Thievery: Curious Tales
On Thursdays, I invite my favourite writers to share the inspirations behind their work. This week it’s a special bonus post, as we have four (count ’em, FOUR!) writers talking about their inspiration behind the brand-shiny-new anthology, Poor Souls’ Light.
“She – Maggie, that is – comes in from the field. She rinses her hands at the sink and without removing her muddy shoes nor taking off her coat, sits at the table and stares at the steaming cup waiting for her. It’s as if she’s never seen it before: her trembling fingers hover over her lips until the tea is quite cold. She sweeps it onto the floor. The cup shatters and tea runs along the tiles.
Now she goes out, picking her way across the overgrown garden, over the broken fence at the far end, and off, into the musty field where the pylons are and the wild hares run and fight and fuck.
Maggie has not been herself lately. She spends hours walking aimlessly in the field, picking up broken and jagged pieces of rock: the remnants of a dry stone wall long since dissolved and returned to the elements. She brings them back to the garden. She will not explain why. She barely eats, has not washed in days and is changing her clothes only rarely. While she does not seem to enjoy staying in the cottage, she does not appear to want to be out of sight of it.She always stays in view of one of the windows, either in the garden, or the field, or pacing up and down the misty lane. As if she is looking for something. Today she gathers stones for several hours. When she returns it is dark and there’s a fresh cup of tea waiting for her. She ignores it completely, and climbs the stairs, slamming the doors. She smells of soil but then again, so do I.”
(From Jenn Ashworth’s ‘Dinner For One’)
JENN: Richard and I had the idea – sometime in the summer of 2013 – of writing each other ghost stories and exchanging them as Christmas presents. We’ve been fans of the ghostly and the supernatural since we were kids and have known each other for more than half our lives, so the usual present ideas were wearing a bit thin. Richard mentioned The Chit Chat Club and M. R. James, and before we knew it the idea of running a small, author-led press co-operatively with a group of writers and a brilliant artist was born. Things quickly got out of hand and we added a packed events schedule too.
A year later and with a new set of projects, including the second anthology, an interactive novel for Kindle, and a web-only project we’re calling an ‘exploded graphic novel’ the inspiration behind all our work remains the same: to write and make art together, to take control of every aspect of the creative, production, design, event planning, publication and distribution processes, to have fun and to give something to our readers that a bigger, more mainstream publisher wouldn’t be able to. How unique we are and how well we work together is really important to all of us and is going to shape all the projects we do together in the future.
More specifically, the inspiration for Poor Souls’ Light was to write an anthology of ghostly, supernatural fiction that would engage with Christmas or winter in some way (we love the festive ghost story, and who doesn’t like a mince pie, some mulled wine and a really good scare!) and, this year, to honour the memory of Robert Aickman. What this means for each individual writer is very different – none of the stories are pastiches and they all are ‘Aickmanesque’ in very different ways. My story, ‘Dinner for One,’ is about Christmas Dinner, a bad marriage, murder and a poltergeist and I wanted to capture the misty dampness and the quiet horror of Aickman’s writing.
RICHARD: My story is set in a tiny village in Yorkshire during the Second World War. Rather fittingly, I can think of three ghosts (well, three dead authors) whose writing was in my mind whilst I worked on it. The first is C.S. Lewis, principally the opening to A Grief Observed: ‘No-one ever told me that grief felt so like fear’. This statement has an uncanny truth to it and indeed could the epigram of almost any modern ghost story. The second writer is someone who I don’t imagine had much time for anything so frivolous as Christmas ghost stories: Norman Mailer. My story, ‘And the Children Followed’, is about a woman whose brother has died in service, but she continues receiving his letters home which have been delayed whilst they’re checked and censored by the war office, a conceit I pinched from a couple of chapters in Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead in which one of the characters, Gallagher, receives letters from his wife after she’s died in childbirth. But whilst in Mailer’s novel it’s tragic – heartbreakingly so – in my story it’s the start of a chain of events which is (I hope) unsettling and fantastic. The third spectre in my figurative bedchamber has been Robert Aickman, one of Curious Tales’ favourite writers and the instigating godfather of this anthology. He’s a relatively little-known author, but his fans are incredibly dedicated and his reputation has grow in 2014, the year of his centenary. What I’ve tried to replicate isn’t voice or his themes but the manner in which, in his stories, the everyday segues imperceptibly into fantasy and the dreamlike logic with which things play out.
EMMA: I think writers often work like magpies, taking the shiny bits from life and other literature, and threading them into their own work. I know I do. For Curious Tales last year (inspired by M. R. James) I took James’ knack of imbuing normal domestic objects with supernatural threat and wrote a story about a woman whose home feels as though it is being demonically possessed, piece by piece, starting with the front gate (‘In’). This year I took bits of Aickman’s relationship with canals (he co-founded a group that restored Britain’s canal system). He’s very clever with atmosphere and creating a sense of doom – I tried to emulate that by writing a tale (‘Smoke’) about a geneticist working in an old Cold War bunker, afraid that she might be the last of her ‘kind’.
As a collective, Curious Tales are using other things for inspiration, too. Richard and Jenn have taken a place – Preston Bus Station – and used modernist architechture and a local controversy to create an interactive novel around it: Bus Station: Unbound. (This is actually the first in a new Curious Tales interactive inprint). Another project, The Barrow Rapture, will borrow Christian Myth, the history of the industrial North, submarine building, wind farms and peninsula life to create a web-only project we’re calling ‘an exploded graphic novel’.
BETH: There is one particular artist who I repeatedly come back to and will be forever fascinated by, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. Between November 1905 and January 1906 he visited London, specifically, to paint fog. There is one particular painting I have in mind of Montague Street, it is de-saturated, wintry and the trees are dead. It is so, so cold. Perhaps the most striking thing about this painting is that it is the middle of the day in mid-winter, in central London and he has omitted every sign of life. There are no humans, no animals, there is nothing living in the world he has created. It is, however, alive with a great stillness and anticipation. Either something is about to happen or we have arrived slightly too late. With Hammershøi there is the perpetual expectation of seeing something in the shadows or peering out of a window. I can return to his paintings time and time again and discover a subtle new oddness to his image making.
I knew I wanted to include fog, mist, cloud and darkness in the illustrations for Poor Souls’ Light, although I didn’t know how important this was to each of the stories until after I had made them. I deliberately created the illustrations without reading the stories first. The writers each gave me a short synopsis of their story, but nothing prescriptive. After revealing the illustrations to the writers and finally getting to read the stories, it was a great moment to see how satisfyingly cohesive they were.
The way the images for Poor Souls’ Light have been made is quite different from the process I used for The Longest Night. This time I have produced no ‘originals’. The images are a digital collage of drawings, photographs, diagrams and text. The alchemy happens on a screen, the eagerness and expectation is similar to the method of drawing or painting, there is still only a certain amount of control over how the image will be resolved. It is an extension of the way I have been working for The Barrow Rapture, another Curious Tales project, which is a web-only ‘exploded graphic novel’. The content and feel of the images differ from that of Poor Souls’ Light, yet the process of piecing together imagery and atmosphere is the same.
Poor Souls’ Light is out now from Curious Tales.