard! Some books and authors are acceptable, and some are not, and this seems to bear no relation to the actual words in their books or the ideas expressed by their authors; and no heed is to be paid to the fact of fiction at all, to the fact that authors make things up. Some are to be cancelled, and others to be celebrated, and it is all without sense or reason, though the self-appointed state forces will produce reams of highly intellectual writing on the supposed nuances and moral justifications of their cancellations of other authors, and like good little idiots, we all nod our heads and retweet their nonsense.

Well I have never lived in a war zone, or a sectarian community, or in conditions of unrelenting authoritarianism, and so maybe this comparison is trivial. Anyway, it strengthened my resolve to avoid Twitter more fastidiously than I have in the past.

I found in MILKMAN much to revel in, much to admire, much to laugh about, much to love. I read that, in addition to garnering awards and accolades and praise from luminous quarters, it also has sold now in excess of 500,000 copies. Quite something for a bold experimental literary novel. This fact alone has given me great hope. That so many can love a book like this gives me hope. That this wonderfully humane, joyous, perfect language can reach so many is an unequivocal good thing. Highly, highly recommended.

hear me roar (sort of)

A few updates for the start of 2020. I took part in a fantastic podcast experience with Alex Blott of Papertrail podcasts, in which I talk about writing stories, the unusual formation of my story Kuebiko, the editing process, and why you should never take advice. A really enjoyable experience for me – I hope you will like it too, and give Alex some feedback. Listen here.

One of my writing heroes, fountain pen aficionado, and all-round lovely person, Priya Sharma, talked to me about her fantastic debut novel, ORMESHADOW, in the current Black Static magazine, which also contains a review of her book, plus all sorts of other brilliant stuff.

Priya and I, along with fellow Undertow author, Laura Mauro, had a frank and fascinating chat about writing earlier this year and our conversation can be found here. We go into early influences, the role of politics in our writing, and why Women in Horror Month is not every woman’s favourite time of the year.

If you read that discussion, you’ll know my thoughts on Women in Horror – but I’m all in favour of buying more books by women any time of the year, and Undertow has a great, generous offer on their books by women writers right now. Check it out.

always a bear

A few words about Vicki Jarrett’s excellent novel, ALWAYS NORTH, recently out in paperback from Unsung Stories. I read this novel in a few short hours, and was variously thrilled, terrified, depressed, intrigued and ultimately satisfied. In places it reminded me of Peter Hoeg’s fantastic MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW. Later, it put me in mind of Michael Walter’s debut, THE COMPLEX. There’s a well-earned nod to Ballard’s THE DROWNED WORLD in there, too. But of course it is always only its own thing, pushing through the frozen seas to the frozen heart (or the plundered brain) within.

Personally I don’t know how many terrifyingly realistic evocations of the eco-apocalypse I can stand. This one was uniquely effective in its use of structure, making me long for the recent past that its characters were seeking, despite its inhospitable terrain. I found Isobel to be an excellent lead, a down to earth woman with a healthy sense of self-preservation and knowledge of her own worth. It was strange that she seemed to be the only woman in the novel – can there be only one real woman at a time? But perhaps it is part of the story, the way men seem to take things over, the way women are relegated to the background. Maybe if it wasn’t such a man’s world, it would feel like we had more of a chance. Either way, I would have wished for more women like Izzy to populate this world. It seemed strangely anachronistic that she was out there alone.

I do love novels that bruise through genre divisions without a backwards look. I love that sense of time collapsing in on itself, of stories that start feeding off one another. At various points I wondered: is it THE THING, is it vampires, is it HIS DARK MATERIALS? There was mystery, urgency, thrill, even moments of comedy, all tightly woven together with precise and flawless prose. While the structure was complex and ambitious, I had total faith in Jarrett’s ability to pull off the enterprise, and (barring a forgivable bit of handwaving towards the end) she absolutely did. This is a novel well worth your time. I hope it continues to garner praise and attention from all quarters. Highly recommended.

in through the out door

I read a lot of very good books this year, a few of which I reviewed either on my blog or in Black Static or Interzone magazines, including some of the titles mentioned below. I don’t know how much reviewing I’ll be doing in the New Year. I seem to have ground to a halt. I also don’t know how useful these kinds of lists are – I guess it’s just a way of summing up where I’m at with my reading these days.

I observed this year that some of the books I read were unsatisfying to me. They were, in some cases, just too good. They were all surface and slick. They were conventional. They were emotional but only within a certain range. There was something wrong with them. I struggle to say what I mean beyond that. I’m talking about books that are very good, very well crafted, excellent books. But there is a weakness at the heart of them, a lack of doubt, of ugliness, of courage.

Maybe it’s me.

Anyway, many of the books I read, and certainly my books of the year, are not that way at all. Each of them is alive and infected with horrible, gorgeous human stuff.

There were some excellent short story collections this year, of which Tracy Fahey’s NEW MUSIC FOR OLD RITUALS impressed me greatly with its storytelling power. Andrew Hook’s THE FOREST OF DEAD CHILDREN disturbed me and filled me with dread and wonder. I also frankly loved Rob Shearman’s chapbook teasers for WE ALL TELL STORIES IN THE DARK, his madly ambitious 101 short stories project. I read those and Leonora Carrington’s COMPLETE STORIES at the same time and the two authors sort of merged in my mind to create one, supremely messed up hilarious nightmare machine.

THE HEAVENS, by Sandra Newman, blew my mind and blasted me out of my complacency about what novels can do and be. It was compelling and bitter and full of complexity and magic.

Talking about what novels can do and be, it would be remiss not to mention DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT, Lucy Ellman’s transcendently lucid journey through an ordinary mind. It was boring, very boring in places. But hilarious and brilliant. It will change things, this book. It will change novels, anyway.

Julie Travis’ novelette TOMORROW, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG, reminded me somewhat of THE HEAVENS but then it went one better in allowing me to live in its strange and wonderful world. Wonderful and perfect are the words I used to describe this book. It is full of love and humour, awe, strangeness, sorrow… I enjoyed it immensely and only wished I could stay forever.

GAMBLE by Kerry Hadley-Pryce is a novel I’ve talked about a fair bit this year, and for good reason. It is brutal in its precision, a skewer to the psyche, funny and so very, very sinister. Speaking of sinister things, I discovered a new writer, who I think is exceptional, in the form of Rebecca Gransden. I reviewed her novel ANEMOGRAM. on this blog. Her writing is unutterably strange, haunting, violent and funny. I don’t know where she will go with it but what I’ve read so far strikes me as profoundly brave and vulnerable, and I think she will do something great.

Another debut novelist, Michael Walters, impressed me with his book THE COMPLEX, which is far from perfect, and all the better for that. It’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since first reading: it has been growing on me/in me/around me. I was also reminded of it when reading Helen Phillips’ THE NEED, also featuring a stag-like being, but in a very different mode. This is a deceptively simple book that does something completely and utterly weird. I loved it.

Two books by Aliya Whiteley, THE LOOSENING SKIN and SKEIN ISLAND, impressed and disturbed me. I loved Deborah Levy’s weird and moving THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING and Anna Stothardt’s gripping and unbelievably good THE MUSEUM OF CATHY. Each of these writers are doing their own, strikingly original things and keep putting out incredible book after incredible book.

But my absolute favourite read this year must be Charles Lambert’s THE CHILDREN’S HOME. This is a book that’s hard to describe, since it resists and transcends and transforms itself as you read it. It is brilliant. When I finished it, I cried. It’s the kind of book you can’t even talk about because it’s too good, you’re too passionately in love with it, too in awe of its brilliance, and you don’t want to break it by understanding it too well. Just read it.

A book I cannot recommend at all is Paul Kingsnorth’s SAVAGE GODS. I can’t, because in fact he wrote it just for me. Or really, he wrote it for himself, and he’s a man, and that matters. But nevertheless, it was also for me, and I found it beautiful and cruel and sorrowful and true, and as someone who is also lost in that same wood, or one adjacent, I am very grateful for his story.

Fantasycon 2019: the Mark West con report that Mark West would never write

Another year, another Fantasycon, this time held in a hospital/hotel nestled in a large car park some miles outside the great city of Glasgow. The hospi-tel was large, modern, and mostly quite clean (although at one point Tim Lebbon was surprised to see lipstick on his coffee cup, as he hadn’t been wearing any that morning.) Some residents were alarmed to see notices in their bedrooms warning them about their upcoming surgeries, but I’m relieved to say that most of us survived the weekend without any complications, and with all our organs intact. Well, maybe not our livers. And our hearts were a bit broken. But more of that later.

I arrived around noon on the Friday and immediately spotted Paul Tremblay, one of our illustrious Guests of Honour, at the check-in desk. I honoured him by embracing him enthusiastically while he honoured me by pretending to remember who the hell I was.

After checking in and dropping off my bag, I met Tracy Fahey in the bar and gifted her a lifelike plastic raven, which caused much jealousy among the gothic hordes. We joined Priya Sharma and Mark Greenwood, Penny and Simon Jones, Steve Shaw, Justin Park, Marie O’Regan, Paul Kane, Andy Freudenberg and oh god this is so much harder than Mark West makes it look. We – whoever we were – sat outside on a terrace overlooking a body of water which was in turn overlooked by some large toxic waste silos. In this romantic setting, we discussed Steve Shaw’s ablutions (see Steve’s-Ablutions.com) and worked out the rules of horror cagefight in which we would pit masters of horror Ramsey Campbell and Paul Tremblay against one another in a wrestle to the death.

Wherever she goes, she brings the harbingers of death. It’s the brilliant Tracy Fahey.

Later I had lunch with Canadia’s finest publishers, Carolyn and Michael Kelly, and discussed our plans for ritual human sacrifice. Carolyn and I paid a large sum of money for the world’s smallest and crumbliest gluten-free sandwich (which didn’t even have any human sacrifice in it) and were forced to steal Mike’s chips just in case we starved.

Here I am curtseying to horror royalty Sue Tingey, Ramsey Campbell, Paul Tremblay, and Phil ‘Legs’ Sloman on the ‘Ambiguity in Horror’ panel. Photo courtesy of Priya Sharma.

Some other people were around and I talked to many of them. They were all lovely, but I didn’t write their names in my notebook so I have no recollection of who they were or what it was I liked about them so very much. The lack of note-taking was partly because Penny Jones caught me writing her name for this report and ran at me yelling “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” Apparently there are a number of terrifying stories written about Penny Jones and she naturally assumed I was jumping on the trend. I was not. However, later that evening, Hal Duncan spent a good 45 minutes explaining to me that life is a series of interlinked sitcoms and reader, I was thoroughly convinced. It explains a lot, although I’m not sure anything completely explains Penny Jones.

That evening, Andrew Freudenberg and I came up with a great fiction collaboration in which the story of Big Baby Jesus and his twin brother Satan (played respectively by Giant Haystacks and Kirk Douglas) would be told in a way you have never heard it told before. I took this as a sign that I was way too drunk to go on, and took to my bed. It took me a good long while to take to my bed, as first I had to have lengthy chats with lovely Neil Williamson and lovely others even too lovely to remember. On my final attempt to leave the bar, Muriel Gray grabbed me for a selfie, exclaiming that I was “fantastic” and that I had the “best hair”. This was not only the high point of my entire weekend but also means I can pronounce with some confidence that I have won Hair Club, possibly forever. The gorgeously lovely Chloë Yates made a good bid for it this year, but I’m afraid Muriel Gray’s decision is final.

On Saturday I breakfasted with Alison Littlewood and her partner Fergus, who were infuriatingly perky, having gone to bed at a reasonable hour. Talked filmmaking and screenwriting with Eric Steele, who had early that morning escaped from a Magnus Mills novel. Later I went to Paul Tremblay’s kaffeeklatsch, thinking that Paul was going to buy us all coffee and muffins. Apparently that’s not what happens at a kaffeeklatsch, and Paul does not have his own MuffinMinion, actually. To make up for it, there was some great writerly chat with Kelly White, Thomas Joyce, Lee Harrison, Priya Sharma and some other people who were wonderful and so dazzling that I forgot to write their names in my notebook.

We trooped off to Rob Shearman’s pre-launch launch event, and on the way bumped into the Isle of Bute contingent, the extraordinarily talented and lovely Nina Allan and Anne Charnock. They both threatened to read my book, which was quite horrifying. On to the pre-launch launch, where Rob explained his epic new book and then made us all cry with a wonderful reading from it. The queue to buy the pre-book chapbooks went out the door and we had to be removed to the lobby for Rob to continue signing. “Take my money already!” was the cry of our hearts.

Me explaining to Rob, through tears, what a gorgeously heartbreaking wonderful writer he is. And holding up the long, long queue behind me. Photo stolen from Neil Snowden.

That evening, a few of us threw some shapes on the dancefloor. Gary Couzens and Sue York were alone in the disco until Tracy and I turned up for a dance, later joined by Francesca and Rob of Luna Publishing, Teika Bellamy of Mother’s Milk, and Phil Sloman of Legs fame. The DJ was deeply obnoxious but the music was fine, and I arrived at my late night ‘stories in the dark’ reading rather more sweaty than usual. Hopefully no one noticed, as it was dark, and they were probably quite scared, as Charlotte Bond, Pete Sutton, Kit Power and I read them some very creepy stories.

Tracy Fahey channelling the spirit of Deborah Harry. She looks good on the dance floor.

On Sunday morning I did a workshop on writing craft which involved ripping up books and drawing on them. There were a great bunch of writers there, including an old classmate, Hugh Reid. I did a quick podcast interview with E.M. Faulds in the sunshine, chatted with the Gingernuts of Horror himself, the lovely Jim McLeod, and then it was time for the Ordeal – I mean, banquet. Well, halfway between an Ordeal and a banquet. The serving staff, in what I can only assume is an ancient Dalmuirean tradition, refused to bring us any drinks until each person at the table had complained to them twice. For a starter I was served “fine dining” consisting of sweet green mousse on a bed of cress, with some melon juice in a shot glass. For mains, tomato puree over half a raw courgette, and two lumps of cauliflower pakora, which the servers assured me would either poison me, or not. By this point, I had lost the will to live anyway, so it didn’t matter.

Deliriously happy that we finally got some drinks! TMark Greenwood and Priya Sharma, Mike and Carolyn Kelly, Mark Morris, Paul Tremblay and the Titan Team. Photo courtesy of Priya Sharma.

I lived to make it to the awards ceremony, which Muriel Gray conducted with great warmth and very welcome humour. Vince Haig won Best Artist and Mike made us all cry with his emotional reading of Vince’s acceptance speech. Rob Shearman and Mike Kelly won the award for Best Anthology, which was wonderful, and their speeches made us laugh and cry some more. Priya Sharma’s award for Best Collection had many of us on our feet, and by this point quite a few of us were openly weeping, though it’s possible that some of us were just remembering lunch.

Priya’s proudest moment – meeting the most excellent Muriel Gray! Photo by Colin Nibb.
Rob and I were exceptionally gracious losers in the short story category.

And that was more or less that. For once, I didn’t have far to go home but had lovely company on the train back to Edinburgh in the form of Neil Snowden and Tim Major, which was lucky or I might have been very sad to be leaving so many dear friends and delightful people, including all the dear and delightful people who should have been mentioned here but weren’t because I was drinking wine when I was supposed to be paying attention. Those who couldn’t make it this year were sorely missed, not least Mark West, who should have been writing this con report, but instead left it in the hands of an amateur, a fabricator, a teller of tall tales, and a person who forgot to write anything in her notebook after Saturday lunchtime. Until next time, much love to all xxx

A haul. There’s always a haul.

Writing beyond the lines: Rebecca Gransden’s anemogram.

This novel starts by dragging us into the bushes, and entangling us in a dense, lush, damp forest of prose that twists and grows into a setting, a character, a child who is inexplicably alone. She is unafraid, but hungry. Desperately vulnerable, but somehow perfectly content. She sleeps in the woods without getting her dress dirty, and when she needs something, she finds a way of taking it. Abandoned, abused, lost… but she defies us with happiness, with taking joy in the natural world. A voice in her ear, perhaps an imaginary friend, perhaps a possessing spirit, drives her onwards with gruesome, shocking, and sad fairytales. She consumes the stories as though they are sustenance.

As the story unfolds, we meet other people, also driven by sad stories that whisper in their ear. In particular, we meet David, who sets out to help the girl. Their connection is instantaneous, worrying in a way. But by this point we understand that this child is more than capable of taking care of herself. David, maybe not so much. The girl tells David her name is Sarah, but this is likely a lie.

There is something transgressive and unpleasant in the idea of an infant who is so self-sufficient, manipulative, poised as a predator. There is something deeply suspect about the adult males who take her under their wing. The novel’s brutal climax is a relief in a way, restoring a kind of natural order and justice, a punishment by proxy of men who hurt little girls.

But nothing about this novel is easy to understand. Even the title, which Gransden claims to have picked at random, is a word shuttered inside its own referents. Anemogram: that which is recorded by an anemograph. Anemograph: a self-recording anemometer. Self-recording, a self recording itself, itself recorded… it is a fitting title, for we come to see that the self being recorded in this story is itself recorded by another self, a Tinker who tells tales and moves the world.

Yet for all this mystery and ambiguity, the novel pushes forwards with a fierce narrative drive towards its awful, inevitable climax and its gripping denouement. There is a gradually deepening sense of horror as the story twists our sympathies and allegiances in unpredictable directions. Gransden holds out answers, then rips them away, leaving the reader effectively stranded and vulnerable in a world made alien and weird.

There is a deep concern with the relationship between human-made and natural environments. The characters move around the edges of the countryside, where building sites encroach upon the woods, and trees are staked through with metal. These liminal settings are key to the novel’s unsettling atmosphere; a Macdonald’s car park or a transport cafe are places steeped in weirdness, a sense of dislocation. Sarah longs for the woods, to be engrossed in the wild minutiae of the undergrowth. In some way, it is as if she has sprung up from these edgelands, a vessel for the battle between humans and nature. Again, the title may – or may not – provide a clue.

One thing is certain, and that is Rebecca Gransden‘s superlative and thrilling prose. It is mesmerising to read, hypnotic and terrifying. Gransden spins out webs of delicate beauty, then drops in a hungry spider. She is fearless and compelling. anemogram is a uniquely weird novel, which leaves the reader unsettled, excited, and full of questions. Highly recommended.