The Shadow Booth

Not long ago I was asked to contribute to a new anthology of weird or eerie fiction, Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon. I was intrigued. I sent Dan a story called ‘A Short History of Tedium’. He liked it. I was ushered into the Booth. And here I am, among the velvet shadows, beckoning you to join me.

Set largely in an office, ‘A Short History of Tedium’ features many things familiar to the humble and harassed office worker, including a voodoo spreadsheet, various thrusters and loafers and loquacious bores, interminable meetings, emails, daydreams, unmusical jargon. The whole rigmarole of office life. I’m not sure where the story came from, how it started. Perhaps with an overheard conversation.

Back in the mists of childhood, an office job seemed a rather grand and important thing, almost decadent. The office was a place of comic strife as opposed to grim drudgery. It offered, I suppose, a better class of tedium. Perhaps I’d watched too many old films starring Ian Carmichael and Terry-Thomas. In The Rebel, Tony Hancock, frustrated and bored, escapes the crushing routines of office life for the artistic thrills and spills of bohemian Paris with its cafes full of garrulous painters and sour existentialists. But to me there was still a certain glamour about the office. No one I knew worked in an office, apart from the head teacher at school, and his office wasn’t really an office, it was more a kind of mysterious nerve centre or punishment room.

Secretaries in nylons; silver fountain pens; padded leather chairs. There was no doubt that the office was better than the factory. As a boy I didn’t know what I wanted to do (or be) when I grew up. It was hard to disentangle noble ambition from fatuous reverie. The future was clouded by doubt and fear. Even the monotony of Tony Hancock’s office in The Rebel had a certain appeal.

Now almost everyone seems to work in an office, or in an office-like environment, and those who do not are compelled to spend great chunks of their working day dealing with irritating administrative tasks. But it does not stop there. Even on our sofas we are expected to be administrators. Arranging for gas and electricity to be supplied to your home is now a long-winded and tiresome affair – it is essentially another form of office work. Such is the beauty of consumer choice. The office, thanks in part to technology, increasingly infects our private lives. As you glide on that early evening train out of the city into the gentle suburbs, past jungly embankments and scruffy houses, under bridges, over roads, past that mysterious pub on the corner with the odd name, you hear fellow commuters talking into their phones, some anxious, some boastful, deploying a language – hub, silo, performance review – the rest of us are trying to escape. Emails spread the contagion into our homes. Work never stops. The office is everywhere. Your boss in your bedroom, in your pocket. Your boss in your head.

(If you’re interested in office life, and how it has evolved over time, try Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval. It’s a good read. Sharp, funny, illuminating. Saval roams from Bartleby to Silicon Valley, linking office design and modes of working to wider political and cultural concerns.)

But that’s enough about mesmerising spreadsheets and tiresome jargon. Let’s return to the Booth … Taking ‘its inspiration from the likes of Thomas Ligotti and Robert Aickman, as well as H. P. Lovecraft and Arthur Machen, The Shadow Booth explores that dark, murky territory between mainstream horror and literary fiction. From folk horror to alien gods, the journal aims to give voice to the strange and the unsettling in all its forms’. It is being financed by a Kickstarter campaign. So far, over half the money has been raised. The aim behind the funding is to ensure us writers get paid. Here’s what the editor says: ‘Yes, there are other costs involved in producing and distributing any book or magazine, but it’s our belief that these should be outweighed by the authors’ right to get paid for their work. It’s one of the reasons we’re crowdfunding – to ensure that the authors of these wonderful stories receive reasonable payment. Paid markets are becoming increasingly rare and it’s a trend that we’d like to see reversed.’

You can support the project by preordering a copy on Kickstarter. There’s plenty of goodies still on offer, including postcards, T-shirts, signed books. Dan has assembled an exciting line-up for this first outing. Here’s the team: Paul Tremblay, Malcolm Devlin, Richard Thomas, Stephen Hargadon, Annie Neugebauer, Richard V. Hirst, Sarah Read, Timothy J. Jarvis, Gary Budden, David Hartley, Dan Carpenter, Joseph Sale.

Keep your eyes on the Ginger Nuts of Horror website, which is running interviews with some of the writers involved, including Sarah Read, Gary Budden, Annie Neugebauer. And check out Dan Coxon’s article on weird fiction here.

So, step this way. The Shadow Booth is waiting for you …

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The Lowdown

At the start of the year (or was it at the end of 2016?) I was kindly invited to participate in Simon Bestwick‘s The Lowdown, a regular feature on his blog in which writers are asked seven standard questions. Here’s my responses. At the time I was reading Edna O’Brien’s August is a Wicked Month and very much enjoying it. (Now I cling to the memory of having read it: I remember being thrilled by the prose, but the memory of that thrill is already fading like an August tan.) Edna kept me company on cold, rattling trains: set partly in the south of France, her novel felt like a hot and secret world in my hands, an almost illicit thing, a glowing mystery. A lot has changed since then, of course. The garden has turned, or is turning, from muddy brown to frisky green. I saw a man in shorts the other day (not in my garden). Thick scarves are discarded. But the skies remain sullen for the most part. There is blossom on the trees, flecks of palest pink. Each week brings failure and defeat, the occasional success. But there is always hope. There is always something to write, something that needs to be written. I’ve read a few books, too: at the moment I’m lost in Kapka Kassabova’s Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, a fascinating blend of history, memory, anecdote, travelogue and myth. A few other highlights: Nuncle by John Wain; Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg; Keith Waterhouse’s Maggie Muggins (a laugh on almost every page); Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes; The Night of the Funny Hats by Elspeth Davie; Daniel Trilling’s Bloody Nasty People. And there’s plenty more fruit on the shelves.

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Look Twice: a Q&A with illustrator Kate O’Hara

“I love taking things that are dark and disturbing and making them beautiful.” Kate O’Hara

“Looking closer, Lorimer saw that at the centre of each flower was an eye, some of which were shedding tears of blood. From a distance, these tears looked like petals. The effect was most unsettling.”  Through the Flowers, published in Popshot Magazine A/W 2015.

All images from kate-ohara.com. Copyright Kate O’Hara. 

A three-eyed crow perched on a twisted bough. Among poppies and thistles, a white rabbit, scrawny and seemingly dead, lies above it’s own skeleton, the bones surrounded by questing roots and worms. A human head, coming apart in sections, to reveal the frantic but alluring world within: a fish, a bridge, musical instruments, geometric forms, plants, insects, birds, mountains, flowers, fruits. A bouquet of carnivorous plants. A dog bounding over a rhinoceros. Capuchin monkeys exploring or observing a human skull. Beetles emerging from a candle. Malevolent birds and busy insects. Curling, thrusting plants.

A Kate O’Hara illustration invariably demands a second look. The thrill of the initial impression gives way to measured inspection. One peers in – or is pulled in – and begins to relish every remarkable detail. Her work is intricate, full of idiosyncratic motifs and odd juxtapositions. The images are bursting with wit and menace. They are, in the main, elaborately macabre. On first encountering them, I was reminded of old medical illustrations and diagrams. Indeed, in the Q&A below, Kate acknowledges the influence of scientific illustrators such as John James Audubon and Ernst Haeckel. There is a touch of the anatomist’s precision about her work. It is as though she is mapping the human soul; illustrating our elusive thoughts and fears.

I’m always on the hunt for literary magazines. Obscure, vital, feisty publications packed with stories, poems, illustrations and essays. Browsing in the bookshop of Manchester’s Cornerhouse (the precursor to Home), I discovered a rather handsome publication called Popshot Magazine. A strange name, I thought. What lurks inside? Is it safe to peruse in a public space?  I could not make out any writing on the cover aside from the title. Certainly it was an attractive object, trim and dapper, sitting there on the bottom shelf. I picked it up, flicked through the pages. The illustrations were worth the entrance fee alone. I bought it and ferried it home.

I put the magazine on my hit-list. If this conjures up images of a pale loner poring over maps and photographs, constructing a grim and bloody plan in his bedroom, then your imagination is vivid but untrustworthy. I merely decided to submit my work to this stylish publication. But submitting is one thing, being accepted is another. The quality of the artwork in Popshot acted as an incentive. The story that was finally accepted, Through the Flowers, appeared in issue 14, the Curious Issue.

I was immediately bowled over by Kate’s illustration for the story.

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Crimson poppies with delicate, pleated petals. Dense, green, twisting foliage. Insects bearing sinister markings. A fallen tombstone. Furred and bristly pods. And in the centre of every flower, an eye, round and staring. I have previously described the illustration as a kind of sinister William Morris wallpaper design. But I hardly think that does justice to the invention and wit of the piece. It certainly captures the essence of my tale. There is a playful violence about Kate’s work, intricate but not fussy, macabre yet beautiful. Her images invite the viewer to return again and again.

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Intrigued and impressed, I asked Kate about her work. She was kind enough to answer my questions.

Stephen Hargadon: How did you start out as an illustrator?

Kate O’Hara: I graduated from the University of the Arts’ Illustration program in 2014, and started working as a freelance illustrator right after. I’ve always been interested in art and illustration appealed to me since it’s a combination of fine art and commercial art. I like that clients come to me with projects and I get to create something for them that fits their needs. It also means I get to be constantly researching new topics that would never come up in my personal work.

SH: Which artists, if any, have influenced you? What inspires you?

KO: First would be old scientific illustrators like John James Audubon and Ernst Haeckel. I love their compositions and the life they gave to the animals they drew. I’ve always been drawn to scientific illustration in general, and how it categorizes and breaks down parts of nature to show the whole. There are also a bunch of contemporary illustrators whose work I find really inspiring, Jason Holley, Victo Ngai, Jonathan Bartlett and Sterling Hundley to name a few.

SH: There’s often a sinister or inventively macabre element in your work. Do you enjoy working on darker themes?

KO: I’m always afraid of making work that is just pretty. So, I try to always have a disconcerting element in each piece that makes the viewer look twice. I love taking things that are dark and disturbing and making them beautiful. With my pieces I often start with what would be normal animal behavior, but juxtapose that with human introspection. Themes like death, regeneration and symbiotic relationships are prevalent in my work as well.

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SH: How important is humour in your work? Your images are often nightmarish but witty.

KO: Humour is definitely a part of some of my pieces, but I try not to be obvious about it. I like making visual puns, or having disconcerting elements that are just weird enough to seem clever rather than creepy.

SH: You recently illustrated my story Through the Flowers for Popshot Magazine. How did that project come about and how did you arrive at the finished image?

KO: I found out about Popshot magazine about a year ago. I sent them a note saying how great I thought the magazine was, especially how the art is as important as the writing. Then, they got back to me when they were starting this issue and asked if I’d like to work on a piece.

SH: What are you working on at the moment?

KO: I’m working on a design for a hat, based on Kafka’s, ‘Metamorphosis.’ Also, I‘m doing a whole bunch of hand-lettering for different posters. I have a couple personal projects too. One is an alphabet of Medieval Medicine that combines my love of morbid things, scientific illustration, lettering and the ornate and has currently gotten up to the letter H.

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SH: If given a free choice, which book would you like to illustrate? And why?

KO: I’d love to do an alphabet book of weird animals someday. Also, I like fables and fairy-tales, so something along those lines.

SH: Take us through a typical working day.

KO: My studio is out of my house, so generally I start by drinking coffee and answering emails. Then I’ll get started on whatever project I’m working on for that day, whether it’s sketching, drawing or coloring a piece. Depending on what needs to get done I might work on some personal stuff later on. My schedule isn’t set in stone because the hours I work are usually dictated by deadlines and client time-zones. So, sometimes I stop work at 6 and sometimes I work until 11. It’s nice to be able to set my own hours as a freelancer, but I have to keep myself from getting lazy, since there’s no one else keeping track of my time.

SH: What’s your favourite flower?

KO: My favorite flower is the poppy. I’ve always loved the poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’ and how the poppies represent something so sentimental yet dark. I also have always liked how sparse and tough they are, but also vibrant and resilient. Coincidentally, I also used them in the illustration for, ‘Through the Flowers.’

For more information about Kate’s work, visit her website here. Prints of her illustrations can be purchased here. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future. And I hope she gets a chance to do that alphabet book of weird animals.

 

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Lambert Flows

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading my work at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester. If you haven’t been, you should. I was merely a warm-up nonentity before the main attraction, Magnus Mills, a tall and genial fellow in a noticeable shirt. He looks like Syd Little and sounds like Tommy Cooper. He  entertained the crowd with  a selection of droll readings, my favourite being a telephone interaction between a less than forthcoming grocer and an increasingly exasperated customer. Mills himself likened it to a Python sketch. He was very good.  But let’s return to the nonentity.  I read from a work in progress. The piece seemed to acceptable to a boisterous crowd hungry for Mills. Indeed, nothing unsavoury was hurled in my direction. Does that count as success?

Jamie Stewart reviewed the event for Humanity Hallows. I was pleased to see what he’d written:

“Lambert flows through Dublin,” Stephen Hargadon begins as he kicked off the night with the equally hilarious and gruesome story of a “faded, rather hairy pop-star from the 1960s, who hides himself away in the West of Ireland.” It’s hard to listen to Hargadon’s prose without feeling Dublin around you, hearing the river and the voices curl nearby. “Lambert is observing, listening, walking.” Hargadon’s ear for city sounds is both disarming and utterly charming. Hargadon has previously had his work published in Black Static and Popshot.”

To be pedantic, Lambert was strolling, not flowing, through Dublin. But no matter. My dulcet tones, combined with a dry mouth, probably led to the confusion. Indeed, it was a happy mistake. I rather like the idea of Lambert flowing through Dublin like the Liffey. Constructive criticism at its finest. (BS Johnson thought critics a waste of space unless they could suggest improvements.)  As for the dry mouth, there must have been something in the air that night, for Magnus Mills reached for his glass of water several times to pacify a mutinous throat.

An enjoyable and instructive evening for all concerned.

Through the Flowers

“Good choice. It’s a lovely edition and a very fine story.”

My copy of Popshot Magazine – The Curious Issue – has arrived. As ever, it’s a handsome devil, with stories by Georgia Oman, Danielle Carey, Dan Coxon, Rob Stuart, Jane Wright, Audra Kerr Brown and Alys Hobbs, Christine Burns and poetry from Claire Booker, Katherine Venn, Adam Battestilli, Nancy Carol Moody, Ben Norris, Sophie F Baker, Sharon Lusk Munson, J.S. Watts and Rosie Garland.

The artwork is remarkable. The magazine a thing of beauty. I’m particularly thrilled by Kate O’Hara’s interpretation of my story “Through the Flowers”, my first to be published in Popshot. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised: her design is lush and sombre, marked with sinister wit and invention. I love it. The picture works well with the story. The vivid green leaves, the pleated scarlet petals, the insects, the  furred buds, those eyes. It reminds of an intricate Victorian wallpaper pattern – or perhaps the ornate and nauseous florals of the 1970s. A creepy William Morris design, watching your every move. Kate’s other work is well worth investigating. She’s very good indeed. Check her out at: kate-ohara.com

Popshot is available from tasteful and enlightened stores all over the spinning globe.  Ten quid will get you a three issue subscription, a bargain. Issue 14 can be snapped up here: Popshotpopshot.com

I hope you enjoy your stroll through the flowers.

Take out or eat in

 

Hollywood Chicken: a new story

“Happens to me quite a bit. People think they know me. Perhaps they do. I wouldn’t know. I’m not a people person.”

Hollywood Chicken was published in issue two of LossLit Magazine and can be read in full here.

LossLit is an attempt by its co-creators, Kit Caless and Aki Schilz, to explore the various influences of loss in literature. The project aims to produce a body of work that will look at loss from all angles, alongside its online micro-project, the #LossLit hashtag on Twitter. Find out more at losslit.com.

Each contributor is asked to pick a book concerned with loss. You can read about my choice in the magazine.

Enjoy the story. And don’t forget to clean up after yourself.

Return Journey: phones, plimsolls and Stoke-on-Trent

Travelling home, facing forward.

It will soon be midnight. There are no clouds now, at least none that I can see as I look out of the window, or rather into it, for I am presented with a blurred version of the carriage in which I sit. Coach A, the quiet carriage. (But all the carriages looked quiet and empty as I walked along the platform, relieved that I had made it on time.) Beyond or inside my reflection, somewhere in the blackness, there is a cluster of lights, yellow and white, marking the edge of some faraway reality, a town or village. The cluster becomes a string as the train surges on. This is the last train of the day. By the time I reach Manchester it will be tomorrow. The announcer affects a silly, jocular accent. He swings his voice up and down, sliding through vowels and twirling his sentences at the end. Stoke-on Trent becomes something like Stork Untrained. Is he attempting a crude northern accent? No one laughs. At first he sounds simple or cheerful (the two often coincide). Then he sounds menacing. I imagine him sat in his underpants, clutching a meat cleaver, as he trills his way from Watford Gap to Macclesfield, singing the names of stations we might never reach.

There are not many passengers on this train. We stretch our legs. We define our kingdoms with jackets and books and canned drinks. Four seats for every person: unthinkable luxury, the commuter’s dream. There are no rowdies, no swaggering suits or boisterous tourists. A petite woman is curled across two seats, wrapped in a grimy red coat, sleeping. “Legs in, please,” says a man in a blue uniform as he passes through the carriage. The sleeper does not respond: her plimsolled feet are poking into the aisle. The man moves them out of his way, as if turning a handle, and receives a mumble for his trouble. He says something I cannot catch. A large round woman with a surprisingly young face is playing with her phone, pink fingernails pecking at the screen. She is talking to a companion I cannot see. Her observations are met with dunno and maybe and finally silence.

My face in the window looks tired. I am tired. I’m pleased to be facing forward, travelling home in this tube of pale light and cream moulded plastic. Out of the darkness, a station appears, excavated from the night. It looks rickety, insubstantial, held together by a rig of thin lights and slanting shadows. I cannot see the station’s name. It slips away and my window becomes a mirror again. I am two hours away from my bed, rushing towards sleep and temporary oblivion. The announcer tells us, in the jaunty voice of a children’s entertainer, that the buffet bar is open, selling a range of hot and cold snacks, hot beverages, teas, coffees, etcetera, alcoholic beverages, crisps, snacks, etcetera.  But cash only, please, there is a problem with the card reader. The sleeping woman is awake now, sat up like a judge and looking straight ahead, as though terrible things were told to her in her sleep. A man is speaking on his phone, a low grumble: “It’s in the kitchen. I told you. Yes. I did. In the kitchen. Yeah. No. Not in there. Kitchen. By the. I don’t need this. Where I said it was. By the thing. You do know.” I hear another voice behind me. “Tickets, please, tickets, tickets.” That’ll be the man in the uniform. My reflection has an anxious face, floating out there in the variable darkness. My reflection yawns. Tickets, please, sir. I look up and the uniformed man, his mouth overfilled with teeth or sweets, is asking for my ticket. I show him. He nods and moves on, into someone else’s dream.

Travelling Backwards

Thoughts from a train

I’m travelling backwards through the English countryside. Trees and bridges flicker by, while the fields in the distance seem to move at a slower pace, sliding out of view, turning unhurriedly beneath the enormous sky. It is as though the land is not solid at all, but molten and shifting, full of currents and channels that only become evident from the window of a speeding train. The world approaches, then flies away.

‘Look at the trees,’ says a young girl.

‘Yes,’ says the woman I assume is her mother.

‘You didn’t see, you weren’t looking.’

‘I was, I was, sweetheart.’

‘You weren’t.’

I am in coach A, the quiet coach, where electronic gadgetry and impulsive gobs must be kept under control. The rage of rappers must not leak from headphones. Please kill your alien warriors quietly. Curiously, I am facing the rest of the passengers. I am on a table at the end of the carriage, facing backwards, while almost everyone else is facing forwards. I feel like a cox. Perhaps I should bark instructions. ‘Read your book. Concentrate.’ ‘Don’t rustle that bag.’ Or perhaps I am an invigilator at an exam. Shush. No talking. The young girl is still mesmerised by the twirling trees, and shouts about them with such joy that no one dares remind her mummy that we are in the quiet zone.

From Manchester to London, the train rattles on. Yes, it rattles. Occasionally. Sometimes it even lurches. But it is a mostly pleasant way to travel, provided you have a seat. Sleepers and texters. Nose-pickers and fidgeters. The mother is chatting to her friend (or perhaps it is her sister). This is the quiet coach but there are no business men staring with psychopathic intensity at laptops. I am sat next to a reader. The bookmark on the table bears the logo of Daunt Books. The reader has a high forehead and heavy-lidded eyes. He reminds me of a friend. I am intrigued to know what he is reading. His paperback looks smart and literary, a cool grey-green cover, but I cannot see the title or the author’s name. I say I am intrigued but I’m not intrigued at all. Neither, it seems, is he. He spends more time checking his phone than he does reading his elegant book. Ah, it’s called The Iceberg. I’ve not heard of it. Have you? Is it good? Shame on me. I can smell the toilet – a warm confection of chemicals and faecal matter – soft dumps and blue poisons.

The laptops are out now, but everyone is behaving themselves. It is a bright day. The clouds look freshly laundered. They look cleaner and brighter than the ones I left behind in the city. These clouds remind me of the clouds in those brilliant old paintings of saints and scholars you see in the National Gallery.

Ted Baker. Fred Perry. There’s Ralph Lauren. We pass an expanse of meadows and marshes. The tall grasses undulate and ripple, waving me away. Shrubs and brackish water. Lanky wildflowers firing off rockets of pink and yellow. I’m travelling backwards from Manchester, my home, to London, where I was born and raised. Except I never really thought of myself as a Londoner, especially not with Irish parents. None of us at school really thought of Ilford as part of throbbing London. The city was Soho and Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. All we had was C&A and the Kenneth More Theatre. London was where the news happened, a thrilling otherness – a place of sex, music, drugs, murder and history. We were caught in the blandlands between Essex and east London. (And London for me started at Manor Park and didn’t really get going until about Forest Gate). But maybe it was just me. Even at home I felt that I was on the edge of things, although I doubt I could have told you what those things were.

Everyone is quiet, even the observant child. She has long tired of trees. She is sleeping on her mother’s lap. There are no accents to assess and gauge. Eyes sometimes connect – but it feels like an intrusion, an accidental touch of hands. My orange juice is nearly finished. I shall not brave the toilet.

I have nothing to read, which is unusual for me. I was going to bring The Beginning of the End by Ian Parkinson but I changed my mind at the last minute. It disrupted the feng shui of my pockets.

Warehouses with smashed windows and grubby brickwork. Cooling towers – monuments from another world. We are nearly there. It won’t be long. Jackets and holdalls are rescued from the rack. I check my pockets. I pack away my notepad and pen. London. This is my home city but I do not live here. My home is in Manchester but that is not my city. It feels good not to belong, not to be implicated. And yet the purpose of my trip is all about belonging, or wanting to belong, for I am attending a football match. The mother of the observant child is struggling with various bags and cases. I lift one on to the platform. “You’re welcome”, I say, and head for the exit, full of anticipation, with a creased shirt and a spring in my step.