A truly creepy ghost story

“I felt its will coming at me in waves. Intense, unwavering, malign. Such malevolence. No mercy. No humanity. It belonged to the dark beyond humanity. It was rage without end. A black tide drowning.”

I became hooked on ghost stories at quite an early age. But my introduction to M.R. James didn’t come until I was aged around 13, via a copy of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary loaned to me by a friend. Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook creeped me out fairly thoroughly, but very few stories since then have managed that feat. (Some of William Hope Hodgson’s, for instance: it MAY be coincidence that these two writers have been the biggest influences on my own ghost story writing!) Until last week, in fact, when I read a book recommended by that very same friend. The book is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver.

As a hothouse plant, I hate long cold winter nights, ice, snow, darkness. They are primal fears, of course, for it really isn’t very long in terms of history since humans were unable to combat those things. So Paver taps into a very ancient terror in setting Dark Matter in the long dark of the Arctic winter, where Something lurks, putting out its ominous head— its round, wet malign head— unobtrusively at first, until it holds center stage… and then comes back for an unexpected and devastating curtain call.

The year is 1937 and Jack Miller, an ordinary young man with a large chip on his shoulder, joins an Arctic expedition to what turns out to be a haunted site named Gruhuken. Accidents and illness contrive to isolate him, and he becomes increasingly aware of not being alone in the perpetual night. His husky dogs disappear (save one), and he realizes that the figure he has glimpsed can open doors…

This is not the climax, nor is the mysterious fire that destroys the expedition’s lodgings; on the contrary the true horror is low-key, almost thrown away, just as the reader is breathing a sigh of relief. And there’s more, implied not explicit (as many of the best horrors are), years later in the Caribbean, where Miller has ended up: However far Jamaica may be from Greenland, the same sea laps its shore, and the same things tap into it, like a supernatural internet.

Paver’s writing is clean and beautiful and spare, her descriptions vivid; not a word is wasted. This is her first book for adults. I hope she writes many, many more.

A literary mystery

The most beautiful bookshop in the world, Livraria Lello in Porto, Portugal

“It is a very common thing, in my experience, to find papers shut up in old books; but one of the rarest things to come across any such that are at all interesting. Still it does happen, and one should never destroy them unlooked-at.”—M R James

James is right, of course, although he was writing in a different context. I’ve never found any mysterious papers inside old books, but I did find a poem. When I was in college, one of my friends had a book entitled Planet and Glow-Worm: A Book for the Sleepless, an anthology compiled by Edith Sitwell. It has been described as “a literary curiosity from another generation that richly deserves to be brought back into print”.

The preface states: “This is not a book about Dreams; it is meant for those whose ‘continual cares, fears, sorrows, dry brains’, drive rest away; it contains some of the composing and calming beauties that, in the compiler’s own experience, bring a happy sleep in their train. Here are evocations of a beauty that conceals no terror, here are flowing rhythms that hold no more wakefulness in their sound than those of a river, thoughts and ways being like those of music … And this is a book to bring sleep to us.”

It is a quirky collection, as one might expect, and I liked it enough to find a copy for myself. Which brings me to the mystery. Inside the back cover was handwritten the following poem, signed “Listener” and dated May 18th, 1944:

The Bargain

Love hurt you once, you said, too much.
You said you’d have no more of such
Hot heartbreak and long loneliness,
You said you’d give and ask far less
Than love, that demon without pity,
That far, miraged, old, golden city
Across the desert of desire,
Ringed with the gateless ring of fire.

You said you’d drink, but not too deep,
Of life; explore yet always keep
Your final secret self intact—
Entire, untired, untorn, unracked.

And I, may heaven forgive me, said,
“Lay your blonde beloved head
In the hollow of my arm—
We’ll love lightly without harm
To either’s heart, and I’ll defy
Your warmth and loveliness; and I
Won’t love too much;
Forgive my lie.”

I find that remarkably poignant, and have always wondered what the story behind it was. Was “Listener” a serviceman? Did he survive the war? It would make a fine romantic story, but I’m afraid I don’t do romantic.

Stuff from my head

Big Damn Heroes

Telling lies is a funny way to spend your life

Among the books I re-read fairly regularly are H Beam Piper’s (and others’) Fuzzy novels. The plots often turn on the Fuzzies’ inability to tell a lie; the first Fuzzy to do so is the one who first made contact with the humans on his home planet, Little Fuzzy. (There is a good reason for this seemingly uninspired name.) He does this in order to save a band of “wild” Fuzzies from danger, as they can’t comprehend what a “not-true thing” is. But we writers spend our lives telling not-true things, which is a bit of a funny thing to do when you think about it.

“I think of folklore in much the same way as a carpenter thinks about trees”—Terry Pratchett

I’m more of a woodcarver, tinkering with smaller things. Someone recently asked me what influenced my writing. The true answer to that is, every book I have ever read— whether I admire and enjoy them or use them as an example of what not to do. A writer, I guess, is part sponge, part magpie, and part craftsman. You absorb an awful lot of stuff and pick up many many shiny things before you find your voice. Some of the earliest things I absorbed were myths and legends., which had the result of making me almost more familiar with Norse and Graeco-Roman pantheons than the Christian one, although I use its mythos copiously as well.

“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look beyond the ranges”— Kipling

Travel has been a great love for half my life, and has inspired many stories. Captain da Silva has voyaged to some of the same places, but (for example) never made it to Oz; on the other hand, I haven’t been to Shanghai, Rio or some of the rougher parts of Africa as he has.

I dreamed of travel as a child stuck in England while my dad, a soldier, was posted to Germany and Aden and Borneo. Names drew me: the Everglades, Rotorua’s boiling mud, Yellowstone Park, the South Pacific… Now I’ve been to Fiji and sat in the sulphuric steam at Whakarewarewa; time will tell about the rest.

Why I am a Browncoat

It wasn’t until I’d been blogging for some time that I realized why I am drawn to certain fictional characters, and that is how the Captain came into existence. Philip Marlowe, the wisecracking outsider, answers to no-one and nothing but his code of honor. Chandler’s style has informed my writing for some time, though not as overtly as it does with the Captain. Han Solo (and Indy, his alter ego): louche and insouciant, mostly one step ahead of the game, reluctant to get involved but pitching in when it counts.

And Mal Reynolds, operating in the gray area between legal and illegal, clinging to independence in a ‘verse that tries to suppress it, but mostly retaining his sense of humor even when things are bleakest. Mal alone has a family (Han acquires one when he pitches in with the rebels): his crew. His motley crew who are all strong personalities in their own right but— this is the thing— they follow Mal.

Remind you of anyone else? How about Col. Jack O’Neill? Leroy Jethro Gibbs? These guys, that guy, they’re my type. They’re variations on Luís da Silva, just as he is, if you like, a variation on them.