Not One Word Wasted: A short introduction to even shorter fiction

On the 12th September, 2020, I was asked to run a workshop about micro-fiction for Dr Sam Hirst’s Romancing The Gothic series of webinars and lectures. I thought it would be useful to condense some of the ideas I presented into a blog post, mainly so I would remember them.

Continue reading “Not One Word Wasted: A short introduction to even shorter fiction”

Weirdwards: Balehouse, Daniel Pietersen

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

Inevitably, I’ve succumbed to the temptation of reading some of my own writing for Weirdwards. Each of these six pieces are a drabble, a story that is exactly one hundred words long. They’re good writing exercises in themselves but trying to make something that has a narrative in such a short space is a wonderful puzzle. Whether I’ve solved it with these tales is not for me to decide but I like how they link into each other, often unwittingly.

I grew up by the sea, in the Northwest of England, and the Balehouses of these stories is based on the coastal villages we would visit on family days out. Sitting in a car park, windows steamed from bags of chips. Walking along cliffs, along beaches. It’s something I enjoy even as an adult. That eerie dreariness, too tired to be melancholy, that suffuses the British seaside.

These stories were first published on the Another North website, where you can also read a semi-biographical essay I wrote about childhood and memory.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: The Red Crown, Mikhail Bulgakov

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

Perhaps best known for The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov also wrote a number of short, satirical works that fit very well with the Weird canon. The Red Crown is a tale of madness and regret, told from the shifting perspective of a narrator who has been driven into a sanitorium by the horrors of Russia’s post-revolutionary Civil War. he speaks of his brother, a cavalryman: “He had ridden away in a grey officer’s cap; he came back in a red one. And the day had ended. His face had become a black shield under a coloured crown. Where his hair and his brow had been was a crimson halo with yellow flecks.”

This “crimson” crown is, in reality, the blood and exposed bone of his brother’s skull, shattered by an artillery shell. It is implied that, whilst not yet dead, the brother soon will be and, if not, would be better off if he were.

The brother returns repeatedly through the story, standing proudly in his red crown, and this proves too much for the narrator who admits that “I am hopeless. He will drive me to my grave”.

Bulgakov was born on the 15th May, 1890, in Kiev (then part of the Russian Empire, now the capital of Ukraine). He died on the 10th March, 1940, of the kidney disorder nephrosclerosis.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: When I Was Dead, Vincent O’Sullivan

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

I often plan which story to read each week but sometimes I like to flick through a book at random and see what stands out. This is how I stumbled across Vincent O’Sullivan’s When I Was Dead, first attracted by the link between the story’s title and the song of the same name by Endura.

When I Was Dead is a strange tale. It is told from the perspective of someone who, we learn, has recently died but doesn’t yet realise (or, perhaps more properly, doesn’t accept) the fact of their death. And nor are they a sympathetic character, as we might expect someone who has died to be depicted. The narrator is bitter and hateful, berating his servants even as they realise his death and mourn him. This immediately sets up a conflict of voice and makes the story much more aggressive than it might normally be. Robert Aickman described When I Was Dead as “a spasm of guilt” and this is surprisingly insightful; the denial and horror the narrator experiences is palbable.

O’Sullivan himself was an interesting character. He was friends with Oscar Wilde – who declared, after reading one of O’Sullivan’s poems “what maladies he draws from the moon!” – and Aubrey Beardsley amongst other figures of the time. For the first part of his life O’Sullivan lived off earnings from family investments and property holdings but, in 1909, his brother managed to disastrously fumble the finances and plunged them into poverty. O’Sullivan died in Paris, 1940, where his life, as Aickman tells us, “ended anonymously in the common pit for the cadavers of paupers”.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: The Voice in the Night, William Hope Hodgson

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

William Hope Hodgson was what you could call something of a character. At the age of 13 he ran away from home to become a sailor and, on his return at the age of 22, opened a School of Physical Culture – what we would now know as a body-building gym – to share the knowledge he had gained from defending himself against violence on the highs seas. Yet it is through due to his large body of weird fiction that he is most well-known today, most prominently his tales of occult detective Carnacki the Ghost-Finder and the terrifying masterpiece of strange science-fiction that is The House on the Borderland.

He also wrote a vast body of short fiction, published in various magazines and journals. Many of these tales, like The Voice in the Night, are set on the open sea that consumed so much of Hodgson’s early life. The Voice in the Night, first published in the November 1907 edition of Blue Book Magazine, is an unsettling piece of work – it tells of a chance encounter with an eerie character, who tells the story of how he is slowly succumbing to fungal parasitism – and one that unnerves all the more when we consider its concerns of infection, isolation, category breakdown and abject disgust in light of the current pandemic. It is a horrible piece of writing, in the very best of senses.

The Voice in the Night has inspired many other works of related fiction, perhaps more notably the Japanese horror film Matango, and Hodgson himself was an inspiration on the likes of HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Olaf Stapledon and China Miéville.

Hodgson was killed in the Fourth Battle of Ypres, April 1918, when he was hit by artillery fire.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: The Watchful Eyes of Cops, Michael Cisco

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

The Watchful Eyes of Cops is another very short piece, more a work of flash rather than short fiction. Like a number of Weirdwards readings, I was flicking through books to try and find something suitable when the pages of Hexus almost fell open at this very apposite story of police state surveillance and brutality. It’s tempting to call this speculative fiction because of its presentation but, of course, it’s neither speculative nor fiction.

I’ve felt conflicted over the past week whether to keep these readings going as, frankly, it feels slightly trivial against the events happening around the world and I don’t want to detract from them. That said, my aim is to share voices and experiences. I hope that’s still a useful thing to do.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: We Can Make Something Grow Between The Mushrooms And The Snow, Kirsty Logan

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

I love the way the three different voices work in this piece, each concerned with their own goals. Even though there’s no actual dialogue there’s still a conversation happening, even if it feels like neither is really listening to the others. As interesting as this is narratively, it makes it really fun to read aloud.

That said, it’s not a fun story. There’s a deep vein of regret and even trauma that’s built up in the gaps between each character’s narrative, the words left unsaid speak all the louder.

We Can Make Something Grow Between The Mushrooms And The Snow is featured in Kirsty’s collection Things We Say In The Dark.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Weirdwards: Like Feather Like Bone, Kristi DeMeester

I enjoy reading stories in public but only get occasional chances to do it so I thought I’d spend some time while in lockdown to record some myself. My set-up is pretty minimal but I hope the readings are still enjoyable. I’m aiming to keep to stories that can be read in 20 minutes or less, so these will all be pretty short works.

After last week’s double-length reading I was looking for something shorter (largely so I could also spend some time setting up the Weirdwards podcast) and Like Feather, Like Bone immediately came to mind. I first read this story in the first volume of Year’s Best Weird Fiction from Undertow Publications. It’s one of those pieces that is almost non-existant, barely three pages long, yet which glows with poetic imagery. The delicate bones and feathers that the story’s built from contrast sharply with the dense, sharp-edged sense of grief at its heart.

A wonderful example of how short/flash fiction can have as much impact, if no more, as longer works.

You can subscribe to the Weirdwards podcast via iTunes or RSS feed. You can also follow the @_weirdwards_ account on Twitter.

Tech Noir Nights: The Hunger (1983)

Tech Noir Nights is a series of articles about the bars and nightclubs of 80s/90s genre movies. The reasons for this series existing are outlined in this introductory post. Whether these reasons are good reasons is debatable…

The Hunger, Tony Scott’s 1983 vampire-noir full-length directorial debut, might seem a strange choice for Tech Noir Nights. It features a club scene – perhaps one of the most famous club scenes in genre film – but it’s one which opens the film and doesn’t appear, as I’ve argued in previous articles, to provide any pivotal or liminal role in the story.

Hunger_005

Yet appearances, as we’re shown by the uncanny facades of Miriam and John Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie), can be deceiving.

Continue reading “Tech Noir Nights: The Hunger (1983)”

Notebook: Balehouses, A Fragment

Rain drags its chains across the sea, ripping white scars into the water. She rises swiftly, silently from the jade-green depths. Her head breaches the turmoiled surface, hidden amongst the swaying buoys. The sky’s fresh water feels strange on her skin as she watches the village, huddled against the cliffs, with its amber lights flickering in the storm…

I really enjoy writing Drabbles, short stories of exactly 100 words. I started working on them as a way to practice editing my own work and being less long-winded in description. Eventually, though, I got caught up in trying to use the limited space to create a short narrative, rather than a simple description of a scene.

Runswick2
Line-block print of Runswick Bay by Joseph Pennell, 1903

Balehouses is a series of interlinked Drabbles – all inspired by my childhood in the Morecambe Bay area but also the small, cliff-side fishing villages that encrust the northern coastline of England, like Runswick Bay shown in the print above – that cheat a little bit by relying on each other to expand their own stories. I was very pleased, then, when Another North agreed to publish a handful of them as part of their work to highight writers from, and work about, the North of England. Especially so, in many ways, as these pieces of fiction link with my non-fiction article on the eeriness of northern England, also published by Another North.

You can read the half-dozen pieces I selected to showcase on the Another North site.