Background Notes for Messages from Weirdland

Some background for Messages from Weirdland, which appears in Black Static #69, which is available now.

I arrived at Edward Gorey’s incredibly twisted and beautiful world late in life. As a child I was a huge fan of Charles Addams, and his New Yorker cartoons, some of which featured The Addams Family. My dad had a huge hardback volume of his work that i leafed through endlessly, drawn to the humour, but also to the strange morbidity of it all. Death and misery as comedy. I didn’t grasp the finer qualities of it then, but I knew I found that dark stuff fascinating for some reason, and I’m fairly sure it had a hand in shaping the person I became. I still love Addams’ work (I’m gradually putting together a complete collection of his books), but Gorey is fascinating and alluring in an entirely different way.

Edward Gorey’s often incredibly detailed pen-and-ink drawings usually depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes in Victorian and Edwardian settings. They’re often written in verse, in the style of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll. They are camp and strange and deeply morbid. I’ve always admired the depth of artistry and fine detail in Gorey’s work: the mad Victorian wallpaper, the gramophones, the topiary, the framing. His most famous work is probably The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which purports to teach children their ABCs through the unhappy (but very witty) ends of twenty six children. Once seen it’s never forgotten. I’ve thrown in my own twist on that idea for Messages from Weirdland, but more on that later…

So at the start of the year when I noticed that a new biography had been published on Gorey – Born to be Posthumous by Mark Derry – I bought it with the vague idea that something of Gorey’s life might suggest a story. As it was much of the story arrived fully formed before I’d even started reading the biography. Nonetheless the book was useful for adding little details that would provide colour to my story. The phrase, A spot of The Morbids was one of them, and suggested an entire character to me.

Edward became Franklyn Hathaway, and in my story, rather than being a rather lonely single gay man, he has lived happily with his wife, Elspeth for many good years. Like Edward, Franklyn is also a rather snappy dresser, although he never (at least in this story) goes as far as Ed by wearing a floor length fur coat!

Ive written quite a few stories now that feature people in the public eye. I’m attracted to creative types – musicians, artists, writers, sculptors – I think there’s a fascination for me with fame and what it does to people, how it defines and changes them, and what become of them after the muse leaves them. I think everyone has a natural inclination to wonder how these people go about their transformed lives, and how their creativity affects the people around them.

Messages from Weirdland (a title that popped into my head one night just before I went to sleep) starts with bad news for Elspeth and Franklyn Hathaway. And then the Curlicue arrives…

The Curlicue wore white canvas tennis shoes.

He was the colour of a bruise, with a hint of chartreuse.

He’d arrived to interrupt the interview, just as the doctor was breaking the news.

He needed no excuse.

Once I realised that Messages from Weirdland would feature not just aspects of Franklyn’s own morbid little tales, but extracts from them, the idea flowered outwards, and suddenly I had a larger idea than I thought I could handle. This happens to me all the time. I have the initial inspiration, and tell my girlfriend, Amanda that this one will be short – 5000 words max – and then I have another idea, and another and suddenly I’m starting to think there’s a novella in there somewhere. Eventually I arrived at a point where I could either expand it or curtail the ideas and wrangle it all into a much tighter and more focused novelette. The latter decision obviously won out, but there is a much longer version of Messages from Weirdland in me too. Maybe I’ll pursue it one day.

What eventually swung it was a letter that features late in the story, from Elspeth to Franklyn. I wrote it one evening (again, just before going to sleep – I really should start writing in the middle of the night), and it left me in tears afterwards. I was convinced at that point that these were characters that I cared about, and hopefully so would others.

There are other things that I’d like to mention about Messages from Weirdland but I’d be here all day, so I’ll keep it brief.

Mrs Martynov and Vivian are a composite of the photographer, Vivian Maier, who’ll probably be the subject of a story I have planned for later in the year, and which share some aspects of this story.

Luna, Franklyn’s Chihuahua/ Maltese cross is based on my own dog, Daisy. Luna is Franklyn’s anchor when he becomes unmoored from his life, and Daisy has been that for me. I didn’t realise how much I could love a dog until we adopted her two years ago. She’s been crucial in easing my daily struggle with anxiety and depression.

I wrote the A-Z of deaths one afternoon when I was struggling with the plot. I kept going back and refining it, coming up with better rhyming deaths, and then filing it away again. I had to convince myself that it would work within the story, but I’m glad I finally decided to include it.

One of the great joys of being published in Black Static is that Andy Cox marries the story with the perfect artist. I’ve been lucky enough to have had artwork provided by George Cotronis, Ben Baldwin, Martin Hanford and Richard Wagner. Messages from Weirdland has an absolutely brilliant piece of art by Vince Haig, which perfectly captures the heart of the story, and pays homage to Gorey’s work. I’m so pleased with it.

My thanks, as ever, to Andy Cox. This is my seventh Black Static story and my 16th TTA Press story overall. I sold my first tale – Blue Nothings – to him back in 1995. I always trust him to do a wonderful job with my work. For this story Andy managed to find a font which is called Gorey. That’s really going the extra mile!

Hope everyone enjoys Messages from Weirdland. Please let me know what you think.

Simon

Buy the new issue of Black a Static here — https://shop.ttapress.com

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New story, Messages from Weirdland in Black Static 69

My new novelette Messages from Weirdland features in the forthcoming May-Jun 2019 issue of Black Static. Here’s the blurb…

A retired and recently widowed cartoonist discovers a series of bottles washed ashore near his Cape Cod home. Inside each of them is a story set in his fictional world Weirdland. The handwriting is unmistakably that of his dead wife, Elspeth. Then a woman arrives one morning who seems to know all about his life, his work, his relationship with Elspeth. She appears to be from Weirdland…

Closer to the release date I’ll write a post with some background and thoughts on the creation of the story, but for now I’ll just say that the idea behind it was to use a version of the great illustrator of weirdness, Edward Gorey as the main character. As you can see from the illustration that the brilliant Vince Haig has provided, Gorey’s spirit is well and truly represented…

Black Static and Interzone magazine can be ordered here – https://shop.ttapress.com/

World Fantasy Award nomination for The Teardrop Method

It’s been quite a month for me, and easily the most satisfying of my writing career.

Sunflower Junction, a story that first appeared in Black Static 57 is being reprinted in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror in September.

A Clear Day in a Season Of Storms is being published in The Black Room Manuscripts in September.

My novelette, Why We Don’t Go Back is out now in Black a Static 64.

And to top it all, Andy Cox, emailed me last week, told me to sit down to prepare for some good news. Then I received a list of the nominees for the World Fantasy Award. I couldn’t quite believe it, but there it was – The Teardrop Method, nominated for Best Long Fiction!

The World Fantasy Award! I cannot believe that this novella, which I began about five or six years ago has gone out into the world and been read by so many people. I’m so pleased that it’s been so well-received. This is pretty much the icing on the cake.

Thanks to everyone who bought the book, read the book, and took the time to spread the word about it. I’m very grateful.

Background on ‘Why We Don’t Go Back’, published this month in Black Static 64.

There were a couple of points of entry for me in the creation of ‘Why We Don’t Go Back’. This is the third story in my loosely connected sequence of folk horror tales with an unnamed character, provisionally titled ‘The Land Of Empty Men’. Even though they have connective tissue, I’ve made sure that they also can be read as standalone stories. At the start of ‘Why We Don’t Go Back’, the character is in Birmingham, living in a flat upstairs from a young single mother.

The initial spark for the story came from my girlfriend, Amanda, who worked for a number of years in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Some of the stories she told me, about how the people there go about their business, ferrying around diamonds and other precious stones that are worth fairly staggering amounts amazed me. The seed of the story was in those mad little details.

The intention then, was to write a noir-infused tale of theft and going on the run, and then the setting changing subtly into something much more folk-horror, similar to Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.

The folk-horror element took awhile to arrive, but then, while I was researching something about maize mazes I happened upon some information about

Chartres Cathedral in France. In the nave is the “Chemin de Jerusalem” (Road of Jerusalem), a pavement maze. Either you were supposed to walk the maze as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem or you had to shuffle along on your knees as a penance.

The maze at Chartres —

The path through Chartres —

As soon as I read this, something clicked into place in my mind, and ‘Why We Don’t Go Back’ pretty much wrote itself after that. It’s often about two wildly different ideas fusing and evolving into a story.

At the heart of ‘Why We Don’t Go Back’ is a story about two people making difficult decisions and sticking with them all the way to the end. I really felt this story when I wrote it. It’s harsh and (I hope) sad and quietly devastating.

Further details on the sequence of stories that form ‘The Land Of Empty Men

At the moment the sequence goes:

‘Sunflower Junction’ (Black Static 57)

‘Songs for Dwindled Gods’ (Occult Detective Quarterly 4)

‘Why We Don’t Go Back’ (Black Static 64)

I’ve just completed the fourth story, ‘The Nature Of Panic’, which will go out into the world soon. As I said earlier, none of these stories need to be read in any particular order at the moment. They all stand alone. There are, of course, little connective threads creeping in, and, should you read the stories in the correct order then you will certainly see a character and an attendant cast list evolving from one tale to the next.

The ultimate intention is to gather these stories into a collection that’s provisionally titled ‘The Land Of Empty Men’. There will probably be about eight of them with a novella that ties threads and storylines for the various characters, and provides what in tv parlance would be called a ‘season finale’. As an example, early seasons of a TV show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer would generally contain standalone stories with little intimations of an over-arching story that would be tied up in a season finale. That’s the kind of idea I’m aiming for.

So far I’ve loved writing each of these stories, and I feel (and hope) that it shows in the work. I’m feeling my way forward, touching on various folk horror and Hauntology tropes, and then twisting them into something that’s dark and sad and (again, hopefully) emotionally involving. I can sort of see the road ahead, and how various threads and relationships might recur and be resolved. I really hope the stories go down well enough that someone might want to publish them as a collection of stories that form a complete story and character arc.

I hope everyone enjoys the story.

http://ttapress.com/1983/black-static-64/

Why We Don’t Go Back- Black Static #64

My new novelette, Why We Don’t Go Back arrives next week in the July/August issue of Black Static (#64).

It’s a noir/folk- horror tale of theft, mazes, running away and loss. Although it’s a standalone story, it’s the third tale featuring an unnamed character who began his life in Sunflower Junction (Black Static #57), then continued in Songs for Dwindled Gods (Occult Detective Quarterly #4). You don’t have to read them in order but if you do, you’ll certainly see the development of the character and his overarching story.

Next week I’ll post some further details about the inspiration behind Why We Don’t Go Back, and about the character and my plans for his future.

Black Static #64 can be ordered here — http://store.clickandbuild.com/cnb/shop/ttapress?productID=33&op=catalogue-product_info-null&prodCategoryID=4

Occult Detective Quarterly #4 featuring Songs for Dwindled Gods, out now

Songs for Dwindled Gods features an unnamed character that began his life in Sunflower Junction, which was published in Black Static 57. That was intended as a one-off, but I found myself thinking about him and wondering what happened to him next. The tiny hamlets and villages of Devon and Cornwall were where the idea for a Songs for Dwindled Gods originated, along with the urge to return to that character from Sunflower Junction, fleshing out his life story and deciding that he could be someone I returned to much as Joel Lane had with his unnamed policeman in the stories that made up Where Furnaces Burn.

Songs for Dwindled Gods is a folk horror tale about lost villages, psychedelic folk music from the sixties and seventies, running away from life, and something ancient and hidden in the wilds of the Dorset countryside.

Occult Detective Quarterly #4, featuring Songs for Dwindled Gods is out today, and available from <a href=”https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1718645481/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_ep_dp_nDV8Ab5EF45TW”>Amazon</a&gt;

I hope you enjoy it.

Here also is the fantastic artwork for Songs for Dwindled Gods, by Andy Paciorek.

The story behind The Teardrop Method

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After I met my girlfriend, Amanda in 2001 we started visiting Europe every year. Prior to that I’d never travelled outside of the UK. Once I had a passport, I was a voracious traveller: Rome, Paris, Venice, Lake Garda, Salzburg, Bruges, and everywhere in between.

Everywhere I go usually inspires a story, or at least some notes that might spark something a few months or years down the line. The idea of a woman who used to be famous recording an album while living on the top floor of a faded hotel overlooking a great river came to me after a tour of Italy and Austria. All those ancient buildings, surging rivers and eternal avenues had opened my mind to new ways of thinking and approaching my fiction. I knew the atmosphere of the story immediately; it’s what always comes first for me. A general sense of the tone and the air of mystery I want to convey with the setting. After that it’s about applying structure without losing that brittle sense of how you want the story to ‘feel’.

On a rather more prosaic level, the title, which eluded me for months came to me outside the car park of our local Asda. I’m not sure what it was about all those cars and the prospect of buying groceries led me to The Teardrop Method, but there you are…

M3_nordenstam

I knew very early on that the character of Krisztina would be modelled on the reclusive Swedish singer/songwriter, Stina Nordenstam, who I’ve been a fan of since she released her first record, ‘Memories of a Colour’, back in 1991. That and the follow-up, ‘And She Closed Her Eyes’ were delicate things: jazz-infused, strange, imbued with an other-worldliness that still enchants me to this day. Her sixth album, The World is Saved, released in 2004 was her last to date. During those years, Nordenstam flirted with distorted guitars and beats, pop, and cover-versions. She’s reclusive, a reluctant live-performer; she doesn’t give many interviews and when she does, little of her interior process is given away; she wears wigs and changes her appearance. Somehow she’d faded into another life entirely, it seems.

Describing her music in anything other than basic terms is fruitless. She has a voice you either accept or you don’t; her song-writing is angular, brittle, frequently shot through with a sublime beauty that few musicians ever capture on tape.

She’s been missing in action now for 13 years, and few of her fans now expect her to return to recording. Her website is gone, the message boards lie fallow with little for fans to cling to in the way of news. A FaceBook appreciation page intermittently lights up with posts bearing old videos, but little else.

I knew I wanted to write about her, or about someone like her. I find that reclusive Salinger-esque quality endlessly fascinating. Musicians who operate outside of normal conventions also appeal to me: how does the process begin; how is it articulated to other musicians in the studio; how do you walk away from the creative urge and why; how do they live their lives when they stop being the person they never really were?

I wondered what might lead to someone calling a halt to their career and how they dealt with a tangential relationship to fame. I came up with Krisztina Ligetti, and relocated her to Budapest. A songwriter who has produced one record and then walked away from it all, only to be drawn back into the process by tragedy; something strange and impossible to ignore, and where that leads her.

Those of you who’ve heard Stina Nordenstam’s work will see the subtle similarities in Krisztina’s music and the way she conducts her life. The rest of it is fiction, rooted in a deep and abiding love for Nordenstam’s body of work. I return to it often for its wintry, spectral beauty. I hope you do to, or even better, find it for the first time. I envy you that journey. It’s certainly a perfect soundtrack for The Teardrop Method.

loud-and-terrific-the-childhood-of-a-leader-bigRight around the midway point of The Teardrop Method, we are introduced to another singer/songwriter, John Merriwether. John is in his late sixties and ailing from poor health. He was once a heart-throb of sorts in the late sixties, the creator of five opulent records where his rich baritone was set against lush symphonic orchestrations. Songs flooded with kitchen-sink dramas, angels at bedroom windows, sailors and their whores, philanderers in faded suits and funerals in the rain… Strange, otherworldly records. Since then he’s been similarly reclusive until now, releasing a new album called ‘The Bleed’, an unsettling, cacophonous piece of work, all raw nerves and trauma.

Anyone with even a tenuous grasp of music history would gather that Merriwether is very much inspired by none other than Scott Walker, the Californian who relocated to London in the sixties and never went home. I’ve loved this man’s work since I was small. My dad would get me to sleep at night while walking around the flat with ‘Plastic Palace People’ playing. It took me some years to realise that Walker was out there on his own; a wholly unique artist who produced five exemplary records at the tail end of the sixties and then took several years to return on his own terms in the late seventies, the early eighties and then in the nineties with Tilt, itself utterly unique and experimental, described as ‘an anti-matter collision  of rock and modern classical music’. He’s gone further in the subsequent years, producing surreal and abstract lyrics set to angry percussion and blocks of noise and silence. He’s still very much out there on his own.

Like Stina Nordenstam, Walker is relatively reclusive. He does a round of interviews when a new record rolls around and that’s about it. Barring a brief song recorded for English music show, Later… Live, he hasn’t played live since a Walker Brothers reunion in the seventies, and at this point in his career, he really doesn’t have to. Again, that aspect of the reclusive genius producing intermittent works of strange, limited appeal interests me greatly. I suppose curiosity is what drives that ‘what if?’ question in a writer, and at some point during the process of the creation of The Teardrop Method, I realised I could include a version of Walker in the narrative. It allowed me to indulge in speculating on what drives that creative urge and what stymies it; and what happens in that downtime between the creative urge.

There’s a lot more to The Teardrop Method though. Besides being a love letter to the music that inspires me, it’s a speculative piece of fiction about stories and loss and how we recover ourselves from the wreckage of tragedy. I hope you enjoy it.

You can order The Teardrop Method for just £8 from TTA Press here

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