“unanimity of voices”

You do find some lovely things online while passing through the circles of hell that comprise social media, which is why I’ll probably figure out some way to keep an eye on certain corners of Twitter even after I delete my account. There are a few things I’ve read in the last few days I want to recommend to you but I’ll stick to one a day for now in the interest of keeping these posts somewhat bite-sized.

Anne Louise Avery’s Twitter feed is reason alone to gird your loins and pay a visit to that otherwise horrific platform. She posts gentle, fierce, cozy, moving, deceptively simple but in fact quite profound tweet-sized stories about the daily lives of little forest animals (who also live and thrive in cities): Old Fox, Wolf, Pine Martin, Ermine, Mouse, Grand Cub and many many more who read books, prepare lovely meals and look after each other. They take long train journeys; they open shops in Paris and remember childhoods in central Europe. If it sounds unbearably twee, it is anything but. Avery’s writing is suffused with a sense of longing, melancholy and impending loss, with an unflinching moral core at the center of it all, a resolute stance against the wrongs of the world, and her characters suffer from loneliness, from fear, from sickness, from uncertainty, from an emptiness they are not quite sure how to fill. It only now occurs to me, as I write this, that it is perhaps the only type of storytelling I have encountered that I would compare to Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories, deceptively simple tales that look like sweet, charming vignettes for children while actually being moving and mature meditations on the breadth of the human condition.

Given how much I love Avery’s small stories on Twitter, I was unsurprised to find that her travel/nature writing is just as breathtaking, as in this piece on walking The Cotswald Way in England at the online magazine Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, where she is also an editor. Here are just a couple of sentences to give you a sense of her gorgeous, evocative prose:

Rhythmically climbing and descending, it tumbles down through dark, still beech woods to the valleys and villages below, all cow bellows and bird song and church bells, then up steep field paths edged with willow-herb, meadowsweet and scarlet poppies, to the intoxicating wind, sun and rain of the pagan high hills, where the track winds through Iron Age forts and adder-haunted heaths. Golden, black-spiked gorse, seed pods popping in the sun, rule the uplands: standing guard in these ancient silent places.

Avery’s account is not all bird song and flora: it is marked by the all-encompassing specter of grief, the strange collision of the violence of war with the indifference of nature (this makes me think of Terence Malick’s transcendent The Thin Red Line, a film that has been on my mind a lot lately for some reason) alongside the mundane, devastating loss of a parent, all bound up in the experience of landscape.

There is a fine, long tradition of brilliant English nature writing or English nature writing twinned with travel writing, a deep understanding of and connection with landscape that I just love, and her writing feels rooted in that yet–like the best writing, of course–finding its own way and voice. They need no introduction from me, but Robert Macfarlane and Tom Cox are in this tradition as well–the latter writes some extraordinary pieces on his linked blog, I feel like there is a common thread here between this type of writing, the work of such English fantasists as Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, who are also deeply connected to landscape, and the tradition of English “folk horror.” They all chronicle a land that is ancient, and beautiful, and terrible, and extraordinary. The UK as a whole but England in particular is going through some hard times right now, but England is so much more than the incompetence and perfidy and greed of the petty and the ignorant and the small-minded. These old, magical stones and roads and ways and rivers and hills have survived* worse, and will again.

*in a manner of speaking; I really must write about Rym Kechaca’s extraordinary Dark River here at some point, a book I read last year prior to its publication earlier this year by the excellent press Unsung Stories and haven’t been able to stop thinking about.

“the city will live and the Wall will fall”*

Even though I’ve lived in Berlin for more than a year and spent around 2 1/2 months here on two separate occasions before that, I’m often still struck, as though it’s my first day, by how amazing this city’s 20th century history is and how amazing it is to be living here amidst it all, a place that I grew up reading about: the wars, the Berlin Wall. Berlin is a story in my head, and it’s also a real place, and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to get to know it even a little bit.

(“Do you know Berlin?” I asked a German friend living in the U.K. before I came here the first time. He laughed and said, “Does anyone know Berlin?”)

I think Berlin has integrated the past century of history into the cityscape so thoughtfully and intelligently, preserving it without glorifying it. There’s nothing to mark Hitler’s bunker, although you can go there–I have, it’s a car park. But there’s a street I was walking down one day and I realized there were little plaques set into the sidewalk, and I stopped and looked at them. They were the names and birth dates and death dates of the Jewish people who had lived in the apartments I was walking past. Entire families, extinguished in the death camps. Memorialized not with fanfare, just there. A street, bearing witness along with everyone who walked along it and looked down.

Today I went for a wander in Prenzlauer Berg, the neighborhood next to mine, and wandering brought me to a museum. “Museum in der Kulturbrairei,” the sign outside said, which wasn’t really very descriptive given that I was literally standing in the Kulturbrairei, but it also said admission was free and you know what, I love museums. So I went inside, where a man at the door told me that the museum was free and that I could leave my backpack in one of the lockers. I still didn’t know what the museum was all about, but I went over and struggled with the lockers for about five minutes until a couple came in and watching them I realized OH THERE IS A LITTLE SLOT INSIDE THE DOOR I NEED TO PUT A EURO COIN IN which was a really good thing as I otherwise might still be there, now, trying to get one to lock.

It turned out to be a really good museum! Museum in der Kulturbrairei is a museum about everyday life in the DDR/GDR/East Germany. It’s wonderful because it has loads of interesting items and a lot of video and is quite interactive, but also because it’s just a museum about ordinary people and their lives. I like a grand archeological find like the Staffordshire Hoard as much as the next person (and did I nearly die of excitement at seeing some of it? I DID), but there’s nothing like learning how people lived day to day. There’s something profoundly humanistic about making museum pieces of children’s essays, of the complaint book left for supermarket cashiers, of the longed-for Levis that could be bought in Hungary, if you could afford it and could manage to get a visa.

I wasn’t going to bother taking any photos because the battery on my regular phone needs replacing which means I am using my ancient phone with a broken camera, but I couldn’t resist a few shots–apologies for the dreadful quality.

I was, as ever, particularly interested in some of the displays on youth movements and artists’ resistance, especially efforts to circulate forbidden material. I’m a passionate believer in free expression, including free expression I dislike and disagree with, created by people I dislike and disagree with. I found myself thinking about all the ways that art and expression can be discouraged–it’s not always just about the government knocking down your door–and how often it begins from a well-meaning place, a belief that it is a good and necessary thing, to protect people and a way of life. There were some examples of samizdat literature, which I remember hearing about in the 1980s. I really wanted to be a dissident fighting against a totalitarian government–it sounded exciting and glamorous and meaningful. Vaclav Havel, the playwright-turned-revolutionary-turned-statesman, was kind of a hero of mine in those days, so I was struck by his name on the cover of this one. Too bad it was under glass!

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I saw photos of and read about youth movements, including the “hitchhiker” movement of the 1970s. This was all new to me.

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I loved this little window into the youth movement of the East exploding just as it did in the West.

Of course, as the Cold War raged, over in the West the story was that we were endlessly unfettered and free and They were miserable and oppressed. Neither of these is entirely true, of course, and as East Germans liked to go on holiday with the family as much as anyone, I was also quite taken with this display: the car tent. When you fold it up, it’s the shape of a double mattress on top of the car, a big rectangular box. The tents were easy to pop up. Apparently camping was a very popular pastime in East Germany. How much weight could you put in a car tent, a reporter asked the inventor in the video footage about the tent. A Trabi could take up to 250 kilos, he said, so three people of 70 kilos each, no problem. Unfortunately, the inventor’s company folded after reunification as he couldn’t keep up with demands as well as his competitors.

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(again, sorry for the terrible photo.)

There were some wonderful examples of what I think of as Soviet-style propaganda posters although of course they were East German (and I’m not really a fan of the word “propaganda” because I remember as a kid thinking of propaganda was something their government did and not ours, which is of course nonsense).

There was also this.

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History doesn’t so much repeat itself so much as it does, as someone who was almost certainly not Mark Twain said, rhyme. In other words, the cyclical juggernaut of history is deceptive: because now never looks quite like then, so surely, we are not repeating ourselves; perhaps there are parallels but we are not like them.

We are not just like them, we are them, being human, in our endlessly blundering ways. We keep making the same mistakes and we’re too myopic to realize it. But we also keep being wonderfully, endearingly, human, and a place like the Museum in der Kulturbrairei reminds us. The city of Berlin itself, the fact that it still exists, and thrives, and changes (and does not change, is still that city of artists and intellectuals and decadents and dissidents it was 100 years ago) reminds us, if we’ll just listen.

 

*title is from the memoirs of former Chancellor of West Germany and former Berlin mayor, Willy Brandt

“the only lasting truth is change”*

“When the generation that survived the war is no longer with us, then we will find out whether we have learned from history.”   -Angela Merkel, 20 July, 2018

I don’t really believe in the progressive theory of history–that is, the idea that human civilization is on an upward arc toward enlightenment. I think there are definitely certain eras and cultures that are better for certain types of people than others, and I am constantly grateful to have been born a woman in the West in the latter half of the 20th century; I never had to fight to get basic rights such as education, bodily autonomy, and things like my own line of credit. But in general, I think human history is a story of ebb and flow from tyranny and oppression to freedom and back again, and that ideological extremes of any stripe tend toward the former and not the latter.

With all that said, hey! the world is pretty crazy right now, isn’t it? I often feel like I am surrounded by extreme voices on all sides and very little reason. But in the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time in two European cities wracked by wars and profoundly divided in the 20th century: Barcelona and Berlin. What I find heartening is how much those cities have recovered–which is not to say they don’t bear scars, both physical and psychological. There’s something extraordinarily moving about encountering the physical remnants of those scars in the present day, and the way that people go about their lives around them–because one of our simultaneously best and worst attributes, as humans, is our ability to adapt.

Just a few blocks up the street from me in Berlin is one of the former checkpoints between the former West Berlin (where I live) and the former East Berlin. Today, I zip from my flat in West Berlin to my friends’ flat in East Berlin on the tram in under 15 minutes, or walk there if I have more time and want to stretch my legs. Thirty years ago, that would have been impossible.

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“Mauer” is German for wall.

This is a remnant of the wall that once divided my neighborhood, Wedding, from Prenzlauer Berg.

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Imagine waking up and learning that literally overnight, a “wall” (it wasn’t yet a wall then, of course, in 1961) had been constructed that divided your city in half.

There are panels up about the construction of the wall, and photos from the night it came down, juxtaposed against what’s left of it.

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Now, it’s just an ordinary bridge. Unless you were looking out the window from the tram or car at this particular point, you’d speed right past without knowing it.

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It takes more than a generation or two to recover from a devastating war and a totalitarian government, but cities, places, people heal. New generations are born who are largely untouched by what came before, which is both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a shame we don’t learn a damn thing from history.

 

*title of post is from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

Lake Tegel at sunset

Yesterday I set out on a walk through some woods in the northern part of Berlin. Because I get lost very easily, I got turned around (not in the woods, but on the road) and ended up at my intended destination later than I planned, but it turned out for the best, because I was there in time to catch the sunset.

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Then I met this fox! I love foxes. We met eyes for several seconds, but by the time I came to my sense to try and get a photo, he was on the move again. This is the best of a batch of blurred photos.

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Dublin Ghost Story Festival

This summer, over the weekend of August 19-21, I’ll be at the Dublin Ghost Story Festival in (where else?) Dublin, Ireland, the city of Bram Stoker and J. Sheridan Le Fanu (among others) along with many luminaries: Guest of Honor Adam Nevill, Toastmaster John Connolly, and assorted guests David Mitchell, Angela Slatter, Sarah Pinborough, A.K. Benedict, Paul Kane, Marie O’Regan, and John Reppion. Oh, and also me. Tickets are a mere €30 for what should prove to be a brilliant weekend of spooky fun including a performance of an M.R. James play by the legendary Nunkie Theatre Company.

There’s a limit of 150 attendees with no tickets sold at the door, and the festival is filling up fast! So book now to avoid disappointment. Dublin is a great city and who knows…maybe we’ll even manage to conjure up an apparition or two.

World Fantasy Con report

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts about this event, and while I’m not all the way there yet, this post risks passing into utter irrelevancy if I don’t get it up soon, so here it is.

It’s almost too overwhelming to try to write about the convention, and this won’t be a comprehensive report like some of my friends and colleagues have produced. There’s no way I could reconstruct all the things I did and saw and talked about and to who and if I even began to try and list all the people I chatted with I’d be editing this post till the day I died as I kept remembering folks I’d forgotten to mention. But people sometimes ask me what we do at these things and why I’m so worn out afterward; for a flavor of that, check out some of these posts:

Mark West

Andrew Hook

Cate Gardner

The reason these events are so wonderful is because for a few days, you get to spend every minute with a huge group of amazingly talented, smart, witty, visionary, passionate, extraordinary people and have the best conversations of the year. I got to talk to people about Arthur Machen and M.R. James, about the intense experience of reading Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series as a child, about S.T. Joshi’s critical writings and the house (the real house, that you can visit) at Greene Knowe. I saw weird insect art by Arthur Machen’s great-granddaughter, Tessa Farmer, as part of a terrific art show. I discussed everything from film to football to real-life ghost stories and more with folks. Seeing Susan Cooper interviewed was a real highlight for me (I saw her give a talk about a dozen years ago in Portland as well; she’s the only one of my childhood writing idols I’ve had the chance to see not once but two times). I talked with people who profoundly influenced my writing early on like Ramsey Campbell, Melanie Tem, Lisa Tuttle, and Steve Rasnic Tem; I met people in person for the first time like Rosanne Rabinowitz and Gary Couzens who I’ve known online for well over a dozen years; I finally got to speak to people whose work I’ve admired for years like Nina Allan (who I saw far to little of!) and Conrad Williams and tell them that. I spent too little time with too many lovely folks like Simon Bestwick, Cate Gardner, Allison Littlewood, and loads more of you; I met lots more of you for the first time that I previously only knew from your work and/or social media–I won’t even begin to try to list you all.

In celebration of Arthur Machen’s birthday, there was a track of Machen programming which I loved, and would have loved even more if I hadn’t found myself scheduled against nearly every one of the Machen bits I most wanted to attend. Machen is a writer who is little known outside of genre aficionados, but he’s a strong influence on many of us, myself included–in fact, a panel on current writers influenced by Machen included Adam Nevill, Michael Kelly, Thana Niveau, Tim Lebbon, Paul Finch and Ramsey Campbell while Rosanne Rabinowitz’s novella “Helen’s Story” from PS Publishing tells the story of the woman in “The Great God Pan” from her point of view.

There was also pirate programming that included talks on LARPs and costuming as well as guerilla readings!

I know there are writers and others in the industry who eschew such events, but for me, they are absolutely one of the biggest perks of being a writer. I love meeting readers and other writers and the agents and editors and publishers who are so passionate about the work that we all do; I’m always so sad when they come to an end, but fired up with creativity.

This was a terrific convention, run by the same group of people who did the amazing 2010 World Horror Con in Brighton as well as a couple of British Fantasycons, all in Brighton. Each of these conventions has meant a great deal to me for personal and professional reasons, and I’m sorry there won’t be any more there the foreseeable future. But next year, there is the British Fantasy Convention in York, which I’ll be attending.

World Fantasy is a bit of a madhouse, and this one was bigger than usual: I heard somewhere in the neighborhood of 1400 or 1500 attendees. This meant loads of people there I wanted to talk to, but it also meant it was easy to miss people. It meant that even though I sat on a panel with R.C. Matheson, son of the late Richard Matheson, I somehow neglected to tell him how much I loved his father’s work; it meant too many people I saw or spoke to only in passing and several I didn’t run into at all.

Oh, and I also had a book launch. Steve Rasnic Tem, who wrote the introduction to my collection The Moon Will Look Strange, kicked it off with some words about my writing that were so lovely–and I can barely recall much about the launch now, to be honest except being overwhelmed at how many people turned up and how delightful you all were, old friends and new friends and people I’d never even met who were excited to read the book.

photo by James Bacon
photo by James Bacon
photo by James Bacon
photo by James Bacon

I also did a reading of the first half of the story “Ash-Mouth” from The Moon Will Look Strange and despite the fact that I was opposite James Blaylock reading and other interesting items, a few people even turned up to hear me! (There was also a lady at the start who said “Oh! Are you the one reading? I thought this was James Blaylock! I’m in the wrong room!” and ran out. When I told this story to a few people they were kind of horrified on my behalf, but I was actually telling it because I thought it was really funny. I mean, I’d been joking about turning up and asking people why on earth they were turning up to listen to me read when they could be in James Blaylock’s reading.)

Photo by Gary Couzens
Photo by Gary Couzens

Stephen Jones, below, has been hugely encouraging to me ever since he selected my third published story, “No More A-Roving,” for a Mammoth Best New Horror, and that encouragement has been one of the things that has carried me through the darker times.

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Editor Stephen Jones and me at his 60th birthday party. Photo © Peter Coleborn from here.

The British Fantasy Awards and World Fantasy Awards were also handed out at the end of the weekend, and again, I’m delighted with the winners (okay, save for Cabin in the Woods for screenplay, which I thought was a terrible, terrible film), many friends among them–again, I won’t try to list them all.

More about the con in general:

Megan Kerr of The Writer’s Greenhouse is putting together a series of posts titled “Virtual WFC” based on her notes from the panels and interviews she attended.

Some video and audio is trickling out of various bits of the event. I’ve yet to watch all of the below:

Masters of Edwardian Fantasy with S.T. Joshi, Jonathan Aycliffe, Michael Kelly, Reggie Oliver, Robert Lloyd Parry, Cyril Simsa.

Lost and Found: Really Forgotten Classics Panelists: Robert S. Knowlton (moderator), Farah Mendlesohn, David G. Hartwell, George Locke, and F. Paul Wilson.

Follow the YouTube links above for more on the panels and panelists and lists of books and authors discussed.

Dr.Probert’s House of Horrors: Alison Littlewood reading

Dr.Probert’s House of Horrors: Angela Slatter reading

Dr.Probert’s House of Horrors: Thana Niveau reading

Dr.Probert’s House of Horrors: John Llewellyn Probert reading

Dr.Probert’s House of Horrors: Reggie Oliver reading

Dr.Probert’s House of Horrors: Ramsey Campbell reading

John Llewellyn Probert’s rapidly-becoming-legendary acceptance speech for the Best Novella British Fantasy Award

MP3 from Chris Garcia and Exhibition Hall of the steampunk panel with Tim Powers, K.W. Jeter, and James Blaylock, moderated by James Barclay

It was a lovely, lovely weekend. Huge thanks to the committee who put it together but also to every single person I spoke to or saw on a panel who made it so.