Genre Chat with Stephen Volk

What’s in a Label?

THE-LITTLE-GIFT_coverOn the occasion of the publication of THE LITTLE GIFT, my new novella from PS Publishing, a thought comes to me unbidden, and it’s this:

Sometimes I have absolutely no idea of the genre of what I’ve just written.

It’s true.

It’s not like they come with the labels sewn on: “XL” or “Hand Wash Only”; “PG-13” or the late and much lamented “Certificate X”.

I’m not reluctant to call some of them Horror, and I’m certainly not disapproving of the word, like some people. Personally, I consider it a perfectly respectable, nay noble, appellation. It’s also where I come from, culturally speaking. My home turf, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

But the truth is, sometimes the stories I want to tell have Horror writ large—supernatural, frightening, disturbing—with monsters, often the human kind—and sometimes they don’t.

Increasingly, I must admit, I want to rein in the “H” quotient so it doesn’t splatter you with gore. Maybe it’s just a pinprick on your thumb that you have to suck. Maybe it’s not a painted skeleton dropping in front of your face on a ghost train ride, maybe it’s a line from today’s newspaper, or one of those thoughts you get before you drift asleep, or in that paranoid hinterland before waking.

To scare the pants off you and nothing more interests me less and less, because (here’s a secret not many will divulge . . . ) it’s kind of easy.

So what does interest me?

Not sure.

Never sure, until I start tapping the keyboard.

Science Fiction? Yeah—but never stuff that would turn on fans of Robert Heinlein or Greg Bear.

Fantasy? Once in a blue moon, but they’re as far from Terry Pratchett as even Terry Pratchett (were he alive) could imagine.

One or two might be Humour, I think (others might strenuously disagree): but they’re not exactly Martin Amis, let alone P. G. Wodehouse.

Then there’s Crime. A genre without boundaries, if there ever was one. And then it becomes complicated . . .

The simple fact is, like all writers, my touchstones are manifold—not just H/SF/F authors.

(And that’s, surely, as it should be.)

One person who lit up my imagination with a mega-ton bomb of illumination as to what a short story could do was Raymond Carver, who (some say with the aid of scissor-wielding editor Gordon Lish) honed a pared-down style of poetic naturalism that pretty much held in thrall every aspiring fictioneer who came after him.

Richard Ford and Suri Hustvedt are two contemporary writers who follow in that tradition, demonstrating (to me) that the deep observation of seemingly ordinary lives can reveal contradictions and dark, spiky insights, all the more effective than weary, tried-and-tested Horror tropes because they came from psychological realism and a kind of honest, un-showy reportage.

Ian McEwen’s early stories, too, had a big impact, using as they did disarmingly benign prose to convey shadowy perversions, straight-up grotesquerie and creepy menace without recourse to the safety net of the gothic. As Poe said all along, you don’t have to look further than the human mind, and its endless abnormalities, to find what to be fearful of.

(Yet what was McEwen dabbling in, if not Horror, or at least Crime? The Comfort of Strangers is about a psychopath. Enduring Love, a stalker. Saturday, a home invasion. Literary, schmittery!)

Furthermore, I’ve always had a very soft spot for Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell, unfettered from her Inspector Wexford), whose protagonists are often shambling, unremarkable creatures shoved reluctantly centre stage. Absorbingly, if there’s a crime, you seldom know who’s going to commit it, or why, or when. And that’s riveting.

For the exact same reason I have been engrossed by certain recent television dramas of a similar bent—Bloodlines from Netflix and the excellent BBC drama Apple Tree Yard—both of which have hardly a police officer in sight.

They’re all about broken lives, not neat, Cluedo resolutions. We get a chance (as one actress recently put it in an interview), to “sit with the character’s pathology” and “see them unravel”.

That fascinates me far more than the crossword-puzzle allure of Inspector Morse, (and for that read Endeavour, Lewis, Foyle, and for that matter Rebus and his army of hard-drinking, hard-boiled clones). If I ever use a detective I always think they should be, like James Stewart in Vertigo, part of the mystery, not the solution. My characters should contribute to the mess, not merely the tidying up.

So which of the above notions, you might ask, amidst all this rambling, has directly influenced my rather uncharacteristic, I’m told, novella, THE LITTLE GIFT?

I couldn’t tell you.

Well, I could. But I don’t want to.

For a start, I think a guy who reveals to you the punch line of the joke he is about to relate is the very definition of a pub bore.

Secondly, the bottom line is, I don’t think many writers want their work to be labelled. Most want to simply see it out there amongst readers and have a life, like a paper boat you put in a stream you hope doesn’t run aground or get swallowed by a drain.

The rest in is the lap of the gods.

But if a story takes you, the reader, by surprise, even unsettles you because you were expecting something different? Great. I’ll be happy.

And if you can’t put your finger on what genre it is . . . I’ll be even happier.

Order yours, here, and decide for yourself.

The Little Gift by Stephen Volk

SNEAK PEEK EXTRACT:

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THE NOCTURNAL SCAMPERING invariably signals death. I try to shut it out. The cat might be chasing a scrap of paper or a ball of silver foil across the bare floorboards downstairs, say a discarded chocolate wrapper courtesy of my wife, who likes providing it with impromptu playthings. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily toying with something living, but my stomach tightens.

What time is it?

I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to have to fumble to find my glasses and look at the clock. I want to go back to sleep, but dawn is cracking through the slatted blinds. I want to ignore what destruction and mutilation might be going on below, but now the cat is in the room, hopping onto the bed and I have the awful feeling, eyes still closed, it might drop a mouse, alive or dead, in the valley between us.

It settles, purring, relaxes, and so do I. For once no ghastly surprises.

Its head nuzzles against my outstretched hand. I feel its small pointed incisors against the soft skin below my little finger. This is my early morning call. I sink back to sleep. My wife is up first as she always is, kettle on before the children wake. I dimly perceive her weight leave the bed, but a minute later her cry from the ground floor cranks me off the pillow. I hurry down in boxer shorts and bare feet asking her what’s the matter, but I already know.

The room is full of feathers—never a good sign. There’s no doubt the cat has been to work, had its fun, prolonged the killing process in the way that millions of years of evolution has engineered it.

“Look!”

“What kind of bird is it?”

She sobs, tightening the belt of her dressing gown. “A beautiful one.”

They are always beautiful to her. Whatever our beloved feline brings in from the garden, whatever dire state they are in, however bloodied or punctured or lifeless, she thinks in some way they warrant saving—I swear, like they are Stuart Little or something. For the last few years we’ve been hoarding plastic soup containers, their sole purpose the catching and liberation of garden kill. My wife makes air holes in the lid with a kitchen knife and drips in water and feeds them bits of granola or Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, even if they’re at death’s door. She knows I think it’s ridiculous the way she insists on caring for the doomed creatures like some Mother Teresa of vermin. There again, I’m not always right. Once we had a field mouse with an eye missing, eviscerated down one side. I walked to the other side of town and emptied it into the river and it swam off happily. This time, though, it’s a bird and still alive, lolloping along the skirting board.

My wife grabs our cat, a haughty and self-satisfied Abyssinian, in her embrace and decants it into the utility room, shutting the 17th Century door and throwing the 17th Century bolt. I return to the living room wrapping a glove of kitchen roll round my hand to see the bird isn’t moving now, not even when I lift it up in cupped hands.

“Monster,” I say under my breath.

Order yours, here.

PS Australia

PSI logoWe had already decided at last week’s meeting . . .

. . . that we would do a bit of a hoo hah this week to promote our Aussie cousin, PS Australia . . . and what better way to start than with a healthy extract from a hugely enthusiastic review of Jack Dann’s epic DREAMING IN THE DARK anthology written by Colin Steele at SF Commentary. Take it away, Colin:


71aef99546cc2f579f3bc3f32342593ddbefc358“The good genre news is that Pete and Nicky Crowther, founders and publishers of the British specialist genre imprint PS Publishing, have begun an Australian publishing operation, PS Australia. Well known author and anthologist Jack Dann is PS Australia’s Managing Director.

The first PS book to appear, DREAMING IN THE DARK, edited by Dann, brings together a number of Australia’s leading science fiction, fantasy and horror authors, whom Dann labels under the catch-all term “Australian fabulists”. It’s a nicely produced hardback with cover and artwork designed by Greg Bridges. An illustrated slipcased edition, signed by the contributors, and limited to 200 copies, is also available.

Dann has assembled an impressive set of names: Venero Armanno, Alan Baxter, James Bradley, Paul Brandon, Simon Brown, Adam Browne, Rjurik Davidson, Terry Dowling, Lisa L. Hannett, Richard Harland, Rosaleen Love, Kirstyn McDermott, Sean McMullen, Jason Nahrung, Garth Nix, Angela Slatter, Anna Tambour, Janeen Webb, Kim Westwood, Kim Wilkins and Sean Williams. All the stories come with postscripts from the authors.

 As ever with anthologies, there is a wide range of stories in style and content and DREAMING IN THE DARK is a collection to be much welcomed and a fine beginning for PS Publishing in Australia.”

Hey, way to go, Colin.

DREAMING IN THE DARK [an anthology edited by Jack Dann]

dreaming-in-the-dark-hardcover-edited-by-jack-dann-4112-p[ekm]298x442[ekm]A celebration of Australia’s current Golden Age of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and magical realism. Jack Dann—the multi-award-winning author and co-editor of the classic Dreaming Down-Under, the anthology that “has been credited with putting Australian writing on the international map” and the first Australian book to win a World Fantasy Award—has collected a wonderfully eclectic range of short fiction that showcases what our best fantasists are doing right now at this genre-bending moment in time.


 

16985966fa90bab8316711dc106fe175c630abc6And way to go, too . . .

. . . for PS Oz’s showing in the Aurealis Awards, Australia’s premier speculative Awards—a wonderful recognition of some tremendous work. Here are the PS nominations—11 PS OZ showings in eight categories.

BEST YOUNG ADULT SHORT STORY

“A Right Pretty Mate”, Lisa L Hannett (DREAMING IN THE DARK)

BEST HORROR SHORT STORY

“The Red Forest”, Angela Slatter (WINTER CHILDREN)

BEST HORROR NOVELLA

“Served Cold”, Alan Baxter (DREAMING IN THE DARK)

WAKING IN WINTER, Deborah Biancotti

“Burnt Sugar”, Kirstyn McDermott (DREAMING IN THE DARK)

BEST FANTASY NOVELLA

“Burnt Sugar”, Kirstyn McDermott (DREAMING IN THE DARK)

BEST SCIENCE FICTION SHORT STORY

“Trainspotting in Winesburg”, Jack Dann (CONCENTRATION)

BEST SCIENCE FICTION NOVELLA

WAKING IN WINTER, Deborah Biancotti

BEST COLLECTION

CONCENTRATION, Jack Dann

WINTER CHILDREN, Angela Slatter

BEST ANTHOLOGY

DREAMING IN THE DARK, Jack Dann (ed.)

Good luck to all authors mentioned.


CONCENTRATION [a collection by Jack Dann]

aa3204c5531d54ea41677a44c1765612f3259ad1JACK DANN’S groundbreaking anthologies Wandering Stars and More Wandering Stars used the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism to ask—and try to answer!—what it means to be a Jew. In his new short-story collection Concentration, Dann enlists the techniques of fabulation to illuminate one of the defining events in human history: the Nazi Holocaust.


WAKING IN WINTER [a fantasy novella by Deborah Biancotti]

eb2c6b159c26a35dd6c9018c8faf2c1a6e409217On a far, frozen desert world, Muir the pilot discovers an ancient artefact in the ice. She sees a mermaid at first, but later comes to wonder if it is Ningyo, a fish god from her homeland in Japan. A god that brings misfortune and storm. A god that—by all means possible—should be returned to the sea. The rest of Base Station Un see something else. Bayoumi the lab rat sees Sekhmet the lioness goddess, daughter of the sun god. Partholon the creep finds in its shape a ‘good, old-fashioned cruxifix’. But all of them want to possess it. All of them want it for themselves.


WINTER CHILDREN & OTHER CHILLING TALES [a horror collection by Angela Slatter]

3e83e46ce810df7fe99390e22022824e12136453Winter Children and Other Chilling Tales collects some of Angela Slatter’s finest horror stories to date. From the Lovecraftian laments of “The Song of Sighs” and “Only the Dead and the Moonstruck” to the uncanny notes of “The October Widow” and the stunning new “The Red Forest”, it’s clear that Slatter is, in the words of Stephen Jones, ‘a powerful and eloquent voice in horror fiction.’ Each tale is a darkly crafted gem.


So that was PS OZ 2016. What about 2017/18?

Well Jack Dann has found us another raft of stars for our schedule, here they are:

  • THE BOOK CLUB, a novella by Alan Baxter
  • ODIN’S GIRL, a novella by Kim Wilkins
  • PHANTOM LIMBS, a story collection by Margo Lanagan
  • A DYNASTY OF DRAGONS, a novella by Janeen Webb
  • UNGENTLE FIRE, a story collection by Sean William
  • THE RAYS SLIP AWAY, a novella by Veny Armanno
  • And Terry Dowling’s complete ‘Rynosseros cycle’

And more on the way but we’ve got to keep a few things under the hat.

“Alan Baxter’s THE BOOK CLUB is nearly ready to go to the printers,” Nicky tells me, “and ODIN’S GIRL by Kim Wilkins is being copy edited as I write this.

“Also hitherto unallocated are possible reprints of Terry Dowling’s acclaimed CLOWNS AT MIDNIGHT (PS, 2010), Will Elliott’s THE PILO FAMILY CIRCUS (2008) alongside Jack ‘The Man’ Dann’s PROMISED LAND (subtitled ‘Stories from another America’) from 2007. And yet didn’t we say we’d calm down the line-up a little?”

Heh, who can remember. But thanks Nicky.

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So what are you waiting for? Check out some of these wonderful titles from way down under!

 

TALES FROM THE MISKATONIC LIBRARY edited by Darrell Schweitzer and John Ashmead.

2341dfdf44cb4af5a5100ada4b36d83f830e6a70Darrell has managed to gather another great bunch of story tellers, plus artist Jeff Potter to complete the package. Here’s John to tell you more:

Triskaidekaphiliacs rejoice, triskaidekaphobes despair—there are exactly thirteen stories. Quite by coincidence! (and nothing to do with the fact that thirteen is my personal lucky number). And you get intros by both Darrell & myself. Quite a range of stories: funny, grim, grimly funny, paradoxical, and terrifyingly straightforward. Our ultimate criteria was that both Darrell and I enjoyed reading them—and hope you will as well.

And here is the line up

  • Don Webb. “Slowly Ticking Time Bomb”
  • Adrian Cole. “Third Movement”
  • Dirk Flinthart. “To be In Ulthar”
  • Harry Turtledove. “Interlibrary Loan”
  • P. D. Cacek. “One Small Chance”
  • Will Murray. “A Trillion Young”
  • A. C. Wise. “The Paradox Collection”
  • Marilyn “Mattie” Brahen. “The Way to a Man’s Heart”
  • Douglas Wynne. “The White Door”
  • Alex Shvartsman. “Recall Notice”
  • James Van Pelt. “The Children’s Collection”
  • Darrell Schweitzer. “Not in the Card Catalogue”
  • Robert M. Price. “The Bonfire of the Blasphemies”

43434cfc4437d688eace02a6412482ce9cfc59cc

BEST NEW HORROR #27

best-new-horror-27-trade-paperback-edited-by-stephen-jones-4215-p[ekm]298x476[ekm]

 

In this latest edition of THE WORLD’S LONGEST-RUNNING ANNUAL SHOWCASE OF HORROR AND DARK FANTASY you will find cutting-edge stories by such authors as Robert Aickman, Storm Constantine, Gemma Files, Neil Gaiman, John Langan, Helen Marshall and Steve Rasnic Tem, amongst many others, along with the usual OVERVIEW OF THE YEAR IN HORROR and NECROLOGY of those who have left us.

 

Here’s the line-up:

  • Introduction: Horror in 2015 — The Editor
  • The Coffin House — ROBERT AICKMAN
  • The Lake — DANIEL MILLS
  • The Barnacle Daughter — RICHARD GAVIN
  • Exposure — HELEN MARSHALL
  • The Larder — NICHOLAS ROYLE
  • The Seventh Wave — LYNDA E. RUCKER
  • Underground Economy — JOHN LANGAN
  • The Drowning City — LOREN RHOADS
  • The Chapel of Infernal Devotion — RON WEIGHELL
  • Alma Mater — KATE FARRELL
  • Hibakusha — L. P. LEE
  • The Offing — CONRAD WILLIAMS
  • Marrowvale — KURT FAWVER
  • Hairwork — GEMMA FILES
  • Black Dog — NEIL GAIMAN
  • In the Earth — STORM CONSTANTINE
  • In the Lovecraft Museum — STEVE RASNIC TEM
  • Necrology: 2015 — Stephen Jones & Kim Newman

Order yours now.

Jack Dann’s Psychological Horror, CONCENTRATION.

aa3204c5531d54ea41677a44c1765612f3259ad1Jack Dann’s groundbreaking anthologies WANDERING STARS and MORE WANDERING STARS used the tropes of science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism to ask—and try to answer!—what it means to be a Jew. In this new collection, Jack enlists the techniques of fabulation to illuminate one of the defining events in human history: the Nazi Holocaust. Author and critic Marleen Barr has written that “Dann is a Faulkner and a Márquez for Jews”; and CONCENTRATION is a testament to that claim, for these confronting and thought provoking stories are written from a perspective rarely seen in literature. CONCENTRATION is nothing less than an attempt to describe the indescribable . . . to come to terms with the unthinkable. The Holocaust was so terrible, so far on the edges of comprehension, so surreal, so psychologically cyclonic and horrific in dimension and effect that perhaps it might best be glimpsed through the reflections of metaphor and fantasy.

Dann answers the historian Hayden White’s call to revise our notion of what constitutes realistic representation in order “to take account of experiences that are unique to our century and for which older modes of representation have proven inadequate.”

And given the historical amnesia that seems to characterize our time, a work such as this is also . . . necessary.

And here’s artist Amanda Rainey’s note as to how she came up with the cover idea and design…

My thought process was mostly ruling out a lot of things first. I also didn’t want to risk offending people by using explicit Nazi imagery or anything that might seem like we were making light of the history, or being too glib about it. So I started thinking of a more abstract way of representing the feeling rather than the actual events, and I came up with an infinity symbol made of barbed wire. I think it combines one of the more literal symbols of the concentration camps, and hints at the time travel aspect and the links between past, present and future that Jack’s stories are about.

I then thought that hinting at the Nazi style guide, the solid reds, whites and blacks, but with a softer red, to again hint at the concepts without being too literal with swastikas etc.

The fonts also have historical links. The black letter is obviously suggesting the Nazi style. The other font, Futura, is was part of a set of fonts that were “outlawed” by Hitler, and the designer himself was an anti-Nazi activist. It’s also the font the Americans used for the plaque they left on the moon! So another good symbol of past and future…

Order yours, here.

CENTRAL STATION by Lavie Tidhar

We’ve been blown away by the response from critics, fans, reviewers, blogs, fanzines to CENTRAL STATION, Lavie Tidhar’s latest SF masterpeice. Publishers Weekly and Library Journal both gave it starred reviews, whilst Gardner Dozois, editor of the bestselling Year’s Best Science Fiction series says “If you want to know what SF is going to look like in the next decade, this is it.”

And from Locus; “Central Station combines a cultural sensibility too long invisible in SF with a sensibility which is nothing but classic SF, and the result is a rather elegant suite of tales.”

“Some of Tidhar’s finest writing. Verdict: Come to Central Station and allow yourself to be enveloped in its embrace,” says Sci-Fi Bulletin.

But don’t just take their word for it. See for yourself. Here’s an extract:3d-central-station-slipcase

PROLOGUE

I came first to Central Station on a day in winter. African refugees sat on the green, expressionless. They were waiting, but for what, I didn’t know. Outside a butchery, two Filipino children played at being airplanes: arms spread wide they zoomed and circled, firing from imaginary under-wing machine guns. Behind the butcher’s counter, a Filipino man was hitting a ribcage with his cleaver, separating meat and bones into individual chops. A little farther from it stood the Rosh Ha’ir shawarma stand, twice blown up by suicide bombers in the past but open for business as usual. The smell of lamb fat and cumin wafted across the noisy street and made me hungry.

Traffic lights blinked green, yellow, and red. Across the road a furniture store sprawled out onto the pavement in a profusion of garish sofas and chairs. A small gaggle of junkies sat on the burnt foundations of what had been the old bus-station, chatting. I wore dark shades. The sun was high in the sky and though it was cold it was a Mediterranean winter, bright and at that moment dry.

I walked down the Neve Sha’anan pedestrian street. I found shelter in a small shebeen, a few wooden tables and chairs, a small counter serving Maccabee Beer and little else. A Nigerian man behind the counter regarded me without expression. I asked for a beer. I sat down and brought out my notebook and a pen and stared at the page.

Central Station, Tel Aviv. The present. Or a present. Another attack on Gaza, elections coming up, down south in the Arava desert they were building a massive separation wall to stop the refugees from coming in. The refugees were in Tel Aviv now, centred around the old bus station neighbourhood in the south of the city, some quarter million of them and the economic migrants here on sufferance, the Thai and Filipinos and Chinese. I sipped my beer. It was bad. I stared at the page. Rain fell.

I began to write:

Once, the world was young. The Exodus ships had only begun to leave the solar system then; the world of Heven had not been discovered; Dr. Novum had not yet come back from the stars. People still lived as they had always lived: in sun and rain, in and out of love, under a blue sky and in the Conversation, which is all about us, always.

This was in old Central Station, that vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv. It happened amidst the arches and the cobblestones, a stone-throw from the sea: you could still smell the salt and the tar in the air, and watch, at sunrise, the swoop and turn of solar kites and their winged surfers in the air.

This was a time of curious births, yes: you will read about that. You were no doubt wondering about the children of Central Station. Wondering, too, how a strigoi was allowed to come to Earth. This is the womb from which humanity crawled, tooth by bloody nail, towards the stars.

But it is an ancestral home, too, to the Others, those children of the digitality. In a way, this is as much their story.

There is death in here as well, of course: there always is. The Oracle is here, and Ibrahim, the alte-zachen man, and many others whose names may be familiar to you—

But you know all this already. You must have seen The Rise of Others. It’s all in there, though they made everyone look so handsome.

This all happened long ago, but we still remember; and we whisper to each other the old tales across the aeons, here in our sojourn among the stars.

It begins with a little boy, waiting for an absent father.

One day, the old stories say, a man fell down to Earth from the stars . . .