Month: September 2011

There’s Something About Michael…

Today, interestingly enough, is Michaelmas, the feast day of the archangel Michael.

He’s my favourite. Well, one of them. Yes, I’m allowed to have favourite angels.

What?

Essentially being the alpha-angel, legend and scripture between them record a long list of his attributes.

For instance, we all know that Michael is the one who defeated Lucifer – but did you know that when he weeps, his tears turn to gemstones? (Or, slightly more alarmingly, cherubim?)

He’s connected to knowledge, to light, patience and repentance; righteousness, mercy and sanctification. He assisted in the burial of Moses and depending on who you’re reading, technically it’s Michael who holds the keys to the gates of Heaven… and not St Peter.

That last one does rather make sense: if you’re going to have a bouncer on the door, you want someone who’s not afraid of a fight. And preferably carries a sword.

I’ve collected images and descriptions of Michael for a while now – but my favourite comes from Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion & Ethics, where he’s described in one early tradition as having wings the colour of “green emerald”, as well as being covered “with saffron hairs, each of them containing a million faces and mouths and as many tongues”. You can see why most people opt for the more familiar armour / sword portrayal, can’t you?

Once, he was also associated (benevolently) with death: he was the one who would lead the souls of the faithful into Heaven – and perhaps this is why he is sometimes also referred to as the angel who foretells Mary’s death.

Chief of the order of the virtues, chief of the archangels, prince of the presence and ruler of the 4th Heaven: with a list of titles like that, he must have one hell of a business card.

Happy Michaelmas.

Building a Book

Solaris security. He is the law.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that I had an exciting excursion to Oxford last week. (For some reason, I now have a chorus of voices repeating “all the way to Oxford!” in a pseudo-Stardust style. Ah yes: I remember why. I’m a Gaiman-fangirl. That’ll be it. Anyway, moving on.)

I was in Oxford to visit the office of Solaris Books, who will be publishing “Blood & Feathers” next year, and to meet with the editorial team to talk about stuff, nonsense and the book–as well as to discuss some ideas for covers. Was I excited? What do you think?

And, yes, while I was there, I did get a chance to relieve the groaning office bookshelves of a few choice items… I’m doing them a favour, really. Honestly.

Besides, I did take cakes.

Jon Oliver: Captain of the Good Ship Solaris

I feel exceptionally lucky to have landed with the Solaris team; I mean, I already felt incredibly lucky that something I’ve worked so hard on, and which means so much to me, is being published at all–and I keep wondering whether it’s all a bit of a dream, really, and hoping no-one pinches me!

But above and beyond that, I’m very happy to have the opportunity to work with such passionate people who encourage their writers every step of the way–and have so far allowed me to stick my nose into the business left, right and centre.

Take the cover, for instance.

They’ve gone out of their way to involve me in cover art discussions… although, disappointingly, I was told in no uncertain terms that no, a cover featuring a sparkly pink angel-unicorn riding a tentacle-covered tank was not going to cut the mustard with distributors. I’m thinking: maybe for the next one?

*The* Ben Smith: knower of things, keeper of answers; sometime crusher of unicorns.

I was a bit daunted by the prospect of getting involved in the cover. It’s such a big deal these days: how do you come up with a single image to fit an entire book?

And if that whole “picture’s worth a thousand words” thing is true, don’t we need, like, a hundred of them?

Where do you even start (particularly when, like me, you got a C in GCSE Art–which if you’re entirely honest, you’ll admit you only took because it got you out of playing netball for two years)?

Jenni Hill: I could tell you what she's busy editing, but then she'd have to kill you. And me. *Messily*.

Thus far, though, unicorn/tank issues aside (seriously. I’m having that on something. It’s genius) everyone has been amazing: providing exactly the right combination of hand-patting and “don’t-be-so-bloody-stupid”-ing.

Possibly the most surreal moment of the afternoon came when it dawned on me that I was sitting with a group of people who had all read my book. All of them. And–apparently–rather liked it. Not only that, but suddenly it struck me that it wasn’t just mine any more–it was theirs too.

I had a bit of a wibble then, and had to hang on to the edge of my chair so I didn’t fall off.

The mellifluous David Moore: easily recognisable from the Abaddon & Solaris Podcast (or, if you were there, FCon 2010's metal karaoke...)

I had a good poke around the office, and we talked about the books they’re working on at the moment (I’m desperate to read one in particular: Gaie Sebold‘s “Babylon Steel“, due out in January next year) as well as The Actual Business Of Publishing, about which it turns out I know absolutely nothing.

Then they let me loose on the bookshelves…

It’s a nice feeling, this. I could get used to it.

By the way, I should point out that some of the Solaris team will be at Fantasycon at the end of this month, and they’ll be holding a special event on the Saturday afternoon (2 – 3pm in the Royal Albion’s Regency Lounge). Come along, say hello and pick up a book or two. I should warn you: I might well be there, but don’t let that put you off.

If you’re London-based, too, next Tuesday (September 27th) sees the launch of the latest Solaris anthology, “House of Fear” at Foyles on Charing Cross Road. It’s a ticketed event (although tickets are free) so make sure you reserve a spot if you’re thinking of coming.

And, apropos of absolutely nothing at all, here’s an Elliot Minor video. The song? Why, that’d be “Solaris”, of course…

Bread of Heaven?

Here’s something new and exciting I learned about this week: funeral biscuits. Well, when I say new and exciting, I mean that it’s something I’d never come across before, and the concept is a fascinating one.

I stumbled across a mention of “arval bread” in relation to biscuits either eaten at, or after a funeral (it was all a little vague)–or in some cases, given out beforehand as a sort of invitation–and, because I’m a nosey old soul, I had a poke around the internet to see what it could tell me.

Arval bread is, in fact, quite often a kind of biscuit, particularly associated with Yorkshire funeral customs in the 18th & 19th Centuries. The biscuits were small, usually flavoured with caraway or molasses, and wrapped in paper (sometimes printed with lines from a hymn or Psalm) and sealed with black wax. The specific recipes used varied wildly, even from town to town, as did the time & method of distribution. In some cases, the biscuits were more like small cakes; in others they resemble shortbread or oatcakes, stamped with cherubs, hearts, crosses or death-heads, and were served with a type of sweetened spiced (and occasionally “burned”) wine.  All the combinations, however, connect to ancient funeral practices found on the Continent.

The term “arval” appears to stem from the Nordic tradition of providing  “averil”, or “heir-ale” at a funeral, toasting the eldest male and heir to the household or title as he took possession of his inheritance.

In the Germany of the Middle Ages, there was a slightly different tradition: that of the “corpse cake”. Here, mourners would gather at the home of the deceased for the laying out of the body, and the traditional wake (which, of course, was once a vigil lasting the night before the funeral). Once the corpse had been washed and arranged, a dough was prepared and then placed on the linen-covered corpse’s chest and left to rise. It was believed that the dough would absorb some of the deceased’s qualities, which would in turn be passed on to the mourners when they ate the bread, recalling both the superstition of sin-eating, and the ritual of ceremonial cannabalism.

The tradition spread to the US with settlers: recipes from Dutch communities in the Hudson River Valley (a place with a reputation for the gothic, thanks to Washington Irving’s “Legend of Sleepy Hollow“) survive, and describe the preparation of “doot coekjes” or “death cookies”.

With the progression of the Victorian Age, funerals–like weddings–became a commercial enterprise, and just as wedding cakes were big business, so were funeral biscuits. However, unlike wedding cakes, the funeral biscuit began, appropriately, to die out, and “averils” became entire meals: funeral feasts and teas… which have, in turn, become the modern wakes we recognise today.

(The accompanying picture, by the way, is of funeral biscuits reproduced by Historic Faux Foods: a research project which aims to accurately reproduce historical foods & room settings for museums and other exhibitions). You can find bits on funeral biscuits here, here and here; as well as a fascinating blog post about funeral food, which goes on to talk about Southern funeral cooking, and which can be found here.

The A-Z of Fantasycon

It’s not long now until Fantasycon, and I’ve noticed a lot of people on Twitter talking about it… including lots of people saying it’s their first one, and wondering what it’s going to be like. So, if you’re an FCon newbie, this is for you.

A: the Royal Albion. This year’s convention hotel is bang in the middle of Brighton, and overlooks the world-famous Palace Pier. Everything you could possibly need over the course of the weekend is within easy walking distance – although as anyone who went to World Horror there in 2010 will tell you, do give yourself a chance to get used to the slightly… eccentric layout! Yes, half the rooms are in the basement, and yes, the lift is the teeny-tiniest known to man (and–according to some who attended WHC–haunted) but you know what? It doesn’t matter. You can’t beat the view.

B: the British Fantasy Society. Fantasycon is the annual convention of the BFS – which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. The Society publishes its own quarterly Journal, available to members only, and holds regular Open Nights, particularly in London, which are always well-attended.

C: Vincent Chong.  Multiple-time British Fantasy Award winner, and one of sthis year’s World Fantasy Award nominees, Vincent Chong will, along with other artists, be taking part in “Artists’ Row”. There’s artwork on display and prints for sale: the Fantasycon art show is always strong, so make sure you find time to look around.

D: Dealers’ Room. No convention is complete without a Dealers’ Room, and FCon is no exception. Here you’ll find all manner of books, as well as small presses and the ever-popular Forbidden Planet table.

E: Eating. One of the highlights of Fantasycon is the awards Banquet, which takes place on the Sunday afternoon. It’s always fun, and even if you’re on your own, it’s a great way to start the build-up to the awards. You never know: you might be sitting next to a winner…

F: Finalists. Straight after the Banquet, it’s the British Fantasy Awards. These are closely-fought, and voted for by the membership of the BFS as well as attendees of this & the previous Fantasycon. The list of nominees for 2011 can be found here.

G: Guests. Every convention needs guests – and Fantasycon is no exception. This year’s line-up is incredible, and includes Gwyneth Jones, Joe Abercrombie, Christopher Paolini and more.

H: History of Fantasycon. It’s a special year for the BFS, and a special year for Fantasycon, too. As part of the weekend programming, keep an eye out for the “History of Fantasycon” item. You’re it’s present, but where has it come from… and what about its future?

I: Interviews & Panels: obviously, you don’t just come to Fantasycon to sit in the bar. Well, some of you do. But mostly, you come for the programming. And with the guests taking part in a wide range of programming–covering everything from editorial practice and the importance of online presence in modern publishing, to comics and SFF–and guest of honour interviews, there’s bound to be something to interest you.

J: Join in. It can be daunting coming to a convention, especially if it’s your first one or you’re coming alone. But don’t panic! Fantasycon is friendly, and there’s always bound to be someone else in the same boat. Get involved. Go to readings, join in the Q&A sessions, the film screenings, the entertainment. Without you, Fantasycon wouldn’t exist. Make the most of it!

K: Paul Kane. Paul is one of this year’s FCon committee, and a familiar face on the convention circuit. He’s also our resident Hellraiser expert: what he doesn’t know about it… well, we’re not sure there is anything he doesn’t know about it. And if you’ve not come across the Arrowhead trilogy (his re-invention of Robin Hood), you’re bound to have come across his short stories. Say hello if you run into him over the weekend… if nothing else, you can always pick his brains about Pinhead.

L: Launches. Fantasycon is legendary for its launches. PS Publishing, Angry Robot, Screaming Dreams and many other houses will be launching new books–not to mention the launch & signing of this year’s edition of the famous “Best New Horror”. On top of that, there’s the Quercus party for Jo Fletcher Books, and the Solaris event where you’ll have the chance to pick up some of their newest titles (and trust me, you’re going to want these.)

M: Mass Signing. Each year, FCon arranges the mass signing. There’s a lot of authors in the convention membership, and you probably have some of their books. In fact, you probably have a lot of their books (and if you don’t, there’s always the Dealers’ Room, right?). This is your chance to get that precious copy signed.

N: Newbies. Everyone has a first time at a convention, and yes, it can be a little confusing. That’s OK. This year, as every year, there’s a corner of the convention just for you: Newbies Corner. Any worries, questions or disasters–now matter how large or small–this is the place to go. You may not need it, but it’ll be there if you do.

O: Outside. There’s so much going on over the weekend that you may not think you’ll get out of the hotel. But if you do, there’s a lot to see. Brighton’s a fantastic city, and the Palace Pier with its arcades, fairground and–yes–ghost train–is at least worth a look. Further up the beach, you can see the skeleton of the old West Pier: now, sadly derelict, but more striking than ever. Go for a stroll in the Pavilion Gardens or wander round the Lanes–the notoriously twisty streets are all that’s left of Brighton’s original streetplan. And if you’re really feeling brave, there’s always one of the regular Ghost Walks

P: Sarah Pinborough. We’re very lucky this year to have the inimitable Sarah Pinborough as our Mistress of Ceremonies. Laden with awards and nominations, she’s written horror, thrillers, short stories, tie-in novels and has recently ventured into YA. She’s also a genuinely lovely lady, and is bound to make things go glamorously!

Q: Quercus. Quercus is fast-becoming one of the publishers to watch. And they’ll be at Fantasycon to launch their new imprint, Jo Fletcher Books–headed, of course, by Jo Fletcher. Several Quercus authors will also be at the convention.

R: Ramsey Campbell. Ramsey is the President of the BFS, and renowned for his horror fiction, which continues to influence so many of today’s writers. Catch his late-night reading if you can…

S: Society membership. This is the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society, and as always there will be a BFS table. Here you can get copies of the Society’s publications (which cover books and the regular Journal) or, if you’d like to join, sign up for membership. And even if you don’t, you should head over and say hi. They don’t bite…. hard.

T: Team. Like all conventions, FCon relies on a team of volunteers to run smoothly. From the committee–organising the hotel, the programming and the whole shebang–to the runners on the ground: managing registration, wrangling guests and generally running themselves ragged, they work incredibly hard to make sure everyone has a good time. Be nice to them, give them a smile and if you’re enjoying yourself, let them know!

U: Underground. Yes, alright. It’s tenuous, I know, but make sure you do venture downstairs in the Albion. It’s very tempting to spend the whole time on the one level, but there’s stuff happening in the ever-so-slightly creepy basement too. And (top tip) that’s where the loos are! 😉

V: Voices. Another feature of the Fantasycon programme is the readings. Throughout the weekend, authors will be giving readings (and, time permitting, a short Q&A) from works present or future. Catch a reading of an old favourite, or sneak a preview of something new. The reading programme promises to be as eclectic as the guests.

W: Workshops. This year, FCon is running several “Masterclasses”, covering how to work with agents, comics, screenwriting… all aspects of the publishing profession. The workshops are small, and space limited. See here for further details.

X: Extra-curricular. No, not just the bar (you’re spotting a pattern here, aren’t you?). In the evenings, as well as readings and panels, you’ll find entertainment included in the programming. Look out for the film screenings, the quiz, the raffle (oh, god. The raffle! You see, there’s raffles, and there’s the Fantasycon raffle. Just go along. You’ll understand…) and a host of other surprises!

Y: YA. Young Adult literature is one of modern publishing’s phenomena. Hugely popular, often controversial, and arguably read by as many adults as teens, it will be covered in programming, and signings. Several YA authors will be attending throughout the weekend, so if there’s anything you’ve ever wanted to ask them, here’s your chance.

Z: Zzzz. Sleep. You won’t get much. But that’s what next week is for, right?

So, there you go. That’s an entirely subjective, purely personal guide to Fantasycon for you. It’s a lot of fun, and while every year is different, it still has the same spirit.

And if you still want to know what it’s like, you can always read my write-up of last year’s FCon, in Nottingham.

More than anything, relax, and enjoy yourself. You’ve going to have a great time.

Guest blogging at Floor to Ceiling Books

My good friend (and cohort in Genre for Japan earlier this year!) Amanda Rutter, who runs the Floor to Ceiling Books site, has taken a well-earned holiday. As I type, I think she’s clearing the shelves of all the merchandise at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and hurling herself merrily round a terrifying assortment of rollercoasters and park rides in the USA.

In the meantime, she’s invited a bunch of people to guest-post on her blog – and one of them is me! You can read my Harry Potter-flavoured post on Slytherin’s role in the Harry Potter saga here.

(And if you’re wondering, the photo accompanying the article was taken at some point over the Eastercon weekend this year: those two fine gentlemen sitting on the sofa are Adam Christopher in the red, and Gareth L. Powell in the blue. If you bump into them at a convention, make sure you say hello – they’re both absolutely lovely).

And it’s well worth checking back at Amanda’s blog over the next few weeks, too: just because she’s away, it doesn’t mean things will be quiet. There are some brilliant guest bloggers coming up…

Pandemonium 2: the Pimpening.

You remember me mentioningPandemonium“: the end-of-the-world anthology that Jared & Anne from Pornokitsch are putting together, don’t you?

Of course you do.

Well, I’m mentioning it again. Mostly because, err, I’ll be in it, along with some (frankly) embarrassingly good people.

Two New Contributors

We’re pleased to announce that Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse has two further contributors:

Scott K. Andrews has written episode guides, magazine articles, film and book reviews, comics, audio plays for Big Finish, far too many blogs, some poems you will never read, and three novels for Abaddon (includingChildren’s Crusade, a 2010 Kitschies finalist).

Louise Morgan has plenty of experience when it comes to making things up: just ask her son about the Plughole Monsters who live under the bathroom sink. Her short stories have been published by the British Fantasy Society, Morpheus Tales and Hub Magazine, and her novelBlood and Feathers will be published by Solaris Books in 2012.

Scott and Lou have given us very different looks at the apocalypse. To say more would spoil it, but you may never look at a John Martin painting in the same way again.

I’m incredibly excited to be involved in this, and had a lot of fun working on my story. I can’t wait for you all to be able to read it.

Seriously. You don’t even know the half of it…

 

Now, has anyone seen my shoes? The ones with the really big heels. With goldfish in them….

 

Collected Assassinations 2: A Stab in the Dark

Wow. You guys loved that “collective noun for assassins” question that Jenni posed the other day.

I don’t blame you: I loved it too.

I promised I’d collate the ideas people came up with (which were mainly via Twitter & Facebook). So.

We had a creep, a betrayal and a bastard of assassins; a bleed, a cache, a nest (like vipers, only with swords and stuff?) and a pocket of them – a veritable deathmatch, then a mark, and a target of assassins.

(We also had “a sleeve of men-at-arms”, which is up there with my favourite things ever).

However, the most popular by far was a “stealth of assassins“, and if you’re going to crowdsource grammar, I guess the popular vote must be the winner. Now there’s a thing I never thought I’d say.

So, a group of assassins must be, and henceforth will rightly be called… a stealth of assassins. On this blog, anyway.

(Bonus points also go to a massively jet-lagged Adam Christopher, who went straight to the heart of the issue with his customary laser-like insight, proclaiming the correct answer to be: “a bunch of assassins.” We’ll let him off this time, won’t we?)

Any more for any more? Going once… twice…….

Collected Assassinations

“Is there a collective noun for assassins?” asks Jenni Hill on Twitter.

Good question.

The first thing I can think of is borrowed from crows: “a murder of assassins” sounds right… and I reckon this is the very first thought that popped into your head too.

But I love collective nouns – particularly ones which aren’t actually real – so I can’t quite stop thinking about this one.

So far, I’ve come up with “a stealth”, “an abdication”, “a violence” and “a whisper” of assassins. But my favourite is probably “a pratchett of assassins”, because it’s just *right*.

Mind you, whether it’s a murder, a violence or a full-blown pratchett of assassins, I don’t think I’d want to meet them in a darkened alley. Not unless I had a bristling of swords on my side…

What about you? What are your favourite non-existent collective nouns… and how would you answer Jenni?

Leave a comment, and I’ll collect the best ones that have come in via the blog & Twitter!