Epiphanies From Oxrun Station

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Growing up, as I did, in a mining village in northern England, bookshops were a little hard to come by. Our nearest WH Smith’s was in Worksop, a half-hour bus-journey away which we took every week. I was always drawn to the HORROR section (for such a thing existed back then, believe it or not) and the books that comprised it were largely written by Stephen King or James Herbert or Guy N Smith or Shaun Hutson or Graham Masterton. Occasionally there would be titles by John Saul. Over the years I collected them all, and read them diligently.

If this was typical of most branches of WH Smith’s – certainly the only book retailer in any of our surrounding towns  – then one might have been forgiven for thinking that horror was perhaps not as expansive as it once was earlier in the decade. Our local library stocked several of the Alfred Hitchcock anthologies that were published in the 1960s and 70s, bearing titles such as The Best of Fiends, Ghostly Gallery, Happiness is a Warm Corpse and Tales to Take Your Breath Away. These anthologies all featured stories by writers like Robert Arthur, Daphne du Maurier, Richard Matheson, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Roald Dahl and Ray Bradbury. I wanted to find other books by these writers, but most of them seemed out of print. Remember, this was a time before the internet so the only place where second-hand books were sold locally was our church jumble-sale (but those I had seen for sale consisted mostly of Mills & Boon titles, Catherine Cookson, and the occasional Agatha Christie). So I continued searching.

And then in the autumn of 1987 I started working in Sheffield – at that time one of the largest cities in the UK. A work colleague, Gary Vernon, introduced me to a small shop on The Wicker called The Sheffield Space Centre that stocked so much desirable merchandise as to reduce me to a permanent state of poverty. However one payday saw me stumbling out of there clutching a bag containing two collections of short stories – Dennis Etchison’s The Dark Country and Charles L Grant’s Tales From the Nightside.

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I had heard of both of these writers of course because their names were mentioned in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and also because my horizons had been opened in the late 80s when I started reading Fear, edited by the wonderfully enthusiastic John Gilbert. This magazine brought to my attention so many writers whose work still enthrals me to this day, but even so I don’t think I was quite prepared for the impact of reading Charles L Grant for the first time.

I worked my way through the stories from front to back (as I always do with collections or anthologies, as I believe there is usually a method to the order), marvelling at the lyrical titles – A Night of Dark Intent, The Gentle Passing of a Hand, When All the Children Call My Name, Something There Is, Come Dance With Me On My Pony’s Grave, From All the Fields of Hail and Fire – but more so than that, actually reading the stories themselves for the first time was a marvellous experience because they seemed to be at odds with what else horror had to offer at that time. The tired clichés, the gore-streaked action, the explicit sex…they were not present. Instead, what I found was a collection of intelligently written, subtle vignettes of life with a disturbing undercurrent of darkness, many of them set in a fictional town called Oxrun Station.

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The adjective most commonly associated with the work of Charles L Grant is quiet, and it’s an accurate term because that’s exactly how the horror creeps up on you from within the framework of the everyday suburban setting. Grant’s writing is similar to Ray Bradbury’s, by which it is beautifully poetic and distinct in style, but it lacks the overt romanticism of Bradbury, the heavy emphasis on nostalgia. Instead Grant’s characters are blue-collar workers or struggling single parents, lost in their own brilliantly-realised troubles, often haunted by internal fears which are sometimes realised as external events.

When I read a Charles Grant story I’m usually thinking of Haddonfield, the fictional Illinois town featured in John Carpenter’s Halloween because it seems to share the quality of existing mainly at night. The rustle of a dead leaf at autumn, the cry of a nightbird, the sudden descent of ethereal mist…Grant weaves the atmosphere in such a way as to make everyday elements like the weather and the geographical location just as important as the characters themselves.

His first lines grab you. He breaks the rule about not starting a story with the weather. Not only does he break the rule, he shows us that there are no rules, that excellent writing can be achieved with a powerful style that can hypnotise the reader into fearing what might be in the shadows, rather than just shining a spotlight on the monster and telling us to be frightened.

There’s a cadence to the writing that just demands it to be read aloud. It’s almost prose-poetry. He blends words together to create new ones, ones that are absolutely perfect for the way they’re utilised. His use of repetition is brilliantly deployed. Not a single word is wasted. It’s dense and nicely structured but there’s no need to skip anything because in Charles L Grant’s writing, the journey is as much fun as the destination.

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Grant’s ethos for excellence in writing was also reflected in his work as an editor. His Shadows anthologies are viewed as one of the most important series in the genre, and they stand as a good example of the style of writing which he espoused.

Since then I’ve explored the genre in more detail. The internet has made collecting rare and out of print books much easier than it once was, so I’ve been able, over the years, to pick up those books that have fallen by the wayside. Writers like Robert Aickman, T E D Klein, Shirley Jackson, Ramsey Campbell, Arthur Machen, Dennis Etchison, Algernon Blackwood and Karl Edward Wagner all share common ground with Grant but each of them has their own distinct voice.

Charles Grant died ten years ago today. I remember it well. I was devastated to hear the news. It felt like a huge part of my literary foundation had crumbled. I was just starting out on the path to writing myself, finally taking the plunge and sending out submissions to places that offered nothing but exposure. I was searching for a voice, a style – I still am – but so impressed was I with my writing idols that I instinctively felt it was how I wanted to write. Hearing that Charles Grant was no longer with us was a kick in the gut. I was even a subscriber to his wife Kathryn Ptacek’s email service, The Gila Queen’s Guide to Markets, which to a newbie writer was helpful in identifying places to which I could submit stories. We had corresponded several times. After a short period of time had elapsed, and I had gathered the courage to contact her to pass on my condolences, we got chatting about Charles as a person – as a reader, a fan of the genre, not just as a writer. She told me something that has stayed with me to this day, something that highlights what a decent man he appears to have been. I happened to comment that her late husband’s writing meant a great deal to me, that it reminded us that there was far more to the horror genre than giant crabs and the like. She told me that Charlie actually loved those old Guy N Smith novels. He even owned a few of them.

I felt pretty foolish. I felt like a snob that has had their snobbery disarmed by a simple act of humility. An important lesson learned that day.    

I’m still a nobody writer. Nothing much has changed in that sense. But Charles L Grant’s fiction still inspires me, still captivates and enthrals me when I read it. The language he uses and the specific way he builds those sentences are breathtaking. For nearly thirty years I’ve been in awe of his talent. I’m still in awe of it. I know I’ll end my days being in awe of it.

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In honour of CHARLES L GRANT

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Neil Snowdon begins a week-long tribute to Charles L Grant, who died ten years ago on Thursday. Featuring contributions from many writers who admire the great man’s work, you can find the central site here, with links to the daily entries as we progress. Mine will be posted on Thursday.

 

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Best Horror of the Year 8

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One other thing I neglected to mention, due to my year away, was that my story from the 11th Black Book of Horror, Lord of the Sand, was selected by Ellen Datlow for the latest Best Horror of the Year. This marks my third appearance in there, and it’s a feeling that I never quite get used to. Especially when I look at the other writers on the table of contents and realise how fortunate I am to be listed among them –

We Are All Monsters Here by Kelley Armstrong
Universal Horror by Stephen Graham Jones
Slaughtered Lamb by Tom Johnstone
In a Cavern, In a Canyon by Laird Barron
Between the Pilings by Steve Rasnic Tem
Snow by Dale Bailey
Indian Giver by Ray Cluley
My Boy Builds Coffins by Gary McMahon
The Woman in the Hill by Tamsyn Muir
Underground Economy by John Langan
The Rooms Are High by Reggie Oliver
All the Day You’ll Have Good Luck by Kate Jonez
Lord of the Sand by Stephen Bacon
Wilderness by Letitia Trent
Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma
Descent by Carmen Maria Machado
Hippocampus by Adam Nevill
Black Dog by Neil Gaiman
The 21st Century Shadow by Stephanie M. Wytovich
This Stagnant Breath of Change by Brian Hodge

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Ellen Datlow for taking the story, and to Charles Black for publishing it originally.

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Something Remains

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I’m highly delighted to be able to report that my story, Fear of the Music, will appear in Something Remains, the Joel Lane tribute anthology that is due to be published at Fantasycon in September.

Most of the contributors utilised notes or scraps of a story that Joel had made but never completed. The results are hopefully a fitting testament to a man that was loved and respected in the genre, both for his superb body of work as a writer of the weird tale, and for his support and encouragement of the indie press.

Joel was one of my literary heroes, and was kind enough to read and provide a blurb for my debut collection, Peel Back the Sky, when it was published in 2012. He sad passing was far too soon. The profits from Something Remains will benefit Diabetes UK, a condition from which Joel suffered. Here is the mouthwatering table of contents –

Foreword by Peter Coleborn

  • Introduction by Pauline E. Dungate
  • Joel by Chris Morgan (Verse)
  • Not Dispossessed:  A Few Words on Joel Lane’s Early Published Works by David A. Sutton (Essay)
  • Everybody Hates a Tourist by Tim Lebbon
  • The Conscience of the Circuit by Nicholas Royle (Essay)
  • The Missing by John Llewellyn Probert
  • Charmed Life by Simon Avery
  • Antithesis by Alison Littlewood
  • Dark Furnaces by Chris Morgan
  • The Inner Ear by Marion Pitman (Verse)
  • Broken Eye by Gary McMahon
  • Stained Glass by John Grant
  • Threadbare by Jan Edwards
  • The Dark above the Fair by Terry Grimwood
  • Grey Children by David A. Sutton
  • The Twin by James Brogden
  • Lost by Pauline Morgan (Verse)
  • Through the Floor by Gary Couzens
  • Fear of the Music by Stephen Bacon
  • Bad Faith by Thana Niveau
  • Window Shopping by David Mathew
  • Clan Festor by Liam Garriock
  • Sweet Sixteen by Adam Millard
  • Buried Stars by Simon Macculloch
  • And Ashes in Her Hair by Simon Bestwick
  • The Pleasure Garden by Rosanne Rabinowitz
  • Joel Lane, Poet by Chris Morgan (Essay)
  • The Reach of Children by Mike Chinn
  • The Men Cast by Shadows by Mat Joiner
  • The Winter Garden by Pauline E. Dungate
  • Natural History by Allen Ashley
  • The Second Death by Ian Hunter
  • The Bright Exit by Sarah Doyle (Verse)
  • Blanche by Andrew Hook
  • The Body Static by Tom Johnstone
  • You Give Me Fever by Paul Edwards
  • The Other Side by Lynda E. Rucker
  • Of Loss and of Life: Joel Lane’s Essays on the Fantastic by Mark Valentine (Essay)
  • Shadows by Joe X Young
  • I Need Somewhere to Hide by Steven Savile
  • Coming to Life by John Howard
  • The Enemy Within by Steve Rasnic Tem
  • Afterword: The Whole of Joel by Ramsey Campbell (Essay)

 

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The 11th Black Book of Horror

11th Black Book of Horror

You may recall several years ago that I reported Charles Black had accepted my story Lord of the Sand for publication in his latest horror anthology. This marks my third appearance in the series. It was published at the end of 2015 to largely great approval. Here is the table of contents –

Thana Niveau – Two Five Seven
Edward Pearce – East Wickenden
Tom Johnstone – Slaughtered Lamb
John Llewellyn Probert – Forgive Us Not Our Trespasses
Stephen Bacon – Lord Of The Sand
Kate Farrell – Alma Mater
Stuart Young – Keeping The Romance Alive
Anna Taborska – Teatime
David A. Riley – Lem
Tony Earnshaw – Flies
David Williamson – And The Dead Shall Speak
Marion Pitman – Every Picture Tells A Story
Sam Dawson – The Weathervane
John Forth – Molli & Julli

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A Year of Exile

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I’ve been away for over a year but it’s finally time to return! I’ve had very little opportunity to update this site for the past 12 months but I am now hoping to keep up to a steady schedule. I’m sure you missed me.

The most recent bit of information is that in the last month the very final edition of POSTSCRIPTS was published by PS Publishing, those wonderful people over on the east coast at Hornsea. My story, Happy Sands, sits in this lovely volume, alongside some greats from all the speculative genres. Here’s the full table of contents –

  • Robert Freeman Wexler  Darkness, and Darkness
  • James Cooper  S.K.
  • Allen Ashley  A Reverie of Time
  • Robert Guffey The Wedding Photographer
  • Andrew Jury  Machinists
  • John Grant  The Second Runner
  • Lisa L. Hannett  Surfacing
  • Robert Reed  In Passing
  • Darrell Schweitzer  The Dragons of the Night
  • Robert Edric  Last Post
  • James Cooper  Texas
  • John Gribbin  Untanglement: The Leaving of the Quantum Cats
  • Paul Di Filippo  Karen Coxswain, or, Death as She is Truly Lived
  • Keith Brooke  Rewrites
  • John Grant  Everything Finishes
  • Andrew Hook  The Day My Heart Stood Still
  • Gary Fry  Madam, I’m Adam
  • Cate Gardner  In the Macabre Theatre of Nightshade Place
  • Stephen Bacon  Happy Sands
  • Scott Edelman  The Man Without the Blue Balloon and the Woman Who Had Smiles Only for Him
  • Bruce Golden  Blesséd
  • Darrell Schweitzer   The Hutchison Boy
  • Brian Aldiss  Abundances Above
  • Lavie Tidhar  The Beachcomber

So as you can see, there’s some major talent involved. And the book itself is a thing of beauty. My story is a slice of extremely dark sci-fi set in the near future, and featuring aspects of artificial intelligent gone wrong.

 

 

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Should writers set goals?

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When I started out writing and submiting fiction back in 2006 there were specific things I wanted to achieve. I was familiar with the independent presses. I frequented the TTA Press message board, Shocklines, the Ramsey Campbell Message Board. However Facebook and Twitter were still a few years away. I had learned that the genres I loved – horror, fantasy, crime, science-fiction – were about so much more than what was represented in my local WH Smith’s or Tesco’s. Since I’d first ‘gone online’ around 1999 I’d discovered that there was an enthusiastic core of writers and readers that catered to a particular market, one that lay outside the realms of the masses.

I decided I was going to try to get something published.

Don’t get me wrong – all my life I’d written in some form or other. It started with notebooks and fountain pens when I was a young teenager, progressed to the Olivetti electric typewriter that I bought with one of my first pay-cheques as an 18 year old, eventually morphing into a suitcase-sized Amstrad word processor (complete with its dot-matrix printer) which I later purchased at a discount due to it being shop-soiled.

But by 2005/2006 I was using a clunky Packard Bell desktop PC, running Windows and Microsoft Works. I felt like a professional.

I had heroes I wanted to emulate. I had collected all the Stephen Jones-edited Best New Horror anthologies that contained stories by my favourite writers – Nicholas Royle, Graham Joyce, Conrad Williams, Simon Clark, Mark Morris, Kim Newman, Ramsey Campbell, Joel Lane, etc – and I thought that if I could manage to get a story published somewhere – anywhere – then I too would feel part of the scene.

So I formulated a plan. I would begin writing and submitting stories.

I had several books about how to write. The strongest piece of advice that stuck in my mind was from a book by Mort Castle (although I’m not sure if it was originally said by someone else) – that writers needed only 2 out of the following 3 qualities to succed: tenacity, talent, and luck.

Now I couldn’t do much about the luck part, although I’m a firm believer that you can make you own luck. So I didn’t worry too much about that. The talent I realised I most certainly didn’t have. But I also believed that if I kept writing, kept listening to advice that others gave me, kept trying to improve my style, I might somehow be able to influence that part. Which brings me on to the part that I knew most definitely I could do, and that was the tenacity. I knew that if I ignored the irrefutable evidence that I wasn’t good enough, and instead just concentrated on getting better, I would eventually get better. Obviously there are other factors here – it is essential to read widely (both inside and outside the genres), try to disect things that you like, try to work out what makes a good piece of writing different from an okay one.

So I set myself a very achievable goal. I was determined I was going to have a story published online somewhere. I actually emailed the multi award-winning editor, Ellen Datlow, for advice on where to send a story. She pointed me in the direction of Ralan.com. That opened my eyes to the possibility of markets.

I managed to come up with a story that (at the time) I was quite happy with. I sent it to an online zine called Dark Fire Fiction, who accepted it and published it online. My fee was exposure. Yay me!

This felt great. I was now a published writer. I kept writing though, because that itch wasn’t yet scratched. After a while I felt a little bit unsatisfied with not having a physical copy of my story in my hands. So I changed the ambition to wanting to have a story published in a paper zine or magazine.

So in the summer of 2006 I had my story published in Aoife’s Kiss, a US magazine. The fee was exposure again, although this time I did get a couple of contributor copies. Wow. Look at me now: a story in a magazine!

For a while I repeated the process. Placed a few more stories in tiny micro-sized zines for nothing more than contributor copies. Then the same cycle of dissatisfaction started: how about this time trying to get published in an anthology of short stories? Wouldn’t that be cool?

So that’s what I did. Eventually I landed a slot in Cutting Block’s The Horror Library II, with a story originally rejected by Peter Crowther at PS Publishing for his Postscripts magazine. Mr Crowther did, however, give me some editorial feedback and mild encouragement, which I’m sure boosted my confidence when I submitted it to RJ Cavender for The Horror Library.

By the way, rejection is part and parcel of the job. I remember rejections that I’ve had that have been helpful – other than the Peter Crowther one I mentioned above, ones from Barbara Roden, Gary Fry, and Allen Ashley spring to mind. I took on board all their reasons for rejecting the stories, and placed them elsewhere. Eventually.

The next few years went the same way. I made similar appearances in small-press publications – Des Lewis was extremely important to my writing at this time – and then one day I received my first invite to contribute to a book. This was from Gary Fry for his Where the Heart Is anthology.

In my mind, another milestone was passed. I found myself continually changing the goalposts. That story in Where the Heart Is was also my first story to receive an honourable mention by Ellen Datlow in her summation of Best Horror of the Year. Another aim reached.

And throughout all this, I had in the back of my mind, a longterm goal: to eventually sell a story to each of the three magazines that I most considered my favourites – Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and Postscripts. With every rejection note that came back from these editors, I found my determination strengthening. I could tell that each story was better than the last. I could see I was improving. I knew that eventually I would achieve what I set out to do nearly a decade ago.

Which brings me to the point of this piece. Just last week I received a contract from Peter Crowther of PS Publishing, to publish my new story Happy Sands in the next annual Postscripts anthology. Coming after the February publication of The Cambion in Cemetery Dance, and the news that my story Bandersnatch will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of Black Static, 2015 is shaping up to be the year that I finally achieve my goals.

I still have writing goals. They’re different to the ones that I formulated a few years ago. But that’s the exciting thing about this writing lark: if we work hard and are patient, if we continue to work to as high a standard as possible, if we act like a professional, and with enough care for the genres we love, it can take us where we want to go. Eventually.

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BANDERSNATCH

Black Static 45

My new short story, BANDERSNATCH, has been accepted by Andy Cox for publication in BLACK STATIC magazine. This one is a particularly dark tale, possibly almost sick, but one that I hope will disturb the reader in more way than one.

This marks my third appearance in the magazine, which remains one of the best publications available. The issue above is Black Static 45, the current one. My story is probably going to appear in the next issue. More information as I get it.

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PEEL BACK THE SKY digital version

Peel Back the Sky cover

I have recently signed a contract for a US publisher to put out my debut collection, PEEL BACK THE SKY, in a digital format – ie, Kindle version (and others). Hopefully this will bring the book to a much wider audience. Not sure whether it will still have exactly the same one as the print one; the publisher has secured the rights with original artist, Les Edwards, but the typeface is very likely to change.

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Back from the dead…

 

Cemetery Dance 72

At long last I have returned. Apologies for the radio silence, which I notice was well over a year. Just thought I’d pop back with a quick catch-up.

 

The last year has been a very difficult one from a writing perspective. I’ve been busy working on Laudanum Nights. For some of the time at least. It’s fair ro say that at times I wasn’t sure if I’d ever finish anything ever again. My confidence was at rock bottom, my productivity was at an all-time low. In October last year TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE was published by Gray Friar Press. Edited by Paul Finch, this series of localised UK-based anthologies stand among my favourites in the genre. My story, THE SUMMER OF BRADBURY, features alongside some true giants of the British horror scene so I take great pleasure in appearing in this.

 

Then in November 2014 Gray Friar Press also published HORROR UNCUT! TALES OF SOCIAL INSECURITY AND ECONOMIC UNEASE, edited by Tom Johnstone and the late great Joel Lane. My story THE DEVIL’S ONLY FRIEND appears in this anthology of weird stories, all of which try to reflect the discord in the UK political scene of today.

And finally in February 2015 CEMETERY DANCE issue 72 was published. My story, THE CAMBION, sits alongside an uncollected tale from Stephen King no less, and several other fantastic writers.

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