Re-weirding the world: Lord Dunsany as a Weird author

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is claimed as one of ‘seminal fantasies of the century’ (Dunsany, Lord, by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, Clute, John & Grant, John (eds) (Orbit, London, 1999 revised) p 303) by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasyii. Published in 1924, it is one a series of fantastic novels which are now seen as seminal to modern fantasy, if perhaps some novels have become somewhat more famous, such as JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1936), which comes towards the end of this period. These novels focus on the landscape of Britain in the aftermath of the First World War and find ways of trying to find a renewal in the land. As such, there is an interest in the folkloric as well as the natural landscape and how it affects story. Some of Dunsany’s work draws on folk  as well as literary traditions, and it is these which underpin The King of Elfland’s Daughter which ‘mashes up’, or recombines, the fairy tale tradition with modern traditions as well as the ideas of the folk and literary fairy tale. Despite the literary fairy tale’s genesis as an adult form, it was predominantly a children’s form or used in more outré works such as Rossetti’s The Goblin Market (1862), a cautionary tale of addiction. It stands in opposition to, yet aware of and using, two strands of post-war and 1920s English fiction: ‘Georgian’ poetry and Modernism.

Dunsany’s use of the fairy tale is a decidedly ‘low’, popular, tradition in opposition to TS Eliot’s focus on ‘high’ culture and tradition. Where Eliot’s focus on tradition comes from a literary set of points,  Dunsany draws in part on the fairy tale and fantastic traditions to view the world in a fantastic light, as one that has the potential to be marvellous and mysterious. Dunsany reconstructs the fairy world and its use of time, rethinking some of its traditions in a perhaps ambivalent fashion. As such Dunsany criticises the unchanging world as false and even echoes the First World War in the descriptions of the land and the fear of weaponry.

Simultaneously, Dunsany uses modern traditions with his echoes of ‘Georgian’ poetry through the way that the borders of fairy retreat from modern iron and unbelief. The Georgian poets celebrated the natural world and pursuits such as fox hunting, rendered notably into poetry by John Masefield in Reynard the Fox. Dunsany uses the fairy world to focus the minds of the elders of the town back onto real world via the fantastic, praising the beauty and wonder in the countryside.

The most obvious modern novel that has been influenced by this Dunsany novel is Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, which Darrell Schweitzer has explored in an article with Hope Mirrlees’ Lud in the Mist, though perhaps not in great depth. This article will make mention of some of the parallels with these later books which develop the theme of rejuvenation of both worlds and the changing to explore its lasting influence. There are some parallels with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange (2004) in its use of the landscape as a repository of the fantastic. The King of Elfland’s Daughter is simultaneously ancient and modern, drawing on the changing position of the Georgian poets, an informal school who were active between 1912 and 1922.

In its use, and re-figuring of, mainstream and genre traditions, Dunsany might well be called a Weird text. The New Weird movement, as spearheaded by Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville, drew in part from the fantastic writers of the 1920s and 30s (mainly HP Lovecraft or Clarke Ashton Smith, now considered horror writers) who mixed genres in their own writing. One of the tenets of New Weird is the continued challenging and re-figuring of a genre to its own purpose, mixing genres together, styled recombinant genres by the critic Gary K. Wolfe. In stark contrast to New Weird, this earlier Weird tradition is innately conservative, a preservative peek at the world rather that exploring radical positions as China Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer do. In his essay, “Malebolge; Or the Ordnance of Genre” (“Malebolge; Or the Ordnance of Genre”, Gary K. Wolfe, in Conjunctions 39: New Wave Fabulists (Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, 2002), pp 405-419), Wolfe argues that the New Weird was the latest iteration of the rethinking of the fantastic genres, a periodic obsession in fantastic writing. Whilst thinking about the range of writers who de-constructed the fantastic genres, collected as New Wave Fabulism for that edition of Conjunctions, he argues that they express a trend in “recombinant genre fiction: stories which effectively decompose and reconstitute genre materials and techniques from an eclectic variety of literary traditions, even including the traditions of domestic realism” (Conjunctions, p 415). Though Wolfe is discussing the rethinking of genres from the 1970s onwards, driven by writers of the fantastic who are aware of its history and ways of reviving it, these comments are applicable to Dunsany and the writers of 1920s fantastic.

Whilst a larger examination of this is outside the scope of this essay,  Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter echoes this move in combining genres and rethinking them, though perhaps unintentionally. There is little sense of a dominant model of the fantastic, such as post-Tolkien epic fantasy, as an exploration of the possibilities of stories which happen to be considered fantastic mixed with other narratives. A key element to Dunsany’s novel is the use of the fairy tale and the drawing in of Georgian poetry. There is a difference in audience from the Victorian tradition is the intended audience. Dunsany’s work was not written for children as the fairy tale tradition had become but it recognises its vitality and its links to the pastoral, this returning to an earlier vision of the fairy tale. It also reminds the reader, if not entirely rethinking this, that the tradition had come from a response to the urbanisation of society but Dunsany is equally aware of the post-war rural world which he echoes in the book.

He is by no means the only writer of the period who combines both the fantastic and the rural like David Garnett or John Masefield, or even the fantastic with the modern like Hope Mirrlees. Unlike JRR Tolkien, these authors do not offer a theory of the fantastic but combine necessary elements together to express their own interest in the rural world. One of the prevailing trends in the fantastic following the first World War in the 1920s and 1930s was a tendency to return the land. Rather than see this as an escape from the new modernities and uncertainties of the world, it strikes me as a return to Georgian poetry and its interest in the land as well as a tendency towards the modern, if not quite modernism.

The Georgian poets (1912 to 1922) were active during and after the First World War and included John Masefield, who would later write the Kay Harker books, Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, and Rupert Brooke. Focusing on an upper class ideal of the land and its pursuits, the poetry tends towards the brutal aspects including fox hunting, and a realism to the text in contrast to Victorian sensibilities. With its strong language, vivid imagery and the observation, the Georgian poets “settled for quiet meditation upon treasured places and or unglamorous animals and plants” (The Modern Movement, The Oxford English Literary History Vol 10: 1910-1940, Baldick, c (ed) (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004), p91). John Masefield’s Reynard the Fox (1920) describes a fox hunting up to and including the death of the fox which is described in some detail. It is also a modern poem in its form and language so sits somewhat uneasily in the contemporary poetry but tends towards the new view of the natural world. Rather than seeing the land as something to be cherished, it is seen as a vital place, a living world. Its ordinariness becomes extraordinary. Whilst seemingly tangential to the fantastic, the school influenced David Garnett’s first novel published under his own name, Lady into Fox, and filtered into subsequent responses.

In an early chapter of Patches of Sunlight, a volume of autobiography, Lord Dunsany is ruminating on his rural house, Dunstall, and comments that “the value of [rural settings] for the follower of the arts cannot be overestimated, especially in a time like this when so much of the world is being urbanized”(Patches into Sunlight, Lord Dunsany (William Heinemann, London, 1938), p 14). Despite The King of Elfland’s Daughter being written whilst staying in London, all of his “visions of [the novel] were rural”  (While the Sirens Slept, Lord Dunsany (Jarrold, London, 1944), p60). Dunsany places the rural at the centre of his art as a refusal of the increasingly urban world. Like David Garnett, Dunsany was a keen practitioner of country pursuits, including hunting.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is a conservative novel in its wish to return to an idyllic world, whilst the real one changes around him. Dunsany creates a pastoral world which builds on itself, though always in equipoise: the sense of balance that exists between states but, it could be inferred, on that is inherently unstable. In an essay about the remaking of genres, such as the New Weird debate, in the Conjunctions journal, John Clute suggests various terms which he believes are of use to the modern debate (“Beyond the Pale”, John Clute in in Conjunctions 39: New Wave Fabulists (Bard College, Annandale on Hudson, 2002), pp 420-433). Yet I would suggest that these are equally useful in discussing the fantastic in the 1920s and 30s as the genres did not exist in such tightly bound compartments at the time; they were in continual flux and being remade.

The countryside of The King of Elfland’s Daughter moves between a wasteland and the rural idyll. When Alveric crosses the border into Elfland, the world becomes more intense and vibrant than the one that he leaves. It is one more in tune with its own pastoralness and more set in time and this affects the land close to its borders. When he begins his quest to find Lirazel who has returned home with seasons in “a glory of colour” (The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 63), Alveric goes to the leather worker who made his scabbard and lives near the boundary. The “toadstools leaning over one way”(The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 66), when the boundary was were it had been,  suggesting that fairy can be found by reading the landscape and understanding its own language. As he carries on “the Earth began to grow bare and shingly and dull”(The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 67).  As Lirazel had been blown away by the north west wind with the leaves and Alveric’s quest takes him into fields which are now barren, fairy becomes inextricably linked with the seasons. Simultaneously, both worlds are inextricably linked  with each other.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter develops the fairy tale tradition, reinvigorated in the late Victorian children’s writing, which considered increasing industrialisation as well. The fairy tale operated at two levels for the Victorians. At one level, it was a reminder of the lost country side in the increasing industrialisation, a way of remembering traditions which may have been lost in the transition. This impulse drove collectors such as Andrew Laing to collate his various books of tales. This gave pulse to the way that the landscape was being thought of by post-war writers, such as Dunsany or John Masefield.

Equally it was a way for the children’s authors in particular to direct their reader’s attention. Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald used the form most effectively with their books to meditate and champion the ideals of Christian Socialism. Even with the explorations of socialism in the works of Oscar Wilde, the fairy tale had faded from its prominence, becoming subsumed into the wider world of the fantastic. It had become twee in JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, although there is a darker edge to it that adults might recognise and its rural magic was dispelled by AA Milne in the last lines of the final Winnie the Pooh book which  places the adventures into a timeless stasis or dream state.

If we assume that Jose Monleon’s assumptions of the fantastic as the darker side of the Enlightenment coming to an end with the aftermath of the First World War and trying to find a different history to follow. His contention that the monstrous was made human and therefore there was nothing to reflect against is challenged by the fantastic and the Weird writers of the 1920s and 30s. This has perhaps been reflected by John Clute in his perspective of the period’s writing as running away from the Modern. The pastoral fantastic writers of the periods, reflecting Eliot, find a peculiarly English folk history to follow.

Dunsany in contrast goes back to the fairy tale as a way of discussing the revival of the land, the revival in the Clutean thinned land. Clute posits that there are four ‘seasons’ to the fantastic (‘Fantastika in the World Storm’, John Clute in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction volume 37 Issue 102, Spring 2008, pp6-14) and it would appear that the worlds of the 1920s fantastic writers are already thinned. It is just that the inhabitants do not inherently recognise this to be the case. Lord Dunsany rather begins to bring the two strands together, using the Georgian mode of poetry to explore the notions of a lost land and trying to find a way of exploring the rural idyll that he fantasised about.

In a sense, the created idyll does retreat from modernity. The land is a strange rural past time that is pseudo-Mediaeval. It may be an echo of William Morris’s works but it does echo the Medievalism of writers such as Rudyard Kipling. The feudal political system is conservative and Dunsany uses it it to try and get closer to the perceptions of fairy. Alveric’s journey into fairy, a brighter rural idyll to the real world, almost a pre-Raphaelite version in its brightness, shows how the ideal world shudders from modernity and is also imperfect in its perfection. When Alveric crosses the border and goes into the forest, the trees move away from his sword. The echo of William Morris’s wood between the worlds is a perfection which cannot bear the martial nature of the tool.

Interestingly Dunsany, and to an extent Hope Mirrlees, ignore the Christian underpinnings which were occasionally attached to Victorian fairy tale. In fact, Dunsany almost goes out of his way to remove himself from the theological aspect when Alveric persuades the priest to marry him to Lirazel. The priest comments that he “cannot wed Christom man … with one of the stubborn who dwell beyond salvation”(The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 29). His equating the real world with Christianity and the imaginative one with paganism sets up an intriguing challenge. Instead of directing the reader towards the ideal of fairy as Heaven, it is feared. In the final conflagration, when the fairy King speaks the final rune of power, it is the priest’s house which stands alone in the flood, as the “sound of the bell beat back the rune and the twilight for a little distance around” (Ibid, p 240). Even here, he is not completely alone in his isolation but it becomes an emblem of the wider, wilful ignoring of the world rendered strange by the fantastic imagination. He remains thinned, though comforted and supported by a small community, in contrast to the sealed off, wider flooded world. Dunsany almost revels in the inversion of Noah’s flood with the minister being cut off with his community from the larger flood of the imagination, perhaps even a precursor of the flood in Clive Barker’s Abarat sequence (2001 – ) which needs be navigated to restore the world. It also echoes the earlier short story, ‘The Kith of the Elf-Folk’, in which one of the eldritch creatures who live in the swamp becomes human in the hope of getting a soul. Her experiences amongst the poor in the city lead her to abandon the experience and to return to the wildness of the Marsh. The creature is accepted into the rural community as one of the Marsh but also as an equal. There is no questioning of the alienness of the creature, nor is there any questioning of Lirazel’s fairy nature. It is accepted as part of living in the environs. In the same way as Alveric cannot quite comprehend the strangeness of fairy, they cannot understand the greyness of the mundane world.

So what is the world that Lord Dunsany is praising in his world, if not one of Christianity? Dunsany, as noted above, was a firm believer in the power of the land and country pursuits. Like David Garnett or John Masefield, he tries to revive the pursuits of the land rather than the traditions, in essence a maintenance of the status quo with the focus on the pursuits of the rich than the poor. As such he echoes the ongoing argument up until Tolkien’s The Hobbit which laments the changing land and reflects on Tolkien’s own lost past with rural West Midlands or Masefield’s own Kay Harker books, The Midnight Folk (1927) and The Box of Delights (1935). These authors are driven by an attempt to express a reality about their pursuits, such as the described death in Masefield’s Reynard the Fox, they are trying to present an England which is alive to the fantastic rather than one retreating from it. Although they disregard, in one sense, Modernism in their apparent retreat into the mythical past of England, they do echo part of something that Eliot succeeds in doing in The Wasteland, though in a less literary and more practical vein. For him, the land itself is alive with fantastic possibilities but it requires following and work to see it.

In so doing a train of conversation was started which is periodically revived about the countryside. In contrast to Masefield, Dunsany sees the magical in the landscape than the landscape giving echoes to traditions, such as folk tales or the Arthurian cycle. Dunsany, and Hope Mirrlees try to link the two worlds together through recombining genres. Although there is no evidence that she had read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Mirrlees’s novel, Lud in the Mist (1926), takes this in a slightly different vein (Darrell Schweitzer does maintain that Mirrlees had read the book in his essay, “On the shoulders of giants” (The Neil Gaiman Reader, Darrell Schweitzer (ed)(Wildside Press, , 2007), p 118) in the Neil Gaiman reader but does not provide evidence.). In the novel, the town of Dorimare nestles against fairy but the contact and trade between the two are strictly forbidden. Despite this, the fairy fruit is readily available to be eaten. It does have a side effect in that those who taste it “admitted that the fruit produced an agony of the mind, they maintained that one who had experienced this agony life would cease to be life without it”(Lud in the Mist, Hope Mirrlees (Gollancz, London 2000), p17) ? As with Erl, Dormare’s relationship with fairy is somewhat tenuous until one of their number, Nathan Chanticleer, goes across the border and rebalances the worlds. Rather than being a site of wonder and hope, the imaginative world is made into one of terror that is best expressed in Christina Rossetti’s The Goblin Market (1862). In the poem, Lizzie accepts the goblin fruit and craves for more, eventually fading away. The fantastic is a location of terror as it resides outside of the ‘normal’ world but approaching and engaging with it encourages the world to become less afraid, more vibrant and able to move forwards rather than remain static.

Through their developing the fairy tale structures, both Mirrlees and Dunsany revive a more folk version of the fairy tale and bring it into the Modern world. In Dunsany’s short story, ‘The City on Mallington Moor’, the protagonist decides not to go to the London social season but goes to Mallington Moor. Talking to the shepherd, he hears him tell of a magical city out on the moor, saying that “I am probably the only person that has ever seen the city on Mallington Moor” (‘The City on Mallington Moor’, in Time and the Gods , Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 2000), p 427). The narrator falls asleep on the moor in the city, which disappears over night. The shepherd does not appreciate the city as he is out on the moor regularly but the visitor, it might be inferred, does not get into the country normally except as part of a party. His reward for getting out into the world is to see the miracle but it cannot remain in the mundane world and he awakes in the heather of the moor. It might be a precursor to the argument in The King of Elfland’s Daughter and the nature of the magical in the mundane world, just beyond the fields that we know.

Just before he travels across the border, Alveric takes his father’s sword to Ziroonderel, the witch. In a scene reminiscent of the opening of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with the witch on a blasted heath. She refashions the sword which Dunsany describes as being supernatural and natural: that it was “once beyond our Earth, and was now here amongst our mundane stories” (The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 7). He muses on the difference between the worlds and the two cultures of science and poetry. It is the seeds of the argument of the novel where he tries to bring the worlds together, in the same way that Hope Mirrlees does. It is also a precursor to the falling star in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (1999), whose fall causes Tristan to cross the wall from Wall and renew the Alveric and Nathan’s journey to bring some balance to the worlds. Whilst discussing the nature of Wall and the part of England that it resides in, he mentions that “[h]ad you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them they would have smiled at you disdainfully, ; except , perhaps for Mr Dickens, … and he would have looked at you wistfully” (Stardust, Neil Gaiman, (Titan, London, 1998), p 8). The disdain for the imaginative world by scientists is echoed from Dunsany’s novel with Charles Dickens being the one person who accepts it through the supernatural echoes in his own work.

Ziroonderel is the only person who can reforge the sword since she knows the traditional songs and knows how they affect the sword. As she sings, the blade cools and absorbs them so becomes part of both worlds. Her magic appears to emanate from the land and its forgotten songs in the same way as the magic in Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which is derived from the fictional John Uskglass. In so doing, the books get into the nature of Englishness which Dunsany explores in passing. His concern is slightly more in tune with the nature of rural England but he does approach this in two ways.

In the preface to the novel, Dunsany writes “there is no more to be shown then the place of the fields we know, and ordinary English woods and a common village and valley, a good twenty and twenty-five miles from the border of Elfland” (The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999)). Using such a bold statement, Dunsany sets up the dual worlds which are known about but ignored. The imaginative world is just around the corner, something that is tangible for those people who might want to find it. It operates in a similar way to Wall’s gap in the wall in Stardust. Whilst the world is separate though, it might be seen as part of the real world. It can be seen and visited. Its balance might also be an echo of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the two worlds apprehend and inform each other at a deeper level than expected. In the Elf king’s anger, he roles back Elfland’s borders and immediately the mundane world around Erl becomes grey and barren. In contrast to Victorian or Edwardian fairy tales, the two works are not separate and distinct. This underlines the move away from the analogy of fairy as paradise.

One might see this as a comment on the condition of England. Only Alveric and a gathered troupe of societal outsiders begin the quest to find them again, searching across the land. Instead of waiting for the restoration of the land, the party sets out to restore it in stark contrast to the leaders of his own town who seem to ignore the world around them. Alveric’s self-imposed quest allows him to approach Ziroonderel’s understanding of the land and its magic. In an echo of Kipling’s children’s books, Lord Dunsany is exploring the notion that Britain was not being lead properly. In contrast, the world cannot deal with the full restoration of magic and is removed from the world and into the realm of story.

One of the standards of fairy that Dunsany challenges is the way that time works. Traditionally time is very slow or none existent, running at a different pace to the real world. When Lirazel comes across the world, she is horrified in that her looks will be subjected to time. Alveric accepts that “Time must have his way” (The King of Elfland’s Daughter, Lord Dunsany (Gollancz, London, 1999), p 37), ignoring Lirazel’s horror. The sealed of sense of fairy, the lack of interaction with the mundane world, is despaired of by Dunsany and he implies that it is affected by its lack of contact. There is a sense that this change in time has affected the mundane world of Erl. As Neil Gaiman notes in his introduction to the novel, there is only one date mentioned in the novel. Its near removal from time gives the novel a loose relationship with the present and the flexibility to engage with the supernatural. The change in the sense of time, that removal from the current world, is reused in Stardust where the novel is set in the period when Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is being serialised but other than that, there is no time mentioned. In a very subtle sense, these books cannot exist in a completely mundane world as they are already breaking any senses of being within a recognisable time. This removal of time echoes the idea of the “once upon a time” opening to fairy tales and the sense that the story exists outside of time, but is still accessible through fiction.

There idea of refusal is one which makes the world “storyable”, as John Clute argues that the fantastic does with the mundane world. Rather than seeing the world as something which has potential but it requires a shift sideways to bring this to the fore. In a sense Lord Dunsany does indeed stage a retreat from the increasingly urban world in which he follows the Victorian fairy tale tradition. His use of the fairy tale recombined with Georgian poetry meant that the fantastic was allowed to rediscover the rural landscape. Rather than exploring the Orient for miracles, he turns inwards and sees the magic within the landscape.

In a sense the fantasies echo Eliot’s idea of tradition and how this becomes a conversation. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, TS Eliot opined that the poetry was better when the poet understood the tradition implicitly and was able to bring these to the poem. It is not simply a matter of echoing the influence but then remaking it and remaking the tradition within its perceived shape: “The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered” (“Tradition and the Individual Talent”, accessed online at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Tradition_and_the_Individual_Talent, 4 September 2011). Ultimately he opines that no artist ever creates a truly original piece of art and that it is a part of an ongoing conversation. This conversation is a recurrent theme in science fiction and fantasy criticism and perhaps comes to into its latest public appearance with the New Weird moment. This moment echoes the changing nature of fantasy in the 1920s since, to echo Monleon, the monsters had been made real post war. What Dunsany taps into is the potential from his own conservatism and makes the world a strange place.

In The Wasteland, the poetic tradition is put into the Wasteland and rejuvenates the world. Using the high literary tradition, or canon, Eliot finds a way of reviving the world and suggesting how it could be made new and vital again. Using a lower, demotic tradition, that of the fairy tale, Dunsany is able to use the same strategy to get explore how the world could be remade in the post war malaise. Combining the fairy tale with a mode of poetry which had only just fallen out of favour, Dunsany perhaps creates the last embers of the Georgian fire but also creates the possibilities for other authors to explore the same territory as he did.

Hope Mirrlees continued combining the Modernism and popular fiction together in Lud in the Mist. As Michael Swanwick demonstrates, Mirrlees was involved with the Hogarth group and had published a Modernist poem before writing her seminal fantasy work. Through their efforts, perhaps unwitting, they recombined the Modern with the traditional and found a way of writing novels that do not easily sit in one tradition or another.

What both books do tap into is the potential for the world to become “storyable”. In both the Dunsany and the Mirrlees novels, the world becomes magical and the Last Rune removes Erl from time and history. Yet, as with the antecedent Stardust and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the reuniting the two worlds is not the ultimate act or even purpose of the novels. Instead they are really about the way in which the mundane world is magical and can be apprehended as such. This runs through David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, where the protagonist, once he has recovered from the shock of seeing his wife transmute, goes into the countryside and enjoys the rituals and landscape, seeing it afresh from a different perspective though not one without tragedy. Lord Dunsany does the same through Alveric’s quest for the borders after the king has moved them back. Perhaps drawing from the notion of the worlds borders being so close together, it is Alveric’s slightly moonstruck quest that sees him chasing the borders with the perception that he is mad.

Dunsany draws on and perhaps updates the fairy tale in its echoing and use of the fairy tale. It sits uneasily between updating and echoing the genre before resting in the conservative view. He revives the deeper issue of the genre when he rethinks and returns to the roots with his rethinking of the declining rural world that he loves. Although he invokes the notions of it having its own traditions in Ziroonderel’s singing to reforge the sword, his vision of the language of the land is one in its changing seasons and the way that these affect the country, an issue reflected in the work of David Garnett or Neil Gaiman, by combining the genre with Georgian poetic concerns. His drowning of Erl and its removal from the world though suggests that Dunsany knows the world has changed and cannot be returned. It is captured in the novel, perhaps emphasising the two worlds that are also being combined: the literary and real. In his own mind, it appears that he knows the rural world is ultimately gone but can still survive in books.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter combines genres to argue its case about the potential for the world to be magical and its perils. Its recombining of the fantastic and the domestic traditions renews the fantastic and finds a potential history to follow, though from a privileged view. Its success as a novel depends on this recombination and reviving the folk and literary traditions. It sits in a cusp, returning to its own certainties of pleasure and fulfilment before moving onwards to accept that the world must move on. It is a novel that accepts itself as a work of fantasy without being worried whether it conforms to a set of rules about fantasy, like the later more conscious re-workings of fantasy such as New Wave or New Weird though equally using the unease of change and loss of a countryside as a way of reviving a strand of tradition and creating a new one which celebrates itself as joining strands and creating something new and strange, whilst also being a novel. Echoing the changing literary landscape, in the  case of Modernism, Lord Dunsany’s conservative novel quietly faces the Weird and accepts it, even willing it on.

Bibliography

Baldick, Chris (ed), The Oxford English Literary History (Vol 10): The Modern Movement Oxford University Press:Oxford:2004

Garnett, David Lady into Fox Chatto and Windus:London: 1960

Dunsany, Lord  Patches into Sunlight  William Heinemann: London: 1938

Dunsany, Lord While the Sirens Slept Jarrolds: London: 1944

Dunsany, Lord The King of Elfland’s Daughter London: Gollancz: 2001

Dunsany, Lord Time and the Gods London:Gollancz:2000

Mendlesohn, Farah Rhetorics of Fantasy  Weslyan University Press:Middletown: 2008

Mirlees, Hope Lud in the Mist London:Gollancz:2000

Monleon, Jose  A Specter is Haunting Europe  Princeton University Press: Princeton: 1990

Schweitzer, Darryl (ed) The Neil Gaiman Reader  Wildside Press: 2007

Straub, Peter (ed)  Conjunctions 29: New Wave Fabulists Bard College Press: Anadale on Hudson: 2002

Swanwick, Michael Hope in the Mist Temporary Culture:Upper Montclair, New Jersey :2009

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Christopher Golden talks Cemetery Girl

Jo Fletcher has recently published Cemetery Girl, a graphic novel by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden. I recently reviewed it on the blog and Chrisopher Golden was kind enough to answer some questions about it.

What is the difference in writing novels and graphic novels?

CG: The two mediums are entirely different, actually. In format and discipline, they require different skill sets from the writer. Novels are both more textured (writing-wise) and less structured. There are a thousand ways to go about writing a novel, but the graphic novel requires a certain format and structure–panel descriptions and dialogue, the only movement that which is implied too exist in the space between panels. Of course, the other major difference is that a graphic novel is an entirely collaborative piece of art. Without skill and talent from the entire team &emdash; writer, artist, colorist, letterer &emdash; fine efforts on the part of one or two may turn out utter crap.

How did the character of Calexa come about?

CG: Oh, she’s Charlaine’s baby, no doubt. Charlaine had imagined the character and her basic story arc, being dumped in the cemetery, losing her memory, even some of her true identity and secrets and most of how she survives, before I came into the picture. When she asked me on board I obviously added my two cents, gave it a spin, but my most substantial contribution was to the plots of the individual installments. I’d like to think that I helped to forge who she is, and I think Don Kramer’s artwork also contributes a great deal to the character. But she’s Charlaine’s brain child, and we did nothing that strayed from her vision of Calexa.

How did it change things creating a book with other people?

CG: When you choose the right people, or are chosen by the right people, it’s a pleasure. I’ve collaborated loads of times and it can be tough, but working with Charlaine has been a wonderful process of give and take, exchanging ideas, teasing each other, apologizing for holding things up (usually me), and more than anything just being excited about Calexa. That’s the best thing about collaborating..the shared enthusiasm.

Cemetery Girl explores the problems of identity and accepting or creating it? The book seems torn between trying to remember the one(s) given= to her and making her own one from memories and items around her.

CG: For me, it’s all about a process that each of us goes through our whole lives…balancing the family within which we are born with the one we make of our own choosing. I love my family &emdash; I’m fortunate in that way, because many people don’t–but I also feel so lucky to have built the family of friends that I’ve had in my life. Identity is linked inextricably to those elements–where we come from and where we’re going.

You seem to have a balance between the morality of people who plawith the idea of magic without considering either the morality or the ethics. Is there a balance between a belief in the the afterlife and playing with it?

CG: Personally, I see no reason not to use such elements in fiction. Faith is a part of life for huge swathes of the Earth’s population. A belief in the afterlife is a major foundation of faith for nearly all of those people. Ghost stories–and this is, in some ways, a ghost story–are just looking at the belief in the afterlife through an entertaining prism.

What freedoms or challenges does the ghost form give you and co-artists with Cemetery Girl?

I’m not an artist, so that’s not something I can really answer.

What might we see next from Calexa?

Book two of CEMETERY GIRL, called INHERITANCE, is due out in late 2014 or early 2015. As to the plot … well, I’m not going to tell.

Thanks, Christopher.

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The howl of ghosts – Wolves by Simon Ings

Simon Ings’ Wolves is an unsettling read: playing with form and expectation. It is an almost sociopathic novel that perhaps affirms the motion of life. It echoes the Harrisonian hatred of the ennui of life yet does not quite go as far as imploding to see what will happen. Instead we are caught up in the characters’ own version of imploding with equal disregard for each other or themselves.

Out of the blue, Conrad is contacted by Michel, his childhood friend and invited out to see him. Initially believing that it is just a way of being shown Michel’s new partner, Conrad goes and finds a forward momentum that has eluded him. He leaves his partner and begins working for an augmented reality start up.

In between these gaps, memories of childhood sneak through and begin to work their way out as a noir crime narrative. Conrad found his mother dead in the back of his father’s car in the midst of one of her trips to a nearby protest camp where it sounds like she is also being mistreated. Conrad fixates on the albino whom his father, a maker of prosthetic vision equipment, has helped.

As part of the start up, echoing his father’s footsteps, he comes into contact with the man, Bryon Vaux, again as an investor in the company. Mis-understanding the capacity for cruelty and humiliation, Conrad confronts him and finds that he was wrong and that he is also not as self-destructive. Michel, meanwhile, continues his apparently successful life ignoring the hollowness within and falls into his own madness and visions. Aware that Conrad is the father of his child, a short lived liaison after a party that featured destruction, he gives into his own obsessions as if he is enacting Vathek’s pursuit of selfish hedonistic destruction.

So what are the wolves? The nipping of history on their shared and very separate histories? Conrad, eventually faces himself, his destiny and begins seeing the world. Whilst his companions work on altering the surface of the world, he questions its narrative. It does remind me not only of M John Harrison but also William Gibson’s close questioning of the world. The technology here is superficial but it raises the questions of vision.

Through the novel, vision is impeded and altered. Conrad’s father uses echo location to help give a semblance of vision to blinded personnel and he becomes a sales person for augmented reality company. Selling dreams to be made into a version of reality, the product that he sells overlays a personalised version of the world into contact lenses, looking at ways of fooling the head further. It is a less extreme version of the obsession that Michel falls into: an all consuming love for the Fall in its many forms. Hedonistically falling for his own lie, Michel finally falls headlong into the collapse that comes after a life of pride, an echo of the other light bringer. He never seems to have come to terms with himself or how own mistakes in the same way that Conrad must do.

So perhaps the novel is somehow able to move through its own psychopathology and misdirections and find motion. It does not offer a quick and happy truth. Instead it works to question how we think we view the world and how to question the story it wants to tell us and that we wish to overlay onto it. Some while ago in a review of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the critic Gary Wolfe asked if such a beast as realistic Sf exists. He argued that it did with that particular novel and Wolves certainly joins and proves that this beast does exist. There is no future gazing or extrapolation yet asks fierce questions about versions of the world, and demands answers.

Wolves is a book that plays with our expectations of genre and merrily destroys them in a thoroughly pissed off manner. Like a judgement on the genre, he finds it lacking the critical gaze that it needs and looks at different ways of telling his story. Abstract, horrific, and passionate, this is not a novel to be missed.

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Raising the living – Cemetery Girl: The Pretenders

The Cemetery Girl: The Pretenders (Jo Fletcher Books) is a collaboration between Christopher Golden and Charlaine Harris, with illustrations by Don Kramer. A mix of crime and the supernatural, this is the first volume in a new series. Whilst it does appear to plough a furrowed field, there are some nice touches to the book with its characterisation and cast list.

After being thrown unceremoniously thrown into a cemetery, a woman must begin to build her identity from the little she knows. Deciding to play dead, she begins to fashion an identity for herself through borrowing items, from coats to names. Calling herself Calexa, she fashions a makeshift place to stay in a mausoleum and forays into the non cemetery world. Her ‘accident’ has left her with the ability to commune with the dead, giving her a foot on both worlds. A Charon of justice.

Removing someone’s name and memory is a fairly regular concept. However Golden and Harris seems to use it as a way of introducing Calexa, taken from a grave, to the reader and to play with our conceptions of the character whilst also seeing what she can get away with rather than to destroy her. Using the elderly and the caretakers, the authors move her from being morally dubious to part of a community where the needs are bartered to some extent. She, and her growing community, are social ghosts, seen but forgotten to society, seemingly held to a place by a sense of unknown purpose.

In contrast the teenagers’ clique who do not seem to understand themselves, perhaps the jocks of this world, seem unable to grasp their own moral or ethical roots. Using magic as an outlet to their social madness, their lives seem driven by media representations of the world rather than an actual understanding of their actions or that there are consequences to them. What does appear is the need for trust for the community to work, rather than using the desperate for an unknown goal. The authors briefly muse on the empty ritual actions with the apparent absence of faith in an afterlife, as if the cosmos is one large façade.

Calexa appears to begin building trust in herself and the new found society. From this she begins on her own journey to renewal and rebirth. I am sure that more clues will appear in future books but for now Lucinda will need to keep scanning the papers. Harris and Golden leave the reader curious, with some fragments to go on, and a way forward with the right visual tone set up by the artists.

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Reaching for the Void – The Abominable by Dan Simmons

In the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, abominable is defined as:

Exciting disgust, offensive; odious

Its derivation could be seen as ‘a human, signifying “inhuman”’, from the Latin ab plus human. It seems appropriate for a book that approaches the notion of Weird from a very human angle.

Dan Simmons’ The Abominable explores how the search for the uncanny, the push towards the extreme, might make us either human or monsters. This novel moves from between being metaphysical to entirely physical wrapped in unreliable frame story, presented in another unreliable frame story. Using a reported diary from one of the participants, the novel becomes limited to the report of one participant of the climb. It might position this book in the same way that Henry James does with the unreliability of the narrator in the Turn of the Screw: using the technique to put the book in the cusp of traditions whilst also making the reader uncertain of anything being true.

It moves from a nineteenth century style of terror, one that uses landscape as an integral technique; is in awe of the sense of place, to a twentieth century terror that is more afraid of the human. The influence of Romanticism, the heightened emotions created by the landscape around the actors, gives way to the heightened emotions caused by the human. Using the early twentieth century Western exploration of Everest as the backdrop, Simmons moves from physical extremes to geographical ones. Everest was the final conquests and there were questions whether it had been climbed by Mallory. Richard Deacon finds funds from the Bromley family to discover the fate of their son, or retrieve his body. Having already chosen his climbing companions, the Deacon, travels around the UK and Europe to discover the variations on the tale.

At the same time, he uses the rise of Fascism and the claim that Hitler took gay, sometimes under age, lovers to create  very human tale of horror. Using the insinuations, the Great Game is brought to the Himalaya, the political safety valve is brought to the literary one. The climb becomes a pre-cursor of the conflict to come. The idealists become the monsters whereas it is only those on the edge of the system who are able to subvert it.

Underneath all is the conspiracy. The Great Game was, in part, an expression of a cold war in to which unwitting participants are drawn. Our narrator is deeply unimpressed about being caught up in the spy business. In this respect, I found myself reminded of Tim Power’s Declare, where Ararat becomes the locus of the action and the Cold War is made real. The Abominable declares the intelligence war but then does not deliver on it. It does something similar with the question of Orientalism and the fizzing resentment of the colonial rule but it is not really resolved. We are asked to understand the resentment and view the way that some colonists involved themselves in the culture to be part of it but not to conquer it, as an escape from their own lives and cultures, but the issue is a little sidetracked.

Although he draws in the mysteries of the mountain, the Yeti and the questions regarding Mallory’s success and location of his body, Simmons wisely tries not to answer them. Although he hints at an alternative history, Simmons seems more interested in the journey, the climbing towards the unknown or the uncanny. Those who force the answer are doomed to fail. Although he moves into the twentieth century tale of terror and explores the variations, he seems to come back to the idea that terror is a shifting target, ever changing and somehow unclimbed. Touching the idea of the abominable, he seems content with the concept that whatever excites disgust or is offensive is an ever shifting target. In this case, The Abominable is akin to the location of Mallory’s body: we can see it but are never sure whether it reached the summit or not.

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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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