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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McMara’s Rock – a few reviews

McMara’s Rock, published in Black Static #55 (Nov-Dec 2016), is my longest story to appear in print. (It is not the longest thing I’ve written, but those other beasts have yet to find a home.) I do not know, or cannot remember, how the story developed: often a story begins with no more than a certain image, a particular phrase – it’s an inkling, I suppose. But quite often the words go nowhere. I scratch my head. I drink coffee. The hours drift by. My heart is not in it. The words are flat, they do not fizz. I look at the story: it’s not you, I think, it’s me.

And when I revisit an unfinished or abandoned story, read through the notes (notes that had been jotted down with such enthusiasm, such energy) – well, quite often it’s like meeting an ex. I’m baffled as to what I ever saw in the thing: where’s the spark, the twang, the mystery? My notebooks are full of such false starts, unfulfilled beginnings. So are our memories. So are our days. From my window, as I type this, the bare winter trees, black against the white sky, look like old medical drawings, macabre and grave.

There is a real split rock, of course. I remember it from childhood holidays (rain, green fields, windy beaches, Tayto cheese and onion crisps, hens, gnats, churches, bungalows, more rain). The rock is still there, I believe, in County Sligo, although it is many years since I set eyes upon it. Perhaps you’ll visit it one day. Perhaps you’ll walk through it three times. If so, I wish you  luck.

Here are a few reviews of McMara’s Rock:

From Tangent Online. Review by Seraph:

Given that this was the story chosen to headline #55, so to speak, I expected very great things from Mr. Hargadon. He did not disappoint. We are taken to Ireland, and while the year is indeterminate, it’s not too far in the past, as cars are mentioned at several points. The titular rock, split in half in times far past, is a spectre, like that of death, shadowing the characters within the story like the Reaper himself: Always present, only occasionally seen or mentioned, and inevitably but a few steps behind.

The story follows two brothers, Jerome and Michael, on whose property the rock rests. There is a lengthy legend given to explain the presence of the rock, well executed, and while much of the story revolves around the brothers, never is the rock forgotten, and it haunts the lives of the two boys. Michael is a quiet, withdrawn boy, skirting the line between sanity and madness for much of his life. Jerome is the opposite, outgoing, constantly chasing after the ladies, lost in a different kind of madness that afflicts quite a few young men in their youth, or so I hear. However, it doesn’t take long to find just how disturbed they both are. Ever more withdrawn, Michael clobbers a young girl Jerome had brought to their cottage, purely out of what can only be described as the result of a paranoid persecution complex. Jerome doesn’t seem even to be bothered, suggesting Michael have his way with her while she is twitching half-unconscious on the floor. Were that not bad enough, when she wakes, and cries that she will go to the police, Jerome simply slips her some arsenic and buries her in the vegetable garden. Nonchalant. As if one does such labor every day. Michael is appalled, but only because he is afraid “his brother might make him do something he didn’t know how to do.”

Throughout, the references to Michael’s texts, his strange prayers, his muttering, yield an impression of an incredibly disturbed individual, and yet we see not quite as disturbed as Jerome. Not yet. There is plenty of evidence later in the story that this event has catastrophic consequence. While Jerome spends their inheritance, eventually drinking himself out of his mind and into a ditch, Michael delves deeper and deeper into madness, devouring every book, kept company only by the droning of Mrs. Dolan, an elderly woman who takes care of him as best she is able, and the many feral cats that have made his cottage their home. It’s during this time that the rock captures Jerome’s mind, and in one of his many endless schemes decides to charge admission to viewing the rock. This of course goes over as well as it could, which is not at all. He finds himself shoveling manure for a circus, scheming to make a fake replica of the rock and take it on tour with the circus, and in his drink-addled delirium manages to force himself upon the daughter of the ringmaster, and gets soundly thrashed for his reprehensible conduct. While Jerome wakes up in yet another ditch, Michael is steadily losing his tenuous grasp on reality even further, and his mind is also captured by the rock. It twists and warps the fading sanity of his waking visions, and his desires turn towards the grotesque, fantasizing sexually about his dead mother and his elderly caregiver. It’s not long after, as Jerome is cheating and bedding his way into the pocketbooks of women to make his way home, that Michael turns to far darker pursuits, slaughtering a goat and eating parts of it in a semi-ritualistic experiment, thinking to gain the virility of the goat fabled in arcane texts. Not long after, Jerome finally makes his way home, and after a drunken rage pounding on the cottage door, finds his way out to the field, to test the legend and curse of the rock. He passes out between the two halves, only to fall afoul of Michael’s panicked madness. When Mrs. Dolan brings her daughter to visit him, the daughter finds not only Jerome’s body with his brain scooped out, but any number of just as disturbing elements, such as the goat and the parental bedroom. She falls prey to his grotesqueries, and suffers the same fate as Jerome and the goat. Mrs. Dolan arrives just in time for Michael to offer her the brains of her daughter to eat, claiming it was all for her, so they could live together, forever. She flees, and when the authorities rush to the cottage, they find everything aside from Michael himself, who has vanished. The macabre story ends with another dash of legend about the rock, about how it is cursed. About how it curses anyone who sees it split in half, that it really may not be split at all, finishing on a chilling note. So, there you have it … The most chilling part of the story for me is just how perfectly Michael’s slide into madness is described. It’s also rare to find an author who just takes their time with the story, not rushing it, letting it slowly build so that the mind of the reader does the work of horror. It doesn’t rely on shock value or the supernatural to convey the fear, although there are elements of both present. It is the marching inevitability of death and insanity, building and building, that makes this a masterful stroke of the pen, much like the horror stories of Edgar Allen Poe. If you are a fan of horror/weird fiction, which I can only assume you are if you are reading a review of Black Static, this is a must read, and I heartily recommend it. It is by no means a short offering, but don’t let that discourage you in the slightest. It is well worth your time.

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DF Lewis:

…  a classic worthy of your attention …  the characterisation of the two brothers is to die for.

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SFRevu:

The titular rock is actually a rock split in two. It’s in a field owned by two brothers, Michael and Jerome, near the town of Drumsheedy. There is a legend about how the rock got there, but no one really knows. The two brothers are different. It is Michael who stays at home and would never leave. Jerome travels and gets himself into trouble. But it’s when Jerome comes home that things happen. Nice build-up … to some true horror.

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This Is Horror:

First up is ‘McMara’s Rock’, by Stephen Hargadon, easily the longest story here (verging on novella length). It is a … tale of a mysterious split rock in a field in rural Ireland, which finally settles on two brothers who come to inherit the land (and rock), and their tangentially tragic, yet wildly different lives … lyrical and poetically detailed … hints at a larger cosmic horror … there are some wonderful images to be had, and a keen sense of the tragedy of insanity.

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Black Static 53 is available from TTA Press here (or from Amazon). Well worth buying a subscription.

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Illustration for McMara’s Rock by Ben Baldwin. http://www.benbaldwin.co.uk