Crash Landing with five of my favourite novels

Ballard, Fiction, Landscape, Literary

I’ve been podcasted! Many thanks to Steve Aryan for having me on the ever awesome Crash Landing over at Geek Syndicate. Steve and I talked about the five novels I’d want to have with me if I was stranded on an alien planet.

Some of the books I chose are SFnal, some are magical, one comes from tenth century Japan and all of them are unputdownable. We had a great time talking about them all and much more – I hope you enjoy our chat:


en arrivant à Station

Fiction, France, My fiction

Alors aujourd’hui ‘Crashing Heaven’ est lancé en France comme ‘Station: La Chute’. C’est une merveilleuse édition de Denoël, magnifiquement traduite par Florence Dolisi et avec une belle (et très précise) couverture de Manchu. Donc, tout d’abord, bienvenue lecteurs français au monde de Jack Forster, Hugo Fist et tous les autres.

Si vous voulez en savoir plus sur le livre et ses inspirations, j’ai fait une interview avec Gromovar Wolfenheir, où nous parlons de tout cela et plus. Et voici ses deux premières critiques françaises, chez Lecture 42 et culturevsnews. Bonne lecture, et encore une fois – bienvenue!

 

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empathy and electric sheep

Fiction, Film, FuseBox, Panels, Philosophy, Writer in Residence

So, we had our ‘Do Designers Dream of Electric Sheep’ afternoon at the FuseBox, and it went very well indeed – so well, in fact, that I’ve had big problems trying to boil down everything it made me think about into a single blog post. As it turns out, when you combine ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and ‘Blade Runner’ with a room full of designers, technologists, philosophers and creatives, you end up with an awful lot to think about.

But that’s actually quite useful. For the next couple of months, the FuseBox is being rebuilt, so I don’t have anywhere to be physically resident. So instead, I’m going to become a virtually resident writer. I’m going to go with the flow and write more than I normally would, publishing three or four blog posts and – if all goes according to plan – a videoblog, both discussing the ‘Do Designers Dream…?’ day in general and talking about where it took me in particular.

And I’m going to start at the beginning, with how we defined its core theme – empathy. We began by trying to find out if we had a shared sense of it. As everyone arrived at the event, we asked them to write down their own definitions of empathy. We ended up with:

Rather than a single understanding of empathy, that left us with many interesting tensions. Is empathy something emotional or rational? Does it happen when you imagine another in your own head, or does it build on a genuine connection between you and another? Is it an exclusively human experience, or is it something other creatures (and perhaps even things) can feel? And so on.

Then, we complicated things even more. FuseBox head Phil Jones kicked things off with an introductory talk, then philosopher Dr Kathleen Stock, critical design practitioner and AI expert Professor Karen Cham, and SF writer me all took a few minutes to talk through our own understandings of empathy.

Phil began by talking about empathy in design, describing both its problems and achievements. On the one hand, every effective piece of design is a small chunk of embodied empathy, an actually present representation of a moment of connection between the designer and their audience. On the other, design often fails. For example, there’s the problem of bro-tech – technology designs by highly privileged twenty-something male designers that only show any sort of empathy for the lives and problems of twenty-something males. Design needs empathy to thrive; but too often it embodies its lack rather than its presence.

Kathleen talked about empathy in a more abstract way. She described two different kinds of empathy – cognitive and affective:

Cognitive empathy involves imagining the experience of another; affective empathy happens when another’s emotion affects you. A key point running through her comments was the role of imagination in empathy – you can never actually experience being someone (or something) else. You can only ever imagine it. And that throws up a fascinating question: How solipsistic is empathy? Does it represent a genuine link with the other, or only an imagined one? And is there any real difference between the two?

And then it was my turn. I discussed how empathy is essential in fiction; to feel involved with a particular story, to want to keep reading on, the reader needs to feel empathy for the people they’re reading about. That led to a very basic description of three act narrative structure:

I create empathy for my characters by showing the reader what they want to do and why it’s so important, then making it difficult for them to do it, and finally exploring what it means for them to actually get it done. Once again, imagination’s a crucial part of that process – as a writer of SF, I ask my readers to imagine unreal futures, and as a writer of fiction I ask them to imagine unreal people and events.

Then it was Karen’s turn. She talked about empathy as something very practical, describing how we can achieve a very exact kind of empathy by using technology to measure people’s physical responses to any particular experience. And she described how technology displays apparent empathy for the world around it as it learns from experience. For her, empathy wasn’t so much about imagination – it’s something very present, practical and measurable.

And those were the definitions of empathy we started out with. More on where they took us to in my next post…

in the FuseBox with Philip K. Dick

Fiction, Film, FuseBox, Science Fiction, Writer in Residence

Some very exciting news – from now until the autumn, I’ll be the Writer in Residence at Brighton tech hub the FuseBox! The residency’s going to be themed around Philip K. Dick. I’ll be helping bring together forward-looking members of Brighton’s academic, technological and creative communities to think about his writing, the themes that drive it and everything that it’s inspired.

It’s going to be a fascinating few months, a wonderful opportunity to see what science fiction can mean to people using and thinking about technology in all sorts of different ways. I’ll be part of Imagined Futures, a series of Dick-themed events for all of those communities, blogging about what comes out of them, and sharing my own work and my sense of what SF is and how it can illuminate the world around us.

It’ll give me so much inspiration for my own writing, too – after all, there’s nobody better qualified to help an SF writer understand tomorrow than the people who are making it happen today. And of course it’s already sent me diving back into Phillip K. Dick. He feels particularly relevant just now, both as a philosopher of the unreal and an inspirer of the very real.

Let’s  start with the unreal. What’s always struck me about his books is how they show the world as a molten, unreliable thing, resolutely refusing to settle into any final version of itself. ‘The Man in the High Castle’ shows us an alternate reality that can be disproven by the I-Ching. ‘Ubik’ shows us an apocalypse of time, space and self that strongly resists falling into any single, simple interpretation. ‘Valis’ leaps between religious mysticism, gnostic fantasy and pure SF, leaving it to the reader to decide what they’re really witnessing. And so it continues, throughout his novels and short stories.

Again and again, Dick pokes holes in the real. He leaves us with literary artefacts that are at once undeniably there, present before us as words on the page, but also impossible to grasp in any single, final, fully knowable way. In our modern age of fake news and performed reality, that makes them profoundly current. We’ll do our best to get to grips with them, exploring exactly how they resonate today.

And then there’s reality. Paradoxically, as Dick’s slippery fictions have gone out into the world they’ve driven the creation of something very hard-and-fast. They’ve become one of the great engines driving modern SF cinema, sitting directly behind major movies like ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Total Recall’, ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Minority Report’, and indirectly behind many more. And cinema demands the real – for SF to work onscreen, it has to show us entire, absolutely convincing worlds.

So, inspired by Dick, production designers have created very concrete visions of tomorrow. Industrial designer Syd Mead went from designing cars, hotels and consumer tech to building a whole world for ‘Blade Runner’. The gestural interface Tom Cruise uses in ‘Minority Report’ was directly based on work from the MIT Media Lab. Even the relatively cartoonish world of ‘Total Recall’ is suffused with technologies that – taken on their own terms – are entirely consistent and credible.

In bringing Dick’s futures to life, film makers have done far more than just engage with the slippery nature of his (un)realities. They’ve prototyped futures – and there’s as much to learn from those concrete futures as there is from his original visions. So we’ll be looking at those very real things too,  seeing exactly what practical lessons we can take away from them.

I’m sure that it will all combine in very exciting ways. It could be we’ll find a road map to steer us past the pot holes and wrong turns and confusions of now; it could be that – like so many of his heroes – we’ll find that losing ourselves in them all is the only way to move on.

Either way, we’ll have a blast. I can’t wait to see where we end up – and if you’re around in Brighton while any of it’s going on, I hope you’ll join us for some or all of it – drop me an email if you want to get on the mailing list for it all. If you can’t, do keep checking in here – I’ll be writing about all of our adventures in Dick’s worlds, while hopefully keeping a reasonably firm grip on this one too. So, see you at the next post!

leaving the future behind

Fiction, Science Fiction, Writing

On the face of it, science fiction’s all about technological change. But actually, when you sit down to write it, I think it sets a more interesting challenge: how to tell a story that can leave key parts of its future behind. SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.

That’s most obvious in the near future stuff, whose technological speculations can be very easily tested – you just need to wait for a few years and see what happens. As someone who grew up in the 80s, I’m going to use a classic piece of SF from back then to illustrate that – ‘Blade Runner’. It’s set a couple of years ahead of us now, in 2019, but shows us a tomorrow with no internet or smartphones, but plenty of flying cars and artificial humans and animals.

And yet it remains one of science fiction’s profound masterworks. What keeps ‘Blade Runner’ so engaging is not its powers of prediction, but rather what the change it shows us does to the people in it. When it was made, it looked forward not factually but emotionally. There’s a nostalgia for an unreachable and so-much-less-broken past, a deep, anguished sense of personal powerlessness and a massive fear that even the most intimate parts of yourself – your entire life’s memories, for example – could suddenly turn out to be an externally sourced corporate construct. It nails a very specific kind of rootlessness and paranoia that’s very easy to feel right now.

The enduring accuracy of that emotional vision makes the failure of Ridley Scott’s more practical predictions pretty much irrelevant. As one of the 80s’ other great cyberpunks, William Gibson, noted: ‘I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.’ The ‘Blade Runner’ solution to a profoundly negative set of changes – be as human as possible, even if you’re not – is one that hasn’t yet dated. As new tech keeps on forcing us to rethink what it means to be human I think it’ll continue to resonate for a long time yet.

But what about the further future stuff? Is this an argument that works in the context of the tomorrows far beyond tomorrow, where technologies that we’ll never live to see leap through science fiction stories? How can we test the science in such impossible imaginings?

I went to another piece of 80s science fiction – C.J. Cherryh’s 1988 novel ‘Cyteen’ – when I started thinking about that. It’s set a few hundred years in the future, and describes a society built on technological achievements that it’s safe to say none of us will ever witness. But it does so much more than just talk about them. It’s a rich and detailed study of how culture, family and even strong-minded individuals write personality into children as they grow and become adults. The book’s fascinated by growth, maturity and the self, and the relationships between them. The change it talks about is the change we all go through as our adult selves grow into being.

But on the other hand, it explores all that through the medium of tapes, using a kind of tape-to-mind content transference process as a way of thinking about how the people around you can shape you as you grow. Those tapes were a wonderful sustained metaphor, one you couldn’t really achieve in any more realist fiction, but as science they kept on throwing me out of the book. I associated them with clunky 70s supercomputers and screeching 80s cassette drives. I didn’t even understand why Cherryh was presenting them as such a futuristic, powerful tool until I started reading cyberneticists like 60s maven Norbert Wiener. That showed me both what she was getting at with them and how the technological context that had once supported this thoughtful, powerful novel had so quickly dropped away from it.

And that, for me, was a moment that confirmed that science and technology aren’t actually central to science fiction. In fact, the specific details of how all the shiny stuff works are in the long run pretty irrelevant. After all, scientific theories exist to either be improved or disproved. Technology is constantly becoming outdated. All of it’s provisional, all of it will go. Any piece of SF that ties itself too firmly to a particular snapshot of scientific thinking or technological progress will itself become obsolete in very short order.

So ironically, perhaps the only way that any piece of science fiction can be sure that it will remain resonant as the years pass is to make sure that any technical speculation can drop away once it’s no longer relevant. The science will fall back to Earth like an exhausted booster section, tumbling away from the rocket that will one day reach the stars. And then we’ll be left with stories about how people change when change arrives – and that, for me, is what science fiction is.

four films for Waking Hell

Fiction, Film, My fiction

With Waking Hell coming out I thought I’d do a couple of ‘making of’ posts – two bookumentaries, if you will. One of them’s on the music that inspired the book – it’s up over on the Gollancz blog.

And this is the other one, about four of the films that helped inspire it. So now sit back, grab your popcorn and relax as I make like Alex Cox and introduce you to… WakingHellodrome!

 

Night of the Demon

When I started writing Waking Hell, I had one very definite ambition for it. I wanted it to be a very pure science fiction book that also worked as a horror novel. So, I went back to some of my favourite horror movies for inspiration.

I’ve always loved Jacques Tourneur’s The Night of the Demon (also known, as in the trailer below, as Curse of the Demon). Its hero, Dr John Holden, is a strict rationalist who falls prey to an entity that forces an entirely new world view on him. His antagonist, Julian Karswell, is at once a boisterous clown and a terrifyingly effective black magician.

I was fascinated by how the film mapped and explored those contrasts. And I loved the sense of mysterious, remorseless pursuit that suffuses it. Both fed very directly into Waking Hell.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKy9vxXK2-I

Oh, and Night of the Demon is based on M. R. James’ story Casting the Runes. James too was a big influence on Waking Hell. In particular, there’s something oddly intimate about many of his hauntings. So much of his horror peaks late at night, in bedrooms. One of the book’s key scenes contains an oblique nod to that.

 

Buffet Froid

This is a film that – when I first saw it as a teenager – blew my mind. It’s a profoundly odd movie, its characters deeply absurd, its settings (for the most part) a series of brilliantly used late night Paris locations. It’s shot through with a very strong sense that – with the world asleep – anything can happen. Those who remain awake no longer live within our city, they’ve fallen into its dream of itself.

That was something I wanted to capture in Waking Hell, that sense of being trapped within a city that has suddenly become completely other, no longer a home but rather a trap. Buffet Froid was the film that most directly inspired that, but I also drew on a long line of ‘estranged in the night’ movies – The Warriors, Round Midnight, Subway and so on.

As you read Waking Hell, hopefully you’ll see how all these percolate through into its heroine Leila’s adventures. She too is overthrown by night; the darkness both hides the world she’s always known and reveals a new one, more complex, more dangerous but potentially also more rewarding than any she’s known before.

 

Le Frisson Des Vampires

This is a very strange film indeed. On the one hand, it’s a 70s exploitation horror movie, with many of the flaws that that implies. On the other, it’s utterly engrossing and original, shot through with genuine surrealism and driven by three of the most peculiar vampires on screen. Watching it feels like spying on someone else’s dream.

The first vampire we meet casually unsqueezes herself from within a grandfather clock. She has two male companions, who slowly but surely take over the film. I found them an utterly hypnotic presence. They’re all over this trailer, too:

On the one hand, they’re a completely absurd duo. They’re given to nonsensical pseudo-intellectual lectures on occult history, they’re pretty ineffectual and their fashion sense is astonishing. Drawing on an apparently inexhaustible wardrobe of early 70s hippy finery, in every scene they look like they’ve dressed up as several members of the Monkees at once.

But on the other, I found in them a profoundly unsettling sense of menace. At first, that seemed utterly bizarre. I couldn’t work out why they spooked me so much. Understanding why these 70s relics had such a hold over me helped me define some of Waking Hell’s key bad guys – the Pressure Men.

 

Quatermass and the Pit

The past and the future have one thing in common – they contain everything. Science fiction normally looks to the everything of the future for inspiration, but Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale took the opposite tack. In Quatermass and the Pit, he wrote the past as if it was the future.

In the world of the film, a fully SFnal Martian invasion is already ancient history. His characters’ challenge is to deal with it not as a thing yet to come, but as an undeniable, ineradicable fact that radically changes their sense of the past and with it the very nature of their present. For them, memory plays that role that SF usually gives to foresight.

This was a huge inspiration for Waking Hell. I was fascinated by that recasting of SF as a tool to not just look backwards and explore memory but to understand it as the one thing without which the present and the future can’t exist.

summertime and the reading is easy

Fiction, Holidays, Novelists, Psychogeography, Travel

It’s summer time, so the paper are full of people talking about the books they’re taking on holiday. I’ve found all the various lists rather frustrating as – with the exception of (of course) the New Scientist and a couple of mentions of Emily St John Mandel’s excellent Station Eleven – nobody’s recommended any science fiction, fantasy or horror at all.

So, to balance that out, here’s my list of holiday books. Oh, and it seems that, when writing this kind of thing, you have to mention where you’re heading to. So, there’s a certain amount of destination boasting in there too.

Anyway, first of all I’m going to be packing Imaginary Cities, by Darran Anderson. Here’s the blurb:

Inspired by the surreal accounts of the explorer and ‘man of a million lies’ Marco Polo, Imaginary Cities charts the metropolis and the imagination, and the symbiosis therein. A work of creative nonfiction, the book roams through space, time and possibility, mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds.

It’s a wonderful, substantial tome and looks absolutely fantastic. Darran’s twitter feed is also well worth checking out, it’s a cornucopia of imaginary wonderments. I’m planning a long weekend tucked away in London’s Alsacia – it’ll be the perfect companion.

I’m going to follow that with some fiction. I’ve been meaning to check out Naomi Mitchison for a while – she seems to be both a very wondrous writer and someone who’s been rather unfairly written out of genre history. The Corn King and the Spring Queen looks like a great starting point:

Set over two thousand years ago on the calm and fertile shores of the Black Sea, Naomi Mitchison’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen tells of ancient civilisations where tenderness, beauty and love vie with brutality and dark magic.

Ms Allumination and I are off to Summerisle for a long weekend, it’ll be a great read on those endless Western Isle evenings. Sadly we’ve missed this year’s May Day celebration but at least there’ll those marvellous apples to try! And of course I’ll snag one of their famous “I went to Summer Isle and all I came back with was an understanding of the true meaning of sacrifice” t-shirts.

After that, it’s going to be time for a bit of a change of pace. Business is taking me to Neo-Tokyo – apparently the tech scene out there is about to explode. I’ll be stopping off in Hong Kong along the way, so Dung Kai-Cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City will be the perfect traveling companion

Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections–“Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs”–the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.

And once I’m back, we’ve finally got a couple of weeks away for a proper summer holiday. We’re spending it in a rather snug bolthole somewhere in Sussex. Apparently Arran sweaters are de rigueur and I’m assured that the aga is in full working order. So, we should be able to avoid the local ambulant plant life, keep under the radar of any passing military survivalist cults and basically stay cosy in the face of any catastrophes.

While we’re there, I’ll be snuggling down with Aliette de Bodard’s by all acounts stunning The House of Shattered Wings:

A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.

Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

I can’t wait! Though of course, family holidays aren’t just about reading. We’ll be passing the evenings performing Hamlet. In the original Klingon, of course.

Happy holidays everyone! Oh, and if you’ve got any summer reading recommendations, do share them (plus any strange and interesting destinations you’re heading to) in the comments…

talking & reading at eastercon

Cons, Crashing Heaven, Fiction, Readings

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.

Ed and I reading
Edward Cox will read from The Cathedral of Known Things and I’ll read from Crashing Heaven. We’re on on Saturday evening, from 8-9pm, in Johnson.

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…

on the outskirts of infinity

Crashing Heaven, Fiction, Landscape, Uncategorized

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:

Crashing Heaven

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:

A space station

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.

A cosmic suburb

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.

A buffet of tomorrow

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.

CRASHING-HEAVEN-final2

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.

Crashing Heaven cover detail

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.

Finally, two links, both with a little more about the cover. Here’s Gollancz’s blog post officially revealing it, and here’s Niall Alexander talking about it over at Tor.com.

Adam Nevill and Hari Kunzru meet the Process Church Uptown

Aliens, America, Fiction, Horror, Literary, Novelists

Noted 60s cultists the Process Church of the Final Judgement seem to be popping up all over the place just now.

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.