Tuesday Book Review: Dead Men Can’t Complain

I adore short stories.  My PhD involve my reading many short stories. I try to write chapters of novels as though they’re complete short stories. And I regularly record a podcast with my pal Colin Davies where we look at classic pieces of short fiction.

Which is probably why I found this collection so engaging.

Peter Clines knows how to write, as evidenced by his lengthy back catalogue. He also knows how to write short fiction, as is proved by this collection.  The stories have a wonderful sense of science-fiction, mixed with the ring of potential horror and the authenticity that comes from a good storyteller.

The collection starts with a police officer interrogating a suspect who’s wearing a lizard costume; a very convincing lizard costume. There is humour, intellect, pathos and surprises, all of which show a writer who is skilled at his craft and capable of entertaining readers on many levels. 

I listened to the audiobook version of this one which runs at a little under 5 hours. It’s not a complaint – because the stories were each so well crafted – but it did leave me wanting more. 

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Genre

  1. Genre is a ridiculously overused word that has the potential to be very confusing. Etymologically, he derives from the French word that means ‘kind’ or ‘type’. Consequently it can be applied as a superordinate term, such as when discussing the genres of poetry, prose or plays, or it can be more subordinate, such as when discussing the prose genres of fiction or non-fiction, comedy or tragedy, or when discussing categories of genre fiction such as cyberpunk, steam punk and splatter punk.
  2. Genre is simultaneously vital and unimportant. Genre is unimportant to many writers because, when we get an idea, genre is only a minor consideration as we work at telling the best version of the story we want to tell. However, genre can be vital to some readers who enjoy (for example) science-fiction, pay their hard-earned money for science-fiction, and don’t want that story to be bereft of spaceships, aliens and maybe some ray guns.
  3. Genre becomes more important to writers as they consider marketing and selling a story. You’ve written a western? Make sure it’s populated with cowboys, gunfights and wild west machismo. You’ve written a murder mystery? Make sure the clues are neatly spaced out so the reader can play the game of detection alongside the detective. Readers understand what they want from a genre and it’s a writer’s job to meet those expectations.
  4. Some genres are semantic and some are syntactic. To illustrate: a romance is a romance because the two smitten characters are introduced early on, circumstances force them apart through the majority of the text, and the story invariably concludes with them coming together and having a happy ending. This is the syntactic structure of the romance story. However, if the semantic furniture within that story shifts, it can become a different genre. Set this romantic narrative aboard a spaceship, and you’re reading science-fiction.  If the same romantic story is set aboard a pirate ship that’s about to pursue an immortal dragon, then you’re firmly in the territory of high fantasy.
  5. Genre is often treated as a dirty word, such as in the phrase, “He writes genre fiction.” Genre is only a dirty word in the mouths of those literary snobs who believe that anything done for the consumption of a broad audience is inferior to the inaccessible bollocks published outside the rubric of a specific genre. Admittedly, there has always been snobbery within writing but if you enjoy writing or reading a specific sort of material, whether that’s cosy murder mysteries, HEA romance or dinosaur erotica, I’d advise you to embrace your passions and ignore the sneering snobs. Reading and writing should only ever be about what pleases us – not someone with their own skewed agenda. 

The Ash & Col Podcast

It seems mean-spirited to describe a short story as a steaming sack of garbage. And yet, here we are, having read Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s tedious and lacklustre: ‘An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street’.

This is not the worst story I’ve read. I’m fairly sure that honour goes to the impenetrable and over-hyped drivel that is Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. But this is up there for a lack of engagement, for its loss of coherence, and for its general ability to satisfy the reader. Fair warning, I might get sweary when I talk about this one.

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Character

It’s hard to underestimate the importance of character in fiction. This sounds like a trite statement but when you consider that there are people who genuinely believe Sherlock Holmes lived or that our opinion of Richard III has been shaped by Shakespeare’s play of that name, you begin to understand that fictional characters can sometimes bleed over into the real world and take on a life of their own.

When you accept that some characters such as Bond, Bilbo, Dracula and Frankenstein only need a single name for us to identify them as fully rounded individuals, you begin to realise that there are some fictional characters who have made a bigger impact on the world than many of their real world counterparts.

Which is why I will keep returning to the importance of characters.

  1. Get the name right. Names don’t just help with identity – they also help to establish relationships. I’ve previously pointed out the difference between Dirty Harry and Dirty Harold. Dirty Harry sounds like a cool anti-hero who should look like Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harold sounds like he should be on a register. But, if a young Dirty Harry is being reprimanded by his mum, he’s going to be Harold. Get the name right for the character and the character’s relationship with the person addressing them.
  2. Describe them early on in the story. Imagine the frustration of meeting Bob the hero on page one, following Bob’s adventures for two hundred pages and growing to love Bob’s attitude to every problem. And then, on page 201, you learn that Bob wears spectacles. And is only four feet tall. And is known by the other characters (who haven’t mentioned it to that point) for always wearing his hair in rainbow-coloured dreadlocks. Describe characters when they’re introduced so that readers can keep that image fixed in their mind as the story progresses.
  3. Make sure you understand your main character’s role in the story.
  4. Accept that there are flat and round characters. E M Forster made a distinction between flat and round characters, with the implication that round characters are more integral to the plot. But we also need some flat characters. For example, if my main character buys a coffee from a coffee shop, he doesn’t need to know the backstory of the person selling him the coffee. This is not to say that people who work in coffee shops aren’t important: they’re incredibly important. But the only people important in my story are those characters who have an impact on the plot. And, unless the barista in this story has decided to poison my hero, the only impact they’re having is aiding a caffeine rush.
  5. Bring them to life through their actions. You can always tell me that your hero is a good, selfless person but that’s a dull way of sharing that information. Show me the hero giving their last £5 to a homeless person, or getting their best suit ruined because they jumped into a dirty lake to rescue a drowning kitten, and I’m going to follow that character far more passionately.

Characters are the lifeblood of what we do with writing. Making sure they’re presented properly is essential to quality writing.

Tuesday Book Review: Night Shift by Stephen King

I first read this book back in the late seventies, shortly after its original release.  I remember, at the time, thinking that there was something special about the stories: they managed to blend themes of horror with a masterful style of storytelling. I’ve returned to them several times over the years and the quality of them has not diminished with age.

This might seem like an unnecessary statement but, having read a fair few ‘classic’ short stories over the past few months, I do think some stories lose their charm as age dulls the shine on the attraction they presented when they were contemporaneous. ‘The Signalman’ by Dickens is a story that I found dull and confusing rather than dark and mysterious. ‘A.B.O.’ by Walter De La Mare struck me as unmemorable because it got twisted in the uninspiring loop of its own framed narration.

But that seldom happens with the stories in King’s first collection: Night Shift.

I’d started reading this book again because, as some of you may know, I have a weekly discussion with my friend Colin Davies where we talk about short horror fiction. This week I’d suggested ‘The Boogeyman’ from the collection Night Shift and, as a result, I ended up reading the other stories in the book.  To some extent they’re like those excellent Leibniz chocolate biscuits in that each one is incredible, satisfying and a feast for the senses. But, as soon as you’ve finished one, you need to have another and another until you’ve devoured them all.

The thing that struck me about this collection was that it was focused on the horrors facing the working class.  ‘Graveyard Shift’ is a story about a man employed to help with a rat infestation in an old mill. ‘The Mangler’ is a story about the dangers that can be found working with industrial machines that seem to have a will of their own. ‘Grey Matter’ is a story about the troubles that can befall those hard-working stiffs that end the day with a can or twelve of their favourite cheap beer.

These are stories that play on the worries of the working-class (particularly back in the seventies but they’re probably just as relevant today), and I think that’s why I found them so attractive. These are not like the ‘classic’ stories of yesteryear. These are not like the stories from Poe, where landed gentry are visited by acquaintances who shared idyllic childhoods. Nor are they like the stories from Lovecraft, where respected lecturers are driven crazy by the other-worldly horrors they discover on their upper-middle class expeditions into the depths of ‘savage’ countries. These are stories about people who have a background that I find relatable.  

Consequently, when I’m reading a story such as ‘Trucks’, where the machines that are the lifeblood of the nation’s transport system have turned on their masters, I can feel the shock and terror of that betrayal at the level where it’s intended. When I read a story as chillingly devised as ‘Quitters Inc’, I can be amused, entertained and repulsed by the extremes that someone might employ to help a poor smoker break away from their unfortunate habit. My paperback copy has pages that are turning to yellow-orange and it smells old and dusty. But this remains one of the prizes in my fiction collection and, if you’ve not yet read it, it’s a showcase of a how a master storyteller makes an indelible mark on the genre.

New Beginnings

This post is scheduled to go live on Monday morning, when the UK’s social media will be filled with ‘back to school’ photos of enthusiastic uniform-wearing children smiling in readiness for a return to the classroom. If I can persuade my long-suffering wife to take such a picture of me as I return to the lecture theatre, I shall share that here.

For me, back on campus, I’m going to be reading poetry this evening, trying to find time to get some more words down on the latest Work In Progress, and hopefully find time to catch up on my current research which is shifting somewhere between the supernatural and the alien.

And, finally for this week’s update, I thought I would share a poem I wrote. A dear friend of mine was recently fitted with a Stoma. They asked me to write a poem about Stoma bags to commemorate this event, and this is what I produced.

5 x 5 Writing Tips: Read

One of the things I’ve noticed since hosting The Bleeding Keyboard discussions is the number of writers who give the advice ‘read’. It’s a common thing for writers to say and I think that a lot of people underestimate the importance and relevance of reading to the skills of being a writer.

  1. Read critically: read fiction you enjoy and try to work out what parts of the fiction you are enjoying. Is it the fast-paced dialogue? Is it the exciting action scenes or the detailed description? Find out what it is that makes a story work for you, and be sure to include that in the writing you create.
  2. Read critically: read stuff you don’t enjoy. Again, the reasoning here is to work out what DOESN’T work for you. Is there too much description? Are the characters shallow? Does the dialogue sound like it’s been written by a robot? This can be a tough exercise but, once you figure out what it is you don’t like in a particular text, it’s easier to keep those same failings out of your own work.
  3. Read broadly: don’t limit yourself to a single genre. If you want to write horror, it’s worth reading horror to see how other writers achieve their goals. But it’s also worth reading romance to see how the same skills of narrative tension are used to evoke a different response. It’s worth reading mystery stories to see how the writer teases an audience with the puzzle of the unknown. Whichever genre you prefer, always be aware that you can learn valuable and relevant skills from other genres.
  4. Read outside the mainstream: If you’re looking to see what mainstream publishers want, reading mainstream fiction is very useful. However, if you’re looking for originality and trying to see what can come from writers who think outside the box, Independent Authors have a lot to offer. Try to find out the names of the successful Indie Authors in your preferred genre, and try to work out what these writers are doing right.
  5. Read and REVIEW: If you’re reading something from an independent author, make sure you leave a review. this is partly because Indie authors need those reviews but, of equal importance, writing a review will allow you to reflect on what went well in the story so you have a better chance of being critically engaged with the piece.

Tuesday Book Review: Cooking With A Serial Killer (Recipes from Dorothea Puente)

It was my birthday in August and two dear friends surprised me with this title as a gift. As I’m sure everyone is now aware, I’ve been reading a lot about serial killers as research for my novel Conversations with Dead Serial Killers.

Funnily enough, they gave me the gift in a cafeteria and the waitress for our table noticed the book and said, “Oh! She’s one of my favourites.” This was a disconcerting thing to hear because, the last thing anyone in a café wants to hear is that their waitress has a favourite serial killer who happens to be a renowned poisoner.

According to Wikipedia: Dorothea Puente “was an American convicted serial killer. In the 1980s, she ran a boarding house in Sacramento, California, and murdered various elderly and mentally disabled boarders before cashing their Social Security checks. Puente’s total count reached nine murders; she was convicted of three and the jury hung on the other six. Newspapers dubbed Puente the “Death House Landlady”.”

I think the horror in this book comes on a meta level. I’m reading a list of recipes from a lady who died in prison having been convicted of murder, and I’m fully aware that her preferred form of murder was poisoning. This means there’s a strong likelihood that any one of the recipes I’m reading could have been used to conceal poisonous content, such as the overdose of codeine and acetaminophen that killed Ruth Munroe in 1982.

Aside from the recipes there are some of Dorothea’s poems, transcripts of  her telephone conversations with the writer who collated and anthologised all of this material, Shane Bugbee, and some choice excerpts from the written correspondence between these two.

The correspondence is interesting in that it shows a woman protesting her innocence. This is apparent in her list of reasons why she couldn’t have committed the crimes and her suggestion that the man who conducted the toxicology report for the DA was an unreliable substance abuser who had contaminated evidence.

All of which leaves the impression that, if Dorothea was wrongly convicted, we’re reading the wholesome recipes of a woman who loved to cook for family and friends and tenants and had that pleasure wrongly taken away from her whilst she was incarcerated. And, if there was substance to her conviction, Dorothea was still trying to find a way of avoiding justice throughout her correspondence with the author Bugbee.