Monday 24 March 2014

of dust and no dreams

it is hard to hold to human form
on a night like this
dust blanketing everything, loss of stars
too warm, too thirsty
water cannot soothe a throat
raw with regret, with summer
it is hard to remain prone,
a bipedal thing with skin and
nails and teeth when everything
demands flight

the dust seeps from my eyes
i try to unsee the deserted room
the blankets tangled, cast aside
the sheets scoured by nailed fingers
scratching against the coffin
of warm, still air
on a night such as this
everything wants to dive
through endless blue anything

the blankets snake around my waist
they wrap around my shoulders
an ecosystem of sweat and misery
of thirst and the night undressed
by light, always a distant light
creeping through the window with
the dust that abrades my throat
coats my eyes
when morning arrives
it is hard to tell the difference
it is hard to wake, to walk
and all the while try not to see
the sky

Thursday 20 March 2014


This finally exists. I have a story in it, cunningly called 'Three Witch-Tales'. My first print publication of the year. Buy it here.

Monday 17 March 2014

how I became a writer, for real

There are two stories that kicked off what I like to think of as my writing career. The first is Aranya's Last Voyage, which won a short story collection held by the Deccan Herald in 2009. I had talked myself into giving up writing - do all writers do this from time to time or just the whiney ones like me? - but I'd had this story in the back of my mind for a long time and decided to take a chance and write it for the contest. It was based on a dream that I had had a long time ago - I still remember the house in Jayanagar where I was at the time. My first attempt to turn the dream into a story had been a science fiction story, but this time around I found a register that was better suited to what I wanted to do. Winning the contest made me feel that all my inklings that I could write well and tell an interesting story were maybe not just self-delusion.

Not a lot happened after that. I had a few short stories published in anthologies for younger readers, but I was fast reaching a dead end, as I really wanted to write something a lot more weird than the editors I was dealing with at the time were interested in. The idea of writing a ghost story based on local urban legends and tall tales occurred to me. I have always loved fiction that is tied in with a specific city in the way Peter Ackroyd and Michael Moorcock have written 'London novels' and I believed that Bangalore was one of the great cities - a place that is always changing but somehow still contains all its older selves alongside its new identities.

I put aside my multiple half-baked WIPs and spent a lot of time putting this story together. I poured so much of myself into the story - not just my life but all the things I had picked up from the stories I loved the most. After a few rejections I somehow had the temerity to ask Anna Tambour, a writer whom I respect a great deal and who had been generous with her time in the past, to take a look at the story. Not a lot of people will take the effort to thoroughly critique some random newbie's tale, and Anna's comments were so thorough and insightful that the story wound up being exponentially better. Sadly, more rejections followed and Anna decided to host the story, Come Tomorrow, on her own website. Having something up there in a venue that was not my blog gave me a sense of finally being something like a 'real' writer.

Today, I think I've got a grip of writing. I always have a few ideas for stories, and I am nearly always working on a story. I've developed the stamina and discipline to be productive and I try to broaden my scope, teaching myself to tell more kinds of stories. Everything I have written since Come Tomorrow has broadly been weird fiction or horror, but I'm willing to drop the horror element altogether and try out different ways of writing weird fiction. I intend to write all sorts of things - I'm in this for life, now. I still feel a little shaky from time to time, and I have considered the possibility that my current run of good luck will dry up and that I will cease being published, but I don't feel that will stop me from writing.

Still, we are contingent beings and I don't think I would have made the leap from kind of wanting to be a writer to actually being one without these two stories. I don't know how good they are, and conversely I am not sure I have actually improved as a writer since I wrote them, but at least I am able to read them without cringing, and with some enjoyment. 

Tuesday 11 March 2014

hodgepodge thoughts: True Detective, Season 1

I was surprised that the last episode of True Detective gave Rust and Marty so much closure, and that it brought them so close together. It ran counter to the craggy, pessimistic worldview Rust espouses through the rest of the show, and to which Marty, the philandering family man-wannabe is unable to serve as a convincing foil. It suggests that, all along, Rust was less a hardboiled Schopenhauer than a wounded beast in protective camouflage. Personally, I could have done without those last few minutes in the parking lot. I could have done without Marty's estranged wife and children coming to see him too, but the sweetness of the scene is balanced out by the glimpse of the wedding ring on Maggie's hand, reminding us that she has remarried and that, while they may rally around him at a time like this, Marty has, in a very irrevocable way, lost his family.

Anyway, now that it's all over, a few things that I was less than satisfied by:

The weird, sexual drawings that Marty's daughter is caught with in school as a young girl. It's never really made clear where she was getting the imagery from. It is just a red herring?

Rust's visions. They're shown one episode in and then basically forgotten until the climax of the series. I'm actually glad they didn't become a recurring thing because that sort of element is really hard to handle effectively in small doses, leave alone as a constant presence. Still, seems a bit like something shoe-horned in to add to the Weird Fiction stage-dressing.

And that brings me to something that is an observation, not a complaint: the Weird Fiction stuff was stage-dressing. Carcosa, the Yellow King - none of it really points to anything like what Robert Chambers envisioned. It's just another little bit of supernatural ambiance thrown in, like the references to santeria and voodoo. I'm okay with that. The show would have worked without it, but not quite as well.

Was the show misogynist? It certainly wasn't terribly interested in its female characters except in so far as they acted as foils to the leading men. I'd hesitate to label that as misogyny, although it is a kind of storytelling that is enabled by the way misogynist attitudes prevail in society, and in the crime genre. I'd say that this series wasn't interested in swimming against the tide in this respect; but also that its concerns never lay at that level of social awareness.

Which brings me to my next point: how seriously are we to take all this? I'm inclined to say: not very. There are lots of bravura sequences, snappy dialogue, clever plot twists and just generally a wealth of great filming and great acting in this series. It is a triumph of style, twisting and churning crime show cliches, existential angst and a sprinkling of the occult into a slick, compulsively watchable show that neither insults the intelligence nor elevates it. It isn't stylish crap like, say, American Horror Story. But it doesn't feel like a show which has the slightest relevance to the world outside its own fictional universe, which is fine, but there it is. Compare it to The Wire, which is an engaged and somewhat coherent commentary on society, or The Bridge, which, though not without its own flaws, seems to have something to say about racism and misogyny and violence, at least in its American avatar and I think True Detective emerges as something closer to Sherlock or - much though I came to dislike this show - Dexter. A very stylised television narrative, one that works best viewed as an entertainment staged with great elaboration and detail, and not much more. And, in the case of True Detective, that's probably enough. What would have ruined it all would have been a too-neat resolution - and I think we get some of that in the last few minute - but at least it is balanced out by the fact that Tuttle seems to have emerged from it all with impunity and that Rust and Marty solved the case too late for so very, many victims. Some things have been put to an end by sheer brute force - other, deeper forces still remain.

I just hope none of this is a sequel hook. That was one thing American Horror Show got right. Change everything around the next time - just maintain the style. 

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.