I don’t like blurbs

  
A blurb can make any book, nomatter how idiosyncratic, sound very run-of-the-mill. I suppose that’s its job, up to a point: if you’re going to challenge a reader with something outside the mainstream, you need to secure that reader to begin with, and the best way to do that is to entice them with a blurb that says, “This book is interesting and exciting, but not totally alien.”

When I wrote the blurb for my new book, Mono, it was with that consideration in mind. The blurb doesn’t appear on the back cover (I prefer a plain back cover, decorated with nothing more than a barcode), but will appear as the product description when the book is available from Lulu, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, et al. Here it is:

Set in a surreal totalitarian state populated by spies, vampires, robots and chimpanzees, Mono offers the reader a kaleidoscope of mutating story-lines. Eve is abducted and imprisoned in a subterranean compound. The sinister Mirrors inject readymade dreams into the minds of citizens. Dr Mort brings extinct animals back to life. Serge plots the assassination of a dictator… Binding all the strands together is the portrait of a writer who is desperate to expose the truth about the bleak world in which he lives, but who cannot distinguish between memories, fantasies and dreams. 

Accompanied by sixty monochrome illustrations and written in Knight’s characteristically terse, darkly humorous style, Mono is perhaps best described as an entertaining nightmare.  

I found the blurb much more difficult to write than the book itself and I don’t like the end result, but I do think it’s OK, from a marketing point-of-view. Of course, in adopting a recognisable blurb style, I have provided a misleading impression of the book. The blurb implies that Mono is a novel. It is not: it doesn’t tell a story. Instead, it suggests or sketches out multiple, mutually contradictory stories that are never realised. And the “writer who is desperate to expose the truth about the bleak world in which he lives” is nothing of the sort, really; in writing about him in the blurb style, I’ve mistranslated him into something altogether more coherent and sensible than he is in the book.

Another way in which the blurb is misleading, is in its cursory reference to the illustrations, which are not illustrations at all, in that they do not illustrate or clarify anything in the text. They are not secondary to the text. In fact, the pictures are just as important as the words. The book is divided into 60 unnumbered parts, each occupying a double page spread, with a monochrome picture on the left page and writing on the right. In each case, the writing was inspired by the picture, which provided a platform for free association. Once I’d completed the first five or so parts, the ideas cropping up in the writing started coming not just from the pictures but also from what I’d written before. And so Mono developed its own illogical coherence, its own structures. I merely recorded them. 

All being well, the book will be available on Sunday, with a Kindle ebook version appearing some time next month. 

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The Mannequin: a reflection

Imagine a chessboard made of an infinite number of squares, in which the pieces are locked in eternal stalemate. The Mannequin is white to the Bird King’s black. Where he is broken, mad, risible, she is perfect, glacial, sinister. She is the mask Lady Macbeth presents to her haunted husband. The Bird King is, in part, me, by which I mean that his nest is somewhere in me, between memory and imagination. Although he is a tyrant, he is also vulnerable and silly. Aren’t we all vulnerable and silly? The Mannequin, on the other hand, is totally alien to me. She seems emotionless and inscrutable. I find her mesmerising and nightmarish. What is she thinking? Like Lady Macbeth, she reveals nothing to me. She tells her secrets only to the night.

The Bird King and the Mannequin do have one thing in common, however, which is that it is impossible to attach to either of them a stable mental image. If we see either of them in their entirety, in the glare of the sun or a spotlight or headlights, what we see is provisional, a brief phase in their constant mutation. Despite this, the essential identity of each of them is fixed. They are both trapped by who they are.

The Mannequin started out as the mannequins, a collective entity appearing in several poems and In the Dark Room. I associated them with the act of writing. Their presence seemed a condition favourable to creativity:

When the mannequins
   possess my hands
I tap out little poems on my phone

The index finger
                of my tweeting hand
                    pecks the touchscreen
          like a nimble bird

Words chirp
in the kingdom
of their cage

      But the hand
   holding the phone
is made of fibreglass

(From “The mannequins”)

Now, the mannequins are crystallised into a single being, albeit one comprising thirteen separate anatomical parts. Susan Omand has interpreted in paint the text I wrote for each of those parts. I see the book we made as a result of our collaboration as the flipside of The Madness of the Bird King (illustrated by Diana Probst), or, to put it another way, as a view of something at once alive and inanimate, human and monstrous, that exists on the other side of the mirror.

 

The Bird King is mad again

“A brilliant piece of work.” Jeff Noon, author of Channel SK1N, Vurt and The Automated Alice.

The Madness of the Bird King is a poetic picture book for grown-ups. It presents the reader with the enigmatic Bird King and his world, in a poem made of twelve fragments, each with an accompanying watercolour illustration by Diana Probst. Originally published in 2012, it has just been reissued in a new edition, available here.

In constructing our book, Diana and I wanted to offer the adult reader the feelings of delight, wonder and joyful terror that young children experience daily, when immersing themselves in picture books like The Gruffalo and Where the Wild Things Are. Much of that rich emotional experience is a result of the potent combination of text and image; the magic of The Madness of the Bird King is generated by the connections and disjunctions between my words and Diana’s beautiful pictures, which are not illustrations in any traditional sense. Although each painting was inspired by a Bird King fragment, we have not paired them up. Indeed, some of the pictures were inspired by material that didn’t make it to the finished poem.

What follows are the first three parts of our twelve part work. In the book, my text appears on the left hand page, and Diana’s illustration appears on the right. The Bird King himself may sometimes be glimpsed, fleeting between the two.

—–

I

The Bird King is mad again.

He caws
through empty midnight streets,
moulting tar-black
feathers.

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II

The Bird King’s wings:
stiff machinery
cobbled together from wire,
wood,
corrugated iron.

But the feathers are real, seasonal:

Spring: urinous, downy.
Summer: purples, scarlets.
Autumn: rust-tinged greys.
Winter: a widow’s fan.

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III

The Bird King spends much of his time
asleep on a throne of lightbulbs,
dreaming of love.

Waiting in the wings: his retinue of electricians.

Sometimes he wakes,
jovial.

His laughter breaks glass,
frightens animals.

He cackles and crackles on his electric throne.

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Copies of the book can be purchased here.

Find out more about Diana and her work here. You can read Diana’s account of her work on the Bird King book here.

All texts on this site are the copyright of James Knight. All images on this post are the copyright of Diana Probst. All rights reserved.

The mannequins are here again

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The mannequins are here again. I can feel them throbbing in my ears. They’re standing around in the kitchen, impassive as stone. But inside they’re laughing. I’m not getting out of bed for them, not this time.

My watch says it’s twelve o’clock. I don’t know if it’s midday or midnight. The sun and the moon look the same to me.

Everything’s the same really, if you think about it. A table, a horse, a joke, pity. All the same.

I can hear the mannequins talking now. Their voices are like embers. I don’t know what they’re saying.

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I’m having a bad, bad time. Whenever I shut my eyes I see myself as a foetus, glowing in the womb. I’m incomplete: my hands are drippy and my song is lost at sea. Even my valves and pistons don’t work properly.

The obvious solution is not to close my eyes. But I have to blink now and then. I’m sure you’ll appreciate my predicament.

The mannequins have become suspiciously quiet.

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Yesterday or the day before or some other time, I had a visitor. She appeared in the doorway and smiled at me. I shone my torch at her, moving the light up and down, to try to work her out. She wore a green dress that made me think of reptiles. She asked if she could join me, so I moved to one side and pushed back the duvet.

I may have fallen asleep at that point. Either that, or we had sex. Whatever happened, she disappeared afterwards. First she was there, then she wasn’t. But she left her green dress on my bed. I picked it up to throw it on the floor and found it was sticky and brittle, like shed skin.

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I feel as if I’m in a forest. The stripy wallpaper is probably to blame. Sometimes I’m scared. A wolf’s paw rests on my shoulder.

The mannequins in my kitchen will be eating toast now. They’re welcome to it; I don’t even like bread.

My room smells of rotten eggs. I’ve no idea why. The stink would make you gag, if you were here and not elsewhere or six feet under or nowhere. Actually, I quite like the stench, which I consider a charm to ward off evil.

Something’s rustling in the dead leaves.

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Everything in this room looks like an old photograph. Mum and Dad are probably sliding around in the shadows somewhere, their cracked heads leaking red wine.

It’s a good idea to have a book to hand, to while away the time. Not that I’m waiting for anything. You know what I mean. It’s just sensible to have a book, so you can look at words and wonder at their odd shapes and try to fathom their meanings. Stops you thinking about other things.

Mind you, when I was little I fell into a book and was lucky to get out alive.

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Memories trouble me. There are three kinds: memories of things that have happened, memories of things I think happened but didn’t, and memories I invented to amuse myself or cheer myself up or give myself something to be sad or angry about.

I can never tell which category a memory belongs to. Probably doesn’t matter. Memories are stories or disconnected parts of stories, and we all need stories.

Here’s one: I’m walking along a shingle beach under a thin veil of cloud on a warm summer’s day, when I come across a set of false teeth. After I’ve kicked it into the sea an old man with a bleeding mouth walks past.

I often find myself laughing for no reason.

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There are seagulls on the roof, screeching like a Punch and Judy show. They’re probably in cahoots with the mannequins.

Something’s moving among the trees or the stripes in the wallpaper or the bars of my prison.

It’s difficult not to feel uneasy.

—–

This is an excerpt from my book In the Dark Room.

It is available from Lulu and on Kindle (UK) (US). There is also a deluxe colour paperback version available here.

Texts and images copyright James Knight. All rights reserved.

Writing In the Dark Room

Seven years ago I started writing a novel. It’s still unfinished. The story is alive in my head, though I’ve been incapable of writing more than fragments. I haven’t got much more to show for my efforts than the 2000 or so words that Leigh Wright published in Wyrd Daze under the title Blackouts.

Writing my novel should be easy. The story is very simple and clearly mapped out, and lends itself to the terse, fragmentary style in which I tend to express myself. But I can’t write it, precisely because I’ve already planned it. Writing In the Dark Room over five days in July this year has taught me that.

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In the Dark Room began as a vague idea. I wanted to write in the first person, from the perspective of a character for whom the normal categories of the real and the imaginary are meaningless. And I wanted to use my own digital artwork to generate or provide a starting point for each brief chapter. Since April this year I have been collaborating with Mexican artist Viviana Hinojosa on a piece called House of Mirrors, writing in response to her sumptuously inventive drawings. For the most part the words have flown because every response I write plays freely with elements of Viviana’s drawings and has no plan to adhere to, no target to aim for.

It’s only when I’m not trying to write that I can write.

So I decided that there would be no plan for In the Dark Room, beyond writing in the first person and allowing the words to go wherever they wanted, having used pictures made over the past year or so to set them on their way. I chose forty oneirographs (digital dream pictures consisting of layers of heterogeneous elements) and started writing.

The words came very quickly. Motifs explored elsewhere in my writing (for example dreams, forests, doubles, mannequins, the Bird King) found a natural way in. To my surprise, so did some autobiographical elements and memories from my childhood. Equally surprising to me was the emergence of a rudimentary plot. In not trying to write my novel I managed to write a novella, of sorts.

In the Dark Room is narrated by a bed-ridden man besieged by dreams and memories. His words are addressed to a nameless woman who may have left him or died, if she existed in the first place. He talks about his family and his room (by turns a bedroom, a forest, a prison cell, a box) and obsesses about the mannequins who have invaded his house. Maybe he’s mad or asleep or in Hell. I don’t know.

I’ve issued the book in three editions: an ebook for Kindle, a cheap paperback with black-and-white reproductions of the oneirographs and a deluxe paperback in full colour. You can buy it here (UK) and here (US). Or read some of the reviews, by Abbie Foxton, Kate Garrett, Susan Omand and Mina Polen.

The Kindle edition will be free this Bank Holiday weekend, on Sunday 24 and Monday 25 August.