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 guests 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.
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the North. How long? Last time I was there, the streets of Belfast and Derry were full of British soldiers; in Belfast, you had to pass through police checkpoints just to travel around the city. I’d become friends with another American girl in Dublin and together we spent a few weeks hitchhiking round the Republic and the North. When we got ready to return to Dublin from Belfast, we decided to splurge and take the train. Except that we ended up not getting the train, we had to take the bus, because the IRA had called in a bomb threat on the track.
We never felt in any danger in the North, and in fact it was still quite a safe place for tourists to visit. We met lovely people and sometimes drank with them in pubs and chatted to them about various things — including politics, actually. Still, it was a relief to get back to the Republic where there weren’t soldiers everywhere.
I didn’t know a great deal about the Troubles at that stage beyond a broad outline of the situation. I know far more about all of it now, and I know and have talked to and am friends and acquaintances with Irish people who are all across the spectrum as regards the politics of it all. Ultimately, my position is that I am not Irish and thus, well, I don’t have a position. Only a general one, which applies more or less across the board to all situations: killing innocent civilians is a pretty bad thing to do whether it’s state-sponsored or not. Colonizing other countries is also bad. Undoing colonization can be easier said than done when the effects of said colonization are entrenched in a culture and economy. When people are made to feel powerless and marginalized from a social and economic standpoint, it’s more likely that they will ally themselves with an organization that makes them feel as though they belong to something. People often have the same reasons for joining their country’s military as others do for engaging in guerrilla warfare and terrorist activities, whether it’s the aforementioned marginalization or notions about honor and justice. Most people think they are doing the right thing, whatever it is they are doing; people also do right things for wrong reasons and wrong things for right reasons. A few people are sociopaths who will take advantage of any breakdown in the social order or any institutionalized opportunity for violence to act out their sociopathy. Ireland has a complicated history and if you are not Irish (and by that I mean Irish-Irish not “Irish American”) and you think you understand it you probably don’t.
All this is by way of saying, it was lovely to return to a de-militarized, as it were, North.
This is an excellent used bookstore I visited in Belfast. I could have easily spent hundreds of pounds in this store if I’d had it. All my favorite sections — general fiction, classics, science fiction, fantasy, and travel — were bursting with books I want to read. It’s a small shop, but whoever does the buying is only selecting the best stuff.
I don’t have a photo of the shop next door, Atomic Collectibles, where for just a couple of pounds I scored these two paperbacks:
Now my secret is out: yes, I have a weakness for Dennis Wheatley novels. Yes, it’s a guilty pleasure.
And I never pass up a chance to read a new-to-me John Wyndham novel, and that’s one I’d never heard of before.
Onwards to Derry. The soldiers have left the streets in the North, but the Union Jack still flies to mark Unionist areas while paint on road signs obscures the “London” part of “Londonderry.”
Derry was the site for the awful massacre of innocent civilians by British troops in 1972 known as Bloody Sunday. Conditions for the Catholic residents at the time were appalling, and nationalists had established an area known as “Free Derry.”
Today, murals tell the story of the events in Derry at the time. These are just a few.
The Museum of Free Derry is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about these events, and I’d highly recommend a visit to anyone stopping off in the town.
It would be naive to simply say all that it is in the past now. The dead are far from forgotten.
Tensions remain. Signs and graffiti reference “POWs” and demand their release. You’ll need to click on the photo below to enlarge it and read the graffiti that says “RIP DOLOURS PRICE IRA.”
But Derry, and the North in general, is still a very different place now.
I feel like I should have a moral to wrap all this up at the end here, but the only things I can think of sound simplistic and patronizing. So: Time doesn’t heal all wounds, and people and places don’t always change, but sometimes they do. And it does give one hope.
In 2010, I went to the best con I’ve ever attended, the World Horror Convention in Brighton, England. When I found out that the same team that was responsible for that awesome weekend would be running the British Fantasy Convention at the same hotel in 2012, I immediately put it on my wish list.
Well, the best laid plans, etc. etc., and as the date hurtled ever closer it became increasingly clear to me that for various reasons, I wasn’t going to be able to make it. I sucked it up, as you do; you can’t always get what you want, as the song tells us, and there’d be other cons (but I didn’t want other cons, I wanted this con). I’d spend the weekend writing furiously and resolutely not thinking about all the fun I wasn’t having.
But! At the last minute, some good magic happened–it does that sometimes, you know, when you least expect it–and almost literally before I knew what had happened with my reversal of fortune I was on a train hurtling back down to Brighton.
And a fine, fine, fine weekend it was indeed. It was lovely to see people I’d met two years earlier and not seen since; it was wonderful to make new friends (though I really missed those of you I met in 2010 who couldn’t attend this convention). I did a panel on blurring genre boundaries in place of Emma Newman, who couldn’t attend at the last minute, and there was a reading that wasn’t, and a terrific panel on fairy folk (where I learned it’s wisest to never actually utter that word) and an awesome Joe Lansdale interview and ice cream on a chilly beach and a few spins by moonlight on the Brighton Wheel and interesting rocks collected in a solitary walk along the shore and more kebabs than any human should eat over a four-day period and (permit me my single moment of name-dropping) getting to tell Robin Hardy that The Wicker Man is one of my favorite films of all time and then chatting with him about US presidential politics, and new friends and talking and talking and talking to some of the most wonderful and engaging people and not just about books and writing, either, but about film and football and feminism and music and more. Oh! And I got to hold the British Fantasy Award deservedly won (well, I would say that, wouldn’t it?) by Black Static. My solitary regret is the people I meant to speak to over the weekend and somehow missed, or those of you I managed only to speak to rather than having a substantial conversation. Next time I shall make a list and I won’t rest till I’ve tracked you all down like a demented scavenger hunter. (That sounds much more unsettling than intended, coming from a horror writer, doesn’t it? I only want to chat! And probably tell you how much I loved this one amazing story that you wrote!)
It turned out to be exactly what I needed and then some, a glorious writerly weekend in the very best company. And next year I get to do it all again! World Fantasy Convention in Brighton 2013, run by the same folks yet again (mustn’t they be worn out by now?), in a slightly more upscale venue (but I will forever have a deep love for the Royal Albion in all its faded seaside glory). And I have the bones of a Brighton story taking unsettling shape somewhere in the cellars of my brain. So thanks to lovely Brighton for showing me a good time yet again, to the Royal Albion Hotel, to the 2012 Fantasycon committee, to everyone who turned up and made every minute so much fun, and to the good magic that spirited me there.
Two terrific stories of contemporary women adventurers/explorers:
Dutch teenager Laura Dekker succeeded in sailing solo around the world. I’ve been following her story since 2009, when the Dutch government denied her permission to set out on this journey at 14, citing child welfare issues. Given what lots of kids endure just by virtue of turning up at school, I find it difficult to sympathize with their position on this. But all’s well that ends well, and Laura’s been able to complete her journey at last. Her website is here.
Also: Felicity Aston has become the first women to cross the Antarctica solo, in fifty-nine days. I have a real fascination for tales of Antarctic exploration, although personally I loathe being cold. A few years ago I had a brief period of fantasizing about working down at McMurdo Station after reading Jerri Nielson’s Icebound (sadly, she’s since succumbed to the cancer that first surfaced while she was working there) before coming to my senses. Antarctica’s on my long list of places to visit someday, but I don’t expect to be particularly adventurous or ground-breaking in the attempt.
There are still too few women travellers and adventurers as role models, although if we scratch below history’s surface they certainly exist. (Try eleventh-century Japanese lady-in-waiting Lady Sarashina’s As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams for one of the earliest surviving accounts of a woman traveller.) When I was a child, I used to wish I’d been born a boy, because as far as I could see, boys got to do things and girls didn’t. I hope that is less the case for kids today, but I’m not sure it is; Bella Swan came after Buffy, not before, which makes me think that old gender stratification is in many ways as pernicious as ever.
*From The Boke of Margery Kempe, the account of another medieval woman traveller (and mystic). In Modern English: For she should then make all the world to wonder on her.
A longtime friend of mine was digging through some old boxes and found some postcards and letters I’d sent him long ago (along with postcards from lots of other people, of course). He posted one of the postcards on Facebook and it led to a conversation about the end of postcard-sending and letter writing.
Most of the people who posted on the thread allowed as how they missed those days and that emails, or digital photos uploaded instantly to everyone online–awesome as that is–lack something that a handwritten card or letter from Elsewhere carries with it. Maybe, in part, it’s the sense of the journey that those cards and letters have taken to get to you. And while I have written and received some thoughtfully and carefully composed emails in my day (and some sloppily-constructed letters), there’s something about the handwritten missive in the mailbox, and finding it years later buried under other mementos, that carries a frisson that emails just can’t conjure. Is there something in the tactile nature of the letter or card, the personal nature of someone’s pen pressed to paper? Is is the idea that in writing a letter, we are actually stopping for a time and focusing on just one thing? (I dislike how I find myself doing this less and less, and I’m trying to find my way back from over-multi-tasking.)
I think it’s some combination of all these things and more, something indefinable. But the conversation made me realize how few postcards I’ve sent (or received for that matter) in recent years and how much I miss letter writing, an activity I used to love. So I’ve added a New Year’s resolution (yes, I have them; yes, I do them every year; yes, I find them helpful; no, I’m not sharing them here): this year, I’m going to send postcards and write letters again.
“The Chance Walker,” a story by me published in The Third Alternative back in 2003, is up now at Transmission from Beyond as a podcast. Read by me too!
I still like this story and since it’s never been reprinted anywhere, I’m really pleased it’s available again. The story comes from a couple of places. I taught English for a few months in the Czech Republic in the mid-90s, and while in Prague one day, I picked up a book of paintings by a Czech artist named Jiří Mocek. (In the past, googling him online I’ve found little out there. This time I found some nudes, but those aren’t representative of the book I have; my book is full of work more like this.) There’s so much amazing art and literature from that part of the world that never makes it outside its borders. Years later, I was sitting in my Portland, Oregon apartment, trying to write, and feeling blocked, and I picked up Mocek’s book and started flipping through it. One of his paintings was called “The Chance Walker” in translation, and from that and some of his other weird urban landscapes, parts of this story grew.
The story is set in a town about an hour away from Prague, where D and I lived in one of the grim Communist-era panelaks. A lot of real experiences made it into the story–including the WW II bunkers–and of course, as is always the case with fiction, plenty of it is made up as well.
Prague doesn’t figure into the story, but writing this makes me think of wandering its snowy winter streets. It is — or was then, I don’t know how the continuous influx of tourism and foreign residents has changed it — a fairytale of a city, with strange winding lanes full of odd little shops in the Staré Město, or Old Town. I remember looking down from Prague Castle at a sea of red rooftops and thinking that the whole place felt magical. Part of that magic was that it had been hidden from those of us in the West for so long, and when the revolution came even that felt like something out of a story–a Velvet Revolution, led by playwrights and punks! The buildings there, long-neglected during the Communist era, were all being restored, and the architecture was astonishing. I know I am being too romantic about the place, and Prague in the mid-nineties was already feeling wrung out by a burgeoning expat population, especially Americans. As a student said to me once, “First we were occupied by the Germans, and then the Russians, and now the Americans.”
The country did indeed feel haunted by its past, most especially by ghosts of its turbulent twentieth century. And so I wrote a story about that, and some other things, too.