Still two weeks to enter my giveaway contest – do a stunt, win Mars Evacuees six months early! I was pleased by this early entry:
It’s now only a few days until World Fantasycon. I’ll be discussing Historical Fantasy on Thursday at 3pm in the Oxford Suite with Aidan Harte, Helen Marshall, Mark Charan Newton, Tim Powers, and Kari Sperring. I’ll be signing advance copies of The End of the Road, from Solaris, in which I have a story called Through Wylmere Woods, from 11-noon in “Signing Alley” on Sunday. And, as mentioned before, there will be A BILLION, (okay, over a hundred) proof copies of Mars Evacuees JUST KNOCKING AROUND FOR FREE.
But right now I want to talk a little about Through Wylmere Woods.
Not for the first time, I wrote a novelette when I meant only to write a short story. “Short” is something I tend to fail at a lot. (cf my first novel – 200,000 words – and virtually all my blog posts).
Through Wylmere Woods can be read on its own. It can, I promise, it’ll be fine! But it is a Levanter-Sleet story, and to explain what that means I have to tell you about another story, MailerDaemon. MailerDaemon is in last year’s anthology Magic (also from Solaris). In that story, Grace, a young woman plagued by nightmares on top of depression and unemployment, is chatting online to a friend she has never seen in real life – Seven_Magpies, whose real name we later learn is Morgane. To help with Grace’s nightmares, Morgane, who considers herself a witch, offers to send a demon called Mr Levanter-Sleet. Grace doesn’t believe in witchcraft or demons, but she doesn’t like to be rude, so she accepts. That night, she doesn’t have nightmares. But she soon finds she’s acquired a different set of problems.
(That scene’s pretty much the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written, incidentally. I do hope the person who inspired it doesn’t mind. Everything that follows, and everything we later learn about Morgane, is entirely fictional.)
You see that big, smoky, be-taloned fellow on that lovely black-and-white cover? Isn’t he fine? He could be a portrait of Mr Levanter-Sleet in one of his larger aspects.
When Jonathan Oliver asked me to contribute to The End of the Road, I started thinking again about Morgane and Mr Levanter-Sleet. Maybe I could visit them again? Maybe we could find out how Morgane ended up in a position to send people demons, how she became a witch, how she “met” Mr Levanter-Sleet… It would have to have something to do with a road…
I started thinking about what I already knew about Morgane from MailerDaemon.
- Morgane is “her real name but not her original name”
- She seems surprisingly posh in voice and mannerisms, but is living in apparent poverty at the top of a dilapidated South London tower block.
- When asked if she was always “like this”, she replies “I always saw things. But was I always a witch? No. That takes a lot of self-training.”
- Grace believed she was about her own age (about 26 or so) but she appeared much younger.
So posh + poor = probably estranged from family? And posh family + road = a road is being built through the grounds of a country house = road protests, like the battle over the Newbury Bypass in the late 90s? Always “saw things” = scary things everywhere for her to see. “self-training” =???
OK. The outlines were beginning to emerge of a Gothic story about an abused, neglected, poor-little-rich girl living in some creepy stately home, approaching puberty and tormented by her ability to “see things” – i.e demons.
And that was fine. But… I found myself feeling slightly bored by it. Blah blah privileged-but-neglected-magic-puberty-b
But then I came back to something.
Morgane is her real name but not her original name.
Why is that?
And I thought of something – something that completely changed the way I looked at the story in an unexpected and kind of daunting way — and I started saying “what I’m looking for is not that, it’s not that, but it’s something like that.” Which, when I do it, is always a sign that what I’m looking for is exactly that. And as I realised that I began to worry about my ability to tell this new story right, to do it justice, but I also began to feel hugely excited.
Here’s a rather long excerpt (but it is a rather long story), in which we learn Morgane’s original name. It’s quite a big “spoiler” in a way, so consider whether you want to read or not, but it is something that happens in the first third — it doesn’t spoil the end. There’s still a lot of road in front of this girl, who, when we drop in on her here, has befriended a couple of protesters in the woods near her home and is going by the name “Christine”.
There are a lot of creatures in the woods that most people can’t see, but Christine has noticed a particularly menacing “thing” (demon) and starts trying to protect the group.
I should warn, this excerpt includes bigoted verbal abuse of a child.
Once I assumed all blurbs were written by publishing elves. Then I was asked to write my own first two blurbs and for a while I was amused to think all blurbs were written by authors, and people like Doris Lessing were sneakily writing things like “…nothing will ever be the same again” and going “THAT’LL DO” and sending it in.
But I can’t remember now what happened with SAVAGE CITY — and I didn’t write the cover text for MARS EVACUEES. So maybe I must let go of that dream. But I really like the text Egmont has come up with, so I thought perhaps you’d like to see it too.
The fact that someone had decided I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and SORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well.
I’d been worried I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm.
And despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. because until you’ve been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by a laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived.
If the sme thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.
It’s so odd — and yet so nice — to see someone else writing in my character’s voice.
Mars Evacuees comes out in April. But, remember, you can get to read a lovely proof copy NOW if you either come to World Fantasy Con, or if you enter my competition (which you can do pretty much anything for). There are still three weeks to go.
(We have a lot to cover in this post. Before we start, make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes, loose-fitting clothing, and are properly hydrated).
I’m going to be at World Fantasy Con in Brighton in just a couple of weeks. I’ll be talking about Historical Fantasy on the Thursday, at 3 pm in the Oxford Suite.
I’ll also be signing copies of Solaris’ new anthology The End of the Road, in which I have another novelette, called Through Wylmere Woods. I am proud of how this story turned out: it’s a prequel to MailerDaemon (published in last year’s Magic), though you don’t have to have read that. It’s about Morgane, the woman who in MailerDaemon can see demons (and email them, with the best of intentions, to unsuspecting friends). This story visits her as a thirteen-year-old with lot on her plate, dealing with the demons who are everywhere, a singularly awful family and a large road protest happening near her house. I have more to say about Through Wylmere Woods but I think it had better wait for another post.
But the other news about WFC is that there will be around a-hundred-and-goddamn-fifty proofs of my new book, Mars Evacuees, just there for anyone who wants one. For free. The book doesn’t come out until April (and will, you know, have a shinier cover and properly type-set) so this is pretty cool, I think.
You cannot get to WFC, and it is not fair, you say? You feel hard-done-by and neglected? WE CAN’T HAVE THAT. There are also five copies which I will give to the top five performers of McDougall Pleasing Stunts! I will sign and even draw in your proof, if you want. Rules remains, as per the last two, as follows:
PLEASE ME AND MAKE ME WANT TO GIVE YOU A BOOK. You can please me by promoting my book in some way, you can also try to please me by telling me a joke or posting a picture of you gurning, if you’re really good at it. …
I will not be pleased by illegality or grossness, otherwise you make the rules. I will send the person who strikes me as the most delightful a unique signed, personalised book.
Other possible stunts could involve art, icon-making, stories, bringing down property prices in London , song. You have until midnight, November 12th to enter with your Stunt. Comment here, message me, or link me to the Stunt on Twitter — just make sure I see it, you’ve got the internet, you’ll figure it out.
You might find some further inspiration as to the kind of thing that pleases me in these posts:
And if you don’t end up with a proof, you will still get to read snippets of Mars Evacuees over the coming months: I’ll begin posting them in December.
The Poet sends a Picture of her Nose to an older Poet of Celebrated Beauty
I am sending you this picture of my nose
In hope you’ll look at it and give me your advice,
Although I cannot claim my nose is quite original,
Some have been kind enough to find it startling.
Please bear in mind that I am still quite young
And that I hope my nose may still be growing.
The Older Poet’s Reply
Your nose is old-fashioned, self-indulgent and too long.
Although the basic bone-structure is lively,
This draws attention to the dullness of the skin.
It is too much like the noses of your parents, and
Your make-up is not well applied.
Between the bridge and tip, I must confess,
I lost all interest in your nose and had to stop.
Possibly with some work your nose might yet improve
Although I cannot hold out that much hope
Take no more pictures of your nose, is my advice,
At least not till you’ve carefully studied mine.
I once told a joke that hurt someone who’d lost a loved one to murder.
It was awful.
It was not even a joke about murder.
It was a joke about how some people thought I was twenty-three, but actually I was twenty-six. The context really isn’t worth explaining, it wasn’t much of a joke.
I made the joke at a gathering I was about to leave. I went and collected my things and then, on my way out, I noticed that a woman who’d seemed cheerful moments before now looked shaken and tearful.
I didn’t know what had happened. She didn’t tell me, but someone else did later – twenty-three was the age her daughter had been when she was murdered. And just the number “twenty-three” – in reference to a young woman’s age – had been enough to bring the pain to the surface.
Because it wouldn’t take much to do that, would it, when your daughter has been murdered.
I knew it wasn’t really my fault — I couldn’t have known. But I still felt terrible. Not as terrible as she felt! But terrible. I still wished I could have taken it back. If I had made a joke about murder, and found I was talking to a mother of a murder victim, I would have felt exponentially worse than I already did, because I would have been knowingly taking a risk of hurting someone. A small one, but still. I’d have had to accept I’d not just been unfortunate, I’d have severely miscalculated. Either way I would not have felt bullied or censored by the person I had hurt. I never saw her again, but if I’d remained in contact with her, I would not have needed her to ask me not to make jokes about murder around her.
Murder is thankfully rare. Not uniformly are all over the world, but I have never before or since either made, or witnessed anyone making a remark that caused pain because someone in the room had been bereaved by murder. It must happen (in which case most people would surely apologise and do what they can to minimise the damage) but in a lot of settings, assuming that the presence of murder-survivors is anomalous rather than the norm is not unreasonable. But if murder was so common that in any medium-sized mixed group I could be pretty sure someone there had been directly affected by murder, you are damn right I wouldn’t make any jokes about murder.
When someone’s been murdered, they aren’t usually around to tell us what they think of murder jokes. But if I was in a place where I could be pretty certain that somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 of the women and 1 in 33 of the men had themselves been murdered, and some or all of those ghosts would suffer the pain of their murder all over again if I made jokes about their torment, and if they asked me please not to put them through that, I would not be all, “But free speech! LOL murder.”
(“It’s not just being reminded”, the murdered people might say. “It’s seeing people laugh about what happened to us. It’s that they think it’s funny.”).
And if there was evidence that murder jokes actually did increase the risk of real people being really murdered … I dunno. Guys, I think I might not even want to be a murder comedian any more.
But I hurt someone not because I made a joke about murder, but because I made a joke about the number twenty-three. This hasn’t come up again and it doesn’t seem likely to, so there’s no particular reason to avoid futher twenty-three-based drolleries, should they occur to me. But you know what? If it was a cast-iron, indisputable fact that not just one person but a very large percentage of people in the world could be tipped into reliving the worst things in their lives by jokes about prime numbers, I would not, at least not without copious warning, make jokes about the sodding number twenty-three.
Why would you?
(This is about this, and the inevitable defence of rape jokes that arose in the comments).
(I didn’t even WANT to post another geek-feminism piece so soon! But crap-on-the-internet waits for no woman.)
Oh, so THAT’s what having something go viral is like! For two days I was all O____O Thank you, everyone who responded so positively to “I hate Strong Female Characters”!
I have been remarkably untroubled by trolls on this, (I wish I didn’t feel so lucky. I wish I didn’t feel my luck was certain to end). But nevertheless, this seems a decent moment for this particular monster-poem, written about a year after this one and before “trolls” were a thing on the internet.
I sit under a bridge and eat goats.
I like to grab their horns and twist their heads around
In one good sharp tug -
The satisfying sound of crunching bone! -
So they can look at me with their surprised and stupid yellow eyes.
Or sometimes I hold ‘em still between my knees
And pull their flimsy legs off.
How easy to make the sinews pop and muscles tear!
What a noise they make. But if it annoys me
I knock them on the head and they shut up.
Then I can gnaw through the bristly hide
To the good bits, the fat and muscle
And blood and spittle dribble down my chin.
I like to sit on a hot stone in the sun
With my dusty feet dangling in the cold sream.
I splay my tufted toes to feel the water nosing through them
It makes me laugh.
I like to kick and smash the glittery river into bits.
But sometimes when the day gets very hot and slow
Like a fat grass-snake
I go all open-mouthed and dreamy
And watch my knobbly clawed feet all day long,
All far away and lost in the twisty stream.
I like them.
They are like rocky brown hills,
And good for stamping.
How pretty are the jewelly fish
Hidden in the water like buried treasure.
If I am patient and clever
I can dip in a hand and flip one out neatly
All silver and slippery
And clamp my teeth on its back.
I like to feel them flail and wriggle as I snap their spines.
My hands are useful for such things.
Big branchy things. Treetrunk coloured.
Maybe one day I will grow leaves.
For now I am prickly with rough brown hair
What with that and my barkish skin
I don’t feel the cold much.
My fingernails please me.
They are hard and curved and yellow like goat’s horns.
Sometimes I grow them long on purpose
For tearing hide and scratching itches
Between toes or buttocks, or else
I bite them short,and chew the bitten pieces,
If I feel like it.
Nobody bothers me. I like my loneness.
At night I like to lope and lollop
Through the whistling wet woods
Where the silvery wolves go skulking and sulking
I like trampling down the brambles
And swishing through the nettles
I make tremendous crashes.
I like to startle the soft dozy birds awake
So they jump into the cold air yelping.
I get thorns stuck in the soles of my fet
But my hide is far too tough for them
And they don’t trouble me
And in the morning it is pleasant
To pick them fastidiously out.
I could run anywhere and eat anything I liked
But I come back to this bridge because I like it.
It keeps the rain off
And casts a shade which is handy in summer.
It makes a good hiding place to jump out from
A big surprise, so large and naked!
I munch their bones and laugh at their faces.
And when the river is shallow and still
I can see myself reflected,
And look at my beautiful face.
Here I pour bilious hate unto the unfortunate figure of the Strong Female Character as she appears in popular fiction. From the piece
I remember watching Shrek with my mother.
“The Princess knew kung-fu! That was nice,” I said. And yet I had a vague sense of unease, a sense that I was saying it because it was what I was supposed to say.
She rolled her eyes. “All the princesses know kung-fu now.”
No one ever asks if a Male Character is Strong. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that.
The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “Strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.”
You can comment here if you like. Please bear in mind the comment policy.
But you should also read my teenage poetry, or I may weep bitter, poetic, teeny tears.
If you come with me now, I will show you
Where the monsters are.
They sleep deep in the woods
And their breath,
Smooth in sleep, stirs the treetops.
Stay close to me. In fact,
Lets hold hands. You are younger than I am
And I do not wish you to be frightened.
If you must laugh, do it softly. Press
Your hand over your mouth like this.
We do not want to wake them.
They sleep with their eyes open
Their eyes are huge and round and golden,
Slashed with black. They are as big
As tennis balls.
It is quite safe when the sun shines.
Do not pause here. The bindweed
Is beautiful but deadly. When the monsters pass
Poison drips from their scales into the white mouths.
That makes them evil. If you stand here too long,
Two lithe, long tendrils will shoot out like green snakes
And wrap themselves around your ankes
So that when you try to run you trip and
Sprawl and then it has you. It will heave like
Porridge heating in a pan and heap itself over you.
It presses its leaves into your nose and mouth
So that you cannot scream or breathe. The white flowers
Knot themselves into your hair and soon
No one could tell you ever had been there.
Quick. Our feet are still free to run.
We must not go near the dappled stream
It may seem sunny and shallow, but two years ago
A boy drowned there. Yes, further out
There are deep dark pools that seize you
In their iciness. They found him floating, white and bloated.
Let us each remove a shoe and place just one foot
In the warm buzzing shallows…
Quick! Jump back! That’s enough! But do not
Shriek like that. We must be quiet. Shove
Your shoe onto your wet foot and lets go on.
Quiet. Do not scream. The sun has gone
Behind a cloud. They wake.
We must not panic. I know a place to hide.
Keep your head below the leaves.
Don’t be afraid. I will not leave you.
The heat from their bodies
Withers the leaves.
And the breeze of their passing
Hisses in the trees.
I wrote this when I was seventeen. It was about the first thing I wrote that I thought counted as “grown up” and I still like it. I’ve never been very sure what to do with my poems – I haven’t really written many since starting to write novels, and the “send to magazines” method feels alien to me now. So I thought I’d take a leaf out of Roz Kaveney’s book and start publishing them here, and maybe eventually jump-start myself into writing poetry again.
I think it’s funny that, even way back when I thought I was going to be a writer rather like A.S Byatt, I still just wrote about monsters.
More free work here! By the way, Not a Sparrow is based on a Greek myth. Can anyone tell which?
Books 1 and 2: Rituals and Reflections
What can you say about these books?
Firstly – there’s no other way to put this – they are barmy.
Kaveney lays out her stall quite plainly in the pair of epigraphs that opens Rituals. From Nietzsche: “If there were gods, how could I bear not to be a god? Therefore there are no gods.” And from Cyndi Lauper: “Girls just wanna have fun.”
You can’t say fairer, or barmier, than that.
Secondly – they are incredibly ambitious.
Tolkien set out to create a substitute Anglo-Saxon mythic history to replace what was erased by the Norman Conquest, in which he could indulge a lot of his personal hobby-horses. That, when you think about it, or when you come at Tolkien cold without the insulating effect of long cultural familiarity, is batshit bonkers enough. Kaveney sets out to create a mythical, queer, feminist, secret history of all history. ALL of it. From the Bronze Age to the French Revolution to the fall of the Aztecs to the War on Terror, (BUT NOT NECESSARILY IN THAT ORDER) via prehistoric cosmic prophecies, dark lords, elves, vampires, ogres, manticores, cannibalistic extra dimensions of spacetime, and deadly rituals, all in full technicolour, and 3D, with a cast of thousands, featuring special guest appearances from: Montezuma, Hecate/Morgan-le-Fay, Torquemada, Isaac Newton, Voltaire, Robespierre, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jehovah, Lucifer and a full symphony orchestra.
(And yet they’re surprisingly slim books).
Think of … Michael Bay. No, too stupid – think of James Cameron. Some maker of big Hollywood blockbusters, anyway, known for his love of explosions and CGI monsters. Only instead of explosions, he has feats of female and LGBT derring-do, and he is throwing them at you with the wild and splashy abandon he would usually treat explosions, shouting things like “WELL WHY NOT?” and “WHEEE!”
(Also, you know, he’s a woman.)
That’s these books.
Think of your favourite superhero comic. It’s kind of all middle, though there are huge, dramatic moments when everything changes and everyone talks about THAT ONE ISSUE where OMG the love interest gets powers or the protégé becomes a nemesis… Some issues are stronger than others, but when you open one you know when you are going to see someone really cool doing something really spectacular. (In this case, that someone will almost always be female).
That’s these books.
Seven thousand years ago – but wait, this is all told in chaotically non-linear fashion – about ninety years ago, then, a seemingly-young woman is stalking one Aleister Crowley through a Greek village with a pointy lance, in order to make certain points to him about the ancient and terrible Rituals of Blood and what she does to people who try them out. Being well versed in the occult, Crowley recognises the Huntress of legend, and not being a stupid man, he takes her seriously, buys her a drink, and elicits the story of her life.
Seven thousand years ago, possibly somewhere in what would become Turkey, a young woman called Mara was living in idyllic prehistoric bliss with her chosen family, Sof and Lillit (“yes, more than sisters too, but sisters first”). Then a young god came by; they offered him hospitality, and he offered each of them her heart’s desire.
Their hearts’ desire was to remain as they were. But that was impossible.
Sof wanted to learn. Lillit wanted to play. Mara wanted to protect the weak against the strong.
She hasn’t had a day off since.
BUT WAIT THERE’S MORE!
I wrote this OTHER story about 10 years ago for reasons I can’t fully remember (my agent asked me to? But…why?). Whatever the reason was, it didn’t come off, and I promptly … did nothing with it. And ten years on, it doesn’t really go with anything else I’ve written — it’s your actual non-magic LITERARY FICTION, OMG. So it might as well be here as vegetating on my hard drive. It’s interesting if only for the fact that, once upon a time, I could actually tell a story in under 5000 words, a knack I have since DECIDEDLY LOST.
In other news I have written another “short” for Solaris’s anthology The End of the Road (haha, it’s 10,500 words). It stands alone, but it’s a prequel to MailerDaemon in Magic — i.e, it’s another Mr Levanter-Sleet story. Mr Levanter-Sleet is now a mythos.
The End of the Road is out in December. But here’s Not a Sparrow Falls right now!
Not a Sparrow Falls
“Look,” Philippa said.
Polly shuddered, because the bird was missing its head, and said, “Why did you make me look at that?”
Philippa would have thought it odd not to have pointed out the bird, so she could not answer her sister. Polly was still wincing, so Philippa went and crouched near the bird and said patiently, “Come on Polly, look, there’s no blood or anything.”
Polly came a little closer, because she tended to do as Philippa told her. But when Philippa stroked the pale, loosened feathers of the stiff wing, she drew back and said, “Oh for God’s sake Phil,” and added mechanically, “you don’t know where it’s been.”
Philippa tried not to look contemptuous. She stood up reluctantly and saw that Dan, who was Polly’s husband, looked almost as squeamish as Polly. Philippa thought, again, that they were too young to be married.