Queer Book club: Beloved Poison by E.S. Thomson

beloved-poison-coverEspecially for Halloween, Beloved Poison is a grisly gothic mystery steeped in Victorian grime and macabre medical practices. The story follows Jem Flockhart, apothecary to St Saviour’s Infirmary, as she pieces together the mystery of six tiny coffins discovered in the Infirmary’s old chapel. The writer is an academic who specialises in the history of medicine, and that knowledge certainly comes through in the gory detail. The story is dark, bleak and atmospheric—if you’re looking for a story with plenty of gothic atmosphere, it won’t disappoint.

Jem is an excellent character—she lives her life as a man, a necessity her father insists upon, so that she can continue the family business. Her masculine build and a birth mark on her face make it easier for her to maintain this disguise. The role leaves Jem feeling separate from both the men and women who surround her, set apart by her secret, but she also recognises the freedom that her role gives her. She’s secretly in love with Eliza, the beautiful daughter of one of the infirmary’s surgeons, but she’s sure her love could never be returned. When a young architect, Will, is charged with clearing St Saviour’s graveyard in time for the old infirmary to be relocated, Jem finds real friendship for the first time. I like the way Thomson handles the gender roles—it feels aware and considered, and there is also some insightful observation of women’s roles at the time and how those limits impacted on individuals. While the characters aren’t always aware of the injustices that surround them, the story makes them clear.

The world of the story is a small one, claustrophobic, with a limited cast of characters. This adds to the atmosphere of the story, but left me wondering if Thomson  could really surprise me with the reveal. But in the end, I wasn’t disappointed by the conclusion of the mystery. Despite the gothic atmosphere, this story brings readers face to face with some grim social realities—the brutal practices of Victorian medicine, child poverty and the limited roles of women. Because of that unflinching approach to the bleak setting, it’s fitting that the story doesn’t have an entirely happy ending.

My only criticism was that the story occasionally drops retrospective hints about the mystery while otherwise not feeling like it’s written in a retrospective style. It’s a small thing, though, and it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of and immersion in the story.

I should say an especial thank you to book blogger Hit or Miss Books for the recommendation.

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Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: Ian Andrews

the-pearls-that-were-his-eyes-coverAuthor Ian Andrews took time out to talk to me about his novel, The Pearls That Were His Eyes, the Cthulhu Mythos and the King in Yellow. If you like weird fiction, flooded gothic cities, and cosmic horror, you’re in for a treat.

Tell me about The Pearls That Were His Eyes.

Pearls is at its heart a story about unconventional love, and about the masks we wear. Almost every character in the novel undergoes a journey dictated and coloured by their loves; for some it’s a less pleasant journey than others. Passion isn’t always a positive emotion. I have always been fascinated by the act of wearing a mask and the potential significances that can have; the putting on of a game face to deal with a situation that our truer, naked selves may not want to face.

On the surface of it, it’s a political whodunit set in a mysterious, partly flooded city against a backdrop of upheaval and occult menace. I have heard readers say that they struggle to pin down the genre; there’s elements of clockpunk fantasy, historical thriller, murder mystery and a number of other themes all jostling to be heard.

But at its heart, it’s a love story. A story about the terrible, dreadful things that love can make you do.

It’s also, lest we forget, a story about the unconditional love of a man for his giant albino ape. Bisociation is both big and clever, and complexity is not a vice….

What were your major inspirations for the book?

The story wears its Shakespearean pretensions on its sleeve, though there’s a little mischief-making with the naming conventions too; our Miranda is clearly an Ariel, and Prospero bears more resemblance to the prince of Poe’s story than the Duke of Milan. Carcosa, obviously, is a key inspiration for Cittavecchio; the work of Bierce, Chambers, Wagner and latterly Detwiler and Tynes was foremost in my mind when I was putting together the backstory of the city and its inhabitants. There’s a lot of Venice in there too – predictably – much of the writing of the key sequences was done while in Venice for Carnevale, and I took a lot of late night walks along narrow, foggy canal side paths looking for the war of frogs and mice. But not perhaps as much as one might think to begin with – there’s a lot of old London in there too, especially in the Rookeries, and Amsterdam, and Thomas Ligotti’s City of Bells and Towers.

I have been reading a lot of Borges and Ligotti recently; it’s good brain food and good discipline for a writer.

I’ve always been fascinated with the commedia dell’arte; the almost cultish rituals and secrets that surround it and the idea of mask as character.

But as per the chapter headings, the real inspiration behind it is Eliot’s magnificent, enigmatic Waste Land – trying to recapture the sense of unfocussed background menace that Elio seems to just find lying around in the street. One must be so careful these days.

What is it about The King in Yellow and the Cthulhu Mythos that attracts you?

A deceptively complicated question. The Carcosa mythos appeals to me for many reasons – but if I had to pin down one for sure it’s the ambiguity. The recent upsurge of popularity in old Howard Phillips’ cosmology – especially the roleplaying games that have come out of his work – have led the Cthulhu Mythos, for better or for worse, down a road where there’s little mystery or awe left in it. Encyclopaediae and rulebooks capture, quantify and pin down like butterflies the creatures, mysteries and magic of the Cthulhu Mythos and I wonder if in doing so they have missed its fundamental point.

The Carcosa cycle, the so-called Hastur Mythos, is harder to pin down. It’s impressionistic, almost, in that it is far more open to the reader’s interpretation. It’s not about monsters and agendas and cults and pulp good versus evil – or not just about that anyway, once you scratch the surface. It’s far more about mood, emotions, sensation. When all is said and done, there’s a few fragments of a play, some character names and implicit assumed relationships, an occult threat, a sense of foreboding, a city that may or may not be lost and a handful of locations. The very paucity of detail means it’s easier to hang a story, a sense of menace and ambiguity, onto the skeletal framework. It’s not so tied to a single period as Lovecraft’s work; some of the best Carcosa fiction I have read has been modern.

There is a formality to the structure of the source material; like the commedia there are roles, defined by titles. The Last King. The Phantom of Truth. Cassilda and Camilla. They spark the imagination, encourage you to make your own connections. To wear the masks and try them out for a while.

Back in the Nineties, John Tynes wrote a number of essays (found in the excellent Delta Green: Countdown and elsewhere) about his take on the Hastur Mythos; about it being to do with the concept of entropy as expressed through civilisational and social models rather than Lovecraft’s blind idiot chaos. I find the idea of the King in Yellow as an anthropomorphisation or avatar of a universal principle of entropy expressed in human terms and working on human constructs profoundly more unsettling than any number of tentacle faced kaiju, for all I love them. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.

Tell me brother; have you seen the Yellow Sign? If you have not, I lack the words to explain. If you have, I do not need to.

Do you have any recommendations of other modern Carcosa Mythos or Cthulhu Mythos fiction?

It’s impossible not to start with the first season of True Detective. A triumph of storytelling and I admire the restraint of the director and the writer in not feeling it necessary to explain everything. That’s the essence of the Carcosa Mythos right there. There’s a short scene in episode five where the two leads are interviewing an old woman in a nursing home, and Rust Cohle shows her some of his sketches. Her reaction and her little speech is so chilling, so on the nail, that just recalling it now has made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You know Carcosa? You know Carcosa? Him who eats time. Him robes. It’s a wind of invisible voices. Brrr… Civilisational entropy; the rot setting into the soul. It’s all right there.

I’ve referenced John Tynes’ work above; there’s both his work for Delta Green and his writing in the Unspeakable Oath fanzine if you can get hold of it. He also released three chapbooks – Ambrose, Broadalbin and Sosostris – which shaped a lot of my early thinking about the Carcosa Mythos. His sometime writing partner Dennis Detwiler has done a lot of rpg-based work on Carcosa themes too – I’d recommend hunting down Don’t Rest Your Head and Insylum.

Even though it’s not overtly associated with the Carcosa Mythos I have to give a nod to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It’s a difficult book, and a lot of the themes of alienation, loss of perspective grasp and what happens when the horror comes to you fit very well into the overall themes of the mythos. And also, once it has momentum, it’s un-putdownable.

There are some excellent recent collections of short stories on a Carcosa theme – Rehearsals for Oblivion Vol 1 springs immediately to mind – that gather both new takes on old themes and some of the classics like Karl Edward Wagner’s River of Night’s Dreaming and James Blish’s seminal More Light.

Last of all, I’d like to flag a recommendation for an episode of the TV anthology series Masters of Horror. Various luminaries of the horror genre each do an episode – and while some of them are genuinely awful, the episode of the second season written by John Carpenter called Cigarette Burns is well worth a look – the effect of watching his lost film and a lot of the story surrounding it is an elegant updating of Chambers’ lost and banned play.

Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: Nina Shepardson

nightscript 2 cover.jpgToday for Gothic/Horror Month, I have an interview with writer Nina Shepardson. Nina took some time out to talk to me about her latest story, a literary horror short, “And Elm Do Hate,” which appears in the anthology, Nightscript vol.2.

You recently had a short story, “And Elm Do Hate,” published in Nightscript Vol. 2. Tell me about the story.

“And Elm Do Hate” falls into the classification of literary horror. While there are certainly scenes where characters are trying to rescue themselves or others from immediate peril, the piece’s real focus is on atmosphere and a sense of brooding menace.

What were your inspirations?

The big one is a line of graffiti that started appearing in Worcestershire, England in the 1940s. It asked, “Who put Bella in the wych-elm?” after a group of children found the skeleton of a woman named Bella hidden in the hollow trunk of a tree.

I also drew some inspiration from an old folk saying: “Oak do brood, and elm do hate, but the willow walks if you travel late.”

Do you have any recommendations for short stories, or short story writers that tend towards the dark side of things?

Barbara Roden’s story collection “Northwest Passages” doesn’t get nearly enough love. Pretty much every story in that book is excellent, and they evoke a wonderful sense of pure creepiness. I also highly recommend Emily Carroll’s illustrated collection “Through the Woods” (as well as her online comics, which can be found at emcarroll.com).

Nina Shepardson is a scientist who lives in the north-eastern US with her husband. She’s a staff reader for Spark: A Creative Anthology, and her writing appears or is forthcoming in numerous venues. Her ghost story “Gifts from a Newlywed Husband to his Wife” can be read at Electric Spec: http://www.electricspec.com/Volume11/Issue1/shepardson.feb16.html She also writes book reviews at ninashepardson.wordpress.com

Gothic/Horror Month Review: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

theloney-coverI’ve seen The Loney described as both gothic and folk horror, and also literary fiction, and all those labels fit. It’s the story of the Catholic Smith family and friends who take a pilgrimage from their church in London to a desolate patch of coast in Northern England. They stay at the Moorings, a rental house once home to a taxidermist. But it is the stretch of coast itself, The Loney, with its deadly tides, and the mysterious Thessaly, an abandoned cottage on the tidal island of Coldbarrow, which are really at the heart of the mystery. For years, the group visited the nearby shrine with their old priest, Father Wilfred. But on their previous visit, Father Wilfred mysteriously changed, and soon after died. This time a new priest accompanies them.

The story is narrated by one of the boys from the Smith family, now grown-up. His older brother, Hanny, was mute and had learning disabilities when they were young, and the narrator often acts as his protector. Every pilgrimage, the family hoped that Hanny would be cured, though the narrator knew what a strain that expectation placed on his brother. The story begins by looking back at that time, at the final pilgrimage, but from an adult point of view. In the present, we know that adult Hanny has somehow recovered from his condition, but not how, and we’re told of a baby discovered in a landslide at Coldbarrow. Though it takes the book to explain why, this event prompts the narrator to tell the story of the final pilgrimage to The Loney. The retrospective style builds the sense of mystery.

The Loney is fantastically atmospheric. The bleak and deadly landscape is a character in itself, and there’s a brooding sense of doom that overlays the whole story. From the start, there are hints of folk magic, of the dark history of the place, and of something not quite right about the locals. As the story grows, this becomes increasingly apparent, but it takes a long time to discover the truth. I can’t stress this enough, this book is a slow burn, so if you like a fast pace, this isn’t for you. However, I’m not the most patient person in the world, and the rich characterisation and atmosphere were enough food to keep me going.

Catholicism plays a big part alongside the folk magic, and there’s brutality there as well, mostly in the form of the older fire and brimstone priest and the legacy he left. There’s a lurking question that seems to hang over the story about the fate of those who are cast out by The Church. But it’s not a complete trashing of religion. The new priest is much more open minded, and genuinely caring, and the story also stresses the comfort and hope that faith provides, as well as some of the darker excesses of religion. There’s no one single message about belief, but a lot of ambiguity.

The biggest ambiguity comes at the end. I won’t give it away, but it’s an ending that stays with me, that haunts with its lingering questions. The narrator, who I don’t think is ever given a first name, plays his role of protector to the end.

eFestival of Words: Hallowe’en Promo

I mentioned this earlier in the week. All month, there’s an online Hallowe’en themed book festival for indie authors, including horror, gothic and paranormal titles. You can discover new writers in these genres, plus there are free book giveaways to enter. What’s the catch? There isn’t one. This is a way for indie authors to get their names out, and hopefully pick up some interest in their newsletters. Newsletters are a great way for indie authors to keep people informed of new work and promotions.

My gothic novella, Love is the Cure, is the featured book today. You can read an excerpt and  a mini-interview with me about Hallowe’en.

http://bardsandsages.com/efestivalofwords/2016/10/06/book-excerpt-love-is-the-cure/

Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: What is Gothic Crazysauce?

moon-clouds

I invited Jack Swift, my writing group buddy and vamp muse, to talk about gothic crazysauce.

(1) What is gothic crazysauce?

“Gothic crazysauce” is an informal term that was getting thrown around on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I thought the phrase was a hilarious and apt description of everything I am about.

To me, “gothic crazysauce” describes the ridiculous, melodramatic, yet gloomily atmospheric happenings in certain gothic literature. Not all gothic qualifies.

Keeping a mentally ill wife locked up in an attic a la Jane Eyre is pretty gothic.

Marrying someone you hate, and then abusing her and her child, all just to get revenge on someone else, Heathcliff-style, is approaching crazysauce.

Literally summoning Lucifer to help the man you love enjoy another, as Matilda does in The Monk? That, my friends, is full-blown gothic crazysauce.

Gothic crazysauce is when your characters never experience being happy, sad, angry, or horny—instead they are ecstatic, hysterical, murderous or deranged with lust. Your plot twists are well beyond byzantine. Everything takes place in a mouldering haunted castle, with a double order of bats. Outside is a thunderstorm. There is always a thunderstorm. You flee into it, from the man you both adore and despise, clad only in your diaphanous white nightdress, and lose yourself and your mind on the moors.

Gothic crazysauce is generally used as spice for the dish, rather than as the meat of an entire work of literature. More rarely, brave souls set out to pen entire novels and plays utterly drenched in the crazy. My hat is off to them.

(2)  Do you have some recommendations of this from literature?

I already mentioned the classics Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Monk, in ascending order of crazysauce. The Monk is literally all crazysauce, all the time. Nothing that those characters do really makes sense—unless you are Lord Byron high on laudanum trying to get into the pants of both Percy AND Mary Shelley at the same time.

Speaking of laudanum-fuelled Byron/Shelley orgies, the novelization of the Ken Russell film Gothic, written by Stephen Volk, is another fine example of non-stop crazysauce. I am not going to say it’s actually a good book—but it sure is fun, if you just want to marinate in aesthetically pleasing batshit insanity.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, though they obviously pre-date the gothic movement, have plenty of crazysauce to go around.

King Lear springs readily to mind, especially the scene where Edgar erroneously convinces the blinded Gloucester that he has actually attempted and survived suicide by jumping from a cliff—all without revealing that he is actually his estranged son.

Othello has plenty. (“Blood! Blood! BLOOD!” Sounds exactly like a Christian Death song. Also, if you become so upset that you fall into a “trance” or “epilepsy” from sheer emotion, you are probably staring in some major gothic crazysauce.)

Julius Caesar, my personal favourite Shakespeare play, is a lot more gothic than people give it credit for. In an oft deleted speech, Cassius describes how he “bared [his] bosom to the thunderstone,” daring the gods to strike him down with their lightening. (Trying to be struck by lightning for deity-defying reasons, or indeed for any reason at all, is like the Tabasco of gothic crazysauce—a dependable, classic standby.)

And of course, there’s Titus Andronicus. Crazysauce slathered on your sons, who are baked in a frigging pie.

The delightful play Irma Vep is an extended parody of gothic crazysauce, and as such, hits pretty much every ridiculous note you can imagine. Vampires! Werewolves! Mysterious dead wives who might not be dead but instead locked in the attic! Secret passages! Betrayal! Passion! Murder! You get the picture.

(3) How have you injected gothic crazy sauce into your own work? (feel free to plug anything you’re doing here, including music).

My main work in progress at the moment is a novel called The Conspirators, concerning Cassius and Brutus, the assassins of Julius Caesar. I have been working on this novel in some form or another for more than ten years. Originally it was conceived as “serious historical fiction,” and you’d better believe I did a lot of serious historical research.

But eventually, I admitted to myself that I wanted it to be a gothic novel.

Why a gothic novel? Well, honestly, a lot of the crazy is already there. Plutarch reports very seriously that Brutus conversed with the ghost of the murdered Caesar, on more than one occasion. Brutus’ wife Porcia supposedly committed suicide by swallowing hot coals. You can’t get more gothic than that! Cassius’ greedy mentor Crassus had molten gold poured down his throat after he was beheaded, and his head was used as a prop in a play. The orator Cicero had a hairpin stabbed through his tongue, after he was also beheaded. Brutus’ father-in-law Cato disembowelled himself with his bare hands, after being stitched up from a previous suicide attempt. Not to mention the assassination of Caesar himself! Sixty plus senators converging on one man, who fought like a wild beast up until the very moment that his beloved friend Brutus stabbed him, right in the crotch!

The deaths, as reported by the ancient historians, are just wild. You can’t make this stuff up. It doesn’t just beg for crazysauce. It is crazysauce already—real life, canonical, historical gothic.

Of course, being me, I couldn’t resist pouring even more crazysauce on top of already nutso history. One thing I knew, which will likely drive the Serious Historical Fiction buffs mad if I ever publish, is that I wanted to take the homoerotic tension between the Cassius and Brutus of Shakespeare, and make it explicit. Extremely explicit. And ferociously sadomasochistic, and pathologically intense.

So it was that my Serious Historical Fiction turned into a gothic romance/ghost story/work of erotic horror. Imagine mashing up Shakespeare’s Caesar with The Monk, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Story of O, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of where I am going with this.  I should probably be ashamed, but strangely, I’m not.

One of the biggest challenges of writing extreme gothic crazysauce is maintaining the proper atmosphere and tone. Everything should be dialled up to eleven, at all times. This is probably why the book is still in its first draft.

If you try to write gothic, you will get self-conscious. You will second guess yourself. You’ll think your prose is too purple, your metaphors too dense and ridiculous, and that your characters are acting like Bronte heroines on a bad acid trip. That is as it should be. Write from the heart, the gut, and from your sense of melodrama. Anything that just plain doesn’t work can always be deleted later.

Wow, that’s some good advice.  I should probably take it. And I will.

As soon as I finish up this swooning fit.

(4) Do you think the gothic genre has a place in the modern world, and how would it differ from more traditional gothic?

Really good question.

Of course, “gothic” originally emerged from the Romantic Movement, which came out of a specific moment in history, and was a reaction against the Enlightenment. So it would be easy to assume that no, gothic has no place in the modern world, divorced as we are from that particular place and time.

But let’s dig a little deeper. The Romantic Movement was about breaking away from the overly restrained, intellectual, and reasoned approach of Enlightenment-period art and poetry. Romantic literature was about instinct, emotion, spirit—the heart and the gut, rather than the head. Gothic just takes all of that further, striving to plumb the darkest, nastiest depths of human experience. Gothic is about madness, bliss, extremes of feeling, the sundering of societal taboos, and reaching some visceral, something primitive. I think that impulse will always exist in humanity.

Right now, some people feel alienated from the easy answers of science and materialism and the legacy of the Enlightenment. But many of these alienated souls have no desire to follow the equally pat and easy path of conventional religion. I think a Gothic revival could be upon us—and I am not just referring to the influx of black lace and dark lipsticks to mainstream fashion, although that too is symptomatic and related. There has been a rise in interest in witchcraft and paganism among a certain set of young people, similar to what happened in the 90’s. The Satanic Temple in America has been steadily gaining followers and popularity. Pop stars are aping gothic looks and themes in their songs and music videos—and more importantly, it’s selling like hot cakes. All of these things point to individuals seeking a third path, a dark path, where sentiment, mysticism, intuition, instinct, and desire can be valued.

I might be talking out of my ass a bit now, because of course I love writing gothic fiction and would like to think people will read my books. But honestly, I am convinced that as long as passionate, sensual and imaginative souls exist, gothic will always have an appeal.

So go forth, my friends, and chug that sweet spicy gothic crazysauce, right out of the bottle. Wash it down with absinthe. And then cry.

Jack Swift is a rock musician and wannabe novelist. As Johnny Truant, he fronts The Truants, and plays bass for Cardiac Dream, two deliciously dark San Francisco-based post-punk bands. He is also a queer, trans, polyamorous, polymorphously perverse pervert, general wastrel, and androgynous source of sexual confusion. He resides somewhere in his native San Francisco Bay Area, with his boyfriend and three black cats—Wednesday, Babs and Dorian. Look for his novel Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape sometime next spring, which isn’t very gothic but does have a ghost in it. Look for his novel The Conspirators sometime in the next hundred years or so (fingers crossed).

People as Monsters, and Why This Savage Song Gets it Right.

I have a thing about human monsters, and people as monsters. It’s one of the themes that attracts me to vampire fiction. I’m all for unknowable alien horror, but sometimes, a more knowable monster, a more human one, can hit much closer to home. We don’t get off the hook so easily when the Other looks just like us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about different ways that a person could become monstrous, what choices they could make, whether the paths they choose will put them beyond redemption. The vampire sequel I’m editing at the moment sits pretty evenly between themes of monstrousness and identity. It’s a lucky coincidence that I picked up V.E. Schwab’s This Savage Song, which is all about monsters.

this-savage-song-coverIn This Savage Song, the sins of humans become embodied in the form of different kinds of monster, and these monsters roam the streets of V-City, terrorising its human inhabitants. The city is split between the Flynns on one side, who fight the monsters, and the Harkers on the other, who deal with the monsters, and extract protection money from the human inhabitants to keep the peace. But it’s not as simple as that. Some of the Flynns are monsters themselves, including one of the protagonists, August Flynn. The other main character is Kate Harker, the daughter of the ruthless racketeer. You can already see how the line between human and monster blurs.

The three Flynn children are all a particular rare kind of monster, Sunai, who are born out of great tragedy. They feed on souls, but only of those who have sinned. But they’re all very different. I found August’s older brother, Leo, the most interesting character—he’s wilfully given up his humanity to better fight the monsters of the city, though he still appears to be human. He pushes August to embrace his dark nature, but August resists Leo’s brutal lessons.

The setting is one of near lawlessness, and both Kate and August are forced to make decisions that may put them over the edge into monstrousness. It’s the way that the whole story is constantly teetering on that edge that works so well. Every action has a moral weight to it, and leaves its mark on the world and the character. I found this inflexible notion of consequences one of the most interesting things about the book.

Vampire Promo

loveiscrowtreeI’ve got the sequel to my gothic novella, Love is the Cure, coming out later this year. It’s going to be called Gods and Insects. I’m really excited about how the sequel is shaping up — it’s over twice as long as the first one, there’s plenty of angst, new characters, including a trans guy, and you get to follow Asher’s story on from the first book. Rather than jump around points of view like the first one, the whole book is from Asher’s point of view.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the first one yet, I’m running a free promotion for the ebook version on Amazon over the next couple of days (Wednesday and Thursday). It’s a quick read, but one you should enjoy. Other readers have compared it to Anne Rice, so if you like that kind of vampire book, you might enjoy this one. There’s a little teaser for the sequel in the back.

Honest reviews welcome. Reviews are really the lifeblood for indie authors, and are always appreciated.

You can read an extract here: Love is the Cure: Extract

And you can get it here: UK , US