Much excitement at Allumination Towers as the programme for Dysprosium, this year’s Eastercon, has been released! I’m doing a very exciting panel and a reading with the mighty Ed Cox. Here are the details of each:
Watching the Detectives
Private dicks, gumshoes,shamuses, pinkertons, consulting detectives – we love them all but aren’t they even better with a supernatural second job? Moderated by Alice Lawson, with Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, Mike Carey and (of course) me. It’s on Saturday morning, from 11.15am to 12.15pm, in Discovery.
Hopefully see you there! Of course I’ll also be wandering around in general, do say “hi” if you fancy a chat. And now I’m off to ready my reading voice and brush up on some of my favourite occult detectives…
It’s been a couple of weeks since I had the deep pleasure of seeing Dominic Harman‘s stunning cover for Crashing Heaven for the first time. Here it is:
First of all, I spent a lot of time just looking at it and being thrilled. Crashing Heaven’s set on a giant orbital habitat called Station – Dominic’s image captures both its oppressive crush and the numinous light of its gods’ presence beautifully.
Then, it set me thinking about some of the inspiration behind Station. Before I started writing Crashing Heaven, I spent a lot of time pondering space stations. As part of that, I went back to images from my childhood guides to the future:
I found them fascinating. In particular, I was struck by the way that they overlaid the bleakly hostile wastes of space with such a secure, cosy, comfortable world. There was something so very suburban about them.
Perhaps humanity’s spacefaring dreams will indeed reach their apotheosis with the recreation of late 20th century dormitory towns around as yet unreachable suns, as yet unimagined planets. And perhaps that’s very natural.
Space is deep – far deeper than we can reasonably comprehend. Perhaps some nice drinks with the neighbours on a lovely sward-edged patio, while the buffet steams in the background, are an essential hedge against the cosmos’ punishing, inhuman vastness.
But the suburbs bring their own problems. Thinking about that took me on to J. G. Ballard’s simultaneous fear of and fascination with them. Here he is on the subject in a 1982 interview with V. Vale:
They represent the optimum of what people want. There’s a certain sort of logic leading to these immaculate suburbs. And they’re terrifying, because they are the death of the soul. And I thought, My God, this is the prison the planet is being turned into… if you have a world like that, without any kind of real freedom of spirit, the only freedom to be found is in madness. I mean, in a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom.
Those two ideas – of a space station as a suburb, and of suburbs as very problematic places – clicked together, becoming a key inspiration for Station. But of course Station’s been continuously occupied for about 700 years. So I started thinking about how it has evolved.
Its population has increased. Its economy has grown. Space within it is limited. So, its architects have built upwards. Green space has been lost. Population density has shot up. The shopping malls and business parks and habitation units have metastasized.
Dominic’s cover art catches that beautifully, across the image as a whole and in every detail. Looking at it I see a fully mature orbital habitat that’s turned right in on itself, going to seed along the way. The physical and psychic repression that Ballard describes has increased to unbearable levels. And so, as always, repression leads to overflow.
Crashing Heaven’s heroes – battle-scarred accountant Jack Forster and virtual ventriloquist’s dummy Hugo Fist – are one manifestation of that overflow. In Station terms they’re mad, because they question the corporate gods that rule it.
But that madness liberates them, driving them to think the unthinkable and do the undoable. And so, the action of the book begins, leaping straight out of a beautiful cover that captures its mood and setting perfectly and resonates wonderfully with the visions that inspired it.
I stayed in a Mercure Hotel last night (the picture’s the view from my room), and was struck by the contrast between its lovely staff and its ineffective IT and management systems. If I’d stayed in a more expensive hotel, I wouldn’t have been paying for better people but for better organisation and technology.
Zali and I went for a walk the other day. We started at Thamesmead, then moved down the Thames past City Airport. Halfway through, we stopped and dug random quotes out of some books we had with us. I took several pictures. Here’s some of them, plus the quotes we found:
‘You will never know what just happened, or you will always know what is going to happen.’
‘Here, once again, the machine could be used as a real liberator.’
‘Inside the apartment, Coltrane played ‘My Favourite Things’. Outside, the builders shouted at one another.’
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Newbury lately. I usually stay in the same hotel, just by Greenham Common. I end each working day by running through the woods to the old airbase. Every time, I pass the empty nuclear missile silos. They fascinate me.
They’re brutal pieces of architecture. I assume they were built to withstand a nuclear blast. I imagine them crouched in that post-nuclear world, outlasting humanity.
They’re among the most durable artefacts our culture has produced. I’ve come to see them as modern dolmens. They will persist long after any meaning attached to them has dissipated.
They’ll still stand in thousands of years time, commemorating both our presence and our unknowability. Every time I pass them I take another picture and lose myself in that deep future.
Reading Rainbow’s a US children’s TV show that ran from 1983 until 2006. Levar Burton introduced various guest stars, reading books for child viewers. As a Brit, I understood it to be something like Jackanory; its theme tune apparently has massive resonance for Americans of a certain age. Here is that theme tune, covered by The Doors:
OK, it’s not really The Doors. It’s American comedian Jimmy Fallon, channelling Jim Morrison with spooky accuracy. The voice, the intonation, the stoned swaying lope – all present, correct and perfectly mimicked. And that’s not all that’s bang on. The lyrics themselves, a blend of the original Reading Rainbow theme and lines lifted from various children’s classics, sound wonderfully Doors-y too.
At first, I thought that that was a nifty bit of satire – Fallon parodying the easy rhymes and cod truisms of Morrison’s lyrics, etc. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realised there was far more to it than that. I was forgetting a very simple fact – the best children’s books are also very simply written, and they’re as profound as they are simple and as simple are they are profound.
Here’s a great example – a lovely performance of Mo Willems’ magnificent ‘We Are In A Book’ –
Mortality, meta-fiction and the consolations of literature – all in a couple of hundred words and a handful of illustrations. Wow!
So, I ended up thinking that, by linking his lyrics so explicitly to children’s writing, Fallon’s paying tribute to as much as sending up Morrison. After all, if they bear comparison to such excellent work (Fallon mentions classics ‘The Indian in the Cupboard and ‘The Monster at the End of This Book’, and quotes from ‘Goodnight Moon’ – and of course there’s the Reading Rainbow theme tune itself), they’ve got to be doing something very right indeed.
I’ve just zipped through Adam Nevill’s horror novel ‘Last Days’ and Hari Kunzru’s literary novel ‘Gods Without Men’. The Process Church are a more-or-less buried presence in both books. And yesterday I found out that weird folkists Sabbath Assembly exist purely to cover their songs of worship! So, I thought I’d do a quick blog post about all three appearances, and how they’ve lead to some interesting thoughts about the problems of writing horror adversaries.
First of all, Sabbath Assembly. I’m not going to say too much about them – instead, just go and listen to the music. They’ve released two albums of the Process Church’s greatest hits. Here’s ‘In The Time Of Abaddon II’ from ‘Ye Are Gods’:
Before you read on, press play to get in the right mood…
And secondly, Adam Nevill’s ‘Last Days’. It’s a highly enjoyable read. He writes about the Temple of the Last Days, a Process Church-like cult who, back in the 60s, called up far more than they could ever hope to put down. Our modern heroes – led by documentary maker Kyle Freeman – have to deal with what’s left over, and take on the putting down themselves.
Nevill does a great job of reworking actual history into something far darker and stranger. He’s always created marvellous monsters, drawing on deep visual literacy to create some profoundly disturbing adversaries. The textures and moods of Francis Bacon’s paintings were vivid, inventive inspiration for the deeply creepy novel ‘Apartment 16’, while ‘The Ritual’ refreshed well-trodden folk-horror tropes with verve and style.
‘Last Days’ draws on both the darker parts of Northern European Renaissance art and the flickering, wall-haunting film and TV that came to surround us all in the 20th Century. It thinks about how history gets pulled into media and frozen there as fixed images, and how those fixed images can then leap back out and become animate invaders of our lives now. The imagery pattern that Nevill creates around that is marvellous; but, despite that, for me the book as a whole didn’t quite come off.
Partially, there’s a bit too much info-dumping in there. I love reading that kind of thing, but deep explorations of the Temple of the Last Days’ history made even me feel that the book was moving a bit slowly at times. That was added to by a certain amount of frustration with its protagonist, Kyle; throughout the book, he runs on rails that are perhaps a bit too well-defined.
Partially, there’s a deeper problem of genre. I only really pinned it down when I started comparing ‘Last Days’ with ‘Gods Without Men’. Kunzru’s book shows us a 60s cult, too. I read them as also being inspired (albeit much less directly) by the Process Church. Like Nevill’s Temple of the Last Days, Kunzru’s cult touch the occult numinous. They too both tap into and to some extent create a deep strangeness that persists into modernity.
But Kunzru’s not writing a horror novel, so he doesn’t need a horror adversary. Because it doesn’t need to be an adversary, his cult’s strangeness doesn’t need to be either finally definable or defeatable. It’s free to exist as peculiar little inexplicable bubble, impossible to really get to grips with either in the 60s or now. As such, long after the book’s finished, it retains a disturbing power that Nevill’s take on the Process Church lacks.
That also helps Kunzru’s book become more resonant. In both books, cults create horror. In both books, those horrors comment on certain aspects of the real world we all share. In Nevill’s book, the horror is defeated. Because it’s closed off, its relationship with reality loses force. The real world persists once we finish the book, but the book’s commentary on its flaws has – at an absolute level – stopped.
In Kunzru’s book, the horror is explicitly left running. The reader closes the book, but is left with no closure. A subtle disturbance seeps into the world and destabilises it. Because he’s not writing an overtly horrific book, Kunzru’s book is – ironically – in some ways a more effective piece of horror writing.
And of course, Kunzru’s book has flaws of its own, and is in some ways a much less effective piece of writing than Nevill’s – the historic sections of Kunzru’s book don’t feel nearly as well fleshed out as Nevill’s, and Nevill’s ability to show the weird as it weirds is far surer. And of course there are many pieces of horror writing where the horror does stay running.
And finally, none of the above should be taken as meaning that literary writing is automatically better than horror writing, or similar! Both do different things in different ways to achieve different ends. But, it’s fascinating to see what’s revealed when a horror novel and a literary novel spend a little while travelling together down very similar roads.
I spent last night at the British Council’s wonderful ‘Who Were We?’ event at the BFI. They were unveiling their film collection, which has just gone online here. It was a wonderful evening, for many different reasons.
First of all, it was the end of a rather wonderful process I helped begin back in 2009. I researched and blogged about the British Council films as part of their 75th anniversary celebrations – you can check out my posts and videoblogs here. It was a fascinating project, part of a wider Tuttle Club engagement with the British Council through their thinktank Counterpoint.
Secondly, it was great to catch up with the TIME/IMAGE people who’ve spent the last 18 months or so researching and digitising the films that are now online. They’ve done a wonderful job – it’s very much thanks to them that the archive is now so easily available and so well contextualised.
And finally, there are the films themselves. I’ve written about them extensively elsewhere, so won’t talk about them in too much detail here. Suffice to say, they’re wonderful artefacts.
On the one hand, they’re beautifully crafted masterclasses in delivering detailed information in a concise, easy to digest form. Some of Britain’s finest creative talent worked on them – cameraman Jack Cardiff, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, directors Ken Annakin and Mary Beard, and so on.
On the other, they encode a very specific vision of Britain and its place in the world, one that’s in some ways inspiring but in others deeply problematic. Watching them raises fascinating questions about how we saw ourselves then, how we see ourselves now, and how we (and the world) have changed along the way.
Anyway, enough description. The best way to get to understand the films is to watch them! So, here are three of my favourites. First of all, here’s propaganda piece ‘Little Ships of Britain’, connecting 1940s warfare to deep rural time:
Secondly, the hypnotically surreal ‘Life History of the Onion’ –
And finally, a Technicolour mini-masterpiece, shot beautifully by Powell and Pressburger’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff – ‘The Western Isles':
It’s World Poetry Day today. I wanted to post something by Louis Zukofsky – just been having a great time reading his collected shorter poems – but his son is very protective of his copyrights, so there’s very little of him available online.
Instead, two other offerings. First of all, one of his poetic colleagues – Basil Bunting – reading from his magnificent long poem ‘Briggflats’
And secondly, a very poetic film, in which Derek Jarman travels to Avebury. Poetry happens when language starts writing us. Here, 8mm film and a rather lovely soundtrack write a whole new world.