Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Sunday 28 November 2010

Strange Men In Pinstripe Suits by Cate Gardner

Figured it was long overdue for me to talk about something other than myself again, so here goes:

Point of interest- I've been familiar with the ever-reigning Cate's (TM) work for a good thirteen years now, and have not only spoken to her a couple of times on the phone but actually got to meet her recently. Back in the late '90s both Cate and her fiction had a bit of a Gothy thing going on, but in 2010 that's a thing of the past. These days the scariest thing about Cate Gardner is that she doesn't look scary, or strange. She just looks... nice. And- dare I say it?- normal. You could pass her in a crowd and never guess who just walked by.

Thankfully, though, Cate is not normal. I say 'thankfully' because... well, have you seen what counts as 'normal' behaviour these days? Watching X-Factor? Regarding Simon Cowell as a personage of importance, rather than an emissary of the Antichrist? Giving a toss what Cheryl Cole thinks about... er... anything?

Nope, Cate's no more normal than I am, and thank goodness for that. Quite understandably, she spends as little time as possible in a world where that kind of behaviour is considered acceptable or even (god help us) mandatory. Wherever possible, she resides in Cate-land. Now, I have no more idea than you do where exactly Cate-land is, but I can hazard a guess at what it's like. It's a world where robots are lovesick (or wage war with fairies in a greenhouse.) It's a world where you have (and may well need) zombie decapitation insurance. A world where serial killers relax on the bed of the local canal between victims, and breakfast on a bucket of crabs.

It's also a world, funnily enough, with rather a lot of strange men. In pinstripe suits.

But you probably guessed that.

How can I describe Cate Gardner's work? Well, the short answer is that I can't. She isn't really quite like anyone else. Her stories often have the feel of strange, dark little fairy-tales. Perhaps there's a little touch of Angela Carter there, then? Hm... not exactly. There's a quirky, inky-dark humour that darts through her tales that isn't quite like anything Carter ever did- I defy any reader to finish The Sulphurous Clouds of Lucifer Matches, for example, without a ripe, rich chuckle- and a deceptive easygoing lightness of touch that recalls Rob Shearman (which I can assure you is high praise indeed as far as I'm concerned.)

But quirky, humourous, even whimsical though the stories can be, they're not all light. The endings of Parasol Dance With The Chalkstripe Man and Other Side Of Nowhere are anything but twee; they're fiercely bleak. Burying Sam, a clever and typically Cate-ish- by which I mean idiosyncratic and not quite like anyone else- take on the zombie theme, grows more poignant with each reading. And it's only a page and a half long. But then again, the opening story, Dandelion Fluff, isn't even half a page in length, and yet it's another piece that packs a sting; one, again, that deepens with successive encounters.

Now there's one of the notable characteristics of Cate's fiction; brevity. The longest of the 24 stories in this book is about 14 pages long. There are others of 10, 11, 12 pages, but most are far shorter. Black Heart Balloon is 3 pages; Opheliac a mere 4. Both are little wonders of dark wit and bizarre invention that pull you through the looking glass into a darker world than anything Lewis Carroll envisaged.

Another defining feature is a child's-eye view of the world, but one that never escapes into naivety or refuses to grow up. A quality, perhaps, of innocence. The protagonists of The Graveyard Of Dead Vehicles and The Sulphurous Clouds Of Lucifer Matches (did I mention she's great with titles too?) negotiate hostile worlds with difficulty, seeking ways to emerge with their integrity intact. In the first, the protagonist needs to recapture a childlike belief in magic and reject the nullifying logic of a nightmarishly prosaic world; in the second, the protagonist is a child who uses guile and wit to win through, in the best traditions of fairy stories everywhere.

That quality of innocence is fundamental to Cate's work. If there's an overriding theme to Strange Men In Pinstripe Suits then it's the struggle to preserve it in a grim, inimical world. It's a struggle to do so; it would be so easy to let that quality be extinguished for the sake of an easy ride, a quiet life. But do so, and you're lost forever.

Perhaps these stories come, simply, from a fundamentally gentle soul, dramatising its own struggle to preserve itself. Perhaps they're intended as survival guides or the rest of us. Or perhaps they're just a collection of- literally- wonderful short stories that are like nothing else you're likely to have read this year. Whatever the truth of the matter, we have Cate Gardner and Aaron Polson of (aptly) Strange Publications to thank for giving these funny, touching and magical tales what they deserve- a home more permanent and enduring than the various magazines and websites they have graced.

For, as Cate Gardner knows so well, some things are more than worth the struggle to preserve.

In case you hadn't got the message already, I loved this book. Get yourself a copy. In fact, with Christmas coming up, it might be worth ordering a few.

Monday 22 November 2010

Woot and Squee!

Just had a bit of nice news, which is always good on a Monday morning and better still following a six-day week: my short story 'Salvaje' is to be published in a forthcoming edition of Charles Black's The Black Book Of Horror series. (Edited for update: just heard this morning that it will appear in the Ninth Black Book of Horror. Woot, squee and happy dance!)

The Black Books hark back to the good old days of the Pan Books of horror- in the best sense. The stories tend to the more gruesome end of the horror, but they're usually worth reading. 'Salvaje' features a character I hope to write about again, but I'm saying no more than that. It's a story I'm fond of, so it's good to see it find a home at last.

Damn, I went and squeed again. I really must stop that.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Armistice Day

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye,
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
-Siegfried Sassoon.

Monday 8 November 2010

Drop Everything. Read This. Seriously.

Something that my friend Joel posted this morning on the Ramsey Campbell messageboard as part of a discussion. It's something that deserves being very widely read, before it's too late.

Let's put a few current facts together and see what they suggest in combination.

1. The Government has announced that a million public sector jobs are to be axed.
2. The Government has also announced that a high proportion of people on disability benefit will be reclassified as unemployed, quite regardless of their chances of finding work.
3. Now the Government has announced that people who have been unemployed for a long time will be... not trained, not helped to find work, not given even temporary jobs, but rather forced to do unpaid work that corresponds to the most basic of public sector manual jobs.
4. The DSS estimates the annual cost of benefit fraud to be £1.1 billion. The Inland Revenue estimates the annual cost of tax evasion to be £40 billion.
5. The Government is cutting back staffing levels heavily in the DSS and the Inland Revenue, showing that neither helping people find work nor catching tax evaders is a priority. Catching benefit fraudsters is, however, such a priority that David Cameron has announced that private sector bounty hunters will be hired to track them down.
6. The Chief Executive of the Tory-controlled Birmingham City Council has notified 26,000 employees that they may or may not be made redundant – but their current contracts are null and void, and they will not even be considered for re-engagement unless they sign new contracts that radically diminish their terms and conditions – effectively casualising the Council workforce.
7. Kenneth Clarke, current Justice Secretary and onetime Home Secretary, famously commented that a very high level of unemployment was "a price worth paying" to break the trade unions.

What these facts show in combination is a minority Conservative Government, propped up by LibDem quislings, trying to do as much damage to our public services, the people who provide them and the people who receive them as possible. This is open war on the rights and living standards of the non-rich. It will greatly increase the crime rate, the suicide rate and the mortality rate among the non-rich. It will create a gangster economy of vicious profiteering, with every area of the public sector – most especially healthcare – being carved up into franchises.

The Government has said that the NHS budget is "ring-fenced". However, it will have to be spread much thinner to cover the community healthcare being cut out of the social services budget. Over the next few years there will be a wholesale shift from the NHS budget being used mostly to train and pay NHS staff to the same budget being used mostly to pay private sector health providers... who, as New Labour's Independent Sector Treatment Programme proved, are a lot more expensive than their NHS counterparts. They are also a lot less accountable, because they refuse to disclose their clinical and financial performance data on the grounds that it is "commercially sensitive".

The question is not when the ConDem Government will stop destroying everything that is decent about our society. The question is whether anyone will stop them. It has to happen soon. By the time of the next general election, the damage done to our social fabric and to millions of lives will be irreversible.

This is war.

Saturday 6 November 2010

The End Of The Line- The Guardian Review!

Wotcher folks. Just a quick one, this. The End Of The Line has been reviewed for today's Guardian by Eric Brown . It's a short review, in which only four stories are name-checked. These are Stephen Volk's 'In The Colosseum' (one of the most savage and disturbing stories I've read this year), Nicholas Royle's 'The Lure' (a subtle and elliptical psycholoigical... chiller? Thriller? I don't know what to call it, but it's great), Paul Meloy's magnificent 'Bullroarer' (further proof, were it needed, that Meloy is one of the finest, most original and idiosyncratic short story writers working in the field right now)... and 'The Sons Of The City'.

To say that I am delighted would be a dramatic understatement. But I won't say it... no, I won't...

Must... hold... back...

No, it's no use:


Ahem. Sorry about that.

We now return you to what is laughingly called reality. Unfortunately this includes David C*ntmoron being Prime Minister and Simon Cowell existing. Sorry. It's not my fault.