mirror | writing is a film poem, in which I explore the acts of looking, reading and writing, through a series of still and moving monochrome pictures. It started as a visual gag: I pictured a large hammer next to a mirror, with the caption, “In emergency, break glass.” What’s on the other side of the looking-glass? A chessboard, a red queen, Alice’s journey of self-discovery. A world where the rules are reversed. I decided to make a film poem featuring the red queen and me (represented by a black knight – geddit?), in which the viewer is taken to the other side of the mirror.
I used a compositional technique that often drives my writing, selecting a limited set of images (in this case, a mirror, a hammer, a book, a chessboard and the two chess pieces) and combining them in various ways, experimenting with juxtapositions and different ways of presenting the objects. Ever since I set fire to a tree in my grandad’s garden when I was ten, I have been fascinated by fire, and an image that has repeatedly imposed itself on my mind’s eye lately has been that of one of my own books, in flames. So I knew early on that I would include footage of a burning copy of the mannequins are more real than you. In the end, I burned just one page (a poem called “The mannequins are only playing dead”), and in the film poem this shot appears more than once, playing at different speeds and, in its first iteration, in reverse, so that the written page is created by the flames. But I didn’t want the destruction of my own work to end there. Inspired perhaps by @gadgetgreen (who a year or so ago tore up, mangled and generally wrecked a copy of my book Mono and tweeted the pictures), I filmed a stop-motion sequence, in which rips appear in pages of my book and the shredded remains crawl away, out of shot. Like the burning page, we see this more than once: forwards and backwards. Creation mirrors destruction.
At several points in the film, the viewer is presented with brief close-ups of bits of text, including random fragments visible on torn, scrunched-up pages. Looking becomes reading, or perhaps writing: the shots are so fleeting that the viewer is forced to select words and phrases to read, and in that act of selection, the viewer/reader writes the film’s meaning. When I write or make pictures, I never set out to determine meaning; that is for the reader to decide, through a creative act of interpretation. In making mirror | writing, my sole intention was to play with some objects that fascinated me, toying with reflections and echoes. I had no final destination in mind. The viewer looks in the mirror. The viewer writes.
The film was made using a smartphone and a tablet, commonplace possessions. We are all photographers, writers, artists, film makers now. As Isidore Ducasse said, “Poetry should be made by all.”
His house is mostly submerged. Moonlight makes a white reflection on the water, pretty as a skull. He paddles to the loft window and gets in that way.
The loft is a mess. Mum and Dad sit on a pile of poetry books in a corner. They can’t read, but they like the sensation of lofty words against their bums. Most of the floor space is covered with parts of dismantled mannequins. A little bird nests in a cavity in the wall. Life isn’t so bad.
There is a camp bed. He lies on it. He needs to sleep. Mum and Dad are muttering to each other, but he’s used to that. He closes his eyes.
At three a.m. the singing starts again, smashing through the window like a brick. Mum and Dad become agitated, start howling. He turns over and tries to stay asleep.
His house is mostly submerged. In the early morning light, the bit of it that isn’t in the water resembles a grey wasp. The mannequins amble around on the roof, building their laboratory from debris that floats by, catching at it with cracked hands: branches of trees, plastic bags, dead dogs. They haven’t been fed properly since the flooding began. They rely on human blood to keep them going. He provides it. Not his own, of course; he goes out on his makeshift raft, scouting for the injured, the diseased, the weak, the dead. It’s arduous work, but well worth it: the mannequins are always very grateful.
You fit into this story, though you’ve probably forgotten it. Pay attention.
His house is mostly submerged. It wasn’t always like this, of course. There was a time, months or years ago, when the house stood proud and dry on top of a hill. Mum and Dad would scamper out in the morning, rolling gleefully down the green slopes and then running to the local town, where they robbed, looted and murdered until their laughter paralysed them. Mr Vogel usually brought them home, in the back of his hearse. It could take hours to rouse them from their jovial stupor.
His house is mostly submerged. It suits the mannequins. They sit on the roof, fishing for dreams. Some of the filth they find would make your hair curl. They laugh silently, giving nothing away. Their favourite titbit is the dream you had on Christmas Eve. Yes, that dream. You should be ashamed of yourself, you dirty bastard. Mind you, we all had a look. Some of us went back for seconds. We were a bit starved. The mannequins tolerated our grunting and giggling, but we could tell we weren’t welcome.
Dreams are water-borne diseases, like typhoid and cholera. If you want to stay healthy, avoid thinking about rain and dry your mouth before you go to bed. Above all, incinerate your brain and ensure there is no water in the room. Even a small glass on your bedside cabinet could be a carrier.
His house is mostly submerged. There are eels in the walls. They bulge and thrash when he touches them. The wallpaper is their skin, glistening malignly. Mum and Dad don’t seem to have noticed them, but sometimes one of them will make a comment like, “Funny old walls!” or “The wallpaper’s all lumpy, look.” The eels in the walls feed on the memories seeping slowly from Mum and Dad’s hands and feet, as they drain away a week every day. No wonder they’re so fat!
The eels in the walls are most active at night. During the day, they coil into knots, doing algebra in their sleep. Theirs is the mathematics of amnesia.
His house is mostly submerged. You probably already knew that. What else is there to say? You lead an uneventful life, curled in the belly of the loft, awaiting birth. The umbilical cord is an eel. The placenta is an octopus, a giant sack of blood and slushy meat.
He owns nothing except the skin on his back. His bones show through. But there’s no reasoning with him; if you try to give him money or a meal, he laughs and swims away.
It’s the same time it was before. Mum and Dad are still howling. You should go back to sleep. Try reading some poetry.
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!