I came from dust, I shall return to dust

“D.U.S.T ltd is a Memento Mori museum and shop with a growing collection of stuff related to death and grieving rituals. It houses a collection of objects and curios connected to death and mourning. A mummified cat, dried frogs, the head of a goldfinch, broken graveyard debris, Victorian tear vials, bones and haunted dolls are on display alongside artworks by artists and makers whose work addresses grief in some way selling artworks relating to dust, dirt and death. The Shop also hosts a series of online lectures, events and podcast exploring mourning and in particular the presence the dead have in the lives of the living.”

DUST Ltd has recently opened in Penzance. I visited the shop on its opening day and spoke with the owner, Lucy Willow. As you can see from the photo below, it’s an intriguing and beautiful place, highly reminiscent of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall. I gave Lucy a copy of Dykes Ink and it’s likely her shop will stock the zine – there are a number of zines etc for sale there with a ‘folk horror’ element and although Dykes Ink doesn’t come under that category, our ethos is certainly something she could relate to. I also spoke to her about my writing and she will be interviewing me for her forthcoming podcast. It’s very exciting to have such a place here in Penzance and I’m looking forward to working with Lucy – and, of course, visiting the shop again.

Photo: Julie Travis

British Fantasy Society review of ‘Tomorrow, When I Was Young’

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Big thanks to Rima Devereaux for this lovely review:

“A city where the dead go about their ordinary lives, a mysterious Golden Sea Captain, a journey through space and time, a discovering of one’s multicultural past, a hymn to self-realization and an escape from the mundane. This highly unusual, beautifully written and unforgettable novella is all these things.

Zanders finds herself aboard a strange three-masted clipper ship with a ghost crew that she can’t see. She realizes very quickly that the Golden Sea Captain is a woman dressed as a man. Hints are dropped throughout about how Zanders feels drawn to the Captain, but the ending is still a surprise. The gender ambiguity of the mysterious Captain reminded me of the Fool in Robin Hobb – Travis is similarly concerned with sexual identity, explored through the use of fantasy tropes.

Zanders’ sudden transportation to this new world of the past is an awakening in other ways too. Her loved ones have all died, she has sold most of her belongings and she is disabled by having had several vertebrae crushed. But aboard the ship, she is no longer disabled. We don’t actually learn much about her former life (which is in the future, as Travis takes pains to point out), except that her grandmother was Peruvian. In the fantasy world she finds herself in, her aim is to question people about her grandmother’s whereabouts, beginning, naturally enough, in the city of the dead.

Another reminder of Robin Hobb, this time of the liveships, is the fact that the figurehead comes to life and fights for the ship. But these nods don’t make the novella derivative – it has its own powerful and lyrical beauty, fusing an exploration of sexual and cultural identity with a journey in space and time.

Travis underlines the care the Captain takes to play the part he has adopted, and by implication pinpoints the sharp and rigid definition of gender roles in the past she is portraying. The ship is a space where things are more fluid and malleable. The same is true of Zanders’ Peruvian grandmother – the ship allows a meeting that is impossible in our world, a meeting that is a genuine communion. It shows how much is lost in families of mixed heritage where a life is reduced to a bundle of old photographs given to Zanders by her aunt. The book’s tender fantasy highlights the poignancy of these themes in a way that realism can struggle to.

The divide between waking and dreaming, past and present, and past and future, are other dualisms that the novel collapses. What we are is all about recollection and perception. But the book also shows the strong desire many of us have for the past to become real to us, a living thing, more than memory, to paraphrase The Lord of the Rings.”

I find it interesting that most of the writers my work is compared to are ones I’ve never read. It’s resulted in a huge reading list for me that I’ll never finish!

Punk Girl Diaries

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I was delighted to be interviewed by Punk Girl Diaries about the time I wrote to Adam Ant and got a really lovely reply from him. This was in 1980, just after ‘Car Trouble’ was released and while Adam was putting together the new Antz but before he became a huge star. As the article states, I’d sent him a poster I found in a teenage girls’ magazine – just as a joke, really – and he signed it and added a few cartoonish features to his picture, as well as a letter on headed paper, a flyer for the ‘Kings…’ tour and the lyrics to ‘Red Scab’, which he’d written out by hand. After many house moves and needing to de-clutter, I’ve had to get rid of much of my memorabilia, including letters, but I held on to this one and will never forget Adam’s generosity, as well as his humour. Some of the other musicians I wrote to – back then and more recently – have become friends and collaborators, which is more than I could have dreamt of when I wrote to them – consciously, anyway. Perhaps this was me striking out and choosing the kind of people I wanted to associate with.

Blessed are the bee keepers

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I’m delighted to announce that on 30 June – exactly five years after his passing – Timeless published the extra special boxed Bee Keeper Edition of Contagious Magick of the Super Abundance (The Art and Life of Ian Johnstone). This project has been ongoing for some time – as you will see from Timeless’ text below – and I was commissioned by Mikel Quiros to write a suitable story for the accompanying booklet. Mikel’s work creating these boxes has been exquisite and it’s been a further honour to be involved in this wonderful project.

“Limited edition of 10 copies of which 8 are for sale.

The centre piece of this magickally charged specially boxed edition is one original brass copy of one of “The 23 Stab Wounds of Julius Caesar” measuring 20 x 27 cm, handmade and initialled by Ian Johnstone himself.

In a dream Ark Todd instructed his late partner Mikel, who effectively created the edition under Ian’s guidance, to ceremoniously bury all of the “Brass Wounds” on the Winter Solstice of 2019 in the exact place where their apiary used to stand. The Spanish soil worked its magick on the resurrected Brass Wounds. The wooden box holding the Wound was handcrafted by Mikel using the actual wood, oak for the box and chestnut for the lid, of the apiary.

The book itself is contained within the box in a pouch handsewn using all IJ components, e.g. a rich dark green velvet from Ian’s curtains.

The final testament and a loving homage to a great artist and a special human, gone too soon.

Ian Johnstone 2.IX.1967 – 30.VI.2015″

I still believe in monsters

I’m happy to announce that Gingernuts of Horror has just published a short piece by me discussing childhood fears and how they influence my writing. Truth be told, I’m not completely happy with it as a piece of writing, but the subject matter is accurate and I think it’s likely that many people will be able to relate to some of what’s discussed. I think childhood’s a time of great truth – but, sadly, little chance of having it acknowledged by us adults.

Review of ‘Tomorrow, When I Was Young’

Many thanks to Adam Groves of The Bedlam Files for this review of Tomorrow, When I Was Young:

“Oftentimes it’s how a story is told rather than the story itself that’s most important. Case in point: this novella, a most peculiar fantasy about a mortal woman named Zanders who finds herself aboard The Giantess, a ship making its way through a world that corresponds to our own but for the fact that life, death, past, present and future all co-exist, and mythological creatures pack the seas. The Giantess is manned by a transgendered figure who identifies as the Golden Sea Captain, and who grows quite close with Zanders.

Crucially, we’re thrown directly into the action on the Giantess, with the explanation for Zanders’ presence on it left open-ended until later on in the story. It is, in essence, an “answers first, questions later” structure in which the traditional dream-reality narrative dynamic is inverted, with the surreality of the Giantess’s voyage assuming “normal” status and the details of Zanders’ former life, consisting of tragedies and haunted memories, presented as a “series of dreams.”

Hence the story’s central conceit, involving a mysterious Peruvian ancestor of Zanders with whom she’s become obsessed. Zanders comes to view her ancestor as an anchor to her rootless, grief-stricken existence, “something from her family’s history that she’d know was fact.” She decides to utilize her time on the Giantess to seek out this person, and the Captain is quite eager to accede to Zanders’ wishes, steering the Giantess on a course for Kensal, the city of the dead—and, when that fails to turn up any trace of the desired party, to Peru.

In keeping with the novella’s consistently unpredictable gist, the finding of Zanders’ ancestor is presented in a manner far removed from the expected mystery to be solved. That mystery is indeed solved, but the author’s true concerns are far more ethereal.

The closest antecedents I can think of to TOMORROW, WHEN I WAS YOUNG are THE SANATORIUM UNDER THE SIGN OF THE HOURGLASS (both the Bruno Schultz novella and 1973 film adaptation), which also concerned a dream-region marked by a decidedly fluid sense of reality, and the writings of England’s M. John Harrison, whose frank approach to the surreal and fantastic is reflected here (in lines like “She had never met the dead before and wasn’t sure how to act around them” and “Over his years as a Captain, he had found ghosts to make the best crew”). Ultimately, though, it’s pretty unique, a potent example of freeform fantasy done right.”

The response to this story has been very interesting. I’m trying to work out why. I think one reason is that Eibonvale Press has a big reputation and a wider reach (particularly in the UK) than some of the publishers I’ve worked with, and are more proactive regarding promotion and publicity – I’m usually left to my own devices in those areas. So in part it may be that more people are buying the chapbook. As for the story itself, a lot has been said about The Golden Sea Captain. She actually made a brief appearance in Beautiful Silver Spacesuits and the name was a springboard for Tomorrow… I wouldn’t say the character is transgender: The Golden Sea Captain is female and happy to be so, but there are historical examples of women passing as male in order to do certain jobs or just live the life they want. In order to convince the outside world that the Captain is male, she needs to believe it herself, which is why the character is referred to as male when carrying out his duties or is dressed – when naked, she reverts to female.

To my surprise I’ve also recently discovered mention of Trigger in a review of Vastarien. Most reviewers haven’t mentioned the story, which is basically a ‘real time’ account of someone self-harming and committing suicide. These are very heavy subjects and I suspect many just didn’t want to engage with it, so I was happy to see it described as “grimly poetic” in a review on Goodreads.

The woman with shining eyes

Thanks to Kendall Reviews for giving me the opportunity to discuss why I write horror. I’ve written a few articles/answered interview questions on this subject a few times now and I try to use a different angle to approach how I answer so that I’m not endlessly repeating myself. Over time influences and motivation change, so hopefully this piece casts a slightly different light on the subject and it’s useful for me to reassess what I do and how I’ve evolved as a writer and as a person.

So(u)litude

Photo: Julie Travis

A few weeks ago I was approached by a publisher (who I’ve worked with before) with a very tempting proposal – to write several new stories for a single issue of the publisher’s journal and to edit an issue featuring authors invited by me to submit to it. This was more or less a dream come true, but there was a hitch in that I (and the other writers involved) wouldn’t be paid for what was going to be 18 months’ hard work. After discussing this with friends, I turned the offer down. I just can’t work for free any more (although there will always be exceptions). I don’t like to think of my writing in terms of money but on a practical level I have bills and rent to pay. And a couple of friends made the point that it not only devalues my work but undermines the efforts of other writers to be paid. The publisher meant well – and really cannot afford to pay. It was the right decision. It’s likely that I haven’t made this decision before now because of a hangover from the anarcho-punk scene I was in during the 1980s, where making any kind of money was more or less forbidden. This was taken to ludicrous levels, where I was seen as ripping people off for charging 50p for a fanzine that cost 66p per copy to print! There are so many creative projects that wouldn’t happen if everyone involved was paid, and I’m currently involved in two such unpaid projects, but they’re very special and personal: The da-Dark Outside (see my previous post for details) and another that I can’t announce yet – another commission to work on an amazing literary/art product. When this will appear is anyone’s guess at the moment – the project was more or less completed before much of the world ground to a halt, although technology is making some things still very possible and I hope the project will be completed in the not too distant future.

Meanwhile, other work continues – the second issue of Dykes Ink is progressing and could in theory be ready to go to print fairly soon, but current circumstances make this impossible, of course. I’ve written a short article about how childhood fears affect and influence my fiction, which will hopefully appear on the Gingernuts Of Horror webzine in June as part of their Pride In Horror month. As for fiction, I’m back working on Sky-Eyes and the story (currently around 9000 words long) is heading towards completion of the first draft.