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I’ve realised that it’s almost impossible to plan precisely my writing in advance. I’ve written blog posts over the years describing my intentions but a lot of the time these get modified – not least by the writing taking over and deciding for itself what’s going to happen. I’ve been thinking a lot about my career recently, not least because I hit sixty this year. Can’t believe so much time has passed! It’s frankly very scary. Anyway, I’ll talk about my realisations concerning writing – and Wraeththu – later on. First, current plans (but I – and you – might as well accept now that some of them may be subject to change):

After the successful launch of both the Wraeththu short story collection ‘Para Animalia’ and my new anthology ‘Splinters of Truth’ (the latter published by NewCon Press), I’m now concentrating on other projects. I’d planned initially to release all my Wraeththu short stories in one collection this year, including half a dozen or so new tales. But I’ve had to revise that idea. First of all, after discussing it with various friends, I’ve realised that as nearly all my Wraeththu pieces are still fairly recent, in the ‘Para’ anthologies, there probably isn’t much of  a market for a collected anthology yet. And even if there were, wouldn’t that be short-changing readers somewhat? Another consideration was that when I put all the stories into one book file and formatted it, it was already quite hefty – before any new pieces were added. So to me, this led to one major change in my work schedule this year: ‘Blood, the Phoenix and a Rose’ would comprise all new stories. A comprehensive collection can come later. I’d intended for this book to be fairly simple to compile, with just a few new additions, but no, the book has decided it’s something else entirely, and has clear views on how I must write it.

The initial idea for Wraeththu came from several directions, but primarily it was through my fascination with magic and the unseen. When I began reading books on these subjects as a teenager, I discovered alchemy, and this arcane art enchanted me. Even as a fledgling writer, it filled me with creative ideas. The alchemical rebis, the sacred hermaphrodite, was one of the most compelling images of all, and of course kick-started the idea of a race superior to humanity who were androgynous. In ‘Blood, the Phoenix and a Rose’, those words in themselves alchemical symbols, I want to explore the idea more fully.

So what has this alchemical beast evolved into? So far, the book will consist of three connected novellas, rather like a mini-trilogy, plus a few other pieces that are unconnected with them. I’ve completed the first two novellas. The first story was actually another of those ideas I’d had knocking around on my computer for decades. It was called ‘Song of the Cannibals’. When I began writing it, I didn’t know why it had that name – it had just come to me and I liked it. I imagined I could make the story fit the title as I wrote it and produced at most about three pages of it. Then I let it lie for around thirty years. Looking at my old notes (because I hate to see ideas wasted, however antique they might be), I came across ‘Cannibals’ again, and knew exactly what happened next and where the cannibal aspect came into it. Unfortunately it required junking nearly all of what I’d written, but for the name of the main character, the house where it’s set, and a somewhat sinister visitor. Here is a brief synopsis:

Tambril goes to work for a renowned alchemist/teacher named Melisander, who lives near Ferelithia. In the sprawling house, Sallow Gandaloi, which bustles with students and staff, Tambril discovers an important shrouded secret – his employer’s brother lives in a suite of secluded rooms and is most definitely ‘not right’. Melisander calls the weird Gavensel his ‘brother’, yet they are of completely different skin colours and clearly not related in blood. Yet Melisander never speaks about this. He is a fair and generous employer and teacher, and those living in his establishment, whether to learn or to work, are prepared to ignore or put up with the unnerving and ghostlike Gavensel in order to enjoy all the benefits of Melisander’s patronage. But then, one day, a mysterious visitor, a ‘crow of hara’, arrives at Sallow Gandaloi with an apparently priceless artefact to sell. Or is that his true purpose? Is he not perhaps there to steal rather than sell? And what is it he knows lies hidden in the house, something that is above priceless? Tambril, inevitably, becomes involved in the mystery, which becomes increasingly dark and threatening.

The second tale in the collection, which I finished this week is called ‘Half Sick of Shadows’, and is partly inspired (or perhaps informed) by the poem ‘The Lady of Shalott’, although bizarrely the characters themselves found the connection while I was writing, rather than me choosing deliberately to fit the story around the poem. During one conversation, a har refers to another present as ‘the Lady of Shalott’, and the whole thing took off from there. I didn’t plan this; it just came out. When the har in question seeks out and reads that poem, intrigued, he sees his own life reflected there, as he feels it fits him perfectly. That was pure coincidence rather than design. Or perhaps not coincidence at all! I can’t say any more than this about the story, as to do so would cause spoilers for the first piece.

The final story in this mini-trilogy doesn’t yet have a name. All I know is who the narrator is going to be, and an intriguing one he is too. Can’t say more – sorry! He has to be a surprise. I intend to start working on this piece once I’ve got another short story written, for a science fiction anthology to which I’ve been invited to contribute.

Something that’s been made abundantly clear to me while writing this new material is the thing that fascinates me most at the moment about the world of Wraeththu is how the original, incepted hara have adapted, a hundred years after their species was created. I’ve been hinting, and even overtly saying, for a long time in my stories that the incepted, the First Generation, are often regarded unfavourably by the later pureborns, who equate the incepted with madness, ignorance and instability. As one character in ‘Half Sick of Shadows’ says, ‘Hara like us are obsolete. We were merely mechanisms to get the whole thing going.’ The dust has settled, Wraeththu have gradually evolved into their potential, and continue to do so. But the casualties of war, those who fought for survival at the very start, the progenitors of Wraeththu, how do they fit into the new world, when very often they are scarred veterans of ancient conflicts? In Immanion, there is an establishment for such hara… I suppose much of my fascination lies in the fact that I am so much older now than I was when I first wrote feverishly of Wraeththu and their world. My dust has settled too, to a large degree. Now I’m able to observe my own youth in what I created, my own aspirations and hopes and ideals – my own silliness too, which I look upon with affection rather than regret. Wraeththu, if anything, have become even more intriguing to me.

I’ve written a great deal about hara over the past few years, and until quite recently have sometimes heard this niggling little voice in the back of my mind telling me I shouldn’t just luxuriate in the harish world. Write something else – something more commercial, harps the voice. While I’ve produced quite a lot of short stories not connected with Wraeththu over the past decade, the Magravandias Trilogy was the last full-length work not set in the world of Wraeththu, and that was released around sixteen years ago. That’s far too long, wheedles the voice. Stop indulging yourself! With this in mind, I began work on my ‘Through the Nightgardens’ project late last year, and wrote the first two instalments of this fantasy novel. I planned to write a chapter a month, and allow the first six to be available free online, illustrated by landscapes I created in the MMORPG, Rift. The first two are up, but… I’ve been so busy since the New Year, not just with writing, but with administration tasks and ‘any other business’. I’m also nearly at the end of ‘Grimoire Dehara: Ulani’, the book of pop culture magic, which I’ve been writing with Taylor Ellwood. We want to get this out around summer time. There have been short stories to write as well, as I hate to turn down offers when they appear in my mail. And shorts, while short, still take some time to write. So ‘Nightgardens’ hasn’t progressed as much as I’d hoped. It hasn’t been helped by the fact that Trion, the company who developed and maintain Rift, have changed a lot. I dislike the way they operate now and how they treat their loyal customers. This has soured my feelings towards the game and quite honestly has contributed towards me feeling less inspired to go and work on my landscapes for ‘Nightgardens’ in there. I will take both story and landscapes up again eventually, as I don’t like to leave projects half-finished, especially when I’ve already done so much work on them, but my desire to work on this was so much less than my eagerness to work on ‘Blood, the Phoenix and a Rose’. I love that project and want to complete it before I consider doing anything else.

It was a dilemma I struggled with for a while. My first love really is Wraeththu, and although my books about them have never been popular in the mainstream, they’ve always had a consistent and loyal following. That world has allowed me to explore so much about ourselves, as humans, and so much about gender, through the medium of these sexually unsundered beings. As I said earlier in this post, I’m sixty this year, and I feel now I have to write what I most want to write. I might have another 30 years left to me – or not. We don’t know these things about ourselves, but there comes a moment when you have to accept that the first half of your life is long gone, and time becomes a far more precious commodity. My writing is my legacy. I’m never going to be rich and famous; I got over the hope of that years ago. I’m never going to be the sort of writer who’s in the spotlight, grinning at cameras while I win awards. The disappointment about that disappeared some time ago too. But I do believe in what I write, consider myself a good writer who has worked hard at her craft, and know instinctively it’s what I’m here to do. I’ve never found writing incredibly easy, or felt it pour out in beautiful, perfect streams as if I’m a channel for it – as my late, much-missed friend Tanith Lee experienced. But I do feel I’m approaching the height of my powers as a story-teller, and have decided I don’t want to waste a minute of that trying to write things to please other people, in the hope it will make me more successful. My work is more precious than that and deserves more respect. I often day-dreamed wistfully of living in a big old house, much like the sort I sometimes write about, but know now that’s unlikely to happen. I comfort myself with the thought that if I’d ever had a house like that, I’d probably have been terrified in it – my imagination being what it is. Once I’d cast off these unrealistic hopes and dreams, I got down to the real reward – loving the act of writing, cherishing my developing stories, simply enjoying my work. The freedom that accepting all this gave me, which can only come with age and experience, simply opens up myriad avenues into new creative areas to explore, new stories to discover. And that’s the greatest prize of all.

February News

I’ve been extremely busy since the New Year, working on several projects at once, so here’s a run down of what’s in the pipeline

‘Splinters of Truth’, my new short story collection being published by NewCon Press, will be released at Easter, with an official launch at Mancunicon, this year’s Eastercon. I’ve been working on final bits and pieces for the collection, but now all tweaks have been made and it’s done.  Here’s a preview of the fabulous cover art by Danielle Lainton. There are three ghosts hidden in the picture – two of them on the back, so not visible in this preview. (One might only become apparent from reading one of the stories.)

Splinters cover smaller

I’ve also been working on stories for my forthcoming Wraeththu collection ‘Blood, the Phoenix and a Rose’, which will have cover art by Ruby. I wanted to collect all my published Wraeththu stories together in one collection, and the book will also include some completely new tales, as well as illustrations. I finished working on the story ‘Song of the Cannibals’ during January, which turned out to be quite long at 40 or so A4 pages. This piece involves new characters not seen before, but is set in the familiar territory of Ferelithia. I have some half-finished stories on my computer, some dating back to when I was writing the first Wraeththu trilogy. I intend to use a couple of these for the new book too – rewriting the starts and finishing them.  In addition, I’m mulling over what pieces of my Wraeththu juvenilia to include. I want to show how the stories began when I was in my teens, but the pieces are long, and somewhat rambling, as well as being the product of a fledgling writer. Perhaps some excerpts can be included.

‘Para Animalia’, the new Wraeththu Mythos shared world anthology is now almost ready for publication and will be released in March, with a cover by Ruby. I’m creating some illustrations for the book, which will take a week or so more to complete. The lineup is:

Beneath My Skin a Vein of You – Storm Constantine

The Bird Har – Wendy Darling

Running Under a Cold Moon – Nerine Dorman

Heart Howl – E. S. Wynn

Liminality – Amanda Kears

Eight Legs – Daniela Ritter

Dream Dragon – Maria J. Leel

Medium Brown Dog – Fiona Lane

Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing – Wendy Darling

Harbinger – Nerine Dorman

Clouds Like Hair – Storm Constantine

Plus a story due in this week from Martina Bellovičová (don’t have the title yet)

Para Animalia front smaller

I’m continuing to work on my transmedia projects ‘Through the Night Gardens’, and chapter 2 ‘Deepmoss Pile’ is now available to read for free at https://throughthenightgardens.wordpress.com/

I intend to publish the first six chapters or so of this story online, complete with accompanying landscapes that I created in the video game Rift, using their ‘dimension building’ feature. Eventually, I’ll add other subplots to the story and turn it into a full length novel.

I’m still aiming to post a new chapter every month, but as January was so hideously busy and I didn’t get time to finish Chapter Two until this week, I’m being more cautious about it now. It might be over a month sometimes, depending on what other work I have on.

I’m also working on ‘Grimoire Dehara: Ulani’ with Taylor Ellwood, as it’s been over a decade since the first volume ‘Grimoire Dehara: Kaimana’ appeared. This is a pop culture system of magic, based on the Wraeththu books. I can’t believe so much time has passed since the first volume, when I fully intended to get do the whole system in about five years at most. Still, Taylor and I are now committed to getting both Ulani and Nahir Nuri out over the next year or so. I envisage Ulani will be ready by the end of the summer/autumn time.

 

 

 

Happy New Year to everyone – hope you had a good seasonal holiday. I have lots of plans for writing projects this year so it’s time to share news of these forthcoming ventures!

First off, I’ve put the next Wraeththu novel on back burner (although safely with a great many notes on the story) for a while, as I’ve launched a new fiction venture – ‘Through the Night Gardens’ –a novel told in part as a serial, which will appear for free on the blog Through the Night Gardens This is a transmedia project, in that it encompasses landscapes created in the MMORPG Rift, and I have plans also to produce an audio book of the story, as well as videos of the landscapes I’ve designed for it. Eventually, this will become a novel produced in the traditional, printed form – and will then include sub-plots and other additional material. For the interactive part, I need to keep it relatively simple, but I hope also this will whet readers’ appetites for the larger work to follow. The first chapter is now online and I intend to release at least one more chapter this month.

However, even though ‘Night Gardens’ is taking a larger part of the stage this year than I thought it would, it doesn’t mean my Wraeththu stories will be totally neglected. Wendy Darling and I are in the latter stages of producing the next shared-world anthology ‘Para Animalia: Creatures of Wraeththu’, which I envisage will be available round about March at the latest. The book includes two new stories from me, and from Wendy, and also tales by E. S. Wynn, Fiona Lane and Nerine Dorman, as well as other Mythos writers. Here is a preview of the cover art by Ruby:

Para Animalia front smaller

I’m also working on a Wraeththu short story collection of my own that will include previously unpublished early works, as well as completely new stories, plus all the Wraeththu Mythos stories I’ve written to date, so as to collect them all in one volume. I don’t yet have a title for this book, but will be writing the stories alongside the chapters for ‘Through the Night Gardens’ throughout the early part of this year. It will contain around half a dozen completely new tales. I’m loosely planning for the Wraeththu collection to be available in the summer.

Additional to these projects, I’m working on ‘Grimoire Dehara: Ulani’ with my colleague Taylor Ellwood, again with the aim of publishing it this year. This is the pop culture magical system based on the Wraeththu mythos, the first volume of which was ‘Grimoire Dehara: Kaimana’. We’ve been asked repeatedly to release the other two volumes in the series, and now have the time to commit to this project.

My short story collection ‘Splinters of Truth’ will be published by NewCon Press to coincide with the Mancunicon convention, this year’s Eastercon, which is held in Manchester.  I will be on hand to help promote the book, as well as appear on a panel with my fellow Night’s Nieces, the writers who donated stories to the Tanith Lee tribute of the same name, which Immanion Press published in December last year.

Immanion Press will be releasing a paperback edition of ‘Animate Objects’, the short story collection by Tanith Lee, which was a special limited edition hardback published to commemorate her ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ at the World Fantasycon in 2013. Tanith fans are often completionists concerning her work, and as only 35 copies of this book were printed, we’ve had a lot of enquiries about it from readers who are desperate to acquire it. Tanith’s husband, John Kaiine, has given the go-ahead for new paperback edition, which will include an additional story and different interior artwork to the original.

That’s the news round-up for now. More to come later.

New Writing Project Goes Live

Meretrice Garden

 

I was determined to get my new writing project off the ground before Christmas, so happy to announce that the first instalment of ‘Through the Night Gardens’ is ready to be viewed on its own blog page: https://throughthenightgardens.wordpress.com/

This is the first chapter of a novel, much of which will be available free online, although I do intend to flesh it out, add secondary plot lines, and eventually publish it in printed form and as an Ebook.

What makes this project different is that it was inspired by landscapes I created using player-made ‘dimensions’ in the MMORPG, Rift. It’s enabled me to realise the images in my head, not only just as illustrations to use in the story, but as actual virtual locations that people can visit, thus making it a transmedia venture. At the moment, the landscapes can only be viewed by downloading the game, Rift, and making a level 1 character in order to explore the world, but I intend to make videos of them in the New Year so that people who either don’t want to download the game, or whose machines aren’t up to running it, can simply look at the accompanying videos. I’m also working with a friend to produce an audio book of the story. But this will take time, and I wanted to get the initial story out there.

I envisage I’ll release a chapter every month, all other work commitments permitting. Four of the dimensions are finished and ready for public viewing, but for now only the first one will be made available to accompany ‘The House on the Red Cliffs’ – chapter one.

As I’ve been immersed in the world of Wraeththu for the past few years – apart from quite a lot of short stories I’ve been writing and had published – I thought it was time to embark upon a longer work outside of the Wraeththu Mythos. Here is a short introduction to the story.

 Meretrice Bilander, a planarist by profession, moves to an isolated corner of the world in order to further her experiments in creating new lifeforms, drawn from different elemental planes. She becomes intrigued by Jeriko Rayce, a man who lives nearby, in particular by the unusual – and certainly unearthly – violet flower he grows in his house: a plant whose scent is a song, whose bloom is the sound of sadness. Meretrice discovers that no one can get near Rayce, not even the shamaness whose domain lies below the red cliffs. Wards of repulsion protect him. Together, she and Catty – the shamaness – seek to penetrate the mystery of Rayce, discover why his house can’t be approached and for what reason he has the violet flower. Then one night, reality cracks and Meretrice discovers Rayce’s house can at last be reached. She and Catty unearth some of Rayce’s secrets, which sets them on a journey to knowledge that is at once both folly and irresistible. They are invited to follow a trail, either to oblivion or salvation, through the Night Gardens, other realms of existence, led by the bewitching scent of the violet flower that might be balm or poison… 

I hope you will visit the blog, and I also welcome feedback concerning its format. May you all have a splendid Yuletide.

My love of supernatural stories inevitably led to me discover the side-genre of what is now known as weird fiction. My very first encounter was with Robert Aickman’s ‘The Swords’, as in my teens I collected all the Pan Books of Horror Stories and the Fontana Books of Ghost Stories, and Aickman edited the first eight volumes of the latter. Each of the Fontana collections included a story by him – editor’s privilege!

Regarded as somewhat more respectable than simple horror, examples of weird fiction can be found in the work of Truman Capote (Miriam) and Flannery O’Connor (Good Country People), as well as many other ostensibly mainstream, literary writers. Shirley Jackson, Oliver Onions – and more recently Lisa Tuttle – have also written many superbly peculiar stories. But Aickman has come to be seen as the king of the genre – a well-deserved accolade. You can now find collections dedicated solely to weird fiction – not just the odd (usually very odd) story cropping up in horror anthologies.

Such an example is ‘Aickman’s Heirs’, edited by Simon Strantzas, a beautifully produced book from Undertow Publications. I was drawn to it because I’m such an Aickman fan, and am repelled by the majority of modern horror, which often relies too much on blood and guts and being as disgusting as possible. Weird fiction is quirky, thought-provoking, disorientating, but rarely visceral. Guts are too crude a prop for this genre.

Aickman’s Heirs is an excellent book – I enjoyed reading it immensely. I only have a couple of slight criticisms, which I’ll get out of the way first. One of the most unsettling aspects of Aickman’s fiction is that it – on the whole – features very ordinary people, in ordinary lives, who suddenly collide with the weird. Their familiar world is thrown off-kilter, reality skews like a tilted, broken mirror. In ‘Aickman’s Heirs’, a few of the story protagonists are detached from reality from the start – teetering on madness – so to my mind this isn’t exactly ‘weird’ as Aickman wrote it. Perhaps inspired by him – after all, the editor stresses in his introduction that Aickman is a one-off, never to be emulated – but borderline insane characters make it easier to write ‘weird’, and to me it’s a kind of cheating. Someone going out of their mind is not weird – simply mad. Their world might get very odd indeed, but it’s a world of their own making. In a truly weird story, the protagonists are hapless victims, who find themselves in a reality that’s fallen out of balance. The world looks the same, but it’s not. They are seeing beneath the skin of the world, or seeing through it. There might be hints that what they experience is entirely subjective, but is it? That’s the magic of the weird.

I also found some degree of self-consciousness in a couple of the tales, as if the writers were striving a tad too hard to be clever and impenetrable. Aickman’s stories always appeared effortless and the author was invisible within them. That said, all the tales here are well written, and there are some absolute gems among them. Which is far more than can be said for most horror collections that are published.

As with all the best of weird fiction, these stories reward you if you read them more than once. The first time through you might think ‘what??’, but the story has got under your skin. You want to understand it, so read it again, perhaps this time intuiting more of what might be going on.  The author doesn’t tell you. It’s almost as if they flirt with you, beguiling your senses, laughing off-stage as you attempt to penetrate the mystery. You think about the story afterwards. You discuss it with friends. ‘What do you think?’ you might ask. I love that aspect of the weird. After reading Capote’s ‘Miriam’, I was desperate to talk about it with others who’d read it. The tale was almost maddening, yet utterly bewitching. I had to talk about it. To pull this off, a writer has to know their craft intimately. They must be adept with language and nuance. It’s a difficult genre to master, because in clumsy hands, stories in this vein merely become irritating rather than remaining intriguing mysteries. One of the problems of weird fiction is that there are examples within it of writers trying to be literary and obscure, but coming off as simply pretentious. Aickman was always convincing, even at his most peculiar.

Now to what I liked in ‘Aickman’s Heirs’. I particularly enjoyed ‘Camp’, by David Nickle, a tale of a recently-married gay couple on their honeymoon. Meeting a friendly elderly couple, who invite the pair to stay at their camping site, they eventually end up canoeing off into the wilds to reach this destination. And this is where their extremely comfortable, ordinary lives crash into strangeness. Reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’, the landscape here feels almost sentient and far from benevolent. Understated. Beautifully composed. The mundane is shattered irretrievably.

I also enjoyed ‘Seaside Town’ by Brian Evenson, the story of a rather anti-social man who is left stranded in a foreign holiday village by his more gregarious girlfriend. His discomfort in a strange land is compounded by the fact that the reality around him is far from certain. His inability to speak the local language only worsens his situation. In a Hitchcockian manner, he observes from his window rather than participates in events, but when he is drawn outside… The writer deftly creates a mystery that is far from solved, but I didn’t come away from it feeling short-changed or the victim of deliberate literary obtuseness – which undeniably can be a failing of the genre.

Reading ‘The Dying Season’ by Lynda E Rucker, I felt the author must have visited a holiday village as described in the story. There’s an authenticity to the detail. I could imagine the writer, perhaps as a child, finding in this very mundane setting of identical cabins a kind of terror – the uniformity becomes sinister, disorientating. The uniform shacks are like traps to snare the unwary. And what exactly did happen in the cabin next door? It’s apparently abandoned, hasn’t been lived in for years, yet the protagonist, on her arrival at the place, hears the voice of child within. We also find some ‘living odd’ in a couple of the characters – something Aickman often included in his tales. The protagonist might be Mr or Ms Ordinary, but then they meet someone who is patently ‘other’, and cannot walk away from this meeting unchanged. In ‘The Dying Season’, we’re not sure whether the only other apparent inhabitants of the holiday village are just mannered Goth types, striving to be wacky and unconventional, or something distinctly more unsettling – creatures with masks. They are liars with ulterior motives, certainly, but… This story has no end. It stops, but is far from finished. And the fact you don’t discover what happens next is more terrifying than actually being shown. Deft, assured.  A fine example of the genre.

It’s interesting that the three examples above all involve protagonists being on holiday, drawn away from their day to day lives. Holidays are supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, yet in all these cases the opposite proves true. Holidays, you might end up thinking, are treacherous. Anything can happen when you step outside your ordinary existence of job, home and familiar territory. You liberate yourself in a way that perhaps also makes you vulnerable. You are unhitched from the mundane, floating free. But into what?

As for my favourites, there are three. I’ll mention first ‘Two Brothers’ by Malcolm Devlin (but I like all three stories equally). On the one hand it concerns a boy whose (slightly) older brother has been sent away to school. The brother who returns for the holidays seems strangely and unsettlingly different. And what the protagonist William stumbles across in the woods during his brother’s visit implies the change is sinister, perhaps unspeakable. On the other hand, the story spoke to me of a child losing a friend, or in this case a brother, to looming adulthood. (I wrote of this myself recently in a story called ‘The Violet House or Songs the Martyrs Sang’, which is to be published in a collection called ‘Splinters of Truth’ by Newcon Press next year). While reading ‘Two Brothers’, you feel that sense of loss and bewilderment. Is it simply that or…? That is the playful nature of a story of the weird.

My next favourite is ‘A Change of Scene’ by Nina Allen. Again, featuring two women on holiday from their normal lives, but in this case following bereavements. Both are widows, and the meeker and more malleable Iris is taken by the still glamorous and vibrant Phrynne to a Norfolk town where Phrynne spent her honeymoon. Iris soon notices inconsistencies with Phrynne’s recollections of the past – deliberate lies or simply because of a faulty memory? These women have a history, and Phrynne holds a hurtful secret, which when it comes out and despite Iris’ best efforts to be ‘nice’ can’t help but anger her. The atmosphere is both dreamy and fizzing – if such traits can exist alongside each other. The weird creeps in with beautiful subtlety, like mist off the sea.  Something once happened in this place.

I’ve always loved Lisa Tuttle’s work, and her story here ‘The Book That Finds You’ is another fine example of her deft hand. It concerns a young writer and enthusiast of weird stories, who comes across an author no one appears to have heard of – J W Archibald. She finds a battered old paperback in a second hand store and is entranced by the contents. Archibald’s work is described as being much like Aickman’s. Eventually, the protagonist finds what she believes to be a soulmate, a fellow enthusiast, who not only knows of the collection she found but owns more work by Archibald. It’s difficult to say more of this story in a review because the weirdness doesn’t really start to creep in until after certain things happen that would certainly be plot spoilers. Suffice to say our heroine collides with the strange on a visit to Archibald’s home country. Fiction bleeds into reality, but not in a way you’d expect.

As well as the favourite stories I’ve mentioned above, all the pieces are good reads, even what I considered to be the weakest of them – and after all, that is down to taste and preference. Other readers might prefer the more hallucinatory stories.

I’m at present compiling an anthology of weird fiction with Paul Houghton, who’s a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies at Staffs University. We’re both huge fans of the genre. But the majority of submissions we’ve had in are simply horror stories. Despite our – we thought – carefully worded brief for contributions, some authors don’t quite seem to ‘get’ what weird fiction is. A vampire is not weird. A serial killer is not weird. Supernatural, yes, horrible, yes, but not weird. These tropes are simply too familiar. A writer of the weird looks for the unfamiliar in everyday situations and people.

Any writer who wishes to dip their toes into weird fiction should read ‘Aickman’s Heirs’ to see how it’s done well. I’m delighted that discovering this volume has led me to writers I’ve not read before, which means there will be more books for me to discover and devour. To assist in this aim, Undertow Publications have other fascinating titles I’m keen to read, among them ‘The Year’s Best Weird Fiction’ (one volume 2014 available, with 2015 to come), and also ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ which was and is an annual anthology. Sadly, not many of them remain in print. I noticed from the Undertow web site that a few of their list are available as eBooks. I really hope the earlier volumes of ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’ are eventually released in this format too. As a publisher myself, I hate to see books go out of print completely, especially when I have a hankering to read them!

Here’s a link to the site: http://www.undertowbooks.com/

When I was deciding on what to write next, I contacted a previous editor of mine, asking if they’d be interested in seeing something new from me. Not *publishing* it, mind – nothing so demanding – just *seeing*, considering. I was not even given the politeness of a reply in the negative. I received simply, as has so often been my experience of editors and agents, a deafening, indifferent silence. This is part of the same attitude that kept Tanith Lee’s work away from major publication for years, as well as many others of my generation.

But anyway, resigned and not surprised, I thought, what’s the point of trying to write something that might appeal to editors who are simply looking for the current *hot* topic? Even if you somehow manage to hit the spot, perhaps submitting under an alias, so that your age and experience don’t go against you, the chances are you’ll be discarded just as quickly once the next hot topic or author comes along. Unless you’re J K Rowling or some other, often lesser, writer who’s somehow hit the Young Adult screen/book jackpot, the chances are you’ll be treated dismissively, almost as a necessary nuisance. And that’s even when you have a contract. Screw that!

I’m glad to be out of that carnival of miseries. Creating your own publishing house has its drawbacks – no fat advances for one, learning how to market and promote your work another – but the freedom is exhilarating. Plus the fact that if I’m rude to myself, I can be rude back! It’s very difficult to ignore yourself too. It’s important to secure a trusted editor to work with, who can be a writer friend or colleague willing to do it – because I believe even the most accomplished and experienced author still needs impartial eyes to examine their work prior to publication. But given what happened to Tanith, to me, and to many others, I do advise any authors out there, who are in the same position, to give self-publishing a go. Get all those back catalogue novels out there again that you had published in earlier decades. Allow a new generation of readers be able to immerse themselves in your worlds and visions. It’s not expensive now, either. You can opt, as I did, for a printer/distributor (Lightning Source in my case) who works only with publishing houses – i.e. you have to give yourself a company name and buy some ISBNs for your books from Neilsen’s Bookdata or the US equivalent. Or you can give outfits like Amazon Createspace or Lulu a go. The latter two being more helpful to those who are mystified by the actual publishing process and need a bit of handholding concerning book and cover design.  I could write a whole article on the pros and cons of various publishing routes, and the whole self-publishing experience, and might well do that at some point, but for now, just want to say: you can do it. You don’t have to give up and think there’s no writing future. The internet is our friend. It’s freed us from being manacled to big publishing houses in order to be published at all.

Anyway, that particular rant over, I’ll return to the initial subject. What was I going to start working on next? I’d considered taking the Young Adult path, as most people making pots of money nowadays seem to have tapped into that vein, with huge movie franchises erupting from their books: Hunger Games, Divergent, City of Bones, Twilight, et al. But that’s not something I *want* to do. Even the lure of potential big money doesn’t inspire me to start thinking of a suitable story. In order to write, I have to love what I’m working on and, most importantly, believe in it. Friends have often said to me ‘churn out some chick lit’ or to write about whatever is the current fictional flavour of the month, but I haven’t the heart. Even if I tried, I know my efforts would inevitably turn into something supernatural or weird, because that’s just the way I’m wired. Ordinary simply doesn’t interest me. In my hands, Bridget Jones might possibly have become a psychic mass murderer!

I have synopses for a lot of books on my computer, but inevitably the one that drew me the most was another supernatural mystery, in the same vein as ‘The Moonshawl’, again set in the world of Wraeththu. I’m just not done with those characters, and am still very much *in* that world.  Plus the idea for a story had already come to me, while I was finishing off ‘The Moonshawl’. I’m fascinated by the concept of mass hysteria, how fear itself can be an infection, how superstitious beliefs can become reality if a collection of minds focus strongly enough to vitalise it. I had a vague vision of where this story would happen. Not in the gilded fey lands of Alba Sulh or the exotic yet civilised countries around Almagabra. Not even in the uncharted regions of Jaddayoth, which even in the original Wraeththu trilogy were already feeling the effects of civilisation. I expect it has become a popular tourist location by now!

I wanted to go further, into the corners of the world where the civilising influences of the strongest and most organised tribes had not reached. I saw misty mountains, immense forests, silence, sacredness, savagery, mystery. I saw a pristine body of water worshipped as a deity. I then discovered such a place actually exists: Lake Baikal in Siberia. So I had my basic premise – hara affected by mass hysteria – and a suitable locale.

In the Wraeththu world, civilisation has been pushing both east and west, from cultures who – in the time frame of that world – are only just making contact again following the fall of humanity. Decades have passed, nearly a century. And in that time, all the flotsam of Wraeththu has been driven into the most unfrequented areas. Where else but the frozen north? Into the great territories of Siberia and Mongolia, natural wonders that even in our world are not that familiar to the average person.

But this being a Storm story, the mass hysteria is not simply hysterical. There are supernatural elements at play, or maybe hypernatural. The tribes around Baikal (which will have a different name in the book – just not decided on it yet) have been fashioned from feral hara escaping Gelaming justice (i.e. remnants of Uigenna and Varr tribes), and  others driven out from various once-European countries, who have mingled with hara derived from the native human population of the area.  This is a melting pot of different cultures and beliefs that have dissolved into each other to form a new whole.

A young har falls dead inexplicably in the shallows of the lake, and then his companions, who’d been with him, become ill, debilitatingly so. As these are hara, and sickness is rare and when it does occur short-lived, these developments are terrifying. The local braihara (shamans) cannot cure the condition. They do not know what it is or what caused it. The ruling hara know how to protect themselves physically and psychically, but this is something else they cannot defend against. And it’s targeting their sons. Reluctantly, the most prominent phylarch seeks the aid of the Gelaming, who have an agency in the area. The Gelaming are regarded with contempt and suspicion, but their help seems the only path left open. The Gelaming agents, though, cannot help. They too are mystified, so they contact Immanion, seeking the bigger guns who might eradicate the threat.

So that’s the setup. I then had to decide upon the characters, the protagonists who would be sent to this wild land to solve the mystery. I wanted this to be Ysobi and Nytethorne’s first case, and Ysobi’s old friend Malakess can conveniently involve him in it. But I wanted more than that, something that might potentially interfere with the case. That’s when I decided to include Gesaril, Ysobi’s erstwhile nemesis, in the party heading into the unknown.

It’s not my intention to have another angst-ridden emotional nightmare enacted between them. Fourteen years have passed since the original events described in The Hienama and Student of Kyme. Both hara have found contentment in their lives. Gesaril has powerful friends in Immanion; he’s eager to progress in his career, which involves working with underdeveloped tribes that might require help. This new case, endorsed by Malakess (very powerful), and offered by Gesaril’s mentor Fernici (very influential) is too good to turn down. The downside is that Ysobi is part of the deal. Gesaril can overcome any lingering personal feelings, yes, but when faced with an ex who was part of a fraught and messy breakup, it’s not easy to feel totally comfortable, no matter how much time has passed. Also, Gesaril is aware he’ll have to prove himself among his own party, not just to his supervisors in Immanion. And what he has to face amongst the savage, throwback tribes in Akruviah, as the area is known, will test his strength of every type immeasurably. None of the group have any idea of what they’re heading into.

There is one particularly unpleasant event I’ll have to write I’m not looking forward to, as I’m rather squeamish. I don’t do graphic details of such things, as I hate that sort of torture/killing porn found so often now in books, films and TV shows, but even so, can see them in my head as I’m carefully writing the scenes – implying rather than describing. As a writer, you can’t avoid horror completely, because it’s part of life, and to try and ignore it is to create a simplistic world that’s cosy and fluffy and – well – not real.

So far, I’ve got copious notes to work from and am doing a lot of research on the area and on mass hysteria. I see there’s a new movie out soon, called ‘The Falling’, on the subject, which I’ll have to see. I’ve also read Meg Abbott’s novel ‘Fever’, which is a real page turner and a fascinating study of this group phenomenon, especially among younger people. (Typically, there are synchonicities. Even though I’d decided to write about Baikal before reading this book, ‘Fever’ also features a lake as a possible cause, although that’s where the similarities end, other than the basic idea of group hysteria.) I’m also reading about eagle shamanism, and other aspects of Siberian/Mongolian pagan beliefs.

As far as the plot goes, I’m weaving that as I go along, as I did with ‘The Moonshawl’. So far, I’ve written twenty pages of the book, and that’s really just setting the story up. It’s taking some work to include enough information to satisfy readers new to Wraeththu, but not too much for readers who’ve read all the previous works. As I said, I don’t want to dwell too much on the past history of Gesaril and Ysobi, but it must inevitably play its part, because it contributes to what makes them the hara they are. Also, I think readers enjoy reading about awkward situations and character conflicts. It’s like hearing gossip!

I don’t know how long it will take me to write this book, as I don’t get as much time to write as I used to, and also don’t write as fast as in earlier years. However, I’m aiming to release it early next year at the latest. I feel that once I get over all the setup and can get to the meat of the story, the writing will speed up, as it did with my last novel. But I am working very carefully on the setup, with lots of rereading and rewriting, it’s so important to the frame of the story and has to be just the right balance of past, present… and of course future.

As a taster, here is a segment told from Gesaril’s point of view (at this moment, I’m intending to give both Gesaril and Ysobi first person narratives of their own, as I did for Gimel and Rayojini in ‘Burying the Shadow’). This is not the finished draft by any means, so forgive any roughness and gaps. I’d just like to share the experience of creating this new story.

Except from ‘The Shadowbirds’

Piegull was eight years old when he died. Only a few weeks past feybraiha, vibrating with lust and energy he was ready to throw at life, there was no clear reason for his collapse. They said it was sudden. One moment he and his friends had been racing their hounds beside the great lake, the next Piegull’s body had arched backwards into an unnatural, tortured bow, yet amazingly remained on its feet. A plume of liquid, which the observers said smelled of pus or rot rather than vomit, spurted from his mouth, which was drawn into a rictus grin.  For a few stultifying seconds, as his friends either closed in to assist or shrank back in disgust, Piegull shuddered on his feet. Then his eyes closed. His mouth closed. He fell dead into the shallows where the lake licked the shore.

Two of the young hara who were with Piegull when this event occurred swore later that strange dull green lights had danced above the surface of the lake for nearly a minute. Not far off, quite near, but not close enough to touch. Others did not see these lights.

The young hara carried Piegull home; perhaps they should not have done. Perhaps he should have been burned where he fell. For within hours of Piegull’s body being laid on a bier outside the braihar’s dwelling, other young hara of the tribe fell sick. Illness: a terrifying thing for hara because in extreme forms it is rare. Our bodies are resilient, can fight back, laugh at the organisms that seek to dominate and wither our flesh.

The other young hara did not die, but they were crippled. Haunted by hallucinations of shadowy figures loping around their beds, or eyes gleaming from the dark corners of night time rooms, they became weak, listless, the skin loose upon their bones as if from dehydration. Water, they could keep down, but not milk, nor indeed any solid food. Their eyes sunk into their heads. They whimpered piteously like abandoned puppies.

At first, only the hara who were with Piegull by the lake were affected, but after a week, another young har fell sick, this one not yet at feybraiha. This was the son of Catblood, a har close to the tribe’s leader, Talysman. The braihar of the tribe, and even those called down from the mountain forests to assist him, were not only unable to cure the affliction, but could not divine its cause or origin. Had the lake poisoned the young ones? Had the malediction of another tribe erupted within them? Nohar knew the cause, although many suppositions were offered.

At last, driven by need more than desire, Talysman sent his theruna, Grail, to the Gelaming station fifty miles south. These prissy interlopers, these sly do-gooders, these mealy-mouthed, would-be conquerors, perhaps they might be able to help, seeing as they were super-hara, or considered themselves to be. Talysman was torn. Part of him didn’t want to believe the Gelaming could succeed where his most trusted hara had failed, while another, perhaps more sensible part, hoped that they could. Grail told the Gelaming this when he arrived. He said also that Talysman had to keep his position firm within the tribe; he must solve all dilemmas, vanquish all foes, make miracles. ‘So make a miracle happen for him,’ said Grail, to the astonished har, Therumin, who interviewed him.

Therumin went to investigate the case himself, found only a mystery. He took a healer with him, whose powerful agmara – the life energy of all – had no effect whatsoever on the afflicted hara. Therumin later admitted to us freely he’d anticipated only an afternoon’s work, for the healer to practice his art, then they’d return home. He’d expected a happy result: the tribe would be grateful, and – more importantly – perhaps the beginnings of a more trusting relationship would be forged. This did not happen – any of it.

Talysman would not speak to the Gelaming himself; Grail and the braihar led them round.

After a few hours, the healer murmured to Therumin, ‘This is beyond us. This is… I don’t know what it is. But we should know. We must know.

The implications hung like burned rags in his words. If these hara could be made sick like this, might not the illness travel, become an epidemic? Was this perhaps a remnant of some human biological weapon? Humans had tried many things to kill hara; such weapons had been generally the most effective. Yet we believed we’d conquered those long ago, made them toothless. Had something survived in the soil around the sacred lake, something we’d not encountered before?

The lake too was mysterious, always had been, long before Wraeththu walked the earth. Could its waters be responsible, as some had suggested? But the lake was regarded as a hostling to those who lived around it; inexorable, inscrutable, but ultimately benign.

Therumin knew he should not waste time. As soon as he returned to his station, he had his pod of listeners contact Immanion.

In Immanion, after some discussion had taken place, the Guild of Listeners contacted the Temple of Wellbeing, who contacted the office within it presided over by my mentor and employer, Fernici. I knew he’d always had an interest in that part of the world – mostly our work revolved around hara from the earliest of times of our species, who’d not evolved as they should have done, who were afflicted or maimed in one way or another, if only socially or culturally. Occasionally, the work had involved sizeable groups of hara, not merely individuals.

Fernici summoned me to his office. He is an ethereal creature in some respects; a century old yet appears still kissed with the fine brush of feybraiha. His inception, they say, was unusual, yet he does not speak of it. ‘The thing is, Gesaril,’ he said, his long hands expressive as they moulded the air, ‘throughout our history, the flotsam of Wraeththu has been continually swept northeast from the west, or northwest from the east. Up into the cold – I expect that was the idea. But what lives there now…’ He was pacing. He always paces when his interest is most ignited. ‘…strange evolutions, throwbacks… They killed some of our agents up there around a decade ago. Now, the station near the lake is heavily fortified. Yet it is intriguing, like a nature reserve. Dangerous predators, beautiful in their savagery perhaps…’ He shook his head, laughed. ‘Listen to me! Almost salivating!’ He paused, fixed me with his swift arrow stare. ‘I’d like you to go. Investigate. If possible, solve the problem.’

While I’d been on field trips before, they had not been particularly major cases. I was flattered Fernici wanted me on this job. ‘When do we leave?’

‘Oh, not me,’ he said, waving an arm at me and turning his back to examine a sheaf of papers he’d left on the low table that served as a desk, ‘much as I’d like to go, I can’t at present, so I’ll send only you from this department.’

Not you?’ I said, alarmed.

‘There will be a team,’ he said, ‘security, a couple of other investigators. I’ll speak to Malakess.’

‘Oh…’ A heaviness dropped over me that was faint dread. I hoped Malakess wouldn’t be on the team. Despite our attempts to be polite to one another, there was still discord between us; slight and easily ignored in the vastness of Immanion but perhaps prickly and uncomfortable within a small team far from home.

‘I doubt he’ll go himself,’ Fernici added, having read my discomfort accurately. He peered at me keenly, ‘Gesaril, it must be at least fourteen years ago, surely?’

I glanced away from him. ‘One of my faults is I find it hard to forget excruciating embarrassment.’

Fernici smiled. ‘Well, this is work, so overcome your personal feelings.’ His smile widened to a grin. ‘Also, it could be worse, couldn’t it? Malakess is the least of your historical demons.’

I grimaced at him, wishing wine on the occasional nights we had spent together had not loosened my tongue.  We’d swapped stories of our histories, (or more accurately I had told him much of mine), but the problem is that however therapeutic such spillings might be, the result is always that somehar knows more about you than you’d like. Still, Fernici’s words tolled a bell within me like an omen. Malakess har Kyme, with whom I’d once been intimate back in our home country of Alba Sulh, was a pale ghost in comparison to the one he’d once reminded me of. Malakess was a substitute, an imitation. I realised I’d not thought of the original demon for perhaps nearly a year: Ysobi har Sulh. So, that was healing too, I suppose.

I’ve struggled how to begin this post…

My friend, mentor and inspiration – Tanith Lee – died on Sunday. I got the news today (Tuesday). I knew she’d been ill for a while. She sent me a letter some weeks ago – we usually talked on the phone regularly, but her cancer treatment had affected her voice, so we could no longer do that. In the letter she told me she was dying. I sat there, the paper in my hand, unable to take it in, not sure what to feel or to think. This was a woman who’d inspired me all my writing life and had eventually – through luck and circumstance – become a dear friend. How do you reply to a letter like that without sounding clichéd or over sentimental? It was difficult. I was under the impression that although her prognosis was poor, she’d still have some time with us. Only last week, she was working on the edits I’d sent for her latest book with Immanion Press. I had no idea the end would be so close.

But while it’s in the hearts of all those who loved Tanith to grieve and mourn, we should also remember all that was wonderful about her, the way she touched our lives.

I remember being in W H Smiths and seeing the newly released ‘The Birthgrave’ on the fantasy shelves. I picked it up, browsed the pages a little, and was immediately taken with Tanith’s engaging first person narrative. I bought it, devoured it, and subsequently bought everything else she ever wrote, in some cases tracking down very hard to find small press titles in the days before the Internet made such searches less difficult.

At that time, Tanith was the same age I was when I first got published – around 26. There was a 10 years age gap between us. I wrote her a fan letter after reading a few of her books, and she replied, sending me a photo. I still have that letter.  Over the years, my collection of her books grew, and then I reached the stage in my life when my own writing began to be published. I asked people in the industry about Tanith, curious about her, but at that time she didn’t attend conventions and was regarded as rather retiring. This changed in 1988 when I met her at a Worldcon in Brighton.  She was charming, not at all the terrifying creature I’d been given to believe she was.

It has to be said that many reports I’d been given about Tanith over the years painted her as a ‘difficult’ author. This was from editors who’d worked with her. She was regarded as rather fearsome. But I have to say that when I eventually had the privilege of working with her as an editor, I never had one difficult moment with her. I think this was because I respected her work and didn’t try to change it. When I was editing, I’d mark things I thought were typos, and query them, but I’d never try to meddle with her ‘voice’. Sometimes, her sentences were unconventional, but they were hers – her voice – which I recognised, because I’d read everything she’ d ever written. So I didn’t interfere. When we began working together, I saw it as a partnership. I provided the publishing, but we worked together on the appearance of the books and their covers, most often incorporating artwork from her husband, John Kaiine (a wonderful artist) or even drawings or ideas from Tanith herself. I let Tanith have free rein with the content.  This was an enjoyable experience for the three of us.

When Tanith first asked if Immanion Press would be interested in taking some of her work, I was – as you can imagine – over the moon about it. She wanted to publish a series of books that didn’t fit into any particular genre. These were the Colouring Book series, which are thrillers, mysteries, supernatural stories and even one spy story. Sad to say, Tanith didn’t finish this series. She still had a couple of colours she wanted to write about, but even so, we published seven of these titles. Her other interest was in publishing themed collections of her stories, which we’d just begun working on, with the Ghosteria collection, and latterly with Legenda Maris, stories of the sea. Tanith had other titles she planned to do involving werewolves, vampires and dragons, but sadly these will not see light of day now, since she always included unpublished stories in her collections and wasn’t able to write any before she died.  We had an arrangement: whatever she wanted to publish, Immanion  Press would see to it. This enabled her to produce titles that otherwise might not have been published, although to be fair, I think any of the independent presses who supported her would have been happy to help out.  People like Ian Whates, Vera Navarian and Craig Gidney, along with myself, (and others whose names unfortunately I don’t know), were eager to publish and promote Tanith’s work, in a time when big publishers just weren’t interested in it. This was unforgiveable by them. So much trash gets published, and we see constantly the lesser writers who are launched into success and prominence. It’s not about what’s good, but about spin and PR. So many excellent authors, who were active when I was first published, fell by the wayside – and they shouldn’t have done. They gave up in the face of great indifference from the major publishers. The only reason I’ve survived is because I took the bit between my teeth and created my own publishing house. It’s interesting that nearly all the independent presses who’ve supported Tanith in recent years are run by people who are writers themselves. We’ve never had any sense of competition between us, because we all loved and respected Tanith, and she was respectful of us all too. There was plenty of her to go around. In fact, in some cases she brought us together. I wouldn’t know Craig and Vera if it wasn’t for Tanith making the introductions.

I was also lucky to republish John Kaiine’s remarkable novel ‘Fossil Circus’. I wish he’d write more! This would never have happened if I’d not met the pair of them.

So, apart from our professional connections, what was Tanith like as a person? To me, she was wry, wise and magical. If I had a problem, talking to her would make sense of it. She was the archetypal British eccentric – a dying breed, sadly. When I was down, she would lift me up. She’d enable me to see things from a different perspective, always with a touch of humour.  We’d bitch about things we didn’t like and applaud films, books and writers we both adored. It’s only now, once she’s gone, I realise how much a part of my life she had become. I took her for granted, but in a good way. Now I’ll never get those lovely phone calls in the afternoons, when we’d fritter away an hour or so just nattering.

In a way, Tanith will never be gone, because her work lives on and is eternal. This evening, I felt tired and lay down on the sofa in my work room. Cats joined me, as they tend to do. I dreamed of Tanith, and in that dream, we were both on the sofa, surrounded by cats – more than I actually live with. She was warm and breathing, and even in my dream I marvelled at that, because I knew she was dead. She didn’t say anything ponderous to me; we just chatted as we always did. What are dreams? Wishful thinking, a glimpse of another reality, or something else? I don’t know, but the dream comforted me, and I awoke from it feeling less distraught than I was when I went to sleep.

I don’t want Tanith to Rest In Peace, as is always said of someone who leaves this life. I want her to be soaring somewhere else, somewhere amazing, beyond our comprehension. I’m glad to have known her, and glad also that her work will always be there for me. Such are the brightest stars that shine upon us.

‘The Moonshawl’ is out today! We’re having a promotion on Amazon in which the ebook version of the novel is available free for five days. And there will be a Goodreads Giveaway also in the next day or so.

As part of the promotion for the book I’ve done some guest posts on a few blogs, and here are links to the first of them:

http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2014/12/guest-post-storm-constantine-offers-a-glimpse-into-the-working-life-of-a-writer/

http://www.fantasybookcafe.com/2014/12/guest-post-storm-constantine-on-inspirations-for-wraeththu/

http://www.afantasticallibrarian.com/2014/12/author-query-storm-constantine.html

Many thanks to the owners of these blogs/sites who allowed me to visit!

I’m yet to decide for sure what full length novel I’ll be working on next year. I do have several short stories to finish, plus the anthology for Ian Whates’ Newcon Press, which will include several new pieces. I’ve also been talking with Taylor Ellwood (my colleague at Megalithica Books) about doing further work on the Grimoire Dehara magical system.  Plenty of ideas – just have to make a decision about order of work!

I’ve always been a fan of the story ‘Rebecca’, the novel written by Daphne Du Maurier, the Hitchock film, and the later TV series, featuring the ever reptilian Charles Dance as Maxim (was never comfortable with that casting.) I knew that several novels had spun off from the original story over the years, but considered this a travesty, a calculating ploy by the publishing industry to claw in more bucks, rather than any honest attempt to continue the story with integrity. As it happens, I was wrong.

Only recently, and after a conversation at one of my ‘writing and dining’ evenings with my friends Louise Coquio and Paula Wakefield, I decided to get hold of these novels, see for myself. The three of us are interested in the Gothic in fiction and all engaged in writing rather dark stories of our own at present. Our discussion of inspirations led us to Du Maurier and inevitably to ‘Rebecca’. Paula had read one of the ‘sequels’, ‘The Other Rebecca’ by Maureen Freely and said that she’d enjoyed it and that it was written well. Lou had been given another of the three, ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ by Sally Beaumann, but hadn’t yet read it. We took a look at Amazon and discovered the third book ‘Mrs De Winter’ was by Susan Hill, one of my favourite ghost story writers. The next day, I ordered all of the books.

I will assume that anyone reading this will be familiar with the plot of the original novel, but if not, it can be found easily online. Here’s a link so my following article will make sense. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_(novel) But if you haven’t read that book, why not?! Be aware though that spoilers concerning the original novel inevitably litter this article.

As Paula had recommended ‘The Other Rebecca’ (2011) I read that first. It’s a modern retelling of the story, with allusions to the original and includes quite clever twistings of that narrative. The Midwinters, as the original De Winters are renamed, are mostly monstrous. Mrs Danvers is not the cadaverous, looming creature we know from ‘Rebecca’, (sister in spirit clearly to the housekeeper of Hill House!), but a more youthful, red-headed, while completely bonkers old friend of Rebecca’s – Danny – who is still very much attached to the family after Rebecca’s death and cares for her rather dislikeable children. (Maxim and Rebecca had no children in the original.) The story is told in the first person and the protagonist is a writer of minor importance struggling to make a career, while (like the original un-named second Mrs De Winter) being fraught with insecurities and anxieties. After her marriage to Maxim, she comes into a crazed nest of creative people and is at a loss at how to cope with them. They’re cruel, sneering and condescending. Maxim’s sister Beatrice, the stout rock of Du Maurier’s novel, is presented as still strident but scheming and untrustworthy. She’s one of the more sympathetic characters, though. Big plot spoilers next, so skip to the next paragraph if you intend to read this book……………………….

There is a ‘Gone Girl’ twist to ‘The Other Rebecca’, and the latter novel definitely came first. As with ‘Gone Girl’s male lead, the selfish and priapic Maxim is being set up all the way through the story. The difference to the original ‘Rebecca’ is: I didn’t particularly care what happened to him. He’s an unpleasant character, in turn whining and then callously aloof, bragging about his sexual conquests. Whatever his faults, I never saw the original Maxim as a whiner, blubbing into his wife’s arms. He kept himself rigidly contained. If he’d ever had affairs, he would never have mentioned them, and certainly not to his wife. But this is a modern novel. The original Maxim would be an anachronism in it. As with the major characters in ‘Gone Girl’, Rebecca and Maxim are loathsome, spoilt, hedonistic and careless. Self-obsessed and narcissistic creative souls, who happened to have great talent, despite their failings. The bone of contention between them was always their work. (Still part of the spoiler: a neat detail is Danny ‘getting messages’ from Rebecca, which you imagine are lies or delusions, rather than true psychic communication, but of course… they’re actually real, and Rebecca orchestrates everything from afar.)

But despite the nature of the characters, or perhaps because of it, the author pulls it off. While I did find the over-extended Midwinter family and its inter-relationships hard to follow, I suspect this is deliberate, since the protagonist herself can’t keep track of the milling relatives either. Sometimes the story is too inscrutable and I found myself rereading parts to see if I’d missed something. Maybe a second read through is required to ‘get’ everything. Danny like Mrs Danvers is still obsessed with Rebecca, who was a famous poet, and is engaged in collating her correspondence in order to write a book. She keeps Rebecca’s workroom as a shrine. In this story, it isn’t the dead woman’s silky negligees that are the fetishes, but her comfy slippers under the desk, the ash trays, the little clay models her children made. Danny isn’t a reliable biographer. She has an agenda, and while there’s no indication she has a murderous hatred towards and jealousy of the protagonist, she does see this woman as an instrument to help her achieve her aims. This is a world of novelists, tabloid journalism seeking thrills, and professional rivalry.

Manderley, the De Winter house, was a major character in Rebecca, but Beckfield, the house in ‘The Other Rebecca’ plays no great part. It’s Bea’s house. Maxim and his wife live in a large cottage in the grounds. Strangely, though, when the new wife arrives at Beckfield to attend a sprawling garden party, full of twittering authors, artists and poets, the first thing Danny says to her is: ‘Welcome to Manderley.’ A knowing aside, as if the book ‘Rebecca’ exists in that world and Danny is aware of the peculiar similarities between her life and the novel.

Apart from borrowing the central idea and skeletons of the characters from Du Maurier, Freely has written a book unconnected with the original. But I didn’t dislike it, read it quickly, and appreciated the strength and skill of the writing, although even as I’m writing up this review can’t remember the end. It’s not a book I’d want to read twice.

I wanted to save Susan Hill’s ‘Mrs De Winter’ (1993) till last, as I like her writing so much and considered the Beaumann novel might be lightweight, as I associated her work with ‘women’s romantic novels’, a sort I don’t like to read. (Happily, later proved wrong on that count!) But I just couldn’t resist picking up ‘Mrs De Winter’ after the Freely, probably because I wanted to snuggle into writing I knew I’d really enjoy. And I’m glad I did because chronologically (in the ongoing story) this is the book that should be read after ‘Rebecca’. Beaumann’s carries on from Hill’s.

Hill keeps the voice of the original novel and this is truly a sequel. Maxim and his wife are still in exile at the start, living in posh hotels, with few belongings, wandering about Europe, settling for a few months here and there. Ten years have passed. They have a found a quiet space between them, where it’s comfortable for them to live, after the traumas of the past and their flight from England at the end of ‘Rebecca’. But even so, right from the start we’re made aware that Mrs De Winter can’t suppress the memory that her husband killed Rebecca. He has a murderer’s hands. Much as the mild, damaged man she cares for now seems removed from the person who could commit such a crime of passion – he still did it. His wife also misses her home country immensely. When they receive a call from Giles, Beatrice’s husband, to tell them she has died from a stroke, Mrs De Winter’s first thought is that they must return home for the funeral. Maxim stalls, clearly terrified of the prospect. But duty wins through and they return. Manderley is long gone, and is never mentioned by the family. Mrs De Winter doesn’t know if it’s still in ruins, has been restored, or whether the land has been bought up and modern houses built on it. We never find out. But once she’s back on English soil, she knows she can’t bear to leave it again, and wonders how she can persuade Maxim to let them settle there. The past is done. There’s nothing left to haunt them, no reason not to come back. (Slight spoilers follow but nothing major.)

But of course, the central conflict of the story is that there is a reason to stay away. A simmering desire for vengeance still burns in the hearts of those who most loved Rebecca – or were obsessed by her. The first sign of trouble is a wreath left on Beatrice’s grave, which Mrs De Winter stumbles upon after the funeral. Perfect white flowers in dark green foliage, and a card signed with the single letter R, in Rebecca’s distinctive curling script. This must be a cruel joke. Mrs De Winter eventually takes the card and hides it.

Suppressing this information, coupled with a visit to Maxim’s former estate manager, Frank Crawley’s new home in Scotland, plus the sheer bewitching glamour of the British countryside, enables Mrs De Winter to convince Maxim they can come home at last. On a final motoring tour of England before they return abroad, they come across the house Cobett’s Brake, a vision of beauty and old England. Not immense as Manderley was, but a comfortable, sagging manor house in the heart of the countryside. Both fall in love with the place, even though Maxim is clearly nervous of admitting that to himself, and for a while he stalls and insists they return to Europe. Mrs De Winter simmers with resentment and anger, but it’s not in her nature to shout and stamp her foot about it. While touring Italy, she has a peculiar experience when Manderley housekeeper Mrs Danvers’ voice returns to her, whispering in her ear, savaging her self confidence. But again, she remains silent. And when on her birthday, Maxim presents her with the information that Cobett’s Brake is now hers, (he has secretly negotiated its purchase with Crawley), she feels her life is to begin anew. And so it does for some time. She and Maxim enjoy an idyllic few months in their new home, which is as far from Manderley as it’s possible to get. It’s like a mother to Mrs De Winter. She feels protected there.
But then, on a visit to London to visit a gynecologist, (she hopes to have children), she bumps by chance into Rebecca’s louche cousin, Jack Favell. He looks as if he’s been living on the street, and because Mrs De Winter lacks the strength of character to tell him where to go, or indeed call the police when he follows her into a hotel, she ends up having tea with him, giving him money, hoping this will be enough to get rid of him. As if! Then, on her return home, the newspaper clippings of Rebecca’s death start to arrive. And so begins the build up to the storm that will engulf Mrs De Winter and her world. As her strength wanes, Mrs Danvers comes back into her life, turning up at the house, apparently on a polite social call, as she’s been engaged as companion to an old lady in the area. As terrified of and intimidated by this dour female as she ever was, Mrs De Winter keeps Mrs Danvers’ visit and proximity secret from Maxim, and limply allows Danvers to manipulate her. She even accepts an invitation to tea at Danvers’ place of employment. Whatever spurts of strength she experiences are literally like damp squibs, sputtering a bit but failing to explode.

As the secrets build up, and the storm clouds build, and Mrs De Winter attempts to hang on to control of her life and protect Maxim from the past, we know that her world will inevitably tumble about her. We knew that from page one, really.

The spare version of the plot above makes the story sound more exciting than it is. ‘Mrs De Winter’ is a very slow-moving book. The De Winters don’t get to Cobett’s Brake until two thirds of the way through the novel, and it’s only then, really, that the story gets going. Until that point, there are endless – if beautiful – descriptions of countryside, houses, nature and weather. Endless self pity. Too much of all that, and not enough story. But I thought then, and still do, that this perhaps was intended, to make the novel ‘literary’ rather than ‘popular’ – the exciting elements are played down. I got fed up of Mrs De Winter telling me she’d found new strength, only to find that no, she hadn’t. She was as limp as ever and remained so throughout. Rebecca would have had none of the nonsense her successor passively subjects herself to. She’d have had Favell and Danvers out of her home with a gun pointed at their heads the moment they appeared. But still, the fact remains that Maxim was guilty of murder, however much he was pushed to it. And he did get away with it.

I did enjoy the book but not as much as I’d hoped. On the cover, one of the gushing blurbs called it a ‘ghost story’, so I was hoping for one of Hill’s superb, eerie tales with more than a hint of the supernatural. But the ghosts in ‘Mrs De Winter’ remain firmly in people’s minds. That didn’t disappoint me so much, though, as the fact the story was turgid, too slow, too full of hand wringing and sighs. It would have been more satisfying for me if Mrs De Winter had in fact grown up, grabbed her demons by the throat and turned the tables on them. However, the voice of the narrator is perfect, and it’s a convincing sequel to Du Maurier’s original. This book was my second favourite of the three.

But first prize must go to Sally Beaumann’s ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ (2001). Again, she keeps the voice of the original well, in terms of time and place, but the first narrator, in a novel of four parts, is the aged Colonel Julyan, who presided over Rebecca’s inquest. He’s always had his suspicions about what truly happened, but the mistake that Favell made, and perhaps readers too, is that he didn’t keep his suspicions quiet in order to protect Maxim and his family name, as was implied. He kept his silence in order to protect Rebecca, as he’d been very fond of her. The novel starts with him reminiscing over the past, because an upstart author wants to write yet another book about the Manderley mystery, which has become folklore in its part of the world. Julyan recollects his long relationship with the De Winter family, and I loved his description of being a boy, playing at the great old house. His portraits of the terrifying De Winter matriarch, (Maxim’s grandmother), the kind but wilting Virginia (his mother) and her glorious sisters, and of Bea and Maxim as children, are wonderful. The story draws you right in from the start because what happened to Rebecca was wholly tied up with the way the De Winters were, an ancient family going back eight hundred years. There’s more than a whiff of authors like P G Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh, in the light, acerbic wit of the writing. This is nowhere near a ‘women’s romantic novel’.

I was surprised – and pleased – to find ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ keeps to the ‘canon’ found in Hill’s ‘Mrs De Winter’ – i.e. what happened to the De Winters when they returned to England, or at least as much of that as Julyan and other major characters can possibly know – which is only the bare facts. Still, this novel carries on neatly from Hill’s, and it seems to me that Beaumann must have known of that book and kept to the same story. Or the similarities are just uncanny coincidences…

Part Two of the story is told by Terence Grey, the writer who’s in Kerrith investigating the story of Rebecca. Grey is a complex character, with secrets and tragedies of his own. His interest in the old story lurches towards obsession, dangerously so. Through Grey we meet some of the other characters from ‘Rebecca’ and hear their version of events – such as the cousin Jack Favell, Frith the erstwhile butler of Manderley, and other colourful Kerrith characters. The truth about Rebecca, it seems, is more convoluted than everyone thought. Her own history is revealed in tantalizing glimpses – the girl she’d once been and the woman she became who was mistress of Manderley. The reader begins to learn about her heritage. While Grey investigates, an anonymous individual is sending notebooks of Rebecca’s to Colonel Julyan, and is also perhaps the same person who leaves a wreath at Rebecca’s old boathouse cottage, and sends a piece of her jewellery to Favell. Mysteries mount, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

Part three is Rebecca’s own tale, as found in the second notebook sent to Julyan. But we know already that Rebecca is often a minx. Is her testimony reliable? Whether this is true or not, it’s riveting to read. A free spirit, Rebecca was born ahead of her time, totally unsuited to a woman’s life in the early part of the 20th century. She suffered for her difference, as she was rarely understood. And the tragic way she narrates her story to an unborn child she believes she is carrying is moving while being unsentimental. Naturally, Rebecca’s tale is cut short by her own death. Many threads are left dangling.

Part four is related by Ellie, Colonel Julyan’s daughter. Hers is a strong, true voice, but even she has her obsession with Rebecca, seeing in the dead woman a promising template for female emancipation at a time in history when women were fighting for their rights, and most men still regarded them as mistresses, mothers or domestics. Ellie’s is undoubtedly the most political account, but she is also a vibrant, convincing character with her own desires and dreams. Ellie uncovers more mysteries, and in one case solves one, while simultaneously growing as a person. During her account, the narrative never falters. All four narrators, each with their distinctive voice, carry the story along at a good pace, but it is still deep and ponderous – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. This is not a short or shallow book by any means.

Most, but not all, the threads finally weave together and the reader is left to make up their own mind. You don’t feel in any way short-changed by that, though. What Beaumann has done is create a convincing account, including the difficulty of discovering historical truths, when the main protagonists are dead. Some truth died with them. Rebecca affected everyone she met, often dramatically. She is perhaps all the things everyone ever thought her to be, and more, a girl who fought to survive throughout a difficult childhood and adolescence, who set her will at making an adult life for herself, to her liking. But she is always human, believable. Her gift to Ellie is revealed at the end of book, perhaps far different from what you expect all the way through. I loved that. My favourite book of those I’ve read over the past few years is ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters, but Sally Beaumann’s ‘Rebecca’s Tale’ will now be stored on the same shelf.

Of these three Rebecca novels only the Hill and the Beaumann can be seen as continuations of the story. In fact, with the original they effectively make up a trilogy. And yes, there could be more to tell, should some other writer be urged to take up the tale. The Freely is entirely separate, while still quite an interesting read. But it’s not connected with the beguiling, mysterious Rebecca as we know her.

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