Friday, 23 December 2011

Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse - Review

Firstly, before I start this review, I'm just going to assure you that I'm not about to review my own story in this anthology. I've mentioned 'The Day or the Hour' below, so that's going to be missing from my comments on the stories here.

Anne Perry and Jared Shurin have done something rather brave and marvelous with their debut anthology; they've tied this book in with a public art event (the exhibition of John Martin's paintings at the Tate) and in doing so have achieved a culture outreach between the world of genre and the art world itself. It's a move that they pulled off to great success. There was a launch event for Pandemonium at the Tate (which I was sadly unable to attend) and the Tate are stocking a limited hardback run of this anthology in their shop. (Which obviously makes a perfect Christmas gift for those looking for last-minute pressies).

Being an anthology of apocalyptic stories, the tales herein are on something of a 'large' scale. Not all of them directly reference the works of Martin, but most of the stories link in with the themes of big things happening to little people. The first story in the anthology, 'The Architect of Hell' by David Bryher does indeed reference Martin, as it features a demon corresponding with the artist himself on a 'home improvement' project for Hell. It's a nice conceit and Bryher pulls it off marvelously, marking a strong opener for the collection. Following this we have Lauren Beukes' 'Chislehurst Messiah'. Beukes is the author of the hit novel Zoo City (which is brilliant, by the way, so go check it out), so I was expected her story to be rooted in South Africa. It's not, but Lauren still writes convincingly of a London gone to Hell and a misguided individual who would be King. Lauren again shows a mastery of dialogue and pace in her work, which is just one of the reasons she's fast becoming one of genre's most exciting new voices.

Next up we have John Courtenay Grimwood's 'The Last Man'. I loved Grimwood's Effendi series, and here the author shows the same knack with a complex narrative and innovative prose. This is the most science-fictional of the pieces on display and makes a great tone change, while enriching the anthology overall.

Some may say that we have already seen hints of the apocalypse in our society with the riots that erupted over the country this Summer, and certainly the news images of such chaos were very frightening indeed. With 'OMG GTFO' S.L. Grey takes some of those images of rioters and mixes it into a story about the denizens of Hell revealing a horrible truth. It's a funny and dark tale and its mix of Tweets and reportage is ably handled.

Things get even darker with Archie Black's 'Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion', the only title in the anthology that's also one of the names of Martin's paintings. This story of a trek to find either redemption or, indeed, oblivion is extremely visceral. You feel the pain of the characters as they trek their way across a truly miserable landscape. Black's descriptions of the dissolution of the characters health is convincingly portrayed and marks a writer in control of her descriptive prose. It's just a short story, but Black manages to make it feel like an epic story. Black is certainly an author worth watching.

A change of tone for the next story with 'Another Abyss' by Magnus Anderson, in which a group of middle-aged, middle-class friends wine and dine while trying to ignore the apocalypse happening all around them. It's a piece that feels theatrical in the sense of a Mike Leigh or Alan Ayckbourn play and Anderson's dialogue is funny while also being desperately sad. A tragi-comedy that makes for a great addition to this collection.

We're back to more recognisable Martin territory with Tom Pollock's 'Evacuation' in which an angel searches for the very last survivors of the human race. I've not read Pollock before but this story really makes me look forward to his forthcoming novel. The story clips along at a terrific pace while still having a real emotional core. Angels aren't always the easiest creatures to write about, but Pollock handles the winged beings admirably.

Scott Andrews ventures back into riot territory with 'A Private Viewing' which features Martin's paintings themselves, here used to torture a rioter imprisoned by an embittered gallery security guard. Anybody who has read Scott's St Marks Trilogy for Abaddon Books, knows that he does cruel oh so very well. He does sympathetic characters well too, but that's not what this story is about. This is a real howl of rage and incomprehension at a world falling apart. It's a deeply chilling and deeply convincing story and reminds readers why Andrews is an author very worthy of your time.

Next we have Andy Remic's contribution and I can't actually type the title of the story on this blog, as I don't have access to the characters required. We're venturing back into Hell here and Remic's story entertainingly portrays a moral dilemma with a truly gruesome conclusion.

Ogood Vance takes us to a baseball game at the end of the world with 'Closer'. The prose here is great and Vance draws you into the story immediately with a strong authorial voice. The thing with this tale, however, is that I know utterly nothing about baseball so pretty much all of the sports stuff was over my head. It is, though, a very well written tale and makes for a great addition to Pandemonium.

Lou Morgan - author of the forthcoming Blood & Feathers, which features Hell very prominently - takes us all to the pub for the end of the world with 'At the Sign of the Black Dove.' And where better to be than in a pub when it all goes tits up?' Except the Black Dove is exactly where you don't want to be. Lou's characterisation is as brilliant as ever, and she demonstrates here why she is one of the most exciting new writers in genre.

'Deluge' by Kim Lakin-Smith is bulging with ideas and images and poetry and, well... everything. That Lakin-Smith is a writer interested in narrative complexity and big canvas ideas is obvious, but there's so much in 'Deluge' that it feels a bit crowded. There is striking imagery, but it feels a bit like the story needed more room to move. Nevertheless, an interesting read.

Next we have me with 'The Day or The Hour' and for more on that see a few posts below this one.

With 'The End of the World' by Den Patrick we essentially have an argument between demons and their master outside a pub. It's a funny story, with a rather touching tale of love woven into the narrative. Patrick shows that the denizens of Hell can't be all bad.

'The Immaculate Particle' by Charlie Human has to be a play on the idea of 'The God Particle' that has been brought into public consciousness by the experimentation at CERN. Human ably plunges us into a dark and complex world and explores the idea of an extreme faith having risen from a mix of scientific speculation and skewed theological thinking. I've not read Human's work before, but this makes me think that we'll be sure to see much more of him in the near future.

'The Harvest' by Chrysanthy Balis is a nice response to those rapture novels so beloved of the Christian Right. The idea that one can entirely know God is in itself fairly comic, but Balis's story doesn't concern itself with just that, and the pay-off is both cruel and funny.

Sam Wilson's 'Postapocalypse' takes the form of a theological and scientific discussion. It's packed full of complex ideas but Wilson's gift is in making those ideas clear to the reader while also challenging them at the same time. This is challenging in the way that good hard SF can be, though this story is much more than that, and the debate that this story raises is a fascinating one.

Closing the collection we have Sophia McDougall's utterly brilliant 'Not The End of the World.' McDougall writes beautifully and hauntingly. This story, set in a tenement building in Germany during the Second World War, reminds me of the work of Jonathan Carroll, yet McDougall has a strong authorial voice of her own. It's a moving story about love and letting go, and the complexities of existence. There are big things going on here, but in small quiet ways. It's a stunning closer to the collection and a story that I'd love to see in next year's Best Of collections.

Pandemonium is an exciting debut from those genre philanthropists that bring you the brilliant Pornokitsch, and shows why Anne and Jared are establishing themselves as editors and bloggers who understand the best of genre and celebrate it on every level.

You can get your copy of Pandemonium here or here or here

Thursday, 15 December 2011

More Sitting down than Standing Up

Once upon a time I had a strange hobby. Yes, for a few years, on the odd evening, I was a stand-up comedian. The impetus to get up on stage and make a tit of myself really started with Bohemian Night: a gathering of Reading's musicians, poets, comedians and general weirdos that used to happen every Wednesday at that fine drinking establishment, the 3Bs. It wasn't rare for audience members at the B's to become part of the entertainment and, eventually, it was inevitable that I would get up and have a go. And I discovered that (a) I wasn't bad at the comedy thing and (b) I enjoyed doing it. People who know me well know that I've always had this desire to perform, this Drama Queen element to my personality. Oft I had trodden (trod?) the boards at various Am Dram establishments, so I was already well versed in bringing shame upon my family.

I'm pleased to say that for all my time as a stand-up I didn't often die on stage, or dry up. I had the odd special moment. One gig in Hammersmith comes to mind. That evening the pub we were performing in didn't seem to be aware that there was a comedy gig on and after 5 minutes of performing to dangerous looking men wearing permanent frowns I decided to put the mic back in the stand and shuffle off the stage. I said, "Screw this. I'm off. Where's the compare?" To which the response was, "he's taking a shit." Cue a rather long and dispirited journey back to Reading. But, all in all, I had positive experiences. One evening at the Bearcat Comedy Club I shared a bill with Omid Djallili who said some very encouraging things about my material. I also was asked to host the Reading Comedy Festival stand-up competition a few times and I performed in such exotic and far-flung places such as Lincoln and Cardiff.  I even once got paid!

The buzz that you get from one of your jokes going down a storm is like no other. It's the immediate validation you don't get from writing fiction, and when you're in control of an audience it gives you a terrific confidence boost. I do still sometimes miss it and so, dear reader, you ask yourselves 'why on earth did you give it up?' Well, I never really saw comedy as a career. My heart is in books and the comedy was really something I only did for fun. To be honest doing small gigs in obscure London pubs becomes a bit of a soulless slog sometimes. You often get back at 3 in the morning and then have to go into work the next day; you're very rarely paid and if you've had a bad gig it's a long way home alone with your thoughts. Also, while I met some terrific people out on the circuit I met a lot of very bitter, two-faced bastards too. Quite a lot of folk at the lower level of the comedy ladder, who really do want to make it a career, don't care about bad mouthing fellow comics and generally being unpleasant to the 'competition.' I just didn't want to spend any more time around such people, especially as I was only there for fun. And as London really is the centre of comedy, and we ended up moving further away than Reading from The Smoke, shlepping up to the capital on regular weeknights became something of a chore, and Abingdon and Oxford (lovely though they be) offer very little opportunities for the budding stand-up.

Like Rupert Pupkin, I went out in style. I ended up doing regular spots at a comedy night in Oxford. All very well, but the audience were pretty much exactly the same every week and were mainly comprised of one of the college Dining Societies. So, they got to know my material and hence I couldn't do the same skit every other week. (Writing fresh new material every week is not easy) Also, I found them by far the hardest audience to get going and I know fellow comics who had the same experience. On the night I decided to make my last I opened my set with the words "Hello Hogwarts!" to pretty much absolute silence, but, you know what, I found it funny. I may then have referred to several audience members as "over-privileged swan munchers." While it wasn't the most stormingest of storming sets, it provided a nice bit of catharsis. And thus, I decided to go out by insulting my audience, which is pretty much when you know you're done.

Maybe I'll do it again one day. Spoken word events don't have the same kind of buzz and while writing is what I love, there's no one there laughing/cheering/clapping as soon as you write a great sentence. Still, I can make my ten month old daughter squeal with laughter with a good pirate impression, and that I find makes up for a lot in life. I love comedy. It's an art form like no other and when it's brilliant it's about one of the best damn things ever. And maybe the Oxford students I offended that night have forgotten by now and are ready for some new killer lines...

Friday, 2 December 2011

Do it! Do it now!

Writing is hard. There's never been a time when I've sat down to put some words on the page that they've instantly flowed out of me, falling perfectly into place and forming up into crisp, clean prose. Every time I sit down to make myself write, I always hear that voice that says "Really? Why bother? You're not very good at this." And that's the thing about writers; I believe that we all have that insecurity. We're all plagued by self-doubt and we can never be truly happy with our prose, that's sort of what drives us on to do better. This insecurity is why I'm driven absolutely crazy by a fairly common practice on the net, and particularly on social networking sites: the urge to post your wordcount for the day.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing like having a really productive writing session. It puts a spring in your step and seems to give you validation as a creative. But the thing is that every time you've had a great writing day, there's a hundred writers who've struggled to get 200 words down, and each of those had to be wrenched out of them with a claw hammer. And then that writer (okay that's me most days) will then go and catch up with friends online, only to stumble across such messages as: '3000 words done today. Now time for a quick cup of tea before the next 2000';  'Hit my first 1000 by 9am' etc. Now I've no doubt it's my insecurity and self-doubt speaking, but people who post their word counts drive me up the bloody wall. My first thought is NEVER ever, 'Hey man! Good for you. So pleased.' No, my first thought is 'You utter utter bastard. Dammit!' And that's horrible, it shouldn't be that way. But as I said, we're an insecure bunch.

I do think, though that social networking and the internet can create a unecessarily competitive air to the act of writing. Quite a lot of people seem more concerned with how many words they can get out, than with actually what they're getting out. As an editor (and a general reader) I don't want to read something that's been rushed over in the race to reach the end in order to have that great feeling of actually having written. I want the prose I read to have been thought through carefully, to have been honed to the best of the writer's ability. (By the way, authors of mine. No, this does not mean I'm free and easy with deadline dates). I think with the constant updates to remind us of how much people are writing, it can drive us to rush more, in order that we too can be as productive. But just as important as productivity, is that the author feel the story, that they care about what they're writing and they write because they want too.

Discipline is necessary in writing fiction. You should absolutely write every day. But equally you shouldn't feel worthless if one day the prose flows less well than on another. Write because you love it. This is why I'm slightly suspicious of NaNoWriMo. I think for those who have seriously considered writing but perhaps haven't done much, it can be a useful exercise in coming to terms with how it actually feels to write a novel. But also, I think this idea of writing as a kind of race is counter-productive. I'm not convinced that this approach is going to get the best out of your writing.

But, hey, you know what? As a man whose second novel took almost a year and a half to write, and clocks in at a fairly slim 80,000 words, I'm sure that maybe when it comes down to it I'm just a little bit... dare I say it?... Oh go on. Jealous!

Writing is a joy. When it works. When you're in the zone. When you're not and those goblins of self-doubt are sitting on your shoulder, let's face it, it's pretty bloody horrible.