Monday, February 22, 2010

Short Stories

Lying on my desk is THE NEW DEAD, a recently published anthology of, curiously enough, zombie short fiction. My name is on the front cover as one of the contributors, which is nice, and I rather like my odd little story that opens the book, even if a bookseller friend of mine complained that it didn't have enough eating of brains for his liking. In fact, it doesn't have any eating of brains at all which, by his dietary standards, is dubious to a significant degree, and raises questions about whether or not my heart - or any other comestible organ of my body - was really in the whole zombie thing to begin with.

I think I've mentioned before that I don't really write very many short stories. I've only written four of them since the original publication of the NOCTURNES volume back in 2004, and one of those, "The Cycle", ended up in the revised paperback edition of NOCTURNES anyway, so there are now only three non-NOCTURNES stories that bear my name. When I think about it, "The Cycle" wasn't even published under my own name originally. It was slipped into an anthology of short stories by women writers as a favour to the editor, and I opted for the pseudonym Laura Froom, as that was the name of the vampire in my short story "Miss Froom, Vampire". I think the editor was supposed to reveal my true identity at some point, but either forgot or simply didn't have to, as the volume sold without any need for any additional publicity that might have arisen from the revelation of my involvement. Any sexual confusion on my part that might have arisen as a consequence was presumably to e regarded as collateral damage.

I'm not sure how other writers - or, rather, novelists - go about writing short stories. There are some who seem to produce them the way rabbits produce offspring, perhaps because they provide a way of clearing the head between longer projects, or a means of stretching some unfamiliar muscles. I'm not sure, though, that I'm a natural short story writer. NOCTURNES was a very deliberate attempt on my part to practice the craft of short story writing, and I basically spent a year doing nothing else, spurred on by the BBC's interest in broadcasting them. The first five stories I wrote, therefore, were written to be read aloud, as were a number of the second batch. The stories enabled me to try on new voices, to test myself a little, as well as allowing me to doff my cap to some of the writers of short supernatural fiction who had influenced so much of my reading as a child and a teenager, in particular M. R. James. Once that volume was completed, I returned to writing novels, and didn't really think much about short stories for a while.

Inevitably, though, ideas for stories arise occasionally. I tend to let them simmer, and wait for someone to come up with a good reason why I should set aside time to write them. Shortly after NOCTURNES appeared, my US editor approached me about writing a story for an anthology of tales to be set in hotels and hotel rooms. At that point, I'd been thinking about a story involving a man who finds that he is being haunted by the ghost of his wife, but then starts to wonder about the nature of the haunting. I saw it as a love story, and as it didn't have a setting at the time, a hotel room seemed as good a place as any in which to set it. The anthology itself, which was to have been placed in rooms in a well-known chain of upmarket hotels, was never published due to doubts about the nature of some, if not all, of the stories commissioned. Not to put too fine a point on it, the hotel chain regarded a great many of them as immoral, mine included, even though my story could have been read out in church without causing an eyebrow to be raised. If I remember correctly, one story was rejected on the grounds that it suggested unmarried individuals might possibly be having sexual relations in the chain's hotel rooms. Frankly, I'm not sure that I would want to stay in a hotel that had problems with ANYONE having sexual relations in its rooms, unmarried or not, short of children or animals, but then I'm a bit of a liberal. I almost felt compelled to confess that I'd had sexual relations in one of the chain's hotel rooms, and I wasn't married either, but by that point the anthology was already dead in the water.

The story in question, "A Haunting", was eventually published late last year in DARK DELICACIES III: HAUNTINGS. I think you can see the connection between my title and the title of the anthology. The editors asked if I was interested in writing a story, I told them I had an unpublished story that might suit them, and they read it and were happy to include it, although clearly they, like me, were immoral individuals and therefore destined to burn in hell for eternity. So, after a number of years, "A Haunting" had a home.

In 2008, I was asked by the extraordinarily decent Roddy Doyle to write a short story for THE IRISH TIMES as part of a series celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Actually, I think I was called upon at the last minute to substitute for someone who had dropped out, rather like David Fairclough on the Liverpool team of the Seventies and early Eighties. No matter. An idea for a story had been nagging at me for a couple of months, a tale in which a man describes a painting, and a painter, that may or may not exist. It was all perfectly clear in my head, but I just hadn't managed to get around to writing it down. As it turned out, the particular article of the Universal Declaration that I was being asked to write upon fitted the story perfectly. I didn't have to change a thing. Thus, "ON 'THE ANATOMISATION OF AN UNKNOWN MAN' (1637) BY FRANS MIER' came into being. It was published in the newspaper, anthologised in a collection published in Ireland entitled FROM THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIENCE, and will appear later this year in an anthology of previously published stories to be edited by Peter Robinson.

Finally, "Lazarus", the story included in THE NEW DEAD, was pretty much written in my head when Christopher Golden asked if I'd be interested in contributing to a volume of zombie stories. Now I have to confess that I've never been much of a fan of zombies, Val Newton's film I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE apart, and then only because of Val Newton rather than the subject matter. I think I was more of a vampire/ ghost/ M. R. Jamesian vague creeping entity kind of guy. Reading the other contributions to Chris's volume has caused me to alter that view somewhat, as the other stories are very, very good indeed. I realise now that the emptiness, or absence, that I've always seen as integral to the zombie mythos, and which perhaps had kept me at one remove from it, provides a perfect vehicle for whatever subtext one might wish to apply. In my case, I had long been troubled by the Biblical story of Lazarus. How would one feel if one was wrenched back to life from death? What would one remember? Would one be grateful, or angry? If the latter, would one even know what one was angry about? And so, once again, I was able to say, actually, now that you come to mention it, I might have something for you . . .

You might have noticed that what three of these stories have in common, "ON 'THE ANATOMISATION . . .'" being something of an exception, is their supernatural nature. I think that may be due in large part to my enduring love of supernatural short stories. I'm less comfortable with short mystery stories, as I think the mystery works better on the larger canvas of the novel, while the supernatural is better suited to the short story because the short story places no great premium on an explanation for what occurs, thus enhancing the effect of the uncanny. Anyway, that's an argument for a different day.

For now, though, that's my relationship, as a writer, with short fiction. But in case hordes of editors are even now preparing to bombard me with invitations to contribute to further anthologies, I must state that I have no more ideas in my head for short stories. Not a one. I'm all tapped out. Eventually, another will come along. For now, though, it's back to the next novel.


ODD BLOOD by Yeasayer

JULY FLAME by Laura Veirs

IRM by Charlotte Gainsbourg


OCTOBER SKIES by Alex Scarrow

IT'S ONLY A MOVIE by Mark Kermode


The Diabolical One: said...

Hi John - you sound like you are trying to convince yourself that your short stories are supernatural in nature, but ALL your stories are supernatural in nature. Without exception. This is why we all come here and buy your stuff (in hardback!). But you sound surprised to have made/realised this discovery about yourself. True?

John said...

Hmmm, perhaps 'explicitly supernatural' might have been more correct. I suppose that I still think of the Parker books as mystery novels, with just a wider interpretation of the word 'mystery' than some of my peers. Interesting point, though...

Daniel W. Powell said...

Afternoon John,

You are a heck of a short story writer--Nocturnes was awesome. I received my copy of Something Wicked yesterday and loved the first portion of the column you wrote on The New Daughter. Will you be finishing that column in SW's online version?

Take care.

TomH said...

I can relate somewhat to the opening of your piece (by way of a portion of my frontal lobe being metaphorically removed, dissected and
desiccated, before being returned to original location).

All of the short stories in Nocturnes were very good. The best of each is depth of setting: a station platform crowded by steam and fog; or a figure in white standing at the edge of an orchard.

I remember feeling foreboding as a father considered the possibilities of goings on within a burial mound behind the house. In quite different fashion I can feel the dread surrounding a pair of ‘nervous’ and unsure London detectives bumbling around.

Did I say ‘very good’?

How about as excellent a collection of short stories as you can find.

SurLaMer said...

Hi John! I have to say I've never been a huge fan of short stories, preferring novels. There are exceptions though. MR James & Clive Barker being two of them. You're Nocturnes collection was incredible. I didn't find a dud in the bunch. And I think the stories were much better than Stephen King's and a lot of others that I've read. One that sticks in my mind the most (and I can't rememeber the name - sorry) was the one with the traveling clowns. But keep writing those novels!! CANNOT wait for The Whisperers in July.

Jen-ger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen-ger said...

I recently finished your novel The Book of Lost Things. It was hauntingly good and I'd list it among my favorites...I look forward to delving into another of your fine works...Btw, enjoying your blog, very interesting.

TNBBC Super Mod said...

Hi John, great insight into the mind of a writer.

I've struggled for years with short fiction - as a reader - I prefered to get lost in a long novel. Something about the start-stop-start pace of short stories was a turn off for me.

Lately, though, I have found myself reading more and more short story collections. And appreciating them for what they are.

Looking forward to more blogs!!

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