Christmas Ghost Stories from the Guardian

Christmas comes but once a year and it seems like a good time to send a shiver down one’s spine. The Guardian and its Sunday sister paper, the Observer, have joined in with the BBC in giving us some ghost stories.

The pieces have a way of making the reader very uneasy in a strange sense, even if they are not overtly horrific. The unease is probably a personal thing, everyone will find something slightly different for each reading.

This morning’s Observer has a short story by Penelope Lively called “Stairs“. Currently in the news not only for her new book, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time, but also Hermione Lee’s acclaimed biography of her, Lively’s story has a domesticity that revolves on something quite empty.

Yesterday they published short stories by Ned Beaumont, Jeanette Winterson and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The one that really got me was Winterson’s story, a more traditional one of an old house and forgotten crime that came back to haunt the present. Beaumont’s story, centring on a piece of art that haunted its creators, was technically very good but it felt cold; as if it is an exercise. I felt the same about his novel, The Teleportation Accident as well. Looking back on it, the Adiche story didn’t really leave much impression on me but that is probably more my taste or experience than her writing.

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Unwriting the Fables

A wolf and Boy Blue on the cover of fables 143The page is blank. The colour and lines have leached away like a printer running out of ink, despite the black frames. Characters wander across it, conversing, whilst aware of the fact. Curiously this is not the end or the beginning but the middle.

The world no longer exists, merged and un-merged. In the beginning the page is full as the writers and artists plotted and created.

Fables 134 is the culmination of the Little Blue Boy arc and the renewal of the Bigby Wolf one. It is a coda that interacts with the Unwritten issue 54, the dark cross over narrative between the universes.

Bigby’s voice narrates the first part of the comics, stating “I’m in Heaven. The forest is vast, endless, and incandescent with life”. Chasing a variety of strange objects, he muses on him regarding the need to be tested and to test himself but cannot face the larger mythical beasts. At the beginning of the Fables run, the Wolf ruled with an iron thumb but has gradually become domesticated and sidelined until Fables: Wolves of the Heartland, where he began to get his mojo and purpose back. Even his moral purpose. Meanwhile, he has been largely absent from the storyline where Dare and his daughter went to the land of the lost and broken toys.

Time for a Reckoning.

Boy Blue comments “I thought I’d find you here” and confirms that he is “very much dead”. Just like Bigby, who was killed in a fight.

The forest, or wood between the worlds if we follow William Morris or CS Lewis’s example, is a place of waiting. We stand in limbo and are made aware of this fact with the conversation moving on between creation and un-creation, life and death, and heaven and hell. It is a rare space of real conversation, where assumptions cannot be applied. Blue’s role is to remind Bigby of what he is as well as where he is. The wolf is able to change the rules as a god and also an agent of change.

Blue’s conversation about the cult of Boy Blue that has started is clearly a comment on the return of the King myth. Rather than seeing the potential return of the king in battle, like Arthur or Charlemagne, who will return in the hour of need, Blue decides that no-one can get, or perhaps even deserves, a problem free life. The refusal of the king is an echo of Arthur’s acknowledgement of Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising as he floats past on the barge. The hope for a saviour, or the resurrection to come, is denied time and belief.

Tommy Taylor blowing a horn in the cover of Unwritten 54This is made more concrete in The Unwritten issue 54, itself the culmination of the coming together of the Fables and Unwritten worlds. Boy Blue appears with the Witching cloak and sword, apparently undefeatable, though only because he is held together by his “master’s will… The ash is only to fill out space between his thoughts” (The Unwritten 54, DC Comics, Vertigo, December 2013). The fake Boy Blue is aware of his nature and is invulnerable to attack until both Tommy Taylor and Bigby appear in the universe. This issue of the Unwritten appears to be the singularity point of both universes: that they are powered by the nature of story. Bill Willingham has perhaps been here with the Literals but this gets to the heart of the current Vertigo universe; that it is about story. Matt Sturges’s run on House of Mystery explored the same world but not in the same depth as Willingham and Mike Carey/Peter Milligan.

Whilst he and Blue talk, he suddenly realises that the world has disappeared around him, apart from the boxes around them. Blue has moved them to a place where he can move on and Bigby will get his second visitor; his son, Dare. Echoing the cat’s comments in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline about the edge of the house being the boundary of the other mother’s imagination or the notion of ghost’s not being trapped in a limited world, Willingham seems to try to use it to go beyond. The whiteness is not a gap but a chance for a rewrite. Perhaps it is a more honest way of rebooting a universe ad imagining its end.

Carey and Milligan do this with the reference to Child Harold blowing his horn. The horn signals the current end of the story with the whiteness and references to the meta-narrative. A voice, whom we assume to be Taylor, comments “I can and will spit out this gospel. This unbearable truth. That we are such things as fables are made of , and live until our tale’s no longer told”. (The Unwritten, issue 54). It echoes Prospero’s speech in the Tempest where he continues musing on the way that artifice of the theatre and this speech muses on the artifice of the universe that Taylor and his crew are in.

Both issues make the reader uncomfortable in that they give themselves agency and awareness. Bigby becomes aware of his roles as father and monster, destroying the dark version of Snow White and his children by admitting his monstrous side on his explosive return to the Unwritten universe and perhaps the Fables one. Tommy Taylor needs to return to his own universe and continue the search for the meta-narrative. This moment appears to have been the realisation of their haeccity, their ‘thisness’. It takes a reckoning on both sides to see this and realise what they are so that they can continue.

The continuation text box in The Unwritten suggests that there is a break in the series whilst Fables 135 will come back to the Camelot storyline. It might be time to return to the Literals crossover story line and reflect on how these talk to each other.

Update: Comic Book Resources has the news about the relaunch of the Unwritten in January.

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Visiting Coffin Hill

Cover image of Coffin Hill #1: A lady with ravens on herI’ve literally just finished the first issue of Caitlin Kittredge‘s Coffin Hill and it is a great debut.

Eve Coffin is the daughter of an wealthy, established old family in New England. She is also the latest in a line of witches. After a catastrophic evening, leaving one friend insane and another missing, she leaves the family home and money and makes her own way in the world. Forced to return after being shot, she has to face the darkness in the forest.

There are elements, such as the punk look, the old family and so on that are hackneyed. Kittredge takes the elements and gives them a very human element. Eve looks like she is going to become an interesting character, torn between the needs of having her own life but also the responsibilities of what and who she is. As a teenager, the world is fissile given the possible choices.

It does, to be fair, have a touch of the Weird with the darkness in the woods but it appears to have the potential for echoing an early Poppy Brite (now Billy Martin) in starting as a pop culture lite but turning into something more substantial.

Inaki Miranda‘s art, last seen by me in the wonderful Lauren Beukes’ Fairest run (issues 8-13), completes the story and really accentuates the writing.

Worth watching out for or getting them as they come out.

She has posted the back story to creating Coffin Hill on her blog.

Update: correction to spelling mistake

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The stranger comes home

What would you do if you could swap identity? How would your past ever catch up with you? Christopher Ransom‘s new novel The Orphan muses on these whilst musing on the root of some horror being teen hubris and actions.

Darren is a successful entrepreneur, seemingly with everything: a happy family and a BMX collection to die for. When a box fresh Cinelli bike appears one evening, he assumes that it is a gift. His daughter starts getting strange texts about an orphan who is coming home. Just as Adam is getting concerned about her boyfriend. Meanwhile a series or ritualistic murders take place, leaving the town in some fear and disarray.

The strange kid, Adam, is coming back as are the stories of his family.

Darren begins reminiscing about his own teen life, the BMXing and Adam, the outsider with the wrong bike. He remembers that Adam had saved for a Cinelli, only for him never to get it. The Faustian pact that he takes is a slightly far fetched one but comes from an unlikely source with teen bravado not thinking about any form of consequence.

Ransom sets up a psychological narrative in which we see the childhood as a time of torment and horror. Clearly not a subscriber to the cult of childhood innocence, he takes and almost Jesuit line about the childhood shaping the person. Rumour and myth become the drivers of the horror, manifesting themselves as real in the reckoning in the school. The loss of identity is keenly felt by the men, particularly Adam, who is determined to retain his own version.

The author develops a sense of unease in the book as he thins his world and our expectations as readers. Drawing from the idea that hastily made choices inevitably have consequences that not every one could realise, he comes back to the notion of the individual responsibility and parental trust. He develops a sense of unease and choice for the true nature of the world, hidden from each actor and variously glimpsed.

The reader is introduced to the driver of the horror, the sister, but we never really find out much about her other than her destructive dive. Her sexuality almost condemns her and we never find out why she is as extreme as she is, disturbingly. The tone of her inner narrative suggests that she is kept in some sort of repressed childhood, an adolescence never quite contended with or accepted and has become unremittingly evil. Oddly I find this slightly more disturbing than her acts.

The Orphan is a solid novel centred on the Faustian pact of choice. Ransom develops the atmosphere whilst the stories come together and the world, temporarily, becomes while before being necessarily fractured in a new way. The world can only be glimpsed before it must change and hide itself away again, in that way horror demands.

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In search of the feather – an interview with Jeff Noon

It is sometimes hard to believe that Jeff Noon‘s Vurt was published twenty years ago. A madcap adventure in the dreamscape, chasing the Vurt feather, it is a book that was very much of its time and place but has grown beyond that now. His second novel, Pollen, brings us back to a similar landscape but Noon takes the reader somewhere else with the world. After several novels and collections, including Automated Alice (1996), Nymphomation (1997), Pixel Juice (1998), Needle in the Groove (2000),  Cobralingus (2001) and Falling Out of Cars (2002),  he was fairly quiet until the publication of Channel SK1N (2012). He publishes micro-spores of story on Twitter and micro-fictions of Sparkletown. He has also written for television, radio and the theatre. Jeff Noon was gracious enough to answer a few questions that I had after re-reading Vurt and Pollen.

Q: What did it feel like coming back to the world of Vurt and Pollen after twenty years?

J: It was strange. I always like to look and move forward, so revisiting old work was an unusual task for me. But I got into it eventually. SF futures always move on and die, and then we create new futures to suit our present day hopes and fears. Vurt and Pollen represent an older idea of the future, if you like, when the dream of a true cyber culture was still alive. Plugging back into that worldview and mindset and writing three new Vurt stories allowed me to re-examine those times, the good and the bad, in the light of what we’ve gained since then, and what we’ve lost. I’ve tried to weave these feelings of loss and hope through the new stories. They are me looking back, in order to look forward once again.

Q: In Vurt and Pollen, you take the idea of remix from dance and also folk music. What got you interested in this approach?

J: I’ve always loved the British folk tradition, ever since John Peel used to play tracks on late-night radio when I was a young teenager in the early 1970s. I can remember writing or trying to write theatre plays influenced by the old ballads. I just loved them as stories, as narrative, as catalogues of weird practices and magic and bloodletting and desperate love and transformation (women into swans, blood into roses). So it was exciting to link that to a contemporary technological storyline, especially in Pollen. The dance music craze in the rave era fed directly into Vurt. But the idea of remixing prose didn’t arrive for a few years later, in my work, around the time of Nymphomation. I’ve been following that pathway in various ways ever since. I just love music, more than any other art form. I’m always listening to new things all the time, exploring new genres. It’s a natural thing for me to feed that love of music into my novels and stories.

Q: In Channel SK1N, you describe the girls who follow Nola as having ‘their names and dreams jotted down on numerous talent show waiting lists’ in opposition to her change from manufactured to manufacturing. I always get the sense in Vurt that the only people who might survive are those who go to the edge. Is this the only way that you see art making a difference?

J: Interesting question. Yes, I think so. I tend to write about people who live on the edges of society or of normal behaviour, and are trying to forge a new understanding, a new life for themselves on the margins. A lot of my stories take place on borderlines, both in the world, in politics, and inside the body, the mind. I see art, especially SF, as an exploration of the possible (and the impossible.) We can’t always do that ourselves, in any safe way, so the novel and the film make that journey for us. We become both more individualistic, and more a part of society as a result. I’m not a “political” artist, in any obvious sense of the word, but I hope I bring some kind of poetic edge to that struggle, that tension between belonging and exploration.

Q: Alice in Wonderland features heavily in your novels, from the wonderland itself to the character of Alice (and the question of who is the dreamer in Vurt echoing Alice’s own question). What is it about Alice that interests you and brings you back to it as an influence, or even taproot text?

J: I see the Alice books as the expression of a very English kind of surrealism, which I hope to key into, and to channel into a science fictional landscape. The way the books trip between dream and reality has always fascinated me. I didn’t plan to have the books influence Vurt; it just happened quite naturally during the writing process. But once Alice arrived, she has been a consistent presence in almost all of my books, usually mentioned by name, or as some kind of effect or magical process. Without a doubt, the Alice books are a source code for so much of my subsequent work. And of course, the wordplay is spectacular, and the ideas still shine after all these years. Remarkable works.

Q: I remember the impression of there being a terrifically energetic scene in Manchester, with the Madchester scene. Was this something that you were plugged into or was it largely on the periphery?

J: I was on the periphery. I’m usually found out there, to be honest; it’s my natural place. Edge of the dance floor, and all that. I hope to speak for other peripheral beings, to tell some stories from the edges. But it was fascinating being in Manchester at the time, even as an outsider. So when I started to write Vurt I was conscious that here was a scene that could very easily thrive in a science fictional atmosphere. I used lots of the stories and characters I had seen and heard about, not in any direct way, but as metaphors, as dream events.

Q: Rather than being the medium is the message, is it now the case of how to become the medium as Nola does?

J: More and more so. I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, necessarily, just that the process exists and seems to be speeding up. But, nevertheless, we remain analog beings in an increasingly digital world; out of that tension a different kind of future might yet emerge. SF is the number one prime medium to chart the transformations.

Q: What influences you in choosing form for your writing, such as the sentences that break down? Is this where the Cobralingus engine came from?

J: Almost all of the experimental work that I do comes from the world of music. I am basically taking musical processes such as the remix, dub, segueing, mash-ups, bootlegs and so on, and attempting to find their prose equivalents. We might call this Dub Fiction, as a short cut. Cobralingus came about when I first saw musical software devices at work, such a Cubase and FL Studio. I was listening to a lot of fairly advanced electronica at the time, and I was fascinated by the way in which the musicians pushed musical material through a series of effects, to mutate and extend and break down the original in various ways. So I created a series of similar gates or filters for myself, but ones that could affect language rather than music. Of course I did all this inside my head, not in a machine. Digital software cannot replicate that process for language. Cobralingus is both a self-contained book, and a first-draft manual for that kind of experimentation.

Q: What influences the genre(s) drawn from in the novels, such as psychedelic, almost Irvine Welsh style, in Vurt or road trip in Falling Out of Cars?

J: I’m trying my best to match story with form, events with mood. Each story has its ultimate form and expression; we hardly ever find that form completely, but the journey towards it is more than half the fun of writing. So, I always ask the question: what is being told here, and how best can it be expressed? How can what is being talked about affect the way it is spoken. And vice versa. So each book has a different language, sometimes drastically as in Needle in the Groove or Channel SK1N, where the subject matter seems to have directly infected the book itself. I love that sense of infection; it’s probably for me the most exciting part of the creative process.

Q: You have been publishing short fiction on Twitter. Does its character limit pose challenges for writing fiction, or a new freedom to explore its potentials?

J: Both. It challenges and offers freedom. I have recently been writing even shorter pieces, some of them as small as one word. The word EXI(s)T, for instance. It’s asking me to leave, and to stay at the same time. I’m into really peering at language under a microscope and seeing how words can be joined together, pulled apart, merged and mutated. I see the work on twitter as a laboratory of language.

Q: Do you have any new work in the pipeline?

J: Yes. A few things. I’m still very interested in writing screenplays, and have just started a script based on my short story “Super-Easy-No-Tag-Special”. I’m also talking about a pilot for a TV series. There are always various things on the go, but not all of them come to fruition. It can get very frustrating at times, but we cross our fingers and persevere. Novel-wise, I am exploring some new pathways. Which of these I will walk down, and what I’ll find there, well then, let us see…

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Where the streets are paved with magic – Paul Cornell interview

I recently read Paul Cornell‘s London Falling (Tor UK, Kindle edition) in one sitting, a rare thing fr me these days. His take on London, which did remind a little of some authors mentioned below, is invigorating. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me about the book before dashing off to Edinburgh for the books strand and the Stripped comic festival.

Paul has written for television (Doctor Who, Primeval amongst others), comics (including Wolverine, Saucer Country, Batman and Robin amongst others) and two previous novels, British Summertime and Something More.

A recent vein about writing about criminals has been an apparent “honourable” criminal fraternity of the Krays and so on. How much of this was in your mind with the gangs and moving away from a new folklore? How much of this is reflecting changes in culture? How much of an influence/distraction are the work of Ben Aaronovitch, or Peter Milligan‘s Greek Street or Si Spencer‘s The Vinyl Underground?

I don’t believe in ‘honourable’ gangsters. Toshack certainly doesn’t fit that bill when it comes to dealing with the outside world, it’s just that his added dimension makes him able to treat a number of people close to him decently. I try and be as up to date as possible with the criminal London portrayed in the Shadow Police books, which my sources allow me to do. I’m a great fan of all three authors you mention, but the only one of those I’ve read is Ben’s. And that was just the first one, to check I wasn’t treading on his toes. I try not to read in the genre I’m in, but I regard the group of London urban fantasy writers as people like Sarah Pinborough, Sophia McDougall, China Miéville, Neil Gaiman, etc.

You have a slightly comical interlude with the representatives of three faiths. How much of this was a comment on the changed Britain and also updating one of the cores of Horror, the focus on Christian based solutions?

It was an attempt to include faith, which these days tends to get excluded, when, in this case, it would be the logical thing to look into. It’s slightly comical because my police heroes now, of course, have a much more concrete idea of matters numinous than the liberal clerics do. I’m a believer myself, so it’s trying to reposition where that lies in the modern world in terms of fantasy.

Yet under this, there is a strong adherence to the “laws” of Horror and magic. How important is it to use these to anchor the reader into genre whilst also updating them?

I rather think of these books as SF novels, in that they’re puzzle-solving stories, where the nature of magic itself is put on a dissection table (or rather an Ops Board). I see genre as a set of rules to play with or break. Rules are a bit different to genre expectations. I was surprised to find that London Falling was regarded as being more horrific than urban fantasy normally is.

A running theme in London Falling is memory and mythical memory. Part of it reminded me of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, especially when Brutus appeared but also the soil. How important is it to build on these myths but also reflect on their changing nature? Given the work of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd in exploring the city’s history and mythology and also the native mythology of the area, how do these constrain or help writing about the city?

Mythago Wood is indeed a very important book for me. I think it’s true. Sinclair and Ackroyd are very much touchstones, very much what these books seek to be about. I’m looking to go forward in developing a fictional world that’s inspired by their work. And by the Situationists. I’m trying to set up absurdities in that tradition too.

You mention the “hidden culture of London” with the characters who become attuned to it getting the Sight. Is this something to do with writing about cities or England?

Well, every city has a hidden culture, but London, like with everything else, just has more of it. We’ll be getting down into the layers of it in the second book, The Severed Streets. ‘Jack the Ripper is back, but this time he’s killing rich white men.’

Are there going to be more novels with these characters or this version of the city?

Absolutely. The new one’s out in December, and I’m looking to write five in all, by the end of which the whole city, in time, space and other dimensions, will hopefully be laid out like a diagram. With characters at an angle to that, obviously.

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An evening with Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman in Oxford

Last night was fun. I went to the Neil Gaiman event in Oxford where he talked to Philip Pullman. It was labelled as an interview but it was more a fireside chat between two people who grok stories in many forms. The evening was hosted at the Oxford Playhouse by Waterstones which was sold out.

It has been a while since I have gone out and been a fan, so I had been excited for most of the afternoon (after the late starting meeting).

The two talked about the Story Museum in Oxford,  English idylls in Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne and the campaign that Milne waged to make the Wind in the Willows better known though the pages of Punch Magazine. Children’s illustrations were also discussed, James Thurber (and the Ronald Searle and Marc Simont), Norman Lindsay and comics, including the Eagle. Both Neil and Philip read from The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neil later read from Fortunately, the Milk . . .. There is something about listening to these two authors chat and slightly take the country route about stories, writing (though declining the chance to give an answer in interpretative dance on grounds of age) that make one look at their work again. Philip Pullman was a gracious host and gently guided Neil’s conversation but glossed it with his own experiences.

I did come away with a few things to think about and consider about stories and Neil Gaiman’s writing. I had bought Classics and Comics earlier that day, a collection of essays on comics and Classical literature, that has two essays that feature the Sandman and the well managed signing queue gave me time to dip into it (as I’ve been meaning to buy for the best part of a year). A fun evening and I am looking forward to the October event for Fortunately the Milk…

Update: Waterstones have put up a podcast of the event and an interview about Fortunately.

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Oliver and the Seawigs – Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve collaboration

Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve‘s Oliver and the Seawigs (Oxford University Press) is a slight book, but perhaps slightly deceptively so.

After his explorer parents go missing, having decided to go down to the islands in the cove near their house, Oliver begins his own excursion. Arriving on an island, he comes across the short sighted mermaid, Iris, and the Wandering Islands and the Night of the Seawigs.

There is a lightness and an excitement to the book that works to both of their talents. McIntyre’s art bounces off Reeve’s prose and vice versa like a barrel of sea monkeys, writhing and appearing in unexpected places.

There is an important lesson that is worked through but with humour, rather than  banging the tin drum about it. An ongoing problem, and currently back in the news, the issue of bullying is handled in a humorous but direct manner. Avoiding cod psychology or tales of how everyone made it all up again, it demonstrates that bullies can often be stood up in different ways. The observations about people and their behaviour are wryly made.

To limit this book to being an “issue book” would be wrong. The other strand, and for me the more interesting one, is the one about creativity. The creation of the seawigs from found items and exploring the world to find objects is the most fun aspect of this book.

Above all this book is an exultant yelp about being excited and curious about the world. The slight contradiction between settling and exploring is worked through and the world moves on. Some books are jewels waiting to be discovered which is what this one was. I was recommended it by some one making a seawig and I’m glad that I took the time to enjoy it.

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A finely served dish – Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet

Food has resurfaced as the obsession du jour from localism to making one’s own. Anthony Bourdain certainly has a part to play in this with Kitchen Confidential and the slew of follow on books about the kitchen and food culture, for and against. Tying this in with the apparent, if seemingly superficial in some cases, rethinking of food culture and the ideas of sourcing foods. Ranging from pieces about remaking meals from scraps, left-overs and tight budgets to finding exotic ingredients, ideas of taste and exploration are more prevalent.

Jonathan Grimwood‘s The Last Banquet is, in part, an exploration of this culture and its obsessions. In part it becomes an exploration of a obsessive who becomes knowing of the logical extreme outcomes of this obsession but follows it anyhow.

Jean-Marie is rescued from being an orphan. He understands the world and his loves through taste and food. Less arrogant than his friends and less interested in temporal power, he leads a fairly backwater life. His servants largely ignore him ans he has his own small kitchen to cook the delicacies. His seemingly idyllic life is broken after his wife’s suicide that he covers up. In spite of his best efforts, the family begins to break up and move on its own way. His daughter, whom he thinks might have seen the death, appears to not forgive him and his son is determined to have an adventure as he gets old enough.

Even though he loves his rural idyll, he is aware of the changes happening. When he visits Versailles, the over powering descriptions are of excretions rather than the beauty or majesty of the palace. This vacuum of description is echoed in the one of power. The king does not show any desire to rule or to be present, merely to reap the benefits. In the cracks of the text, Grimwood shows the revolutionary tendency that is growing and the reasons for it. Jean-Marie, despite his official position as keeper of the menagerie, reads this and makes some changes, but even he knows he cannot stem the tide.

King Louis decides that he needs the island of Corsica for the glory of France, and one assumes as a diversion from the failed harvest. Jean-Marie’s friend, who knows that he cannot be persuaded to go for political reasons, tempts him with the search for brocciu, a cheese delicacy that is reputed to be made with human breast milk. After the disastrous campaign and rescue mission after he is taken hostage – in perhaps more honest circumstances than his travails in the palace – he is sent the delicacy even if one is never truly sure of its truth.

Perhaps this is where the book comes into its own. Largely using the first person and focussing so tightly on one person, we can never be entirely sure if the story or the test is true. Told as a diary, with missing timeframes, we are given the truth of the situation from one person. This is never really challenged. We never hear from the children, his wife or his mistress who becomes his wife. We see that he is apparently trying to help his tenants but again we are never truly sure. The reaction from his court friends, one of shock, reinforces the human aspect of what we already know: the power base is out of touch of the country.

Perhaps we see one aspect of the realisation of how out of touch he is when he fends off the potentially unsuitable partner for his daughter. Correctly reading the suitor as a person, he does not see where he will become more dangerous. Seeing the danger too late, Jean-Marie sacrifices himself but ensures that his family are safe, an apparent blessing for the diary that falls into his son’s hands for us.

If the novel explores Jean-Marie’s obsessive food obsession, chasing the exotic and improbable, yet describing it in perhaps humdrum and familiar terms, he encourages the desires of other’s around him. Like the protagonist of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, the novel that this is most likely to be compared to, Jean-Marie tips into stalker territory. His desire, his drive, is so strong that he loses any semblance of balance though unlike Süskind’s novel, this tipping point is acknowledged and even sought after as the familiar falls apart. He does gaze into the abyss but cannot abide it. The world cannot be put back to the way it was and he knows that the reckoning’s price has to be paid in fashion or another.

Instead of becoming part of history, he becomes part of story instead rather than face what might be seen as the true face of the world. He would instead become larger than himself in the stories told about him after his death.

As one might expect of him from other novels, Jonathan Grimwood has created a cunning meld of literature and horror. Using the food culture or obsession, he carves out a way of exploring fractured worlds and creates another interzone. In this novel, it is in time rather than a shifted fantastic space that provides the grey zone of change.The “high” food culture of finding the exotic is shown to be somehow transient in the face of real need. Jean-Marie’s obsessions provide a counterweight to this, providing a keel in the seas of change but all good things must come to an end, as does this novel.

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Taking her cue – Rosie Garland interviewed about The Palace of Curiosities

The Palace of Curiosities, Rosie Garland‘s debut novel, is a great read (review here). She was kind enough to answer some questions that I had about the book. As well as an author, she is a poet, cabaret artiste and a member of the band, the March Violets. The novel is long listed for the Desmond Elliott prize.

How far does your background in cabaret and Goth help in the exploration of the strange and the ways of expressing identity?

I’ve said this before – but central to my work is my fascination with outsiders; whoever they might be. If you look at my writing – whether poetry or fiction – it often explores themes of difference. I’m interested in characters who won’t (or can’t) squeeze into the one-size-fits-all templates they have been provided, and the friction that occurs when they try. I know that comes from always having felt like an outsider myself.

What, or who, are your influences for this novel?

I was inspired by the life and struggles of Julia Pastrana, a nineteenth century Mexican woman who suffered from hypertrichosis terminalis, where the body is completely covered with thick hair. Discovered by an entrepreneur who billed her as The Ugliest Woman in the World, she toured the USA and Europe. She died three days after giving birth to his child. This proved inconvenient for her widower, who promptly had her stuffed, along with her infant son, so that he could continue to exhibit her.

However, my novel isn’t a re-telling of her story. I wanted to create new characters who would tell their own stories – the result is Eve, the Lion-Faced Girl and Abel, the mysterious Flayed Man, who are the star attractions at Professor Arroner’s Astonishing Palace of Curiosities.

I found it interesting that Abel resists being written when the tattooing fails, as does his memory of his own past. Was this an experiment in how somebody might create themselves in an absence of data or self-knowledge?

A question that has always intrigued me is what it would really be like to live forever. I’ve never felt particularly satisfied with the fictional explorations I’ve read, which veer between polarities of eternal partying and angst. Personally, I think it would be unbearable; one would only manage the weight of innumerable memories by forgetting. Which is how Abel copes.

I got the sense that Eve and Abel are almost elemental, certainly closer to their nature. Both of them just are, and do not appear to take on extra masks in comparison to Josiah Arroner or the visitors to his place who pretend to be civilised. Is this an expression of the carnival, that it allows masks to be dropped or identities demonstrated in other ways?

It’s no mistake that the characters who regard themselves as ‘normal’ (Alfred and Josiah Arroner, for example) are the ones with the most to hide. They are the ones who are engaged in a struggle to conceal dangerous secrets about themselves.

How much research did you need to do to create the London and the tantalising glimpses of Abel’s history?

The question of research is one that could be discussed for hours, and each writer would have a different approach! It’s true that I am fascinated by history, and read a lot of non-fiction for pleasure. However, I am very careful not to fall into the trap of letting research dominate. That way I’d not get any writing done…

Is the use of Eve as a name a way of writing against the notion of Original Sin, in that she moves the world on after the fire and creates a world based on real knowledge and desire?

No, is the simple answer.

But your question demonstrates just how much each reader brings to a novel – and that’s the magic of fiction. People read into a story what they will: whether it’s finding personal significance in a character’s name, or perceiving meaning in a character’s actions that the author did not intend.

I chose Eve because it was my grandmother’s name – simple as that.

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