‘Killing Violets: Gods’ Dogs’ by Tanith Lee

When it comes to short stories, Tanith Lee is easily one of my top ten weird fiction writers, a versatile, stylish author who never bores and often combines the seductive with the terrifying in a way achieved by few others. But after an unfortunate encounter with one of her early epic fantasy novels (which was interesting but seemed much too long) I’ve not read much of her longer fiction. I’ve decided to address this recently by investigating her ‘Colouring Book’ series (Immanion Press), a relatively recent sequence of stand-alone modern Gothic novels which all have titles referring to colours. The first two I read, Greyglass and To Indigo, are both good concise, sharply-drawn fantasies anchored in the modern world of urban England and combining a feeling of magic with acerbic social comment. I particularly enjoyed To Indigo, which was very funny at times and reminded me of Ruth Rendell at her 80s peak despite not really being a crime novel.

I’ve now just finished Killing Violets: God’s Dogs, in fact the second of these seven books. This is very different from the other two I mentioned; it’s set in 1934, across several European locations both real and imaginary. The waifish heroine, the unsubtly-named Anna Moll, is rescued from starvation on the streets of a grey European city by a mysterious wealthy john called Raoul, who falls in love with her and brings her to live with his family in their mansion in the English countryside. But this isn’t the stroke of luck it appears to be – the Basultes are a very funny lot and treat their servants execrably, while the servants themselves are intensely malicious, feral and peculiar in other ways. Raoul begins to neglect Anna and she is forced to participate in a variety of degrading psychosexual games. It all seems a far cry from her past in the warmer European city of Preguna, where she fell in love with a young accountant after an early life of rootless roaming. But these memories, too, have a dark side which the reader discovers in a series of flashbacks.

The basic plot is realistic, but this is a novel with an extremely fantastical feel to it. Virtually all the events – from a simple conversation to a frenzied orgy – are surreal and the whole thing is cloaked in a highly-coloured, dreamlike atmosphere that is much more like a fairy tale than anything else. This is enhanced by the confusion surrounding location – Preguna doesn’t exist, and we never learn exactly where in England Anna has been brought, although it sounds like the West Country. It does, however, come with a good deal of pointed social commentary (with themes such as the identity-altering nature of domestic violence, physical beauty and ugliness, and the class system.)

Ever since Angela Carter the updated or subverted feminist fairy tale drenched in sex and violence has been a staple of fantasy literature, but I’m not a great fan of this type of writing myself. Lee is definitely one of the better practitioners of this kind of thing (and as I’ve said, her talents also range far beyond this register) but ultimately Killing Violets felt a bit predictable in its imagery and plot, especially as regards the pervy bits at the Basulte’s grotesque home. The flashbacks to Preguna felt fresher, though, and in the last two decades of her career Lee seems to have become a much more economical author who doesn’t outstay her welcome. She is able to paint vivid scenes with apparent ease and can sling around hosts of original metaphors without breaking a sweat.

Largely on account of this, the satisfying depth of her heroine, and her often lovely turn of phrase, I did enjoy the book. It’s not at all a happy novel though, and is quite a suffocating experience. I’ve heard it said that Lee’s early novels tended to have a very bleak view of gender relations and romance, and if that’s the case then she’s definitely getting back to her roots here. I actually really enjoy the sunnier side of her writing that is on display in many of the stories written in the last decade of her life (such as the charming ‘Thuvia, Made of Mars (Spilt Milk)’ and ‘Why Light?’), but you can’t expect the sun to shine all the time, especially not in Gothic literature!

“Ally Ally Aster” by Ann Halam

The sci-fi and fantasy writer Gwyneth Jones needs no introduction, but is perhaps less well-known for her YA supernatural novels, written under the Ann Halam pseudonym. Several of these (such as King Death’s Garden and The Fear Man) are very good for readers of all ages, but I’ve only just got round to reading Ally Ally Aster, her supernatural thriller based on Scandinavian mythology.

This slim book feels very different from her other Halam jobs, which tend to benefit from a kind of updated MR James-for-kids style. This isn’t really like that, and I found its style hard to describe in terms of other authors. Although it’s set in a textbook Gothic location – the young hero, his sister and their parents all move into one half of an old farmhouse on a moor in the North of England – this is not a straightforward ghostly tale, even allowing for its slightly Jamesian stash of cursed Norse treasure.

It’s written in an oblique and slippery way; a lot of events, many of them psychic and metaphysical, are packed into a very short book, and often described in an understated way that makes significant plot twists very easy to miss, even for an adult. By the end, I was totally unable to decide how much of this was deliberate and how much the result of authorial shortcomings or possibly even some kind of mangling during the editing process. In one online interview with Jones she oddly mentions this book as having been a “comedy thriller”, but it is absolutely nothing of the sort, so God knows what happened between her first pitching it to her usual publishers and the thing finally coming out with a different publisher.

The character development is very peculiar, too. In a novel of this length, and written for kids, you don’t always get deep depictions of the adult characters, but the parents of thirteen-year-old Richard and his slightly younger sister Laura seem like ghosts, and the other secondary characters are very inaccessible too. Even before the two kids become beset by supernatural forces they seem completely cut off from society, and usually from each other too. But the strangest thing is the way Halam handles Richard, the character through whom the events are experienced.

The plot of this book revolves around the supposed daughter of the couple living in the other half of the farmhouse, in fact a pair of bent antique dealers with occult tendencies who have summoned a kind of Nordic elemental ice being, causing her to take the form of a teenage girl, Ally. Now, I understand that times have changed (this book was first published in 1981), but to a modern reader the complete absence of any kind of details about Richard’s emergent sexual persona is very startling, and gets weirder as the novel wears on.

Obviously, in a book for kids you wouldn’t expect or want graphic treatment of adolescent sexuality. But considering that Richard – an otherwise intelligent and unusually grown-up boy – spends most of the novel following Ally around, and that Ally is a pretty fascinating girl (with her long white hair and tendency to change apparent age and perform sacrifices), it is jarring that there isn’t even the slightest mention of him having any kind of romantic or sexual thoughts about her, either positive or negative.

This in itself could be explained away by an excess of prudery on the part of the author – except that Jones is anything but prudish in her writing normally. Also, as I entered more deeply into the novel, it began to feel like it actually is about Richard’s sexuality, but in a kind of latent way. The sudden and chaotic events that follow virtually all of his covert sightings of Ally, though in no way sex-related, still have a kind of sideways erotic charge to them which I found myself totally at a loss to account for or relate to the actual writing. It’s like this side of his character is somehow hiding in the writing, as if it were encrypted. I’m not talking about mere subtext here. I can’t stress enough how odd this effect is – I’ve never responded to any other book in this way, that I can remember. I suspect Richard’s unusually grown-up way of expressing himself has a bit to do with it, but ultimately I think I’d need to have a degree in English Literature to really get to grips with what is happening here.

The big question is how much of this effect is intended. I think Jones might be doing it on purpose, if only because she uses this book to revisit one of her favourite themes, the uneasy relationship between the world above ground and that under the earth. The subterranean geological world is a very dynamic, threatening but also fascinating place in Jones’ books, operating in stealth to undermine and confound human endeavour all the time. And that could practically be a description of adolescent desire.

One thing’s for sure though – this is not a suitable book for children or even young people. Not because it contains any “inappropriate” material or language, but simply because so much of it is likely to go over their heads. It’s even worse than The Owl Service for that. I wouldn’t even recommend it to adults, unless you want to spend a lot of time scratching your head. That said, there are some lovely flashes of moorland scenery and a convincing sense of cosmic hugeness, of geological, mythical time. If anything this aspect is almost too successful – the lens that is meant to focus these colossal forces seems rather too feeble for the job, and I think a more solid grounding of the action in the modern world would’ve helped with that. I’ll certainly not forget this book in a hurry though!

Mammoth Book of Nightmare Stories

Back in their heyday the Mammoth Books of Best New Horror, edited by Stephen Jones, were a big favourite of mine and introduced me to a lot of great authors of modern horror (for my money the best one’s the 4th.) If horror has been in a slump since the 80s, it’s certainly not Jones’ fault: during the series’ peak any of these books were good enough to immediately silence any claims that horror isn’t “proper writing”. Jones took his Best New Horror series to Drugstore Indian Press a few years ago, but still does one-off collections for Mammoth sometimes.

At first glance the Mammoth Book Of Nightmare Stories is one of these, so I quickly bought it, but beware! This Book is actually not a proper new collection at all, but in fact a cut-and-shunt of two older collections from PS Publishing, Keep Out The Night and By Moonlight Only – both of which I’d already read! I felt ripped off when I discovered this, as this fact isn’t mentioned at all in the Introduction, although for all I know it may have been stated during the book’s promotion by somebody and I just wasn’t paying attention. Anyway, since I’d spent the money I couldn’t afford to buy another new collection this month so I thought I might as well read the stories again, since I didn’t actually review the earlier books for Darkling Tales.

This collection is conceived as a homage to a horror editor called Christine Thompson. I remember once reading some old quote from her – she was bitching about what she considered to be a market glut of excessively classy horror (those were the days eh?), but apart from that she means about as much to me as Elvis does to Chuck D. I don’t think that really matters to one’s appreciation of the stories though.

It feels like Jones has deliberately sought to contrast older, more traditional material by established writers with authors who were hip young gunslingers when these books first came out. This is laudable in theory, though I have to say the old guard kind of get their arses handed to them by the new boys and girls. Pulp purveyors like Hugh B. Cave and Sydney J. Bounds just can’t compete with the new lot, although old-timer Brian Lumley comes out of it well with ‘The Viaduct’, a blatant and probably very successful attempt to equip every reader with a fear of heights for life. The same is true of Basil Copper – his stories often seem a bit dated now, but his contribution here, ‘The Gossips’, is one of his best and his sinister statue extravaganza drowning in creepy Mediterranean atmosphere very much deserves to be remembered by horror history.

And what of the more modern writers? I’m pleased to say some of the very best horror authors from the late 80s and 90s are present here. Caitlin R. Kiernan impresses with ‘Spindleshanks (New Orleans, 1956)’, a haunted house story dripping with New Orleans gothic menace and style in a way that hadn’t yet become hackneyed and still feels fresh and sharp-edged now. Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘Nothing of Him That Doth Fade’ is a sombre romance set at sea; it’s outstanding, like much of her work at the time, and its exploration of gay relationships was certainly ahead of the curve.

There’s also a good story from Tanith Lee, ‘These Beasts’, a kind of Arabic fantasy of the kind Christopher Fowler used to do well, a very long Tim Lebbon story, ‘The Unfortunate’, a piece of metaphysical horror about luck and the afterlife which was just as good as ever in its filtering of epic themes through the lens of one increasingly confused and disturbed air crash survivor. And then there’s Michael Marshall Smith, one of the most consistently good horror writers I can think of, winning again with ‘Dear Alison’, a painfully sad but compulsively readable examination of infidelity with a satisfying twist.

Also recommended is ‘Is There Anybody There’, a tale of psychic attack and seances by Kim Newman. He’s a Jones favourite who I don’t normally go a bundle on, but in this case he really delivers, with an original plot, great characters (a reminder that Newman can do very good female characters when he wants to) and a snappy, fun style of the kind that sometimes seems a bit rare in today’s horror scene.

Another strength of this collection is Jones’ willingness to feature really long stories of the kind that probably wouldn’t be allowed to appear in magazines. Apart from the Lebbon and Copper ones, there’s a 79-page epic from Ramsey Campbell, ‘Needing Ghosts’, which should keep the reader stocked with alienation, urban anxiety, and paranoia for months to come. Altogether I have to say I wish more modern anthologies were this good!

ADAM NEVILL SHORT STORIES

I’ve finally got round to reading the first two collections of short stories by leading UK horror author Adam LG Nevill: Some Will Not Sleep and the more recent Hasty For The Dark. The collections seem to be in chronological order, allowing the reader to chart the rise of Nevill’s star as a writer, from his first collected story ‘Where Angels Come In’ to his later, well-anthologized tales.

I remember first reading ‘Where Angels Come In’ in one of the Mammoth Books of Horror that are so sadly missed nowadays. Standards in those Jones anthologies were high back then, but Nevill’s work still stood out. Despite its dusting of M R James references the story is the opposite of dull pastiche, and is actually quite action-packed. It’s held up well over the years.

Nevill’s output in the rest of the book is admirably diverse; the deservedly popular ‘Pig Thing’ is straight-up woodland creature horror, though with an unusual setting that saw it included in an Exotic Gothic anthology. The gripping ‘Yellow Teeth’ is part psychological torment and part exploration of the divine. ‘Doll Horror’ is a savage piece of couldn’t-be-more-dystopian future horror, and ‘What God Hath Wrought’ is a champion bit of weird west terror.

The thing linking all these stories is quality, scares that are actually scary, and also a preoccupation with fairness, whether between individuals, sections of society or humans and the environment. In fact, politics and the growing divide (well, yawning chasm) between the rich and the poor in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere) seems to preoccupy Nevill more and more, and he’s not averse to handing out lashings to those figures in society who deserve it. My favourite of the stories I hadn’t read, ‘The Age of Entitlement’, is a story of this kind although it also works as an examination of a parasitic personal relationship between friends. That it’s not a colossal downer is a testament to the writer’s sense of humour.

Social justice is an even more obvious theme in Hasty For The Dark. Here the horrors tend to be more embedded in everyday life, instead of being full-on fantastical. While I am generally a supporter of what Christopher Fowler called the “Campaign For Real Fear”, the unremitting vibe of worn-and-dirty urban grimness of the first few stories depressed the hell out of me, although (or perhaps because!) the writing is as good as ever and very believable. ‘The Angels of London’ is especially effective, with its already-unbearable abusive landlord/tenant dynamics buoyed up by threats of a more supernatural nature.

The relative homogeneity of tone in the first third of the book does also serve to make what comes after, ‘The Days of Our Lives’, even more enjoyable. One thing Nevill does possibly better than anyone working in the genre today is barking religious cults, and this story is pitch-black but also absolutely hilarious. Not since the heady days of I’m Alan Partridge has the potential of the humble Travelodge for comedy and horror been so successfully mined. This oddly romantic piece – in which a hapless man is seduced by the acolyte of an occult movement that is at once bizarrely sadistic and breathtakingly banal – is like a cross between Nighty-Night and The Night Porter, and you need it in your life right now.

None of the subsequent stories can top this almost-untoppable pinnacle of achievement, though as a Devonian I commend the surreal vistas of marine horror on show in ‘Call The Name’, in which global warming has called up something nasty in the Torbay area – an entity which also has its share of weird cultists! (As HG Wells’ ‘The Sea Raiders’ was also set in the region I vote the whole of Devon’s south coast be rebranded “Dagon Country”.) This story actually seems to be a continuation of the shorter ‘Hippocampus’, which I have seen anthologized on its own, but which definitely benefits from appearing alongside the second story. You certainly don’t need to be from the West Country to enjoy these.

Things are rounded up with another bracing Mark Samuels-adjacent assault on capitalism, ‘White Light, White Heat’, and the intriguing ‘Little Black Lamb’, which offers more occult rituals, possession and BDSM, though not necessarily in the way you’d expect. One thing is certain, however: older women characters have a lot more fun in Nevill’s books than they do in most horror fiction! I can barely wait for the menopause now.

Nevill has also done a third book which is a mixed bag of writings, though I haven’t got round to that yet, as I am currently saving up to buy his new novel The Reddening, also set in Devon.

MEG BUXTON COLLECTIONS

I enjoy picking up an old William Kimber book now and again – some of the books from this 70s/80 publisher have striking illustrations (often by Ionicus) and the largely rustic supernatural fiction they offer tends to be of a reliably high level of quality as long as you don’t expect the ghosts etc. to be too terrifying. A small percentage of Kimber authors are total clangers (I may address this in another post lol) and the endless obsession with The Real Cornwall gets a bit wearing (I’m looking at you Denys Val Baker), but there are a number of good writers like James Turner (whose Where Shadows Fall I reviewed a while back) and the subject of this post, Meg Buxton.

I’ve got two Buxton collections – Footprints In The Sand and No Earthly Reason – which I was moved to purchase after enjoying her contributions to several of the Kimber mixed-bag anthologies. Like Turner, she is almost completely unknown today, and seems mainly remembered for writing a book called ‘The Story of Daisy, The Fat Lazy Mouse’, though a list of her endeavours can be found here.

This is a great pity as I feel her better stories have aged exceedingly well and would please a lot of readers today. Footprints in the Sand is definitely the better of the two collections. There are eighteen stories, most of them eerie rather than outright horrific, and many of them memorably beautiful with commendable sharpness of imagery and economy of style. They are filled with a fascination with nature, which is often described in a totally charming way that is more than just pretty. Buxton’s fauna, gardens, flowers and woods go far beyond simple window-dressing, and her obvious love of the West Country, where most of these stories are set, makes this collection quite euphoric to read, even though death and darkness are never far away.

One thing I particularly enjoyed is her way with animal characters, who are treated with great respect but without too much sentiment. My favourite story in the collection, ‘Cat Among The Bidding’, is actually a darkly comic number starring a large fluffy black cat with criminal tendencies who is compelled to Take Care of Business after his aristocratic mistress passes away and her belongings are auctioned. It’s hilarious and very life-affirming, without being twee.

‘The Horse’ is a must for anyone who loved Paul Cornell’s recent novel Chalk, and deals with an age-old equine ceremony that filters down to a present-day Cornish village festival. This has a more cyclic, experimental structure than much of Buxton’s work, but she’s fully in control and it’s a very evocative work with that most crucial of qualities for what is now called “folk horror”, a proper sense of the past as something that is still alive and kicking hard.

Another good one is ‘The Herb Garden’, a slipstream piece which features a rather lost fellow falling prey to a garden still haunted by the monks who once tended it. Some of Buxton’s very best nature writing, and positively dripping with loveliness and mystery.

Not all the stories have quaint rural settings and wealthy characters, mind you – Buxton wasn’t scared of industrial themes, and tales like “Disaster At Wheal Gratitude” (about tin mining families with very long memories), and ‘The Flora Stone’ and ‘Sixpence’ (involving different types of domestic violence) are very clear-eyed about what life was like in the past for the less fortunate. It’s impossible to finish this collection without actively wanting to meet Buxton, who seems like a really compassionate, fun and shrewd person. Sadly she died decades ago so that’s not going to happen!

The second collection I read, ‘No Earthly Reason’, was a disappointment after this cracking first experience. Many of the stories here are in the comic vein, but are more waspish and judgmental than in ‘Footprints…’ This may explain why they feel more dated, in a kind of Tales of the Unexpected way. There are also some dalliances with sci-fi, which aren’t that great.

However, there are still some fine stories. “One Man and his Dog” is a comic number that does manage to come off, and showcases Buxton’s knack for the final twist. ‘January 18th’ is also strong though it is much more serious, dealing with a grieving sexton who encounters echoes from his married past in the church he tended for so long. ‘The Children and the Apple Tree’ is a very uncharacteristic work, hazy in message, pessimistic and possibly affected by environmental anxiety, but no less worth reading because of it. And though the repeated deployment of evil plants feels a bit old sometimes, I did enjoy ‘The Passion Flower Within’, about a nymphomaniac passiflora.

In short, you can probably overlook No Earthly Reason, but don’t miss Footprints In The Sand if you see it second-hand! Most of the copies online aren’t dear, though I had to get mine without its jacket to get under that magical 10 quid barrier…

“Weirdo” by Cathi Unsworth

Nowadays horror fiction spends a lot of time pretending to be other genres. We’ve all seen those bookshop Crime Fiction shelves groaning with books full of occult, weird and even outright supernatural content, but which are being marketed as “noir” or “thrillers” to avoid alienating the horror-phobic modern reader. Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo is one such book. It does have a conventional crime plot, with a disabled ex-policeman, Sean Ward, hired to investigate a miscarriage of justice surrounding Corinne, a woman who was found guilty of murder back in the 80s and is still in a psychiatric facility. However, it has a distinctly gothic flavour – witchcraft and Goth culture are the major themes, and some passages are very hard to explain away without resorting to the supernatural.

The book is set in the little Norfolk coastal town of Ernemouth, and the intrigue skips between the 80s and the present day, as Ward visits the town to dig up old skeletons. I like this kind of structure, but in this case the 80s section was a lot more compelling than the modern, more crime-y part. On the plus side the descriptions of Ward’s physical and mental suffering relating to his disability are convincing, and I liked the social worker character. 

I was more interested in the parts set in the 80s, though even here I didn’t find the book worthy of the exorbitant praise heaped on it by the mainstream media. The evocations of Goth culture are disappointing, and I say that as a Goth myself, who grew up dowsed in the post-punk music of my older sibilings’ record collections. As I had feared from this music-themed interview with the author, the type of Goth she is selling is the dour, politically preoccupied, borderline punk end of the spectrum. The bands that loom the largest here (apart from the ineluctable Sisters of Mercy) are New Model Army, Killing Joke and, yes, Echo and the f*cking Bunnymen. None of these are actually bad bands – some are very good – but together they form a rather narrow slice of Goth culture, a slice that, in this book at least, is so studiously devoid of humour, playful imagination or flamboyance that it almost beggars belief. The camp side of things is only represented by a very brief nod to Soft Cell, and Heaven help you if Unsworth catches you approving of Madonna, who she views as a perverter of youthful innocence. I am prepared to accept that this anarcho-punk-by-another-name was the reality of what the Goth scene was like in places like the fictional (but all-too-recognizable) Ernemouth back in the 80s, but it doesn’t make for entertaining reading on the whole.

Generally speaking, I do love a good East Anglian setting. Unsworth’s version, however, only scores averagely in terms of vividness and originality. Having been personally scarred by the almost Lovecraftian horror of Cromer I had been bracing myself for something a lot more piquant. ( My dentist saw me reading this book in the waiting-room and, seeing the darkening wasteland on the cover, asked me if it was post-apocalyptic. No, I replied, it’s just set in Norfolk.) I can’t comment on the representation of small-town Norfolk language (my mother, who comes from that world, didn’t find the dialogue convincing, but she’s quite a bit older than Unsworth so that might account for it.)

Now for the strong points. The 80s parts of the book are enlivened by a couple of good characters among the many uninteresting ones drifting blackly around the godforsaken seaside town. Corinne herself is a really likable character with a decent amount of depth and some believable flaws, and her mother, a damaged, abusive, leather-knickered  proto-Goth biker tart, is definitely a memorable depiction of female evil. In this book the female characters are more convincing than the men – even the clique of corrupt townsmen that constitutes the Bad Guys are very standard and forgettable. So if you like strong (though not necessarily nice, or sane) women characters, you will be well-served here, and Unsworth’s heart is in the right place with regard to social justice issues.

As a whole, the novel is certainly not what you’d call badly written, but it felt vague and aimless, and scores poorly as a whodunnit. It feels like a missed opportunity, and strangely, provides no real insight at all into something that non-Goths are often curious about: what makes teenagers become Goths? Corinne’s fondness for a New Model Army song is described in terms of a desire to hit back at the bastards in her life, but that’s hardly saying much, and you could have written the same scene using the music of almost any punk band. Still, I will probably give Unsworth at least one more go before writing her off, since she’s written a lot of noirish books of various kinds, some with paranormal themes.

R.B. Russell collection

I’ve long been a fan of the Tartarus Press, and although it was over a decade ago I still remember how delighted I was to receive my first ever TP book, the purple and almost impossibly beautiful hardback of the Collected Macabre Stories of L.P. Hartley. So I’ve been following the subsequent writing careers of both the editors, R.B. Russell and Rosalie Parker, with some interest. TP have been doing more paperbacks recently (a move I applaud!) and they’ve recently put out a “Why Take Two Books Into The Shower?” compilation of Russell’s first two collections of short stories, Putting The Pieces in Place and Literary Remains. (apologies for the Abebooks link – the TP website doesn’t seem to exist anymore so I couldn’t link to that.)

Putting The Pieces in Place, which originally came out in 2009, contains only five stories, but they are quite long. The title story, about a music collector who seeks to recreate a youthful encounter with a gifted violinist, gets things off to a weak start – an excessive amount of background information is conveyed in the dialogue, which feels stilted and unrealistic as a result. Fortunately things pick up immediately with ‘There’s Nothing That I Wouldn’t Do’, about an architecture student whose study visit to Eastern Europe includes an awkward affair with a local boy, ending in further alienation and horror. This is one of the best stories in the collection, with a nice John Howard Mittel-Europa vibe, psychological realism and a light touch that makes the ending even more impactful. ‘In Hiding’ is another good one, somewhat reminiscent of John Fowle’s The Magus with its sunny Greek island setting, preoccupation with identity and disorienting plot twist – but more economical in style! The remaining two stories are okay – ‘Eleanor’ is a fairly light-hearted, modern riff on the familiar theme of a writer haunted by one of his characters. ‘Dispossessed’ is darker and deals with a woman whose precarious living conditions are involved in the warping of her perception of the world, with sinister and surreal consequences.

Literary Remains only came out a year later, but there are definite signs of Russell developing as a writer. The type of quiet, slightly dreamlike tale that forms his stock-in-trade is well-represented here. The title story is good, and again deals with writers and old cultural artifacts, since it’s about two literary types going over the flat of a deceased author. This is certainly not a typical antiquarian ghost story though: the malaise is augmented by sexual anxiety and it has a very close, personal feel. The dance between the haunters and the haunted as they negotiate the past-choked apartment is impressively well-done. I also liked ‘An Artist’s Model’, especially for the insight it gives into life as an art student. I don’t know if Russell himself has any artistic training – though the excellent black-and-white illustrations that used to grace the old Tartarus Press books all seem to be credited to him – but he certainly seems to know what he’s talking about.

Similarly, ‘Asphodel’ is an interesting look at the world of vanity publishing, told from the point of view of an editor who works in such a company. It would’ve been easy to make such a person into a hate figure, but Russell eschews the obvious here. Other good stories in this collection include ‘Loup Garou’, which makes deft use of the fascination of old film to convey a tale of rustic romance and tragedy, ‘Llanfihangel’ (an original and convincing haunted-house number) and ‘A Revelation’ (a shorter, darkly humorous tale about the weird stuff that goes on within the walls of other peoples’ houses.) Aickman is an obvious influence, though in general it’s the softer, more gently mournful and romantic type of of Aickman story, rather than the more overt horror of stories like ‘Ringing The Changes’. The subject matter is often quite reminiscent of Oliver Onions too, with all that art and literature and clinging, nebulous influences.

The collection as a whole does suffer from a certain sameness of tone, and some of the longer stories have a muffled quality which began to pall after a while. Many of the characters seem to be living in a constant state of flattened affect, which is almost certainly deliberate, but the way they tend to drift through their stories makes you want to give them a good shake occasionally. That said, I don’t think this would be half so much of a problem if one were encountering these stories in an anthology with other authors. Overall this is a highbrow collection of gentle, elegant writing that avoids anything lurid or coarse, and when the tales are successful they do have the sort of lingering effect on the mind that many authors strive to achieve.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
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  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.