Back in the Spring of 2016, David Shakes tweeted that he wanted contributions to a horror anthology called The Infernal Clock. The premise was simple: the action of each story would take place in one hour. There would be 24 tales, covering one hellish day. David invited writers to bagsy specific hours. I put my virtual hand up for the midday-to-one-o’clock slot straight away.
I don’t know much about horror fiction. I’ve seen lots of horror films and am a particular fan of classic Japanese films such as the Ring series and The Grudge, but I have read few modern horror novels. When I volunteered for The Infernal Clock, I didn’t consider my lack of knowledge of the genre a disadvantage. Much of my writing has a nightmarish quality and I unconsciously default to the monstrous, so I felt equal to the task of creating something weird, unsettling, frightening.
I asked for the noon slot because I wanted to create horror out of light and heat, rather than the more usual darkness and cold. My story would begin at noon in the height of summer, on a particularly hot day. When I was 14 I had a paper round. Once a week, I would deliver unsolicited free copies of the local rag to all the houses and flats in a couple of streets. I tended to start the round at about five o’clock in the afternoon. However, on one occasion in the summer holidays I covered for someone who was ill and so delivered to a different street, full of affluent houses. I started the extra round in the late morning of a very hot day, and at around midday I walked up the pathway towards an imposing house, painted brilliant white. It’s no exaggeration to say that I had to squint as I approached the whitewashed facade, which reflected the sun at me aggressively. The combination of dazzling light and unpleasant heat made me sluggish, nauseous. It made everything seem unreal. The whiteness of the house was inimical, poisonous. That memory came back to me as soon as I decided to write a story exploring the horrors of daylight, and it informed the narrative itself, even supplying the title: White.
I also knew that my story would be about a mirror, and someone seeing something in the mirror and as a result experiencing a crisis. I keep coming back to mirrors in my work.
Writing the thing was not so straightforward. My first attempt was telegrammatic in style, but lacked momentum. The protagonist was a little boy. This excerpt gives a flavour:
Outside, everything is too bright, too solid. Sounds have a hard quality. The world is amplified. He hears the scuttling of beetles in the flower beds, the drone of bees, birdsong, his own breathing.
He runs around on the lawn and the gravel pathways, but soon he’s exhausted. He sits down and looks up at the house. Something in him wants to go back to the bathroom, to look in the mirror again. He doesn’t know why.
Above the house, there is a cloud that looks like a skull.
It just didn’t feel right for The Infernal Clock. Really, I was writing a fragment for my novel, which is about a boy entering puberty amidst the silence and strangeness of a new home. So I started again. This time, the protagonist was a grown man:
So he went up to the bathroom. The village church bell rang twelve as he opened the door. The beginning of the afternoon. He stood in front of the basin, put the plug in and turned on the cold tap. He was looking forward to the feeling of the water on his face and the sight of it on his face when he looked in the mirror.
When the basin was half full, he turned off the tap, stooped to bring his face closer to the water, cupped his hands together in the water, closed his eyes and splashed his face. The water was like a slap, icy blue. His face tingled. The summer sun had been quenched.
He straightened up and opened his eyes.
Initially, he didn’t see the other man. He was looking at the mirror, enjoying the sight of the droplets of water running down his face. He felt refreshed, awake.
But after a few seconds he thought, That isn’t me. The man in the mirror is someone else.
Now I had a scenario that could work, but the writing was dull dull dull. I had thought that by presenting the story as simply and unemotively as possible, I would enable the reader to experience fully the uncanniness of the situation described. I hadn’t anticipated the results being so stilted. I realised that the first attempt, for all its faults, was better, partly because it benefitted from the immediacy and intensity of the present tense.
Attempt number three was the one that ended up in The Infernal Clock. I kept the storyline of attempt two, but wrote it again from scratch, as an unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness, narrated by the protagonist himself. This time, the words came intuitively, organising themselves in the final section into lines of free verse. Here’s a taster, from the beginning:
starting at noon at midday twelve o’clock exactly this story if it is that this event more accurate that has left me doubting my own mind wondering if I’m right in the head doubting even the facts as I remember them if they are facts in the absence of any means of verifying them no one else having been there no witnesses to any part of what happened to me is happening to me the sequence of events starting at midday when I closed the bathroom door behind me wiped out exhausted by the white slab of sunshine outside the whiteness of everything white walls white gravel white roses wiped out slightly dizzy dots appearing and disappearing before my eyes from the hot white day desperate to feel cold water on my face in my mouth down my throat anxious not just to obtain that relief the relief of the feeling of the cold water but also wanting to see the droplets of water on my parched face see them running down my baked face seeing is believing seeing would reinforce the existence of the water make it more real appealing to more than just the sense of touch the sense of sight being more powerful anyway sights swaying us all the time images making up minds I wanted my mind made by that image that vision of little droplets of water running down my face a spectacle a miniature piece of theatre not possible downstairs in the kitchen where there is a sink but no mirror possible only upstairs in the bathroom
I am proud to be part of The Infernal Clock. There is an impressive variety of storytelling in the book, and the venture as a whole is ambitious. Hats off to David Shakes and Stephanie Ellis for their editorial work, and to Tamara Rogers for her striking cover design. I urge you to get a copy and savour every horrible hour!
I have published a new collection of poems, prose-poems, fiction and assorted oddities. The book gathers together writings produced over nearly three years, and I consider it the sequel to Head Traumas, which is my best-selling book so far. Like Head Traumas, the new one contains several 13s and poems about the Bird King. It also includes a lot of material about mannequins (as you’d expect!) and pieces inspired by Graeco-Roman, Norse and Biblical mythology. The tone ranges from the whimsical to the nightmarish.
This week, the ebook of my text-and-image piece Mono is free. I’ve described it elsewhere as an entertaining nightmare and as a surreal dystopia, but it’s easier and less misleading to say what it isn’t. It isn’t linear, it isn’t a novel and it isn’t poetry. You decide what it is.
I am pleased to announce the publication of Broken Reflections, a free ebook of adventurous writings by fifteen authors, including Marc Nash and Chimera members Sean Fraser and Adam Wimbush. It’s available in multiple formats from Smashwords.
The ebook is the result of a creative writing competition I ran back in July to promote the publication of Mono. You can see the results of the competition and read some of judge Kate Garrett’s comments here.
I am delighted to announce the results of my creative writing competition. Judge Kate Garrett has been very generous with her time, reading the anonymised entries, deciding on a winner and runners-up, and advising on which entries are worthy of a place in the forthcoming ebook, Broken Reflections.
So here goes…
The OVERALL WINNER is Ethan Miller for his piece “Panic Slip.” Here’s Kate’s comment on it: “This piece freaked me out, the wet/dry contrast for the end of each of two halves of a body – it’s creepy genius.” Ethan wins a signed copy of Mono, plus the ebooks of The Mannequin and In the Dark Room.
There are two RUNNERS-UP: Voima Oy (“Flowers of Alba”) and Ian Foulger (“End Game”), who win the two ebooks. Kate said of Voima’s entry, “The language in this piece is wonderful.” As for Ian’s piece, she had this to say: “Creativity and anxiety at their finest juxtaposition. I love this one so much.”
Kate also made special mentions of the entries by Marc Nash (“Love the language and the way it relates to the image on which it is based”) and Saxon Pepperdine (“This piece is disjointed, stubborn and bleakly wonderful.”)
Joining all of the above in Broken Reflections will be entries by Monsieur Mess, Anjvs, Sean Fraser, David J Wing, Daniel A Nicholls, Danielle Matthews, Pleasant Street, A V Laidlaw and Adam Wimbush.
Thanks to everyone who entered the completion. I shall be in touch with the winner, runners-up and everyone whose work has been selected for Broken Reflections. In the meantime, here are the top three entries, as chosen by Kate. Enjoy.
WINNER: “Panic Slip” by Ethan Miller
It was draped over the edge of the well, flaccid and starting to tear in the middle. Its bones were broken trampled and the sharp edges only made further tears. Its batteries were charged with only enough power to send a tiny neon tingle up and down it’s length. It sang a tired beacon ping ping ping.
The half that finally, after millennia, fell on the outside of the well met the dry matted weeds with relief and a sense of closure. It would dry out there, it would be so much dust under the warm sun.
The half that fell into the well used what little strength it had to writhe in panic. It was not the death that had been washed clean and scheduled with the moonrise. It was darkness and armies that would march through tissue, merging and transforming to make swarms and matrices. Nothing there was just itself, nothing there could possibly recognize itself for more than an instant.
The panic lasted longer that it did; panic turned liquid and locked in cell walls, panic as molecular cogs turning sporadically. There was also panic turned into nocturnal birds that glided in the slippery moonlit atmosphere.
RUNNER-UP: “Flowers of Alba” by Voima Oy
What fragrance is produced by the white flowers of Alba? It has been compared to the aroma of peonies blasting from a laundromat in November.
No. And it is not the smells of a seaside holiday, the ozone of an approaching storm, the petrichor of Paris, or fresh-cut grass. It is not the gasoline of a truck stop off the interstate, or coffee at 2 am.
But it could be a blend of these things.
It is gathered in the silent gardens where the flowers bloom among the vines of moonflowers and lilies.
It is gathered under the light of the waning moon by the widows of Alba.
It is a scent that never leaves them. It clings to them like dew. It lingers on their fingers, and they cry as if they were cutting up onions.
It is addictive, intoxicating–the perfume of nostalgia, melancholy, saudade.
The flowers weep, tears of snails for the sea.
RUNNER-UP: “End Game” by Ian Foulger
Stereo is on max, Meatloaf screams about a fledermaus transcending from Dante’s inferno.
I sit pondering whether Mozart ever experienced the smell of bat guano?
Is it possible to push a needle into one’s eye without pain?
What does it feel like to inhale fire and let it cook your lungs from the inside out?
Soon I will know and with all the other questions of the universe answered, I may return to tell you or I may not.
Will you wait?
When people ask me what kind of book Mono is, I find it difficult to give a short answer. In many ways, it’s like a novel; when I was writing it I thought of it as a continuous narrative. However, there isn’t a consistent plot: the events narrated are often mutually contradictory, even though they orbit around fixed themes and motifs. If Mono is a novel, it’s closer in spirit to the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet or the surrealist stories of Robert Desnos and Michel Leiris than it is to what most readers would recognise as a novel with a plot, believable characters and incidental detail.
Another problem with labelling Mono a novel is its organisation. Each of the 60 double pages features a monochrome picture on the left and some text on the right. The text never takes up the whole page and always ends with a full stop, making it look like a self-contained piece. In her review of the book, Susan Omand understandably referred to Mono as a “collection of loosely related verses“. Perhaps it is, despite what I had in mind when writing it. Maybe it’s a prose poem or a sequence of 60 prose poems. Maybe the sequence doesn’t matter.
When I wrote the blurb, I referred to Mono’s “kaleidoscope of mutating story-lines”. Although there is no stable plot, there are some events to which the book keeps returning, obsessively: an abduction, an interrogation, an incident that occurred when the protagonist was nine. And there is a small cast of characters: Eve, Serge, Dr Mort, the Pickled Punks and a dictator who is essentially the Bird King. A few others appear too: Mr Punch, the White Queen (a nod to Lewis Carroll) and the Mirrors, who may or may not be human. And of course, there is a protagonist, in this case an anonymous man always referred to in the second person. Writing in the second person felt right. When I was eleven, I was addicted to Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy game books, which established the convention of the choose-your-own-adventure narrative that has since been taken in interesting directions by the likes of Alina Reyes. The second person turns the reader into the protagonist and can be exciting, terrifying, threatening. Although Mono does not offer the reader distinct narrative choices in the manner of the Fighting Fantasy series, its use of the second person and multiple, contradictory story-lines that co-exist like parallel universes give the book, I think, a sense of freedom and adventure.
There are several themes I played with in In the Dark Room, to which I found myself returning in Mono: memory, dreams, fantasy, and how they affect identity. Above all, the book is about language and the problems inherent in trying to provide an accurate account of even the least complicated of events. The book’s protagonist wants to write about things he has seen and experienced, but the task is impossible:
You’re trying to write a book. It’s about the Mirrors. You know what they are and how they work, but you don’t know how to describe them. The words haven’t been invented yet. They’re not even called Mirrors. You call them that, but that’s not what they’re called. They aren’t called anything. There isn’t a word for them. So trying to write about them is pointless.
If we can’t describe things accurately, how can we hope to let people into our inner worlds? The protagonist of Mono is terrifyingly alone. Despite the book’s absurdities, free associations and gothic whimsy, it boils down to a solitary man sitting in a room, trying to find the right words to describe things he struggles to remember.
What does all of this mean? Does it have to mean anything? I don’t know. Writing Mono, I let the images and plot fragments go where they wanted. I felt I had some important themes to explore, but I didn’t attempt to impose my will on them by creating a message. As the protagonist says at one point:
These are preliminary notes, sketches, doodles. Everything’s preliminary. Never trust a man who promises the finished article. The finished article is a dead thing. All you can do is write what comes to mind and hope some of it is true.
You can buy Mono here.