And that’s that. Another ridiculous year done.
Regular readers may recall that around this time last year I wrote a summary of my previous 12 months. In it I complained about how busy I’d been on the basis that I’d moved house, co-written a book, was the parent of a child and was working a full-time job. Well present-day me laughs a derisive and dryly hollow laugh in the face of 2017 me, a lazy, blinkered idiot who just doesn’t know how good he has it. One year on you find me the father of two children, one of whom, you may have mathematically deduced, is very much a baby. A lovely, wonderful, funny baby of course, but – Whither sleep! Whither free time! Whither comprehensible thought! – a baby nonetheless. And yet I plodded on like a dray horse, co-authoring another book, editing yet another one, and continuing to work a full-time office job.
To turn to the books, this year I once again worked with my occasional collaborator Jenn Ashworth on a slim horror novel. Plunge Hill is set in the early 1970s in a hospital in the remote north and is composed of the letters of a newly arrived typist and the entries in the diary she discovers which appear to have been written by her predecessor.
Fans of The Night Visitors, the novella Jenn and I brought out last year, or Bus Station: Unbound, the enormous online choose-your-own-adventure style novel we released in 2013, will be delighted (or perhaps dismayed – most likely nonplussed) to find some characters make reappearances, populating the alternative Lancashire mythos that lies behind these stories. Plunge Hill will be published next year with Dead Ink under a pseudonym, J.M.McVulpin as it constitutes an instalment of their Eden Society series. The notion is that Dead Ink have secured the rights to a catalogue of short horror novels originally published privately between 1919 and 2003 and sent directly to a list of subscribers and are now reissuing them. In truth, the whole thing is a hoax – the stories are written by the likes of me and Jenn, along with Andrew Michael Hurley, Alison Moore and othes.
And then there was We Were Strangers. I’ve grown to long for some kind of macro which makes it so that when I type ‘We Were Strangers’, it automatically adds ‘an anthology of stories each of which takes its title and inspiration from a track on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures’. Because LORD how I am sore weariéd of typing that out.
Anyway, that is precisely what We Were Strangers is, and the book itself has been a long time coming. I first came up with the notion of an anthology which shadows Joy Division’s debut a couple of years ago. Initially I launched it on Unbound, the publisher which uses crowdfunding to fund its books, but a combination of factors quickly made clear it wasn’t the right fit, so I instead approached Confingo, an independent publisher based here in Manchester. I knew of them primarily as they produce a lit-mag, also called Confingo, which had once accepted one of my stories, ‘Bait’, for publication, but they had also taken the step in 2017 of branching out into de facto books, publishing Ornithology, a collection of reliably creepy stories by Nicholas Royle, all of which are unified by the presence of birds and which was graced with an elegant, spare design aesthetic. And they turned out to be a great find. I was given the freedom to make whatever wayward editorial choices took my capricious fancy – A previously unpublished writer! A graphic interlude! Demands a commissioned story be rewritten entirely! – as though I knew what I was doing, but along with that came forensic editorial assistance, beguiling artwork and design, and the kind of commitment to make We Were Strangers as successful as possible that most independent, slightly outré books would only dream about (NB. books do not dream). As a result we produced a book which matched pretty exactly what I had envisioned at the start of the process, one which got a big, glowing review splashed across the start of the Observer’s review section, along with other, similarly positive notices elsewhere. The Guardian also commissioned one of the authors in We Were Strangers, Sophie Mackintosh, to write a piece about her experiences of composing her story and her relationship with Joy Division more generally. Granta subsequently got in touch to ask if they could republish another one of the stories, Jessie Greengrass’s ‘Candidate’ and at the end of the year Rough Trade announced that the anthology was number 4 – 4! – in their Books of the Year list, ahead of a number of starry names (Sorry, Stormzy! Better luck next time, Kate Bush! East my dust, John Lennon!) Needless to say, the time spent assembling and pushing We Were Strangers gobbled up my free time and when I would ordinarily be writing my own work I was instead frantically emailing event organisers, drafting press releases and endlessly typing out the phrase 'an anthology of stories each of which takes its title and inspiration from a track on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures'. I did however find time to write something related to the collection for The Learned Pig, a site whose writing I love and which has been supportive of the book from the start. What began as a slightly expanded version of my introduction to We Were Strangers morphed into a sort of roving think-piece about Manchester, its industrial and musical heritage, and our contradictory modernity’s headachey state of digital permanence and chronic amnesia. Cheery stuff.
Anyway, as that iceberg sized paragraph indicates, while We Were Strangers dominated my year, creatively and actually, there were other goings-on. I had only one piece of new fiction published in 2018, but it made up for this scantiness by finding a home in This Dreaming Isle, a knockout anthology from Unsung Stories.
Each of the stories in This Dreaming Isle takes a piece of specific UK folklore as its starting point and I, rather predictably, wrote about Manchester. Following the success with We Were Strangers (or perhaps following its avoidance of disaster) I also took up a role as Fiction Editor with Bare Fiction magazine, and also started work as Contributing Editor for Confingo, the magazine We Were Strangers’ publisher brings out twice a year. Most excitingly, I was also lucky enough to become the recipient of an ACE grant, one that I intend to use in order to work on my next book, which I’m tentatively going to declare ‘a novel’. This grant also contributed to my decision – potentially hare-brained – to hand in my notice at my aforementioned office job towards the end of the year. So 2019 shall see me writing as my day job, at least in some sense.
Like in 2017, my reading in 2018 has once again been an exercise in inconsistency. The editorial positions I’ve taken up mean I have read hundreds of short stories this year, almost all of them presently unpublished but some of them quite brilliant. But as far as the purely recreational reading of contemporary novels goes, 2018 been something of a relatively fallow season. I did enjoy the works of a couple of authors whose work I edited – my absolute favourite 2018 book was Jessie Greengrass’s Sight, which occupies that fascinating, liminal space between novel and nonfiction. I first encountered Jessie's writing when the eye-catching cover art and title of her short story collection, An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It, well, caught my eye. Sight, as a title, may sound as though a change of tack is being signposted, and the careful protractedness of prose which made Auk such a stong and consistent collection has been traded in for brevity. While that isn't the case, there is a directness and a candidness which seemed to divide critics broadly between people who loved it (who mostly seemed to be women) and those who were rather baffled (who mostly seemed to be men). For me it satisfied something I hadn't quite noticed I was lacking, a hunger I have for a particular type of writing: steely, rich, incisive and unapologetically serious, all of which Sight provides in undiluted abundance. (I also loved this short piece by Jessie on the benefits of being too busy to write.)
Like the rest of the reading world I was also bowled over by Sophie Mackintosh’s woozy The Water Cure – I’d first approached Sophie to contribute to We Were Strangers in 2016 on the basis of a pair of wonderful short stories I’d encountered, so it was pleasing (and oddly gratifying) to see her transfer her evident dexterity to a novel – an unpredictable, compelling novel – and meet with such success.
As with last year, the books which I found stuck with me most were a pair of true crime titles. Last year I encountered Carol Ann Lee’s biography of Myra Hindley, One of Your Own, which led me to read a number of her other books. The best of which has been The Murders at the White House Farm, a retelling of Jeremy Bamber who was in 1986 was convicted of the killing of his adoptive parents, his adoptive sister Sheila and her twin sons in an elaborate murder designed to frame Sheila which took place on the parents' farmhouse in Essex. Since then, Bamber has made it his lifelong work to campaign for his release, claiming, often with apparent credibility, that he is innocent. The Murders at the White House Farm is a scrupulous examination of the case, meticulously detailing what took place on the night in question and in the subsequent investigation, but it's also very much about the personalities involved and their lifelong conflicts which led up to the murders. Lee herself avoids commenting on where precisely she stands on the subject of Bamber’s guilt, but her conclusions, when they come, make it devastatingly clear that realistically there could only have been one course of events. I think the book I'm most looking forward to next year is Carol Ann Lee's latest, Somebody's Mother, Somebody's Daughter, a timely reframing of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, from the point of view of his numerous female victims.
I also listened to the audiobook of The People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry during the summer, mostly in the evenings, when I would walking the streets of my neighbourhood with my baby son in his sling to help him get some sleep. As such it emphasised the book’s woozy, neon-lit quality. The People Who Eat Darkness, which relates the brutal murder in 2000 of Lucie Blackman, a young woman from Kent who was working at the time as a hostess in Tokyo, is as much about the grisly act as it is about the curious vagaries of Japansese society and, therefore, the curious vagaries society as a whole, and the very real, very compromised individuals caught up in a nightmare of cross-continental dimensions, all of which darkly blossomed from the appetites of one highly disturbed perpetrator.
Finally, if I largely failed in 2018 at reading 2018 books, I made up for it by listening to a lot of 2018 music. I put this down to necessarily listening to Unknown Pleasures a lot and needing a contemporary curative to all that bygone gloom. Not that my top five records of the year, which I’ll end with, are defined particularly by their cheeriness:
Kids See Ghosts – Kids See Ghosts
Low - Double Negative
Alias and Doseone – Less is Orchestra
Daniel Knox - Chasescene
Noname – Room 25
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