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Review: Shallow Creek by Storgy

It was Spring in a sleepy little town when I finished reading Storgy’s Shallow Creek. I sat back from the glaring digital screen, hollows where youthful eyes had once been. Youthful. I scorn the word. Younger than I am now. To read this collection is to step outside of time, to travel across something of indeterminable depth, to glimpse things in the crevasses and folds, the cracks and tears; things which are better left unseen.

I wax poetical, but I said that I would set pen to paper and review the collection, this testimony to all Shallow Creek is, was, and might be. Firstly, I should say it is more like a multi-authored novel than a collection, stories carefully placed to tell a single – if treacherous – narrative. The editors Tomek, Ross and Tony are to be commended for their Herculean effort in assembling and editing these tales to make them into a singular yet fragmented tale.

Each story is accompanied by dazzling artwork by Michael To. These pieces are truly exquisite dark illustrations that often bring the images and metaphors at the heart of these stories to life. Michael has a way of synthesising two dispirit images that brings new meaning: a home springing from the curve of anchor, a bleeding rollercoaster, a mouth fountaining liquid…

The stories have been arranged, like the studded gems of a crown, in specific order. Characters waltz into the story, only to vanish and re-appear like ghosts; some commit terrible sins but are never punished; some seem to suffer grandly but never lose their ever-too-wide smile. Each story focuses in on a moment, a shining jewel-like moment, but with the close of each story these moments fade as the focus shifts. It is like surveying the town through a microscope, the lens only able to focus on one microcosm at a time. As it moves, you yearn for it to linger, to spend more time unravelling the delicate story it burningly fixes on, but move on it must, revealing new insights.

Our story starts with Dave Danvers’ Last Foray Into All Things Woo Woo by Stuart Croskell. This brilliant introductory story has been well chosen, opening with a man driving into Shallow Creek, treating us to a panoramic view of its squalid infamy. The story’s premise is at once meta- and original: a paranormal TV show host arrives in Shallow Creek in order to write a story about the town. Over the years, his belief in the supernatural has waned: ‘No bigfoot, no spooks, no little green men. The bastards. Only us. Us. Jesus.’ The twist of horror in the final line, in realising we are only alone with ourselves, and that humans are perhaps the worst monster of all, is deftly and subtly done. Our protagonist, Dave Danver, must go to Devil’s Gorge to write his story. As we follow him on his strange journey to the Devil’s Gorge summit via immaculate prose, the story gains Stoker-esque qualities – introducing us to enigmatic characters galore, bated-breath conspiracy, and the horrifying motif of a forced smile. The ending is nothing short of cathartic and sets the tone for the whole collection as one that aims to not just scare us, but also make us weep with epiphany. It’s here we first meet Krinkles the Klown, but it sure as hell isn’t the last time we see him.

Throughout Shallow Creek, we see nods to the old masters of horror like Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, and there is something jubilant in that. However, there is also something fresh here. In Behind These Eyes by Alice Noel, we see juxtapositions of old-school horror vibes, an almost Victorian macabre storytelling, with the modern and comical: ‘Gothic is so in this year.’ Shallow Creek is a commentary on how just because we make fun of the oldest horrors in the book, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still scary.

The Soil of Stonier Hearts by Erik Bergstrom is another masterful blend of the old and new. Employing a poetic style throughout much akin to the glorious and rich elegance of Edgar Allan Poe, with brilliantly controlled language, Erik effortlessly invokes the Gothic aesthetic. The story is loaded with intriguing turns of phrase, as twisted as the nature of the town: a ‘phantom drunkenness’ haunting characters, suggesting that the line between supernatural and psychological is thin. With such fine writing, the smallest details become potential portents: “Something’s wrong with our soil, Gordy.” Jed heard the short echo of his voice in Gordon Anderson’s answering machine.’ This story is part The Omen, photos revealing mysteries and prophecies, and part The Happening, with moments of shocking inevitability.

This is also the story, the fourth in the collection, where things begin to interconnect. The events of Devil’s Gorge resonate here with what is going on in St Mary’s Cemetery. But who can say if these things are all happening in the same universe? Even the inhabitants of Shallow Creek are not to be trusted on that front.

Janet’s Vision of Love by Tom Heaton pushes the boundaries of what we will believe, offering us a story that is surreal and Twin Peaks-esque. It’s in every detail down to the inept law enforcement, the slightly off-kilter banter, and the characters that intentionally don’t seem to fit. The story is peppered with threatening and psychedelic imagery: ‘the occasional prophylactic wrapped around a fern like some species of woodland jellyfish’ This tale is truly a vision: of horror, consumerism, with a repeated line that genuinely sent chills along my arms. It transitions from a Lynchian creepy-town mystery to full-fledged Night Shift Stephen King horror. A triumph, to say the least.

Anchor by Marion Coleman offers us something a little different, a strong first person voice that seems meek at first but actually proves to be quite cunning and determined. Throughout this story I could not help but think this entire collection feels like it is building up to Krinkles the Klown. Storgy set up the dominoes oh so long ago with their character sheets and essays of one Mallum Colt, sparking the imagination in writers. They are at once homaging Stephen King’s Pennywise in Krinkles, but also taking him on, showing a modern and complex character that is his own unique brand of horror. This story ends with a brilliant subversion of desire, where our ‘hero’ gets what they want, but not in the way they think.

I met myself in Silverpine Forest. And I’ll never forget his grin.’ Some lines grab you by the throat, and this is one of them. It is the opening sentence of Backwards by Adrian J. Walker. This story almost has a True Detective feeling: A quest for a missing girl; A sheriff lost in his own failings; The sense of a secret about the town, and aid found in unlikely places, such as Mallum Colt himself. This line reminded me of a nonsense rhyme that has long haunted my dreams: As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. Backwards proves a convergence point for many stories and people in the world of Shallow Creek: Chelsea, Janet Lopez, the secrets of the forest… It introduces us to a Gothic trope as old as sin and also recently explored in Jordan Peele’s much anticipated Us: that of doppelgängers and parallel worlds.

The whole collection has the feel of a paranormal documentary gone wrong and off the rails, a documentary about the making of a documentary in which the paranormal activity suddenly becomes real and the presenters look sideways at the camera wondering whether a terrible, terrible practical joke has just been played. Some of the horror here hits hard, unflinchingly hard, but it is done not for shock value but to reality-check us to the world. We are told: ‘Her daughter couldn’t sleep… not because of memories or nightmares, but because she couldn’t expel the taste from her mouth.’ All of this culminates in a surprisingly redemptive and hopeful ending. Shallow Creek, bleak as it is, still harbours the human spirit. It is in every page of writing in this tome.

My mind boggles at the complexity of the interwoven plots. It isn’t just ordering the events into a logical continuum. There are subtle thematic and internal threads that are drawn throughout, such as Janet Lopez’s repressed sexuality, and the repeated and weird motif that Sister Augustine has not aged, which at some point starts to become sinister. We slowly unearth more details about Sister Augustine in Heather Cuthbertson’s Secret Ingredient which are alarming to say the least.

Shallow Creek is not just horror. Nor is it mystery. It is a hybrid that slips into whatever genre it feels will best unnerve you. So, with Brian Wilson’s Distraction, it slides into neo-noir. A midnight meeting at a pier with a dark becomes transcendentally significant. There are shades of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic masterpiece Memento here as Brian Wilson elegantly explores the things we do for peace of mind through the motif of a needle and nightdress. He describes a ‘seven eyed beast’ that is actually the light of seven cigarettes in the dark. It becomes like a biblical allusion to the Beast of Revelations. The cigarette butts light the gloom, but they are not hopeful. The narrator counts them again and again as one by one they are extinguished. What are we counting down to? Suspense and terror meet here. We are told by the narrator: ‘I had no intention of putting my family’s life in the hands of a man who professed to hear voices.’ Yet the narrator himself seems semi-delusional, unreliable, not quite honest with himself. We all hear voices, in fact. We’re all insane.

This is as much a commentary on the stories we tell ourselves as it is on religion. Wilson weaves a masterful tapestry here, tying the cigarettes directly into the tragedy at the heart of the story, the ‘filthy habit’. Now, our narrator Maurice has a new filthy habit, his addiction to a syringe filled with a nameless substance. This story is a flawless dovetailing of ideas. Just as the cigarettes remind our Maurice of his flaw, so too do they literally resurrect that which he has lost. The final two cigarettes become the eyes of someone we might just know… As they haunted Maurice, so they will haunt us in the future.

There are so many gems in this collection, I can scarcely catalogue them all. And the World Fades to Black by Adam Lock gives us Groundhog Day but with a sinister twist. It made me realise that so many moments in Shallow Creek are defined by fixations on talismanic objects. Trapped in a moment. Trapped in a grave mistake. This is where horror is so profound, it reflects out self-inflicted psychological punishment.

The Lurid Trance by Gregg Williard, as well as offering us some of the most disturbing artwork in the whole collection, gives us something different. It is about the betrayal of memory. And tardigrades. The premise runs so: someone takes credit for an artist’s work from forty years ago and sends them the envelope. This is a fascinating narrative hook that quickly becomes an esoteric, surreal descent into lost identity. ‘Hard to say how many of the town are descendants of the pseudo psychos.’ Each part of Shallow Creek feels like an attempt to describe exactly what Shallow Creek is. As this story moves towards one of my favourite tropes, that of the ‘lost film’, we are treated to a list of insane movie titles, an exercise in Nate Crowley-esque catalogue, except when I typed the titles in Google, there were actual results. It’s as though Shallow Creek is coming alive. The research Gregg Williard has done to achieve this (or perhaps it is merely a field of study for him and he knows?) is staggering. The faux manifesto for the eponymous movie The Lurid Trance, which lies at the heart of this disturbing meta-story, is exquisitely observed: a satire of film critique as well as a disturbing portent of what’s to come.

Throughout the stories of Shallow Creek we encounter more and more of the mythos of Krinkles, as well as old VHS tapes and unanswered questions. In places the descriptions of Shallow Creek are Melville-esque, unbelievably lavish, such as in Knock, Knock, Knuckle Bone by Allyson Kersel. We are told of one Shallow Creek regular Angus Runt: ‘Runt will have an opinion and, whether informed or fabricated, it’s bound to be interesting.’ In a way, this reflects the entire meaning of Shallow Creek. We cannot verify any of these stories. They shift even as the townspeople shift, as we slip into one multi-verse and out of another. But regardless, it sure as hell is going to be interesting.

In places, Shallow Creek is downright experimental. David Hartley’s masterpiece Pentameter is one such example, the entire thing written in iambic pentameter stanzas rounded off with rhyming couplets. At first, I railed against this form, but the conceit for this device was too well thought out to ignore it. The Lighthouse Keeper thinks in pentameter because he finds comfort in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, which have helped him cope with profound loss. This leads to moving moments of poetry amidst prose:

I sprawl back on our steps and think of you.

My Molly, who always knew what to do.

Arkady,” I say, “yes.” The asylum,

where old Jud was zapped into this shadow.

Jud, the Lighthouse Keeper, believes that Shakespeare is speaking to him through the walkie talkie. As we move towards the conclusion of this tale, we will see more and more evidence that someone may well be manipulating Jud. It all ends with a terrible threat which is Shakespearean in itself, recalling the ending of Twelfth Night, where the shamed Malvolio claims he will be ‘revenged on the whole pack of you’. This was certainly one of the most unexpected and hair-raising stories in the collection.

There is something for everyone here in Shallow Creek, including black humour, which is expertly employed by Sarah Lotz in The Eyes Have It, the title a pun in and of itself. We’re told: ‘The town was the kind of place where you could get away with murder. He’d done it to free himself up to see his girlfriend at the time.’ It makes us laugh, but it’s also frightening, how casual people can be when referring to murder. Our journey through Shallow Creek desensitises us, but Sarah Lotz brings us back around again, ‘waking us up’ to the horror of what we’re seeing. Towards the end of the collection, a new theme emerges, that of forgiveness and whether we even can be forgiven, by human or divine. Lotz takes us on a rollercoaster ride: a bleak quest that is Dexter meets Frankenstein, an exploration of our deepest existential dreads and spiritual fears. It is a paedophile on mission from God, or rather, to cheat God’s will, and in doing so, kill a whole load of sinners in very satisfying ways. Interspersed with some very real theology are observations so darkly witty they make me a little crazy: The notes were signed ‘Dr Ruth Usiskin’, the facility’s psychologist, who clearly wasn’t averse to doodling on her reports. In the margin, next to ‘sexual deviant’, she’d drawn a smiley face.’

Shallow Creek is a celebration of genre fiction, but it also proves that the distinctions between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ are not only arbitrary but unnecessary. In Aliya Whiteley’s The Alteration we see a staggering portrait of what it is like to have a relationship with someone who is a compulsive liar and losing their mind. Madeleine, bound to a wheelchair, confesses to murders which Ruth, her carer, does not believe, but slowly but surely, we sense the terrible coming of ‘the change’. We’re told ‘Books had stories in them, and my mother said all stories were lies.’ – I think this includes the stories we tell ourselves.

So much of Shallow Creek revolves around the act of finding something that should not be found, whether it be as simple as a wedding ring, or as controversial as a licentious VHS tape. Shallow Creek is a library located in some near-unreachable place, some deep place, far from the crowds and sanitising technology. Within this library are forbidden stories. Profane tales. Tales that can scarcely be given credence, yet they ring true. Why are we so fascinated by darkness? It’s a question that keeps being asked in this collection, but never more potently than in Andrea Hardaker’s The Fulmar’s Cry: ‘She relocated to a small town out west, accepted a job in a store, re-built her life. But all that did was trigger a different unexpected issue. Despite everything—she missed the terror.’

While Shallow Creek feels eternal, all stories need an end. The final story, The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation, by Richard Thomas, feels like the culmination of the entire collection. I am biased as a huge fan of Richard’s work, but he genuinely pulls out all the stops in this Lovecraftian tale. In it, he shows us Krinkles as an old man, staring out at us from his ramshackle hut in the heart of the woods, a figure of ague and remorse, of dark hilarity and mirthless terror. There are so many unsettling details here. Why is Krinkles vomiting up balloons, marbles, and other items? Why is he keeping what might be a child’s heart in a jar? Why do six figures – ‘tall shadows’ – pray outside his hut in the dark? And why is the time of his departure near? There is a religious reverence in the way Richard describes the scene, a kind of sacred wonder at the horror of it all. Like Krinkles’ audience, we await the dreaded punchline with what is tantamount to agony.

This tale is about sin too, and about the price we pay to get what we want: ‘Eventually, it was inverted. Not the death of one for the good of many, but the opposite—the death of many for the good of one. Or the few.’

It is a dark creation story, delving into the origin of all myths. Richard peels back the layers, gives us an almost glacial sequence of images that lead to revelation, like the atom-bomb episode of the third season of Twin Peaks, yet he condenses that extended form into something comparatively microscopic – the prose is so controlled. At the end, we are left with a sense of the entirety of what has happened, something bargained, something lost, something dark and terrible learned. He re-writes the entire script of what we think we know about Shallow Creek, and shows us a side of Krinkles we could not have ever anticipated. Richard may not be as prolific as Stephen King, but his work is just as memorable.

X

In all its horror, and all its glory, this collection has captured the spirit of my mucilaginous hometown.

Oh, didn’t I say?

I was born and raised in Shallow Creek. I live in the flat above Croskell’s pornography store. And before then, I lived in the caves that run deep beneath the old bones of the settlement. And before then… well. Not many in the town know me. I am something of a recluse. I have lived in Shallow Creek a long, long time as I’ve said. Too long, by any reckoning. I’ve thought many times about moving on to other cities, those teeming millions just so tempting, like a ripe fruit full of sugary, sweet juices. But if the people here loathe and distrust me, then elsewhere, I stand very little chance of going unnoticed.

But I grow tired of hiding. My kind are a dying kind. I might even be the last one. What would be the use of passing from ageless history unremembered? One last act of glory, then. I will draw them to us as moths to a flame! My light! My blinding true form!

Come then ye curious souls! Follow my light. Pour in your millions down to Shallow Creek. Follow my good friend Mallum Colt, whom I call the Pied Piper, down to the rancid streets and silver trees and stagnant waters – to the stones that smell of secrets – and I promise you shall see wonders like you have never seen before.

You can pre-order Shallow Creek here.

Follow Storgy on Twitter or visit their website www.storgy.com for a ton of free reviews, short stories, and feature pieces.

If you liked this review, you can sign up to The Mind-Palace to get new articles, features, blogs and a free eBook delivered direct to your door. Don’t mind the squirming things. They’re part of the furniture here.

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A Yearly Round Up – 2018

2018 has been one hell of a year: personally and politically; for my immediate circle and globally. There have been tragedies and triumphs of human spirit alike. It has taken me places I never thought I’d get to or even knew I wanted to be. In January, I transitioned from working full-time at a call centre (taking 150 phone calls a day and feeling this oppressive weight on my spirit) and fitting writing and editing around that, to working part time on a reception desk and running this business alongside it. That was a huge step for my sanity and health. If you want to read more about that, I did an interview at Kendall Reviews about it. However, I made another leap mid-way through the year, quitting the part time job. I’ve now been running this editing and writing business full-time for six months. It fees like a dream and I honestly can hardly believe my luck. I’m thankful every day for this opportunity to do what I love.

Getting here wasn’t easy, but I am grateful for all the amazing friends, family, and fans who have supported me to be here. I wanted to write an article summing the year up, in part to thank those people, and also to direct you towards some of the awesome things that have been happening that may have passed you by – because who wants to be tuned in to news all the time? Some of these things are fantastic creative projects by people I admire, know, love (or all three). Some are pieces of work that have helped keep me going or inspired me to produce content. I hope they equally inspire you with whatever project you may be working on, whether it’s a year-end budget for work, or an epic poem.

–Speaking of which, the first item on our list: My father has been working on an epic poem, The English Cantos, inspired by the work of Dante Alighieri, particularly his Inferno. This poem depicts his descent into hell while suffering from cancer in the ward of Bournemouth General hospital. It is a vivid, phantasmagorical, heart-wrenching story. He has published the first three Cantos on the Society of Classical Poets’ website. You can also find me doing a reading of the poem’s opening here. The film was directed and produced by my good friend and unacknowledged genius Robert Monaghan. You can look for some more collaborations from us next year…

– Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy is another descent into hell. I don’t seem to be able to stop rewatching this movie. It is cosmic, visionary, gruesome, disgusting, hilarious, heroic, disturbing, spiritual and anti-religious, all at once. Cage’s acting is nothing short of spell-binding and the mythology Cosmatos has created is rich and layered, drawing from both Arthurian and Greco-Roman legend. I cannot recommend you get this horror DVD enough – if you can stomach it! Mandy wasn’t the only great horror cinema we got. Other wonders include Hereditary, Annihilation, Halloween and more! A good year for horror!

– …In games too! Puppet Combo, twisted genius behind Power Drill Massacre, The Night Ripper and many other retro PS1-aesthetic horror games, released his masterpiece Babysitter Bloodbath in limited edition hard-copy (limited run of 100). His work embodies the words of Stephen King that horror is all about ‘emotion’. The atmosphere of tense dread in his games is like no other, an adrenaline kick not to be missed! If you’re curious, you can read my interview with him here.

– I discovered an awesome book series Empires of Dust by Anna Smith-Spark, which is one of the most brutal, grimdark fantasies I’ve ever read. It is poetic and dark and riveting and utterly brilliant. Well worth time and energy for any fantasy lover but also any horror fan too.

– Further in publishing, my good friends at Storgy Magazine successfully crowdfunded their very, very weird (and very, very awesome) Shallow Creek anthology. It’s a collection of tales all set in the same fictional creepy American town, with a cast of characters that the authors have been able to play with. It sounds innovative and exciting. Not only that but they hit a whole host of stretch goals too, adding three stories by top writers Aliya Whiteley, Richard Thomas and Sarah Lotz.

– In the realm of Weird Fiction, things seem to be stirring in the depths. Dan Coxon launched the second volume of the Shadow Booth anthology as well this year, which has writing from some incredible authors, new and established. Shadow Booth is a benchmark of quality and well worth your time checking it out. Zero pretension, just great words and weirdness.

– My mother took part in London Art Battle III this year, where she produced work live in front of an audience. The event was hosted at Red Gallery and is created by the quirky Kiss My Art. I honestly deeply admire her for this. I know how it is going to Spoken Word / Rap Battles from my brief foray into performance poetry. To produce art live and improvised, any type of art be it music, words, visual pieces, or dance, is extremely nerve-wracking and pressured and she performed incredibly well! Proud son!

– She also exhibited her artwork at Upton House Gallery earlier this year. The exhibition was called ‘Unveiling Souls’ and tackled spiritual themes. My mother loves figure-work and iconography and is honestly a hugely underrated force of artistic talent, as well as love and kindness, in this world. You can check out a video of what it was like here. To see more of her artwork, you can check out her website. Alongside my mother’s art was poetry by my father from his collection The Lyre Speaks TrueThe artwork my mother made for the cover of that poetry collection is below.

– My baby 13Dark Issue #2: CURSED CROSSINGS launched! This collection features four amazing stories by authors: Richard Thomas, Christa Wojciechowski, Andy Cashmore and Anthony Self, totalling 41,000 words of content. I’m super biased because I edited this collection, but still! The first issue of 13Dark was hailed for the quality of its stories and design and the second issue is a right treat with some killer horror tales. Both issues are available from Lulu. To find out more about 13Dark, you can visit this webpage. It includes some brilliant interviews with 13Dark authors by the great Christa Wojciechowski.

– Speaking of which, my good friend, and writer in Issue #1 of 13Dark, Ross Jeffery, has published a slew of brilliant stories this year, including ‘A Time for Everything’, up at Soft Cartel, ‘Judgements’ at Idle Ink, and ‘Toilet Trauma’, available to read in the latest issue of Schlock Magazine. He also has a story in Storgy’s previous anthology Exit Earth.

– The great Max Booth III’s amazing new werewolf novel, Carnivorous Lunar Activities, is available for pre-order here. Earlier this year I reviewed his incredible novel The Nightly Disease and it was honestly one of the best books of the year.

– My novel Gods of the Black Gate finally released in November! This is horror-sci-fi was described as ‘True Detective in space’. It has had some radical preliminary reviews, including a 5* one up at Kendall Reviews. You can buy it from either Amazon UK or Amazon US.

– I also had a bunch of short stories published and wrote a bunch of articles on how to write fiction and horror and epics. They were all immensely fun to write and if you want more of a particular thing (or less), please let me know, because I love feedback and love hearing what you think about my work. You can drop me a line here.

WHAT TO EXPECT NEXT YEAR…

Well, I’ll still be editing, so if you have that novel you finally want to get publication-ready, or you want me to collaborate with you on a creative project, then I’m here! I’m working on a whole bunch of new material too. I’m currently shopping five novels (yes, five!) to different publishers – so the aim is to get them homes by the end of 2019. I’ll be on Richard Thomas’ awesome Novel Writing course too, working on a big, big project that will take most of the year. I’m also taking on some slightly different creative endeavours. I mentioned collaboration with the great Robert Monaghan, well, there are two potential projects unfolding next year involving our twisted minds. Here’s a teasing screenshot of one of them…

I think you know what it means!

Have happy holidays and happier New Year! I hope the future is a blessed place for you and that every goal and intention you are moving towards comes to pass. I’d invite you, if you haven’t already, to join our supportive community. The tide is turning. We’re moving. We’re going to take over the world.

In a nice way…

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The Cathedral of the Deep Part 1: What Gothic Is

INTRODUCTION

Last year, I ran a workshop where I talked about Gothic and Horror literature. This was called: “The Cathedral of the Deep: What Gothic Is and How To Write It”. I thought, given there was some interest in the topic, that it would be great to share some of the ideas I talked about in this seminar online. Now, while I have studied Gothic literature pretty extensively (and Horror is a kind of raison d’etre), I am by no means the sole expert on the subject, and there are many other academics, writers, and enthusiasts who have their own opinions on the matter. I do not purport to present the only way to understand and write Gothic here, this is merely my own approach to it. What I hope is that these methods and ideas can help you in producing your own work, whether it be a short story, poem, or even a video-game, script, or movie. The underlying concepts of Gothic are beyond one medium of expression.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

This is not just a blog or opinion piece; I intend it more as a class. So, I’d recommend that you have a notebook and pen handy. Also, you might want to have Twitter open in another window. You can message me any questions as you read along: @josephwordsmith . I will try my best to get back to you as quickly as possible. I’m also going to dropping a lot of reading/viewing recommendations, so make sure you make a note of the things you want to check out. This class is going to be divided into two parts, due to the depth into which I plan to go. That’s pretty much it folks!

A (VERY, VERY) SELECTIVE HISTORY OF HORROR

Modern Horror has its roots in Gothic literature. While there are subtle differences, shaped by time and society, understanding classic Gothic literature, and how it works, can give us insight into how to write Horror that is a cut above the rest, that is more than cheap scares or gratuity and transcends into something cathartic and emotionally resonant. So, let us take a walk through a history of horror.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is widely regarded as the first Gothic-Horror novel, but the Gothic stretches back much farther. In the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe both wrote plays that can not only easily be classifiable as Gothic, but may even have been used as templates by subsequent writers for what Gothic is. First, let’s consider two of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays: Macbeth and Hamlet. Macbeth is the height of Gothic, with its bloody deeds, visions, ghosts, magic and atmosphere of terror. It remains one of the most concentrated examinations of evil ever written. Hamlet is perhaps less typically Gothic than Macbeth, but contains ghosts, religiosity, madness, and many other themes that are explored within a tense narrative that breeds unease in the audience. I would recommend you go to see either of these plays, so long as they are being put on by a good company. If you wish to see a truly Gothic cinematic adaptation of Macbeth, I recommend you watch the 1971 film version by Roman Polanski, in which the symbolic elements of the play are drawn out in staggeringly vivid ways.

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is perhaps less well known (despite “Faustian pact” being a common idiom), although in 2016 the Duke of York Theatre in London put on a sublime production of it starring Kit Harington which did something to revitalise interest in the play. This iconic work portrays a magician who makes a deal with the devil: his soul for 27 years of unlimited power. It is an extremely Gothic work, with its magical rituals, sexual undertones, metaphysical discourse, spirits, demons and religiosity. If you can find a good version of this play, I’d highly recommend it. The language is challenging, but once you get into it, this barrier will fall away.

These plays were written towards the end of the sixteenth / beginning of the seventeenth century, and remain some of the most celebrated plays in any language to this day. How is it that they remain so potent, even now? And why do we hold onto these plays, when many of their contemporaries are now being forgotten? One answer, I believe, is in the nature of Gothic, and Horror, itself. Horror is perhaps the only genre defined by an emotion. It’s about feeling, powerful emotional response, and of course strong emotional reactions stays with us.

I would be remiss not to mention the great Mary Shelley, whose Victorian novel Frankenstein has become a benchmark for Horror and Science Fiction writers throughout the world, and is Gothic through to its bones. Again, the success of Frankenstein is not in clever plotting or even in its Horror, because there are scarier books. No, its success is in the emotional resonance of the ending, and realising that we have misjudged the “monster” all along. Sympathy is an integral part of Horror. We must sympathise with Macbeth, to understand the gravity of his errors, to feel his terror as the walls close in. We must sympathise with both Victor Frankenstein, the tortured rebel creator, and his creation, “the monster”, in order to learn a profound lesson at the end of Frankenstein.

Emotion is the key. As a reader, you read a Horror book to be scared, or at least repulsed. As a Horror writer, you aim to write a book that will haunt your readers. Stephen King said: “First, I’ll try to make you feel terror. If I can’t I’ll make you feel horror. If I can’t do that I’ll gross you out. I’m not proud”. These words, in a way, show three key forms of Horror. The empathetic (terror), which means we experience the emotions of the protagonist as our own. The sympathetic (horror), which means we feel sorry for, can relate to the protagonist and their predicament. The gruesome (disgust), which means we feel revulsion or are “grossed out”. All three are valid, and can be intermixed at will.

THE FOUR KEY ELEMENTS OF GOTHIC WRITING

So, I have listed some things that define Macbeth, Hamlet and Doctor Faustus as Gothic texts. However, this is all a bit vague. I’m now going to narrow it down to the four key elements that define a text as Gothic, and how these “serve the beam”, to quote Stephen King once more. When you understand how each of these four elements work, and how they work in cohesion, you will be able to look at classic Gothic literature, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, Dracula, Jane Eyre or even modern Horror texts for that matter, and see how these elements have been used. What’s more, you’ll be able to use them yourself to create a Gothic piece. This is not to say that all the writers I have listed are thinking about the genre in this way, they probably don’t, but I believe there are mechanics beneath the surface that writers pick up subconsciously from years of study and internalisation.

MOOD

Dean Koontz said many faults in a writer could be forgiven if they could “weave a warp and weft of mood”. Gothic is about atmosphere: how do we feel stepping into the haunted castle, or walking through the woods alone, or seeing the seductive vampire? One technique for creating mood is sense. Most writers focus only on one, vision, so they spend hours laboriously describing their scenes, as though their novel/story were a transcript of a movie. Think deeper. What are the sounds, smells, sensations?

ARCHITECTURE

This works in two ways:

Literal

The first location described in Macbeth is Macbeth’s imposing fortress home which sits upon a high hill overlooking a forest: “This castle hath a pleasant seat”. You can immediately see parallels with the later novel The Castle of Otranto, where the setting of the ‘castle’, and its labyrinthine mazes, becomes symbolic of the labyrinthine mind of Lord Manfred and his schemes. In Dracula, the first quarter of the novel is set in Dracula’s keep, and we even return there at the end. Dracula also has another castle in London which becomes his base of operations.

Structural

Most Gothic literature is structured in elegant and baroque ways. For example, in Frankenstein, we have the ‘framed narrative’ device, going deeper and deeper into the story through different lenses. In Dracula, we have the epistolary device, the story told through various letters. A fabulous modern Horror story that uses ‘architecture’ in a compelling way is ‘The Woman in the Hill’ by Tamsyn Muir, a short story recently re-published in Best of Horror 2016. This used an epistolary device to create a sense of verisimilitude.

You maybe asking ‘what is verisimilitude?’

Think about the plethora of recent Horror films using the ‘found footage’ trope. This is the cinematic equivalent of a letter, because the story is being posed as authentic and coming from one authentic source. These kinds of structures have evolved in one sense from the early Gothic ‘epistolary’ novels, but also have remained bizarrely consistent for hundreds of years. Walpole’s novel The Castle of Ortranto was released, posing as a real translation of an Italian manuscript found in a crypt. Only later did he reveal the truth. This is Gothic verisimilitude. The supposition of believability. Narrative architecture in Gothic literature can be used to create this sense of believability in order to draw your reader deeper into the maze of your story.

The title of this seminar: The Cathedral of the Deep, comes from the video-game Dark Souls, which is created by Japanese game-developer Hidetaka Miyazaki. The Cathedral of the Deep is a location the player can explore which is said to house the remains of the god-eating monster Aldlich, Lord of the Deep, who’s actually a kind of viscus sludge. The Cathedral itself is full of gorgeous paintings, golden braziers, candles, statues, gargoyles (some of which come alive and attack you), undead, maggot-ridden creatures that thrash in pools of blood, and also, invading spirits from other worlds, ghosts, and a fanatical cult of archbishops. Miyazaki is clearly a big fan of the Gothic – he revealed in an interview he read many English Gothic and Fantasy writers in his youth, though he struggled to translate them – and the worlds he creates are based on Western Gothic and medieval traditions, even if they do have a Japanese twist to them.

Here architecture is reflected in the artistic game and level design, as well as the elliptical storytelling. “The Cathedral of the Deep” is, I believe, a perfect encapsulation of the Gothic. The Cathedral represents architecture, structure, design, trappings, style. The Deep represents deeper meanings, what’s buried beneath, desires, emotions. Bear these two concepts in mind when you begin to write your Gothic fiction. What is the external architecture of your piece? Are you writing it as a letter, or a journal, or is it rather that the setting is baroque and magnificent? Then, what are the underlying emotions? Often the degraded emotions of Gothic protagonists contrast with the splendour of their surroundings.

RELIGION

All Gothic literature is spiritual in some way, or else, extensively utilises the mythos and trappings of religion. This is linked to the architecture. Often, the Gothic uses religious structures as key focal points: cathedrals, churches, holy ground, or, metaphorically, internal religious structures of belief and faith.

This also includes deeper themes and questions of reality: who are we, where do we come from, what is reality?

  • A modern fantasy novel such as City of the Iron Fish (Simon Ings) captures this perfectly, where we go into the nature of existence by exploring this mysterious city, which slowly comes unravelled. When the hero tries to leave this city in the story, he eventually reaches a liminal barrier in the desert where everything fades into stick drawings – including the hero himself. This is a terrifyingly meta/fourth-wall breaking moment that reflects Gothic ideas.

  • Modern cinema uses religion too. Alien, apparently a simple survival tale, is steeped in religious questions. There is evidence of a master-race that creates both the human race and the xenomorphs – therefore exploring the origin of our species. The more recent films, whilst not a patch on the original (for lack of mood I’d wager), go into the questions of what constitutes humanity, intelligence, love, connection, morality and much more through the character of David (played by Michael Fassbender). In addition, the xenomorphs’ home planet is presented as a cipher for Hell itself.

  • Madness is also linked to religion in the Gothic, because madness was, in the past, suggested to represent a deeper connection to God. For, how could God’s will and power be understood by a sane person? So, madness, and how it de-constructs the architecture of normal life, is a common theme of the Gothic. The novels of Christa Wojciechowski explore madness and perception in extremely Gothic ways, and are well worth reading.

You might ask the question: ‘Could a Gothic novel be written without religious elements?’ I hate to be prescriptive, so my final answer is ‘Maybe’. However, I’d argue it would be almost impossible. The novel, Hidden People, attempted to do this quite ambitious, but sadly, for me, it was not quite successful.

LYRICISM

Last but not least. The language of Gothic literature is often elevated and poetic. Frequently, throughout the history of Gothic literature, poetry and prose are blended. Think of Horace Walpole’s sonnet introducing The Castle of Otranto, the works of Edgar Allan Poe (Fall of the House of Usher in particular), the poetry of Percy Shelley, Byron (the poem ‘Darkness’ perhaps the most Gothic poem ever written), and, of course, Shakespeare and Marlowe’s plays. There’s a sense of richness and beauty to the language essential to contrast and juxtapose with the horror. If you want a modern example, the short stories and novels of Richard Thomas, in particular something like Tribulations, perfectly strikes a balance between Horror and beauty.

SUMMATION

The acronym for these elements is M.A.R.L. and the way I remember it is: Marlborough Reds, the cigarette brand. It’s easy to remember because ‘red’ is a key Gothic colour: red is the colour of desire, blood, and red and black are the colours of death. The red lips of the seductor, the red eyes of the vampire. Red is also the colour of sexually transmitted diseases: red spots on the genitals, face or hands. Sexually transmitted diseases are another key Gothic theme (Dracula is arguably an allegory of about STDs), because they imply the taboo, transgression. Transgression ties in with religion as one of the four key elements of Gothic.

Exercise 1.

Now, we’re going to do some practical work to exercise our creative muscles and see how we can use this theoretical knowledge. Pick your favourite Horror film, story, book, whatever. Write down the four key elements as headings, and then, beneath those headings, list all the elements that fit into these categories. Some elements may even fall into more than one. For example, the creepy setting of a graveyard (which evokes mood) also has a specific layout, which becomes plot-integral later, therefore this graveyard is also part of the architecture of the piece. This example is from Stephen King’s story “Graveyard Shift” if you hadn’t guessed already! Try to write a few of these, see what elements really appeal to you, and think about how you might subvert their usage for your own tales.

X

Thank you so much for coming this far. I hope that this class has been of use to you. We’ve now reached the end of Part 1, where we’ve closely examined “What Gothic Is”. In the next class, we will look in more depth at “How To Write It”. Specifically, in Part 2, we will cover: writing a five act structure synopsis for our story, writing a compelling opening, writing a first paragraph, and more!

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!

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Good News for a Change: The Short Story is Reborn!

2017 was a remarkably challenging year. However, despite the challenges of difficult socio-economic circumstances, political warmongering and the continual disintegration of values in our society, the artistic and beautiful still managed to triumph and blossom. I don’t maintain utopian ideals. I do not believe humans are perfectible or that government or law can fix the issues that stem from our human condition, but I do believe that there is a glimmer of hope, and that hope is what we must hold onto in 2018.

I believe one of the greatest of these glimmers in 2017 was revitalisation of the short story form in the UK. The short story has long been neglected by writers and publishers here, whereas it is still held in high esteem in the US, often viewed as a kind of ‘rite of passage’ by which authors can win accolades and critical acclaim before they go for the big novel pitch. There are far more markets in the US for the short story form as well as anthologies collating the best of specific genres. The ‘Best American’ literary series epitomises this outlook, treating the short story much in the same reverence as the sonnet of Elizabethan England, whereby a writer could not really claim to be a poet unless they had written one.

But even in the US, the short story has been in danger for a while now. More and more markets are starting to close and many newer markets are not able to offer professional paying rates. Publishers put out fewer single-author short story collections each year. Extremely long-standing and well-reputed markets remain open, of course, such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Shimmer, and Analog. However, this creates issues in and of itself, because these markets are so prestigious many new writers feel they represent pipe-dream ambition. With diminishing opportunities, a greater number of authors feel there is no point in writing short stories, as no one will publish them and no one will read them. It’s not the publishers’ fault by any means, but a result of economic, societal and philosophical changes, and these changes are far from over if the current political climate in the West is anything to go by.

But all is not lost, because there has been a miraculous recovery of the short story.

Firstly though, why is the short story so important? Well, I believe it is its very concision that makes it valuable. Writing is healing. We’ve known this for millennia. Writing is both therapy for the writer and reader, especially when it achieves the pre-eminent quality of inducing catharsis. Catharsis often comes at the end of a story, and the power of short stories is that they are endings and nothing else. Sure, there are structures and formulas and ways to de-construct them, but I honestly believe that the greatest short stories are the ones that feel like walking into the end of a movie, where everything is rich with meaning but you do not have the full context. A good friend of mine once told me to watch the third season of Twin Peaks: The Return without first watching the original seasons 1 & 2. ‘It’ll add to the weirdness,’ he said. ‘And make it even better.’ Boy, was he right. Piecing together the missing history of the series in the implied dialogue and imagery was one of the most joyous aspects to watching that momentous television event of 2017.

So, the same is true of good short stories. You come into the movie with ten minutes left, and while you wonder what the hell it’s all about, you feel this cataclysmic swell of emotion that defies logic-driven attempts to fill in the gaps and create ‘plot’. With a short story, a good one, as with poetry, you get straight to the healing part without having to wade through plot and narrative mechanics. Of course, good novels and long-form narrative make the plot and narrative enhance the emotional experience, but that’s an essay for another time. I think this can be summed up best in the words of Dan Coxon, the editor of The Shadow Booth (more on this anon), in a recent interview with LitReactor: ‘There’s nothing better than a short story that evokes a strong emotional response in the reader but defies all attempts to pin it down.’

The tradition of short stories dates way back, as far and if not farther than Ovid, with his eclectic and electric collection of tales Metamorphoses, one of the books that most greatly influenced Shakespeare. The first time I personally realised the incredible potential of the short story was when I read a piece by Raymond Carver called ‘Are These Actual Miles?’. I would later learn Carver contributed to the revitalisation of the short story in the 80s. In this story, the state of a disintegrating marriage is symbolically represented by the condition of a car. This tale made apparent the power of the image to tell a story, without the need explain it with clunky narrative exposition. The naturalistic dialogue, and the way it created such a rich sense of character, was also a wake-up call to me, as hitherto I’d hardly used dialogue in my storytelling. After that, I was inspired by the ‘daughters of decadence’ – the astonishing female writers of the 19th century whose short stories are shining examples of stylistic excellence and emotional power. In particular, the works of Olive Custance (the featured image of this article in case you were wondering), Olive Schreiner, Victoria Cross and Charlotte Perkins Gillman. The often fantastic and phantasmagorical ideas of these writers were always nuanced and subtle, and deeply influenced my own approach to how Fantasy should be written. I later discovered Thomas Mann, Stephen King, and a sea of other phenomenal writers employing the short form.

Now we come to the present day, where many consider the short story redundant. Recently, a close friend of mine, having read one of my short works, smiled and said: ‘This is why I don’t read short stories. They frustrate me.’ He was annoyed, perhaps understandably, that I didn’t specify exactly what happened at the end. Did the characters live? Get blown up? I could see where he was coming from, but it also made me realise how little attuned we are as a culture to this form. Once, it was a mainstay, but somehow we’ve lost the beat of it. He somewhat admitted it himself, perceptively observing that the form had always ‘frustrated’ him. I wonder if schools put more emphasis on this form whether we would change things. But that is also a topic for another time. So much good work is being done in the short story field. For anyone new to the scene, or looking to fall in love with short stories, I would highly recommend the collection The New Black, published by Dark House Press; it represents a triumph of the short story form and this should come as no surprise given that the collection was collated by none other than Richard Thomas, whose own single-author short story collection Tribulations was a master-stroke. I’ve praised this collection in numerous places, so I won’t re-iterate it here, but suffice to say Richard Thomas is one of the best advocates for the short story precisely because he wields it with such efficacy. Another collection for lovers of the Fantastic is Songs of the Dying Earth, which has stories from a number of prestigious authors including George R. R. Martin and Neil Gaiman. These stories, written in styles creatively imitating Jack Vance’s original ‘baroque’ prose, are inventive, zany and profoundly weird, some of the best speculative fiction I’ve read in a long time.

Gamut magazine, another Richard Thomas innovation, spearheaded an incredible movement to create a quality neo-noir zine. And though, tragically, it will not be going forward into a second year (the take up was not significant enough), the quality of stories it offered, and the number of new voices it discovered, has set the bar exceedingly high for all time. You might think it strange I’m spending time in my ‘hopeful’ essay with an example of a short story market that is no longer running, but Gamut demonstrated that with a clear vision for quality, and aesthetic taste, it was possible to create something unique and beautiful. Whilst it did not gain enough of a following to continue, it set an example, reinvigorating the literary community, particularly in the realms of Speculative and Horror fiction, with a thirst for quality short fiction. I certainly found myself feverishly logging in to the Gamut website during my lunch-breaks at work in order to read the latest article or story. I find it hard to remember the last time I had such a hunger for literary content.

In the UK, we are beginning to cotton on, and new short story markets have emerged. My own effort, 13Dark, clawed its way into existence, introducing three new voices in fiction. What’s unique about 13Dark is that it focuses on longer short stories, those tricky pieces of fiction that fall between the arbitrary boundaries of 5,000 words or less, or 20,000 or more. These longer forms achieve tremendous power and impact precisely because of their added depth and complexity (but they still retain the poetic concision of the short form). I’ve always been a fan of the ‘long short story’ – and it was a delight to showcase such shining examples of it. There will be more from 13Dark in the future, so watch this space.

Perhaps more significantly, STORGY and The Shadow Booth released their début publications last year. STORGY’S epic 24 story collection Exit Earth is a tour de force, treading a dividing line between literary and genre, writing both timelessly about issues of power and humanity whilst also screaming into the present with commentary on the state of technology and contemporary socio-political issues. The Shadow Booth Vol. 1 is a profound exploration of Weird fiction and like 13Dark explored longer story forms. There were many incredible contributions to this collection, notably Daniel Carpenter’s ‘Flotsam’ and Richard Thomas’ ‘White Picket Fences’. I had the incredible fortune to have stories in both volumes, and attended both launch-events in London (they were on consecutive days!). The energy at these events was awe-inspiring (you can check out pictures of the STORGY event here), and there was a real feeling that the short story was once again attaining capturing interest. The fact so many upcoming writers are contributing to the form, alongside more established names, shows that people still thinks there is value in it, and that new ideas can still be expressed within its constraints.

Theodore Dalrymple once said in his seminal work Our Culture, What’s Left of It: ‘Art is precisely the means by which man makes sense of, and transcend, his own limitations and flaws’. While it might sound lofty, I think it’s most probably true. The short story is a particularly effective way to do this because it is not onerous to write – it can be completed in a few sittings, and refined and refined at leisure. I would argue that in our increasingly time-restricted culture, where we are asked to work more and more with less personal development time, the resurgence of the short story is not just timely and convenient, but a complete necessity for literature to continue to thrive, and therefore, for people to continue to thrive, because good writing heals us, good writing imparts understanding and empathy, good writing is the antidote to total corporate anaesthetisation.

So what are you waiting for? Go write.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to follow @josephwordsmith on Twitter, or alternatively discover more about 13Dark on their Facebook page. To discover his writing, you can check out his work at Amazon.

To celebrate the re-emergence of the short story, I’m offering 15% off 13Dark’s first issue: DEAD VOICES. Follow this link, and use the code JAN15 to at checkout.