Category: Reading


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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Book News

Immanion Press’s first blog hop is now over, bar selecting a winner of the competition. It was interesting to try this way to promote Para Kindred, and I’ll certainly do similar promotions for future Wraeththu anthologies. Thanks to Nerine Dorman and Shauna Knight for their help and advice on this procedure!

As far as the Wraeththu Mythos is concerned, my own current novel, ‘The Moonshawl’, is edging towards its climax. I’ve got to a part now where I really have to put myself inside Ysobi’s head and think, ‘ok, what would this character do next, credibly?’ He’s acquired a lot of needed information about the mystery he’s investigating; now he needs to take action. But as to which other characters are with him on this final stage I’ve yet to decide – or maybe I should let the character decide simply through the writing.

I’m happy to report that we have Wraeththu Mythos novels by other writers on the horizon, from Wendy Darling and anthology contributor E S Wynn. Wendy, of course, has been involved in the Mythos for many years, and was the co-author of ‘Breeding Discontent’ as well as co-editor on all the Mythos anthologies. Her novel ‘Angry City’ explores the early days of Wraeththu, as does Earl’s ‘Hollow Hills’. Both of these books will present gritty visions of the mythos, and I’m really looking forward to reading the completed manuscripts.

Para Kindred contributor Nerine Dorman is also working on ideas for a mythos novel set in South Africa. I loved the story she gave us for PK so again I’m really looking forward to what she’ll come up with for a novel. I’ll post news about that once she’s worked out a plot line for it.

Wendy and I are currently swapping ideas for the theme of the next Wraeththu Mythos anthology. So all in all, things are looking interesting for the future of Wraeththu.

Short Stories

Happy to say that my story ‘The Saint’s Well’ was accepted by editor David Barrett for his ‘Mammoth Book of Tales from the Vatican Vaults’. I believe this will be out next year, but will give more details when I know for sure. I really enjoyed writing this story and am glad to appear in the excellent line up David has secured for this satisfyingly fat collection!

A Storm Constantine ‘Imaginings’ short story collection is in the pipeline with Ian Whates’ Newcon Press. This is scheduled for mid 2015. The collection will include a few previously published but uncollected stories (none that have appeared in Newcon Press anthologies), and also a selection of new pieces.

Currently Reading…

I’m a fan of ghost stories and have been reading some of the Dark Terrors collections. I’m not a fan of gore, however, and am somewhat disappointed sometimes that well set-up stories then conclude with the cop-out, typical horror ending: ‘the protagonist is murdered in horrible detail by whatever supernatural thing is in the story’. Some of the best stories are brave enough to do something different. After reading Liz Hand’s ‘Near Zennor’, I had to order her own collection ‘Errantry’ that includes it. What I loved about Liz’s story is that it’s supernatural, eerie, but also credible. The supernatural part is just ‘off centre reality’ enough to be believable. Also beautifully written. I’ve just started reading ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn, but Liz’s book is next on my reading list.

I’ve also got into Simon Kurt Unsworth’s work, firstly through his book ‘Quiet Houses’, which I got for my Kindle and then through other pieces of his in anthologies I’ve read. I loved ‘Quiet Houses’, not least because one of my greatest loves in supernatural fiction is haunted houses. The protagonist (a paranormal investigator) at one point investigates a haunted Victorian public toilet! I believe Simon has a new collection in store, which I’ll also be quick to order. Evocative writing, interesting new slants on the haunted house. I posted a link today on my FB page concerning creepy photos of abandoned buildings, such as hotels, amusements parks and asylums. They could well illustrate Simon’s ‘Quiet Houses’.

Cats… Well, There Has to be Cats

New girl Pashti has discovered a new pastime – net curtain climbing. To Pashti, I imagine the navigation of our half window net curtains in the living-room is the equivalent of some perilous jungle vine network. She swings herself around, generally in pursuit of moths, throwing herself onto the tiny ledge of the sash window’s ledge, wobbling precariously, sometimes falling, only to rescue herself with a timely grab of the nets, then to swing wildly as she scrambles to safety on the thin ledge again. From outside, our nets now appear full of rents and tears, lending the house a rather Steptoe ambience! I learned today from friend and neighbour Danielle Lainton, who lives opposite me, that several neighbours on the opposite side of the road have been observing Pashti’s antics with amusement. She provides street entertainment, it seems. Someone said to Danni: ‘Has your friend Storm got a new cat? A sort of mottled, weird looking animal?’ Yes, that must be Pashti, lol. People who aren’t familiar with orientals don’t quite understand her exquisite beauty. Our friend Bob Forse called round yesterday. Pashti’s greeting to him was to launch herself from the ground right onto his chest, all claws out, and cling there. He said, ‘you’ve been feeding her after midnight and got water on her, haven’t you?’ She is rather a little gremlin, bless her, but despite the injuries she inflicts on guests, everyone loves her. She’s clearly worked out that climbing people, or destroying parts of the home, if accompanied by ecstatic purring, means she doesn’t get chastised.

I’ve been working on Para Kindred over the weekend, the forthcoming Wraeththu story collection. I’ve edited one of Wendy Darling’s stories for it, and another from Daniela Ritter. I’ve also attended to editorial corrections Wendy asked for my story, ‘Painted Skin’. After making this post I’ll take a look at my second story for the anthology and start work on it. So far it hasn’t got a title. The collection’s shaping up well and if the last couple of stories come in on time we’ll hit our desired March publication with no problem.

Short stories seem to be taking centre stage for me at the moment. I’ve just finished one to send off to an anthology, (superstition forbids me from revealing more until it’s taken or rejected!), and I’ve heard word of another couple of collections I’d like to submit to. After a long break from writing shorts, it’s great to get back to them over this past six months or so, and I’m really enjoying dabbling in them once more.

I have some news concerning the collection I mentioned in my last post that I was in talks about with another publisher. This was Ian Whates from Newcon Press. He’s going to bring out a collection of mine in 2015 for his ‘Imaginings’ series – which comprises limited edition, nicely-produced hardbacks from various authors across the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres. To date, this series has included authors like Tanith Lee, Liz Williams, Lisa Tuttle, Stephen Baxter and Stan Nicholls, so it’s a prestigious project to be part of. My anthology, yet unnamed, will include uncollected works and a few new stories. So these will be pieces not available in any of my Immanion Press collections. I’ll give more news of the book’s Contents once they’ve been finalized. Newcon Press’s full catalogue can be found here: http://newconpress.co.uk/

Work on my Wraeththu novel, ‘The Moonshawl’, is still going well too, and I’ll be spending a couple of days on that this week – two days seems to be about all I can manage at the moment, what with all the short story writing. But writing is writing, and what wants to come out has to be allowed to come out. I feel as if a creative dam has burst after years of drought!

My own writing aside, I want to let off steam about something that’s increasingly getting on my nerves: the poor standard of grammar, spelling, syntax and punctuation in so many of the published works I read, and also in magazines and newspapers, and even in broadcasting on the radio and television. Every editor, I’m sure, has pet hates. (I won’t go in Ian Whates’ long-standing war with the word ‘it’!). Mine include the wrong use of verb forms, in particular the now all too common ‘he was sat’, ‘she was stood’ etc, instead of the correct forms of either ‘she stood’ or ‘she was standing’. I’m reading a novel at the moment and am being tripped up and ejected from immersion in the story every few minutes by one of these appalling bloopers. Strangely, it’s not consistent, and the author gets the verbs right as often as she gets them wrong. I can only assume she doesn’t have a full knowledge of grammar and therefore lacks control of her prose. This particular, horrible corruption has crept into all aspects of the written and spoken word, and I really hate it. Whenever I see it I can’t help thinking the writer is just lazy and uneducated in their craft.

Another pet hate, and I think this has come over to the UK from America, is the use of ‘off of’ for ‘from’, such as ‘off of that programme on the telly’, instead of ‘from that programme on the telly’. It’s forgivable in toddlers, i.e. people learning to talk, but not in adults, and certainly not in writers. I see this horror all over the place, and the mere sight of it is enough to raise my blood pressure! Call me a grammar nazi if you like but I really detest the sloppiness it reveals.

Another annoyance is misuse of the word ‘that’, when ‘who’ should be used, i.e. ‘these are the people that were stood’… oops I mean, ‘these are the people who were standing’! It’s clear the writers concerned aren’t aware that when it’s a person or people we use ‘who’; when it’s an object or an animal, (and some writers might even contest the latter), we use ‘that’.

I often see weak punctuation, syntax and spelling, as if the books I’m reading haven’t been edited properly, if at all. I also see cases of endless repetitions of words and phrases close to each other on a page, (and not in a deliberate, poetic or dramatic way), which should be spotted by an editor, even if the writer is blind to them. (I know I make mistakes in my work all the time, which is why I ensure it’s read by several people and also edited thoroughly.) Not only ‘popular’ novels suffer in this way – I’ve seen it in allegedly literary works, whose covers have been crowded with unctuous praise from ‘names’ and whose authors have even won awards for their writing.

It worries me that we are heading into literary Dark Ages, where standards plummet to the quality of text speak and the construction of language – our basic tool of communication – dissolves. Even now, (and perhaps for a long time), students emerge from schools and colleges barely able to string a sentence together. Friends of mine who are teachers and lecturers constantly lament the illiterate state of their students, many at so-called university level. The most horrifying part is that people at the top, with the power to do something about this situation, don’t seem to care that much. Standards are lowered so that barely literate students can get degrees. I too see countless manuscripts from would be writers that are almost unreadable, so poor is their grasp of the tools of their trade. And yet they think they have the ability to produce novels and stories, patently not realizing they have to learn their trade – and most likely work hard to educate themselves in English language skills they were never taught at school – just like in any other profession. Perhaps this is a tide us old school writers cannot swim against and it’s the inevitable fate of literature in our modern society, a heart-breaking dumbing down. I really hope I’m wrong.

I’ve been super busy since I wrote my last blog post and – am happy to report – very productive. I finished ‘Painted Skin’, one of the stories for the forthcoming Wraeththu anthology ‘Para Kindred’, and am about halfway through a second. The second story, as yet un-named, is a return to canon characters in that it features Ashmael Aldebaran from the Wraeththu trilogies as well as the Kamagrian, Kate. I began the story quite a few years ago, concerning a human community that has survived against all odds in the midst of a wilderness, where the threat of the remaining unevolved Wraeththu tribes is still immense. The Gelaming have their own reasons for wishing to contact these survivors, and the har sent to do the job is Ashmael, with Kate along as negotiator, since they assume a more ‘female’ looking person will be more acceptable to the humans. They discover that a son of the human family has outstanding abilities beyond what’s normally found in the old race. The Gelaming want him incepted, the family and the boy himself don’t, and the drama unfolds from there. This story has enabled me to vent my gripes about interfering, busy-body ‘health’ officials, who think they know what’s best for us, when sometimes they really don’t. They just tick boxes and stand by the current ‘fashions’, whatever the consequences for the individual. I’ve got plenty more horrors to relate before the end of it.

The novel, The Moonshawl, is still going well, although at the moment I’m finding it difficult to devote more than two days a week to it, and of course those end up being less than full working days because of little tasks I continually have to attend to. But I’m happy with the progress, even if it’s not as fast as I’d like. A host of new ideas came to me, which have to be incorporated. I sat down to write a few notes on ‘the dark history of the Wyvern family’, only to end up with 10 pages of what could be a separate short story. Not all of this might make it into the novel, but as least *I* know what happened in the past.

This week I’ve written an introduction for a new edition of Algernon Blackwood’s first two short story collections, which will be combined into one volume by Greg Shepard – who some of you might remember published American editions of several of my novels, plus ‘The Oracle Lips’ story collection, through his Stark House Press. I’m not sure if that’s still the name of his publishing house, but will post further news when I have more details about the book. Blackwood is one of the most influential supernatural writers of the earliest twentieth century and inspired many other authors, even to the present day. I hesitate to use the term ‘horror writer’ for authors of his time, since to me the word horror nowadays often just entails blood, guts, dismemberment, torture, etc etc and I’ve never liked that kind of fiction. To me, the best horror is that which implies more than it shows; feelings of unease, the inexplicable, the subtly chilling. Anyway, I recommend Greg’s book, which includes ‘The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories’ and ‘The Listener and Other Stories’.

One thing I think is really important is that works like Blackwood’s are still available for everyone. So many of the ebook editions you see of these ‘historical’ writers are really badly produced, full of errors, and in one case recently – utterly empty of everything except the first page. I’ve read quite a few of these ebooks, since I’ve been devouring stories of this kind recently, and have been astonished at the sloppy production, as if the text wasn’t even read through once before it was slapped on the Kindle store. I know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to produce an absolutely pristine manuscript – mistakes will not be spotted because of human error – but really some ebooks have appalling amounts of them. Several stories have been virtually unreadable, owing to strange fonts and symbols littered all the way through. Hopefully, more publishers like Greg will restore these works with a bit of actual care.

Another thing I’ve noticed as I’ve been reading all these short story collections is how superior the older writing often is. It’s noticeable particularly when an editor has collected the new with the old. So many of the new ones are weak, uninteresting, or just gore fests. Dull, in other words. Whereas there are some real gems to be found in the older writing, often by authors completely unknown, who perhaps just produced a few stories to be published in magazines of the time. There were a fair amount of women writers involved in the genre too, and I read one ebook ‘The Lady Chillers: Classic Ghost and Horror Stories by Women Writers’, which was excellent. All of the collections have a few duds in them – inevitably – but this one was superior to most. Sadly, you won’t find collections by the majority of these writers, although there is a printed version of Edith Wharton’s ghost stories available. The ebook of Edith Nesbit’s ghost stories – forget it. This was the one I bought that was an empty file. (Actually it looks as if since I complained to Amazon it’s been removed from the Kindle store.) The Mary E Wilkins Freeman Megapack ebook is worth getting, despite the second half of the book comprising rather twee children’s stories. The first half, the supernatural tales, is great.

As for my plans for 2014, first of course I want to finish The Moonshawl, but I will be working on short stories alongside it. I’m in talks with another independent press about producing a book of my uncollected stories plus some new ones, and will again give more news about that when I have it. Once The Moonshawl is complete, it’ll be time to start on a new novel – I already have a few options. But as can often happen, a different idea might come to me before then.

Glad to say that ideas are coming thick and fast at the moment. As has become usual, my only impediment to writing is having to attend to other tasks. But I have a trusty notebook (paper one, not computer) to hand , so jot things down in that. I have also acquired a laptop computer for the purpose of working outside in the summer – assuming we have one, of course. My husband, Jim, and I share a workroom, and it’s one of his quirks that he chatters to himself constantly, which is a distraction to me, since I can’t stand any noise while I’m writing. This includes music as well, which is a shame, because I find it very inspiring. Still, to write I need Silence. I have my own little workroom in the spare room of the house, but it doesn’t get much sun and feels a bit subterranean, so I’m hoping we get enough decent weather to be able to sit in the garden this summer and write. Fingers crossed.

Ian Whates has asked me to write a story for his Newcon Press ‘future of agriculture’ anthology, to be launched at Bristolcon this year, where I am one of the guests of honour. I was a bit stumped to start with, because all the ideas that came to me were rather dark and not terribly positive about this aspect of the future, but now, after doing a bit of workshopping with my friend Lou Coquio, have come up with something that’s a bit brighter in tone. I felt that for this particular collection, it seemed appropriate to be upbeat rather than dreary and doomy.

I’ve managed to find time to write a few scenes for my third Alba Sulh Wraeththu novel. Again getting lots of ideas but things are just so hectic at the moment. I look back wistfully to the days when my workload when I got up in the morning was just writing. I squandered a lot of that time, because I had no idea how things would change. Writing time is a luxury for me nowadays. But that said I do savour it and look forward to immersing myself in it. It seems bizarre to me that for quite a few years I suffered writer’s block, yet now it’s not so much I can’t write because the words aren’t there, but just I have so many other things to do. But the positive side of this is that writing is now a pleasure to me rather than something to be feared, or dreaded. We all have our own ways round writer’s block!

Aside from my own writing, and working on Immanion Press titles, I have a delicious little job of typing up one of Tanith Lee’s stories for Ian Whates. I do the layout for Ian’s Newcon Press titles – one of my favourite things to do. I adore designing books. Tanith works on a typewriter rather than a computer, and hers died recently, so she’s been writing by hand. I’ve done quite a bit of typing and scanning for Tanith over the last year, which gives me the privilege of reading her new work – aside from the novels of hers Immanion Press is publishing. The tale I’m typing up now, which is a fairly long one, is ‘The Frost Watcher’, to go in Newcon Press’s new edition of Tanith’s short story collection ‘Cold Grey Stones’. Tanith’s husband John Kaiine did the cover art for the original edition, which I always thought was wondrously spooky and strange, and for the new edition Tanith has written the story to go with that illustration. Ian is launching this new edition in October, so check the Newcon Press web site for more details. http://newconpress.co.uk/

I’ve recently done the layout for another of Ian’s titles, the ‘part two’ of ‘Diary of a Witchcraft Shop’ by Liz Williams, and her partner, Trevor Jones. I just had to read parts of it as I was doing the layout – irresistible – and my favourite bits are the recounting of conversations with customers in the shop. A hoot. I loved the first book and can also recommend this one.

In respect of my own work, and reviewing what I have stored in my ‘ideas’ folder on the computer, I had a look at a novel I started some years ago, called ‘Shimbari Dreams’, which is sort of autobiographical in that it concerns a female writer who’s created a fantasy world where the characters have ambivalent sexuality. But primarily, it was my attempt to explore the possibilities – and dark shadows – of the internet. Looking again at the pages I wrote for it, I realise that social media have moved on so much I need to rewrite it quite a bit. I was interested in investigating how virtuality could leak into reality, and also about the more obsessive side of fandom. The ‘new’ fandom that evolves in the story grows beyond the regular fans, and is as much of a mystery and an absurdity to them as to the author. Then things take a sinister turn. I’m thinking at the moment, this might be the novel I return to after I’ve finished the last of the Alba Sulh sequence, but I do have several other stand alone novels started, either with a few chapters done, or just in note form, so I’ll leave it until later to decide which one I’ll actually work on next.

For now I need to finish the agriculture story and also the Alba Sulh novel. There is one part of this novel that I’m sort of reluctant to write, and might not include it ultimately. It’s something I find extremely gruesome and therefore uncomfortable to write about. It’s based on a real event that was reported in the news last year, and when I read about it, it affected me greatly. I need something quite shocking for the core of this novel, wrapped as it is in ghosts, but whether I can stomach actually writing that part remains to be seen. I might yet wuss out!

I’m still mulling over what should be the next Wraeththu anthology theme. I thought it might be nice to bring out a collection annually but I think bi-annually is more realistic.

So, lots going on, and feeling very positive about my work. Could just do with more time, or some kind of device that lets me stretch time. Now, that would be handy!

I share quite a lot of books with my mother-in-law, Dot Hibbert, and it was she who introduced me to P G Wodehouse, an odd choice for me perhaps. But I am now reading the Blandings omnibus and really appreciate the deftness of Wodehouse’s prose. Also, although a snapshot into a bygone English age, now it reads almost like fantasy, times have changed so much. Dot and I also really like Kate Atkinson’s novels. I started reading them years ago, and especially adored the bizzare ‘Human Croquet’, but was not so much grabbed by the ‘idea’ of the detective novels Ms Atkinson did later. Now, I’ve started reading them, and find her quite the subversive! On the surface, stories like ‘Case Histories’ and ‘Started Early, Took my Dog’ are mystery/detective novels, but also full of sublime insights about life, and also ageing, which to many is a sore nerve to be licked very carefully.

I’ve recently reread all of M R James’s ghost stories, since I received the box DVD collection of the Ghost Stories for Christmas, (at Christmas), which were televised dramas of his stories. He had so many great ideas, and although I think the writing somehow muddies the awesome gruesomeness of some of the ideas, many are still chilling. The (first) TV adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You is great, and the story itself even weirder. I also particularly liked the story about the hair, strange curtains with a hair pattern on them… sorry can’t remember the name, get an omnibus of his stories… that was truly frightening and had me creeped out on nights when I slept alone while Jim was at work. One effective motif James uses regularly is ‘things’ creeping on all fours rather than walking. Shudder. Especially when they are creeping in the dark towards your window.

I also recently read a John Saul oldie, called ‘Second Child’, which I picked up at the charity book stand of the fab pub we go to with the in-laws for lunch once a month. I’d read Saul before, when I worked for Staffs library, and always found him a bit meh in comparison to other horror writers, but really enjoyed this one. It’s not great literary shakes, but was just a nice page turner for the time I read in bed before sleep.