Extracts from first draft of "Keeping Up With The Kingstons", from "State of the Nation."
A first draft, so I know it's a bit ropey in places. Still, it's got some nice images in it and an ending that doesn't involve madness or death, so something of a first. Although it does involve a relationship breakdown, so perhaps not too much of a departure from the norm. Anyway, this was written around the same sort of time as the "Ugly Stories" but I felt it didn't fit in with that collection which focussed mainly on love, reality and how love can alter reality. However, it does fit in with the underlying theme of "State of the Nation" so, almost ten years on (and after being accepted for publication by the long-gone mag "Sierra Heaven", although they went to the mag graveyard in the sky before actually publishing it) it's now nominally part of that collection. Surprised it was accepted though to be honest. It's definitely a first draft and needs radical revision, if not wholesale rewriting. Then again, I suppose given my current work schedule that's what the Summer is for.
It's also strange to see how things change, even over ten years. For example, I described the "Colour Cube" as being "as big as a TV set." Yet now all TVs are flatscreens that piece of description is pretty much irrelevant. Inaccurate anyway, given that it's a Cube. He also reviews the "Kingstons" show on video tape. This is a bit trickier now we all have Hard Drives and Plus Boxes, expecially given what he does with the video tapes at the end of the story... not exactly possible with an mp4 file. Still, it's an old show - I can always say he started his Kingstons collection on video. And in some ways, given that the whole point of the story is his adopting a non-conformist, non-materialist, "anti-consumer" lifestyle, I suppose his preference for outdated technology because, "Hey, it still works so why throw it out!" does actually make sense, in a way. In some ways that can even be an advantageous thing; something that adds to his characterisation.
Anyway, a few extracts from "Keeping Up With The Kingstons." It might be fun to see how this changes and develops as time goes by.
"I had been a fan of "The Kingstons" in its early "wobbly walls" period, but what with everything that had happened over the past few years I'd lost interest. It had started as just another slightly kitsch family melodrama until the Late Noughties when Sir Harvey Williamson was appointed as Executive Producer and storyline consultant. An MP who had made his money in Marketing and the Media, Williamson was a powerful force behind the show, and the ratings skyrocketed almost overnight. Children watched it in their school lunch-hours, workers rushed home in time to see it, and the BBC even changed its third weekly broadcast from Friday to Thursday night after the Breweries complained that people refused to go out until after it had finished. And so the phenomenon known as "The Kingstons", the most popular TV programme in British viewing history, reached its fifteenth birthday. However, as I looked at the bare plan, I started to seriously wonder if I could really write 8000 words on the thing. I'd easily written a similar article for the "Eastenders" thirtieth Anniversary the year before, despite hardly ever watching the show. The drug abuse, incest, arson, unwanted pregnancies and so on, easily lent themselves to an interesting article. But "The Kingstons"? In fifteen years of occasional viewing I couldn't really recall anything of interest that had actually happened. I heard a knock at the front door, and looking at my watch realised that it was another of Sophie's deliveries. I opened the door, the unshaven man thrusting a bitten pen and a clipboard at me to sign. Resignedly, I wrote my name, and the man grunted and walked away down the path past the weeds and empty crisp packets, casually discarding a cigarette in the garden as he left. In front of me were two brown cardboard boxes, one small and relatively flat, the other as large as a T.V. set. I knelt down and picked them up, the large box surprisingly light. I kicked the door shut with my heel, and carried them through to the kitchen, where I carefully slid them onto the table. The small box was indeed a new video, and, as I'd thought, it was exactly the same as the previous one except this was a TX100 j, the "j" obviously making all the difference. However, on opening the larger box, I was amazed to find a large plastic cube. It was hollow, and its upper surface could be removed, but as far as I could tell it had no function. I looked at the invoice to see if that could tell me what it was, but it simply said "Colour Cube tm". And then I saw the price. At £995 (not including VAT), it couldn't simply be a red plastic box. But, that was all it seemed to be. There were no wires, cables, or electrical components, and its box didn't contain a manual. I lit another Marly, and sat down staring at it, as I pondered what it could possibly be."
"Nothing you see on television is actually there. All those blue-rinsed old biddies who worry about all the sex and violence, the bad language and lewd behaviour, they all miss the point. It's not really there. It's just thousands of dots; blue, green, red dots all blazing away, a new pointillist work created every microsecond, an abstract image forming again and again and again. And that's why you had to admire "The Kingstons". Because, despite its crassness, its one dimensional storylines and cardboard characters, it somehow managed to create out of this swirling mass of technicolour a world that was almost obscenely black and white. Wealth is good, poverty is bad. Beauty is good, ugliness bad, and so on and so forth. The possibilities dormant within the maelstrom of colour, the beauties that could be shown, seemed to be ignored in the chrome-and-money world of "The Kingstons". But then again, it's not really there so why worry? And as I argued with Sophie, for the second time that day, I had a disturbing glimpse of the world in which she lived. I was poor, weak, and holding her back from the materialistic joys and excesses which she could see just lurking over the horizon of her future. In Kingstons-speak, I was poor, I was weak..... I was bad. And as I sat watching the T.V. after Sophie had stormed out, I thought about how I viewed our life, our relationship. And it was then that I realised that I wasn't going to worry about it anymore, I was going to stop losing sleep over how I could get her to love me again, or how we could be happy with each other again. Because our past love, our happiness, our whole relationship was much like the flat fictitious images on the T.V. screen. It wasn't really there. And it never had been."
"Oh, you're still doing that", said Sophie, putting her head round the doorway as I lay on the floor typing. "I hope you videoed "The Kingstons". I grunted. "God, that's all you say to me now. I've met pigs who are more articulate than you." "I didn't know "Harvey Nichols" sold livestock nowadays", I replied. She curled her lips in disgust, and noisily dropped her briefcase in the doorway. I felt myself relax as she left the room and heard her lifting the cardboard boxes from the corner where I had left them. I stopped typing for a moment, knowing what to expect. An excited squeal came from the kitchen. "What is it?", I shouted through to her. "A new Colour Cube". "Yes, I know, but what is it? What does it do?" I heard her leave the kitchen before seeing her head around the door. "It doesn't do anything. It's ornamental." I sat up, perplexed. "Ornamental? A metre wide plastic cube? It's not even smooth. You can see where it's been moulded." "Well, what does that ugly thing do", she said, pointing at my lamp. I examined it exaggeratedly. "I think", I said, "it gives out light. That's probably why it's got a light bulb stuck on top of it." Her lips curled up again. "Don't be sarcastic. It doesn't suit you." She picked up her briefcase and stomped upstairs. I heard the bedroom door slam, and took a deep breath before returning to work. Realising that most viewers probably had as much difficulty in remembering the early episodes as I did, I had decided to focus on the more recent ones. However, as I fast forwarded over a six month-old confrontation between Crispin Kingston and his sister Sophie, something caught my eye. I stopped the tape, rewound it slightly and then played it. It was on the screen so fleetingly that I had to rewind the tape again in order to pause it, but, there! Just as Sophie was harassing Crispin to leave University and get a proper job, I saw something sitting on the polished oak floor of their living room. A bright red, shiny Colour Cube."
"I sat at the table, drinking another glass of red wine. Josh and Sophie's other friends were all pretty much as I'd imagined them, flash, pretentious and snobbish, and they sat around talking about "Sales gradients", and "ABC1 Purchasing Curves" for much of the evening. My few attempts at humour were largely ignored, and after a while I actually found myself being patronised by them, feeling like Nora in "The Doll's House" (although I realised that they wouldn't be able to understand the analogy). I made a joke about seeing an advert for a miraculous new vacuum cleaner from the States called an "Ibsen", and chuckled to myself when all-mighty Josh said that he was currently trying to "work the UK end of their marketing network". The others nodded wisely and wished him luck. Indeed, in the three hours I'd been sat at the Hell-table, the only time their talk veered away from work was when they talked about their (expensive) holidays in Rio, Tokyo or Buenos Aires, and when Sophie announced, as if I'd been building a paper-plane, that I was writing an article on "The Kingstons". At this, all heads turned, and I admitted that I was but was unable to continue much further due to the crumbs from a particularly flaky vol-au-vent falling from the edges of my mouth. Their attention thus lost they soon started to discuss their Pension Plans, and I was again ignored. I looked around the room seeking a quick escape route, and unsuccessfully stifled a yawn. It was decorated in the popular retro Eighties-style popularised by "The Kingstons" - black furniture, bare polished floorboards, silvery-grey rugs and plenty of chrome. Through the conspicuously open double-doors I could see into the living room, or "lounge" as Josh referred to it. It was small, but decorated in the same way. I could see the TV set and video (a TX 100j), the frosted glass door of the video cabinet obviously left open "accidentally", and the various Waldo-like lamps designed by "Aldi of Paris", nestling next to "Ceero" ("Of Barcelona, incidentally") sofas and chairs. I turned to Sophie who was also looking around the room like a vulture hovering over its prey, obviously comparing their possessions with our own, and, judging by the barely disguised look of annoyance on her face finding ours lacking. Readying myself for another rash of indiscriminate shopping, I asked where the toilet was, to be told that the "loo" was upstairs, and so flashing a cursory grin at the company (which was ignored) I stood up and left the table. As I closed the door behind me, I took a deep breath and willed myself to relax. I climbed the stairs, fashionably polished with a thin strip of thick ethnic-style carpet running up the centre, and went to the toilet. I decided to wait in the toilet for a while, to give myself time to "gird my loins" for my next confrontation with them. As I sat on the toilet-seat, surrounded by a confusing mix of "English Country Cottage", "New York Minimalist", and "Amazonian Ethnic" ornaments and hangings, all fashionable but tastelessly thrown together, I thought about them all chattering downstairs. I'd always hated that sort of person, and until recently so had Sophie, and that was what I found so hard to understand. If anything, it was Sophie's contempt that had rubbed off on me, yet here she was smiling, giggling and flirting like a sixteen year-old. It was understandable why everyone seemed to like her so much, but I just wished they could catch her unawares at home and see what I had to put up with. The lack of overall design in the room, a hotch-potch of designer items, clashing and contrasting with each other, reminded me of people who dressed in mink-coats and Armani jeans, thinking that the "label" somehow compensated for the appalling overall look. I could see from the minimalist black-and-white wall-clock - was it normal for me to know the prices of almost everything I could see? - that it was time for me to rejoin the others. I flushed "the loo" and walked back out onto the corridor. However, as I closed the door, another slightly open door at the end of the corridor caught my attention, and before I was fully aware of what I was doing I was standing outside it. It was painted gold with the familiar "Ikea" May range of Aztec symbols stencilled on it, but it was what lay behind the door, almost hidden in the darkness that caught my attention. Stealthily, and checking that no-one was leaving the dining room, I opened it and turned on the light. The bare bulb lit everything with a harsh glare. Although perhaps everything was too strong a word, for the room, while large, was almost completely empty. The floor was uncarpeted, and covered in a thin layer of saw-dust, and a large crumpled mattress lay by the far wall. The walls too, were bare, the mucky plaster adding more to the Aztec motif than I was sure Josh and Charlotte intended. Next to the bed were three large cardboard boxes, full of crumpled designer-clothes, Armani, Gasper and McQueen, and yet that was all. No trendy objet d'art here. The only part of the room which was in keeping with the dining room, living room and toilet were the drawn curtains, which were the latest designs from "Romanoff's". Smirking, I discounted moving something so that Josh and Charlotte would see that I knew their secret, and left the room. I opened the door to the other bedroom that was at the top of the stairs, this room too being utterly bare and undecorated. There wasn't even a mattress. Then again, I thought, any guests they may have could be easily put-up on the latest futons they had littered around downstairs. Downstairs in the rooms where we had been carefully shepherded. I opened the living room door, and noticed that everyone had finished their Brandys, and were milling around the rooms, admiring Josh's taste in furnishings. As Josh proudly announced that he was having a conservatory built, I found Sophie examining the underside of their Colour-Cube, this one blue, in the living room, hidden from my previous vantage-point by the sofa. She turned to me. "1003 B", she said. "What?" "1003 B", she repeated. "Ours is 1059 R. Theirs is newer than ours. We'll have to get another one before we invite them to ours." And so saying, she delicately placed the Colour Cube into its previous position, and, broad smile fixed on her face, went over to talk to Josh about the merits of conservatories in inner-city "living spaces".
"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. "