Well there we go. What a ridiculous year.
I’m not sure I’d necessarily say 2017 has been momentous for me but it’s been very eventful and certainly the busiest year I can remember having. In summary: my partner and I bought a house, we started work on some renovations, we discovered we now have a second child on the way, I had a book published, we rather decadently went on holiday twice, to France AND to Denmark. All this alongside a fulltime office job, weekly driving lessons and parenting child number one. Madness.
Much of the start of this year was dominated by the move and the marginally less stressful pursuit of writing The Night Visitors, mine and Jenn Ashworth’s collaboratively constructed tale of obsession and evil which was published in April and which regular readers will no doubt be sick of hearing about by now.
The Night Visitors was fun. It's the second big piece of fiction me and Jenn have worked on together (following 2015's much less fun Bus Station: Unbound). Although not all that dissimilar from a lot of the writing work I do (in collaboration, without an agent, spookiness aplenty) this was the first project which resulted in a book with my name on the cover and spine and an ISBN on the back and is available in bookshops. It even popped up on the promo table in a couple of branches of Waterstones, which has been quite exciting to see. Similarly, although on the face of it everything about The Night Visitors it is pretty niche – it’s a novella, it’s horror, it’s written by two authors and it comes from a small press – I’ve been delighted (and relieved) that people seem to, I dunno, *enjoy* it...? We've had some flattering reviews, at the time of writing we have a bunch of five star ratings on Amazon, we won a Saboteur Award and, a particular highlight, we staged our launch event with Ramsey Campbell, a horror legend and one degree of separation from Robert Aickman.
The publication itself brought with it a burst of related activity, including writing for The Guardian, with me and Jenn co-authoring a piece about modern epistolary fiction and recommending our favourite examples (sadly, I wasn't allowed Leonard Cohen's 'Famous Blue Raincoat'). Mercifully, the comments section, which unlike Jenn I monitor obsessively whenever I get a chance to write for the graun, was for the most part restrained and respectful.
Ordinarily I tend to turn out about two or three short stories a year, depending on commissions, a frankly pathetic average (I write a lot more, but only a a handful reach completion) but one which was made slightly more pathetic by the demands of a new house, a book and a child who simply will not stop growing. As such, I’ve been less productive this year than I’d have liked when it comes to short fiction. Nonetheless, having got the majority of The Night Visitors and its publicity out of the way I found I had time to write some sundry bits and pieces in the second half of the year. I had a nonfiction piece published on The Real Story which I went to the read at their live event. Annoyingly, by the time the event came around I was so riddled with laryngitis that I only read for about three minutes, then made my hoarse apologies and returned to my seat. Not my finest lit-event but, tellingly, nowhere near my worst. I also reviewed Tell Me How This Ends Well and We Are The End (forthcoming) for Litro, both of which were fine enough but confirmed for me something I’ve noticed in the past few years: I have real trouble reading novels by men these days, which is odd when you remember that I am a man.
Perhaps the most fun I had in my writing year has been a piece for The Quietus about cannibalism in cinema, a drastically overlooked canon if ever there was one.
With much of 2017’s achievements being vaguely grand-sounding – Writing for broadsheets! An ISBN! Ramsey Campbell! – the writing which I think has left me most proud has been a ghost story called ‘Kloya and Klik’ which was published by The Island Review, a wonderful online journal for thoughts/opinions/observations on islands. It received the level of attention you’d expect for a long-ish ghost story on such a site (ie. not that much) but is, for now at least, the closest I have to a favourite of my own writing out there in the world. If you've not yet read, please take the time to do so.
A ghost story of mine was also included in The Shadow Booth, a brand new book-shaped journal of uncanny fiction. Issue one includes ‘The Upstairs Room’, originally published on the Minor Literatures site earlier this year as a teaser for the collection. Although just a couple of oddball stories, it's been great getting them out. My oddball stuff is the most me stuff, so discovering there is an audience for it is gratifying.
2017 has turned out to be a good year for reading, albeit one which I bumbled through rather than giddily seizing with both hands. Like everyone else in the world I read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry this year, and like them I enjoyed it. I also very much enjoyed Attrib. a sleeper-hit collection of short stories by Eley Williams, Elmet by Fiona Mozley and The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, both of which were published by small presses and went on to hit the relative big time. But, as my reading is often loosely dictated by research, that seemed to be more or less it for me and contemporary fiction. Shocking, I know. Thanks to the marvel that is Audible, from January onwards I managed to transmute my uneventful morning train journeys to work into a fertile nonfiction reading experience (listening to fiction is completely impossible), making my way through, among other things, Richard Evans’ enormous trilogy of books about the Third Reich. For the most part however, surrounded as I’ve been by boxes of old novels shuttled between properties, 2017 has seen me reading some older titles picked largely at random: The Lost Father by Marina Warner, Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith, Piranha To Scurfy by Ruth Rendell, Heresy by SJ Parris and, for the first time (yeah I know), The Handmaid’s Tale.
But the two books which stuck with me most this year were a pair of true crime titles. I like true crime, but I tend to rather snobbily think of it as a guilty pleasure genre, a slummy holiday from 'proper' books. But Happy Like Murderers by Gordon Burn, which concerns Fred and Rose West and the torture, sexual abuse and murder they made their day-to-day lives, is like nothing I’ve ever read before, an unholy meeting point between true crime and a kind of poetic stream-of-consciousness half-fiction. I know that sounds self-indulgent and disrespecful and as though it shouldn’t work, and I suppose it shouldn’t, but it does: it’s tragic, very beautiful and unspeakably disturbing.
Even more affecting for me was One of Your Own by Carol Ann Lee, which is far more traditional in its approach and concerns a much more well-trodden path - the Moors murders - but is written with such cool precision I've found its imagery lodged in my mind months after I read it in the summer. Lee, much of whose book focuses on Myra Hindley's time in prison, has a forensic eye for her subject's psychological tells, a seriousness when it comes to researching her motives and an icy level-headedness when it comes to her crimes. Where Burn’s book is a masterpiece of repellence, One of Your Own is a dispassionate look at something dark but undeniably human, the disquieting impact of which Lee's probing, scrutinising and seeking to understand only serves to enhance. I had terrible dreams for weeks after finishing One of Your Own and immediately read a handful of Lee’s other books.
2018 will hopefully see a commissioned short story from me based on a piece of folklore local to specific place, not to mention Plunge Hill, mine and Jenn’s follow-up to The Night Visitors for our publisher Dead Ink which we've already started work on. Most excitingly, I’m currently editing an anthology for another small local publisher with some incredible authors which has taken me a few years to get off the ground and which I’m hopeful (ie. praying) will do well.
Just like in 2016, myself, Jenn and Emma Jane Unsworth all found ourselves too busy this year to publish anything through Curious Tales, our collective initiative which tends to come to life when the clocks go back and produce something between Halloween and Christmas. Which is a shame because, while the writing/promotion/publicity/events management make for an absurdly labour-intensive winter, it’s also something I’ve always loved working on. Initial discussions about a 2018 Curious Tales project have tentatively begun but whether all/any of us will have the time remains to be seen.
As I mentioned earlier, I shall once again become a father next year. I often intend to write something about parenthood. As a grand theme it seems so central to everything I read and see at the moment. But getting a firm grasp has proven hard. I find that the sands are so constantly shifting, the essence of what it is to be a father evolving by the day, the hour, the thought. Maybe with two of them I’ll be able to pull things into focus.
Finally, 2017 was also the year in which a friend of mine passed away. Ben Ashworth was diagnosed with bowel cancer five years ago and told he had months left to live. He immediately threw himself into running, taking it from a hobby to a kind of career, setting up Ben's Bowel Movements, raising money and awareness for bowel cancer and becoming a huge source of encouragement and inspiration for hundreds. When he passed away this July and I went to his memorial service at Blackburn Cathedral I was astounded by the sheer numbers of people in attendance. But I first met Ben in Preston when I was at college and he worked at McDonalds. A shared love of 90s girl bands like Sleater Kinney and Le Tigre gave us something to talk about but his warmth and curiosity made him one of the easiest people to bond with. Later I would go on to be godfather to his eldest daughter. I last saw him a couple of years ago, at a Sleater Kinney gig, a few days before my own daughter was born, and I remember him being welcoming to my blathering on about my hopes and fears for fatherhood despite everything he was going through. I'll miss that generosity - the world feels a colder place without it. So, if you’re able to charitable this Christmas, please consider supporting Ben's Bowel Movements.
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