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.
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.
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.