On Christmas Day and Boxing Day, the Kindle versions of Head Traumas and In the Dark Room are free.
You can download them here:
“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.
The Bird King is mad again.
through empty midnight streets,
The Bird King’s wings:
cobbled together from wire,
But the feathers are real, seasonal:
Spring: urinous, downy.
Summer: purples, scarlets.
Autumn: rust-tinged greys.
Winter: a widow’s fan.
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,
His laughter breaks glass,
He cackles and crackles on his electric throne.
Copies of the book can be purchased 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Texts and images copyright James Knight. All rights reserved.
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.
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.
What follows is a piece written as an epilogue to my junk poem Mr Punch Dreams. It first appeared in my most recent book, Head Traumas. In it, I imagine the sadistic executioner Jack Ketch (who for years was a staple character in Punch & Judy shows) entering the Hell of Mr Punch’s bad dreams…
Jack Ketch in Hell
Lost in the booth of Mr Punch’s dreams,
Jack Ketch flinches at the images
flickering across torn curtains.
The chirpy projectionist
sits in his nest,
A snake, rising from a discarded pair of clown’s trousers.
A monkey, balancing on a watermelon.
A burning sofa.
A boat made of newspaper, translucent with vinegar, sailing on a sea of soggy chips.
Blackpool Tower, shattering into confetti.
A spiral staircase that is a shell, revolving in the salty breeze, turning into an ear.
An eyeball, floating in a toilet bowl.
A glove puppet and a love puppet, waltzing in space.
Flowers in a trance.
Two black chess pieces: a knight and a king with feathers, in place of a crown.
A tiny man, drowning in a bottle of tomato ketchup.
An upside-down bowler hat, full of custard.
A beach ball, bouncing in slow motion through a hall of mirrors.
A puppeteer, hiding in a bin.
A small child, cheeks pink with joy, holding an ice cream made of seagulls.
A dirty puddle, in which someone has dropped a slim paperback called Mrs Punch Screams.
A man with a knife for a nose.
A chainsaw-winged angel, slashing his way out of a cocoon.
A round mirror, mimicking the moon. A face like a cloud crosses its surface.
The forest in which stories are born. Bloody and raw, they bawl beneath the eyes of shadow birds.
The Umbrella Men, sacking the City of Rain.
Judy’s moody brood, sulking in the shadow of a bouncy castle. But there’s one ninny enjoying himself, bouncing, ferociously alone: Punch.
A palace made of crumpled lager cans, on the wet waste of a beach.
A blancmange, thrown at a face.
Roll up, roll up! Come and see the Tyburn Gardener get his just desserts. Roll up, roll up!
The mirror frame above the chest of drawers
is a yellow loop
around Ketch’s head.
The Tyburn tree,
the stinking crowd,
a rotten egg sun.
All texts on this site are the copyright of James Knight. All rights reserved.