For me 2023 was a year which was bookended by two big-ish publishing projects.
For the first half of the year I was working on Waiting for the Gift, an anthology of short stories each of which takes its title and inspiration from a track on David Bowie's 1977 album Low. The book features original stories from some of the best short story writers around, as well as a graphic piece with text by Keeley Forsyth.
This is the follow-up to We Were Strangers, which did the same thing with Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures as its starting point. That book did quite well, as these things go. It sold in decent numbers, got some fairly high profile reviews and people generally seemed to like to it. So I was very excited to put together a follow-up volume and honestly, I'm so pleased with the end product. In actual fact, the work I was doing on the book was final stages work as it was a long-drawn thing, with Covid intruding on the publication process, adding a year to the whole process.
Sadly, since it popped out into the world this summer, it hasn't done as well as its sister volume. There really haven't been many reviews at all and I've not seen any social media posts from any readers. Which is a shame, but that's how it goes. If it sounds like an interesting read - and, as I say, it's a book of which I'm deeply proud - you can buy a copy here: https://www.confingopublishing.uk/product-page/waiting-for-the-gift-stories-inspired-by-low
Towards the end of year, I started work on Ghosts at the Old Library. Levenshulme Old Library is a former Carnegie library in a patch of South Manchester where I live. It was closed as a library in 2016 but was then taken over by some local residents who set up a charity to restore the building and turn it into a community arts centre.
Ghosts at the Old Library was a project I devised which saw me write a story inspired by the building. I commissioned three other writers to do the same: Adam Farrer, Melissa Wan and Marie Crook. The last of these, Marie, is an emerging writer who I mentored for two months, helping her get her story into shape but also giving her broader advice for a career in the arts. We then staged a series of readings in the building, with the audience split into four different groups each evening and then led from room to room where they would hear each story in full. I also commissioned Laura Deane, a local artist, to turn the stories into chapbooks. These were illustrated and printed in Christmas card format. We also each recorded our stories at ALLFM, the resident community radio station at the Old Library, which will be broadcast and made available during the Christmas period.
This project could easily have yielded a number of headaches. Mentoring and commissioning a writer I don't know at all is something new to me and could easily have gone awry - I could have picked the wrong person, the project could have been not for them, my mentoring could have been awful - but Marie, thankfully, turned out to be an excellent writer and engaged entirely with the project. The readings involved us all reading out stories simultaneously, meaning they all needed to take roughly the same length of time to perform. This could very easily have caused problems - tailoring a story to a very strict length is tricky to do once, doing it four times felt unrealistic. Nonetheless, the stories all ended up taking precisely 14 minutes long for their respective authors to read aloud. The performances too had their risks, but they all went smoothly: lovely writers, all game and exuding positivity, sell out audiences, loads of praise and lots of money raised for a beloved community building.
My story for the project is called 'Plum Porter' and is set in an imagined near-future in which the library has been pulled down and a block of flats built on the site. A retired builder relates what he experienced when working on the foundations and he discovered a door in the ground which leads to... well, I suppose you'll have to read it for yourself. You can order a set of copies of all the stories here. You can also listen in to ALLFM from 10pm on the day after Boxing Day to hear the recordings we put together of the stories or download them as a podcast (once they're up - stay tuned!)
.Music: my radar hasn't been as attentive as it has in previous years. I enjoyed Alison Cotton's The Portrait You Painted Of Me, Keeley Forsyth's Limbs and Laura Cannell's Antiphony of the Trees, but the most affecting event this year has been the passing of Mimi Parker of the band Low.
Low have been an incredibly important band to me for almost twenty years. They're a band whose albums I've eagerly awaited, whose live concerts I've routinely attended, and whose weekly lockdown videos (Friday I'm in Low) were one of those small digital-domestic miracles which seemed to make it all seem vaguely bearable. Even this year, I went to see them perform live at Manchester Cathedral, my first post-Covid gig, and was particularly eager to hear a new track they'd recorded: a cover of 'Dance Song 97', my favourite song on Sleater Kinney's Dig Me Out, a record which to me practically radiates the feelings, textures and memories of my own adolescence.
In between those two things though - the Manchester concert and the release of the Sleater Kinney cover - Mimi Parker passed away at the age of 55.
Since then I've listened to Low almost every day. Low is essentially a twosome - Parker and her husband Alan Sparhawk - meaning the story of the band is now at an end. It's odd to hear the music reframed, now a set body of work rather than an organic and ever-evolving entity. Those tiny moments of improvisation, those creative tics which just happened to strike on the day of recording, somehow they are all now cast kstone, Low's body of work now a legacy.
I often wonder what it is about their music that seems so compelling to me - so close to something like perfection.
There's a simplicity at the heart of Low's music. Even their most experimentally baroque tracks can be pared back to the base elements: a simple guitar pattern, light drums and a pair of voices - Parker's all angelic purity and ice cool light, Sparhawk's textured with a rockier, more human anguish - tracking one another. There's something quasi primal about two voices in harmony: it's often said that the voice is the earliest instrument, and two voices singing in unison provide a richness, a depth which isn't really found anywhere else in nature.
They also know how to structure those simple songs, know which melody will touch on the listener's emotions. There's an old quote from (I think) Martin Amis about how it feels like there's a space of the human brain which is the perfect shape to receive the poems of (I think) Philip Larkin. I feel the same way about Low. It feels like their music has been created to occupy a particular void - whether in the human mind or in whatever we mean when we use the word soul, I'm not sure. There's a quality to some of Low's music which feel like a healing power, or something akin to that power, but what malady it treats and what the end effect is, these all remain a mystery.
Knowing that the owners of these two intertwining voices are a happily married couple who share a religious faith adds something to the mix: there's an interior logic to Low's music which, while it can draw you in - inviting you to decode, to connect the dots, to shade in between the lines - is nonetheless ultimately inaccessible.
Simply put: the mystery fascinates. I hope, now that Low is a legacy - recordings from the past - rather than a living, breathing entity, the mystery remains.
A number of years ago I wrote a story called 'Do You Know How to Waltz', a title taken from a track on Low's third record, Curtain Hits the Cast. The story was published in Congregation of Innocents, an anthology of ghost stories inspired by Shirley Jackson, a copy of which I sent to the band. A few years later I got in touch with the band's management as I had an idea for a book which I thought they might be interested in - I'd put together a short story anthology based around Unknown Pleasures and Low (the album). Low (the band) had never had a tent pole album, a Pet Sounds to hang their reputation on. But they fit the bill for the anthologies I like to put together: writers love their music, and there are hints of narrative, character and drama, although all of it is suitably subtle and submerged enough for the writers' imaginations to bring forth a response. With Double Negative and the acclaim it received, it seemed perhaps that big album had arrived and I really liked the idea of putting together a book which responded to contemporary music.
The band seemed positive but, as with the majority of these things, progress stalled as first other projects intruded and then Covid struck. I considered revisiting the idea with HEY WHAT which seemed to garner further acclaim and reach a wider audience. But, well, it wasn't to be. There is an anthology of short stories inspired by Low's music which I look forward to reading.
Plum Porter Christmas Card
My ghost story 'Plum Porter' has been published as a Christmas card!
The story itself has been commissioned by Levenshulme Old Library as part of their Ghosts at the Old Library programme this Christmas and is now available as a chapbook, along with three other similarly handy card-sized stories:
The Only by Adam Farrer
Ghost Story by Melissa Wan
A Holy Trinity by Marie Crook
Each story is inspired by either Levenshulme Old Library building, the surrounding neighbourhood or the community, and each book is illustrated and designed by Laura Deane.
They're available as a set here, but the print run is rather limited so move quick if you want to get a copy.
I've written a new ghost story for this Christmas.
It's called 'Plum Porter' and I'll be reading it in full at three atmospheric and immersive live events at Levenshulme Old Library this winter.
Tickets can be purchased here.
Waiting for the Gift
I have a new book out. It's called Waiting for the Gift: Stories Inspired by Low.
This is an anthology of stories, each of which takes its title and inspiration from a track on David Bowie's 1977 album Low.
Contributors include Wendy Erskine, Preti Taneja and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, among others. It also contains a graphic collaborative piece between artists and designer Zoe McLean and actress and musician Keeley Forsyth.
This is the second in a series, following We Were Strangers, in which each of the stories responded in the same way to Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures and featured work by Toby Litt, Sophie Mackintosh and Jessie Greengrass, among others.
Waiting for the Gift is published by Confingo and can be ordered here.
Whenever I put together these occasional end-of-year posts I always seem to find myself writing 'I've not actually read that much this year'. I think I must conclude that I'm just not much of a reader as, once again - guys - I've not actually read that much this year.
Of those books I did read, the one I enjoyed the most was A Passion for Poison by Carol Ann Lee. Originally a biographer of Anne Frank and her family, Lee shifted into true crime with One of Your Own, her mesmerising 2010 biography of Myra Hindley which I've written about before and has approached a number of other subjects with the same care, detail, research and control. While not quite as bracing as that book, A Passion for Poison, which concerns Graham Young, the Teacup Poisoner, does a great job of bringing into sharp relief what an incredible and terrible story his life contained. At the moment the book has gone unreviewed in any of the usual places - a faintly absurd situation. Lee is such a fantastic writer I'm surprised her reputation hasn't exploded beyond the true crime genre.
I also very much enjoyed Sam Mills' Fragments of My Father, her memoir-essay about being her dad's carer. It surprised me to think how scant caring features in literature - this is a wonderful examination of the topic, all of which is centred around Mills's own experiences of her father's catatonic schizophrenia. This memoir actually came out last year. Since then Mills has produced two a subsequent books, an essay titled Chauvo-Feminism: On Sex, Power and #MeToo, and The Castle, a horror novella published under Dead Ink's Eden Book Society project (with which I was also involved). As all of this no doubt suggests, Mills is an author who brings a signature intelligence to diligent and varied output. I've not yet read those two subsequent books but plan to in the new year. I also really like This Must Be Earth, a short story published in a standalone chapbook by the great Nightjar Press - I've only encountered a scant handful of stories by its author, Melissa Wan, but each has haunted me long after I've finished reading, and this was no different.
However my personal reading experience of the year was a short story called 'The Chicken' by RZ Baschir, a writer I'd never heard of until this story was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize. This is an award which I tend to follow quite closely as it produces a great shortlist each year. When I first read this year's shortlist, I thought each of the stories was very good, but 'The Chicken' immediately stood out to me as the natural winner and I very much hoped that would be born out. Because it's an excellent story, but also because, previously, winners of The White Review have found their victory has given them a leg-up into fruitful careers - Sophie Mackintosh, Nicole Flattery, Julia Armfield. It would be a shame, I thought, for the author of this mysterious and disgusting story not to have the same opportunity as these White Review forebears. Thankfully it was the winner. You can read the story here - and I wholly recommend keeping tabs on Baschir, whoever she is.
I think 2021 has been a very good year for music.I've certainly listened to more music than most other recent years, and a wider variety.
If I had to choose an all-out top album, it's Low's HEY WHAT. I've loved Low for nearly 20 years now and with the release of this, their 13th album - both the record and its reception - feels like a culmination of their distinct creativity. As with the past couple of Low albums, the sound feels as though it's on the outer edge of what its possible to do with music, as though it couldn't possibly be pushed any further, but there's a fascination knowing that that's not actually the case and there will - or at least one hopes - be more Low albums. There's some links to some of the other music I've enjoyed this year.
2021 has also been a year in which I listened to Public Image Ltd a great deal, something which was a hangover from 2020 when I frankly listened to little else. All of this led me to my year's most surreal moment - sitting in my car very early in 2021, so my kids wouldn't interrupt me, shivering with the cold while I phoned John Lydon at his home in LA as part of my research for a piece on the 40th anniversary of The Flowers of Romance. Despite all the terrible attention-seeking of late, I can't help but be fascinated by Lydon, both as a performer and a persona, if those two things can be unknotted, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing this piece. And despite listening to Flowers more than is healthy I still enjoy the album.
However, the artist I found I listened to most - in fact my Spotify Wrapped stats show in lurid detail how epically they dwarf all other artists - this year is no less than Simply Red. Yes, that's right - Simply Red, the sophisti-pop embarrassment from the 80's and 90's. I started listening to them earlier this year as 2021 saw the 30th anniversary of Stars, their gargantuan third album which conquered the charts and swamped the pop consciousness. I had an idea of something I wanted to write - an anniversary-piece-cum-memoir which would take in the album, its background, composition and contents. But it would be more than that. It would also be more broadly about the 1990s, about my own time as a child and adolescent in the Lancashire suburbs during that time, about the chintz and the analogue technology, the inertia and the security, the loneliness and the claustrophobia. It would have consisted of snapshot memories - being driven by my dad to the bus stop in the morning, sitting in the Food Giant car park with my mum after pick-up in the afternoon, watching The National Lottery with a takeaway in the evening - through which the songs from Stars would be playing in the background. It would have been about how, although those days are now gone - the family house lost, the parents divorced, the character of each of the players warped by the torrent of time, the all-out humdrumness of those days tilted by the crackling disaster that no-one could have known was lying in wait for us in the future: Covid Covid Covid. It would have acknowledged how this is all somehow so sad - sad that it happened and sad that it was taken away -and yet it would also have been about how my mind can't accept this, how it still feels as though that life is only a train-ride away, a train ride which would result in the past being bridged, order restored and this overwhelming sadness being rectified. That house, that family, that life. And how Stars acts as a kind of beacon held aloft in the past and shimmering with promise - songs of joy and love and hope, all broadcast from a past which seems more authentic in its hopefulness than our present day.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of the people I pitched to were interested in this baroque piece which went unwritten. Indeed, the 30th anniversary of Stars went largely un-commemorated, beyond my own personal tribute in the form of a year of listening. Which is a shame. For most people, Simply Red remain the embodiment of naffness but they are keenly due a reappraisal. Yes, their music is smooth pop, the ultimate cringe, but at its strongest Simply Red's songs are powered by an edge of desperate energy. A good example is the title track from Picture Book.
2021 was a lean publication year for me. As well as writing the PiL piece, I also published a single short story - 'Oblio' which I was commissioned to write for Out of the Darkness, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror fiction loosely themed around mental health. I also brought out a new book. Writing the Uncanny is co-edited by myself and Dan Coxon and contains essays on writing uncanny fiction from the likes of Jeremy Dyson, Robert Shearman, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and loads more.
Here's some other music I liked...
Writing the Uncanny
I have a new book out. It's called Writing the Uncanny. It's a collection of essays co-edited by myself and the great Dan Coxon.
It's about the Uncanny. Anyone who happens to be familiar with these blogposts (anyone??) will be aware that my obsession lies in this area: not quite horror and not quite not-horror, but some strange un-genre which lies outside of neat categorisation.
Despite its curious, liminal standing, the uncanny has a wild, subterranean popularity: The Loney, The Essex Serpent, Inside No. 9...
But what exactly is The Uncanny? What can a writer do to ensure their fiction haunts the reader’s imagination? Are there approaches? Techniques? Who are the key uncanny writers and what is it about their work that... works...?
Here to answer all your questions, Writing the Uncanny sees some of the best contemporary authors explain what drew them to horror, ghost stories, folklore and beyond, and reveal how to craft unsettling fiction which resonates.
Authors include Jeremy Dyson, Alison Moore, Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Catriona Ward, Robert Shearman and loads more (including, sadly, my arch-nemesis Jenn Ashworth) share their insights on psychogeography, fairy tales, cultural tradition and the supernatural, and offer practical, useful advice on their different approaches to this murkiest of genres.
An essential guide for both the aspiring writer of strange tales and the casual reader, I don't think it's overstating things to say Writing the Uncanny is set to become the beach-read smash of the summer.
You can order it from Dead Ink here.