British Fantasy Award Winner 2014; 3x British Fantasy Award Nominee

Thursday, 17 November 2016

The View from my Writing Desk*

I cried when the plane took off (I’m always the princess who gets the window seat, of course). The seat I'd been expecting, but the crying kind of ambushed me — literally out of the blue — and once it had I couldn’t stop. I guess the bigger the blue got and the smaller the green and yellow patchwork of Essex fields got the more it hit home that I was leaving — all of it; all of my home — behind for the first time in twenty years.

It still feels strange to say that to be honest. Not once, in all our preparations, in all the bookings and cancellations and the fucking unending stress of trying to leave behind our entire lives, did it really occur to me that we were leaving behind our entire lives. And at the very moment that we actually did, I started to unravel.

I sort of obsessively collect quotes, always have. And there’s one by Georgia O’Keeffe that I long ago memorised. She was an American artist, probably most well known for her paintings of large flowers, but she also did amazing landscapes of New Mexico, in particular of the Black Place: "a mile of elephants with gray hills and white sand at their feet,” which are just beautiful. Anyway, she was an extraordinary person: a loner, a perfectionist; independent, and, it seemed to me, entirely unconcerned about what other people thought of her. She’s very good for quotes. And this one: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do,” is not only one of my favourites, it’s one of my ambitions. I’ve already got the first bit down pat.   

When we arrived at Paphos airport it was pitch dark. Our hire car grunted and moaned and threatened to stall its way along unfamiliar roads and extraordinarily steep hills. We got lost more than once. By the time we got to the villa we weren’t talking. One of our neighbours was shouting at someone very loudly and angrily in Greek. We had an army of ants in our bedroom. We continued not to speak, drank too much wine, and then fell asleep.

The next day, not even waking up to this view was enough to shake me out of the weird numb dread I was stewing in. I couldn’t fathom it out. We had been saving, planning, dreaming of this moment for the past couple of years; me for far, far longer than that. And yet now that it was here, I felt almost nothing. Worse than that, what I did feel was bad — a kind of low-level sense of dread that something terrible was about to happen — was happening — and there was nothing at all I could do about it. Why the hell should I be feeling like that now, when during all of those years of saving, planning, dreaming — and they had been mostly sad, bad years — I hadn’t felt anything close to as terrible, as frightened as this?

Now. I know what all this sounds like. 
Woe is me; check out the view from my writing desk.
And I know exactly how I’d feel if I’d read this blog post while sitting at my actual desk at work, looking out at the pissing rain and thinking about maybe going to the pub on Saturday as a treat.
I have a year off work. To write. A year. And I’m spending half of it here in this beautiful place high in the hills above Peyia and Coral Bay, where the peace is almost unnerving, and the sunsets wash the whole sky and sea in a brilliant show that lasts only a few dozen cock crows before it's replaced by swooping bats and absolute dark and the invisible chirp-song of crickets. It’s already a familiar joke: “are the cricket bats out already?” What the fuck do I have to be depressed about?

But as writers, we must navel-gaze by necessity. We need to be able to understand ourselves: what makes us tick or tock; why we do or don’t feel and do certain things. If we can’t understand even that, why bother writing anything at all? That, and navel-gazing actually bloody works. It’s just given fancier-sounding, less selfish labels.

The last few years have been sad and bad for us, that much really is true. The worst we’ve ever had. Full of grief and health worries and dissatisfaction. Fear, isolation, miscommunication. And then, once we’d decided to do something about it, full of stress and money worries; no time to relax, no money for holidays or nights out. All with the undercurrent of my disease; its shitty riptides. I relapsed more often in the last twelve months than I have in any year since diagnosis. More tests, more medication, more scares, more stress. And all for this.
This year, this place, this new life which already has so bloody much to live up to.

And most of all — probably most obvious of all, although I didn’t see it until today — I haven’t written anything in weeks. I haven’t written much more than a couple of short stories in months. And all for this. The year where I absolutely must write at least three novels, find a new agent, get The Book Deal, and prove that I can do this thing full-time and not just on a Friday night with a glass of wine in my hand, otherwise the whole endeavour — including the spending of all our savings — will have been an abject waste of time and energy. A mid-life crisis. An over-privileged indulgence.


This morning I woke up, still feeling the same, and to a barrage of emails from home: landlord shit, medical shit that I mistakenly thought I’d managed to escape (though I don’t know who was I kidding; I was told by one doctor not to leave the UK for my own safety, and have spent every day here so far terrified of what might happen if/when I get sick again). But a strange thing happened. Instead of finally swan-diving into the meltdown that I’ve been certain has been waiting in the wings for days, I suddenly felt very calm. I stood at the bedroom’s patio doors and looked out at that tremendous view — our tremendous view — (pretending I couldn’t see the fresh mound of ant carcasses at my feet), and I made myself look and look and look until I could see it even with my eyes tight shut. 

Later, when I was showering after breakfast, I suddenly realised that I was talking away to myself, and had been for several minutes; conducting the endless dialogues and monologues that constantly run through my brain unchecked. What was even more shocking was that I hadn’t even noticed that this had even been missing — that it had gone. And for the longest time.

It feels precarious, this calm, this happiness, this peace, but it’s here, and I’m not about to let it leave. And whether what it has replaced was hangover or performance anxiety or just plain fear doesn’t matter. I know it now; I see it. And it’s getting none of me.

And I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to realise that writing is the answer — whether cause or cure, or both, I don’t care. Writing I can do. It’s the easiest of all my pills to swallow. 
And so it’s time to do just that. To be me again. And most of all, to quit the navel-gazing long enough to remember that there’s someone else in this with me. Someone who’s always, always been in it with me. Through the sad, bad years, and everything before and after them. And now, he’s helping me live out my dreams, because he’s made them his too. Which means more to me even than knowing that he’s always loved me, or that he’ll never ever leave, no matter how terrible I am, how selfish, how sick, how just plain annoying.

What is it they say? Baby, this song’s for you. It’s not our song exactly; more my song for him. A song about him. The man I adore most in the whole world. Because I’ve never known another man who was anything like him. Because he’s never let anything — least of all me  keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do. Because through everything, he’s always, always been on my side. Because sometimes — often — I forget to say thank you. Or worse, what can I do for you?

(And because if I’m not allowed to be a sentimental twat after drowning in dread stew for weeks then when?)

(*By the way, check out the view from my writing desk:)

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Wetwork: Black Static #52

My novelette, Wetwork, was the headliner of Black Static, Issue #52. Link to buy here.
I was very excited slash shitting myself about its reception as I really went all out on it. When that works, it really works. And when it doesn't...y'know. But I figure it's always too easy to stay where you are, doing what you do, especially when it's going ok. Writing every new story should be a challenge, but it should be a different challenge. I've played it safe plenty of times in the past, but stories like Wetwork teach me and show me what I could - and probably should - be doing instead. In this case: True Detectives meets Alien meets 28 Days Later. In mardy Doric and Glaswegian.

Artwork © Ben Baldwin

Thankfully, it's had a few great reviews already:

“...Some may find the phonetically-written Scottish drawls of various characters to be a little hard to “ken” (understand), but Wetwork is more than worth the effort, as it builds to a stunningly effective, tense, skin-crawling and “shout out loud” shock of a finale. This one’s a stunner.”
See full review here

“Wetwork, by Carole Johnstone, is a terrifying view of police work in Glasgow."
© ELLEN DATLOW SF Editors Picks

“...Johnstone pens a tale that is both horrific and human, emotional and devastating, but infused with a quiet, mounting dread. Utilising phonetic Scots speech in the dialogue (both Glaswegian and Doric), she grounds her tale in the grime of the city, while her sharp, economic but descriptive prose pulls the story inexorably towards its gut-punch ending. It’s a powerful start to the issue and sets a high bar for those following.”
See full review here

“This novelette sure needs working at to start off with, but your work is half the battle towards something great. The Glaswegian dialect dialogue needs to be transcended but half its power is its direct meaning which is eventually easy to absorb...Nothing can do justice to the onward extended compulsion of the whole story but particularly of its closing scenes...And the end-revelation, too, is devastating.
Go to it! Work at this work! And it will work hard back at you, with grinding relentlessness.”
See full review here

The Wildhearts also very generously allowed me to use lyrics from one of their brilliant songs as an epigraph to the story - which was a huge first for me, made all the more special because I've been in  love with them since I was about sixteen years old. Check them out - best decision you'll ever make!  

Friday, 5 February 2016

Interzone #262

Not quite sure how I forgot to post about this, but still managed to whinge lyrical (and extensively) about Myself-In-General. Probably answered my own question there...

Anyway, here it is: my short sci-fi Romeo and Juliet story, Circa Diem, which appeared in Interzone #262, published in January. I love Interzone, and always feel like a clod-hopping interloper whenever I'm lucky enough to get a gig. The artwork (courtesy of Richard Wagner) is as amazing as ever.
I love it:

Text: "They said it was the moon. Might as well have been. By then, the how probably wasn’t important to most folk anyway. Not after it had already happened: the asteroid, the tidal-locking, the lengthening days, the lengthening nights. By the time the Earth started slowing down, the only thing people cared about was how to fix it, and not one of them knew the answer to that. They still don’t."

Friday, 29 January 2016

Life's Too Short for Juggling

When I lived in Glasgow, I spent a few years living in vast houseshares with mostly mad strangers. One of these (mid-tier mad, although he lasted less time in that particular houseshare than I did) used to call anything that was worse than shit, shit on a stick.  I never knew why shit on a stick was any worse than just shit, but it was. And on Hogmanay last year, as I was feeling like crap, determined not to give that most significant of midnights any of my miserable attention, that long-remembered phrase was all that I could think of.  Because 2015 really was shit on a stick.

But I’ll tell you a couple of great things about years that are shit on a stick. They make you take a long hard look at your life: at who your friends are, and at who you are.  Your life is your life, of course; it’s whatever you make it, blah, blah – but pretty often what you’ve made of it is some horrible amalgamation of everything you did want, you now want, you think you will want. And then everything else that actually happens to you when you’re not looking.  It’s chaotic, exhausting, and unfulfilling.  It’s crammed full of every opportunity and every eventuality, striving towards fuck knows what; full of pleasing everyone, trying to be liked by everyone; full of self-promotion and chronic self doubt, and endless, endless juggling – and mostly you just keep on going because if you stop you’re pretty sure you’ll drop the lot.

At the end of 2015, I had good cause and pause to wonder when it was that I’d let my life get away from me; when I’d started considering myself worth so little that nearly everyone else’s opinion (or lack of) mattered more than my own.  Most of us do, women probably more: you make excuses for friends who are shit on a stick friends (and, of course, that also goes for professional relationships too, and for some, family), but ultimately folk will only value you as much as you value yourself – it’s a women’s mag cliché because it’s true. A friend who is not there for you when you were there for them is worthless, whether you met them two years ago or twenty. And sometimes, what people present to you is not the real person; finally meeting the real them can also be a shit on a stick moment. And, perhaps hardest to realise, not all friendships are meant to last. Sometimes they are just a period in time, a mutual helping along until you’re both pretty much okay to carry on without each other. And it’s always worth realising that there are probably a few folk who consider you shit on a stick yourself.

January is peak friend-culling season on Facebook.  Or rather, it’s peak announcing you’re going to be doing a friend-cull on Facebook.  You might consider this post no less passive aggressive, but in my opinion, the venue is all.  Facebook is a bunfight which makes everyone look like shit on a stick: the smugness, the tactlessness, the cluelessness, the neediness, and worst, the outright sycophancy (this one is an unapologetic favourite of certain writers, and flares up badly around award seasons). But, as far as friend-culling goes, it’s only the snide announcement of intention that gets to me.  I’ve nothing against the actual process at all.  I think it’s pretty essential.

I have very good old old friends and old friends, and in recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to have made a few wonderful new ones through writing, and I am grateful for every one of them because they have only brought me happiness and kindness and that wonderful feeling that nothing else ever beats: of knowing that someone just gets you and you get them, and you’ve both got each other’s back.  But isn’t it weird how we always try harder with people who are harder?  Such ludicrous perseverance!  Not that weird, I guess, not when indifference or rejection brings you back around to worthlessness.  But, for Christ’s sake, what a waste of time, of energy.  Of bloody juggling!  You can’t, after all, flog a dead horse.  Especially if your stick is shitty (this metaphor would like to announce its long overdue retirement).  And all of this I finally realised – also long overdue – at midnight on Hogmanay.  Because bad or pointless friendships don’t exist in a vacuum.  And getting rid of them really is passive aggressive if you don’t look at why you indulged them in the first place.  If you don’t look at yourself and your life and be honest about what’s wrong with both.

Is that what a midlife crisis is?  Most likely.  If I’m lucky, I’m in the middle of my life, and one definition of crisis is a turning point; an important change, indicating either recovery or death.  So...y'know.  Applicable here might also be the awful midlife crisis cliché of old (because not all clichés are good clichés, and neither regression nor pseudo-vampirism will sustain one of them for long).  No one really wants to relive their youth anyway.  They’re re-imagining it, that’s all.  Nobody enjoyed any of it, for fuck’s sake.  They forget that while the eighteen year old them had no mortgage, no spouse, no kids, no CV, they also had no money, no confidence that could withstand much more than a surface scratch (despite all that bravado), and no clue.  What they really want, of course, is the years back – and they can’t have them, they’re long gone.

But positive decisions can still be scary.  Distancing yourself from people with whom you once had a connection, however unhealthy, is also scary.  But life really is too short to waste on anyone or anything that isn’t worth it.  That isn’t necessary.  That doesn’t help.  Stepping into the unknown is scary.  I will never be well, I will never be rich, I will never be as sure of myself as I was at eighteen, and death and grief and illness will happen no matter what I decide or do.  But I can control what I decide or do next.  I can always control that.  And that wonderful Doris Lessing quote, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always going to be impossible,” should ring true for us all, even those of us who have thus far lived small and careful lives.  As far as resolutions go, I reckon those are the best that we will ever make.  Because life really is too short for juggling.  Or for never knowing what you’re worth.

“There’s a lot of livin I gotta do,
Give me time to make a few dreams come true, 
Black star”
© Sid Wayne/ Sherman Edwards

Where Are We Going?

A quick mention (plus link) to a wonderfully interesting and refreshingly candid article in Strange Horizons this week: Where Are We Going? Some Reflections on British Horror, Present and Future, written by the always brilliant Nina Allan.

There is so much here to consider and discuss, not least that widening chasm between what is published and what could be published.  On one side, the idea that underrepresentation of female and minority writers in horror fiction is mere statistics: there are more men writing/submitting horror fiction, ergo - etc, etc, “and don’t get me started on bloody positive discrimination!” Versus the idea that it is everyone’s responsibility to keep on moving forwards; that to be inclusive is not just to say so, but to be so - to seek out new and diverse and original and challenging writers who have perhaps been alienated by a culture that can seem closed, or certainly stuck in its own past; and one that can often be so defensive, few people within it are able to recognise, never mind accept its failings.

It's a topic that has increasingly become more pertinent and more visible, and one which I've wanted to blog properly about for a while. I'm not sure what more I could add - Nina absolutely hits the nail on the head, without ever being argumentative or divisive - but it is an issue that deserves to be talked about and discussed again and again and again. It isn't new, of course, but it does seem to be coming out of hiding. My hope is that that chasm isn't widening at all, and that people are only noticing it now because it suddenly has a bloody great spotlight shining on it.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Monstrous

Go here! Buy this! Ahem...

Take a terrifying journey with literary masters of suspense, including Peter Straub, Kim Newman, and Caitlin R. Kiernan, visiting a place where the other is somehow one of us. These electrifying tales redefine monsters from mere things that go bump in the night to inexplicable, deadly reflections of our day-to-day lives. Whether it's a seemingly devoted teacher, an obsessive devotee of swans, or a diner full of evil creatures simply seeking oblivion, the monstrous is always there--and much closer than it appears.

I’m very, very happy to have a story in The Monstrous, Ellen Datlow’s latest anthology, this time from Tachyon Publications. The toc is fantastic, including Peter Straub, Kim Newman, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Livia Llewellyn, and John Langan among many others. The full toc is here:

“Datlow, horror anthologist extraordinaire, brings together all things monstrous in this excellent reprint anthology of 20 horror stories that explore the ever-widening definition of what makes a monster, with nary a misstep...(an) atmospheric and frequently terrifying collection.” Publishers Weekly

“The stories in The Monstrous are intense, with unsettling imagery that persists long after each one ends. This collection has something disturbing for everyone.” Andrea M. Pawley, Washington Independent

It's also an absolute thing of beauty, with wonderful interior illustrations by John Coulthart.
It’s available from publisher, Tachyon Publications, here
Or from Amazon uk here and here

King For A Year

I'm way behind, as usual, with everything, so a few housekeeping posts and then I promise, something that's not go here! look what I did! buy this! etc

Firstly though: go here! Look what I did!

"King For A Year is a 12-month project that allows a wide variety of readers, writers, fans and reviewers a chance to discuss Stephen King works that mean a lot to them." It is curated by fellow writer and BFA nominee, and all round lovely bloke, Mark West, and I jumped at the chance to be involved.

For many and varied reasons, I chose Dolores Claiborne as the subject of my review. It really is, and from first read always has been, a story very close to my heart, so please feel free to find out why here. (And if you couldn't care less why, the King For A Year blog is well worth a visit, regardless!)