Saturday, 7 July 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 8

Editorial: More by default than contrivance, PROTA 8 is strictly bookish. Our latest guest contributor is author, bookseller and long-term JG Ballard aficianado, STEPHEN E. ANDREWS. Here, he convincingly argues for greater, deeper coverage of literature and its creators across the media, where too often it is the poorest relation amongst popular culture. He ends with a related anecdote, both witty and telling. New releases from Tartarus and Egaeus Press get the regular 'Pan' dissection and we end with the all-too-occasional round-up under Albertine's Wooers. Enjoy...

Empire of the Scum:
J.G. Ballard meets the Pond Life Literati

By Stephen E. Andrews

There are more books in the world than there any other type of product. I don’t mean copies of books, but titles as in discrete and specific works. I’m also referring particularly to professionally published texts printed in codex form and deliberately excluding self-published and e-books. This has been the case for many, many decades. In any given year in the UK alone, around 100,000 new titles are issued, a similar number go out of print and there are usually around 600,000 different volumes available to order at any given moment. Globally, these numbers expand into millions. You might think there must be another consumer durable that is created and manufactured in greater numbers and diversity, but you’d be wrong. More than anything, printed books still define human civilisation.
   Despite this fecundity, books are invisible to many: in its fixation on sport as the opium of the people, the mass media’s coverage of literature is neglectful, tantamount to deliberate starvation. The paucity of book programmes on television and radio –those that do exist always focus on authors already famous or whatever the major publishers are currently hyping – is an international disgrace. Consequently, those of us who work in the book trade (whether writers, publishers or booksellers) are like the fish in M. C Escher’s print Three Worlds, barely visible beneath the surface of a murky pond, hardly ever breaking the meniscus above us into the oxygen of public awareness above.
   In the hierarchy of literary Pond Life, booksellers like me are the lowest of the low. Inhabitants of the Empire of the Scum, we can’t ever float like duckweed on the surface as authors who have ‘made it’ do. We speak to more readers than any editor or author ever does every single day. We are quietly influential, but in reality never actually make any work into a bestseller, except maybe in the town our bookshop resides in. There’s a rumour that a bookseller did this with John William’s Stoner, (an almost singular example of a novel becoming a bestseller some forty odd years after initial publication) but the fact is that this is a myth. NYRB Classics reissued Stoner over a decade ago before rights were claimed by Vintage in the UK some years later, but it was one of that imprint’s own surface floaters (the default English ‘literary zeitgeist’ novelist Ian McEwan) talking about the book on national radio that really got copies of Stoner selling en masse.
   Some writers recognise that the committed bookseller is more than an anonymous piece of software in the mainframe of literature. Instead, they treat us with respect as collaborators in bringing something special to individual readers for no more reward than a minimalist wage packet and the joy of sharing the revelation of neglected but striking art. For career booksellers, the most important perk of all is meeting one’s idols and enthusiastically evangelising their works.
   One of my favourite authors is J.G. Ballard. Despite early critical acclaim, Ballard didn’t cross over into mainstream acceptance from the ghetto of SF until his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1984. Having entered the book trade in the autumn this event occurred, I can confidently state that if this shortlisting (and the press reviews that accompanied it) had not occurred, Ballard would have remained underwater for most readers for far longer, possibly eternally. After all, Steven Spielberg would never have filmed Crash, would he? Like most commentators and interpreters working above the surface, Spielberg doesn’t really engage with the obscure: all of his literary adaptations are of tomes that were already bestsellers.
   This is where my workmates and I come in. As a rare example of that mutant amphibian known as the Writer-Bookseller, I shamelessly promote work I find stimulating to like-minded readers both in person from behind a counter and in print. My work on guides such as 100 Must Read Books For Men bought me brief notoriety via Radio 4’s Open Book programme while my Amazon bestseller 100 Must Read Science Fiction Novels led tangentially to my becoming a contributor to Deep Ends: The J.G. Ballard Anthology, an (almost) annual collection of prose and visual works in honour of my icon published by Terminal Press.
   My first piece for this handsome full-colour illustrated trade paperback anthology was for the 2016 edition, a lengthy anecdotal essay on what it’s been like seeing Ballard break through the surface tension from my perspective as a thirty-year bookseller who had encounters with the great man himself. Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018 was published very recently and features much enlightening and entertaining material by the likes of Paul Di Fillipo, Maxim Jakubowski, David Pringle (major veteran genre mavens all) and newer arrivals such as myself and James Reich (a nascent generation working at shaking up SF and slipstream writing). Although some of my magnificent peers have contributed startling short stories that homage Ballard in Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018, I’ve aimed to mesh travel writing with literary history in a Ballardian context in a piece entitled 'Me: Capri: Brigitte Bardot,' this heading reflecting JGB’s condensed novel 'You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe.'
   To give you an idea what my writing – and a bookseller’s life – is like, here’s an anecdote. Some decades ago, Ballard was doing a signing at a large Hampstead bookshop. Twenty minutes into his stint, no-one had turned up to get a copy of his new novel inscribed. Ever amiable and avuncular, Ballard suggested to the bookshop manager that he’d just be off, as the event clearly wasn’t a happening deal. Two minutes after the author had departed, a gleaming black sports car darted up to the pavement outside the shop. Out of the car stepped Bryan Ferry bearing a pile of Ballard first editions for signing; Crash almost met 'Re-Make: Re-Model.' Ferry had tried but, like the rest of us, he could not find a way.

Deep Ends: A Ballardian Anthology 2018 is published by Terminal Press.

Tree Spirit & Other Strange Tales by Michael Eisele, Tartarus Press

Committed readers of indie press may be surprised to learn that Michael Eisele's latest short tale collection is only his second. You could be forgiven for assuming otherwise since another mature author by this name had previously self-published four collections and one novel. (Between 2005 – 2008). Another reason for forgiving such an assumption is the sheer assured accomplishment of ours. Add the fact he's made his three-quarter century having previously supported himself across a wealth of trades and temporary manual jobs that took in the America of his birth, Germany, Hungary, ending up in the Brecon Beacons, then such life experience has clearly stood our Michael Eisele in good stead.
   Tree Spirit is only Eisele's second collection - after The Girl With The Peacock Harp (Tartarus, 2016) - where even the 'lesser' tales harbour greatness. Again, we are in the folk-horror territory of fantasy, melding Hoffmann, Carter and Pullman. The opener, 'Mouse,' is a pleasingly fictitious account of the struggling, foundling years of Schalken the painter and the supernatural little familiar destined to immortalise his very soul. 'Sacrifice' drops us into the middle of one dark seeker's ongoing search for the Tablet of Suliman; one needful of a companion who must pay for its purchase with her life. The companion he so casually chooses he soon underestimates.
   'Come Not High' is a sole example of SF where an alien race parallel a Biblical rebirth upon another world. If hardly original in concept, its presence here is a not unwelcome surprise. The title tale, however, may become a classic. Aeons ago, a tribe's woodcarver receives a vision of a tree spirit. She commands him to use his skill to fashion, and so release, her here in the material world, from 'the great spirit tree of the forest,' so she may find renewed life upon the waters of the Great River. Ignorant of the fate such an 'honour' might bestow, his own, as a consequence, becomes all too clear. The tale's strength is its quiet sensuality, as the female spirit gradually draws out the simple woodcarver's love of his craft to ultimately command his fate.
   'The Wife' – along with 'Leshi,' where a wayward son is summoned back to take over his late father's mountain-top pile – is the entry most adhering to the Hoffmannesque Gothic; especially in the nature of the beast to whom she finds herself married. A welcome lightening of mood climaxes the book in a connected trio of gently humorous folk tales; 'Brown Jenkins,' 'The Gardinel' and 'The Black Man.' This three-tale arc is narrated by the semi-literate familiar of a rookie witch who encounters a house, home to one she is feted to replace. These are both amusing and needful of further sequels' should Eisele ever have the yen. 'The Nun's Tale,' ending the collection, focuses on the topic of transfiguration as an elderly Catholic priest recalls his time as a novice, sent to the Amazon rainforest to seek out a missionary priestess lost to civilisation. What he found intimates madness – but in who?
   Amidst the human protaganists, I applaud Eisele for joining Carter and Pullman in updating the classic fairy tale characters of dwarf, giant and werewolf while firmly adhering to the tradition. With no appended credits page, this appears to be first publication for all fifteen tales. The broad use of the genre unified in the quality of feeling and mood. You could do no better than prioritising this title as your main summer read.

A Book Of The Sea, Edited by Mark Beech, Egaeus Press

The resulting submissions that cohere from disparate collection prompted by Mark Beech's call - enjoy two sets of linking themes. The first can be defined as the evocation and re-creation of lost art; lost for the personal spiritual 'benefit' and self-justification of the tales' protagonists. Good examples abound here from names both new (to me) and established.
   Stephen J. Clark's 'The Figurehead of the Cailleach' is Buchanesque folk horror seen through the filter of his artist's eye. As with the best tales here, it is served by an atmospheric prose that doesn't try too hard, but rather insinuates with a pace both encroaching and ominous. In Karim Ghahwagi's intriguing 'Sorrow of Satan's Book,' the Scandi-sea is haunting atmospheric background to a tale of an art-obsessed film scholar. He is en route to a pre-arranged meeting with a screenwriter to discuss the production of a screenplay for silent film director, Carl Dreyer; only to find, upon arrival, the police cordon of a crime scene. A metaphysical mystery, it hints upon the madness that can be borne of inspiration. Colin Insole's 'Dancing Boy' is a small dilapidated boat, the restoration of which becomes a labour of love for its new owner, ignorant of the curse of its dark past. Jonathan Woods' 'From Whence It Came' concerns an artist's growing obsession with elemental nature, the tides, and his attempts to find the secret, and match, his late feted artist uncle's 'perfection' in paint from the site where he'd once lived.
   The second linking theme utilises the more traditional angle of the protagonist-in-danger spawned by the sea itself. Rosalie Parker's 'Waiting' concerns a young woman – dockside in 18th century England - finding betrayal from the very love that had for too long sustained her. With no overt horror, the ending intimates another sense of loss in just how fickle can be an emotion so powerful. A more overt expression of intense emotion can be read in Tom Johnstone's full-blooded Lovecraftian 'In The Hold It Waits.' A crate harbouring an unknown terror, again in the inevitable century, feted to curse its possessor through events already dire, is edge-of-the-seat stuff. The tension-steeped prose never falters. Familiar territory, yes, but graphically rendered. A rare, very welcome treat is a new tale from George Berguno. (Lauded previously in these pages). The understated 'Woman From Malta' finds a visiting protagonist received with suspicion as a series of actions – in the stead of an unpopular seer - may be more than mere history repeating. It is, perhaps, the collection's most subtle and sophisticated entry.
   The high quality of the majority of submissions left an inevitable few that didn't quite match. The baroque prose-style of one – while committed and contemporaneous – also acted as an occasional obstacle to this more general reader's concentration. A second, interesting in its narrative perspective, lacked the standard of prose attained elsewhere. This may be Mark Beech's most consistently successful collection so far. As ever, the use of well chosen stock period paintings and engravings enhance, rather than overpower or submerge, the texts. The number of featured authors high on my unofficial list of current favourites, is also great.

Albertine's Wooers

Joyce Carol-Oates' Night-Gaunts & Other Tales of Suspense (Head Of Zeus) should harbour the uncanny. Snuggly Books have a whole raft of intriguing new releases, including Colin Insole's Valerie & Other Stories, a very long-awaited, first-time p/b reissue for Count Stenbock's Studies Of Death and new collections by contemporary Decadent-era authors, Renee Vivien and Jane de la Vaudere; Lilith's Legacy: Prose Poems & Short Stories and The Double Star & Other Occult Fantasies, respectively. Finally, for those with more traditional tastes, we have Black Shuck Books A Suggestion Of Ghosts: Supernatural Fiction By Women, 1854-1900; Victorian-era tales collected for the very first time, edited by J.A. Mains with an intro by Lynda E. Rucker.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 7

Greetings from the height of Spring - post-May Day - and three new offerings. We start with something rather different. A timely opinion piece on how women artists in dance music find themselves at a disadvantage whenever deals are struck between the DJ-Producer and music platform. Male vocalists suffer too, but there is an ongoing legal limbo for the invariably female 'featured' singer. It is a plea, but also a challenge. Next, comes a fascinating Q & A (mainly 'A') with dark short tale supremo of forty years and counting, STEVE RASNIC TEM, as his retrospective collection 'Figures Unseen' is released by Valancourt.  Finally, a review of PRIYA SHARMA's impressive debut collection, 'All The Fabulous Beasts.' Slainte...

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An opinion

How male-led technology has deprived women artists

Thirty years ago, the new dance music of house, 'rave' and techno also heralded, unseen behind the celebration, a subtle but decisive shift in the creative hierarchy. With music production, above playing or even performing, becoming an increasingly accessible art-form, the producer became the artist; one considered at least as important, if not more so, than the singer / songwriter herself; for it was mainly women artists who were the faces and voices of this new medium. The faces as the commercial selling point; the voices for the soul and, often, beauty, the new producers couldn’t possibly evoke from their digital electronics alone. The producer then became the DJ, remixing multiple versions of established hits 'live,‘ and performing them before club-goers‘; the new audience for this new form of artist.
  As technology has become increasingly sophisticated and accessible since then, the voice, from wherever the source, has become no more to the successful DJ-Producer than any other sampled sound, remixed and utilised to serve their whims. In tandem, the track’s 'lead‘ vocalist had been quietly and successfully relegated to that of 'featured' vocalist in less than two years. A decade on, the related ambient branch known as trance (or ambient trance or psy-trance) demanded further use of the woman’s vocal as a means to enhance a track‘s already existing beauty and subtlety of atmosphere. By now, the DJ-Producer was The Star and – unchallenged - called the shots.

So, let‘s define what, and who, we are talking about here. Many such cases stem from the role of 'featured vocalist,' where a DJ-Producer invites a professional singer to add their voice onto the chorus or repetitive 'hook' of the track they've constructed in their studio. If the vocalist has written neither the lyric nor melody to that chorus or 'hook,' how it is subsequently used is up to the DJ-Producer. However, this form of ownership – legally or otherwise – is often used to encompass those choruses and 'hooks' that have been written by the vocalist.
  Of course, popular music has always progressed – and thrived – as the technology that produced it became increasingly sophisticated. This has been the case since shellac was discarded for vinyl and the CD for the download. However, the role of creator, and his definition, has since become vague. A position very much to the DJ-Producer’s advantage. The goalposts as to who does what and where have crucially shifted, finding no new home, leaving the woman artist in a legal limbo. The mainly male DJ-Producers have taken advantage of this, big-time. The singer-songwriter who has penned the original track and mix she has contributed her vocal to won’t necessarily receive either payment or named credit for her work. Not only this, any subsequent remix will also be out of her control where a fellow DJ-Producer wants to put his very different signature on the original mix.
  It is the case that not all vocalists' write the tracks they appear on; but, to treat those artists who do the same way, (for independent artists is who they remain), as if they are merely another worthy sacrifice to serve the sound, and ego, of the all-powerful DJ-Producer, should be called out for what it is – artistic theft. Thankfully many artists have recently gotten wise to this situation and refuse to work in the 'featured‘ vocalist role ever again, now viewing it as toxic.

One singer-songwriter, whose debut release made the Top 10 in the early 90s,‘ recently related how she receives requests to use her vocals, for unsanctioned remixes, on a weekly basis. She emphasised that no permissions to use her name or voice on these remixes have so far been given for use on any of the big name music platforms. It appears that, whatever her response, it is casually ignored as is crediting her as vocalist. She says she had previously been burned early in her career and so, unsurprisingly, has been left somewhat scarred.       'These people can leave a sensitive person feeling like they are nothing...,' she says. 'I hear it, day in, day out, from fellow vocalists and it's disgusting, vile behaviour.' She is, however, moving on. She adds how learning from these experiences has enabled her to write and record new music and release it through her own label. She's fighting back – and on her own terms.

Another, Susan Brice (aka CocoStar), recently reflected:

'Due to the birth of the internet and it's grim dilution of most things (we are in a different time with music), it is mainly male dominated and throw away. The industry as a whole has not changed at all with regards to the 'cut throat' stigma which it seems to rely on.... Most businesses in the world have become harder to run due to dilution, thus creating a plethora of mass production services and items all easily had at the touch of a button. Sad times indeed, but years ago we had to wait for everything which created a feeling of worth and gratitude for the individual. There is no waiting anymore for most things For the younger generations this situation is forcing them into a boredom vortex in a fake 3D world, which is not their fault.'

This artist adds that she has had at least five self-penned songs stolen, the rights for which she is currently fighting.

Consequently, such artists have been left to fend for themselves, leaving them in territory legally impotent. Rather than farm themselves out to DJ-Producers' whose work they might otherwise distantly admire, artists, since burned, are now returning to those whom they’ve worked with in the past and feel they can still trust. Retreating back to those they know appears the only alternative. Long-term, this can’t be a settled response, mitigating against future creative and monetary growth. Some readers may think, 'well, why wasn't this situation dealt with by the artists themselves, years ago?' Such protection to become law requires its recognition in Government legislation. Successive Governments‘ have proven toothless in this regard; consequently, in the eyes of many artists, so have The Musicians‘ Union. As someone pro-union himself, this is disappointing to say the least. According to their homepage, their mandate here is to "lobb(y) Government to protect these rights on the basis that only a small number of MU members have regular salaries. Most are Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), whether they are sole traders or members of a band, and they therefore rely on their copyright and performers’ rights to make a significant part of their income. In essence, their copyright and related rights are an important part of their ‘product’ and of the diverse income streams that make up their income, and, like any SME, they have to protect their product." Fine so far. They add:

'What we are arguing for is fair compensation for musicians from the device manufacturers. These manufacturers are already paying for patents to software developers and the like on each device sold, and yet the act of copying onto these devices the ‘software’ the consumer is most interested in – music - is not currently generating any income for musicians, unless it is through legitimate download purchases.'

Under a page entitled ‘Fair Pay for Musicians’ they state their recognition that, “musicians rely on live revenue to survive. Income from CD sales is decreasing and illegal downloading continues, making a sustainable career difficult without fair pay for live performances.
  Still good. Or is it? Reading between the lines – and looking elsewhere – there is a disconnect here.   This is two-fold. An assumption exists that all artists are full-time and, being so, must be the sole recipients requiring MU support. The problem with this line of reasoning today is that most women artists in particular can’t be full-time due to the very exclusivity of the deals being struck between the platforms and the DJ-Producers. Allied to this is the aforementioned lack of permission sought to use a singer-songwriter’s vocal elsewhere on the track of another DJ-Producer. Such precariousness for the artist means payment is not only inconsistent but often non-existent. Thus, maintaining any kind of career – even as a second-string – is unrealistic. Secondly, if the MU are mandated to do little more than lobby, (and, legally, that’s presumably all they are able to do), then the Government – not known for having fingers on pulses when it comes to an artist’s ability to produce – are the final arbiter. Surely, the MU should be ‘upgraded,’ made independent enough to make their own rules – specific to artists’ needs – apart from Government diktat?

Today, of course, there are many women DJ-Producers challenging this decades-long patriarchy. Annie Mac, Lisa Lashes, DJ Heather, Maya Jane Coles, DJ Rap, Ellen Allien and many others have been well known for years around the clubs of the world, many owning their own labels. Such a high level of commitment, e.g. the touring, anti-social hours, hotel stays, hiring and firing of staff, etc., suggests this much-feted role is no less full-on than that of any successful, full-time band. It also suggests those artists with life commitments prioritised elsewhere (be it another business or to young family) are equally feted to lose out and be treated not unlike agency workers in other, more regular, jobs; where a recording contract is a two-sided deal between the DJ-Producer and music platform, freezing out the artist that actually supplies their product. While a woman artist becoming a DJ-Producer may be one way out, it isn't a solution to the live, ongoing issues of writer credit or vocal theft.

The ripping-off of singer/songwriters is nothing new. It's been going on since the days of Tin Pan Alley and, subsequently, Colonel Tom Parker. Its latest manifestation resides with the deals being cut between music platforms and – the usually male – DJ-Producers. Currently, in the US, The Music Modernization Act is a bill intended to ensure songwriters have 'a seat at the table' when it comes to payment and the collection of royalties from the big digital platforms. One clause, however, has proven controversial. This would exclude any retrospective legal claims from those music platforms who have signed-up to it, such as Spotify. The compromise which ensured their participation. (Update: on the 25th April, the bill was passed, unanimously, by the House of Representatives). This is, at least, the start of some official recognition and recompense and not necessarily the end of the road. Meanwhile, independent voices in the field have started up, offering advise and support to those already established, but suffering the lack of credit and payment. (See below for an example).
  Welcome, if somewhat belated, (if historical social media posts are anything to go by), are the fans finally coming around to showing some empathy with their idols‘ situation; the realisation dawning that they may lose both the work and their favourite artist unless this situation is dealt with. I know of at least one other case (an artist once interviewed in these pages) who – while not entirely giving up on her love – has been forced to work elsewhere due to unreliable payments.
  I’d be the first to admit that the dry concept of regulation in the arts would normally make me very queasy. However, seeing the ease with which work can now be stolen and manipulated, and the negative effects this has on the original artists, surely justifies singling-out this field as a major exception. With credit and payment being such live issues in music – and gender-favouring issues at that – certain obligations must be fulfilled before the DJ-Producer can so casually finger-press that final 'click.'


a Q & A with
Steve Rasnic Tem

FIGURES UNSEEN collects your more recent work, published since 2000. How do you think your writing has matured, or changed, over the last eighteen years, compared to your earliest published work?
Steve Rasnic Tem: Actually, FIGURES UNSEEN collects work from all stages of my career, beginning with my first professionally published short story, “City Fishing.” I think the confusion is because I selected stories from each of my collections, and my first English collection, City Fishing, didn’t come out until 2000. (There was an earlier, French language collection Ombres sur la Route.) Basically, I tried to select a representative sampling of my short fiction, a book I could point to when people asked, “What do you do?”

That said, there is an evolution in my stories from the beginning until now. When I finally became serious about writing I started out studying and writing poetry, and my first fiction actually came out of my experiments writing prose poetry. So these first stories tend to feature the compression of poetry, use echoes and choruses and alliteration and other poetic techniques, and they also tend to be more dream-like and fabulist than the later fiction. They also tend to be very short.

The initial evolution from that early work largely consisted of learning how to write longer stories—more narrative-driven, more complicated plots, more characters, using more than one obsessive theme per story, etc. The use of language and tone also became more complicated. What drives me now is more thematic. I’ve been picking up on events and themes I once found too personally troubling to write about. One thing about getting older—you tend to grow less reticent about revealing yourself. You grow beyond embarrassment.

Several of the tales in FIGURES UNSEEN feel particularly personal. Familial grief and loss seem especially foregrounded in tales such as 'A House by the Ocean,' the seminal 'Wheatfield With Crows,' 'The Figure In Motion' and 'Firestorm.' Was this conscious on your part? Were you - perhaps intentionally - working through similar feelings during their writing?

SRT: I think my work has always been somewhat personal, but I’ve gotten better at incorporating the personal material, so readers are seeing more and more of it. But even when I’m writing about events which I haven’t experienced myself, the key is to be empathetic and to make them personal. Some aspects of writing are very much like acting. You must try to “inhabit” your characters, especially the protagonist. Oftentimes problems in tone and awkwardness are due to the fact that you haven’t learned how to fully inhabit your character yet. Also, usually when I write about personal material it’s after I’ve worked those feelings through, not during.
I particularly enjoyed the dark humour of ‘The Poor’ and ‘Crutches.’ I could relate to how I, myself, view the coldly callous treatment meted out in the former and the sense of inevitable defeatism in the latter. Do you have a strong sense of social injustice, the way Governments’ can often treat people and how they respond?
SRT: The inherent problem with any government is that it by necessity must treat people as numbers and percentages to a certain degree in drafting policy. If it’s a just government then it also tries to protect and preserve justice for the minorities and outliers whose needs and sense of identity is at variance with those in the majority. But still, we’re basically talking about numbers and percentages here. But human beings are not numbers and percentages. They’re far more complicated than that, and they expect and demand empathy. And empathy makes things messy. So messy in fact that there is pressure to disregard empathy in making policy. There is even pressure to disregard empathy when leading one’s life.

The result I get from all this is absurdity. Much of modern life abounds in absurdity. And my sense of the absurd is expressed in stories like “The Poor” and “Crutches” and “Head Explosions” and a number of others. The only way around this is to find ways to humanize government, to make empathy into a tool for handling large numbers of folks. We’re not very good at that yet—maybe we never will be. One of the reasons we’re not very good at it is that anytime we don’t understand someone, any time they scare us or disappoint us or they trigger our own anxieties or even when we just feel sorry for them, we fictionalize them, we make stories up as to who they are and what they’re about. And sometimes those stories are bad enough they veer into prejudice, racism, misogyny, etc. Perhaps if we were more aware of how we fictionalize other people, we’d do it a lot less.

This question is, I’ll admit, something of an old chestnut, but it’s one I’ve yet to reconcile for myself. I’m not a fan of the term ‘horror,’ as describing what I either like or the audience I’d like to attract. As both reader and writer, Robert Aickman’s use of the word ‘strange’ is more my starting point; where the ‘weird shit’ that occurs is almost supplementary, from left-field, rather than the driving force of the tale. What do you think of the term ‘horror’ whenever critically applied to your own work?
SRT: I’ve been back and forth on this question over the years. In part because of its association with movies, “horror” has come to imply this big emotional response, this open-mouthed, hands-in-the-air, heart-stopping response to something incomprehensibly terrible. Well, that doesn’t fit what I write at all, and it doesn’t fit most of what I like to read. 

I do like Aickman’s “strange stories,” and to a certain degree I like “the weird,” but we can get into endless conversations as to actually what these terms mean. In fact, currently we seem to be drowning in terms attempting to pinpoint the various shadings of this literature: “Smart horror” and “Elevated horror” and “the weird” and “dark suspense” and “bizarro” and “dark fantasy,” etc. And in the end they really don’t seem to clarify anything.

But, whatever we do, the label “horror” never seems to go away. That’s the one that sticks, inaccurate or not. And I have to say I have loved a great many things over the years with that label emblazoned on the spine. So I suppose I have come to just accept the term. Call my work “horror,” but if you really want to know what I’m about just read the stories.

Of the current generation, who are your own favourite short tale authors who you feel are woefully underrated or underexposed?
SRT: There are so many—it’s a golden age for this literature in the short form. As for underrated or underexposed, it depends on the context—very few names seem to be known everywhere. But here’s a sampling of people I like to read: Caitlin Kiernan, Simon Stranzas, Lynda Rucker, John Langan, Kristi DeMeester, Nathan Ballingrud, Mark Valentine, Jeffrey Ford, too many to name, really.
How far are you into your latest project and can you hint as to its form or content?
SRT: I’m playing with a lot of things. I just finished a short story I’m very proud of, “The Parts Man,” which will be in The Valancourt Book of Horror Stories this Fall. Also coming this Fall is my short story “Thanatrauma,” another one I’m very proud of, in New Fears 2. In terms of books, I’m half-way through finishing a YA horror novel, Summerdark, and I’m working regularly on the novel Bodies & Heads, a rather strange extension of my short story of the same name that was in The Book of the Dead. It’s hard to say how much I’ve completed on that because I know I’ll be doing a lot of rewriting. Maybe 35%?

Huge thanks to Steve for the giving of his time.

See the Tems' official site here:

All The Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma, Undertow Publications

Priya Sharma describes herself in her day job as a doctor and general practitioner, having formerly studied medicine at university. Certainly, her debut collection reveals an interest in biological transformation and its effect upon personal relationships. Her best more precisely invoke what the back cover refers to as her melding of 'myth and ontology.' On a personal level, this is what I try to achieve in a strand of my own; where an individual in the present cannot – either by choice or design – surpress their past or true nature. This is the overarching theme hiding in plain sight behind the fantasy. Beside this, the bonds of love, lust and loss play out in familial situations.
  'The Crow Palace' refers to 'the altar of the childhood rituals that bound us'; a bird-table gradually constructed in increasing layers, over years, by the father of twins, and possibly at the expense of their own home.
  In 'Egg,‘ a young woman's infertility is bargained away for the promise of motherhood when a witch with ambiguous intent offers her a daughter; except this child is in an egg. Once the shell breaks, she gradually bonds with the offspring as she would any daughter. Yet, this is only the first test of her commitment. Sharma posits an interesting dilemma; the strength of a mother's love in the face of her spawn being a different species.
  'The Sunflower Seed Man' sees the secret of a sunflower, planted by the late husband and father buried beneath it, appear to fulfill its unknown promise from the perception of his wife, desperately mourning his loss.
  In 'The Englishman,‘ the most affecting tale, Kris Sharma has been away from India for twenty-five years. On his return to the country, his wife and old life having passed, he wants to know who he now is and where he now belongs. In his quest for identity, he stumbles upon an answer that, ironically, subsumes it. The title then is also ironic, in that it recognises his definition as one kind of 'Englishman' by the Asian and another kind in England itself. Such a tale, with its nod to the human condition, reveals Sharma as a definite cut above most of her contemporaries.
  'The Nature Of Bees' is a personal favourite. At an age-old family community that harvests honey, a woman falls for a handsome, sensual male whose covert intention is revealed as much wider than she could have foreseen. (I appreciated the false sense of security intimated in his depiction as a louche romantic).
  'Fabulous Beasts' is something of a domestic drama as a father with a history of violence, having served his time, is released back to the family home. His view of reintergrating-into-society is to continue his psycho-sexual dominance from where he left off. However, his growing children share an ability his self-serving mind could never encompass.
  Sixteen tales for a debut collection feels excessive. Fortunately, Sharma is one of those cut-above new voices from whom the best harbour prose, as beautiful as it is visceral, that elevates them above mere horror.

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 8 will be here in July

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Pan Review Of The Arts - No. 6

Welcome back to all Pan's readers from me and a very grateful goat-foot god Himself, who's only just emerged, belatedly, from hibernation. The arts combo here touches upon both painting and - as ever and always - books. While this blog has long been an admittedly self-centered indulgence, (as is His wont), we are always open to new ideas; these, with regard to what aspects of the arts you'd like to see that have yet to be covered. What will be a constant will be the preference for short tale collections over novels, though, as with author HELEN GRANT, those known for both would never be ignored. First up is New Zealand artist VIKY GARDEN, whose uncanny depictions of the self through the years has, I'm pleased to say, quite some way to go. The sole collection from a future BBC scripter in children's fantasy ends this entry. Enjoy...

You've written on your site that you're 'still painting that very first self-referencing painting – and I can’t or won’t finish doing so until I feel I’ve got it - which will probably never happen.' Reflecting on this, what do you feel might be the obstacles to achieving finality?

Viky Garden: I think it’s my way of saying I never want to finish – or that I’m aware there really is no end until the big sleep. All of these paintings are a continuing conversation I’m having with myself and deep down in my marrow it’s not something I want to stop. Each time I start a new work I’m giving myself total freedom but at the same time I’m literally looking to myself for answers as to how this latest relationship – mere pigment scraped on canvas, will resolve – what question will it ask?

Do you vary the ways you work – and / or the materials used - when you begin your latest self-portrait, or is there always a set routine?

VG: Until a month ago, my studio used to be a room in the house – so it was very easy for me to nip in and out at any time and within seconds, be working. Now I’ve got a separate studio out in the yard and it requires dedicated time. I make a point of getting all the admin/chores sorted in the morning and that gives me the afternoons to spend in the studio.
  For the first 25 years I painted with oils because I had this insane bias against acrylic paint. Something along the lines of ‘good artists use oils’ – an embarrassing prejudice based solely on the idea that one learned technique has more value than another. But I found that I was using smaller and smaller brushes and working with my nose to the canvas – I was slowly suffocating. I felt the need to challenge my approach but wasn't sure how to go about it. So I stopped painting.
  This is a financially suicidal thing to do and I don’t recommend it. But for two months at the end of 2015, that’s exactly what I did. With time, I slowly began to give myself permission to think in broader terms until I got to a point where nothing was standing in my way (it never had been of course, I was the sole obstacle). In those two months over summer, I played a lot of backgammon. I’m certain it helped in a contemplative way because in February 2016 I went back into the studio, put away the oils and paintbrushes and began painting with liquid acrylic and using bits of cardboard. I didn’t want anything to remind me of the practice of oil painting – no paint in tubes and no brushes. It was an enormous risk because I had no idea how to paint with acrylics or even what it was I was hoping to achieve.
  If there’s a set routine, it’s a loose one with a much more random approach to what’s going to appear on the canvas and why. Working with abstraction has given me much more opportunity to discover ‘happy accidents’, those wonderful moments of time where a splash or smear of paint can determine or reveal an aspect of light or form that conscious thought and practice often stifles.

Have there been occasions when your art and the music of your husband Steve, of Rattle Records, have come together in multimedia projects?

VG: We tend to stay in our own paddock with our work. The only time there’s been any overlapping is when my photography has been used for Rattle cover artwork and my choosing Rattle music for two of my Youtube clips. We both work from home so we’re together all the time and often Steve’s work can be intense (he not only runs Rattle but he engineers and produces most of the music). To be honest, I’ve never thought about the possibility of doing any kind of project together because there never seems to be enough time in the day. That’s not to say that if something presented itself we wouldn’t consider it.

From your website, I see you have also sculpted variations of the female torso. Are you also the model for these and do they represent, as much as the paintings, this same ongoing search?

VG: In the summer of 2013 I produced about a dozen small sculptures. At the time it was as much about giving myself a break from painting as it was the desire to learn a new process. The great thing about the torsos was that for the most part, I was able to think less and simply produce. There’s something to be said for the physical process of producing work in this manner – making moulds and casting pieces (each torso is in a limited edition of 5) and finally, sanding for hours on end. I was curious and keen to teach myself how to make sculpture. Apart from a couple of works, they are mostly female torsos – it wasn’t a conscious decision to base these on me, but the tendency for me is always to do what I know. These are like talisman pieces, they each fit in the palm of my hand and are beautiful forms to hold. I’ve since had one of the pieces printed larger (using 3D technology) so that in the future I can made an edition of it.

So far, what have your self-portraits helped you learn about yourself since the age of fifteen?

VG: It’s so tempting to say ‘everything and nothing’. Everything in the sense that they are a visual record of my life for the past 30 years. While I haven’t been too obvious with my narratives, I clearly recall what was happening at the time when I look back at the majority of my work. If I was to say nothing, it’s because ‘needing to know’ keeps me standing in front of that easel. In all this time, nothing about ‘our’ language – the language that exists between me and her – has changed. I’ve learned that what feels personal, even intimate, is really universal – aspects of love and loss, the transitory nature of everything, change and impermanence. Collectors aren’t buying ‘a portrait of Viky Garden’, they’re seeing something that resonates their own life experience.

Do you think you'd still have wanted to be a painter if consistently using yourself as the subject hadn't originally occurred?

VG: Life is serendipitous; opportunities arise and if we have the talent, time, and understanding, we make of it what we will. I didn’t get the chance to go to art school, however at eighteen I met Steve and for as long as we’ve been able to, we’ve given ourselves the freedom to make our own path and trust our own vision. In a parallel life I could very well have gone to art school, applied myself and perhaps found influence in a different discipline or practice. I’ve often wondered, if I wasn’t painting at all and could choose a different interest, it would probably be based around some sort of archaeology. I can think of nothing more meditative than carefully revealing and discovering aspects of our past, what makes us who we are now. In many ways, I find its very much the same purpose painting serves.

A big thank you to Viky for her time and contribution.

You can find Viky's official website here:


I first heard about HELEN GRANT from her 2013 Swan River Press collection, The Sea Change & Other Stories. Known mainly as a popular novelist for the Young Adult range, her latest - Ghost (Fledgling Press) - cleverly defies reader expectation, with its young protagonist of the title and the resonant echoes of a historical past. 

What inspired the plot and choice of setting for Ghost?

Helen Grant: I've always found real life locations a great source of inspiration; all my novels and most of my short stories are set in real places that I have visited. I think an atmospheric location is not only a rich backdrop to a story, it can also suggest elements of the plot. For me, an interesting setting is like an empty stage set, waiting for the characters to appear, and the details of the stage scenery suggest to me what kind of action might take place.
  Ghost is set in Perthshire, Scotland, where we have lived since 2011. One aspect of living here that I've always found fascinating is being able to see the traces of the past in the landscape. I'm fascinated by the vanished country houses of Scotland – many of them built in the 1800s and then abandoned in the mid twentieth century when they became impractical to maintain. Langlands House, the setting for the book, is not a real place, but it is inspired by some of the derelict houses I've visited. Most of them are ruinous because when they were abandoned they were unroofed, and the weather has got in. I thought: supposing there was a house like this, but someone had just locked the door and walked away, leaving all the contents inside? Who would be living in a place like that, and why? And that is where the story of Ghost came from.
  Innerpeffray Library, an antiquarian library near Crieff, was also a source of inspiration for the fictional library at Langlands House. I liked the idea of a library that has so many interesting and beautiful books on such a wide range of topics, but all of them outdated. My heroine does her best to interpret the world around her with nothing to rely on but that.

Without wishing to give away any plot elements, did you decide at the outset of Ghost's writing that the old adage of what-goes-around-comes-around would be a key part of the climax?

HG: I knew from the outset what the ending of the book would be. The final scenes were very clear in my mind even before I started writing. But I don't really see the ending as being all about what-goes-around-comes-around. I think it's more about the difficulty of escaping who we are, and the history that has shaped us. It's very hard to say any more about this topic without offering any massive spoilers!

A real strength of the novel's first half are the tropes of supernatural fiction being at first suggested, then changed. Was this always your intention, during the drafting, or did you change your mind and decide to defy the reader's expectations?

HG: This was one hundred per cent intentional. I wanted the reader to ask themselves what was really happening, and perhaps to make some assumptions before more of the truth of the situation was revealed. Ghost was a very difficult book to write, and I did more rewriting and editing on it than I have done on any of my other novels. But the rewriting was largely about the characterisation and some plot details. I was very clear about the supernatural tropes and their role in the novel throughout the writing process.

The feel of the novel reminded me of Nina Bawden's Carrie's War. The house, the lone girl protagonist, the family feud and consequence for which she feels profound guilt, etc. Were such novels for older children, and / or their TV adaptations, a major influence on your writing?

HG: No. I recall Carrie's War being on television when I was a child but I have never read it, and I can't think of any other novel for older children which was an influence here. I would say that a big influence was Gothic literature, which also favours tropes such as the isolated heroine and the intriguingly dilapidated ruin, and often has a supernatural element. I've always loved classic Gothic fiction, ever since I was a teenager myself, devouring The Mysteries of Udolpho and Dracula. Combining my Gothic tastes with my environment of rural Scotland was what produced Ghost.

While the novel form has long been considered – by agents and publishers - as more commercial than collections of short tales, still might we hope for a follow-up to The Sea Change (Swan River Press (2013)) in the future?

HG: Yes, definitely. I have now written more than enough new stories to create a new collection, and I really hope to see one come out in future. However, a few readers did comment after reading The Sea Change, that they would like to have seen some completely new fiction in it. It would be ideal if a future collection included some totally unseen work - and I haven't had time to sit down and write anything!
  I agree that collections of short stories are seen as a harder sell than a novel. All the same, ghost stories remain perennially popular. Personally, I love writing them. A novel of 120,000 words is a big undertaking, whereas a story of 5,000 words gives a sense of satisfaction and completion but takes a comparatively short amount of time to write. I think also that as a novelist there is always this pressure to produce something similar to the thing you wrote last time, probably because it's confusing for the readership if you write a crime thriller and then follow it up with a Gothic romance. But there isn't the same pressure with short stories. You can experiment a bit more. I sometimes write ghost stories with quite traditional settings but just recently I've been experimenting with more existential stuff and I really enjoy doing that.

For me, the traditional ghost-in-a-haunted-house type tale is way past its use-by date. What is your own view of the ghost in modern literature?

HG: This is an interesting question. My daughter, who loves classic ghost stories, admits that some of the traditional tropes are now clichés but says that to a certain extent she reads the stories for those clichés. And I think that the traditional setting of the decaying old house or dank mossy churchyard is used for a reason: those places genuinely are creepy. I should know – I spend my spare time exploring places like that! In the hands of a really good writer, I think they can still come to full and creepy life. An excellent example in my mind is Neil Gaiman's short story October in the Chair, which features both haunted house and graveyard. It's a story which fills me with tension and dread – and also sadness - every single time I read it.
  I think though that when we say "traditional ghost…" we are thinking of a very specific type of ghost: the lingering spirit of the recently dead. For me, a ghost can be very different from that. In a recent interview, I was asked (as I often am) whether I believe in ghosts myself, to which I answered: Yes. I don't believe in things in white sheets and chains hanging around a graveyard going "Wooooo….!" But I think it's possible to be haunted. I've occasionally seen someone in a crowd and thought that it was someone I know to be dead, and I've dreamed very vividly about people who have died. Now, I know that I am not really seeing a ghost when I "see" people in this way, but I think these experiences are a kind of haunting, because they show that the lost person is still very present in my mind. I think Ghost is a book in which the past very much haunts the present, and the dead reach out of their graves to exert their influence on the living. Isn't that the definition of a ghost story?

Huge thanks to Helen for her contribution.

Helen's official website is at: