Tales Of The Weird

The British Library’s Tales of the Weird series does a great job preserving the rich heritage of the fantastic in literature, digging up long buried stories from obscure authors (and many famous ones) and presenting them to a new audience.

Here’s the first from my subscription – one book a month, with a couple of art prints and a bookmark thrown in – Doomed Romances – Strange Tales of Uncanny Love. The familiar authors here are Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Wilkie Collins and Sheridan le Fanu, but there are plenty more I haven’t heard of.

There’s been something of a move in recent times to say past works from dead genre authors have no relevance in the modern world. But all students of literature know that everything builds on what’s gone before, even if unconscious, however revolutionary.

You can’t truly know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from.

Many of these old stories still stand up today, creepy, unsettling, imaginative, and it’s a slow-burning revelation to realise that what disturbed people in the past still does so today. There’s something of humanity in that.

It’s good to see this book series has been such a huge success because the British Library is going through a bit of a crisis right now. It came under a massive cyberattack from the ransomware group Rhysida in October.

Entire systems were destroyed, staff and book data stolen and sold on the Dark Web.

So devastating, in fact, that the National Cyber Security Centre, part of the GCHQ intelligence service, is still fighting to get everything back to normal. Authors waiting for their PLR payments this year may have to wait for a long time.

So far there are 39 books in the Tales of the Weird series, with a new one coming every month, excavated from the library’s archives. For anyone interested, you should be able to get on the 3-for-2 sale now running.

Twice Cursed – New Story

Twice Cursed

I have a new short story in this anthology which should be in bookshops soon, one of my rare fantasy tales (or rare for the moment).

Twice Cursed, with the strapline Unhappily Ever After, features some of the leading writers of the imagination conjuring up stories about curses, both modern day and in the traditional fairytale style.

Here you’ll find work by Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, Joe Hill and more. It’s been put together by expert editors Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane and is published by Titan Books.

My contribution wins the unnecessarily long title award: The Old Stories Hide Secrets Deep Inside Them and concerns a modern day archaeological dig on an isolated Scottish island.

Finding Fantasy In The Past – The People

There are ethical problems wrapped up in writing historical fiction. Should you use a real, once-living person as a character in your fiction? Their lives reduced to nothing more than plot points and themes? In essence, a human being’s existence shackled to the pursuit of the writer’s own ego?

Would you want some future author to make you the bad guy in their little story, the walk-on joke, the mumbling idiot, the obstacle?

And let’s face it, we don’t even know what the people around us are truly like, never mind those who existed hundreds of years ago. In those cases, we often only have a few scraps of paper to sketch out the things they did, with little hint to their motivation.

This becomes even more of an issue in fantasy, where the historical characters are divorced from the realities of their lives. It’s something I’ve certainly struggled with while writing the Swords of Albion books, which utilise a host of real people from the Elizabethan age. To be honest, even after writing I find it hard to decide if it was the right thing to do. I justified it to myself by my attempts to make the historical figures as true to how contemporary accounts described them, but that still leaves a great deal of psychological gap-filling.

The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men are set around the Court and Government of Queen Elizabeth, but she plays only a secondary role. I have less interest in the cosseted lives of Kings and Queens than I do in the men and women who do their bidding.

The stories concern spies, who had, for the first time, become a powerful weapon of the state in this era. And so in the first book one of the central characters is the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a dour, puritanical man who suffered much personal misery in his life, but who gave his all in service to the Queen. His successor in The Scar-Crow Men is Sir Robert Cecil, a clever, cunning politician who battled against prejudice and mockery for his hunchback and short stature – the Queen called him her ‘Little Elf’. These two men represent different approaches to power and control, one quite honorable, the other self-serving. They act as counterpoints to the flawed, vacillating central character, the spy Will Swyfte.

Swyfte’s friend is the acclaimed playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine among other plays. He was something of a rising celebrity at the time. He may have been a spy (there is some evidence); he may have been gay. In the books, Marlowe is another counterpoint to Swyfte, a man slowly being destroyed by the dark business of spying and the demands placed upon him by service to the state. Marlowe allows the reader to see Swyfte’s strengths and flaws more easily.

Despite my antipathy towards the lives of Royalty, the fact that important people play important roles is inescapable in this era. The common man was mainly concerned with simple economic survival. And so, as Swyfte travels the known world in his spying, we encounter James VI of Scotland (and future James I of England), Philip II of Spain and Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France. Each one responds – and responded – in different ways to their regal status, and again, each one allows us to see Swyfte in a different light.

Dr John Dee is a key figure in both books, and the third, to come, and he really is the link between the history and the fantasy. Dee, who tutored the young Elizabeth, was both a scientist and an occultist, an inventor and mathematician who communed with angels and cast magic circles. Many of the themes I’m tackling have Dee at their centre.

There are others – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, the Earls of Leicester and Essex, the master criminal Laurence Pickering, the King of Cutpurses, who may or may not have been an invention of the Elizabethan equivalent of the tabloids. Each one was chosen carefully for what they said about Will Swyfte, in the same way that any writer chooses supporting fictional characters.

I hope I did them justice, but know in my heart I didn’t. No writer could.

Writing What You Want Or Writing For Living?

At Fantasycon 2010 this past weekend, I moderated a panel discussing the tightrope authors have to walk between writing what they want and maintaining a commercial career in the current tough publishing environment. For anyone aspiring to be an author, it’s essential listening:

(The sound quality may not be great in parts due to microphone malfunction, but it does improve if you persevere. Many thanks to Adele at Un:Bound for getting it all down.)

The panel guests are Saran Pinborough, Mark Morris, Conrad Williams and Tim Lebbon, all horror authors now working in other areas. We touched on why horror is commercially dead as a genre (as opposed to individual novels) and the difficult issues facing writers of SF and fantasy in an industry going through a period of rapid change.

It’s worth another blogpost on the challenges facing all the speculative genres in the coming years, I think. Whatever you’re used to on the genre front, the landscape is going to look very different.

Is It Time For SF And Fantasy To Split?

Over on the Borders Babel Clash blog, I’ve been putting forward the idea that it’s time for fantasy and SF to go their separate ways:

It makes me wonder, though, if it’s time for fantasy and SF to dissolve the marriage of convenience. They came together in an age when there was a limited number of speculative fiction books on the shelves and the two genres huddled together for support. But as Charlie Stross points out, they’re very different in outlook – one stares out to the world, one peers into the unconscious.

When a good number of authors and readers of one genre openly sneer at the other genre, that’s probably a good time to disentangle them at the level of marketing, conventions, societies and the rest. Fantasy has more in common with horror, and urban fantasy which straddles the two. And that would leave SF to be “pure” which a lot of its supporters seem to want.

Of course, members of the SF community who speak openly about that kind of thing might find it a double-edged sword. Fantasy thrives in sales terms, and those big secondary world epics that Charlie Stross mocks give a lot of bookstore cover to what may be perceived as the more challenging of the SF fare – especially at a time when three senior editors (two in the US, one in the UK) tell me they’re no longer really in the market for SF for sales reasons.