Apologies for anyone who's ordered a copy recently. There has been a backlog building up while I moved house and, temporarily, lost all copies of Curious Tales' books. They have now been foud and posting out will resume very soon.
That's right, we're taking some more time off.
Apologies for anyone who's ordered a copy recently. There has been a backlog building up while I moved house and, temporarily, lost all copies of Curious Tales' books. They have now been foud and posting out will resume very soon.
While Curious Tales took a wee break during 2016, two of the team, Jenn Ashworth and Richard V. Hirst, collaborated during that time on a brand new and distinctly Curious Tales-esque novella for independent publisher Dead Ink which is now available to buy.
Orla Nelson used to be a famous writer and now she's seeking a comeback. Alice Wells wants to make something of herself before it's too late. In The Night Visitors these two women, connected by blood and ambition, investigate their ancestor Hattie Soak, a silent film star who fled the scene of a gruesome unsolved crime.
Told entirely via an exchange of emails, The Night Visitors is a story of ghosts, obsession and inherited evil. This novella traces the ways in which technology can hold and transmit our worst secrets and unspoken fears, and what happens when uneasy collaborations start to unravel.
The Night Visitors has been shortlisted for a Saboteur Awards (vote now!) and is out now. It will be launched in Liverpool at a special event with none other than Ramsey Campbell.
That's right, we're taking some time off.
You may well have noticed we've a new book in the works. As mentioned earlier, Congregation of Innocents takes its inspiration from the late great Shirley Jackson who passed away fifty years ago this year.
One writer who is a fan of Jackson's work, and has in the past provided an introduction to a selection of her stories, is the also great Patrick McGrath. A British writer who now lives in New York, McGrath seemed to us an entirely perfect choice for someone for us to approach to write an introduction for our book which takes the uncanny as its tone and America as a key theme, or rather British imaginings of America.
It’s also very exciting. McGrath has been one of my favourite writers since I first encountered Asylum as a teenager, and I'm thrilled to be sharing space with him in a book I’ve been involved in putting together.
Perhaps you’ve been meaning to read one of his novels and aren’t sure where to begin. Or maybe you read Asylum and don’t know which novel to read next. Or maybe you’ve never read any Patrick McGrath and don't know a single thing about him. In any case, below is my entirely subjective selection of his five best books.
As you’ll see, it’s pretty much impossible to talk about Patrick McGrath without talking about the gothic, that much-loved and yet much-maligned aesthetic which revels, frequently with great theatre and pomp, in death, terror and all that's unnatural. But as well as the obvious stuff – big spooky old buildings, hunchbacked butlers, that sort of thing – the gothic is also about the mechanics of haunting, the ways in which the past can impact upon and interact with the present. What, for me, sets McGrath apart as a writer is not only his use of gothic – and his evident relish – but that he takes it seriously. Yes, there are foggy marshlands, decrepit backdrops and perilous journeys through the treacherous night, but these come paired with an incisive interest in aberrant pathology, repressed sexuality and unreliable narrators, all of which are put to work creating some of the most engaging, intelligent and entertaining fiction I've read.
1. Blood and Water and Other Tales (1989)
'One fresh and gusty day in the damp autumn of her twelfth year Evelyn found a lost explorer in the garden of her parents’ London home. He was lying in a mall tent beneath a mosquito net so torn and gaping as to be quite inadequate, were there aby mosquitoes to protect him from.' (from 'The Lost Explorer')
McGrath’s first book and the one with which he made something of a name for himself, Blood and Water forms a kind of preliminary handbook for the stylistic hallmarks which he has since become known for. As well as a distinctive prose which is all his own – rolling passages peppered with abrupt terminations and shocking flourishes, but marked too with precision and, above all, control – also abundant in this collection of stories is his strong taste for seaminess and morbidity, and a dominating interest in history, particularly that of the Empire-era: colonial explorers, the Raj and the Congo, captured monkey specimens, all these have their place in Blood and Water. But the vibe of the collection is predominantly an entertaining one. These recherché (and, in the mid 80's, entirely unfashionable) aspects of eras bygone are appraised with an eye which allows for a generous amount of humour and outright silliness (one of the stories is narrated by a fly, another a boot).
2. Dr Haggard's Disease (1993)
'I frowned. Probably neurotic. Not enough sex, not enough love, too much quiet desperation. She was drying up like a forgotten apple in a neglected bowl. Impossible, I reflected, to fathom the hell that existed behind the façade of an English marriage – hadn’t I seen the example of your parents?'
McGrath’s first novel, The Grotesque, was in many ways a continuation of the preoccupations found in the stories in Blood and Water: elements of the gothic proliferate – an ancient mansion slowly crumbles, bones are unearthed, vengeance fester – all of which are enjoyable and of course beautifully written, but there’s little effort made to unite or explain their presence. This sort of thing works well in short stories, but only just about works with a short novel. With Spider and in particular with Dr Haggard’s Disease McGrath’s taste for squalour and macabre find their place within increasingly tightly structured novels. The latter takes the form of a one-sided conversation, with the a semi-retired doctor – the ramshackle, morphine-dependant Edward Haggard – relating to the son of Fanny Vaughn, the woman he once loved, what forced him to move from pre-Blitz London to a dank, rundown manor. In due course, the doctor’s obsession with Fanny diverges into muddier waters, his romantic and the erotic urges growing at first incapacitating and then warped and then unspeakable. As well as deploying his usual creepy ornamentations, Dr Haggard’s Disease is also the novel in which McGrath embarks on what has earned him something of a reputation as a writer’s writer, with his interplay between the tale and its telling creating a beguiling, hypnotic effect.
3. Asylum (1996)
‘Stella realised then that Charlie's unhappiness had locked him out of this community as effectively as hers had, and she felt a dull sense of confirmation, she felt she might have known, this is the nature of people, they unerringly select as their victim the one who most needs their warmth.’
There’s a brief explanation regarding the genesis of this, probably still McGrath’s best known novel, in a recent autobiographical piece about growing up in and around Broadmoor, the lunatic asylum, as it was then called, where his father worked as Medical Superintendent:
I remember once coming into a roomful of grown-ups, and silence suddenly descending. This is catnip to a curious boy. I never did get the whole story, but it seems a doctor's wife had been "compromised" by one of the men on a working party. The patient lost all his privileges; what happened to the wayward wife I don't know—the family moved away soon after. But I did know enough that when, years later, I was groping around for an idea for a book, I thought of it, and wrote a novel called Asylum on the basis of it, using my imagination to fill in the blanks.
That 'using my imagination' seems a modest understatement for what is evidently a carefully planned novel. The main thrust of Asylum concerns Stella, a bored housewife who becomes infatuated with Edgar, a brilliant artist and patient at the maximum security psychiatric hospital where her husband works as deputy superintendent. There is high drama in the guise of the ensuing scandalous fallout, a daring escape and a tragic, merciless conclusion. Most effectively, there’s also McGrath’s by now trademark narrative trickery. All the events are related second-hand by Peter Cleave, a senior psychiatrist at the same hospital. As the novel progresses the reader begins to question Cleave's motives and even the story he relays. Its mixture of readability and intelligence gives the novel the feel of a Booker winner, so it’s surprising to learn that Asylum never won a single award when it came out in 1996. A film adaptation was made in 2005 but it’s a rather pale replication of its source novel (although the author himself does make a brief cameo). As McGrath points out in his memoir, both the book and the childhood experiences which generated it have come to dominate how he is perceived: ‘I've never been interviewed about my work without Broadmoor coming up; but as a small boy you tend not to think about whether you're having an unusual childhood. You have far more pressing matters to attend to.’
4. Martha Peake: A Novel of the Revolution (2000)
‘It is a black art, the writing of a history, is it not? – to resurrect the dead, and animate their bones, as historians do? I think historians must be melancholy creatures, rather like poets, perhaps, or doctors; but then, what does it matter what I think. This is not my story.’
Of all the books listed here, Martha Peake is perhaps my favourite. It’s probably McGrath’s most entertaining work, and feels to me the most ‘pure Patrick McGrath’. The transatlanticism is brought to the fore, with events weaving between 1760's London to revolutionary America; the gothic is in fine fettle, with events taking place in Drogo Hall, the author’s most dilapidated estate yet, isolated in a fog-blinded marsh and occupied by a sinister anatomist and his mute butler; the same goes for the book’s historical aspect: 18th century London’s sawdust pubs and stinking alleyways are Hogarthian in both detail and redolence, the plot folding in neatly with real-world events when the story shifts to colonial Massachusetts. Present too is the spooky second-hand (or third- or perhaps fourth-hand) account of what takes place: our narrator is literally nestled up beside a blazing coal fire to hear his ancient uncle tell the tale of Harry Peake, a disfigured west-coast smuggler whose devotion to his daughter Martha is outweighed only by his chronic addiction to cheap booze. Following a bout of mania, Martha flees for the States and a life in service of the burgeoning mutiny against the English. As with Asylum, I’m aware that summarising McGrath’s plot risks making the novel sound a tad suspect, as though I may have simply enjoyed an overwrought melodrama about a Cornish smuggler and allowed myself to get a little carried away. But along with a knowing saga-esque sensibility, Martha Peake is informed by an intelligence, not just in the novel’s formidable structure, but in the confidence and seriousness with which it interrogates what it means to be an American.
5. Constance (2013)
'My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy.'
McGrath’s most recent novel received praise of the somewhat guarded variety when it was first published. I suppose it’s not difficult to see why: his hallmark grand guignol gothic was refashioned in Trauma, his previous novel, into a more psychologically intricate realism, a theme which is continued in Constance. Here, the narrative switches between two first-person accounts of a difficult, complex relationship: Sidney, an English academic, and the enigmatic title character Constance, a New Yorker whom he meets at a party in the 1960’s and pursues; in doing so he uncovers details about her dead mother and a difficult relationship with her sister and their secretive father. I came to appreciate Constance when I was in New York a couple of years ago and made a point of stopping off at the KGB Bar to see McGrath read from the book. Something which his performance highlighted that I’d not really noticed when first reading the novel was that Constance is actually quite funny. Funny isn’t necessarily something a recent reader of Asylum will be on the lookout for, but interlaced with this novel’s Freudian tragedy there’s a keenly observed comedy of transatlantic manners. In fact, McGrath’s key theme throughout nearly all his books is the lies people tell to themselves to convince themselves they are happy. And what’s funnier than that?
Congregation of Innocents: Five Curious Tales, featuring an introduction by Patrick McGrath, is available to pre-order now.
Let’s begin with a little bit of recent history. The first Curious Tales book, the one which brought us together, was titled The Longest Night: Five Curious Tales. It was a book of ghost stories for Christmas by a small group of contemporary writers in tribute to MR James, the olden days Christmas ghost story godfather. The book was illustrated by Beth Ward in an elegant, quietly melancholy fashion redolent of James McBryde, MR James’ artist of choice. We then put together a mini tour of suitably atmospheric events at which each of us read our stories in their entirety.
Part of the beauty of The Longest Night, and part of its spookiness, was the book’s ephemeralness. We had 300 copies printed and numbered. We agreed there were to be no reprints and no Kindle edition. Our mantra was once it’s gone, it’s gone.
This seemed fitting for the sort of publication we were aiming for, tying in with a Jamesian preoccupation with obscure books. It remains an entertaining thought: that in years to come someone, whilst browsing a secondhand bookshop, will discover this slim, mysterious collection with its spooky artwork and no ISBN, take it home and be disquieted by the uncanny tales within.
A year later we put together a sequel, Poor Souls’ Light: Seven Curious Tales, this time taking our cue from Robert Aickman, another, much less cosy and much less well known writer of supernatural fiction whose centenary took place in 2014 and whose reputation we were keen to do our bit to rehabilitate. This was reflected in the darker tone of the book and its murkier artwork. Similarly, we tried to make other changes: we increased the size of our print run, staged bigger, more theatrical events, and – as indicated by the subtitle – included a pair of guest authors in the collection. But we remained guided by our own curious philosophy, a mixture of DIY ethic and ethereal weirdness.
All of which brings us up to date. This year we’re back with a third anthology. Congregation of Innocents: Five Curious Tales, which will be available for pre-order in the coming weeks.
This time we’ve moved out of our collective comfort zone, taking our inspiration from an American author. 2015 marks fifty years since the death of Shirley Jackson, a writer perhaps best known for her novel The Haunting of Hill House, and her short story ‘The Lottery’, both of which are fairly representative of an otherwise frequently overlooked body of work. Jackson’s fiction takes place in the gap where the supernatural meets the psychosomatic, where depths of menace and aberration underlay the United States’ cheery suburbs, where housewives’ hallucinations hint towards a demonic mythos at work in the world. But – a couple of things which I’m not sure can be said with any confidence of James or Aickman – there’s a playfulness to her fiction and a prioritising interest in character.
Collaboration became our watchword. Before any of Congregation of Innocents was written or illustrated, a good deal of planning was put into what we wanted the feel of the book to be. In 2015 we’d also published a pair of digital, interactive novels – both the fruits of collaboration – and it seemed to us that this way of working could be used to create a book of stories which, despite being authored by different individuals, had a cohesion and an uncanny unity. We put together something of a mood map for the book, in reality a list of buzzwords written on post-its and stuck to a wall: hot, stuffy, queasy. We all read a good deal of Jackson’s fiction, particularly her short stories.
In the very early stages of planning we’d asked ourselves who we might invite to contribute as a guest author. By the time we came to the post-it note stage we were dubious whether a guest author was something we were after at all. This was a collaborative project through and through. What we wanted was someone who would collaborate with us. The obvious person then seemed to be our friend Ian Williams.
Ian is a comics artist whose work is informed by his daytime job as a physician: he writes and illustrates Sick Notes, a regular a comic strip for the Guardian about medical news. The Bad Doctor, his wonderfully observed graphic novel about a middle-aged GP, was published in 2014 and had met with critical acclaim. The notion of including a graphic novelist, one au fait with sickness and the mechanics of frailty at that, in the collection seemed somehow both so apt and simultaneously so counterintuitive that Ian seemed to be perfect collaborator.
After this came Beth’s artwork. We have always been keen that the illustrations be much more than simply illustrative, and all the authors agreed that we would wait until we saw the artwork before committing digital ink to digital paper. We then worked towards the imagery. The stories were then edited in unison, with the aim of creating an end product of consistency, with tone, themes and imagery overlapping from story to story. America too dominates Congregation of Innocents. Or, rather, British imaginings of America. Again, for a bunch of solitary writers all of this lies well outside what we think of as our comfortable norm.
And so there we have it. Although it obviously functions as a short story anthology (and an excellent one at that – I think it’s the best thing Curious Tales has produced) Congregation of Innocents is also book which serves to close something of a trilogy and which, we hope, is as intrepid and challenging a read as it was to put together. As well as a graphic story from Ian Williams, the book will also come with an introduction from another very special guest author, whose name we’re keeping under wraps for the time being. There will be four-hundred copies printed, available to buy online and at the tour of events (stay tuned for further details on these), and, as always, once they’re gone they’re gone.
I’d been to Barrow once before, in the long summer of 1995. I’d shared a Liverpool student flat with a friend who’d grown up in the town, and one weekend we took the train to stay with his family. I remember the beauty of the journey from Lancaster to Barrow, taking in Morecambe Bay and the mountains. I remember the dusty walk across the hot August town from the train station. I remember the warmth of his family’s welcome, and the red welt on my arm after a Cumbrian horse-fly, a clegg, took a bite. But we had really travelled through Barrow, because my friend had actually grown up in a tiny hamlet outside the town, a place called Paradise.
Coming back, nearly 20 years later on a grey Spring morning for a walk around the town with Jenn and Beth, made me recognise the similarities with my own upbringing in Thames-side Essex. The salt marshes and tidal muds of Walney reminded me of Benfleet, Canvey Island and Pitsea; pillboxes marshalled the landscape; the black water of deep-water channels and the call of gulls were strangely familiar. Towns at the end of the railway, a terminus, places where no-one passes through on the way to somewhere else, because after here, there’s nowhere else to go – unless, of course, you are on the way to Paradise.
Through writing a critical book on Iain Sinclair, and beginning a project with an old friend from home, I’d been trying to come to terms with growing up in South Essex, a place I couldn’t wait to leave. The journey to Barrow, to the streets of a planned town, to big skies and grey-green water, to the smell of silt and salt, was in some ways a return. To think myself, or rather to feel myself into that place, a town I didn’t really know, was a chances to draw lines back to my own teenage years and a place I now visited infrequently, to see my own family.
Doors opened. And not just to my own past or relationship to Essex and to Barrow, but in this shared writing and imagining of the story of The Barrow Rapture. Ideas, images, locations emerged as we wrote, and Beth drew and painted. Sometimes I was surprised by what appeared on the page as I wrote myself.
Stories, I suppose, are both personal and shared, coming to life as the circuit between the text and the reader. The form of The Barrow Rapture emphasises that process of transmission and creation. In collaborating with Jenn, Tom and Beth, I’ve discovered how a project like The Barrow Rapture is both personal and shared, and in its transmissions gains a kind of unexpected life and shape, and I hope it continues to do so.
Until May last year my experience of Barrow-in-Furness had been fleeting, rushed changes at the train station. Sprinting through the underpass with too much luggage to make a connection north up the west coast of Cumbria or south to Manchester and beyond, always transitory, somewhere I needed to pass through to get somewhere else. Over the last decade or so it has become a familiar and personal non-place to me, missing my connection, waiting in the sparse entrance, an icy sea wind cutting through winter layers – always somewhere I travelled alone to visit the people I loved.
Barrow is situated in an isolated jutting peninsula on the North West coast, a purpose-built industrial town sandwiched between power stations, off-shore wind farms and the Cumbrian fells, partially surrounded by sinking sands shifting between Morecambe Bay and the Ravenglass estuary.
For my first real visit to Barrow last spring, I didn’t take the train, I drove from further up the Cumbrian coast, south over the barren moorland of Corney Fell, where on reaching the highest point I had a clear view of the Irish Sea, the wind farms and the horizon blurring land, sea and sky. All the way to Barrow.
On the approach into the town there is a sense of industrial layers. A still functioning Victorian brickworks on the northern outskirts, the modern seemingly unpopulated cuboid industrial estates and leviathan sheds rising out of the centre, mocking the brick terraced houses at their base and imitating the mountain landscape.
Heading out of the town towards the docks, the roads are wide and straight, it becomes difficult to tell which warehouse is in use, which gas tower, which hulking metal structure. Piers and pillboxes on the beach, stumps that would have propped up a bridge look like ancient monolithic monuments.
I took photographs to try to remember colour, structures and where things were in relation to the sea or the mountains, but the Barrow landscape documents itself. Its memory washes up on the beaches and seeps out from under flaking paintwork, badly made facades or fading signage. After walking for hours, I stopped taking photographs and instead began to absorb.
The work for The Barrow Rapture became black, white, grey and yellow. Black and white like the drawings for a graphic novel. Grey for the hazy horizon and concrete architecture. Yellow, for the gorse bushes by the docks, for the edging on the train station steps, for the seagull’s beak and for the line of sunlight between sea and sky. Fading grey, yellow, grey. The landscape becoming more and more yellow. The yellow becoming symbolic of something more spiritual and ethereal. Barrow becoming a medium between this world and another.
And so the story begins and ends in transition, as we all do, with a voyage and a crossing. The protagonist steps off the train at Barrow-in-Furness station and walks through the underpass alone.