The annotated Ugly Stories for Beautiful People - BobandJane
BobandJane - A Fable in Two Indistinct Parts
Originally Published in Raw Edge 4, Spring/Summer 1997, ed. Dave Reeves
Well, as promised, here is the first entry of the Ugly Stories notes. Initially, I was unsure of where to start as some of the stories do have quite a lot of back story to them whilst others do not. However, for the sake of convenience, I've decided to, in the best storytelling traditions, start at the beginning.
It's hard to remember exact dates but I think “BobandJane” was written in the late spring/early summer of 1996. I'd returned from Barcelona in the February of 1996 in a pretty bad way. For reasons that should be apparent to anyone who's read the Ugly Stories I'd pretty much had a nervous breakdown in the November/December of 1995. I'd soldiered on for a few months, trying to make the best of a bad situation and ignore what was happening; I'd continued to go to work teaching ESOL to Barcelonese businessmen; I'd tried to lose weight by walking to all my appointments, sometimes walking up to four hours a day; and I'd started writing again, rather than simply developing plot outlines or noting down new ideas (something I had been doing for the previous 12 months because basically, I was too fucked to do anything else).
One of the standout stories of that period was “Fragments of a Schizoid Dream” (more on that later). However, in late February 1996 I returned to the UK and, incapable of looking after myself, I moved back in with my parents. The rest of that year was a strange blur. I really can't remember much of anything that happened at that time. However, strangely, it was a very productive time. With the distant hope of becoming a Lecturer in English literature I had enrolled with the Open University to study for a second degree in English Lit (my first was in Psychology), taking half a degree per year. In that brief 12 month period, I also wrote over half of the Ugly Stories for Beautiful People and, as I was unable to sit still without my thoughts becoming overwhelming, I continued to walk for several hours a day around the local countryside and canals getting into possibly the best shape of my life. Oh yes, and somehow I also managed to work full-time in a local petrol station (the only work I could even consider doing at the time, although this too was important for a number of later stories - again, more on that later).
In some ways “BobandJane” is a classic example of how my mind works when it comes to the process of developing stories. It started with a simple observation that, in my previous relationship, several people had said we were (unfairly, I thought) "joined at the hip." Quite simply, I'd just extrapolated this everyday phrase into the literal; what if a couple was so in love that they literally were joined at the hip? At the same time, however, I also noticed that many of the couples I knew had just disappeared from my social scene; it's that old cliché of people disappearing until they split up again. I also remembered how annoyed I was at receiving Christmas cards addressed, not to me, but to me and my girlfriend. It was as if we had become one person, one blob..... and so “BobandJane” was born.
“BobandJane” was also a strange story in that I usually outline and develop stories in great detail before finally writing them in over a period of a week to a month, usually writing 1000 to 2000 words a day. “BobandJane” was different in that once I had had the initial idea and had thought of a number of key lines and scenes, I wrote it in one sitting and the first draft was essentially the finished draft. I usually spend a long time editing, revising and even sometimes rewriting stories. With “BobandJane” I simply polished it a little and cut out some of the flab; it was virtually 90% finished once I had finished writing the first draft.
“BobandJane” was also the first story I had published. Prior to that I'd had a few haikus published in small press magazines and some embarrassingly Baudelairean prose poems published in tiny literary magazines. However, Raw Edge magazine published “BobandJane” in their fourth issue and it appeared in the spring/summer of 1997. Raw Edge, like many magazines, is no longer with us but it was a great showcase for new writing talent and was subsidised by the British Arts Council. As such, it was distributed to local libraries and had a circulation of over 16,000. It also had great production values with thick paper and glossy covers. In some ways, my writing career came full circle with Raw Edge; “BobandJane” was published near the beginning of its life and a review of Ugly Stories for Beautiful People appeared in its very last issue.
So, “BobandJane” was one of the first stories I wrote (probably the sixth in total, but only the second or third once I had discovered my voice in Barcelona), was the first story I had published, was the first in a series of "body horror" stories (the others being “It”, “The Byronic Man,” “Foetal Attractions” and an unpublished prose poem called "If Janus Had Two Faces, Then Why Can't I?"), and was probably the first story I realised I could use to integrate and interlink a number of the Ugly Stories, something I wanted to do from the beginning. As such, it seemed right that it should be the first story in the collection. Once I had realised this, I knew I wanted a "top and tail" story as I had been a fan of this way of opening and closing collections since I had read Clive Barker's Books of Blood and Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man in the early 90s. (Although bear in mind only around 10% of the collection had been written at this point, although I had a full listing of the stories I wanted to include in it at this point). Thus, the “BobandJane” postscript was written quite soon after the original “BobandJane” story, although I cannot remember exactly when; however, I suspect it was written after “BobandJane” had been published in Raw Edge so it was probably sometime in 1997.
“BobandJane” also gave me my brief first taste of "fame." I remember ringing West Midlands Arts to enquire about jobs in arts promotion and, when I gave my name to the guy on the other end of the phone, he said, "Oh, you're the “BobandJane” guy." Not exactly like being asked for an autograph in the street, but to a virtually unpublished writer such a small scrap of recognition goes a long way.
“BobandJane” is also the only Ugly Story I have ever performed live. The video can be found here. And while the print version of Raw Edge is long gone, the website still has a copy of it here. Hope you enjoy it.
One other strange thing I've noticed about “BobandJane” is that everyone who knows me and is part of a couple (and I mean everyone!) seems to think it is about them. I don't know why; it really was a reflection on my own experiences of being in a relationship at the time and wasn't based on anyone else. In some ways it's flattering that it seems to resonate with people. In other ways it's incredibly sad that people can, or would even want to, identify with them. Now I personally identify more with Kokoschka in the story and in some ways it was a pleasure to liberate Jane and open her eyes in the Post-Script, as Will in “The Dada Relationship Police” was very much based on me at the time. It was undoubtedly satisfying to be the one who handed Jane the Dada Relationship Police card, saying “Your relationship is over!”.
"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. "