Black Static #77 is out

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The new Black Static is out! Issue #77 contains my column “Notes From the Borderland,” this time focusing on Christmas ghost stories.

There is fiction by Philip Fracassi, Steve Rasnic Tem, Françoise Harvey, David Martin, Shannon K. Gaerity, and Eric Schaller. Cover art is Ben Baldwin; Joachim Luetke also illustrates a story. Other columns are by Ralph Robert Moore, Gary Couzens and David Surface and there are a whole load of book reviews by various reviewers as well.

As ever, if you like dark fiction, you should purchase the issue or subscribe. Black Static continues to be not just as absolute stalwart of the small press but a real haven for the literary dark story that just doesn’t quite fit anywhere else. Long may it last!

British Fantasy Award nomination

I am surprised and pleased to announce that I have been nominated for a British Fantasy Award in the nonfiction category for the column I write for Black Static, “Notes from the Borderland.” This is only the second award nomination for my writing I’ve ever received–in 2016 I was nominated for and won the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story with “The Dying Season“–so as you can imagine, this is very exciting for me!

The full short list is available here, and it’s wonderful to see so many friends nominated in various categories (including my fellow former Black Static columnist Stephen Volk for his collection of columns). I’m so grateful to the members of the British Fantasy Society for the nomination. Thanks, people who nominated me, and congratulations to my fellow nominees!

My weird dark shadow and a new short story

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in an author’s panel on Zoom moderated by Kate Jonez of the publishing company Omnium Gatherum. Unlike many people, I have been slow to warm up to Zoom in These Pandemic Times, but I really enjoyed chatting with my fellow authors Simon Bestwick, Tom Johnstone, and Mark Kirkbride. I am a weird dark shadow because of (redacted for boring) issues getting up and running and didn’t set my lighting properly! The panel was partly to celebrate the release of novellas by Johnstone and Kirkbride, Star Spangled Knuckle Duster and The Plot Against Heaven respectively, but our conversation was wide-ranging. I actually found it a bit difficult to do a panel without an audience–there’s no sense of whether you’re going on too short or too long, whether or not you’re engaging people!

All of us on the panel are Omnium Gatherum alumni in one way or another. A few years ago, Omnium Gatherum published Simon Bestwick’s novella Angels of the Silences (see my blurb at the link!) and a story by me, “The Receiver of Tales,” appeared in the Omnium Gatherum anthology Little Visible Delight in 2013 (later reprinted in my short story collection You’ll Know When You Get There).

Sisterhood Twitter

Speaking of short stories, my story “The Anchoress” will appear in a forthcoming anthology from Chaosium, Sisterhood: Dark Tales and Secret Mysteries. This features an exciting lineup that includes Alison Littlewood, Lisa Morton, Kaaron Warren, S.P. Miskowski, Livia Llewellyn, Nadia Bulkin, Gemma Files, Damien Angelica Walters and many more.

Black Static #76 out now

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Just a quick note to say that Black Static #76, the September/October issue, is out now, and includes my column “Notes From the Borderland.” It’s a bit of an odd one as I wrote it in the late spring for the summer issue but that issue got pushed ahead and it is very much about where the world was at the time it was written. I could have done something different for this issue or revised it, but, well, I rather liked it. However, I shall be back on track seasonally speaking with the next issue!

This one also contains fiction from Rhonda Pressley Veit, Lucie McKnight Hardy (whose much-anticipated-by-me book Water Shall Refuse Them is teetering near the top of my to-read pile) (yes I know it came out a year ago, it’s a big pile), Abi Hynes, Tim Cooke, and Stephen Hargadon along with reviews by Gary Couzens, Ralph Robert Moore’s column, and many book reviews. The fabulous cover art is by Richard Wagner, and illustrations inside the magazine are by Wagner, Ben Baldwin, and Vincent Sammy.

Subscribe to Black Static if you love dark fiction! And if that’s not your thing, check out the science fiction in Interzone or the crime fiction in Crimewave.

Film and horror nerd alert: Miskatonic goes online

Have you ever looked over the lecture offerings at The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies in LA, New York, or London and thought, “Damn, I wish I could go to that!” Conversely, are you going “Wait isn’t Miskatonic a fictional university from the stories of H.P. Lovecraft?” or “What the hell is she on about anyway?”

Well, if you like it when smart people say intellectual things about horror, you might like the lectures that Miskatonic hosts–and while the benefits of COVID have been well, pretty much nil, HERE IS ONE, sort of. I still much prefer things that happen in person, but it’s also cool that the lecture series is going online for the fall semester, and you can sign up for a pass for one city, all cities, or just buy by the lecture (£8 for London lectures and $10 for New York and LA lectures). I’m ridiculously excited that the terrible movie I love beyond all decency, The Dunwich Horror, will be part of a discussion on psychedelic horror, but there are also lectures on Misty and other girls’ British gothic comics, a class on the giallo, one on horror and WWI, the Spanish horror industry against the backdrop of 20th century Spanish politics–in particular the Spanish Civil War–and more. Hurry to get the all cities pass, which is only available for a few days! (Note that this time limit is only for the global pass. You can wait to buy the other tickets although obviously if you want a full pass to a single city’s program, you should buy it before the first class.)

PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION TO TIME AND TIME ZONES. Times listed are local to location, whether London, LA, or NYC.

CROOKED HOUSES featured in RUE MORGUE magazine

I’m delighted to report that the Sept/Oct edition of the magazine Rue Morgue (on newsstands September 1) features an article on the anthology Crooked Houses by Dejan Ognjanovic. It’s a terrific little piece that includes remarks from editor Mark Beech and writer Reggie Oliver as well as writer Steve Duffy and me talking about the origins of our stories. Subscribe or buy a copy and support the existence of the all-too-rare print horror journal! (Or, you can get a digital edition if you prefer.)

Crooked Houses has, alas, sold out quickly! However, the editor has said there may be a reprint if interest is shown. So if you missed picking up your copy and have taken to rending your garments and gnashing your teeth as a result of your tardiness, drop a line to egaeuspress@gmail.com and let them know.

mid-August watching roundup: the 1970s, mostly

I love 1970s American cinema, and lately I’ve been filling in some of the gaps in my viewing. Some things I’ve enjoyed watching so far in August:

The first film I watched this month was the 1978 Paul Schrader-directed and co-written Blue Collar. This movie about three Detroit auto workers who decide to rob their union and get a lot less money and a lot more trouble than they bargained for stars Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor, and Yaphet Kotto (you may be most familiar with him from Aliens) and is really terrific. I love Schrader’s work, and this one ranges in tone from comedic to nihilistic bleakness–although one of the bleakest things about it is how little things have fundamentally changed as far as the film’s central message goes (I think I would argue in fact that power structures have in the decades since even more effectively turned us against one another). Apparently the shoot was a really troubled one, but it doesn’t show in the final film at all. Recommended if you love gritty 70s cinema as much as I do.

My 1970s cinema kick continued with Charley Varrick, a Don Siegel film starring the ever-reliable Joe Don Baker as a stone-cold killer/assassin/private eye named Molly (do not make fun of his name) and Walter Mathau as a cropduster-turned-bank-robber in the type of role that you probably do not think of Walter Mathau as playing. Andrew Robinson of Hellraiser and Dirty Harry fame is here as well and it is absolutely full of twists and turns, plus the revelation that breaking into a woman’s house is absolutely the way into her bed shortly after (twice!) Guys, when we tell you the seventies were a different time, we’re not kidding. Anyway, this was really a lot of fun, much less realistic than Blue Collar (but still in the gritty 70s vein so if your idea of “fun” is, like, The Goonies, probably not for you).

Speaking of women inexplicably hopping into bed with men, I also watched the excellent Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman, based on the book by ex-con-turned-writer Edward Bunker, who also makes an appearance in the film. This time it’s the lovely Theresa Russell who is curiously drawn to Hoffman’s ex-con character (although thinly sketched as she is, I can at least make a stab at why in this case: she’s clearly a nice middle-class girl in a boring dead-end job who’s never brushed up against this kind of thing before and is intrigued by it). Hoffman is just terrific in this ostensible crime thriller that’s really a character piece, as his nature is slowly revealed over the course of the film. You also get to see a lot of a young Gary Busey and the wonderful, irreplaceable Harry Dean Stanton.

Back to Don Siegel: I also rewatched the weird, gothic The Beguiled–the 1973 Clint Eastwood one, not the Sofia Coppola remake, which I have yet to see. I say “rewatch” but I actually have not seen this film since I was a kid and it was shown on TV one night. It made such an impression on me–I was really surprised at how much of it I remembered when half the time I can barely remember the details of movies I saw a few years or even a few months ago. It’s still disturbing and overheated and terrific. One of these days I’ll get around to Coppola’s version.

Over on Shudder, filmmaker Rob Savage proves that it actually is possible to make a decent lockdown movie with Host, filmed entirely on Zoom from the actors’ homes. It’s not really doing anything especially new, deliberately hearkening to other films (both found-footage and not), but I enjoyed it a great deal. Well-acted and with much of its dialogue effectively improvised, it’s at its scariest, I think, when the horrors are more subtle, with some genuinely creepy moments there, but it doesn’t shy away when it goes full on with stunt work, special effects and the whole shebang if that’s your thing. I’m delighted that the lovely James Swanton gets a turn here doing what he does so well, being monster-y. James was in our horror play The Ghost Train Doesn’t Stop Here from several years ago. Aside from all that, it’s a really wonderful little time capsule of these weird days we’re living in now, suffused with the sense of isolation and uncertainty that the pandemic has caused. After–not before–you watch it, you might want to read this really spoilery interview with Savage by Rosie Fletcher over at Den of Geek to see how they pulled it off if you’re as interested as I was to know the logistics. It was all quite ingenious. I actually really want to watch this one again because I’m pretty sure I missed stuff the first time around.

a chat with Timothy J. Jarvis for Swan River Press

As you may know, Dublin’s Swan River Press publishes an unthemed anthology of strange and unsettling fiction known as the Uncertainties series, and I had the pleasure of editing volume 3. The talented Timothy Jarvis was the editor of Uncertainties 4, and after many delays, pandemic-related and otherwise, Tim and I sat down, virtually speaking, and had a chat about the editing process, the book and many other things. We are quite simpatico in many ways in how we approach this type of fiction, and while we’ve been acquainted in real life for several years, I don’t think we’ve ever appeared together on a panel chatting about this sort of thing, which I would absolutely love to do. Till then, here’s my interview with him in which our topics range from David Lynch to Arthur Machen, surrealist cinema to Alberto Manguel to the destabilizing effects of the pandemic and more. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Links to buy:

Uncertainties volume 1, edited by Brian Showers

Uncertainties volume 2, edited by Brian Showers

Uncertainties volume 3, edited by Lynda E. Rucker

Uncertainties volume 4, edited by Timothy J. Jarvis

on all the things you don’t have to do

Wherever humans go, there we are. We talk a lot about how online has changed us, fractured our attention spans, made us more vicious, more judgmental, (more connected? hmmmm), more more more everything, but it’s that “more more more” that’s the key. I do think we are changing but there’s nothing fundamentally new about how we behave as internet dwellers. It’s just more intense, because we have the tools to make it so.

Specifically, what I have been thinking about lately is the extent to which people can insist that you have a conversation with them, often right now, and that this is largely considered an acceptable way to behave. Until very recently, if you wanted to communicate with someone, you basically had three choices: you could call them, you could go them in person, or you could write them a letter. This created its own sort of healthy distance, in which it took some time and effort to contact another person. People still got harassed–“hate mail” was a thing before email existed and some people used to have to get their phone numbers unlisted–but the scope and scale was different.

Now it seems there’s no end to the many ways you can badger somebody: text email and a million zillion social media platforms. We have all had the experience of the unwanted interlocutor trying to insist we converse with them, either publicly or privately, through some strange sense that everyone who wants a conversation about a thing with someone else is in fact owed that conversation. It can happen between two people who know one another well over personal issues–family dysfunction, relationships shattering–same as it ever was. But today a conversation is seen as especially owed it if it is considered to be a topic with which many people are at any given moment consumed, and it is one in which there are exactly two sides: a good one or a bad one, and it is important to sort you into one bin or the other.

Before we had texting emailing and all the platforms, anyone who used the telephone, or in-person contact, or letters in the same way would have been considered, frankly, crazy. A stalker. Imagine someone ringing your doorbell over and over at all hours of the day and night insisting you engage with them on some random point of politics or morality or philosophy, or turning up at your workplace and demanding an audience. Imagine the repeated phone calls or the deluge of letters, four or seven or ten a day all making the same demands or containing similar insults. It would be madness. It would be very clear that the person or people doing this thing were unhinged, had lost all sense of proportion and of the social contract. (This is without even touching on the weirdness of online communication: the 0-to-60 rush to rage; the sneering and dunking instead of actually exchanging ideas; the deliberate misconstruing and worst-possible-faith interpretations; the posturing for likes and retweets.)

Of course, if that was all there was to it, it would usually end fairly quickly, unpleasant though it might be while it was happening: there is always a new target. The thing is, the online environment creates an absolutely bonkers sense of immediacy and urgency, and those on the receiving end, understandably, often panic. If everyone thinks they must have this conversation and have it right now, then surely they must! Why, what will everyone think if they don’t? Everyone will think the worst. And if everyone thinks the worst, well, we know what happens next.

But you don’t have to. You don’t owe anyone anything: a conversation, an opinion, a reply to a question, information about your private life and thoughts and beliefs and experiences and actions. You are not in an episode of The Good Place or the 1990s Albert Brooks/Meryl Streep comedy Defending Your Life; you are not on trial today or any day to determine where you fall on the scale of Good Personhood and whether you will be chucked into heaven or hell as a result. (And anyway, the whole thing is really more akin to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a question of chance: who’s going to be unlucky enough to draw the slip of paper with the black spot on it today?)

The other problem with this dynamic is that it keeps you mired in other people’s worldviews and preoccupations. Should I keep an eye on Twitter, I asked a wise friend. You know, just to keep up . . . Keep up with what? I have no idea. And my wise friend pointed out that doing that means you risk falling into a trap of thinking only in opposition to things, when maybe you want to think about other things entirely: maybe instead you could spend that time thinking about the most efficient approach to planting an organic garden, or what happened to Rome’s Ninth Legion or how you might refinish an old piece of furniture or the films of Maya Deren or what it might have been like to stroll through the ancient Nigerian city of Kano in the 11th century or how to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine without dying of the heat or getting snowed in or even what the real flesh and blood people in your life–the ones who actually love you, not the ones you’re trying to impress–might need from you, or if you don’t like people very much, the animals or the trees or your beloved river or creek or bay.

I should shutter this blog; I should hide my email address; I should never look at another social media platform again. The greater my craving to engage with the tactile world, the greater my longing to build more and more barriers between this online digital world and me.

That Mary Oliver line from her poem “The Summer Day” is practically a cliche because it’s true: Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life? For myself, though, I think it’s the previous line that has more resonance: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

 

in which I think about Anthony Bourdain and Zadie Smith and reach no satisfying conclusions for your edification

When Anthony Bourdain died, I was devastated. He was someone who really had a huge influence on me. I loved traveling and food before I discovered Bourdain in the early 00s, but he put both in a context for me, showed me a way of being in the world, that influences me to this day. Among the many things I loved about him was that mix of cynicism and black humor alongside a genuine openheartedness–let’s fact it, the only way something “life affirming” is ever going to be palatable to me is when it’s wrapped in a layer of darkness and delivered with a sardonic wink, but the work he did was life-affirming, genuinely so, not in a fake or sentimental way.

Pre-Bourdain, I already had very strong feelings about food and hospitality (in a nutshell: you accept what your hosts serve you and eat it with eagerness, whatever the hell it is); he had a worldview that aligned with mine in so many ways, so I was bound to connect with his work. I still hope I never find myself in a situation where I have to eat uncleaned warthog anus to be polite, but you know, I guess if the day ever comes I’ll just grit my teeth and summon the shade of Tony and do my best to get through it while according it, and my hosts, the dignity and respect they deserve. (You know, as I write that, it occurs to me that if you haven’t seen the episode where that happens, it probably sounds terribly exploitative, some kind of awful modern-day mondo, but it really isn’t. He does approach the entire thing with dignity and respect, understanding the honor he’s been accorded even if he did end up on antibiotics a week later.)

But I’ve done a lot of things because of what I learned from him, not least of which is embracing a much wider palate. I learned to love sea urchin! I have, on more than one occasion, asked myself WWBD? He always made the world seem bigger and brighter to me.

I missed his last show, Parts Unknown, in its entirety, having moved out of the U.S. by the time it was airing. Now I’ve just started watching it, and while the first episode, “Sri Lanka,” was a bit underwhelming (he was ill throughout much of it), the second one, set in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, has so much that I love about Bourdain in it.

One of the biggest things that struck me is that it’s funny–funny strange, not funny haha–to think that it was just two years ago that he died, because it feels like he comes from an entirely different era. (And of course, he does. I feel we have crossed some sort of virtual Rubicon at some point in the two years since, although I am not quite sure what it is or when it happened.) His genuineness, his openness, his fullhearted embrace of every experience, his absolute conviction that we are not that different from one another as we imagine and that we can learn about each other best by sitting down and sharing meals together–it all seems like the opposite of the shouting, polarized, vicious world we all seem to inhabit 24/7 now whether we like it or not. How we relate to one another these days feels a lot more like a WWF cage match than an episode of A Cook’s Tour or No Reservations.

This morning I looked at videos of riots from Portland, my former home, now in their second month. And I thought about writing this piece, a piece that seems very far removed from all of that (but it really isn’t; the framing and the underpinning of the Koreatown episode, though it was filmed in 2013, is the LA riots of 1992), a piece the people who like to do that sort of thing might call tone-deaf, and it occurred to me that as I get older, I recognize in myself a willingness to stop and contemplate in a way that I not only was I was less able to do when I was younger, but that infuriated me when I saw it in others. How dare you. Urgency seemed like the only legitimate response. If you didn’t feel urgency, it meant you didn’t care.

I am being a little bit unfair on my younger self, who was still thoughtful and capable of taking a step back–we are never really all one thing, are we?

The style of discourse which largely involves people shouting past one another and which says if you aren’t shouting you must be indifferent isn’t a new one. The aggressive talk radio style of the 1980s–how many people today who think the world is falling to bits in some unique way have forgotten or never knew that in America in 1984, prominent Jewish liberal radio host Alan Berg was assassinated by neo-Nazis–gave way to the rise of warring talking heads on TV, the louder and more outrageous the better, while the Reagan administration eliminated the Fairness Doctrine–easily, I think, one of the most disastrous decisions of the latter half of the 20th century in terms of leading to the increasing and current political polarization in the US, right up there with the Southern Strategy and the Republican embrace of fundamental evangelical Christianity in the early 1980s.

But that’s neither here nor there. My point is that there is power in pauses, in silence, in thinking, in not rising to respond to every little thing, in sitting back and letting the words of others settle on you, really settle, in genuinely good faith, not like some kind of game in which you pluck a contextless handful of the words for the purpose of gleeful evisceration.

There is value, sometimes, in being quiet. In not forming an opinion right away and insisting that everyone needs to hear it. In stepping away and doing the practical work that still needs to be done, whatever else is happening: washing the dishes, preparing food, and continuing to make the little connections with people that remind us that we’re all human and mostly just doing our best to get by.

Bourdain, snarky and critical as he was of his fellow celebrity chefs and anything else that he saw as a sacred cow, was remarkably non-judgmental when it came to his travels, not just when encountering unfamiliar or alarming attitudes or customs but about food. He was game for anything. When his host, artist David Choe, takes him to a Sizzler in the heart of Koreatown–Anthony Bourdain in a Sizzler–he isn’t ironic or knowing; he embraces it as Choe explains, when we were growing up we didn’t go to restaurants, but if there was a really special occasions, this is where we went. Koreans love Sizzler, says Choe. He then goes on to instruct Bourdain on the specifics of making an Italian-Mexican taco from the salad bar: hard taco shell, three meatballs, guacamole, nacho cheese, etc. Bourdain digs it. He’s there, so very present in the moment. It’s the gusto with which he went after life that made his death seem so inexplicable.

Not really inexplicable, though, of course, and this is the other thing we learn, or we should learn, the longer we live: we are all the same and yet we are infinitely unknowable, even to those who know us best. Unspeakable reservoirs of pain run through all of us, along with an astonishing capacity for humanity. When I say we are all human–yes, of course it sounds like a self-evident and simplistic platitude but part of what I mean is that we are all a great mystery even to ourselves, wrapped in a bag of frail human-shaped meat that still needs to eat and drink and cry and craves the love or at least the attention of others. Even sociopaths need these things! What odd big-brained primates we are, simultaneously not as smart as and much smarter than we think we are. I often think we understand all the wrong things about ourselves in all the wrong ways.

I hope you weren’t reading this in search of conclusions. This is not a polemic or even an organized essay. I am not going to circle back round to Bourdain at the end and wrap this up tidily. I want, I need to be messy here. There are jagged edges. These are just my thoughts, on this day. I might change my mind tomorrow.

Maybe I shouldn’t even blog. Maybe writers should eschew public life entirely, living in those ivory towers or remote castles or whatever we once imagined them inhabiting when we were children or even later, before they all got Twitter accounts and sent us photos of their cats and their breakfasts and got into weird and embarrassing spats with other writers. (NB: Two of my favorite things to look at on social media are photos of your cats and your food.) Maybe they–we–should be less profligate with our words.

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I don’t know that I trust anyone any longer who claims with certainty to have the right or moral answer. The novelist Zadie Smith has spoken and written about the need to be able to be wrong, often or even nearly always, and about writing books from a position of fundamental uncertainty. This, I think, is very human as well, being wrong and uncertain–and not wanting to show it. Being wrong is showing our soft underbelly. But if we swathe ourselves in armor before we launch ourselves into the world, well, then, we’re not worth much as writers, aren’t we?