Archive for May, 2010

Bumps along the way…..

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words on May 31, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s unnerving what a crisis of confidence can do to a writer, especially someone in the same position as I am, ie, a writer just starting out on their literary path. Yesterday was particularly bad for me in this regard – I kept seeing writers of some standing lauding and promoting their latest acceptances in some year’s best anthology due to be published later this year. I had woken up in a foul mood, for a reason that’s completely unfathomable, and I guess seeing these statuses only succeeded in plunging me deeper into the funk. BUT, before going any further, I will state that a) I am truly thrilled that these guys are getting their material out there and being recognised for what they create, and offer my heartiest congratulations to one and all: and b) I’ve come to suspect that my unwanted reaction goes beyond just the superficial varnish of wannabe jealousy that it initially appears to be.

Let me put this all into perspective – two weeks ago, my wife, Liz, underwent a major operation (full abdominal hysterectomy) which she should have had at least a year ago, but kept putting off due to work commitments. Finally, about a month ago, she was told very firmly that she HAD to have the operation, as her condition would only get worse over time and could lead to problems in the future. So, a date was set, her employers were informed and everything seemed okay. The first blushings of relief could be seen on the horizon.

Then, the day before Liz was due to go in to hospital, her departmental director told her, out of the blue and against all predictions (and not a few promises), that her contract would not be renewed. Let’s just say I was not best pleased (translation: I wanted to go there in person and slug the f****er). It was a) the sheer level of deceit inherent in the whole enterprise: regularly promising her a permanent job and then just snatching it all away at the last moment, without even a whisper of an apology: and b) the timing of the announcement. Insensitivity doesn’t even begin to adequately describe what he did.

Then there was the operation itself: despite all the advances in medical practise and surgery, there’s never a guarantee that something untoward won’t happen while someone’s under anaesthetic. As it turned out, Liz came through it fine, but we were informed later that the operation itself was far more complicated than first envisaged. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that a procedure that normally takes an hour ended up taking two hours. Fortunately, Liz is a sturdy woman, and she came home after four days and has continued to recuperate remarkably well under my care and attention.

People, including myself, tend to forget, however, that it’s not only the patient who needs to recover: it’s also those closest to them as well. It was only a week after the operation that I realised the sheer amount of  pressure  that had built up in me in the months (year?) prior to it. It also appears I am a bit of a natural worrier (inheriting it, in quite some measure, from my mother – she was an acknowledged expert in worrying) and that subconsciously it had been silently building up steam. Certainly with the initial realisation, things appeared to become much easier to cope with and there was a lightness in my step that had been missing for some time. The pressure was off – I could get on with things. Yesterday, however, showed me that there are some residual issues that still need working out.

My own turn of mind and dourness doesn’t help in these situations. I am forever looking at things from the devil’s point of view, and imagining the worst possible scenario. A part of that is a result of my somewhat repressed upbringing, but it’s been exacerbated by the stroke I suffered just over thirteen years ago – since then, depression has been a constant companion, forcing me to learn to find ways of dissipating its worst effects. A result of a change in the chemistry of the brain, or so I am told. Taking up writing has certainly helped enormously and it’s an exercise I enjoy immensely – but if I am honest, there’s a less welcome side to it – the drive to want to be seen to be successful (a side-effect of that repressed upbringing alluded to), which gets in the way of it all.

So, in other words, if you add all that up, what you get is something quite substantial, which is bound to have some kind of an effect. That concatenation of cause and effect came to a head yesterday, precipitated in part by the most innocent of things: a simple series of Facebook statuses. Given, also, that I have read some of these quality author’s work in my capacity as a reviewer, it just lead me to think: “Why am I even bothering here? I’ll never be that good.”. Ergo: an even fouler mood ensued. Of course, in the cold light of morning, everything has gracefully slotted into a sense of much welcome perspective – I am sure, nay, positive, that similar crises afflicted these same writers early on in their careers.

It has recently dawned on me that writing isn’t solely about that: it’s about developing a literary voice of my own, and a way of identifying my work as coming from me. Doubt will, of course, accompany me, as it inevitably does with any writer (or artist) at this stage on the path. I KNOW that I can string words together fluently and eloquently, can create atmosphere and a sense of place, and also have some good ideas – all I need are the requisite skills, which can only be acquired through constantly writing and practising (as well as taking advice from other writers and editors…).

Inevitably, though, what puts a lot of people off is the thought of the hard slog, the years of perfecting and honing a craft: luckily I have both patience and persistence, tempered with the knowledge that anything worth doing is worth taking taking the time to do properly. What I don’t want, though, is the less salubrious aspect of the stroke and its aftermath to interfere with my enjoyment. It’s a distinct struggle sometimes, and not a little annoying – whilst I hate to blame anything as abstract as something like a thrombo-embolic infarct I suffered years ago, I also recognise that ultimately nothing happens without consequences. Those consequences sometimes happen to be outside of my awareness – this is not an excuse, it’s just how things are, and I am just as pissed off with them as anyone can be.

So, I just need to get around myself and my idiosyncrasies- I suppose that’s what I am attempting to verbalise here. Attempting to find a solid way of utilising all these contradictory emotions and feelings, and putting them to some kind of useful employment. I’m not asking for sympathy: I don’t want pitying or anything – this piece is a way of finally nailing down the negativities that regularly go through my head. Indubitably, though, it’s all part of the grand adventure that I have embarked upon – I don’t need to be a ‘great’ writer to get myself out there: I just need to keep writing, and to keep sending the results out into the world.

The destination isn’t important: it’s what can be seen on the way there….

Sunday rumblings…..

Posted in General Musings on May 30, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Bear with me on this one…. what follows is clearly my brain’s attempt at trying to crank itself up to some sort of operating temperature….

Without wishing to come across as curmudgeonly (but inevitably only succeeding in doing so), there’s one question that bugs me, even though it’s asked in all honesty and with nothing other than genuine curiosity – “Where do you get your ideas from?”. The question, if looked at logically (indulge me here, please), implies that somewhere out there is a wild place where plots, images and schemes gone native float around, just waiting to be caught and nailed firmly to the page or canvas. I always feel when this is posed to me that I am somehow incapable of forming ideas of my own, although, to be fair, nine out of ten enquirers are unaware of the subtext threading through what they’re asking. Nevertheless, I still feel like they’re pushing me to prove that they ARE my ideas and that I haven’t nicked them from someone else…

If I’m honest, however, especially in the context of my artwork, there are times when I have absolutely bugger-all notion of where the thing sprang from. Most of the imagery I employ when painting has very little, if any, knowing intellectual framework upon which it’s all hung – I see the image in my head, pin it down firmly in the nearest available sketchbook as a kind of visual mnemonic, and then paint it. The image itself will have arisen as a consequence of looking at some random object, or reading a story or newspaper headline, or hearing a phrase –  fully-formed and plastered on the screen of the mind. I used to say (somewhat pretentiously, I may add in hindsight) that I considered all artists (and writers, by extension) had access to an alternate reality, their creativity being the key, and the paintings and tales were dispatches from the frontlines, so to speak, subconscious recordings and polaroids of interesting scenes from their ‘other-dimensional’ travels, which are then thrown complete into the conscious mind. A verbose way of saying “Search me, mate, I haven’t the foggiest!”. A very weak defence against ignorance, I’m afraid.

Yet, the nature of my writing is very different – I sit down and consciously work out what it is I want to say, and build something around the central theme, pushing to the limit my ideas. Writing is, for me, much more intellectually and creatively satisfying: it pushes me in ways that art doesn’t.  I HAVE to think of how I can say something in a new way: I don’t want to be derivative in any way and want to be considered at least somewhat original in how I see things. However, an image is an image – a story has to be carefully constructed, themes need careful revealing and the reader has to be pushed along at just the right pace. All that takes studied consideration – perhaps art comes more naturally to me, so it isn’t as much of a challenge. I am forced to work at the writing, which, I think, is a good thing – plus I enjoy it immensely. Painting, on the other hand, can be such a damn pain.

But it does bring me onto something which intrigues me deeply and, if nothing else, highlights the wonder of the human mind and its sheer flexibility. Allow me to indulge in a spot of cod-philosophising here. A group of, say, ten people are shown an image and are then asked to concoct a story to explain what they see: those ten people will, more often than not, come up with ten different ideas. Yet, they saw the same image as everyone else did. Some of them will just be regurgitations of others’ ideas that they’ve read or seen, yet others will display a modicum of originality. One or two of the plots will be truly original, showing thought-processes markedly different from the norm. But why is this – why does one man say, when confronted by a single dot on a page, for instance, “it’s just a dot on a page”, when another will see it as a metaphor for isolation, impotent rage and unutterable loneliness? It’s still just a dot on a page, though.

And what even defines an idea as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the first place? In the musical arena, for instance, there are millions of ditties sharing the same themes and tropes, and yet some become classics while others will languish in deserved obscurity. What marks one out as ‘destined for immortality’ while another has ‘condemned to Death Row to die a painfully slow death’ written all over it? Additionally, even with a consensual definition of what constitutes ‘quality’ there will always be those who see and measure things differently – and who’s to say they’re wrong? Again using music as an example, chart music is often seen as a species of prostitution, a quick shag behind the bike shed for an even quicker return, and sod the quality – in the end, we all know it isn’t in any way ‘meaningful’ and it’s not even meant to be considered as ‘art’. Even so, it  still seriously dismays me that there are artists out there who possess genuine talent who don’t get a look in, being told that they don’t ‘look’  the part, or their work is ‘uncommercial, or they simply don’t have the necessary resources behind them. It irks me that talent can be so easily dismissed.

The literary world fares little better. In these days of easy self-publishing, a veritable tsunami of words has crashed onto reader’s mental shores, not all of it good. I have come across, in my role as reviewer, some truly hopeless rubbish – and at least one slight acquaintance of mine has published two books, through a legitimate self-publishing website, whose quality has pushed the furthest boundaries of what can be considered diabolically awful – even to the extent of plagiarising elements from an anime show (presumably in the hope that no-one else will have seen it to identify them). This is what you get when you democratise tehnology and access to it. Of course, the books will in all likelihood remain in the swamp of obscurity where they belong, at least leaving some room for those who deserve a chance of achieving something with their efforts.

The big publishing houses don’t necessarily guarantee quality, either. Some of the best writing emerging from within the horror genre, for instance, is coming from small-press publishers like Ash-Tree of Canada, Gray Friar of northern England, and Pendragon of Wales. This, presumably, is because their QC  is tighter and slightly less concerned with commercial considerations (while still, of course, hoping that all the books will find a good home and some decent returns). Some of their authors will eventually filter through to the majors. This doesn’t mean automatic success – it just means they have bigger budgets to work with.

On re-reading this, I see that once again I have rambled on meanderingly, and perhaps a little incoherently, ending up nowhere near where I started. It is a Sunday, though, so perhaps I can be forgiven for this slight transgression… maybe next time I will have something more pointed and worthwhile to say, strung together more sensibly… then again, maybe not…

Dennis Hopper (1936 – 2010)

Posted in Film, General Musings on May 29, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

So today, we have the sad news that one of the world’s most iconic actors, Denis Hopper, has died as a result of complications arising from prostate cancer. Most film-buffs will know him from two landmark films – Easy Rider, the counter-culture road road movie directed by and starring Hopper himself, and Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola‘s take on Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.

However, my particular favourite role of his is the one he played in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as the chainsaw-wielding cop Lefty. I was always convinced that he was more deranged than Leatherface in that one. In fact, it would be true to say that he specialised in playing outsiders, those who, in one way or another, were beyond the pale, those who were looking in and laughing at those of us who willingly participate in the farce called society.

But that isn’t why I am writing this blog: the reason I am is the general perception that we are losing too many of the good this year. It’s true that so far we have said goodbye to Pete Steele (Type-O Negative), Paul Gray (Slipknot bassist), Ronnie James Dio (rock singer), Gary Coleman (actor – Diff’rent Strokes), Frank Frazetta (artist) to name but a few – but this is probably true of any year. Plus, I genuinely believe that the term ‘celebrity’ is slowly passing into disuse, or will be in about a decade  – celebrity has no currency or value in this age of instant stardom and TV shows for talentless no-hopers. Lena Horne’s death, in particular, speaks of the passing of the age of true glamour, where the actors and actresses of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood had more presence and style in their little fingers than any amount of wannabes of the present. In which case, we should not only mourn those who have passed, but that which they represented – ‘fame’ earned the hard way, through sheer hard work and determination, putting in long hours and bothering as many people as they could collar to get them to listen, and grabbing any and all chances when they were offered.

And so another one slips into the past tense, where the word ‘are’ is replaced with ‘were’ – but at least Mr Hopper deserved to be eulogised as the giant of his field that he was – how many of today’s ‘stars’ will be similarly, deservedly lionised.

So, Dennis, keep on riding into that golden sunset – RIP

Current 93/Nurse With Wound/Simon Finn – the circle is completed…

Posted in Music on May 29, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

HMV FORUM, KENTISH TOWN, MAY 28TH 2010

As I pointed out in my last blog, I’ve been waiting twenty years for this gig to happen, but getting to see it at all was entirely due to a good friend, Patrick O’Sullivan, having a spare ticket and also my wife, Liz, forwarding me the money to get the train down from MK. So, the question that naturally arises from this is: was it all worth it?

For me, I would have to say YES! Bearing in mind that this is the first time that I have seen any of these projects live, quality of performance is something I can’t judge with any accuracy: maybe I’ll think differently when I’ve notched up a few more times watching them. Needless to say, what follows is coloured by my unfamiliarity with either of these outfits as performing entities, so bear with me if I appear overly-gushing. And please note: these are just impressions, and are not meant to be a complete review in any way.. so saying that:

The venue itself is a magnificent early-20th century example of style and elegance (see photo above), albeit looking slightly dowdy after standing in the heart of crowded London for nearly 100 years. The interior has, somewhat predictably, a Romanesque theme, with eagles on standards, shields, laurel leaves and a frieze of horses running around the walls. The gig was a seated affair, which my back was extremely grateful for, and it appeared to be sold out, too, a very good thing in my opinion. My only complaint of the evening was that finding the right seat was a mightily confusing affair, as the rows were unmarked and the seat numbers difficult to discern – if anybody else intends going to this venue I suggest you take a small torch with you.

Plenty of luscious merchandise was available – I settled for a Current 93 t-shirt in my favourite colour, black. But if you had mounds of filthy lucre with you all kinds of recorded goodies were available to tempt you, all of which will, no doubt, become staggeringly valuable five minutes after purchase (a common occurrence with both C93 and NWW).

First act of the night, Simon Finn from Canada, I wasn’t particularly impressed with – but I put that down to a matter of personal taste, more than anything. His songs failed to create any kind of atmosphere that I could latch on to, and unfortunately left me feeling a tad indifferent. BUT, fortunately for HIM, though, it appears there were many who had come specifically to see him and, judging by the reception and applause after every song, those who had came away immensely satisfied.

The NWW of last night were very different to the NWW of 1989, which was when I first discovered Steven Stapleton’s now seminal outfit – not to imply that the difference is any bad thing. For those unfamiliar with their output, their initial recorded offerings were very influenced by avant-garde atonality, Krautrock and deconstruction of anything resembling structure, often being noisy, freeform and chaotic. Thus were they hailed as being in the vanguard of the ‘industrial music’ movement, an epithet they themselves objected to. Since then, the music has developed more along the lines of drone and dark ambient.

Certainly last night’s hour-long set was more in keeping with the latter – opening up with lush chords that developed into a more freeform, unstructured noise free-for-all by its conclusion. Along the way there were even some vocals, courtesy of a blonde lady (name unknown) with a stunning voice, and (gosh) more than a hint of rhythm. The visuals accompanying the set were both disturbing and unsettling: people living in a house on fire, and people acting out their lives underwater. Bizarre, but highly effective and somehow appropriate.

The crown jewel of the evening, however, was C93. The group of musicians assembled by David Tibet were ten or eleven strong, and Tibet was himself introduced with much theatricality by a gentleman wearing evening attire and the tallest top-hat I have yet encountered, leading me to expect smoke to billow out of it. In many ways, that dramatic introduction set the scene – C93’s brand of hallucinatory experimentalism almost demands a well-developed sense of theatre and, although visually it was kept to a minimum, in terms of emotional delivery and vocal style it was there in buckets. Michael Cashmore, a constant contributor since the Thunder Perfect Mind album, made a guest appearance on guitar towards the end of the set, which rounded out proceedings nicely. I would have liked to have seen more guest-appearances, considering just how many people who have worked with Tibet over the years (including Rose McDowall of Strawberry Switchblade and Icelandic pixie Bjork, for instance), but I guess the old adage ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ gleefully applies here – I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

A magnificent evening, with great company (and also meeting up with Per Ahlund of Diskrepant, too) and some fine, atmospheric music, only spoiled by the repetitive confusion of where it was people were meant to be sitting. Without a doubt I will definitely go and see both NWW and C93 again if they play these shores anytime soon… now, all I need to complete my list of bands I want to see is for Ministry and Psychic TV to come over here, Godflesh to reform, Jhon Balance to be resurrected so COIL can play again and, finally, me to have enough money to pay for a ticket to see Killing Joke… then I’ll be very happy…

And so it comes full circle…

Posted in Music on May 27, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Many years ago (around 1990), I used to run/edit a music fanzine called Fractured, devoted entirely to the then fledgling ‘industrial music’ scene. Then it truly was an ‘alternative’ music scene: people would look at you askance when you told them you were into ‘industrial’ music (what they thought you meant by that I can only imagine…). There weren’t many bands and projects around then: Current 93, Nurse With Wound, Psychic TV, Coil, Sol Invictus, Throbbing Gristle, Sleep Chamber, Controlled Bleeding, Attrition, to name only a few… the first three of those bands I mentioned, C93, NWW and Psychic TV, were the ones who actually got me into the whole scene in the first place (AND inspired me to publish a fanzine).

Having lived in a small Welsh town, getting to see any of these bands would have entailed mounting a major expedition to London, taking a day or two: unfortunately (and needless to say), I didn’t get to see any of them play (although I met both Tibet of C93 and Steve Stapleton of NWW through my contacts at Vinyl Experience in the Tottenham Court Road area). It is only now, 20 years later, that I am beginning to catch up with those bands still around from back then, the most recent of which is Sol Invictus.

Tomorrow night, though, I am off to see something that I thought would never happen: the two bands that started it for me, Current 93 and Nurse With Wound are playing on the same bill together at the HMV Forum, Kentish Town, and I am attending courtesy of a fellow Heathen Harvest journalist, Patrick ‘Paddy’ O’Sullivan. Admittedly, the music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – nevertheless, these two outfits formed a major portion of my music tastes over the last 20/21 years. Now I feel that everything is coming full circle – they were good times back then which were interrupted by some truly bad ones, (including a stroke at the age of 34) and now, happily married and settled, those good times are back… so I suppose going to hear them play is the punctuation, the exclamation mark, to the circular narrative, started in 1990, that has taken 20 years to loop back on itself.

The future is indeed looking bright, on many fronts. =)

(I will be reviewing the gig on this page over the weekend…. )

Upcoming book reviews

Posted in Book Reviews on May 26, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I will be reviewing the following books in the next couple of months at BookGeeks:

Lost Places, by Simon Kurt Unsworth (Ash-Tree Press)
Of Bees and Mist, by Erick Setiawan (Headline Review)
Pieces of Midnight, by Gary McMahon (Ash-Tree Press)
White Cat (The Curse Workers Book 1), by Holly Black (Gollancz)
Kumiho, by Peter Mark May (Vanguard Press)
The Lost Books of the Odyssey, by Zachary Mason (Jonathan Cape Ltd.)
Mr. Monster, by Dan Wells (Headline)
Light Boxes, by Shane Jones (Hamish Hamilton)
Bull Running for Girls, by Allyson Bird (Screaming Dreams)
In the Rain with the Dead, by Mark West (Pendragon Press)

… and whatever else comes my way in the meantime… and those that are categorised as horror will also make it over to Horror Reanimated sometime afterward and then will appear here…

Better get reviewing then… =)

The Harm, by Gary McMahon

Posted in Book Reviews on May 24, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

The best species of horror story-writing is that which preys on primal fears, especially if it’s something which could happen only too easily in real-life. Gary McMahon’s novelette, the first entry in a projected series of ‘longer’ short stories issued in a mini-book format by TTA Press (the publishers of Black Static and Interzone magazines), does just that: it touches on one of THE darkest and most appalling of horrors, a true blight that appears to form an increasingly grim narrative of daily life – child abuse. However, before anyone thinks it inappropriate to fictionalise such grim events (especially for ‘entertainment’), McMahon gets around that objection cleverly: the focus isn’t on the event itself, which is only referred to in passing, but on what comes after – its effects on, and the consequences for, the victims in later life.

Tyler, Roarke and Potter were the best of friends, and only eight years old when they were brutally sundered from their childhoods, by a group of shadowy perpetrators who are only hazily alluded to and never specifically outlined (and beyond them, there are hints of something darker, something inhuman). The three of them were held captive in a derelict warehouse, where they were subjected to repeated beatings, torture and rape over a period of twelve hours. The novelette is divided into four shorter stories, outlining the subsequent lives of each of the victims (now aged 34) and Audrey, the sister of Potter: each of these tales delineates the hand the event has had in shaping them, and their individual responses to it. The men (and those around them) have been swathed in an inexpressible darkness, felt but not fully realised, certainly never come to terms with, and filling them with a chilling, psychic emptiness. If you want happy endings, then look elsewhere.

These four tales are grimly, uncomfortably, stiflingly claustrophobic, neatly summarising the repression, the guilt, the fear and the metaphysical isolation that the men’s shared past represents. The abandoned, fire-blackened warehouse, where the event took place, becomes an apt metaphor for the hollow shells they subsequently become. Their worlds have tight little orbits, never appearing to stray outside prescribed bounds, which is but another form of claustrophobia, adding an additional layer. Parallel to that, lines defining their everyday relationships have been fractured: that of Tyler’s with his wife, Roarke’s with the people he terrorises and Potter’s with himself. Concomitantly, resolutions can only come a fine point of tragedy, thus compounding and deepening the darkness. There are no easy ways out here.

McMahon does grim preternaturally well: he achieves in 64 pages what many struggle to do in ten times that amount. He doesn’t waste words either: the bleak, uncompromising pictures McMahon paints of the character’s lives, and their psychic malaise, are done quickly, precisely, and without preamble. The milieu against which these stories are told is joyless, airless, suffocating, perfectly reflecting the characters’ dislocation socially, as well as temporally and spatially. The characters appear oddly distant, neither particularly likeable nor particularly unlikeable, no doubt simply for the reason that what happened to them is just so far outside normal experience. However, it’s just that very sense of narrative displacement which helps to render the scenario that much more horrific and unsettling.

As horror writer Simon Kurt Unsworth aptly, and perspicaciously, noted in a recent blog – “We are the monsters”. McMahon’s The Harm drives home this truism with the force of a steam-powered hammer blow, emphasising, quite correctly, that the monsters we imagine capable of perpetrating such atrocities are not those creatures armed with sharp teeth or raking talons, or are covered in scales and spikes, but those who are clothed in flesh and the trappings of civilisation. In other words, they are US. Masterful stuff, indeed.

(Special mention must be made of the excellent cover by Ben Baldwin – atmospheric and superbly rendering McMahon’s particular brand of grim)

Original review posted here.