Wednesday 5 March 2014

Here are some books and short stories from which I've learned things about writing in the last two years. In no particular order.

'The Songs Cassilda Shall Sing, Where Flap The Tatters Of The King' by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr: I'm not quite brave (or crazed) enough to emulate Pulver's typographical flourishes. What I learned from this story is about building an atmosphere, about weaving together things and creating a kind of fugue, and about depicting the world of rock n' roll music in a story without coming across as a pretentious hipster or a wanky fanboy. Prose can be music, and the rhythms of this story are pure dark rock, like The Doors at their best crossed with something by Sisters Of Mercy and more than a hint of punk rock. 

'Crandolin' by Anna Tambour: This is a fantastic novel, in both senses of the world. It is constructed from several short, almost self-contained chapters, told from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of settings that somehow, somehow all dovetail together. I learned so much about deep structure and about trusting your own imagination the further it wanders away from the pig-trough of common fantasy concepts. There is nowhere your imagination cannot go, so why let it slum around in the same overcrowded spaces occupied by everyone else's not-fantastic fantasy? 

'Stains' by Robert Aickman: Now that I've read a lot of Aickman, I'm a bit conflicted. How many stories featuring middle-aged, ineffective, melancholy, vaguely posh types do we really need? And I think too much of the weirdness in his stories comes from outside, from the past, and this is true even of 'Stains', but 'Stains' is above complaint. It moves along slowly, building a vivid character portrait and taking the narrator deeper into some very dark, deep waters without the slightest hint of melodrama or straining for effect. It's that seamless transition and the exact right pitch of ambiguity that impressed me the most. 

'Limbo' by Lucius Shepard: Sometimes a book comes your way at the exact right time, and that's how it was with Shepard's collection 'Dagger Key'. It's hard to pick one top story from such an outstanding book but I'll choose 'Limbo' because it offers so many of the qualities that made this collection so great: a protagonist who is a man of action, even violence, someone with layers, not just a one-note Horror Protag; a compelling relationship story which isn't just an excuse for smoochy bits or sex scenes to sweeten the deal; an original and terrifying supernatural vision. Shepard's immersion in his protagonist's inner world is so complete and so brilliantly realised, and that makes everything else matter so much more. 

'Procession Of The Black Sloth' by Laird Barron: Once again, a Western writer reminded me how fertile a setting for a story my own continent is (see also: Lafcadio Hearn). But also, the setting, this apartment building and all its various lives, separated by walls and custom and interpersonal distance but also completely adjacent to one another, the tension between alienation and propinquity, the relationship between your own isolation and the space it creates for things inimical to drift into your ken...Barron showed me how much the spaces we find in ourselves are characters, not just in weird tales, but in our lives. 

'Ten Tributes To Calvino' by Rhys Hughes: Hughes' stories in this collection not only pay homage to one of my own favourite writers, they also sparkle with a lively, widdershins wit (again in both commonly used senses of the word) that makes them clear tributes to Calvino's wisdom and whimsy, but also excellent original views of imaginary worlds that are somehow also very real. Hughes shows how metafictional tricks, puns and mental games can be used to create stories that are not just experiments in form but completely successful and rewarding stories of a different kind. Stop sipping Campbell soup - there are headier draughts to be had!

'Marienbad' by Chiles Samaniego: This is a book that should be read more widely, and by anyone who likes most of the other authors on this list. Samaniego creates a kind of cultural hyperspace riddled with references to literature and film, from the overt to the subtle, but this not just some referential collage. There's a nervy obsessiveness in the way these stories are told, in the content of the stories themselves, that may be the most natural register in which to write fiction that has any valid claim to be about the real world, the world we live in today. I also learned from these stories to wear your heart and your mind on your sleeve, to be unapologetic about writing from the heights of your intellect and the depths of your passions at the same time. 

I could draw up another list, nearly as long, featuring another set of writers altogether. Maybe I will, soon. 

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