‘Oblio,’ she said, ‘You should like to see Oblio?’
I have a new ghost story out. It's called 'Oblio' and will be published in Out of the Darkness, an anthology of dark fantasy and horror fiction loosely themed around mental health.
One bit of practical advice I always offer whenever I’m leading a creative writing workshop is this: if you can, set your story on a holiday. ‘Oblio’ is set on holiday. This isn’t because I’m a writer who particularly enjoys (or is skilled at) writing descriptively about a story’s settings. Rather, the appeal is an environment in which the characters are largely contained, mercifully shorn of the context of their daily lives, able only to interact with one another in any meaningful sense. As well being a handy way to bring these characters into sharper relief, a holiday setting also allows for tension to be built up with a ready plausibility, as the unfamiliar surroundings and encounters can slide smoothly into the ominous.
And, as anyone who has attended one of my workshops may well remember, I also have a habit of trying to crowbar a harmonium into pretty much everything I write, invariably for it to be removed during the edit. This story, I'm thrilled to announce, does feature a harmonium.
Briefly: ‘Oblio’ features two sisters who also happen to be a musical duo called Taurig. They are touring Europe to promote their debut album and we find them in Palermo, Italy, home of Carrie Viner, a reclusive and long-retired pop-star whose music had a great influence on Taurig. So they set out to find her. But overshadowing their jaunt are two things: the first is memories the narrator has of a traumatic trip her family took to Palermo she was a child. The second is her sister’s depression. There are also, for those who find such things interesting, connecting incidents between ‘Oblio’ and an earlier ghost story of mine called ‘Kloya and Klik’ which also concerns two people who find they are at odds with one another while holidaying in Europe.
Writing about music and musicians is something I’ve developed an interest in over the past few years, and when I was tasked with writing a story which touches on both the supernatural and depression, I was immediately put in mind of one musical artist in particular: Nico.
Nico is best remembered as a member of the Velvet Underground and for her austere performance on their 1967 debut album. After leaving the group to record the soft-rock Chelsea Girl in the same year, Nico embarked on a career that saw her create a new sound, one defined by cryptic lyrics, stark, spectral arrangements, droning harmonium and an overwhelming sense of doom. I’m not sure who described Nico’s music as ‘not so much music you get into, more a hole you fall into’ but I’ve always thought it an accurate summation, not just of her records but of also of a certain broader strata of culture of which Nico are just a small constituent part. Indeed, it also seems an apt way to describe a certain mode of depressive thinking. Nico’s music follows its own terminal logic, alive with a strange, frightening sense of mourning: it’s there in her wintry vocals and accompanying harmonium, a handheld reed organ which gives her music a pre-modern feel. It was this haunting, haunted sensation I wanted to capture as best I could in ‘Oblio’.
The aim of Out of the Darkness is to raise awareness of mental health issues and funds for Together for Mental Wellbeing, a charity that helps people affected by mental health issues work towards independent and fulfilling lives.
We all have mental health and it’s positive that the topic of mental illness is far more publicly discussed a topic than in the past, increasingly free of its taboo and stigma. However, the reality can often be far more alienating than the discourse suggests. For many, their mental wellbeing can come with a history of behaviour which is alienating and involves a loss of dignity which is hard to live with, both for them and for their loved ones. For these people medical and clinical interventions become an essential aspect of their lives. The current ‘hugs and chats’ discourse, while serving most people well, masks a mental health provision which is suffering from years of systematic underfunding. As the past year has seen widespread isolation, unemployment, record deaths and disruption to these services, the opportunity to create any kind of art which plumbs the mire of the human mind is a gift.
Out of the Darkness is published by the great Unsung Stories and also features fiction by Alison Moore, Nicholas Royle, Verity Holloway and others (and some no-mark called Jenn Ashworth).
It's currently available to pre-order on Kickstarter with a variety of rewards including a critique service from top notch editor Dan Coxon.