"Nanny Knows Best" has just been published in Issue 22 of The Wild Word magazine, their 'Future' issue. "Nanny Knows Best" is the first story to appear in my upcoming second collection, State of the Nation, and it was originally conceived as a framing story for it. (I did a similar thing with the Ugly Stories for Beautiful People, when I used "BobandJane" as a top-and-tail to the entire collection. I've always liked that device, going way back to when I first read various Bradbury anthologies such as The Illustrated Man, so I was keen to duplicate that, if I could, and I've been lucky enough to manage that twice now).
So anyway, please visit The Wild Word and I hope you enjoy "Nanny Knows Best."
A new flash piece has been published by Reflex Fiction. I have since revised it (300 words was a bit limiting and I think I cut a bit too much out of it for it to get there - I actually wanted there to be more doubt about whether she had actually undergone a Kafka-esque bout of unexpected invisibility or whether the story was just a metaphor - sadly, I think that was lost in this published version) but they seemed to like the super-short version, so who am I to argue?
Wired, the anthology that contains "Marks on a Page" and my Worcester Flash Fiction prize shortlisted piece, "MWC ISO IRL" is being launched at the home of the 42 spoken word group, The Swan With Two Nicks, in Worcester next Sunday 12th November. I, amongst many others, will be reading at least one piece, so come along. It's normally a pretty good turn out for these launches, so it should be fun.
A new flash piece has just been published at Bizarro Central. This was an odd one in that I wrote the first draft of this some 20+ years ago, when I was going through my Baudelairean Poemes en Prose phase (I managed to avoid going through a Lovecraftian phase, unlike many authors. But as I say, I did go through a six month period before I really found my voice where I was turning out little Baudelairean sketches which, while the ideas behind them were very much my own, the approach was very cynical and weary a la Baudelaire, and the prose was almost a pastiche of the great flaneur). I liked the idea but I could never really think of what to do with it until this summer, when I was trying to write a lot of new flash fiction to get the 'ol writing muscles warmed up for a bigger story I wanted to write.
I was quite happy with the way it turned out especially as I was really happy with the voice on this one; distinctly my voice (all elements of Baudelaire gone!) and the actual ending was improved, too.
Below is the Halloween-themed story, "The Most Dangerous Game," which was published in the blog of the Worcester Poet Laureate today as part of this year's Halloween celebrations. As noted in a previous post, this is somewhat notable as it is a story that was originally written to a theme (something I never do) and specifically for performance at the Worcester 42 Spoken Word event (again something I only rarely do). It went down well there so it's good to see it appear somewhere even though it my very first attempt at a more traditional Horror-type story (with demons and spirits etc). I hope you enjoy this rather atypical output.....
The Most Dangerous Game
He stood, waiting in the darkness.
It was Halloween and the late October-chill had forced everyone, apart from some particularly determined Trick or Treaters, indoors early. This was the traditional time for ghost stories and tales about ghouls and demons and restless spirits. It was also at this time of year that many people, usually young and inexperienced in the ways of magick, would gather around candles in otherwise dark bedrooms and play paranormal games. Another popular game was Red Book, where the children would grab hold of a large, red book, and then say, “Red Book, can I enter your game?” They then ask it a question about their crush, their future, whatever is their concern and then open the book to find the sentence that answers it, whether the response be one of hope or of doom. “Blank-Faced Man, O Come to me, To judge my life and extract a fee If I am guilty, with you I will go, But if I am innocent, good fortune you will bestow. Blank-Faced Man, O Come to me. To judge my life and extract a fee”
Bloody Mary continued to be popular, where frightened children would gather in front of a mirror and, trying to convince their friends that they were not scared, nudge each other in the ribs to intone the name “Bloody Mary” three times. It was then said that the gore-covered spirit would then appear and either drive the summoner mad or drag them into the mirror.
But surely there was no game as well-known but as little played as that of the Blank-Faced Man. To play the game one was supposed to, as with so many other games, light a candle and then stand in front of a mirror. Then, with eyes tightly closed, the player is supposed to chant:
The player then opens their eyes, and if they are innocent, being blessed by the Blank-Faced Man, they would have good luck for the rest of the year. However, if guilty, when they open their eyes they would instead see the Blank-Faced Man in the mirror, his visage devoid of features, his face pallid planes of flesh, before he quickly grabs them with bony fingers and pulls them into the darkness of the mirror, behind the pane of glass. But the reason the game was played so infrequently was that another aspect of the myth surrounding the game was that no-one, no-one ever, had been judged favourably by the Blank-Faced Man and there were even dozens of YouTube videos showing children being taken away, screaming, into the darkness, even if these had obviously been made by pranksters or wannabe horror film directors.
Still, he stood in the darkness on this Halloween night, this perfect night for playing such dangerous games, unmoving, impassive. Finally there came a chink, then a rectangle, of flickering light in the darkness, a child’s face seemingly hovering in the pitch black, as he nervously mumbled, ““Blank-Faced Man, O Come to me, To judge my life and extract a fee….”
And so he lifted his featureless face and, bony fingers outstretched, slowly made his way towards the light.
Some good news at last after a quiet (but productive summer).
My 1000 word flash piece, "The Chaotic Butterfly" has been accepted by Bizarro Central and will be appearing on their Flash Fiction Friday slot on the Bizarro website on Friday 3rd November.
A Halloween-themed story, "The Most Dangerous Game," will be appearing on the blog of the Worcester Poet Laureate on 1st November as part of this year's Halloween celebrations. This is somewhat notable as it is a story that was originally written to a theme (something I never do) and specifically for performance at the Worcester 42 Spoken Word event (again something I only rarely do). It went down well there so it's good to see it appear somewhere even though it my very first attempt at a more traditional Horror-type story (with demons and spirits etc). First time for everything!
My 300 word flash piece "Invisible" will be appearing on the Reflex Magazine website on Monday 6th November. It wasn't longlisted for the Reflex flash fiction prize unfortunately, but they wanted to publish it as part of a "best of the rest" series, which is fine by me.
Finally, a 1000 flash piece called "Humour Chip tm" may be appearing in a limited edition pamphlet, although nothing has been set in stone as yet so I will keep you updated as more news slips out.
I'll be tweeting out reminders as the stories appear.
Just a quick reminder that I will be reading a couple of new flash pieces at 42 in Worcester tonight. 42 is held at Drummonds - The Swan With Two Nicks, 28 New Street, Worcester, WR1 2DP. Rarely, I have actually written a couple of stories to the theme ("A Most Dangerous Game") rather than just reading an existing story that happened to satisfy it. A new experience for me....
You may remember that I had a piece of flash fiction shortlisted for the 2017 Worcestershire Literature Festival Flash Fiction competition and another piece accepted for publication in the competition's anthology, Wired. Well, the book launch has just been announced (see below) and I (amongst many others) will be reading out pieces whilst there. Hopefully I'll be videoing it and posting that here. Otherwise, if you're local, come along. I've been to two of the other anthology launches (that's what you get for being shortlisted three times *smug face*) and there's always a high turn out, which is great to see, often with people flying in from Europe or even the States, in the past.
While much of my work is surrealistic, irreal or "bizarro" in nature, even my most straightforwardly realist work is informed by my lifelong love of genre fiction, whether that be the multiverse of super-beings in Marvel Comics or twist-in-the-tale stories from The Twilight Zone or 50s EC Comics. This was later further informed and developed by my love of the New Wave of SF (Ballard, Aldiss, PKD, Disch et al) and early weird literary fiction or Absurdist works such as Kafka's Metamorphosis, Gogol's The Nose and Ionesco's Rhinoceros. Yet, I am ashamed to say, despite my love of such work and despite my love of Romantic poetry, with the exception of Poe and Lovecraft, my knowledge of early "weird" fiction is frankly woeful. As such, I thought it might be worthwhile to go back to the Romantic roots of that early work and to focus on two works in particular, Hoffman's "The Sandman" and Coleridge's “The Ancient Mariner."
Many Romantic writers inherited themes and styles that had once been popular in the genre known as romance, common features of which were medieval and exotic settings, "doubling" of characters, fantastic/supernatural creatures and events, long quests, and an idealised love between idealised characters, and, this romance narrative style was also a common feature of the Gothic novel. At first glance there are few similarities between "The Sandman", a prose short-story originally written in German, and The Ancient Mariner, a narrative poem written in English, apart from their times of writing, a focus on the strange or "uncanny", and the fact that both pieces use a "frame" as a narrative device. However, it can be seen that both "The Sandman" and The Ancient Mariner share several romance characteristics despite their different forms. For example, they both make use of certain narrative devices (romance convention and Gothic-style imagery, framing, allegory, unreliable (because of madness, dream or delusion) points of view), and they both share common themes of powerlessness and alienation.
"The Sandman", whilst contemporary, is mostly set in a significantly nameless University (that it is away from "home" is enough - the Italian lecturer's and the Piedmontese barometer-salesman's names hinting at "foreign-ness"), but it also features such Gothic/romance mainstays as "distant mountains" (143), a "high steeple...casting its gigantic shadow..." (143), and secret "alchemical experiments" (119). Similarly, The Ancient Mariner involves a ship's long journey "to the cold country towards the South Pole....(then) to the great Pacific ocean" (167). (The similarities of both works (secret alchemical experiments, foreign Universities, simulacra of living beings, quests through the Poles etc) with Frankenstein, are clear). Also, it is worth noting that in both works the main character suffers when away, and tends to be healed at home.
Similarly, they both feature fantastic, supernatural creatures, Hoffman's story the eponymous Sandman (who is "wicked" and "throws a handful of sand into (children's) eyes so that they start out bleeding from their heads" so that he can feed his children who "have crooked beaks like owls" (111)), and Coppelius, who whilst not "supernatural" is certainly described as being inhuman - "his whole figure was coarse and repulsive", and he has "coarse brown hairy fists" (114) with which he delights in touching the children's food with so that they will not eat it. Similarly, Olympia is an unnatural man-made (the only things Nathaniel relates to being, that sings and dances yet has no soul. The Ancient Mariner on the other hand contains personifications of Death ("his bones were black with many a crack, all black and bare" (191-182), Life-in-Death (a kind of spiritual death) ("her skin is as white as leprosy, and she is far liker death than he" (188-189), as well as visions of the crewmen dying then rising in death (333), of spirits guiding the ship (381-385), "two voices in the air" (402), etc.
The other romance conventions used by Hoffman (but ignored by Coleridge as he seemed to be more concerned by the spiritual import of the poem) is the use of doubling and idealised love. Coppelius and Coppola are described by the narrator as doubles; they could in fact even be the same man. But there is also the identification of the Sandman figure with Coppelius, the doubling of Nathaniel and Olympia (there are strong parallels between Nathaniel's father and Coppelius with regard to Nathaniel, and Spalanzani and Coppola with regard to Olympia - even down to both of the "child" characters having their limbs and organs "screwed off" or removed).
Similarly, the concept of ideal love is explored in Nathaniel's all-consuming wooing of Olympia which fulfils the romantic stereotype of the lover perfectly (although Hoffman seems to say that such love is ultimately egocentric and narcissistic, as Nathaniel's later disinterest and dismissal of Clara because she refuses to listen to his continuous outpourings of love seems to prove. Indeed, even the vocabulary of the pieces are highly Gothic and romantic At random, in The Ancient Mariner you can find words like "dismal" (54), "plague" (78), "slimy" (120 and 121), "charnel" (184), and eldritch" (233), while "The Sandman" contains words like "uneasy", "horrible", "disturbing", and phrases like "dark forebodings", "threatening fate" and "laughing like a madman" in the first page alone (109).
However, as well as these genre (or sub-genre) similarities, there are other similarities, namely that they can both be read as allegories which are concerned with alienation, and which express this horror and anxiety through the use of external "supernatural" occurrences. "The Sandman's" Nathaniel is alienated from his home and his family, studying at University even though he wants to "return to his native town forever" (129). He is described as having been alienated from his father (in that he had a secret alchemical life (itself mysterious and alien to him) with Coppelius), and he later finds himself alienated from both Clara and Lothaire after she tells him to burn one of his poems (128). Indeed, he only finds "love" with Olympia, an automaton that is in reality nothing but a mirror for his own egocentric self-obsession. He is alienated not only from society (at Spalanzani's party "quiet, scarcely suppressed laughter....arose among the young people (and) was manifestly directed towards Olympia" (135)) but from reality, which the frequent references to madmen, lunatics and madhouses reinforces.
Similarly, the Ancient Mariner is similarly alienated, first from his crewmates ("instead of the cross the albatross/ About my neck was hung" (137-138) and "each turned his face....and cursed me with his ee" (206-207)), then from Nature and the Natural Order, and then perhaps even from Death ("And yet I could not die" (254)) and perhaps also Life itself, as well. Thus the alienation expressed in the poem is more spiritual, perhaps even metaphysical than the more psychological alienation and anomie of Hoffman's Nathaniel, yet it is a common theme to both, in that the mariner mentions the loneliness (hinting at spirituality by hinting at the absence of God (630-634), and says "...'Tis sweeter far to me/ To walk together to the kirk/ With a goodly company", an idea of loneliness mirrored by Nathaniel's anomie at University and at home as a child. Similarly, Nathaniel declares it impossible "to do anything....according to our own independent will...for the principle does not proceed from within ourselves, but is the effect of a higher principle without" (125-126), an idea certainly mirrored by the ancient mariner who is literally guided, uncontrollably by an external force.
Another similarity between the two text's treatment of the supernatural is that they are both "framed", and that in both pieces the main narrative point of view is unreliable, as much is made of madness, dreams and delirium (another preoccupation of the Romantic artist), and so they could both be read as tales of lunatics, their insanity being the only real "story". The mariner is described as early as the fourth stanza as a "grey-beard loon", the spirit that follows the ship from "the land of mist and snow" is only given existence in "dreams" (127), and the voices of the two spirits are heard while, dehydrated, he lies in a "trance" (434) and a "swound" (297). Similarly, Nathaniel's childhood vision of Coppelius screwing "off my hands and feet" (115) happens before he "regained his senses" (115) after "delirium and fever" (116) which Clara and Lothaire also recognise - "we ourselves kindle the spirit, which we in our strange delusion believe to be speaking to us." (120) Thus it could be argued that both works are not objective tales of the supernatural, but the hallucinations and fancies of disturbed people told from their point of view, although this reading does have problems with the automaton Olympia - if she is read as a metaphor for a submissive "doll-like" woman, then why should Splanzani be expelled from the University? (Although it could be argued that he and Coppola had assaulted her).
Is it coincidence then that both works, despite their different forms and languages of composition, should share the same subject (the supernatural, the uncanny), the same theme (alienation, lack of control), the same kinds of gothic imagery, and the same mode of writing (allegory)? The answer can perhaps be seen in that the Europe of the early nineteenth century was fragmented, warring, and many countries were on the brink of revolution (both industrial and social), and the ruling powers were dealing with this upsurge of revolutionary sentiment (and those who wrote supporting it) brutally and intolerantly. Also, science was finally emerging from alchemy to explain many aspects of the world and thus alter lives. In addition, the Germany in which Hoffman lived was politically fragmented, and many nationalists were trying to rediscover (or invent) a common unifying culture. In this atmosphere it is hardly surprising that both writers should resort to allegory to "disguise" their works as "tales of the uncanny” or that they should seek to describe the kind of alienation, powerlessness and sense of paranoia and anxiety that many people felt. In both stories too, there is a sense of irrationality - there is little cause or effect. Why does the mariner kill the albatross? What is his final fate - is he cursed to tell his story, is he mad, or is he simply accosting a passerby? How does Coppolla find Nathaniel in his second lodgings? Why does Coppelius return to the town at the end of the story? Things just happen because they do and they will - it is futile looking for reasons, a feeling many victimised people in such societies (especially perhaps intellectuals and writers) would recognise.
This mood is also emphasized by the fact that both works have down-beat, inconclusive endings, in that Nathaniel dies and the mariner could be cursed to tell his story forever - "...at an uncertain hour....the hour comes and makes me tell my ghastly aventure" (617-618).
In common with many Romantic works Nature plays an important part in both pieces, as the supernatural is used in the truest sense of the term - the more than natural, the unnatural; and at times the absence of Nature and natural things are important. In The Ancient Mariner many of the "supernatural" occurrences are preceded by a breakdown in the Natural Order (again echoing the ides of revolution). The spirit ship that sails without wind, and several times the sea is described as "burning" (126, 163, 262), and, like a malevolent person revelling in his power the wind and rain seem to possess sentient action. The "sky and ocean smote" his ship (584), the sea is gendered as masculine ("His great bright eye most silently/ Up to the moon is cast" (421-422), and one of the spirits even asks "What is the ocean doing?" (418).
Similarly, in "The Sandman", Clara's eyes are compared to "a lake by Ruysdael, in which the pure azure of a cloudless sky, the wood and the flowery field....are reflected." (124), whereas insane Nathaniel is described as having "a perception in art and science" (man-made subjects) that is "clear and strong" (125), the only references to Nature in his personality being "dark clouds, which no friendly sunbeam can penetrate." (109). Again, Nature is personified, and associated with positive qualities.
Thus, beyond a few superficial differences between the two pieces' treatment of the supernatural, it can be seen that they both make use of certain narrative devices (romance convention and Gothic-style imagery, framing, allegory, unreliable (because of madness, dream or delusion) points of view), and they both share common themes of powerlessness and alienation, themes which were more likely than not inspired by the uncertain times in which they lived. In addition, having looked at these early examples of weird and supernatural fiction, it is pretty clear to see how established some of these tropes were, so that a clear lineage can be determined from them through the likes of Blackwood, Poe and Lovecraft, through Bloch and Campbell to the likes of Barker and King. While I admit I generally prefer the more recent fiction, I can still admire a decent spooky tale from the 19th Century, particularly on a frosty November night.....
Sometimes, such as when getting your latest script rejection from the BBC, it’s easy to say, “These idiots are just realism-loving idiots! They’ve never moved beyond the Kitchen Sink dramas of the 50s so you won’t get anything accepted by them unless it is set in 1) a Council estate; 2) a Welsh ex-mining village; or 3) somewhere “post-colonial” – it doesn’t matter where; Africa is good but the Indian sub-continent is better.” And while this is undoubtedly true (as it also is for some of the more established literary journals such as Granta), sometimes it is worth examining what realism actually is rather than just concluding, “I write surrealistic/irrealistic fiction so must therefore concentrate on slipstream and Bizarro publishers or the more adventurous genre publishers." After all, doesn’t a lot of genre fiction actually take advantage of a lot of realist styles and tropes? So, when I am ranting at the BBC, what exactly do I mean by “realist?” To try and make sense of it, let’s go back to one of the earliest examples of genre fiction (as at least we can then differentiate between what is realist or not and what is just weird whilst still retaining realist features). Frankenstein is often regarded as the first Science Fiction novel. However, when considering how realist this tale of reanimated dead flesh is, it is first important to discuss what the realist novel is, and then settle on a definition. Duranty, who edited a journal called Realisme, defined realism as a type of writing based on the everyday experiences of ordinary men and women, using the simplest possible language. Clara Reeves agreed, and wrote that the realist novel should describe events: "...such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves....so (as) to make them appear so probable (that we can believe)....that it is all real." (Reeves cited in Allcot, 1965, p.47) This definition of realism has much in common with that of Ian Watt, who agreed that realist texts should individualise the characters and give full accounts of the times and places of their actions. These definitions are limited however, as much of J.G. Ballard's, and Philip.K. Dick's work adhere to these rules, despite being overtly surreal, as is, for example Kafka's Metamorphosis . George Eliot admitted that any attempt at direct mirroring of reality was impossible because of the author's subjective perceptions distorting what could be "mirrored", an idea similar to Magritte's painting of a pipe (La Trahison des images), with the words "This is not a pipe", written below it. He is, like Eliot, right. It is not a pipe but an oil painting representing a pipe, in the same way that any novel isn't reality, but a list of ordered symbols representing the author's reality, a view proposed by the Structuralist, Roland Barthes.
Kettle regarded the realist novel as intimately linked with society, and thus a reflection and result of social upheaval, a view supported by George Levine's assertion that the moral unsettledness of Nineteenth Century England resulted in novelists trying to recreate and rediscover a moral reality through their works. This "hidden agenda" of the realist novelist was described by Marxists like Lukacs and Kettle, who argued that realism was not a passive reflection of what is. Thus, a useful definition of realism would be that of Clara Reeves, with the addition that many realist texts should deal with controversial issues, and should possess original plots based on "real life" not fable. As Watt said, realism isn't inverted Romance (i.e. focusing on poor, immoral degenerates), but "all human experience". (Although again, there are many exceptions to this argument and as Dickens' work proves, such a loose term can be expanded on, because dreaming, and other altered states of consciousness, are subjectively valid experiences). Kettle defined the Romance novel as being a non-realistic (presenting idealised, mediaevally chivalrous worlds), escapist genre that emphasized aristocratic and socially unchallenging attitudes, whilst diverting, entertaining and titillating the reader. Its characters also tended to be Good vs Evil stereotypes rather than "real". The Gothic Novel however, tried to combine the real and the fantastic, often containing supernatural elements and melodramatic or heightened language. Eva Kosofsky Sedgewick also described several features of the Gothic novel including: "tyrannical older men"; "sensitive heroines and their impetuous lovers"; "wild, ruined, feudal, (usually) European landscapes"; "a discontinuous involuted form in the novel"; "common topics such as doubles of characters, death-like states, dreams, and obscure family ties"; "unintellible writings", and "the possibility of incest, and the effects of guilt and shame" (Kosofsky Sedgewick, 1986). This may seem like a lot of detail, but it is important to understand the meanings of these terms when describing how a text like Frankenstein adheres to or differs from standard realism. Is it, as The Gothic Novel attempted, indeed possible to combine the real and the fantastic? The idea of Frankenstein being regarded as the first Science Fiction novel, is based on the idea of "picture (it) without the science, and.....no story!" (Stanley Schmidt in Analog Science Fiction, 1991). Unfortunately, on closer examination, this view is quite simplistic. The science is far from central - had Frankenstein used magic to create the monster the effect of the novel would have been much the same i.e. the main themes would still be that of Creator/Created, Moral Responsibility, Revolution of Order, and so on. Even Shelley herself does not describe "the Science" in detail. Shelley uses Realist techniques to describe scene, to develop the characters, and the narrative is generally structured by these character's actions. However, she also draws on techniques more familiar to the Gothic novel, melodrama, and (unsurprisingly) Romanticism. For example, Frankenstein, unlike most realist texts, constantly reminds the reader that it is a piece of fiction. Its structure is similar to many Gothic novels in having "stories within stories" told by one character to another. It consciously refers to other literary works, both in the novel (the Milton, Goethe etc that the creature reads), throughout the novel (the parallels between Frankenstein and the monster to Milton's God and Satan (and also God and Man, and Eve and Sin); between Clerval and the hero of Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey; between Frankenstein and Prometheus (both positive and negative aspects of the myth); and also outside the narrative, by subtitling the novel "The Modern Prometheus". This referral to "what has gone before" is a contradiction of what we usually think of as realism. Similarly, like a modern myth, it has a definite beginning and end, unlike Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, with their more "realistic" open-endings. Also, Shelley uses melodramatic "Romance" techniques - many of the settings are not forges or towns, but Arctic Wastes, mountainous ice-floes, and turbulent seas. Similarly, her descriptions of the Joys of Nature and their relation to Man (as well as their ability to torment) is a very Romantic notion. (Importantly she also quotes many Romantic poets including Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, p41), Byron's Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage (Ibid. p54-55), P.B. Shelley's On Mutability (Ibid. p75-76), and Wordsorth's Tintern Abbey (Ibid p130) amongst others).
The Gothic elements of the novel are also seen in various scenes including the death of Elizabeth (pp165-166); the destruction of the monster's mate and his reactions, (pp139-141), and much of Volume II, Chapter 2 where the Gothically menacing mountains are climbed with supernatural speed by the creature. The settings and the use of elevated, emotional language are thus highly reminiscent of the Gothic novel. The first appearance of the Creature (p38-39) is especially interesting as it mixes the Gothic (the famous description of the Creature, and Frankenstein's dream of Elizabeth's lips "...becoming livid with the hue of death....I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms.....I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel (of her shroud)"), with the Romantic i.e. the view that proportionate limbs, each beautiful in themselves, should result in a total beauty (all p39). However, despite this, Frankenstein can still be regarded as realist because it reflects the many issues of the times. For example, Revolution, as had occurred in France, was regarded as a "monstrosity", and an affront to natural Order, in much the same way as Frankenstein's creation of the creature can be seen in attempting to usurp God, but also the creature could himself represent the revolutionary proletariat (ie from one point of view an uncontrollable destructive force, or on the other, a force that could be educated and Good, is in fact created "innocent", but is corrupted by social forces), as well as representing English attitudes to 'the foreign', the creature's narrative echoing that of a then-popular idea of "the noble savage". (He reflected the fears of the rulers if their physically powerful, but ignorant, ignoble savage was to be 'released' among polite (Western) society - the manner of his supposed death is reminiscent of the Indian custom of sati (the wife's jumping on the husband's funeral pyre), which was also regarded as either primitive or noble depending on the observer's point of view). In much the same way the monster could be seen to represent political radicalism, and working-class activity (as many sources at the time show with their own comparisons). The responsibility of Science towards the people is still valid today, but was specially poignant to the Romantic Imagination (compare with Keat's fear that Science's explanation of the rainbow had robbed it of its natural beauty). In addition, the lack of any natural birth, the twisted creation of the monster, and the parallels between Frankenstein and the Eve myth (Gilbert and Gubar, 2000), which in turn links back to Paradise Lost, (Frankenstein creates the creature from parts of bodies, while Satan creates Sin "by his left side opening wide" (Paradise Lost, Book II,ll. 755ff), and God creates Woman by removing Adam's rib), emphasises Shelley's own unique view as a woman writer reacting against stereotyped ideas of femininity and motherhood (Moers in Walden 1995). Thus, whilst Frankenstein can be seen very firmly as a realist text (it uses realist techniques, it addresses the above-mentioned, then-contemporary controversial issues, and its characters are 'original' and develop through the story), its use of Gothic and Romantic imagery and style, its multi-layered structure and conscious references to known Myth and Literature, stretches the boundaries of the realist novel as being about "ordinary people". However, if we approach this issue from another angle, is there really anything as a purely “realist” novel? Let’s look at another nineteenth century novel, something that was written generations before Eliot and Joyce and Pound. Let’s look at something that has almost come to define the realist-loving BBC, Dickens’ Great Expectations. The novel does in fact show many examples of Gothicism, notably the appearance of Miss Havisham and Satis house (Dickens, Great Expectations, Penguin, p87-94), the first and second appearance of Magwitch (p36-39, and pp332-338), and the description of Wemmick's Gothic "castle" (p229), as well as convoluted plot 'coincidences' common in melodrama and Romances. However, these Gothic excesses are toned down by the unusual point of view (the adult Pip describes the thoughts of the child Pip), thus giving the reader an element of ironic distancing. Even the burning of Miss Havisham at Satis (I've already referred to the Indian ritual "sati"), which could be seen as spontaneous combustion (believed to be caused by depression, guilt or Sin), is carefully left as possibly realistic by her sitting too close to the fire (easier than explaining the scientific plausibility of the phenomenon as Dickens did after Bleak House). Thus while Dickens undoubtedly worked within a realist framework, he did make use of other genres such as Gothicism, exaggeration and melodrama to reinforce his realities. He disliked the realist tendency of being "frightfully literal and catalogue-like" (Dickens in Walder, 1995), and his multi-genre approach means that it can have as many meanings as his readers mean to infer on it.
The names of the characters are realistic, but not strictly realist, as they are symbolic. Pip is like a bud ready to grow; Estella is cold and beautiful like a star; Miss Havisham does indeed have a lot, but her life is a sham; and the resonance of evil in Magwitch should be obvious. Only dependable Joe and Biddy have perfectly natural names. Elements of Great Expectations are also heavily symbolic. Parts of the body, especially the hands (Pip's coarse hands, His burning of his hands when saving Miss Havisham, his "fake" mother, Magwitch's clasping of Pip's hands at several important times including his death etc) take on symbolic meanings. (However, a point not before mentioned is Magwitch's threatening to cut out Pip's liver (the symbol of purification and regeneration), as opposed to Miss Havisham's frequent pointing to her heart (she lacks one and tries to break his)). This heavy use of symbolism, irony and heavy exaggeration, makes Great Expectations break many realist conventions. Indeed Leavis wrote that Dickens found "a freer form of dealing with experience" that enabled readers to move....from the "real" world of everyday experience into the non-rational life of....spiritual experience" (Leavis, 1970, p289), a point reinforced by Wilson, who claimed that Dicken's work touched on repressed areas of the personality, Pip thus standing, like Dickens, both inside and outside Victorian society, an idea revealed through Pip's relationships with the other characters. Thus, it can be seen that in some ways, an over-eagerness, either on my part or on publishers and broadcasters, to too readily categorise my work as “surreal” or “irreal” or “bizarre” should be avoided as even old stalwarts like Great Expectations or early genre fiction like Frankenstein do, to both lesser or greater extents, seem to break many of the realist "rules" by using techniques stolen from other genres, they enlarge the meaning of the realist novel through this cross-fertilisation. This creates multi-layered works, that while they are good examples of "real" people developing because of their actions, their use of allegory, symbolism, and Gothic techniques such as the "doubling" of characters, create a deeper emotional response through wider points of reference. Indeed, this could explain my own reticence to identify my own work as Bizarro, as much later Bizarro now seems to have become mired in its own tropes, clichés and stereotypes and are, for want of a better expression, “weird for the sake of being weird.” I rarely write material like that, instead using surreal or irreal elements to highlight or magnify issues that the protagonists are feeling, using those weird elements to make their emotional states manifest in physical reality. Still, I doubt such insight will help when it comes to submitting radio drama to the BBC. So perhaps I may just write my next play about a menopausal Indian woman who lives in a Welsh ex-mining town now that her children have left the nest. That sounds like the BBC all over.
gone to a great deal of trouble to construct a sham world around me to keep me pacified. Buildings, cars and entire town. Natural looking, but completely unreal......Sixteen
hundred people, standing in the centre of a stage. Surrounded by props, by furniture to sit in,
kitchens to cook in, cars to drive, food to fix. And then, behind the props, the flat, painted
scenery. Painted houses set farther
back. Painted people. Painted streets."
Some may recognise the above scenario from the 1998 film, The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey
as the unfortunate Truman Burbank, a man whose every move is captured by
thousands of hidden television cameras and broadcast all around the world for
the viewing pleasure of an adoring populace.
Truman is the star of the show, unaware of his celebrity, and perhaps
even more disturbingly, unaware that his wife, his friends, his neighbours,
everyone he knows in fact, are nothing more than actors, and that his home, his
street, his town is nothing more than a gigantic film set in which he
unwittingly lives his life.
would undoubtedly be surprised therefore, when one tells them that it isn't a
quotation from the film, but from a little-known 1958 science-fiction novel, by
Philip.K. Dick, the author of Blade Runner and the story that later became Total Recall.
While it is to be applauded that in The Truman Show Hollywood eschewed millions of dollars of
computer-generated special effects, and the lure of marauding alien
invasions/200 feet tall monsters/rubber-clad superheroes (delete as
applicable), one can't help but deplore the fact that a film that was hailed at
the time as a zeitgeist-capturing comment on the power of the mass media was in
fact little more than a re-tread of a novel written some forty years
Of course there was a convincing argument for the film's
contemporaneity. Writing in The Daily Express at the time of its release,
Peter Sheridan argued that The Truman
Show wasn't too far removed from the likes of the Jerry Springer Show where guests laid bare their personal lives
for the delectation of the braying audience, or even the Internet phenomenon of
the JenniCAM, where, via a video camera link to her computer, Jennifer
Ringley's web-site offered a 24 hour view of her as she ate, slept, read and
(as most of her then 500,000 daily on-line visitors undoubtedly hoped for) had
sex. And as the much maligned
proliferation of fly on the wall documentaries, CCTV clip shows, supposed “reality”
shows like Big Brother and Love Island, and even semi-scripted
so-called “reality drama” like TOWIE or Geordie Shore show, the general public
has an insatiable appetite for watching others at work, rest and play.
And there is also undoubtedly some truth in the arguments
of Gary Ross (the director of Pleasantville,
a contemporaneous film that explored similar themes), who believed that there
is a "blurring between entertainment and news", that results in a
"cultural entropy that takes place when you take what's important and turn
it into a carnival and trivialise it.
Television has robbed us all of an innocent sense of wonder."
But while all this may be true, there is the feeling that
Hollywood was again being cynical, and that the makers of the film were in some
way hoping that we are all the vacant TV-vidiots that they apparently think we
are, as there is a strong case that the Truman Show, far from being a
ground-breaking analysis of the late 90s was in fact plagiarizing a number of
Science Fiction stories from four decade earlier. Is this just an innocent case of
synchronicity, yet another example of predictive writing, like Arthur Clarke's
stories about information satellites, or H.G. Wells' tales about armoured
warfare, or is The Truman Show an
example of out-and-out plagiarism?
It must of course be remembered that science fiction has
had a long history of paranoia about the media and the new technologies that it
employs (one only has to think of Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984, who lives in fear of Big Brother
watching him through the large TV screen in his room), and there are many
examples of stories that have fortuitously predicted future media trends. For example, in his story "Panel
Game", Brian Aldiss described a couple living in a television-obsessed
world who help an anti-television subversive who knocks on their door. They give him food to last his journey to a
less media obsessed country like Bali or India.
After the husband throws him out they decide to watch the TV and see a
programme where they see the man, a kind of future Jeremy Beadle, duping them
out of their food, before discussing his escapades in the studio, the couple's
own TV screens being used to record the incident. (There are certainly shades of everything
from Candid Camera to Beadle’s About to YouTube pranking shows
like Prank vs Prank or NQTV/Remi Gaillard here).
But there are a number of short stories and novels which
have so much in common with The Truman
Show that it is surprising that there was never any legal action. In another story in his Space, time and Nathaniel collection, Aldiss tells the tale of a
twentieth century lecturer who has to live the same day of his life again and
again, all for the edification of a half-seen future audience. Unlike Truman he is aware of the people
viewing his activities but he can do little about it.
Rodney rose and performed several timid exercises to flex his backbone. The audience had its first laugh there........Under
the notion that Valerie disliked seeing him in spectacles, he refrained from
reading at breakfast. How the audience roared
when he slipped them on in his study!
How he hated that audience!...... Sometimes he caught snatches of talk from the
onlookers. "If he knew what he looked
like!" they would exclaim. Or:
"Do you see her hair-do?" Or -
how often he heard that one: "I just wish he knew we were watching
A few years ago Aldiss told me that he had considered
taking legal action against the producers of Groundhog Day (1993) for stealing this story's basic premise of
having to knowingly live the same day again and again and again, but had
decided against it. Perhaps he should have
contacted his lawyers again.
But it is Philip.K. Dick's 1958 novel Time Out of Joint where the real
similarities with The Truman Show
lie, and this novel that raises the questions of plagiarism, or at the very
least, some familiarity. It is from this
novel that the quotation at the opening of this post was taken, and in this
novel that Dick tells the story of a man named Ragle Gumm, an unassuming man
who lives with his sister and her family, in a small American town in
1959. However, after a series of strange
events, Gumm eventually finds out that it is really 1998 and that the military
have built a fake 1959 small town (based on his own childhood memories) so that
he can help them tactically without his knowing it. However, there is more in common between the
two works than this.
In The Truman Show,
all of Truman's family, friends and neighbours are actors playing out their
respective roles. In one scene Truman
confides in his best friend about how he has felt since his father died, not
knowing that his father isn't his father, or that his friend's advice is actually
being fed to him from a director via an ear-piece. The same is true in Time Out of Joint. Near the
end of the novel Ragle's "sister" (who is also unaware of the
deception) confronts Major William Black, who up until that point she thought
was simply Bill Black, their nosy neighbour.
" "Is he really my brother?" she said.
"No," he said.
"Is he any relation to me?"
"No," Black said, with reluctance.
"Is Vic my husband?"
"Is anybody any relation to anybody?" she
Scowling, Black said, "I -" Then he bit his lip and said, "It so
happens that you and I are
married. But your personality-type
fitted in better as a member of Ragle's household. It had to be arranged on a practical
And indeed, as well as the idea of a false home and a
false family, Gumm is also observed day and night by hidden cameras, and
workmen who never quite seem to repair the road outside his house. After he first leaves the town (despite being
denied by a taxi driver because of "permit restrictions", and by the
local coach company because of a queue that never seems to move), Gumm finds an
isolated house where he finds a television and a video recorder. On working out how to use it, he is shocked
to find what is on the tape.
the television screen appeared Ragle Gumm, first a front view then a side
view. Ragle Gumm strolled along a
tree-lined residential street, past parked cars, lawns. Then a close-up of him, full-face.
From the speaker of the TV set a voice said, "This
is Ragle Gumm."
screen Ragle Gumm now sat in a deck-chair in the back yard of a house, wearing
a Hawaiian sports shirt and shorts.
will now hear an excerpt of his conversational manner," the voice from the
speaker said. And then Ragle heard his
own voice. ".......get home ahead
of you I'll do it......"
They have me down in black and white, Ragle thought. In colour, as a matter of fact."
remember, this passage was originally written in 1958, not only before colour
TV, but also before video recorders and certainly before the kind of television
desensitisation that The Truman Show
producers argued that their film analysed.
However, perhaps the aspect of the film that most people
found eerily pertinent to television's obsessions was the fact that a normal
person can not only be a TV star, but also be one without knowing it. Surely that was a comment on the Jerry Springer/Police, Camera,
Action/Beadle/Driving School times, and not merely lifted from Dick's
novel? Although sadly, in the years
since the film’s release we seem to have gone full circle so that with the
likes of TOWIE, Keeping Up With the
Kardashians and Made in Chelsea
we actually view a reality show that is in actuality a scripted drama
pretending to be a reality show, “starring” real people whose reality is
composed of taking part in a scripted reality TV show. Even Dick would have considered the Russian
Doll nature of such a reality to be implausible although one can only wonder if
the likes of Kim Kardashian can sympathise with the character of Ragle Gumm
when he finds a magazine and sees:
“On the cover of Time....was his picture. With the words underneath it:
RAGLE GUMM - MAN OF THE YEAR
Photographs of him as a baby. His mother and father. He turned the pages frantically. Him
as a child in grammar school."
arguably the fact that she knows she is part of a TV reality show makes the scenario
even more preposterous.
Of course, it could all have been an unhappy
coincidence. Brian Aldiss has himself
said that Dick, of all 50s science fiction writers, "is the one who is
seen as immensely contemporary." It
could indeed be that we are all living in a world that Dick, working in the
fifties, considered to be a nightmarish future world (Time Out of Joint, lacking robots, aliens etc was originally
published not as a science fiction novel but as a "novel of
menace"). And, similarly, the
novelist and poet Thomas Disch said in a 1994 episode of the BBC arts programme
Horizon, that Dick was often writing about what it was like "to live in a
media-soaked world", his short-stories and novels often being obsessed
with media disinformation, Governmental conspiracies and Cartesian doubt. In Dick's novels historical figures did not
really exist (after all, he had never
seen them) but were the creation of later hack writers and computer
programmers; the President was not real but a computer generated image spouting
meaningless homilies to rob the population of their own opinions; and the
population was duped by an American-Soviet agreement into thinking that each
side is maintaining a status quo in the Cold War by continually developing new
and fearsome weapons - weapons which the leaders of both sides know are
actually nothing more than Blue Peter-style
sticky-back plastic constructions. And
indeed, in a society where sociologists have shown that the constant stream of Crimewatch-style programmes on TV tends
to make the public's fear of crime far greater than its reality, is Dick's 1964
novel The Penultimate Truth really so
far-fetched? In this classic tale of
media manipulation, the entire population is forced into underground bunkers
because of an impending nuclear war, and once there are fed hours of news
broadcasts showing the nuclear devastation on the surface. It is only when one citizen accidentally
makes it above ground that he realises that the whole war is a sham, the
government leaders living on huge estates surrounded by thousands of acres of
lush vegetation, while beaming down the faked images of destruction to the
hapless populace in the cramped bunkers below.
So perhaps it is just a coincidence that The Truman Show was so much like Time Out of Joint, a novel by a writer who
examined and re-examined the power of the media and its representations of
reality. After all, Dick wrote over
forty novels and two hundred short stories in his thirty year career. Or it could be that the makers of The Truman Show were hoping that this no-one
would remember any of these works so that any possible plagiarism would remain
uncovered; that as they assert in the film, TV rules everyone's life to such an
extent that books are of only minor importance to many, so who would discover
that they have ripped one off?
Or there is perhaps another explanation that Dick would
almost certainly have found amusing.
Andrew Niccol, screenwriter of The
Truman Show said, "people are starting to question our relationship
with television. Some film-makers are
thinking about it more. The topic is
unavoidable." Here he only mentions
television and film. Could it be that
these film-makers, the media-meisters of our time and people who grew up in the
television-soaked world that Dick found so potentially dangerous in 1958, are
actually unaware of the many novels and short-stories that have addressed the
theme, their upbringing being based solely around celluloid and nitid TV
screens? For if so they made a far more
profound statement with their film than they could possibly ever have intended.
"Burr's stories are hard to categorize, as they're not strictly horror or fantasy per se. However, all are imbued with a dark flood of macabre images that continue to disturb and haunt long after reading. The stories carry a core psychological reality (even the more surreal), layered with pathos and fatalism wrapped in punkish sensibilities. Each narrative in Ugly Stories feels like a complete and nuanced world inhabited by isolated souls walking a dark, lonely road.As difficult and uncomfortable as it is to see ourselves sometimes in the darker aspects and recesses of art and literature, we are somehow compelled to stare into that abyss. Burr's collection just happens to make it all worth the pain."
Read this review in full at THE HARROW.Garvan Giltinan, The Harrow
"This is a collection of short stories that steadfastly refuses to be shoehorned into any genre niche, though those who enjoy horror will assuredly find much of what they like within its pages. If you pinned me down and asked for a writer James Burr is similar to, my answer would be Russell Hoban, though even that may be stretching a point, with perhaps a hint of the early Vonnegut. These stories are not ugly, though they often touch on aspects of life that are, and you don't need to have model girl/boy looks to read them, just an open mind and a willingness to embrace a young writer whose work is that little bit off the wall, but refreshingly so."Peter Tennant, Peter Tennant's Case Notes, BLACK STATIC.
Burr is not merely a "new" voice, he is a fresh voice – a different and disturbing voice - and one deserving of your attention. His work is not easily categorized, which may, or may not, be a good thing. There are certainly horrific elements to Mr. Burr's fiction, but also what can be more readily described as "dark fantasy" and even, perhaps "Bizarro" fiction. .....There is also a dry, sardonic, and often satirical humor running through much of the stories in the book. The stories in this collection worked, for me, because they were not merely "different," but because they truly were disturbing to me, as a reader, and many of the stories stayed with me long after I'd finished reading it. Be forewarned - these stories ....... require, perhaps, a bit more effort on the part of a reader; but those looking for something a bit different and challenging, will be handsomely rewarded. This book is highly recommended.
Read this review in full at HorrorworldNorm Rubenstein, HORRORWORLD
"Ugly Stories for Beautiful People feels like a book in its own little world. I don't mean to suggest that its stories never joined the party – a glance at the list of previous publication credits will reveal that they did – but there is a certain sense that this book stands to one side, that it's doing its own thing, as it were. The collection begins and ends with a story called BobandJane and its postscript, about a couple who are so very much in love (Burr's prose conveys this superbly) that, yes, they don't perceive reality as it is – and, at the very end, their bubble may just be starting to burst. Not just a neat story, it serves as a summation of the whole book, a book which covers a range of human emotion, precarious relationships and equally precarious realities (and there may not be much difference between the two); and whose intriguing constituent parts form a complete, intriguing entity."
"This reviewer has read countless collections of fiction, in many genres, many eras. That being said, Ugly Stories has got to be one of the oddest. That could be a negative, yet in this case, Burr's strong imagination and plaintive, yet very effective prose manages to pull it off. Odd, unique, very cool, and extremely readable, this collection is recommended for anyone looking for something different - or for one of us who isn't one of the beautiful people!"
Read this review in full at Hellnotes.David Simms, HELLNOTES
"It's always a pleasure to find an anthology that's well written and unique and that strikes a chord long after turning the final page. Ugly Stories For Beautiful People is just such a collection.These loosely linked stories begin with Bob and Jane, A Fable in Two Distinct Parts, about a couple whose adoration for each other is all-consuming. Foetal Attraction is deftly narrated by a pregnancy kit that wants nothing more than to deliver the happy news of impending motherhood to its rather unsavory owner. In The Dada Relationship Police, a man discovers that a shadowy group seems to know every aspect of his life and his relationships. In The Byronic Man, a man must decide how far he'll go to make himself attractive to the opposite sex. Burr takes a satirical look at what could happen when humans' proclivity for pretentiousness suddenly runs amok in It. And in the "postscript" story, Bob and Jane make a final disconcerting discovery…From the darkly twisted, to humorous to stories filled with illuminating social commentary, Burr's innovative speculative fiction is an insightful, and sometimes disturbing exploration of the human psyche. Read Ugly Stories For Beautiful People in its entirety for its full effect -- James Burr's work exemplifies what a well crafted short story is all about." Rating -- 3 out of 3 books
"Burr brings to life an almost zoological variety of characters, a sweeping menagerie of insipid drug dens, high art soirees, faltering romances, madness, and the ever-present reggae. Burr convincingly weaves together the various societal strata of London and Barcelona from beggar to bureaucrat, acid-head to activist, and brings them to life to co-exist side by side in the same heartbroken, disillusioned universe.Ultimately, Burr's view alternates between the sentimental bitterness of failed romance and a sweeping image of modern life in all its sickness and beauty. Burr's writing, like his characters and his world, fluctuates from the simple to the complex, from the vulgar to the sublime. It is as if Burr cannot decide whether he wants to indict society or glamorize it.And because that's the point, Ugly Stories for Beautiful People is worth a read."
These stories offer a wry sideways look at modern life and culture, twisting and turning the quirks of everyday life into something recognisable and yet entirely odd - like a caricature, perhaps. There are common themes: is what we call reality really real? How can our own minds fool us? Can simple statements and thoughts help use see the true reality from within our mindless everyday haze? There is also an obsession with relationships - and specifically what happens when they come to an end.....Ugly Stories for Beautiful People is a good collection of entertaining speculative fiction, which I would recommend without reservation. "
The most interesting thing about James Burr's stories, in my mind, is the use he makes of urban fantasy. In Burr's stories, the mundane creates the fantastical. When a real-life issue is loaded enough, when the mundane pressure grows and grows, then reality will twist and expand, and the impossible will occur. What Burr really pulls off well, then, is resonance. His stories are powerful because they are about pain, conflict, and emotions, and he tries to pick the ones that will be so powerful the reader will believe they are strong enough to warp reality. The impossible happens because the characters desperately want it to—and so Burr grants their wish. The bleak, depressing nature of these stories shows us full well how much confidence Burr places in humanity's desperate desires."
Ziv Wities, THE FIX
"Burr's short stories defy categorization. The stories vary in length and range in type from a tale told from the point of view of a pregnancy stick to the story of two people who are so in love with each other that they literally become one. The format of the book is also unusual. It has no table of contents, and the stories just sort of flow into each other. If there is a theme to the collection, it is about how the characters' perceptions prevent them from seeing the reality around them. Burr is a talented storyteller with an impressive imagination. His stories will be appreciated by readers of horror, bizarro fiction, and those who just like good writing. Recommended."
"The majority of the book is brilliantly written, with the basis for many of the stories involving relationships between wives/husbands, boyfriends/girlfriends, people/drugs, that range from the perverse (BOBANDJANE) to the bittersweet (Ménage Á Beaucoup). My personal favourite is probably ‘Life Is What You Make It’, involving as it does a woman dealing with grief in such a bizarre way that she’s fundamentally altered the structure of reality. [...] It might not be too bold to say the world needs more writers with fresh and weird ideas, and James Burr falls firmly into that camp."
"This collection could just as easily have been called Ugly Stories For Unsettling Contented People, for to enter the world of James Burr is to step into a region where reality is fluid and to be happy, or at least settled, is to be in incomplete possession of the facts. Once you enter, reality fractures in surprising and innocuous places. It was the shortest tales which for me had the greatest impact -- the delusions and, ultimately, kindness revealed in Mutton Pie; the pace and linguistic inventiveness of The Byronic Man; and best of all from this collection, It, which is a gem of a story, at once hilarious and horrific, a story which leaves you envying the author its premise while admiring the perfect balance with which that premise is developed. The best test of such a collection is the success with which the author inveigles you into their world. In this case, I finished the book in the food court of a shopping mall, put it down, looked around me, and waited for the cracks to show. "