Author and Scriptwriter

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

Wednesday 31 December 2014

So, 2014....

It's been an eventful year, both good and bad.

2014 was the year that I moved from Swinton to Liverpool to be with the woman I love. A big decision, but one I'm still very happy about.

2014 was also the year in which we lost a lot of good people. I can't count the actors and musicians and writers that were taken from us, among them Graham Joyce, one of our best novelists. The first anniversary of Joel Lane's passing came and went, and I tried and failed to find something to say. And, this month, it hit closer still to home, when Cate's mum passed away.

I published a few stories, together with a serial that might possibly count as a new novel - and I still have that Very Good News to deliver (but that will have to wait until the New Year.)

I want to take the opportunity to thank the many people whose kindness and support have meant so much of late. My family, my friends - and the reviewers and fans too. A good online review, or a personal message on how much you enjoyed a story or what it meant to you, means one hell of a lot, and it's one of the kindest gifts you can give a writer.

Just a quick round-up, then, of my credits this year:

As White As Bone, published in Matter #13 (May 2014, allegedly. I'm still yet to receive either payment or a contributor copy.)
The Lowland Hundred, published in Dead Water, ed. Len Maynard and Mick Sims. (June 2014)
The Battering Stone, published in Horror Uncut, ed. Tom Johnstone and Joel Lane (October 2014)
Night Templar, published in Blasck Static #43, ed. Andy Cox. (November 2014)

It may or may not count as a novel - although it will be coming out as a single volume print edition in the future - but if it does, there was Black Mountain. The first episode went up on the Spectral Press website last Christmas as a free taster, before being published as an ebook in early 2014. Thanks to the eagle-eyed James Everington and Anthony Watson and to all kind souls on Amazon for noticing it and reviewing it. And to Simon Marshall-Jones for commissioning it, Graeme Reynolds for the proofing and formatting, and Neil Williams for that stellar artwork.

It was still a tough year professionally, with many crises of confidence. But I'm still here. And the work goes on.

Here's to a better 2015 for us all. Have a good - and safe - New Year, folks.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Caroline Trayler: Getting Away With Murder

In his introduction to Night Shift, Stephen King talks about writers having a brain filter. It’s like, he says, the grille over a drain; depending on size, some stuff falls through and is washed away, while some sticks, and stays. In the case of a writer, the stuff that sticks and stays becomes what you write about.

Some stuff sticks and some doesn’t, and what gets caught in the filter sometimes seems to be without rhyme or reason. In my case, it tends to be the weird and the odd, peculiar little ‘what-ifs?’ or ‘what-happened-nexts?’ Sometimes it’s stuff out of history (and that can be a ballache, given the need to research, although the internet makes it a lot easier – to the point that you can get happily lost in the highways and byways of it, forever clicking just one more hyperlink on Wikipedia to learn about this or that.)

Disasters often catch my attention, though not always the obvious ones: the Titanic fell through my personal brain filter whole, but the R.101 airship stuck, resulting in a book I can’t seem to sell and an ability to put people into a light coma by telling them stuff about airships that they never knew and never particularly wanted to.

Big things, little things, without rhyme or reason. The latest among them is a young woman who died thirty-one years before I was born. Her name was Caroline Trayler.

You’ll read about Caroline Ellen Trayler, nee Stapleton, in a number of true crime books. One or two of them may even have a picture of her. But – at least in Britain – you’ll be hard-pressed to find one on the internet. There's one here - which I was unable to copy - but it won't show up on Google Image searches. I'll have more to say about that shortly.

Caroline was eighteen years old, with auburn hair. She was a very pretty, even beautiful, young woman; she’d just married Sergeant Edgar Trayler, of the Durham Light Infantry, who’d shortly after been posted to North Africa. Lonely and bored, she was a popular girl in the dance halls in Folkestone, rarely without a dancing partner. How much further it went than that is debatable, but on Sunday 13th June, 1943, when she left the Mechanics Arms pub on the arm of a soldier on leave, it went far enough. She was never seen alive again.

Caroline’s body was found four days later in an abandoned shop. She’d been raped and strangled, and her wedding and engagement rings taken. Gunner Dennis Edmund Leckey, originally from Manchester, now of the Royal Artillery, went AWOL the same day. He admitted leaving the pub with Caroline, but claimed she’d been alive when they parted. He’d run off because he was overcome with guilt at his infidelity and wanted to get home and tell his wife. The claim might have been more believable had Leckey not been in another woman’s bed two nights after Caroline Trayler’s death. A friend testified Leckey had shown him an engagement ring he claimed another woman had given him.

Leckey was convicted and sentenced to hang, but the sentence was quashed on appeal. The judge, in his summing-up, made much of the fact that when picked up, Leckey had refused to speak until his solicitor was there. A guilty man might well have more to fear from the truth than an innocent one, but – at least in those days – the law was clear that no inference of guilt could be drawn from a suspect exercising his perfectly legal right to silence.

In the films, of course, blatantly guilty men escape justice on some tiny technicality all the time. Just as all a psychopathic killer needs to do is hire a smart lawyer and the copper’s hands are tied, and there’s always a ticking clock, somewhere, that means we’ve just got to throw the Declaration of Human Rights out of the window and torture this suspect. That’s in the films. In real life, it almost never happens. Almost.

That one technicality – an inexplicable error in an experienced, well-respected judge’s summing-up – meant that Dennis Edmund Leckey walked free. No-one else was ever charged with Caroline Trayler’s murder, for the excellent reason that the killer had, almost certainly, been caught already... and then got away with it.

Caroline’s husband went AWOL too, rushing home when he heard of his wife’s murder. And Leckey? Well, a copy of The London Gazette dated 11th February 1944 declares thata Dennis Edmund Leckey – of Manchester, currently serving with thearmed forces – was changing his name to Haines. A question on agenealogy forum mentions a Dennis Edmund Leckey dying in 1997. (Interestingly, another Dennis Leckey, also from the Ashton-under-Lyne area where Gunner Leckey originated, was convicted of multiplecounts of child abuse in 1997.)

But there’s very little else. And if you type the names of either killer or victim into Google and search for images of them, you’ll find none. You will find a note at the bottom of the Google search page telling you that some results may have been removed under European data protection law. When you follow the link to learn more, you’ll see it refers to the right to be forgotten.

Given just how much a complete stranger can learn about you through those means, it’s no bad thing that you can effectively make your personal data invisible to web searches. It’s still out there, of course, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to find. And of course, if you have had something like a wrongful murder conviction hanging over you, you might well want to exercise that right.

Maybe Caroline’s family wanted her to be forgotten, rather than have her cruel and ugly death dragged out into public view. Or maybe it was to protect the man convicted of her murder. In which case – as her name would invariably come up in connection with his – Dennis Leckey, or those acting on his posthumous behalf, have largely erased Caroline Trayler. You could almost say that for the second time, he killed her and got away with it scot-free.

This is the kind of thing that sticks in my personal ‘filter’, anyway. It’ll probably become a story at some point.

The right to be forgotten is one thing; being condemned to it is something else. Caroline Trayler didn’t deserve to die that way, didn’t deserve to have her killer escape justice. No-one can do anything about that now – unless you believe in an afterlife – but she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten either. Whatever I write will be a tiny act of commemoration, like a candle lit in memory.

You might ask – quite reasonably – why I feel that way about one of the millions of the world’s dead – a woman I never knew, dead three decades before I even popped out into the world. But I can’t give you an answer to that. Any more than I can answer why her case, out of so many others in a true crime book, stuck in my memory. Why I wrote a novel about R.101 and not the Titanic. Why I write ghost stories instead of Westerns, crime stories instead of romances.

It’s just the way I’m built.

I can live with that.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Black Static #43

A belated note to say that Black Static #43 is out, including my story Night Templar.

There's also a host of other fiction, like Ralph Robert Moore's novelette Drown Town, Andrew Hook's Black Lung, Annie Neugebauer's Hide, Aliya Whiteley's Many Eyed Monsters and - my personal favourite - Usman Tanveer Malik's Ishq. All the stories are good, Drown Town is excellent, but Ishq is one of my favourite stories this year.

Also book reviews by Peter Tennant, including an interview with James Cooper, and movie reviews by Tony Lee.

The two columns are Coffinmaker's Blues by Stephen Volk and Blood Pudding by Lynda E. Rucker - two of the finest practising writers of dark fiction, and two consistently intelligent and interesting commentators on the field. Volk's piece is about writer's block, which is something I'd thought I never got. You're having problems with the writing, you turn up and you write and you keep trying till you get somewhere. But as Volk points out, writer's block isn't having no stories to tell, but the constant, insidious dread that you can't do it, you aren't up to it, that you're used up or burnt out or that even your best achievements are really just gimcrack, poor quality shadows of far better writers' work. It's a painfully honest and illuminating piece.

Rucker offers a piece on the use of H.P. Lovecraft as the face of the World Fantasy Award, in a peace showing the balance and nuance that has been lacking in too many commentaries. I saw Daniel Older's petition to remove HPL's likeness from the award, and a counter-petition to keep it. I didn't sign the petition demanding HPL's removal, not least because it described him as a 'terrible wordsmith', which is PC asshattery of the worst kind - 'he was a racist, so he must be a bad writer!' But I wasn't signing the one to keep him, either, since that descended into a cretinous anti-feminist rant that like the flowers that bloom in the spring, (tra-la) had nothing to do with the case.

The conversation about this started when Nnedi Okorafor won the WFA for her novel Who Fears Death. If you haven't read Who Fears Death, then I highly recommend that you do. It is a superb novel - visionary, beautiful, brilliant, and different. Whether you call it SF or Fantasy, it adds something new and fascinating to the field. When idiots bitch about women, or people of colour, coming to play in the SF/F/H sandpit, I think about books like this. The fiction we love is better for having those different voices in it; we might actually learn to be better people from it.

Okorafor, incidentally, didn't explicitly call for HPL's head to be taken off the award. You can - and should - read her blog on the subject here. And - I'll say it again - you should also read Who Fears Death, because it's great.

What she said about the award, though, was this:

"This is something people of color, women, minorities must deal with more than most when striving to be the greatest that they can be in the arts: The fact that many of The Elders we honor and need to learn from hate or hated us

Do I want “The Howard” (the nickname for the World Fantasy Award statuette. Lovecrafts full name is “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”) replaced with the head of some other great writer? Maybe. Maybe its about that time. Maybe not. What I know I want it to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that... as opposed to never mention it or explain it away. If Lovecraft’s likeness and name are to be used in connection to the World Fantasy Award, I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented racist."

That's the kind of nuance that is needed (and that Lynda's Black Static article brings to the debate.) . Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a brilliant, important writer in our field. He was also a hateful and poisonous racist. He was not 'a man of his time' or any such hogwash; even by the standards of his day he had a virulent and uncompromising hatred of black people (and most other non-white, or non-'Nordic' ethnicities and cultures.) Also, the 1920s and 1930s, when Lovecraft wrote, was a period of great social change; the great civil rights struggles of the '60s were far off but the NAACP had been around since 1909 and had begun to make significant progress, to say nothing of the Tuskegee Institute. Many of the NAACP's early prime movers were white. Whites in the US no longer had the excuse of ignorance.

The problem with Lovecraft, I suggest, is not that he was a racist, nor that his racism erupts spectacularly and vilely in many of his stories. It isn't even that you will, try as you might, search his stories in vain for a single black character who isn't portrayed as a subhuman near-animal (his prose might have evolved since he wrote the poem quoted in Okorafor's blog, but his views didn't - letters from Sonia Greene, his ex-wife, indicated that his racism - in particular his anti-Semtism - was in fact one of the main reasons for their marriage's failure.) I suggest the problem is that without the racism - or without the mindset from which his racism inevitably sprang - he wouldn't have been able to write his fiction.

Consider: Lovecraft grew up in genteel poverty; while not rich, he was surrounded by the extensive Whipple Phillips library. He became deeply erudite and spent much of his childhood alone, in self-constructed fantasy worlds. And then he found himself in the real world, forced to try and make a living - a loud, crude, different place. 

I recall Lovecraft being once described as 'omniphobic' - he feared virtually everything that wasn't himself, that was outside his own narrow comfort zone. It's not a bad description, and xenophobia and racism are well-nigh inevitable products of such a mindset. Such a person might not be someone you'd want to meet (although Lovecraft in person was apparently a gentle and amiable character), but who better to convey - to viscerally feel - the concept of humankind as very alone and very small and vulnerable and helpless, in a universe at best indifferent and at worst hostile?

Complex. But so is life. The sooner we accept that - and that it isn't a choice between acquitting Lovecraft of racism on the one hand, or subjecting him to a literary damnatio memoriae on the other - then I suspect the happier we'll be.