Travel

Steel Rails

I’ve been spending a lot of time on trains lately. A lot. Might-as-well-just-install-a-bed level time. And I can work on trains a bit, but it’s admittedly a touch difficult to concentrate when the four-year old in the seat behind you is playing some kind of piano simulator on a tablet at high volume, and their dad is catching up on the football on his phone at equally high volume. So mostly I look out of the window when I can.

(Don’t judge me: that particular journey started at 6.30am with 4 hours sleep, 3 changes and the joy of paying £3.50 for a cup of tea when I finally cracked and decided that if I didn’t have one Something Bad was likely to happen. I was a joy that morning.)

But – noise and, you know, humans, aside – I quite like trains. I like being able to watch the world slide past the windows; because it always feels like it’s the world passing by rather than you passing through. Maybe it’s something to do with the size and the shape of the windows, which make everything outside feel like a projection simply being wheeled past you. I always get the feeling that if you were to open the window and pick up the corner of the view, you’d find an old-style cinema projectionist back there, turning a handle and watching for the cigarette burns to mark the reel switch.

Trees. Forests. Fields. Hills. Rivers. Tunnels.

Houses, back gardens. Kitchen windows.

Someone, years ago – it might have been Billy Connolly, it might have been someone else – said in an interview that they loved taking the train: people shield their lives from the road with blinds or net curtains in the windows… but they don’t bother to hide it from the railway. And ever since then, I’ve looked.

Football goals. Paddling pools. Terraces festooned with bunting and fairy lights.

Sidings with elaborate swags of carved greenery, half-buried in renegade ivy and Japanese knotweed. So many blackberries on tangles of brambles that the leaves have turned purple from the juice. Butterflies dancing around a bush.

Mist and swathes of drifting drizzle. Slices of sunlight across the fields so thick you could pick them up in your fist and watch the light pour out between your fingers. Sheep: little clouds fallen to earth. Cows like… well, like cows, really.

People running. People walking dogs, riding horses. Children. Dads playing football with their kids; mums scooping babies out of pushchairs… and dads scooping babies out of pushchairs and mums playing football with their kids.

Life. Sunsets and sunrises and everything that falls between the two. Moons and mist and dusk and dawn. Houses and mountains, cities and forests and farms.

There for the blink of an eye and then gone. All those lives. All those individual little worlds within one big wide world.

All sliding by on the steel rails.

And when we get to my stop and I shuffle out, down along the platform, the train pulls out alongside me… and as it does, a man in the window of one of the carriages catches my eye. Because he’s doing the same thing: watching all those worlds slip by.

And then he’s gone. And so is the train.

What a thing.

Still. £3.50 for a cup of tea. Pffft.

Advertisements

The Coming Storm

I’ve got a few festival appearances coming up over the next couple of months, as well as a couple of other bits and pieces, so it’s probably time for a quick update. (I’ll put relevant dates on the “Events” page too.)

YALC (Young Adult Literature Convention) 2015

Friday 17th July, 2.30 – 3.15.

I’ll be appearing on the “Thrills & Chills: Writing Horror” panel with Will Hill, Darren Shan, Dawn Kurtagich and Matt Whyman, discussing why we love horror, why we write it and why it’ll always be popular. This will be followed up by a signing.

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Tuesday 25th August, 7.00 – 8.00

I’m hugely excited about this, as it’s the first year I’ll be at Edinburgh. Join myself and Kevin Brooks to talk about the darker side of the subjects that can crop up in contemporary YA: boredom, destruction, stress and fear.

The Telegraph Bath Children’s Literature Festival

Saturday 3rd October, 6.30 – 7.30

This feels very like my “home” festival: I’ve been going to the Bath Children’s Litfest for a couple of years now, and it always feels special. This time, however, I’ll be on the stage as well as in the audience, in conversation with YA horror superstars Charlie Higson and Darren Shan as we look at the enduring appeal of zombies and how they’ve brought a fresh spin to everybody’s favourite shambling flesh-eaters in their new books.

YA Shot

Wednesday 28th October

YA Shot is a one-day festival of YA & MG literature organised by author Alexia Casale, Hillingdon Borough Libraries and Waterstones Uxbridge. Details TBC.

 

On the writing front, I’m delighted to have a story in the forthcoming “Legends 2: Stories in Honour of David Gemmell” anthology, alongside fantastic authors like John Gwynne, Rowena Cory Daniels and Mark Lawrence. (A paperback and a limited-edition signed copy are available from Spacewitch Books).

I don’t venture into the epic and heroic very often, so this is a new sphere for me. However, I’m a big fan of the Gemmell Awards and the work they do, and I was delighted to be asked to contribute and to be able to support them. My story, “Oak”, is set just after the Norman invasion and coronation of William I, and both something completely new and very old: it was inspired by some of the legends of a very well-known (perhaps the most well-known) sorcerer from the area where I grew up. No pointy hats, I promise.

 

Diouz a reoh, e kavoh

I said I’d be back, didn’t I? And threatened to tell you all about this staircase:

locronan stairs

I’m a (wo)man of my word.

It’s in an old house in a place called Locronan in Brittany, and it’s where I set my contribution to the new URBAN MYTHIC 2 anthology from Alchemy Press. The idea was for each story in there – while obviously being different – to update an existing myth or legend and bring it into the 21st Century.

Being a macabre sort (well, I do write horror too, y’know) I’ve always been fascinated by the Breton legend of the Ankou. While there’s plenty of psychopomp figures in myth – and more than a few skeletal grim reapers – the cult of the Ankou is peculiar to Brittany.

I’ve already talked a little about the legend and the idea behind the story here – where you’ll also see an ancient picture of me, taken in the basement vaults of our old house in Brighton. It’s “moody” because it’s about three degrees and I have water dripping down the back of my neck… – but what appeals to me about the Ankou is his impermanence. He changes with the year, and there’s something very human about that as well as something transformative. It’s the kind of idea that gets under my skin and sticks.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the region, but I still did a fair amount of reading around by way of research (any excuse), both of collected legends and collected folktales and responses to them.

books

(Just out of shot, my well-chewed Breton-French and French-English dictionaries. And a really big pile of headache pills…)

As soon as I knew I wanted to write about the Ankou, I wanted the story to happen in Locronan. It’s a very small town perched high up on a hill, and it’s very deliberately kept as traditional as possible – particularly the town square. As a result, it feels like – tourists aside – you’ve fallen through some kind of wormhole into a recent past that won’t ever quite rest, but hangs around the corners of the square smoking and being disreputable. It’s the perfect setting for a story which is all about the past and how it creeps through into the present.

In particular, I’ve always loved the house in this photo – now a bookshop dedicated to Breton and Celtic mythology, but like most of the houses in Locronan, it may well have once belonged to a weaver (the production of textiles, and sailcloth in particular, made Locronan an important place back in the day).

Somewhat fittingly for a story about the unreliability of memory, I seem to remember that once there was a loom on the ground floor… but I can’t be sure. When I went back this summer, if there ever had been a loom, it’s long gone.

locronan librarie

Either way, that’s where the story came from: a story about memory and family and death and life… and the Ankou, who warns us all that we weave our own reckoning: “according to your work, your reward”.

And, as it’s me, and there’s always a song the story sounds a little like this…

 

 

They Bought A Zoo

In the Devon countryside, there is a house.

It sits at the top of a long, narrow drive, on the side of a hill; just outside the village of Sparkwell, looking across fields and hills and (this weekend, at least) banks of low-lying cloud, mist and drizzle.

And living in the garden of this house, there are animals.

Lions, tigers and bears, to be precise.

Because this house is at the heart of Dartmoor Zoological Park.

You may well have heard of it – even if you think you haven’t.

 

I fell in love with the story of the zoo when I read its owner, Benjamin Mee’s book last year, and this played a large part in our rolling up to Dartmoor in the middle of a not-so-gentle April shower yesterday, wellies and all. I’m glad we did.

lionEven in the rain, the atmosphere is lovely: some of the animals may be ensconced in their houses (lynx, I’m looking squarely at you. Don’t think I didn’t see you in the doorway) but the keepers are incredibly friendly and approachable and even the drizzle’s not enough to put Josie the lion off her food.

We arrived just in time to see her being fed, as two of the big cat keepers (with two “keepers for a day” assisting) hung a sack filled with her food in a tree in her enclosure. It lasted about a minute and a half before she’d torn down the meat pinata and carried her lunch off to the back of her space to eat in peace.

The keepers explained that she’s only fed every other day in an attempt to keep her lifestyle as close as it can possibly be to the one she would have in the wild – so rain or not, we were pretty lucky.

The rain didn’t seem to bother the newly-introduced Iberian wolves, either, one of whom was asleep at the back of their enclosure.

Having read We Bought A Zoo, one of the animals I really did want to see was Sovereign, the park’s jaguar.

I don’t know a huge amount about jaguars – except that they’re clever. Having seen him wandering around his enclosure, looking straight back at us, I’m glad there was a barrier and a nice big moat between us. Yes. To say he’s intimidating is an understatement.

sovereign

It isn’t all about the big name animals at Dartmoor – although between the bears and the big cats, there are plenty. My little boy was especially taken with the peacock and (naturally) with the meerkats, whose last feed we just managed to catch at the end of the day. I’m always a sucker for the otters, and a soft touch for a capybara.

One of my favourite things about the day was the end of Westcountry Falconry’s display, held on the front lawn of the house. We missed most of it – but arrived just in time to meet Wendy the Striated Caracara, who trotted along behind her handler when he let her out of her aviary and immediately went to look under the picnic tables in case there was anything worth her time there. Anyone who doesn’t think birds have a personality clearly hasn’t met Wendy.

Education is a big feature of the zoo’s event programme, and this (plus the staff’s love for what they do) comes across in the “Close Encounters” sessions, when some of the zoo’s smaller residents come out to play.

We got to meet several of the reptiles, including a very inquisitive corn snake – and, after at least five minutes of dithering about it, even Small Boy was brave enough to stroke them all (and boy, did he feel proud of himself afterwards).

Dartmoor Zoo is an incredible place, with an incredible story. It’s easy to understand how someone could fall in love with it, and with the animals.

meerkatThe staff and keepers go out of their way to bring all the animals’ personalities to the fore: you aren’t just watching A Lion, you’re watching Josie, who loves her food but misses her mate, Solomon, who recently died.

You aren’t just watching a family of meerkats, you’re watching a pair with two babies who were born in mid-December (there were 3, but one of them contracted pneumonia and didn’t make it).

Likewise, Kevin the boa constrictor couldn’t take part in the “Close Encounters” talk because he was wrapped around his tree and had made it clear in the most snake-like way possible that no power on this earth was going to get him to unwrap himself, thankyouverymuch. They’re all treated as individuals and visitors are encouraged to remember that’s what they are.

If you can, go. You won’t regret it, and we’ll be going back – whether it’s raining or not.

If you can’t go, read the book. Think about donating, as it’s places like this which help to safeguard some of the world’s most endangered animals, and teach the next generation about the world around us. Long may they remain.

The Rough Guide to Hell

I hadn’t intended to (a) pop back on here quite so quickly, or (b) turn this into an unofficial “Hell Tourist Information Week” (which sounds so Screwtape-y that I refuse to believe Lewis didn’t already do it), but sometimes you find stuff that’s just a bit too cool to leave out.

So, following yesterday’s video of the door to hell, I now give you your map.

The Topography of Hell.

They say there’s a different version of hell for every soul who ever lived, and that may well be true. Medieval artists sure liked their representations of hell, but I certainly don’t think I’ve ever seen two that looked exactly the same as one another… especially not in the case of Jake & Dinos Chapman’s “Hell”, which I remember seeing as part of the Sensation exhibition years ago.

When I was coming up with mine, I went back to Dante, mostly. There were a few other places I looked for inspiration, but more of that another time: if anyone’s interested, I can do a separate post about hell in BLOOD AND FEATHERS….

Another post on the same site as the topography one poses the question “What does hell sound like?” – and that’s an interesting thought. Again, in my own version, it’s very, very quiet for the most part… but if you could record it, what do you think you’d get? (First person to say “Rebecca Black” gets a very stern look and has to go sit at the back of the class for the rest of the day).

I’m rather fond of the “Field Recordings from the Edge of Hell” album by way of answer.

Well.

I say “album”. What I actually mean is 8 hours‘ worth of ambient music and sound which ranges from mildly unsettling to really quite alarming by way of absolutely stunning… but is altogether genius. You can stream it, or download it for $1… but I’d recommend the streaming option wherever possible. Mostly because you’re looking at over a GIG of space…

So. Your own personal hell. If you were Dante, and could take a guided tour, what would you expect to see (or hear)?

Rue Morgue & the Door to Hell

I’ve been a bit sporadic on here of late – mostly because I’m seriously getting into REBELLION, the follow-up to BLOOD AND FEATHERS at the moment. So that means you’ll see less of me online. In theory. I still waste far too much time on Twitter, partly because it’s become my office watercooler, really, and if I didn’t have that I’d be reduced to just talking to the cat. Or possibly waiting for him to talk back to me.

Meantime, you can find me talking about BLOOD AND FEATHERS, Buffy and many other things in Hell’s Shelves, on the Rue Morgue site.

And for your very entertainment, seeing as we’ve mentioned the “H” word, might I present the “Door to Hell“?

It’s a crater in Turkmenistan, discovered when Soviet geologists were drilling for gas in the 1970s (or so the story goes). The ground beneath the rig collapsed, taking all the equipment with it. Fearing a poisonous gas discharge, the scientists decided to try and burn off as much as possible, assuming it would take a couple of days to burn out.

It’s still burning today.

S’mores, anyone?

Postcards from the Edge

My friend Will Hill went off on a big American road trip last year, and while this still leaves me gnawing my knuckles in envy, he’s written an amazing blog post on one part of his trip, over on his blog: his visit to (or as close to it as he could get!) Area 51.

So if you’ve ever wondered just what Dreamland really looks like, head over and have a read…

Lizards & baseball & witches. Oh my.

I said I’d do a catch-up kind of post, didn’t I? Best laid plans and all that.

Have a picture of a lizard, by way of apology.

That’s admittedly not the one which fell on my head while I was on holiday – but I can assure you that one did. It made a sort of rubbery, splatty noise, and I’m not sure which one of us was more startled. We both went on to make a full recovery.

And yes. I went on holiday. To what I can only describe as a version of the Lost island without the Others or the Smoke Monster.

Sadly, no Sawyer either. Boo. I know. I was as disappointed as you are.

What it did have, though, was a lot of sunshine – and a proper beach and a ridiculously clear sea: the kind you always imagine is made up. (Put it this way: the sea around Brighton Pier doesn’t look quite like that, more’s the pity…)

We were staying on the wrong side of the island to see the sunset (this place is a nature reserve, with only a small village of about 130 people all of whom are involved in protecting the biodiversity of the the island, and a hotel – the rooms spread along the beach in individual villas) but the skies were still pretty impressive.

You can see the next island to the north in that photo.

I basically had to be removed from the porch of the hotel kicking, screaming and shouting “I don’t want to leeeeeave!” at the end of the holiday. Because I didn’t. I could’ve stayed there forever, especially given my joy at discovering there’s nothing about Creole food I don’t like.

Also, my poor husband had to put up with me merrily singing the Red Dwarf theme most mornings at breakfast, from behind a glass of mango juice. Because I am an enormous geek.

Anyway. The important bit is what I read while I was there – which boiled down to the second and third books of The Dark Tower (yes, I still love Roland. Hush now), The Art of Fielding, Hollow Pike and The Testimony.

The Dark Tower books need no introduction – and nor does my response to them – so I’ll leave it at saying my devotion to the series and the characters is still going strong… and I’m onto book 4.

I’d been looking forward to “The Art of Fielding” for a while. It’s a little-known fact that I’m actually a fan of baseball. I don’t follow it much these days, so I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on or who’s who, but I used to be crazy about it when I was in my early teens, and your first loves leave a lasting impression. (Chicago White Sox, thanks for asking. I know, I know.) So imagine my joy: a baseball novel which requires me to bring nothing in terms of knowledge to the table other than the slightly iffy, second-hand snippets I managed to glean half a lifetime ago, and have largely forgotten… and my affection. Because the book’s not about baseball at all. Well – that’s an overstatement. It is about baseball, but it’s also about hope and despair and family and relationships and friendships and ambition and… things.

I think we rather take this kind of novel for granted in the genre world: we tend to expect that yes, Book A says it’s about dragons, but technically, it’s about the War on Terror. Or something. We expect books to be metaphorical, to a degree. But that’s another story – literally.

Another of my holiday reads was “Hollow Pike” by James Dawson, which I absolutely flew through. It’s a pacy YA book involving witches and the creepy local woods, and it’s really quite unsettling at times. It’s also tremendous fun, and has some great characters and a lot of atmosphere. Also, I want to live in the house that Lis, the protagonist, moves to. Preferably without all the nightmares and the murder and stuff, though. Just saying.

“The Testimony” took me longer, partly because the narrative structure’s more challenging. As the title implies, it’s a testimony – different people all telling their version of the same event – the burst of static and a voice which is heard by (almost) all of humanity one day – and what comes after. I’ve always been a sucker for a big-scale disaster movie (things like The Towering Inferno) and in a lot of ways, that’s what “The Testimony” reminded me of as it wove different characters and plot threads together. It’s fantastic. And terrifying, in the best possible way.

Any of those books, if you’re looking for some holiday reading, will see you right. Although if you’re reading book 2 of The Dark Tower, I advise you give the seafood a miss (I’ll be regarding lobster with a slightly cautious eye for a while, I think), and if you give “The Testimony” a whirl, you may well find yourself freaking out when someone accidentally switches on the PA in the airport and transmits a load of white noise. Hypothetically speaking. Because I totally didn’t freak out. Not a bit. Uh-uh. Nope.

God help me if I have to go through a forest any time soon…

SFX Weekender 3

North Wales.

February.

Chalet.

It takes a special kind of circumstance to make me even consider contemplating those three ideas in combination. It takes the marvellously over-the-top geekfest that is the SFX Weekender.

Other people have already covered the majority of big things that need to be said: Sophia McDougall‘s blog post on the gender issue within programming has already been widely discussed, and as far as I can tell, what that all boils down to is the old chestnut about visibility on a range of levels, including publisher.

On a more positive note, I was pleasantly surprised by how many women were there, and there for themselves (as opposed to wearing the standard “My boyfriend / husband / son / best mate brought me along–but in 37 hours, I’ll be out of here” expression). I frequently bang on about how inclusive the SFF & genre scene can be, so it’s heartening to  see it playing out on a larger scale.

SFX Weekender bar (photo borrowed from Jonathan Green)

And talk about scale. There were thousands of attendees, making it by far the largest convention I’ve been to, and the first non-writery one. It’s a bit of a bemusing experience for writers: we’re not quite sure what to do when a bunch of cosplayers wander past us, and I still can’t quite get my head around Darth Vader pulling pints behind the bar.

I’ve also seen more 11th Doctors than I ever imagined possible, and a startling number of 10th Doctors who were women (and while I applaud your cosplay, ladies, you’ve left me slightly… confused as to my 10th Doctor-related feelings…).

I think I handled it pretty well–particularly the moment when Anne Lyle, Amanda Rutter and I were ambushed by a Dalek demanding we open the door for it. Thinking fast, Anne and I did what every loyal friend would do, and threw Amanda to our new portal overlord. She was rewarded with the promise she’d be exterminated last, so technically we did her a favour. Stop judging.

I also particularly enjoyed seeing a Dalek aggressively refuse a massage (where do you even start?) and hearing yet another Dalek tell a passing Stormtrooper that “I am not the droid you are looking for.” Like a true Rebellion girl, I spent a significant portion of my time hiding from at least one Judge Dredd, because He Scares Me.

There were a lot of great moments: the roadtrip (because one does not simply walk into Mordor) up to Prestatyn with my fabulous chalet-mates Amanda and Anne, as well as the lovely Will Hill. Being shouted at by Amanda for “doing it wrong” when someone asked about my book. Sitting in Adam Christopher’s car with Adam, Will and Laura Lam on the way to the Tor party, driving down the narrowest lanes imaginable and trying to decide who we’d send out if a hook-handed serial killer started banging on the roof. Sorry, Will. We needed Adam to drive, and Laura and I will be required later for the role of Screaming Female #1 and #2…

I got to catch up with friends: people like Sarah Pinborough, who was incredible at the Just A Minute session–which is up on Youtube: the first part’s here, and I cannot encourage you to watch the whole thing strongly enough–and I met some fantastic new people–Joe Abercrombie is just as awesome a person as he is a writer, quite a dancer, and a bloody sight better at getting pizza than I am. Dammit.

I magicked G&Ts out of thin air, and was presented with a half-pint of wine (Johannes Roberts, you’re a man after my own heart….).

I had huge fun, too, hanging out with the Solaris, Abaddon & 2000AD crew, who are a fantastic bunch and who feel like family. I don’t get to see them in force that often, but the Weekender marked 2000AD‘s 35th birthday, so they were there en masse, and what a fine masse that was.

I danced like a loon to Craig Charles on the decks on the Saturday night, and am fervently hoping that no video of the event exists. I will also keep the photo of a certain editor and a certain author playing “Dinohunt” with intense concentration to myself. For now.

The SFX disco (photo borrowed from Jonathan Green)

I may also have inadvertently started an “Alasdair Stuart for god!” campaign. I would totally vote for that ticket, by the way.

So: I went to very little of the programming, and I’m sure I missed catching up with a whole bunch of people, but that wasn’t really the point. Part of the Weekender’s appeal is that you never quite know what’s coming, or who’s round the corner… summed up best by walking straight into Dave Monteith from Geek Syndicate on the Saturday night. Many moons ago, we used to work in the same incredibly boring office and haven’t seen each other in years–so when we did bump into each other, there was a lot of hugging, squealing and general “Ohmygod!”ing. It was nice.

The downside, of course, is that the site is so large it’s easy to lose people: there were several times I got separated from friends in the middle of a conversation, and many chats which went unfinished–but I hope they can be picked up again next time. A common complaint was that there was nowhere to sit and catch up with people, and that’s true. Hopefully it’s something that can be remedied next year. Because, yes, it’s back next year… and yes, I’m already provisionally booked in at the hotel across the road.

To conclude, then: a good weekend, made–as always–by the people. And in this instance, quick shouts go out to Will Hill, Amanda Rutter, Anne Lyle, Jon Oliver, Dave Moore, Mike Molcher, Simon Parr, Tom Pollock, Lizzie Barrett, Sarah Pinborough, Johannes Roberts, Alasdair Stuart, Jonathan Green, Lee Harris, Adam Christopher, Laura Lam, Jared Shurin, Anne Perry, Andrew Reid… and so many more people who’ve been obscured by the post-convention fug.

If you weren’t there, and you want to get a feel for the weekend (or maybe you were there, and you’d like to relive it from the comfort of your own home…) you could do worse than to check out Jonathan Green’s fabulous vlog & slideshow here.

Meanwhile, and for reasons which I don’t altogether understand, I seem to have got this song stuck in my head as my SFX Weekender theme-tune, probably because I have a strange little ipod. Still, y’know. Let’s go with it…