Joan awakes to find she has been unwell on Tim's letter. She is lying across the doorway to her bedroom, her left shoe missing, the puddle of liquid – thin, evil-smelling – congealing together her hair, the letter, its envelope and the fabric of the rug.
She prises herself up, sits on her bed and is unwell once again onto where she was lying.
She goes downstairs and rattles her letter box – sometimes the letters crumple and get wedged in it, but there is no post, not today.
I have a ghost story titled ‘And the Children Followed’ in Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales. You can buy a copy here.
You see them together quite a bit now, Carrie and your husband. You've watched them in the supermarket, perusing the saleable items; and in the café, their feet up to dry out on an unoccupied chair; and in the park, holding hands as they wade about, laughing, pointing out to to one another the squirrels looking down at them from high up in the branches of the tall trees with their giant hungry eyes. When did they cease all attempts at disguising how comfortable they clearly feel with one another? You're not sure.
I’ve a new short story ‘Flood’ in the latest edition of Bare Fiction.
You can buy a copy here.
'Science is all about the factors which make the improbable occur, the particularities. You see, the earth here is rich with a particular strain of mineral which is excellent at preservation. And the wood of those sticks you hold are cut from Acer Henryi, a particular tree known to create a particular resonance when hit upon a particular drum in a particular fashion. The human nervous system – even if impaired – is known to react to its vibrations. Not always, but it is known. If this is done at a particular time on a particular night when the weather and the polarity and the moon are all in their own particular... ah!' He fell silent, a white puff of air left him as he held his breath, listening.
I have a new ghost story, ‘Drums at Cullen’, in The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales. You can buy a copy here.
'Your father’s ghost came to me,’ I said – I’m so used to telling her this, word for word. ‘I awoke and there he was. You were conceived in this house, in the living room. Gary is your father. It was a miracle. A simple, wonderful miracle. I know it’s hard for you to believe, but it’s true.’
I’ve a new short story titled ‘Mothering Season’ in The Manchester Review.
You can read it here.
On September 1st 1914, in Cincinnati Zoo – one of the oldest in the United States – at around 5:00pm, a bird called Martha, named after George Washington’s wife, was found dead at the bottom of her cage.
Martha was the last of a species called the passenger pigeon. A hundred years earlier, there had been more passenger pigeons than any other bird on the planet. Alexander Wilson, an early proponent of what we’d now call bird-watching, wrote of a flock he saw passing between Kentucky and Indiana in 1800 and estimated it was made up of 2.2 billion birds. Other early settlers in North America wrote of the bird’s migrations as extending for miles on end and tended to put its population somewhere around 4 billion. Their flocks, it was said, would cause the skies to grow dark, the air thunderous with the beating of their wings. One flock, seen in Ontario in 1866, took a full 14 hours to pass over a single point.
The arrival of man into any landscape pretty much always results in a demise of native wildlife: settlers expand out into their surroundings, claiming areas for farming, lumber and fuel. Like all creatures native to these areas the passenger pigeon suffered from this expansion; but, on the whole, their decline was executed in a far more intimate manner. The vast numbers they travelled in made them exceedingly easy targets and mostly they were shot for food. Their sheer quantity, however, also led settlers to quickly develop a grizzly attitude of sport around the bird. Competitions sprang up around their migration trail, all almost exclusively with one goal: to shoot as many birds as possible. One competition required participants to bring down a minimum of 30,000 just to be in contention for the prize. Seemingly in a prolonged state of delirium at the limitless riches on offer, and charged with a need to supply food for a rapidly increasing and expanding population, the slaughter increased as the century drew on. It also got increasingly bizarre.
Professional hunters of the bird, inspired by the successful methods of industrial production, tried to come up with new techniques for slaughtering the birds in larger numbers: grain soaked in alcohol to make them drunk and sluggish; large, elaborate netting contraptions; bushels of burning sulphur below their nests to suffocate them; acres of trees set alight simply to scare the birds out; one especially gruesome method involved the capture of a live pigeon which would then have its eyelids sewn shut and be left as bait, attracting others with its distressed calls.
None of this, of course, seemed to make the number of birds diminish especially visibly. Things were beginning to change though, the rapid evolution of communication and transport in the country allowing the killing to be carried out with ever-increasing efficiency. April 1871 saw the largest nesting assembly of the bird on record – some 136 million birds blanketing the plains of south central Wisconsin. The telegraph system, recently installed nationwide, allowed the hunters to track the pigeons, pursuing them relentlessly from site to site as they took flight and moved on, effortlessly wiping out whole exhausted colonies at a time. The other great innovations of the period, railroad cars, were used to ship out millions of the pigeons to butchers and general stores across the country at an average of 20 cents a dozen.
Another gathering occurred in Michigan seven years later, but it was to be the last. The population plummeted sharply towards the latter end of the century. The last recorded sighting of a passenger pigeon in the wild was in Ohio 1900. Fittingly, it was shot. By 1909, Cincinnati Zoo had the three remaining birds on the planet, two males and a female, all the offspring of previously confined birds, and the final chance to bring the species back from the brink of extinction, to restore the vast drumming of countless billions of wings back to the skies, to see the plains of Ontario grow dark once again with their passing overhead. By 1910, however, only the female – Martha – remained. She survived a further four years then, caged and alone, she died.
But there’s no time to mourn for Martha, I’m afraid. Now we must zip forwards in time a hundred years later. It is the present day. Things are very different here: at present the earth’s population consumes something like 50 billion animals every year, a number which is likely to double over the next forty years. If our eating habits remain as they are, the vast majority of these animals we eat will continue to be those which the modern age has found to be the most easily and effectively farmed: chickens.
There’s something of a vogue for organic meat these days, particularly chickens: we like to think of ourselves as a discerning and compassionate generation of consumers, much more careful in selecting what we eat than in the recent past. Sadly, the statistics show this is to be somewhat of an illusion: 96 percent of the chickens we consume are hatched and slaughtered in factory conditions. The mechanization of meat production in America has evolved beyond recognition since the passenger pigeon’s demise and has become the standard industry model the world has seen fit to replicate.
Chickens found their lives beginning to grow shorter in the 1950s when farmers discovered that, instead of simply waiting for the chickens to reach their adult size, they could be brought indoors when they reached 10 weeks old and force-fed oats and animal fat using the bluntly apposite ‘cramming machine’. Shortly after this, it was also found that introducing antibiotics into the chickens’ feed caused them to grow faster still and meant they didn’t get sick. Finally, it was discovered that containing them in barns with the lights kept on meant they would eat (and grow) around the clock. The foundations for what would become modern meat production were established.
By the 1970s chickens were being bred to specific internal biological patents, in pursuit of a bird which put on weight faster, younger, with less feed: the bird we’ve now grown familiar with. Chickens are essentially babies when they’re killed – normally 38-40 days old – but have been forced to a grotesquely proportioned adult size at an unnatural pace. These days the constant lighting used in the factory farms is kept dim so as to discourage the birds from moving about and losing any weight. Around half of all broiler birds develop something called tibial dyschondroplasia – a condition where the weight of their bodies causes their leg-bones to buckle and twist. Unsurprisingly, this means that a lot of the birds, at 6 weeks, tend to spend much of their lives motionless: lying down, rising only to eat.
All of this may sound unpleasant (it is unpleasant), but the worst potential for suffering comes at the end of a chicken’s life. 900 million chickens and hens a year are slaughtered in the UK; the process each of them goes through is as follows.
A team of ‘catchers’ enters the sheds to gather the chickens by hand; the legal maximum they’re allowed to bunch together is three in each which are carried upside down to a crate. Increasingly common in the UK are machines which hoover the birds up through a large nozzle and drop them into the crate. They’re then packed into plastic containers – the sort you may have seen stacked up inside passing lorries.
On arrival at the slaughterhouse the plastic containers are forklifted from the lorry into the plant. The birds are removed, then have their legs slotted upside down into metal manacles so they’re hanging from a long, moving wire. They’re moved through a stunning bath, which is precisely what it sounds like: a basin of salt-water with an electrical charge running through it. The aim with this is not to kill the chickens but merely to ensure they’re unconscious. The stunning bath has become the most controversial element of the killing process: many of the birds, as you or I or any other animal might do in the situation, lift their heads to avoid the water. The Humane Slaughter Association (for there is such a thing) estimates that of the average 13,200 birds which are killed every hour, around 30 to 50 of them remain conscious when killed.
This killing is done by the line of birds passing before a rotating blade which cuts through the chickens’ necks, severing the vessels carrying blood between the brain and heart. In the UK a double blade is used – whereas the USA favours just one – and a person is now required on each production line to make sure each of the birds is dead.
After this they’re moved through to the bleed tunnel and then the scald tank to sap the blood, loosen the feathers and strip them clean; then the chicken’s feet and head are removed; they’re refrigerated; and finally they’re take to the factory floor where they’re gutted, stuffed and packaged-up to be sent out, sold and eaten.
When looking at our progress as a species it’s customary to read our history as a narrative of improvement, the achievements of each generation bettering those of the previous, the good things we do broadly outnumbering the bad, nudging our enlightenment forward. This, on the whole, is probably true, but those bad things are still worth bad things and, as such, worth addressing.
I should say that this is categorically not the point at which this about-faces into a haranguing animal liberation. There is always more than enough human bloodshed to make any talk of life and death of animals seem pretty much unimportant. But it isn’t unimportant: it seems we’ve voided any sense of equilibrium when it comes to animals; while the sight of a person in pain will cause us to flinch or weep or intervene, we’re often content to view suffering on a far more imposing scale if it happens to be inflicted on animals.
Curiously, animal-libbers seem to have little interest in industrialised meat (or leather) production, preferring to direct their attention towards the undeniably more essential work going on at medical laboratories, no doubt due to the more appealing critters in question. Also, as with the rest of us, the super-abundance of chickens and the other animals we consume has bred a moral murkiness in our minds: their ubiquity and sheer number cause us to deny them their evident sentience, and to do so on a quietly titanic scale.
In each of these birds, in the stories of their fates, we see the inverse of the other: both are stories of excess; but whereas one, the passenger pigeon, was numerous enough to fill the sky and become hastily blitzed from creation not long after man discovered it, the chicken, on the other hand, is now a monstrous parody of extinction, currently numbering more than double the amount of people on the planet. If there is a theme which both stories share it’s one which has plainly been constant to human history: animals uprooted from nature and brutalised for the sake of a sensation, a taste on our tongues.
I first wrote this for an old blog in November 2010 when I had nothing better to do.
I have a small rule whenever I’m in a second-hand bookshop. If I come across Dr Who a novel, one of the The Virgin New Adventures series, I buy it. I don’t think about it, don’t quibble over the price, don’t leaf through the book, wondering if it’s actually any good. I just pick it up and buy it.
This, you might be thinking, has the potential to be an expensive rule for someone to keep. Not so: these books actually turn up in shops very rarely. Sure, they’re available online and, although they’re available at a broad spectrum of prices, most of them are pretty cheap. But no: that would be against the rule. If I bought one on Amazon, what would there be to stop me buying another? And then another? And so on. Once I’d bought and read all the ones available for a few pence I’d then have no option to move on to the more expensive ones. Eventually I'd be bankrupting myself for copies of Damaged Goods and The Dying Days, and then where would I be? No, there is a rule, a simple one, and it must be adhered to: if I’m in a second-hand bookshop I’m required to look. If I find one, I must buy it.
When I was a teenager I’d be taken for monthly trips to Waterstones (or Waterstone’s, as it was then) by my dad to have a book bought for me. I had the predictably lofty-seeming tastes of someone my age: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Junky, a joyless-looking copy of Rimbaud’s Selected Poems. But, more than any of these, I was drawn to the Dr Who books. I was a big fan of Dr Who back then, as big a fan as a 90’s teen with only a handful of VHS tapes – The Green Death, Revelation of the Daleks, Paradise Towers, The Stranger (a copyright-dodging Who-reimagining, released straight-to-video and available only via mail order) and no independent income could hope to be. There was something thrilling about the sight of the New Adventures, their uniform spines of pristine white with elegant coloured lettering, all lined up in the tall, stately shelves; their mysterious titles - Lungbarrow, The Left-Handed Hummingbird, Christmas on a Rational Planet; and, most of all, their covers, each book hosting a strange, hyper-realist painting of the Doctor in a different dramatic scene, often with skewed renderings of the human form and an iffy sense of perspective, presenting not just a snapshot of the adventure concealed inside, waiting to happen, but also the notion that, far from being mere entertainment, what lay behind those gaudy covers could also be something else entirely, something a world away from the cheap sets, silly costumes and mere acting of the TV show: something dark, perilous and hallucinatory.
I was a slow reader back then: the books in the New Adventures series were released far quicker than I could get through them. And, remember, this was in the age before a person could check which book had the most Amazon stars or look up the reviews on GoodReads. The only method for selecting one of these books was for me to single out the cover I liked the most, make sure the synopsis sounded suitably gripping, and then force myself away from the shelf, glancing around at those books left unselected, a galaxy of worlds unrealised and adventures unexperienced. Later on, in my bedroom, I'd look at the titles listed of the other books in the series and think about how, when I was an adult, successful and wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, I’d be able to buy all of them.
This was during The Dr Who dark ages: the television series, now roundly thought of as a silly children's show well past its prime, had been taken off the air. Virgin Books leased the rights for the extant characters - the 7th incarnation of the Doctor, his companion Ace, and occasionally her irritating predecessor Mel - from the BBC to use in a range of novels title The Virgin New Adventures. Prior to all these there had been Target Books' novelisations: brief, no-nonsense volumes which recounted the plots and dialogue exchanges of the television adventures with little in the way additional content or substance: formative reading for a lot of people growing up in the 70's. Later, in 1996, an American Dr Who TV movie appeared and, although it resolutely failed to reignite the public's love of the show, it did prompt the BBC to take back the rights to their characters and begin publishing their own extensive series of books, ones which were consistent in tone and every bit as a good as the Virgin New Adventures but, although I read dozens of the things, they came along slightly too late to exert the same hypnotic hold on me as the New Adventures and, crucially, their front covers weren't as nice.
Wisely, rather than providing a new raft of novelisations of those more recent TV episodes which had so evidently failed to grasp as firm a hold on the imaginations of young people as the show had done in its 60’s and 70’s heyday, the New Adventures, as the name suggests, instead opted for entirely new adventures, with a darker tone and more rounded characters, the concepts ebbing into the territory of hard science-fiction, the themes significantly more adult: there’s drugs in Damaged Goods; religious animal torture proliferates in St Anthony’s Fire; two constant tropes throughout most of the books are the Doctor’s hardening from Sylvester McCoy’s amicable bumbler into a troubled loner and Ace’s restless desire to get laid.
My personal favourites are those which left me with a certain feeling: the sinister-creature-lurking-behind-the-postbox-in-a-small-village Nightshade; the fearsome, nigh-incomprehensible, sheer Aztec K-hole drop of The Left-Handed Hummingbird; and, most of all, the recurring-dream, garden-party wooziness of Strange England. If I were drawing up a list of my favourite novels I’d choose the big beasts – Mrs Dalloway, American Pastoral, The Master and Margarita - but, secretly, somewhere near the top of this list would be this cheap paperback by Simon Messingham, whose other entries into Dr Who include such gloriously B-movie titles as The Indestructable Man and The Face-Eater. Yes, these are silly little books and when I read them I projected. I'd perceive meaning, emotional weight and literary depth which, quite patently I now see, were simply not there. But, really, I don’t care: for me they were there.
Reading them now, I find it genuinely impossible to tell what they are. Are they hacks’ potboilers, as formulaic and uninspired as you’d expect a TV tie-in novel to be? Or are they the trippy exercises in mid-period Angela Carter-esque excess I can’t help but see them as? The truth, I imagine, lies somewhere in between: solid, decent science-fiction pressed up against the feverish imagination of a bored, lonely teenager. There’s a comparison to be drawn, I think, between these sorts of books and the pulp crime novels of the post-war age, or the golden age of comics, or the penny-dreadfuls of the nineteenth-century: it seems there is always writing which at the time is seen as trash but then – gradually, eventually – works its way into respectability: first as artifacts of a pop culture past, museum pieces from a certain moment in time, then simply as examples of good writing. A lot of great writers found their voices with these books and the BBC series - Paul Cornell, Russell T Davies, Mark Gatiss, Ben Aaronovitch, even Steven Moffatt contributed a short story to one of the Decalog anthologies – who, in turn, set the bar for the very much established writers currently working on novels to tie in with the new series of Dr Who: Naomi Alderman, Jenny Colgan, Steven Baxter, Dan Abnett, Michael Moorcock.
This year Dr Who is 50 years old. There’ll be various celebrations but (understandably) they’ll all focus on the television show. I'd read them and re-read them, these books. For me, their appeal and the appeal of Dr Who in general is and always has been its blending of science-fiction not just with the real world, but with modern Britain. I'd wander the suburbs of Chorley, lost in a reverie of imagined otherworldly set-pieces: I’d see fragments of alien cultures in the Range Rovers I passed; terrifying customs and rituals in my elderly neighbours mowing of their lawns; patient creatures lurked behind the net-curtains; there were dangers and dramas behind every frosted-glass front door; the stilted silence all around me was the sound of time unspooling and rewinding. For me – for the teenage me - these books weren't just the purest form of Dr Who, at the time they were the purest form of reading.
Here's something which happened to me recently: I walked into Oxfam and found one of the books. There it was, a copy of First Frontier by David A. McIntee on the science fiction shelf. Not the most highly regarded book in the series, but not the worst either. So, naturally, I picked it up, went directly to the counter, paid for it and then headed for the exit.
It was only when I was outside the shop, holding the door open for an elderly man to enter that I saw the spinner. It was by the door and was loaded with Dr Who Virgin New Adventures. I re-entered the shop, not taking my eyes off the covers: almost every single book was there – Zamper, Transit, Shadowmind, even (my heart was pounding) the entire Timewyrm and Cat's Cradle sequence of books which had kicked off the series. Clearly, someone had traded in their entire collection. I started sweating and shaking; I was finding it hard not to scream. Without fully thinking about what I was doing, I began piling up the most choice books in my arms. It was impossible, both physically and financially, the grown-up part of my brain insisted, for me to buy them all. But, countered my stroppy inner-teen, I had to at least make a decent go of it.
As quickly as I could I tottered over to the till, spilled the dozen or so books I’d gathered and waited whilst the girl behind the counter stopped what she was doing and slowly began scanning them in. To her I was merely another sweaty oddball, of course. I might as well be pawing through Star Trek novels, or Quantum Leap ones, or Babylon 5. The fool! Didn’t she know these were some of the most precious books ever committed to print? I wished she’d hurry up. What if some other New Adventure-ist came in and saw my wonderful booty, my beautiful array of battered 80’s sci-fi, with their yellowing pages, dog-eared corners and terrible cover art, and offered to pay a higher price? What if there was a problem with my debit card? Or the till? What if there was a sudden fire alarm requiring the immediate closure of the shop? What if whoever these books had originally belonged to had, at this very moment, experienced a change of heart (surely inevitable!) and was now racing back to the shop to undo their madness and reclaim their beloved copies of Blood Harvest and Falls The Shadow?
Even when the payment cleared, I didn’t feel any sense of relief, let alone the Proustian surge of wish-fulfillment I’d been anticipating.
My receipt handed to me, the books bagged, I made my way to Costa furtively, as though carrying an illicit package of drug-money. I sat down with a cup of tea. Tentatively, I now allowed myself to pick through what I'd bought. It was now that it came: finally, after years of questing – half-arsed questing, admittedly – I’d hit manna; I had waited, had been patient, had had faith, and was now being rewarded. Although not especially successful and definitely not wealthy beyond even my more moderate dreams, I had succeeded in providing the books to that stupid teenager which he wanted more than any others.
I opened my copy of Timewyrm: Revelation and read as though reading to him:
They say that no two snowflakes are the same. But nobody ever stops to check. Above the Academy blew great billows of them, whipping around the corners of the dark building as if to emphasize the structure's harsh lines...